After yet more heated debate, they had grudgingly agreed that sticking together was now their best option. Lois boarded the plane without a word, and Jason and Elise got to take seats for this leg of the flight. Last aboard was Clark, making no effort to hide his black mood.
From a passenger seat, Elise could actually admire the confident way Richard handled his plane. He wasn’t a showoff, just very competent, and soon had them airborne heading west. “You said you checked Carson City?” he asked, raising his voice a little to be heard over the engines.
Lois grimaced slightly, clearly disgusted with her reply. “Yeah. We both came up blank.”
“How far south of it did you get?”
This time Clark spoke up, his deep voice brusque. “Gardnerville. Nothing there. Superman checked east toward Artesia Lake, without any results.”
The younger man nodded, not pushing more information on purpose. “We were planning to land at Lake Tahoe anyway. We should spend the night in Gardnerville, since we know it’s safe. Well, relatively safe.”
The black-haired man bristled at that, narrowing his eyes. His voice was now granite. “I hadn’t planned to take the night off.”
There was silence in the plane for a long moment, long enough to put everyone on edge. Elise saw Lois close her eyes and draw in a deep breath; it was the expression of a person knowing a punishment was about to be meted out, but unable to take the wait any longer. When her eyes opened, the reporter looked over at her husband. “You need to rest,” she murmured in a careful tone that Elise wasn’t used to hearing. “Clark, we both stayed up all through last night.”
His retort was immediate. “And we’ve both stayed up three or four days in a row on a story.”
“That was also what, ten years ago?” Lana interrupted. “Caffeine and determination won’t carry you through as long as they used to. If you go without sleep long enough, you’ll make mistakes, and we can’t risk that. That’s what Luthor wants. What he’s expecting. Don’t cater to his wishes, Clark.” Lois started to say something, then silenced herself with only the slightest glance in Elise’s direction. That made the girl wrinkle her brow in wonder. What the hell was going on under the surface in this family?
But any deeper speculation was interrupted by Clark’s outburst. “Dammit, how can I sleep when that bastard has my daughter?! This should already be finished and over with. Luthor should be back in prison and Kala should be home with us, safe. Why the hell is this taking so long? Dammit!” He started to thump the armrest of his seat, but caught himself at the last second. His clenched fist and furious eyes made his state of mind all too obvious.
Elise couldn’t help but flinch. It was painfully clear that Jason’s father was being torn apart over all of this. She’d heard him swear more in the last couple days than ever before, and from the look on Jason’s face, the same was true for him. Mr. Kent had always been so mellow, and even when he had to be stern as all fathers occasionally were, he’d never shown any ill-temper. Now, though, the uncertainty surrounding Kala’s abduction was gnawing at him, and his outburst shocked everyone. As hard as they were all trying to fight it, if Luthor wanted to drive the family apart, his plan was succeeding with admirable proficiency.
Again, a moment of apprehensive silence echoed through the plane. Lois’ eyes were closed again, her jaw tense. She looked to be holding on by a thread. In the end, it was the redhead who turned in her seat and regarded him with a sternness rarely seen in her. “Clark, didn’t Kala tell you herself that she was safe, that you were walking into a trap? And don’t we have Jason, who knows whenever she so much as skins a knee, sitting there anxious but not outright panicking? Luthor doesn’t dare harm her – he knows one of us will kill him if he does. Lois would in a heartbeat, and even Superman might lose his temper where his godchild’s concerned. You’re in more danger than Kala is right now, and if you’re running on fumes when we do find Luthor, he’ll be absolutely delighted. We have to keep our wits if we’re all going to walk out of this alive.”
“She’s got a point,” Richard put in, jumping in before any protest could be uttered, and then tried for his usual teasing tone with limited success. “Clark, man, don’t make us wrestle you into a hotel room and hold you down until you fall asleep. That would be all kinds of awkward.” His glance toward the taller man was sympathetic.
