Now in the car with the heater blowing, Jason stared across the seat at his mother. Her gaze was firmly forward out the windshield, but the boy knew her mind was directed farther away. He had tried to get her to go inside once they had pulled out of their hug, but Lois had refused the idea the moment it was uttered. Having heard the way their voices had been raised, Jason couldn’t say that he blamed her. In the end, he suggested that they at least get in the car and stay warm. Mom had wanted him to go on back up. “I’m not going without you,” he had told her, digging in his heels. In the end, Lois had simply rolled her eyes in disgust and unlocked the passenger-side door.
That had been half an hour ago. Although she had held the hand he had slipped in hers once they were in the car, she hadn’t said a word since they had settled in. In that time, he had seen a range of emotions play out across her face, some that actually frightened him. Jason didn’t dare speak until she sighed heavily and closed her eyes. “Mom, why? Why did you take the deal? Why didn’t you tell Dad?”
That opened her eyes instantly. He had fully expected to be screamed at, for those eyes to stare that him with hurt betrayal. Instead she just squeezed his hand, and Jason realized that his mother was looking at him like an adult. “For you. And Kala. And my own selfishness. You two were still so little; I’d tried so hard to keep you and Kala safe and hidden. If it had just been me … hell, even just me and your Dad … I would have told him to go to hell. Told your Dad what he was up to. Let him do his worst.”
The strain of that decision showed in the haunting light in her eyes. She frowned slightly then, looking away. “But he had found the perfect Achilles heel by then. It was a catch-22, sweetheart. Either I dragged you and the rest of the family right back into a battle with Luthor or I lied to your father about keeping us safe.” The chuckle that rose from her throat was bitter, appropriate for the secret she’d been forced to keep. “There was never a choice. And Luthor knew that. Jason, you were there.” Her eyes went back to him and he was surprised to see tears there.
When she spoke again, her jaw was clenched, voice slightly muffled by her gritted teeth. The frustration and anger there was a decade old. “He had a shiv to your throat to bait me. He left you both with a convicted child molester. Took you to an island made of kryptonite to use you against your father, knowing full-well the effects. And tossed Kala over the side. You both were six! Just babies still. We’d barely survived the first encounter. What damn choice did I have?”
Feeling tears in his own eyes, Jason leaned over to put his arms around her. And much to his surprise, she let down her guard enough to let him. Hugging him back as tightly as she could, he heard her stifle a sob against his shoulder, “Do any of you think it was easy? I hated lying to your dad, hated the fact that Luthor could renege on the deal at any time he felt like. He held all the cards. But it was worth it to have my family. Dammit, I never wanted to get married in the first damn place when I met him, but I don’t think I’ve wanted anything as much as I wanted all of us together after that. And now that I had it, I couldn’t let it go. And it’s all I could think about that day in the subway tunnel. That I had everything I never knew I wanted and, now that I had it, it was going to be taken away again. And I couldn’t do it. Even if your father hated me for it. Someone had to do it and this was too important to all of our lives to chance his not agreeing. I couldn’t lose all of you. I couldn’t.”
Listening to the way her voice quavered, Jason just hugged her tighter. How long had this been eating at her? Thinking back over the past couple of years, his mother’s occasionally strange behavior started to make sense. Even in her happiest moments, she had been watchful. His grandmother had once likened her to a mother bear, letting her children stray from time to time but ready to come on the run if anyone harmed them. He could remember her on the boat if he really tried, remember her trying to buy time and throw out diversions long enough to get him away from Luthor. Normally, this was a thought that he pushed as far back in his subconscious as he could; in his nightmares, he could still hear the greedy glee in the man’s voice as he pressed the shiv closer while taunting his mother.
Kala had never seen the way Luthor had used him against Lois, how far she had been willing to go just to get them out of the old man’s clutches. No matter what the cost. What Mom had done wasn’t necessarily right, but it was the only thing she could do in light of the situation. Having been there, seen the terror and chaos that Luthor had put her through, he understood in a way that no one else in the family likely could. He knew how far she had been willing to go. Closing his eyes tightly against the wash of love that crashed into him, Jason murmured against her hair, “I love you, Mom. And thank you. Even if Dad never says it, thank you for loving us that much. No one should have even asked it of you. It’s not fair that you had to carry that around for us.”
