He was trying to reassure her – wasn’t that a joke. “Gee, I don’t know. Maybe the fact that I never know when I’ll get to see my husband for longer than ten minutes at a time lately? Besides, what makes you think it’s just about us?” Lois responded miserably. Unhappily, she pulled away from him with a broody expression. “Don’t you get it? I’m the reason the twins are vulnerable, being half-human. They got smaller doses of all the powers. I wouldn’t be surprised if your Dad knew that and that’s why he was against this from the first. And Lex knows that. It’s my weakness that let Kala get kidnapped…”
“And you call me dense,” he said harshly. Lois didn’t have the right to make herself a martyr, not when the truth was anything but. He set about correcting her with the weight of his guilt putting an edge on the words. “If it’s anyone’s fault, what happened to Kala, it’s mine. Lois, any child is vulnerable to being kidnapped by a madman like Luthor, superpowers or not. It was your legacy that kept them both alive on an island made of kryptonite. And it’s your courage and determination Kala needs right now – powers don’t work against Luthor, he’s too good at figuring out how to work around them. My powers didn’t beat him last time – I was helpless, and you saved me with pure will.”
Her breath hitched, but he didn’t let that stop him. As angry as they still were with each other, the facts in this case were plain, and she needed to understand them. “I don’t care what my father wants for me, I know what I want, and it’s definitely not Diana. We’re good colleagues, but that’s it.”
She smirked at that, her arms crossed in front of her as she watched his face. “Oh yeah? Really? Can you look me in the eyes and tell me you’re not attracted to her in the least, hero?”
He scoffed. “I’ll admit I do have a thing for powerful, independent, dark-haired women. But you are the reason I like that type! Everything I could possibly find attractive about her is something I fell in love with in you. Why would I be interested in someone who’s like you when I already have you?”
“Even if she could give you another child?” He hadn’t seen that coming at all, the question widening his eyes in surprise. That was when he knew just how badly Lois was hurting. Her pleading, tear-filled gaze haunted him with the knowledge that she would never want to show this kind of weakness. To love a man was one thing, but to crave having his children was entirely too domestic for many people’s perception of Lois Lane.
And it was another score that had to be set straight. “Lois, I’m the reason we can’t have more children, not you, and maybe … maybe it’s more karma than biology. Maybe I’m not meant to get a second chance, maybe I’m supposed to always remember what one cowardly decision cost me. It does not matter. You gave me Jason and Kala, and the two of them are all the miracles I need.”
She looked away then, her voice almost a whisper, fear and regret bound tightly to each syllable. “You don’t even know if we’ll get Kala back in one piece.”
“Yes, we will,” he replied, his voice low. “She’s your daughter. It’ll take more than Luthor to stop her, and we’re not going to quit until we find her. But we’re going to have to be in this together – we can’t keep hiding things anymore. We have to be a team.”
That made her wounded gaze flare into anger again. “Yeah, you’re right – which means you have to actually talk to me once in a while.”
“We talk…” he began, but she didn’t let him finish.
“Not about the important stuff,” Lois shot back. “You’ve always needed someone to confide in, a shoulder to lean on when a rescue doesn’t go right. You blame yourself if someone doesn’t knock a little sense into you every so often. But it’s been months since you came to me with anything that bugs you. I know the world didn’t turn perfect overnight, so you had to have been talking to someone else.”
“Lois, I didn’t want to burden you,” Kal-El told her.
“Oh, but it’s fine to burden one of your caped colleagues?” The acid in Lois’ voice belied the glimmer in her eyes. Kal-El knew then that she thought he’d been talking to Diana, and that idea hurt her more than any rumor of romance. Flirting with teammates would only make Lois angry, but confiding his deepest fears to someone else was much more intimate. Lois had always been particularly proud of being the only one to bear that honor.
“No,” he told her. “We all support each other, but that’s not who I’ve been going to when I’m sick of the world and think my mission is doomed. I’ve been talking to Lana – and she was right. She told me I needed to talk to you instead, but I didn’t want to lean on you when you had so much to deal with.”
