Elise had woken up that morning wrapped in Jason’s arms, with his warm body curled around her. She’d been shocked to feel so safe; any other guy would’ve gotten an elbow in the ribs, but this was Jason. Even though his arm was around her ribs and his hand was on her chest, she realized it was placed over her heart – not somewhere else, as she would’ve expected with any typical teenage boy.
And now she knew why he was so willing to take things slow. He could never be a normal boy, obsessed with playing video games and trying to see girls naked. He was a hero in training, and that finally explained why he acted more like twenty-six than sixteen. Sometimes Jason scared her; when she looked into his eyes she saw none of the insecure bravado that most boys affected. He always met her gaze with a frankness she found frightening, because of the desire she felt to return it in kind.
Now, though, she could be that honest with Jason. He and his family had done her a huge honor in letting her know their secret, so it was only right that she trust him. Besides, she had the idea that Jason already knew her a lot better than most of their friends. Because he wasn’t busy trying to show the world a front of toughness that he didn’t really feel, he had more time to really understand other people.
That new security in her relationship with him had been very useful this morning. Pretty much from the moment she’d got up, they were on a roller coaster. Right after the joyous revelation that Jason’s parents had finally stopped fighting, he and Elise got briefly called on the carpet for having shared a room. Luckily nothing had happened, and all four adults believed them. Then once she’d gotten changed – maybe letting his parents see her standing beside him in only a bathrobe hadn’t been the brightest decision – they fell right into planning.
And just as everyone was getting mobilized for an assault, Mr. Kent brought everything to a screeching halt. “Not all of us are going.”
Elise stared at him, but after a moment of reflection she had to admit he was right. She didn’t want to face Luthor’s henchmen again; nearly getting killed yesterday pretty much met her quota for the week. But what about the rest? She was fairly certain the rest of the family wouldn’t take this lying down.
As soon as she thought it, she noticed Mrs. Lane-Kent was giving her husband a narrow-eyed glare. It took considerable effort not to laugh when he responded to the look with a sigh. “Yes, Lois, I think we all know it’s an even bet that you’re coming. Because you’d follow me anyway if I tried to leave you behind, and at least if you’re where I can see you I have a halfway decent chance of saving you.”
She grinned at that, her hazel eyes fierce. “I think you’ve got it backwards, as usual, hero.” Elise had always respected Jason’s mom, but knowing what she knew now, Lois needed that feral edge to her character just to keep up. Having a family of superheroes required an iron will, nerves of steel, razor-sharp wits, and a host of other powers that Mrs. Lane-Kent possessed in abundance.
With that thought in mind, it shouldn’t have surprised her when Jason spoke up. “I’m coming, too.”
The response was immediate, the negative clear in the adults’ faces. “Absolutely not,” Richard told him.
This time it was Clark who spoke up, overriding them both. “Actually, I want all four of you somewhere safe.”
Richard sighed. “I understand about the kids and Lana, but you might want some backup, Clark. And I am military trained.”
“Which is why I want you to protect them.”
Lana looked over at Elise, raising an eyebrow slightly, and Elise nodded. She was smart enough to know that she wasn’t going to be any good in the line of fire. The redhead put in, “We do need to head back to the records office and finish our research. There’s more to learn that we didn’t get to when we were interrupted. Elise and Jason would be a big help – and Richard, I’d feel much safer with you there with us.”
Richard scowled, but she had a point. Besides, Elise had figured out a while back that Mrs. White could wrap him around her little finger any time she wanted to. Luckily for Richard, she only did it when absolutely necessary. Glaring at Clark and Lois, Richard said, “You two had better keep in touch by phone, though. I want to be able to ride to your rescue if I have to.”
“I hope you won’t have to, but if you do, I’ll be glad to have you watching my back,” Mr. Kent said fondly. Elise remembered Jason telling her last night that Mr. White had rescued Superman the last time they tangled with Luthor – he and Lana and Lois, in fact.
But one quarter just couldn’t be convinced. Jason was watching all of this with a determined look all too reminiscent of a certain reporter. “I’m not going to argue with you guys. I’m not staying behind,” he said, crossing his arms. He had been leaning against the door frame, but now he stood tall, looking his father in the eyes. “I may have messed up yesterday, but I kept Elise safe. I can do the same with you and Mom. And I promised Kala. I’m not going back on it because we’re scared. I’m going.”