Jason could feel her struggling to contain her emotions then; how long had she been waiting for someone to say that, he wondered. But even while she strove for self-control, pulling back from him to give him a teary and grateful look, her phone rang. That seemed to break the spell. Sitting up and sniffling back tears, Lois fumbled the phone out of her pocket while Jason stared. “Lane here,” she said brusquely, clearing her throat. It was obvious that she thought the phone call to be of huge importance.
Nothing epic occurred then, he could only hear a rumbling man’s voice reply, “Check your email,” before hanging up.
The immediacy of the way the call dropped had Jason staring at his mother in disbelief. He knew Luthor’s voice well enough to hear it, and that hadn’t been him, but it unsettled him nonetheless. “Mom? Who was that?”
The secretive light in those eyes was back, her expression guarded as she regarded him. All signs showed that she knew he had listened in with his limited super-hearing. It also said she couldn’t really blame him in the situation. “If you’re going to eavesdrop, Jason Garen, learn to be a little more subtle. And hush, you’ll have your father down here and that’s the last thing we need right now,” Lois scolded, scrolling through her phone menu.
“Maybe he needs to be down here,” Jason retorted, frowning at her disapprovingly. “What’s going on that some guy is randomly creepy-calling you?” As he watched in amazement, she continued to go through her phone as if she hadn’t heard him. “Mom! What are you doing? Hey, don’t check your email! You don’t know what he just sent you!”
Lois looked up at her son with measured patience, one eyebrow arching sharply. No fear there, which was what Jason had expected. Whatever this was, she had been waiting for this information. “Relax, Jason. That was only your Uncle Bruce.”
That really wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “Oh,” he said, feeling more than a little chagrined. “Wait, how come Uncle Bruce is emailing you? I thought Dad said they were going to Kansas to help…”
Lois closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed. The weariness in her expression was the only evidence of her emotional turmoil just minutes ago. “Your father told Bruce and the JLA to stay out of this, that he didn’t want their help going after Luthor. He told the entire League to baby-sit the family in Smallville, if they wanted to help.”
“Whoa,” Jason murmured, raising his own eyebrows. Uncle Bruce couldn’t have liked that.
“Yeah, well, Bruce and I think alike on a lot of things. Such as, sometimes you have to do exactly what Clark doesn’t want you to do in order to help him.” Lois gave a dry chuckle. “So Bruce has been doing his part to help us from behind the scenes. That phone call was just let me know that he me sent the latest information he’s been able to glean about Luthor’s recent activities.”
Jason just looked at her for a minute. “Okay, why do I get the feeling you’re not going to tell Dad about this?”
“Because I’m not an idiot,” Lois retorted. “He’ll have a damn fit if he finds out that I asked for help. Once this is done, I’ll tell him the truth, the whole truth. But for now, I’m passing Bruce’s information off as my own research.”
He knew better, but he had to at least try to talk sense to her. “Mom, you know he’s…”
He didn’t even get the full sentence out before she cut him off. “He’s already pissed; I’m aware of that and Jason, let’s not make it any worse.” She wasn’t going to budge, he could tell. And honestly, Jason couldn’t fault her logic there. He was willing to do pretty much anything to get Kal back. For the time being, he decided it was best if he kept his mouth shut about the League’s continued involvement.
Taken aback by Richard’s question, Clark couldn’t even begin to respond. He wanted to protest, but he knew he couldn’t back that up. Everything Richard had said was true; he and Lois had lost touch. But where had they gone wrong?
When he just looked miserable and confused, Richard leaned forward. “Hey. It isn’t all you, Clark. I’d be the last man to tell you that Lois is perfect or that she’s right all the time. I know her – in the Biblical sense. But I also know exactly where you two are right now. You’re mistrusting each other, bickering a lot, going a while without fighting only because you’re both biting your tongues about the things that aggravate you. And a lot aggravates you, stupid little piddly shit that you could handle a year ago, and actually liked when you met her.” He laughed, a short sharp sound. “My uncle gave me this talk not long before Luthor showed up in our lives the last time. Clark, you love Lois for being mysterious and willful and courageous. Just remember that those things also mean secretive, stubborn, and willing to do absolutely anything to protect her family, including cutting a deal with a madman.”