It looked for a moment like there would be another argument, but then Elise saw the way that Clark’s shoulders sagged. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him; she was pretty sure she’d be a mess if it had been her daughter missing, especially with the situation being what it was. It would drive her crazy, too. She saw him sigh heavily, and run a hand through his black hair. Most of the fury appeared to have drained away for the time being. “You’re right,” he finally admitted. “I do need to rest. But it just sickens me to think of her…”
With a small smile, Lana reached back to catch his hand with her good one and squeezed. “She is your daughter and Lois’. Kala has courage enough for any five ordinary people. We’ll get her back, and she knows that.”
But Clark didn’t look convinced. For that, neither did Lois before she turned away from all of them to stare out the window.
Kay wrote the date and recipient in her usual fluid script, but hesitated at the line for the dollar amount. She’d written checks on Lana’s personal account before, for various things – paying bills when the boss was too busy to remember to do so, or gifts for people like the letter carrier and the maintenance staff of the apartment building where Lana lived. She’d even written checks to herself on a few occasions, when Lana wanted to give her a bonus for something that wasn’t really part of her job, such as helping arrange Lois’ wedding.
Those times, she’d had permission, and the amount had always been small – a few hundred dollars at the most. But this … Lana was either still on the plane or out of cell phone range, so Kay couldn’t reach her. And the stockbroker had just called moments ago. If Kay wanted to do this before the close of trading today, she needed to make out the check and run it by his office. Verbal authorization to charge the account wouldn’t work; he wanted a physical check, and proof of Kay’s power of attorney, to accept such a large payment from anyone other than Lana herself.
The paperwork that established Kay’s right to access Lana’s accounts was long-standing, the Daily Planet’s stock price was soaring, and Vanderworth Holdings was among the companies purchasing large shares, a sure sign of Luthor’s intentions. Investing some of Lana’s personal funds would help keep the paper out of the hands of its enemies. The only problem was, the stock price was extraordinarily high, and Kay had to write a very large check without so much as notifying her employer.
Lana would fight the takeover with everything she had, Kay was certain of that. The redhead had expressed, in her precise, profanity-free way, how much she despised Luthor, and how obsessed the man was with Superman and his chronicler. He couldn’t be allowed to gain a controlling interest in the newspaper that had carried the majority of Superman exclusives over the years and had daringly reported on his crimes. Kay couldn’t imagine the kind of revenge he would wreak; firing Lois and Perry and anyone else who had ever crossed him would just be the most obvious way.
This was the right thing to do, Kay knew, even if she had to pay back the funds she was about to use, or worse, lost her job over it. With a sigh, she filled in the line for the amount with her slanting script. Twenty-five thousand and NO/100 dollars.
By the time they docked the plane, rented cars, and found a hotel, everyone was out of sorts. Somewhere along the line, Lana had popped a suture and blood had started oozing sluggishly from the cut on her side. All of them had displayed concern when it was discovered, only to be told that she wasn’t hurting too badly and they had more important things to do. That pronouncement had received dubious looks all around. In the end, though, the decision was made that they wouldn’t take her unless Lois couldn’t fix it once they were settled. At the moment she was pressing Lois’ red scarf against the wound to staunch the bleeding until they could get into a room. “It’s not even a deep cut, we’ll put a butterfly bandage on it,” she’d protested irritably when Clark tried to suggest once more rushing her to the hospital.
His unending fretting about it went without check, none of the rest of the group willing to rankle the peace that had reigned since Lana and Richard had laid down the law on the plane. That was, until Lois had had enough and snapped before she could stop herself. “Lana’s a grown woman, Clark, and it’s not that bad, anyway. If she says it’s fine, let it go.”
That had precipitated a truly furious glare from Clark, and a snide-sounding remark about Lois’ mercenary priorities. The strain wearing on her, Lois had lost her temper again and had retorted with a comment about his tendency to make decisions for everyone around him, and he had fired back, “Kind of like you deciding to go ahead and negotiate with Luthor without even consulting anyone else, hmm?” The truce, it seemed from Lois’ grief-stricken look, was effectively over.
Before either of them could gear up to say anything more incendiary, it was Jason who, literally, got in between them. “God, enough, already,” their son said, his voice rough. They could all see how much all of this was wearing him down, as well. As hard as he attempted to make his voice uncompromising, the quaver of pain was there if you listened carefully. “You’re fighting like … like me and Kala, only worse, and I’m sick of it. We need to be a team.”