The fact that he wasn’t happy that Jason kept pushing the issue was obvious in Kal-El’s expression. The last place he wanted his son was in the thick of this. “Jason, you’re not ready for this,” Clark said, a pleading note buried in the sternness of his voice.
“Is anyone ever ready for something like this?” Jason countered before he could go any further. “We’re basically at war, Dad. People younger than me have gone into battle, and they didn’t have my powers.”
“Son, I don’t want you in the line of fire.”
The boy pressed on, refusing to give an inch. “How can you ask me to stay behind when I know I can help? Dad, she’s my twin sister. I wasn’t there when she needed me last time. I let her down. No matter what’s happened, you know I can get through to her, even when you and Mom can’t. I always have. You two need me.”
Before another exchange could come about, one voice cut through the argument. “I think he might be right.”
All eyes turned to Lois then, the reporter watching her boy with a complicated light in her eyes. When she continued, her words were thoughtful, if a bit torn. “He might be right. The last thing I want is him in the middle of this. Clark, you know I don’t. Hell, we should have shipped him and Elise back home the minute they got out here. But we didn’t… I don’t know why, but I get the feeling he has to be with us. I was going to be the first to tell him no, but I keep getting a bad feeling about leaving him behind. I don’t like it, either, but … maybe it’s time. Maybe this is what he’s been training for.”
Mr. Kent scowled, and Elise caught her breath, looking from Jason to his parents. Were they really going to bring him along on a mission this dangerous? And was Mr. Kent going to lose it again at being balked?
He mulled it over, looking from his wife to his son, and finally gave in with an perturbed sigh. “Far be it from me to argue with a reporter’s intuition. It’s been right too many times to argue with it. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Then he swiftly narrowed his eyes at Jason. “You are my son and the heir to the House of El, and I expect you to conduct yourself as such. Jason, there is no room for error this time. Luthor will kill us all if given the slightest opportunity.”
“I understand, sir,” Jason replied, nodding gravely. Everyone seemed to hold their breath for a moment, amazed at what had just happened.
And then Elise, who couldn’t contain herself any longer, flung her arms around Jason’s neck and dragged him down into a kiss. His eyes were wide and startled when they broke apart for air. Elise hadn’t let go of him, however, and caught his face to glare into his intensely blue and bemused eyes. “You’d better come back in one piece, you hear me, Superboy? Or I’ll kick your ass halfway into next week. Got that?”
The solemnity of the moment broken, all of them just wide-eyed at Elise’s impetuous show of affection before Lois and Richard burst out laughing. The mirth diminished the tension that had been building fairly efficiently. “Oh man, no wonder he wanted to marry her,” Richard wheezed. “Shows you get your good taste in women from me.”
The sudden sound was like a gunshot going off in the silence of the darkened bedroom, waking the boy out of a sound sleep that even the dead would envy. Sebast was so startled by it, it took a moment to get his heart out of his throat. He was so out-of-sorts that he never even looked to see who his caller was. As if the Godzilla-roar ring tone hadn’t already clued him in. “Alo?” Sebast muttered groggily, pressing his cell phone against his ear.
“Sebast? Are you awake? It’s me, Jason.”
Kala. That brought him around quickly, no mean feat the last couple of days. “I am now.” For his part in helping Jason and Elise stow away, he had been grounded with no internet access or television. Fortunately they’d let him keep his cell phone to get updates on what was going on with the search for Kala. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing to do except chores, so he found himself sleeping in as much as possible.
“Listen, I’ve got good news,” Jason was saying, and it occurred to Sebast that he sounded almost like his old self again. The bewildered kid whose staring eyes couldn’t quite reconcile Kala’s absence was gone, and Sebast smiled a little to think his own bit of shock therapy yesterday might have helped. Someone had to snap Jason back into operating at peak efficiency if he was going to be able to find Kala and bring her home.
“That’s what I wanna hear, amigo, so lay it on me.” Sebast was sitting up now, bracing himself for whatever news Kala’s twin had for him.
“We think we know where she is, and we’re going after her today. I’m going in with Mom and Dad. If all goes well, I’ll be calling you tonight to let you know when we’re arriving back in Metropolis.”
Thank you, God. That was it, exactly what he’d been waiting the last two days for. “Hot damn! Jason, that’s the best news I’ve heard in years.”
“I can’t stay on the phone long; we’re headed out soon. But I wanted you to know.” Jason paused, and then added, “And Sebast? Thanks for the kick in the pants yesterday. I needed that.”