Clark stared at him, trying to bend his mind around what Richard was saying. What a cruel joke, that the very qualities he admired in Lois should be causing such friction in their relationship now. Richard was far from finished, however. “I’ve been where you are right now, Clark, and I’ve been there with her. It’s not fun, is it? Trust me, I’m saying this as your friend and hers: you’re heading down a road you do not want to be on with her, and the only way you’re going to get out of it is if both of you make a concerted effort to turn around.”
“I can try, but Lois…” Clark trailed off, thinking of the sullen looks she’d been giving him.
“Lois is doing all she can not to bite your head off,” Richard informed him. “When have you ever known her to put up with anyone treating her the way you have the last few days? If I snapped at her like you did in the lobby, she’d kick my ass halfway into next week.”
Scowling, Clark wondered whose side Richard was really on, and instantly upbraided himself. The younger man was giving him nothing other than the unvarnished truth, and truth hurts. Clark had been sniping at Lois, speaking more cruelly to her than he ever had to anyone else before in his life. Then again, he’d never felt so betrayed, and never feared anyone as much as he feared Luthor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been angry like this before,” he said apologetically. “I guess Lois is trying to put up with it because she feels guilty?”
“No, because she’s afraid of losing you,” Richard corrected. “No matter how much you’re hurting her right now, she couldn’t bear to lose you, Clark. Why do you think she’s been dyeing her hair?”
Clark tilted his head in confusion at that non sequitur. “What does hair dye have to do with us arguing?”
Richard was already shaking his head sadly. “Clark. Listen to me. Lois may still jokingly claim to be thirty-five, but we both know better. Like it or not, she’s getting older. But you spend all your free time hanging around a bunch of hot younger women in spandex, and they have superpowers. Lois feels like she has to keep dyeing her hair so maybe you won’t decide to trade her in for a newer model.”
His jaw dropping open, Clark was rendered speechless yet again. On this one, Richard had to be off-base. Didn’t Lois know that he had only ever had eyes for her? “I would never cheat on Lois,” he stated in vehement denial.
“Yeah, but she’s lost touch with what she used to know about you, too,” Richard reminded him. “And to be honest, most guys in your position would be tempted. It’s like the president always being surrounded by impressionable interns. You’re this amazing, powerful man, women freaking ogle you wherever you go – at least in uniform – and your wife has to worry that if you’re offered enough free samples, you might not be able to resist.”
“Richard, you know me,” Clark said slowly and seriously. “You know I can’t lie. So understand me when I say this: I have never even thought of it. Never. Not once in the ten years of our marriage. Even before that; from the moment I met Lois, there was never another woman for me.”
“And I believe it, coming from you. You don’t even look, and that’s quite frankly weird, for the average guy.”
“I’m not the average guy,” Clark replied.
“Not by a long shot,” Richard retorted, and grinned again. The smile faded as he continued, “The thing is, I bet Lois has forgotten that. See, women don’t realize that we men aren’t as shallow as we seem. Most of us like to look at younger women, especially when they dress sexy, but we’d rather stay with the women we love than fool around with the cute young thing taking her shirt off for Girls Gone Wild. Most of us are more forgiving of our wives’ appearances than they are, too. I happen to know that you think Lois is sexy first thing in the morning, when her hair’s all mussed and she’s grouchy and squinting at the word through a haze of caffeine withdrawal. She would never in a million years assume she looked good at that moment, and she’s usually pretty confident about her looks.”
Clark was frowning at him, not understanding what he was getting at. “But what would make Lois assume I’d do something I’ve never done and never even thought about?”
“One, she’s hasn’t been thinking right since the summer. Losing Ella really rocked her to the core. And two, she doesn’t know you’ve never thought about it. Most guys have thought about these women even though they’ve never met them, and you work with them all the time. It’d give any woman pause, and Lois has had a lot to worry about lately.” Richard chuckled wryly. “And to be perfectly honest, if Lois had seen you getting all cuddly with Wonder Woman in the subway, she would’ve reduced the JLA trinity to two.”