Lois’ eyes widened at that and he couldn’t even tell by her incredulous reply if the admission made things better or worse for her. “Wait, you’ve been talking to Red about this?”
Kal-El shrugged, showing his empty palms. “Who else knows me that well? Who else do I trust that much? And who else is completely unshakeable? Lois, the only reason I didn’t lean on you is that … well, you haven’t been the same since Ella passed.” He squared his shoulders, anticipating a very poor reaction to those words.
He watched Lois’ face whiten at his words, his wife drawing back a little further from him. No one in the family had been willing to call her on the way her mother’s death had affected her and the mention of it seemed to hit her between the eyes. Even now, she was trying to pull away from the topic. Even now, she forced her grief to be private, locked in a corner to deal with at some later date. “That’s not fair, Kal-El. You know that’s not fair.”
“No, it isn’t,” he told her. “It’s not fair that you had to lose her so early and so unexpectedly. It’s not fair that you lost the person you leaned on when things got rough with me and the twins. Losing someone you love is never fair. But it’s also not fair to lock yourself around your grief until you can barely breathe for the effort of it keeping it way down inside.”
“That’s not…” she began, but Kal-El cut her off again.
“It is. Lois, you’ve been trying so hard to hide it, but everyone who knows you can see how it’s slicing you up from the inside.”
She flinched this time, the expression on her face one he had never seen before. Hurt, anger, horror; the look of someone watching a hurricane tear their house into the sea with no chance of ever retrieving it. And then knowing full-well it would come for them.
“We’re going to have company tomorrow,” Luthor said. Zod leaned back in his chair and eyed his old enemy. He had answered Luthor’s summons politely enough, but he would volunteer nothing. So he waited, and eventually Luthor added, “I expect Kal-El will be here to collect his daughter.”
Zod was no fool. From the moment Kala Kal-El had arrived here, it was simply a matter of time before her father came searching for her. He had hoped to have longer before the inevitable confrontation – these scant days were not enough for his plans to come to fruition – but there was no sense in being frustrated. Circumstances were what they were, and it was wiser to adapt than to rage at changes beyond his control.
He raised his eyebrows slightly, but said nothing. Zod could guess what Luthor wanted of him, but he intended to make the man spell it out precisely. An aggravated expression flickered across Luthor’s features, but his voice held no trace of it. “I intend to meet him in the storage facility topside. He may have a few friends with him; I have plans in place to keep them busy, but I don’t want to be surprised if some of them are there.”
Zod nodded. “Sensible.” He found himself enjoyed Luthor’s discomfiture; the human clearly expected him to be wild-eyed and raving, demanding to be included in the attack on Kal-El. His seeming indifference cast all of Luthor’s plans asunder.
The man’s eyes were cold steel. “You’ll be there, of course.”
“I shall,” Zod replied, and saw relief in the slight relaxation of Luthor’s shoulders. Suppressing a smile, he said quietly, “I will not kill him.”
Luthor was plainly taken aback. “Whatever happened to ‘you will bow down before me’? He is the son of your jailer.”
As you are my jailer now, Zod thought, and I shall see you humbled, before the end. But he kept that thought from showing as he answered, “While it is true that I would like to slay Kal-El, you have earned that right. I have not.”
“So you’re being gracious?” Luthor laughed nastily. “Come on. The noble act might fool the kid, but I know what you are. I’ve seen what you’re capable of – with my own eyes, not in some faded newspaper article. What’s your real reason, General? And if you lie to me again, we’ll find out how much kryptonite radiation it takes to get the truth.”
Zod hesitated, waiting just long enough before caving in with obvious reluctance. “We both know you would kill me if I were to take his life. You will not allow anyone other than yourself to harm him or his wife. So I shall not be tempted. Take his life yourself, Luthor. It is enough that I shall see him slain.”
He looked away, defeated, and Luthor chuckled. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then. Be ready.”
Nodding slightly, Zod left the office without meeting Luthor’s eyes again. It was the only way he could escape without a telltale smirk giving away his deception. Luthor, you have always been a self-aggrandizing egomaniac. I will let you think I fear you, let you think I resent the fact that you will kill the son of Jor-El. All that matters is that I will be able to look into the eyes of Kala Kal-El, tell her I did not murder her father, and the words will be true.