His outburst astonished Lois and Clark both enough that they stood still in the hotel parking lot and stared while he finished speaking. “You’re both right, and you’re both wrong. But you can’t keep fighting like this! Kala needs you two to be thinking straight so we can save her.”
Seeing his distress, Richard came forward to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. He’d known Jason for most of his life; had the boy been six years younger, he would have turned into his Dad’s side and burst into frustrated tears. Jason had never been a fan of family disagreements and the last few weeks had been filled with them, the worst of which was the never-ending battle between Lois and Clark. “And that was a lesson on maturity, coming from your sixteen-year-old son,” Richard concluded, nailing them both with his gaze. “Hate to say it, but he’s got a point.”
That had been the breaking point for Lois. No one could miss the wounded way she looked at her husband. Richard knew that look; he’d seen that broken, trapped expression too many times in the last year of their relationship. It was even more painful to see now.
Her heartbreak was clear for all to see only a moment. Then she snapped to, her delicate features a mask. “Fine. I’ll meet you inside,” she snapped before storming past all of them. Elise had prudently ducked out of her way.
Lana looked after her in distress before turning to see the stormy expression on Clark’s face. “So much for maintaining the peace,” she sighed, disapproval coloring her words strongly. “Come on. We’ll all feel better after a night’s rest.”
Jason could feel his father’s gaze on the back of his neck the entire way to the lobby, a glare colder than the arctic weather at the Fortress. For some reason, adults really hated it when he turned their own arguments against them. His parents, most especially. If they were willing to use his words against him, why shouldn’t he turn the tables? And it wasn’t as if everyone here wasn’t already mad at him, including Mom. He’d hoped she would understand, but apparently she was too caught up in her own problems. Not that it mattered – he was here, a few thousand miles closer to Kala, and he wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. Whatever happened next paled against that.
His father passed him once they were inside the building, his face set in stern lines when he glanced at the boy. “Tomorrow morning, you and I are going to have a talk,” Clark said with icy finality. Jason could already tell that Elise being here would be a large portion of that discussion, and his temerity in upbraiding his parents would make up most of the rest of it. He could only hope that getting some sleep would let his father see just how single-minded and temperamental he was being.
On the far side of the lobby, Lois was in serious conversation with the desk clerk. Although by her tone as they drew close, she was more likely badgering him. And he was more than a little intimidated. “I’m sorry, ma’am, the gemologist’s convention is in town. If you had been here last week…”
That just increased her frown, staring at the man as if he was a bug under a microscope. “So the best you can do is three rooms on the same floor?” The man just stared back at her, although his expression was more akin to what you would expect when one was confronted by the Terminator. When that got her nowhere, Lois let out a long, irritated sigh of exasperation. “Fine, I’ll take them.”
The young man’s relief passed over him like a wave. Elise had to fight a laugh; why did she get the feeling that this was going to end up a blog entry at CustomersSuck? “Your name?” the clerk asked, still sounding rattled.
The answer startled all of them, although some more than others. “Sadie Blodgett,” was Lois’ smooth reply, opening her wallet to reveal a driver’s license in that name. Jason managed to conceal his surprise, especially when Lois paid with a credit card in the same name. It had never occurred to him that his mother could possibly have another identity. When they turned from the desk, Lois now in possession of six keycards, he knew that she must have seen the disbelief on his face from the way that she gave an impish smile that was almost a miracle considering the circumstances.
Jason kept quiet until they were on the elevator and out of earshot of the desk clerk before turning a questioning look on his mother. “Mom? What…?”
The light had come back into her eyes then, Lois giving a low, mischievous chuckle. “Sadie? I’ve had that alias since long before you were born. Hell, your dad was even married to Sadie for a little while back in the day,” she told him while passing out room keys. “Sometimes a reporter has to go undercover, and I’m fairly certain that Lex has figured out my current one. Good thing I’ve kept these up to date, too. Although by rights I should’ve changed it to Sadie Smith by now.” That said, she glanced over at her husband with a fond smile. She wondered if he remembered that.