Clark drew back, frowning. Richard had been close by when they’d found Kala’s sunglasses, but he hadn’t realized the younger man had been that close. If he’d seen Clark hug Diana, then he’d seen her in civilian garb. Her secret identity might be compromised; though Clark knew from personal experience that Richard was a trustworthy confidant, Diana would not be happy with a perfect stranger knowing who she was.
On the other hand, what was so rage-inspiring about a hug, particularly under those circumstances? He had needed the moment of comfort in the midst of frantically searching for Kala, and that was just when they thought she’d run away. “Why?” Clark asked, trusting that Richard would know how Lois’ mind worked. “I just hugged her. I hug lots of people. Lots of women, if that’s the point – all of Lois’ friends hug me.” Cat Grant was even fond of leaving a bright red lipstick mark on his cheek.
“Yeah, but those are her friends,” Richard pointed out. “Wonder Woman is like her arch-nemesis. Lois hates her. She’d probably strangle her if they ever met.”
“Now you’re just exaggerating. Lois saw her yesterday when I took her with me to talk to the League.” Lois had looked sullen and furious, but they had just had the argument about her making the deal.
“I told you she was holding back,” Richard countered. “You have to have seen it. Every time Wonder Woman’s on television, Lois practically foams at the mouth.”
“But why?” Clark heard the frustrated note in his own voice. This felt too much like talking to a therapist, asking Richard to translate Lois’ actions. Once upon a time Clark had known the reason behind most of Lois’ reactions to things, but on this topic he was clueless. Why on earth did his wife hate one of his colleagues? She was fine with Bruce, Wally amused her, and of the rest she’d met, Lois had liked most of them. But not Diana. “What does she have against Wonder Woman?”
Richard rubbed his temples, chuckling softly. “Let’s start with the fact that your fans keep saying you and Wonder Woman would make a perfect couple. I’ve been hearing that since she made her debut.”
“I know, but they say pretty much the same thing about me and Batman.” At least that thought made Clark grin in amusement. Bruce had shrugged off that particular rumor with a remark that his debauched playboy persona had supposedly done everything else, so why not let the cape have some scandal, too? “It’s the same sort of thing as the rumor around the office that has you and Lana involved with me and Lois – just gossip. Pick any two heroes, or celebrities, and someone out there has not only decided they’re secretly married, they’ve also named the first three kids. That’s life in the public eye.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that, but how about the way she looks at you? Granted, Wonder Woman has more dignity than to drool like most of your fangirls, but she does give you the eye.” Richard leaned back as if he’d presented an airtight case.
Clark, however, frowned. He’d never really thought about it, but now that Richard drew his attention to the fact, Diana did turn a softer eye toward him than to anyone else. She could be downright abrasive to Bruce at times, but then, those two had a spectacularly dysfunctional type of chemistry. “She’s a little nicer to me, but I wouldn’t say she gives me the eye,” Clark demurred. “Besides, she’s a colleague. We keep things professional.”
“I’d ask if you hug all your professional colleagues, but you married your City Editor,” Richard pointed out, giving him a significant look. “And I’ve seen news footage. She does give you a look sometimes. Hell, I saw her face when she hugged you. I’m sure she knows you’re married, but I’d bet my pilot’s license she kinda wishes you weren’t.”
And that was just too uncomfortable a thought to entertain for long. “So?” Clark asked, his brow furrowing. “According to you, there are lots of women who wish I weren’t married. Not all of them are talking about Superman, either. Why does Lois hate her?”
“Probably because… You mean you’ve really never thought about this? At all?” Richard looked utterly astounded, and Clark started to get annoyed. Was it so hard to believe that a man could be faithful to his wife in thought as well as in deed? He crossed his arms and glowered, not even dignifying the question with a response.
Richard just shook his head again. “You amaze me, Clark. Okay, the most obvious thing is, Wonder Woman isn’t getting any older. And she won’t either, if I remember her deal correctly. You don’t look much older than you did when I met you, but Lois feels like she’s aging faster than you are, and she’s afraid that one day she’ll be an old woman and you’ll look just like you do now.”