It was a devastating revelation. Lois’ weakness had been on display all this time, and all of her careful efforts to conceal her vulnerability had fooled no one. Her breath was coming in sobs, but Lois fought it. Wouldn’t look away. Facing down the storm because she had nowhere else to run. “Leave it alone, Kal-El! We have more important things to worry about right now.” Even the grit in her voice was weakened when she snapped at him.
All of a sudden, everything made sense. Ella Lane had been Lois’ shield against so many things, not just her father’s disapproval. With her mother gone, Lois had to suddenly face the fact that she too was mortal – she was not going to be young and fiery forever. Age and death, both of which she had defied her entire adult life, were going to happen to her. Kal-El had read a lot about coping with a parent’s death when Jonathan Kent had died so suddenly, but he’d forgotten those truths in the intervening years. And honestly, even though Lois had died once and had come terribly close to doing so again far too many times, in her heart of hearts she had never imagined she could actually die.
Lois could be incredibly prickly and difficult to live with until you realized what made her tick, and saw the vulnerable, sentimental romantic beneath her fierce façade. Then, as Kal-El did, you accepted the thorns as part of the rose. Understanding moved him, and he spoke without thinking, his voice gentle. “Lois, we’re all going to die someday.”
“Stop it! Just stop it! We don’t even know if you’ll age, let alone die. You’ve barely aged a day in the last five years!” Her voice shaking, she shouted at him. The numerous masks Lois had been trying to hide behind were shattering painfully one by one. “I can’t deal with this right now, don’t you get it? We don’t have time for… Goddammit!” She was starting to cry now, the turmoil refusing to be held back this time. It was long past time. “Isn’t it enough that Momma got taken from me? Isn’t it? Then I start to lose you once and for all to the rest of the world? If that’s not enough, I totally fuck up and lose it with Kala for doing something totally stupid and just like a teenager. At which point, Lex snatches her up. She could … could…” Kal-El saw those words come, only to fall away.
Even in the intensity of her seething emotions, Lois couldn’t say it anymore than he would allow himself to think it. “Even if we get her back, things are shot to hell with her to the point where I’ll lose her, anyway,” she finished instead. Her fingers kneaded the twins’ locket around her neck ceaselessly, her thumb rubbing an endless circle over the stone facing.
She wasn’t quite right about the first part of that. His dark hair was threaded with gray at the temples, and his features were a little more deeply etched than they had been ten years ago, but the signs were there. Kal-El just wore his age very lightly. He couldn’t entertain speculation on his potential lifespan at the moment. Not when he’d finally peeled away almost all of Lois’ layers of defensiveness.
Closing the distance between them, Kal-El put some force behind his words. “You won’t lose Kala. Not over a few minutes of bad temper. Yes, you both hurt each other, but you love her and she loves you. It wasn’t that long ago that she was following at your heels every moment, insisting on having ‘coffee’ every morning like Mom even if hers had to be half milk.”
The reminder had the desired effect. Her brow furrowed deeply, her hand going to her lips to hold back a whimper. It was amazing how the past came back to Lois then. Kala sitting on the bed behind her as her mother had gotten ready for a night out at a Planet fundraiser, Lois dressed to the nines. Those inquisitive eyes following every move of a lip brush, every sweep of shadow, as if committing it to memory for later use. There would be a little talk, but mostly her chatterbox daughter had just sat there and observed. God, that seemed so long ago now, the child she had loved so much buried into this surly person Lois didn’t feel as though she knew anymore.