His response was just the opposite of what she had been hoping for. Clark scoffed under his breath, “Why am I not surprised you still have all your ID showing you’re a single woman?” The ding of the elevator doors opening almost hid the words – almost. He didn’t even bother to look her way.
Lois’ spine stiffened as if she’d been struck, and Richard flinched in anticipation. She had only been trying to lighten the mood and it had backfired epically. But the furious outburst he was expecting never came. In utter silence, posture still ramrod-straight, the raven-haired reporter walked off the elevator and to the nearest of the rooms. Clark followed her immediately, which left Jason and Elise with Richard and Lana. All of them shared an uneasy glance; what would happen next was likely inevitable. “Let’s see what the situation is with the other two rooms,” the redhead sighed, and headed up the hall.
Once the door was closed behind them, Clark didn’t even have the chance to speak before Lois had dropped her bag into a chair and turned to face him. He’d never seen such a maelstrom of emotion on his wife’s face, never seen her so fragile when in a rage. “That’s it. I can’t do it anymore,” she said so calmly that it gave him pause. “You’ve made your feelings absolutely clear about everything that’s happened. When all this is over, you can divorce me and be done with it. But for now, Kal-El, we don’t have the luxury of fighting.” With that, Lois skirted past him out the door and was out of his reach before he could even fully take in her words.
Kala had been summoned to Luthor’s office to review her progress. She hadn’t wanted to try the artificial intelligence again so soon, with only a days’ tutelage in Kryptonese, but Mercy Graves had insisted. It hadn’t seemed to Kala like she’d achieved much more, which she supposed was the reason for this little visit.
He’s going to try to keep you off balance, she told herself. Don’t let him. Stay cool. He can’t do anything to you while he still needs you. In spite of that, her heart was beating a little faster when she opened the door and went in.
Luthor was seated behind the desk, looking at some papers in a file. He looked up with an avid grin, and set the file down so it was open. Kala glanced at it – that might be valuable information…
…or it might be photos from her sixteenth birthday party. She found she couldn’t look away, and her stomach lurched as Luthor pushed the top photo aside to reveal another beneath. That one was older, taken as Kala and Jason walked out of their middle school. She could see that there were other photos, a whole stack of them, but Luthor had made his point with just those two clear, well-focused shots.
He has been watching you all this time, watching and waiting. What Kala wanted to do was run screaming from the room, tear down the walls of this place, claw her way out if necessary. What she did was remember the arctic ice around the Fortress, how cold and clear and perfect it was. It was damn near impossible to move around on, too slick and hard to gain any purchase. That was how she had to be: like ice. She raised her eyes to Luthor’s slowly, and said in her steadiest voice, “Nice pics. Can I get some of those for my Facebook page?”
He only grinned more, his eyes flashing with amusement. “Nice dress in this one. Your stepmother made it for you, right? Just like she made your mother’s wedding dress.”
“Yeah, she’s good like that,” Kala said, trying to sound offhanded as she suppressed the desire to punch him. She sat down and stared at Luthor disinterestedly. “So what’s this about?”
“You’ve shown some progress, but I expect to see more improvement,” Luthor said evenly. “After all, you know the language. You just have to develop fluency and the proper accent.”
“Which I wish I could do overnight, but it just isn’t possible,” Kala replied. “Believe me, if I could get that information for you right now, I’d do it.”
Luthor looked at her intently. “Is that so? You wouldn’t feel you were betraying your family, or the rest of the world?”
“The world isn’t my problem,” Kala said in what she hoped was a convincing tone. “The Giant Floating Head has been pretty adamant that I’m not going into the family business. As for my family, they can take care of themselves against you. They always have. All I want is to get out of here.”
He let the silence spin out, waiting for her to fidget or say more, but Kala held herself still and poised, thinking ice, cold and tough as ice. After a few moments, Luthor dismissed her with a wave and a curt, “That’s all for now.”
Kala forced herself to walk out, keeping her sense of triumph bottled up inside. Now she was grateful for that acting class, and all the advice her theater friends had given her. She’d managed to fool Luthor!
Once she was back in her own room, though, her elation quickly faded. Kala was no closer to her goal of escaping, and Luthor had just made it obvious that he could be keeping very close watch over her. She might have fooled him for now, but time was on his side, not hers.