Clark shifted uneasily. Kryptonians had a somewhat longer life expectancy than humans, but that was mainly due to excellent health care in their elder years. He expected that he and Lois would grow old together. The thought that the yellow sun might slow his aging was an unwelcome one. He decided to skirt the issue. “Lois has always been a little too worried about her appearance; she’s as beautiful to me now as she ever was. But she doesn’t worry about younger women at the office, so what else is so specific about Wonder Woman?”
“Wonder Woman has powers pretty well equivalent to yours, while Lois is human.”
“So?” Clark threw up his hands, exasperated. “What does that have to do with anything, except that since we’re both founding members of the JLA, we’d never be home at the same time? I wouldn’t consider the work schedule a bonus.”
“I can’t believe I have to spell this out for you,” Richard sighed. “Clark. She’s practically invulnerable, right? That means you would never have to hold back.”
For a moment, Clark didn’t realize what he meant, and then understanding dawned along with a blush that turned his ears red. He was always careful with Lois, and that meant he couldn’t abandon himself to desire unless she was on top. It was too easy to imagine breaking her pelvis if he wasn’t careful to reserve his strength. But what Richard said … if he were sleeping with Diana, he wouldn’t have to worry about such things.
The thought itself embarrassed him. Clark simply didn’t think of his colleagues like that, and the realization that Lois had probably come to that conclusion well before he even speculated on it made him feel foolish. Why hadn’t he ever thought of that?
“You don’t think about sex first,” Richard agreed, evidently answering the expression on Clark’s face. “A lot of guys are ruled by their gonads, and they have to train themselves to be decent people instead of the human equivalent of a dog that humps every leg it can reach. I speak from experience. But you just don’t think like that. You treat everyone, regardless of sex or race or age, as a person first. And now that you’re married, you don’t even imagine what it would be like with someone else.”
Clark cleared his throat. Before this moment, he’d never speculated about sleeping with anyone other than his wife. And afterward, he didn’t plan to wonder about it ever again. He was married, he’d made a commitment, and adultery wasn’t his style, no matter how angry he still was with Lois. “There’s never been anyone else,” he admitted. “And quite frankly, I don’t want there to be.”
“Good man.” Richard leaned forward to lightly thump him on the shoulder. “Now, you have plenty to think about, which means you’re almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you can get any good conclusions made. I’m going to go see how Lana is, and make sure Lois and Jason are all right.”
After a pause, Clark told him, “They’re already back in the hotel, in your room talking to Lana about sleeping arrangements. Tell Jason he can have the other bed in here, if he wants – Lois doesn’t want to be around me right now.”
And in spite of his anger that would not be denied, only banked, he heard the wistfulness in his own voice.
Luthor glared across his desk at the Kryptonian, but General Zod’s expression was carefully blank, a serene mask that failed to yield to even Luthor’s sharpest barbs. He often had the sense that his prisoner was biding his time, waiting for something, but Luthor had not yet been able to discover what that was. Zod knew he couldn’t escape, and he surely couldn’t expect anyone to rescue him, so how could he remain so aloof and confident?
He had just reported on Kala’s progress, praising her swiftly-growing mastery of the language, but cautioning that she sometimes misspoke from haste. “She is most eager to learn, but her enthusiasm yet exceeds her skill.”
The Kryptonian spoke as calmly as if this were a scheduled meeting, not the abrupt summons that had brought him here at an hour during which he was normally asleep. That rankled Luthor, but he kept his temper. “When will she be ready to try the AI again?” he asked.
“She would try now, if you allowed her,” Zod told him. “But that I do not recommend. She will bear repeated failures harshly, and it is ease that she requires to achieve true fluency, not fiery determination.”
Luthor couldn’t fault that logic. As he turned over what Zod had said, Mercy watched them both from where she sat to Luthor’s left. She glanced at the Kryptonian with cold amusement, and he returned her gaze levelly. “Are you certain you’re not trying to forestall her for some reason?” Luthor asked, his voice silky.