And the first sign that she was still in there had come at the most shameful moment of her life. Kala had provoked her, it was true, but there might have been better way to handle it. On top of all the sass the child had thrown at her in the weeks before New Years, the stress of that night, it had been too much. In the heat of the argument, the fear that something had happened, that maybe Luthor had found her, it all wrapped itself around her nerves until Kala pushed her too far. She had simply lost it and reacted with no regard for the fact that she was striking her own child for the first time ever. Even now, remembering it turned her stomach bitter. “I slapped her, Kal-El. I slapped the hell out of my own child because I was scared to death for her. And, yeah, I was mad. But that doesn’t excuse it. It doesn’t excuse any of this. Christ, I just don’t even know how to react to her anymore. I love her to death, but God…”
Kal-El sighed. As always, Lois was her own worst critic. It didn’t help that a natural part of grieving for a parent was realizing you were occupying their place in life now, which meant your children were now in the place you’d just vacated. Especially in Lois’ case, that meant trying to spare them from the same setbacks you’d suffered. For himself, Jor-El, and Jason, the progression was relatively easy. The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son. But for Ella and Lois and Kala, the road was much rockier, and Kal-El wasn’t sure if that was just part of the process for mothers and daughters, or if it had more to do with the strong personalities of all three women.
Still, Lois was partly right. No excuse could make up for having slapped Kala across the face. Both twins had gotten a smack or two on the bottom, when they were being particularly obstinate, but they’d never been struck in anger. Kal-El could still see the expression of pained horror on Kala’s face, the way her defiance had crumpled after that slap. He’d seen it through half a mile of Metropolis’ buildings, looking ahead with x-ray vision as he’d raced toward the sound of furious voices.
And he’d seen the moment when shock and hurt had given way to outrage. That was when he’d put on the extra speed, bursting the patio doors open to catch Kala before she retaliated. “You wouldn’t have been so angry, or so frightened, if you didn’t love her,” he said, his voice rough. “And I’m sure she knows that. Kids can forgive a lot more than we give them credit for. But it can’t go on like this. I never want to see the two of you so mad at each other again; kryptonite’s less painful than seeing the two women I love most squaring up to fight.”
Lois cut him a wounded glance. That last sounded too much like an ultimatum, and she had to respond. “It’d be nice if you’d back me up once in a while, you know. That whole fight would never have happened if she hadn’t gone behind my back to get her way about going out on New Year’s. She asked you instead of me, knowing full well that Daddy would give his little princess exactly what she wanted.”
Kal-El stiffened at that not-so-veiled accusation. Now he was the one on the defensive. “I admit I’m not always as strict with Kala as I should be – but Lois, there are military schools that would cut her more slack than you do!”
The very last thing he should have done in a conversation about parenting with Lois Lane was bring up the military. Her eyes blazed, and the self-recrimination of a moment before disappeared before her anger. “What the hell are you trying to say? That I should let her run wild like you do? Let her wear whatever she wants, go wherever she wants, come home however late she wants, and generally act like a heathen? Kal-El, she’s an adrenaline junkie with superpowers – if someone doesn’t keep her in line, she’ll lose control completely someday! And wouldn’t Luthor and his cronies just love it if she did go off the deep end!”
“Keeping her in line is one thing,” Kal-El replied hotly. “Keeping her on a leash so short she strangles every time she takes a step is something else entirely. Don’t you see what you’re doing? Everything Kala does is wrong, according to you.”
“That’s over-exaggerated bullshit and you know it!” Lois snapped. “I expect it from her, drama queen that she can be, but you know better.”
Kal-El retorted, “That’s how she sees it. She’s not right, but that’s how she feels. She’s a teenager, Lois, they’re all melodramatic! The point is, in her eyes, she can’t help but disappoint you. As far as she can tell, you’re acting just like…” Lois went pale as milk, her staring eyes huge, and Kal-El realized the parallel he’d drawn. He bit his lip against the worst possible accusation: telling Lois that she was treating Kala exactly the way her own father had treated her.
Half an hour ago, when this all began, Kal-El had been angry enough that he probably would’ve said it anyway, and damn the consequences. He was glad, now, that he’d spent most of his rage on far less important things. To compare Lois to her father was the cruelest thing he could possibly say to her. Her career, her entire life, had been a statement to General Lane: I am so much better than you ever gave me credit for. Every story she scooped, every risk she took, Lois was lashing out at the idea that she’d never be good enough. And even when she’d succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, she still couldn’t let herself believe she’d won. She still had something to prove to a man who’d been dead almost twenty years.
And Kal-El had just come within a breath of telling her she’d become her own personal bogeyman. He saw the sheen in her eyes as she drew the conclusion for herself, and braced himself against the whirlwind of her fury.