Kala shivered. Even the endless arctic ice would melt under enough heat, as she knew all too well. She paced, trying to think.
The only spot of color in this monochromatic room was the family portrait she’d taken with her when she ran away. All of her stuff had been rifled through, but Luthor hadn’t withheld anything from her. At first, she’d thought that leaving the portrait was a conciliatory gesture, meant to convince her that Luthor wasn’t really as bad of a guy as she knew him to be. But after talking to Zod, Kala had realized that he must have done it to increase her homesickness. Typical Luthor: what looked like kindness was actually cruelty, the photo a constant reminder of everything she missed.
Everything she’d run away from. Kala couldn’t help a bitter laugh at her own foolishness. Sure, Mom had been a complete bitch that night, and Dad and Jason hadn’t really helped. But the worst that would have happened was grounding and some lectures. Instead, she was here, trying to outwit Lex Luthor just to keep her sanity intact, and afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer.
Kala took the photo down and curled up on the bed, staring at the image of a happier time. Dad was smiling broadly, his arm around Mom’s waist, and she was looking over her shoulder at him lovingly. Jason had a big goofy grin on his face, and Kala herself looked delighted. Much of the amusement was due to the fact that Lois had allowed for one – and only one – ‘outtake’ picture, where the kids could make silly faces. Uncle Jimmy had laughed hard enough at the results to make Kala and Jason proud of their efforts.
She felt the wetness on her cheek before she even knew she had started to cry. Angrily, Kala scrubbed the tears away. This was just what Luthor wanted; if she got homesick and depressed, she’d be tempted to actually give him the information he wanted just for the chance to get away. And she knew he wouldn’t really let her go. Only the pain of loss could convince her to believe his lies.
No, it was better overall to do as Zod had suggested, and put aside her memories. Kala reverently kissed the glass protecting the framed photo, and then put it back in her bag. A thought occurred to her then, and her lips quirked up in a tiny smile. “Not ice,” she murmured, confusing the technician who was currently monitoring her room. “Crystal.”
Kryptonian crystals were stronger than steel, weight for weight, and they thrived on heat and pressure. Let Luthor try his hardest to break her, she thought. He would find the Last Daughter of Krypton an undaunted foe.
The last two rooms were across the hall from each other. Lana opened one door, Richard got the other, and they both saw that each room had two double beds. “Convenient,” Richard said. “Boys to the left, girls to the right?”
“Sure,” Lana replied. “I just need to rinse her scarf and clean this up.”
Before he could answer, Lois came storming out of the room up the hall, heading for the elevator again. A single glance at the set of her shoulders told Jason she was headed out. “I’m going after Mom,” he said quickly. “None of us should be alone.” With that, he ran after her, giving Richard and Lana no choice about it.
Behind him, he heard Lana sigh. “Richard, talk to Clark, please. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
“I’ve been there, and I didn’t like it any more than he does,” Richard replied.
That probably left Elise to help Lana re-bandage her injury, and Jason felt a twinge of guilt. More of his mind was preoccupied with catching his mother before the elevator doors closed.
He didn’t quite make it, and barreled down the stairs, trying to listen for her heartbeat over the echoes of his footfalls. For a confused moment, Jason thought she might have gotten off on another floor, the hotel acoustics playing tricks on his perception, but then he figured out where her heartbeat was coming from and headed out to the parking lot.
Once at the car where she’d taken refuge, however, he couldn’t figure out what to say, and looked at Lois pleadingly. She seemed so tiny and lost in the rental car, clearly huddled there for the night. Her expression showed how very close she was to the breaking point when she rolled down the window to murmur, “Jason, not now. I’m having a hard enough time keeping my shit together, okay? We’ll talk about this later.”
Lois swore, frequently and virulently, but not often in front of the kids. Jason had never heard a casual curse like that just dropped into conversation, which only emphasized her exhaustion. He quickly said, “We don’t have to talk. I just don’t want you to be out here on your own. Dad’s being a butthead, so it’s my job to protect you.”
He wasn’t sure if the stifled sound she made was a laugh or a sob, or both, but it was enough to get Mom to open the door and pull him down into a hug.