“I am not so foolish,” Zod replied urbanely. “My freedom hinges upon hers, for you have promised to release me once you have acquired the knowledge you desire. I assure you, she and I are of one mind in this endeavor, and not even the pleasure of thwarting you outweighs the desire to leave this place at last.”
Someone knocked at the door, and Mercy rose fluidly to open it, her stance wary. Stanford came in, anxious in the presence of the three people he feared most in the world. Luthor stifled a sigh. For the moment, this was more important than interrogating Zod. “Stanford. I assume it’s more bad news, since those spineless cowards in engineering sent you to deliver it?”
“We won’t have the second satellite in place to take readings until morning,” the geologist said. “The Russian communications satellite is in position, but it isn’t capable of doing the type of search we need. We have to wait a few hours for a compatible satellite that we can hack.” Luthor sneered at this news, and turned to take out his frustrations on Zod. But before he could begin to scathe the Kryptonian, the office door opened again.
Startled, Mercy whirled to the offense, but it was Kala who stood in the doorway staring coolly at them all. Luthor bit his lip on an exclamation of surprise. The girl looked different, standing more confidently. She’d chosen to wear unrelieved black, a satin blouse with jeans that emphasized the length of her legs and boots that added several inches to her height. The only spot of color was the pale blue of the cast on her wrist, which was mostly covered by her sleeves.
She stood with her arms crossed, meeting each of their eyes in turn before settling on the General. “Dru-Zod, I regret interrupting your meeting,” she said in Kryptonese, “but if we are to resume my lessons in the morning, we must both be well rested.” The three humans in the room all understood her, but Luthor saw a look of amazement on Stanford’s face that he and Mercy were too disciplined to show. There was an audible difference to the way Kala sounded in Kryptonese as opposed to the three of them, all of whom were well-versed in it. Luthor figured it must be some slight difference in the construction of Kryptonian vocal chords.
“Of course,” Zod replied, rising from his seat. With a courteous nod to Luthor, he departed, asking something of the girl in quiet tones.
The three of them stood staring at the door, until Mercy finally broke the silence. “She’s chosen him over you, Lex.”
“Doesn’t she know who he is?” Stanford said in disbelief.
“She knows,” Luthor said. “And she doesn’t care that I know.” He scowled. This did not bode well, though at the moment he couldn’t see how an alliance between Kala and Zod could possibly benefit the two of them.
Stanford cleared his throat. “I did bring the preliminary scans you requested, sir,” he said tentatively. He handed over several sheets of paper, and Mercy moved to look over Luthor’s shoulder.
“According to this data, he’s flying around above the atmosphere,” Luthor muttered. “Why the hell is he so high up? Doesn’t he have to breathe? And why hasn’t he gone back down to the planet’s surface at all in…”
He trailed off as sudden realization struck him. “Mercy, what’s the update on the family in Kansas? Did we ever get a roll-call?”
“I haven’t heard from any of our agents,” she replied. “They haven’t turned up on the local police blotter, either – they’ve just vanished.”
“Could they have decided to go AWOL?” Luthor asked, his eyes agleam.
“Unlikely,” Mercy said. “They were among the best we had – I pulled Radcliffe out of Metropolis to go check on them when we didn’t have a report within six hours, and he’s missing, too.”
“Probably his little league of do-gooders,” Luthor growled. “I wonder what they’re so anxious to keep us from finding out, don’t you?”
“We already know the Whites are somewhere in Nevada,” Mercy said.
“Yes, but what about the boy?” Luthor asked, giving them both a telling look. It had always been his habit to coax his subordinates into making the same conclusions he had; the length of time and amount of coaching it took for them to get it usually reinforced his ego. Though if he was any judge, Mercy would soon catch on with just a little stronger hint. “Just where is that murdering little halfbreed?”
At those words, Mercy’s eyes widened in comprehension. “The data shows Superman closer to the satellite because the signal is stronger than expected, coming from two Kryptonians.”
Luthor nodded. “Sanford, go find the recalibration equations I wrote for our alpha-wave tracker, and rework them to include a fourth individual, similar to our guest Kala. When we get that next satellite in the morning and can triangulate, we’ll be able to pinpoint them exactly.”