A whirlwind that never came. This final blow battered her façade like the ruthless down-sweep of a hammer, the damage just as jagged. Instead of the expected reaction, disgusted anger, Lois’ back stiffened while her eyes closed as if she had been dealt a vicious physical blow. Her voice trembled brokenly on the words she choked out, “You bastard. That’s not fair! I just don’t want her to go through the things I did; I’m trying to keep her from being a wildly-curious idiot that’s just going to get her heart broken like I did!” She paused for a moment then before giving a cynical chuckle. “Looks like I did as good a job at that as keeping the rest of the family safe, huh?”
“You’ve always put the family ahead of everything else,” Kal-El told her. “Everyone who’s ever met you knows you’d give your life to protect me or the twins. Even making the deal with Luthor, you were sacrificing yourself for us.”
Lois opened her eyes to gaze just off to his left, anywhere but at him. Again, that tough little laugh, her lips tight. “And now that I can’t sink any lower, I’m noble. Just stop. Please don’t patronize me at a time like this.”
“I’m not,” Kal-El replied. “Lois…”
“Oh, please. You made your point. Let’s just call this on face-value.” She still couldn’t bear to look at him, delivering her scathing remarks to the floor. “In the last few months, I’ve devolved into a miserable, jealous shrew, so nasty-tempered I drove my own husband to confide in one of our best friends rather than disturb me. I’m an absolute shoo-in for Mother of the Year for slapping my own daughter for her own good! No wonder she ran away from home; it’s exactly what I would have done back then. And we both know it’s my fault Luthor has her right now. Let just call it what it is. Maybe the Giant Floating Head had a point back then. Maybe he saw all of this coming. Maybe he really was trying to save you from it.”
For the first time in too long a while, protectiveness overrode the bewildered hurt and fury in Kal-El’s heart. Even when he’d been the angriest, he had thought better of Lois than she did now. Most of his outrage had stemmed from disbelief that Lois could betray him; he relied so much on her strength and courage. “That’s my wife you’re talking about,” he said warningly.
Another dry chuckle and she turned her back on him, staring at the closed door to their room. Under any other circumstances when she’d said these kinds of things, it had always been in the context of teasing him about putting up with her when he could have the whole world instead. But not this time. Lois’ voice was low and deadly calm. “That’s something you could remedy easily enough and we both know it. You said as much yourself, on New Year’s Eve. The twins are almost grown, the Justice League is almost in full-swing, and you know that your wife is capable of some pretty huge deceits. I’m not sure if we can ever recover from that. Not too many people would disagree that you have pretty good grounds for it.”
So she was willing to give up on him, on them. Worse, she thought he was ready to. Lois still didn’t realize what he’d actually said that night. Kal-El stalked toward her, his eyes dark with turbulent emotion. “I lied to you, Lois.”
Her heart sank as she looked up to him, saw that foreboding expression. Oh God. Here it comes. The fallout she had always had nightmares of, the first shovelful of dirt atop the coffin of the relationship. She’d seen it coming for so long, but to be finally there, in that moment… Lois’ heart stuttered to a halt, swept away by hopeless terror. He said he had lied to her… And the only thing he could be talking about now was his vow to love her until the end of time.
Hands that could rip solid steel like tissue paper cupped her face, and though he didn’t hurt her, Lois was more aware than ever of the great strength in that simple touch. All of the force was implied, not expressed, and she sensed something fierce in place of his usual tenderness. “I told you if you wanted a divorce, I’d give you one,” Kal-El growled, those stormy eyes on inches from hers. “I lied. I will never give you up, Lois.” He kissed her then, roughly, and Lois gasped. His residual anger smoldered in that kiss, along with all of the love he had for her – the love that had been bruised but not broken, not even diminished, by the trials and revelations of this terrible week.
This could heal the breach between them. This was the emotional connection they had been missing, rendered tangible. This was what both of them wanted, what they needed, what they had suffered without. And this was the proof, final and absolute, that he wanted Lois and no other woman. Now it was time to convince her of that fact, as well.