“Mano, whatever you need, I got it. Whether it’s a kick or a kiss, you know? Bring my girl back, and the world is yours.”
He heard Jason laugh softly. There was more going on in that little chuckle than a million words could say. “Just help me convince her not to run off again, and we’re even. I’ll talk to you later, Sebast.”
“Good luck. See you when you get here. Let me know the minute you guys touch down, huh?” When Sebast flipped the phone closed, he let out a huge sigh of relief. At last, they had a solid lead on Kala. Once Jason got her home, she was going to get a serious talking-to from her best friend. No matter what bullshit some little spy-slut said, no matter how stupid said best friend had been to believe it even for a second, Kala should never had taken off without consulting him.
Of course, now he had to start worrying all over again. It wasn’t as if they were simply going to waltz into Luthor’s lair and pick Kala up. And this guy had tried to kill them all before. Kala had been with him for several days now, no one able to help her in any way. At that thought, Sebast felt his stomach cramp, and put his head down. Good luck. God, please let them all get out in one piece.
Kala’s sense of time was no longer reliable, but she thought it was early morning. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, her body relaxed as if in sleep while her mind raced. Zod had given her a great deal to think about, and keeping her focus on the present served two goals. One, it kept her alert to her surroundings, which she had never forgotten were potentially fatal. Two, it helped stop thoughts of home from creeping back into her consciousness.
He was right about that; she couldn’t afford nostalgia right now. Last week her biggest worries were about kissing Nick, singing at Fuel, dealing with Mom’s bitchiness, and trying to keep from throttling Jason’s rebound. Now she had an assortment of ex-cons wanting to molest her, scientists wanting to dissect her, and Luthor above all wanting to use her for bait. And it hadn’t escaped Kala that most bait, even for large fish, was cut up first.
No, she had to narrow her mind to the here and now if she wanted to survive. So she went over her language lessons with Zod. Luthor hadn’t been pestering her since the last round of information she’d been able to unlock, but she knew he wouldn’t rest until he had every last scrap of knowledge, so she had to improve her Kryptonese.
She had already come so far. Only in extremely technical discussions did she have to ask Zod the meaning of a word, and the pair of them had stopped using English entirely. That language felt strange on her tongue when she’d taunted Mercy yesterday, as if it was part of a long-dead past.
Her present was Kryptonian in word, thought, and deed. Kala had even changed her hairstyle, pinning it up as a lady of a noble house would wear it. Zod had shown her the style and the headdress that would have accompanied it. Her wrist had only twinged slightly while she was arranging her hair; swift healing was another benefit of her heritage.
Meanwhile her future was uncertain, and she spared it no thought. Only the immediate future was in the scope of her plans: the next moment, the next hour. That was all she could afford. Things were too precarious to plan further.
Sometimes the longing for familiar faces and places would rise up and threaten to swallow her; she would have let Sebast think whatever he wanted about her, if only she could burrow into one of his hugs and let the rest of the world go to hell. And her father – she would bear any disappointed scolding he could come up with, if he would only save her. She knew he was nearby, but why hadn’t he come? Why hadn’t Mom come? Lois was close enough to kick Mercy’s ass, so why hadn’t she found this place yet? Would they ever find it, as carefully as Luthor had planned this?
She missed Kristin’s bright eyes, Daddy Richard’s bad jokes, and Lana’s quiet affection. Kala would not believe the headline Luthor had shown her. Lana could still be alive. She had to be. Losing Nana had been hard enough.
Worst of all was the ache in her soul where Jason usually abided. She’d never been away from her twin for so long, and the lack of him was like a wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
No, she couldn’t think about that. Kala knew her room was still being monitored, and she would not give Luthor the satisfaction of seeing her cry from sheer loneliness. Relentlessly, she forced aside the frightened, homesick part of herself. That girl couldn’t help her now. Kala needed the strongest side of herself, the Daughter of Krypton who could look those rapists and murderers in the eye with cold disdain, for they were only human filth and she could destroy them if they so much as touched her. That young woman was strong of mind and will, powerful enough to resist all of Luthor’s attempts to warp her mind. She would not fall for his schemes. He too was merely human, and soon enough would learn the error of his ways.
It was far better to focus on her lessons. Zod had taught her so much. They had moved on from Krypton’s past into the history of the world on which they currently stood. Kala had always enjoyed learning about history, but in sharing her knowledge with Zod, she saw things in a new light.
Centuries of senseless slaughter stretched out behind her. Even the very nation she lived in had been born in blood and sorrow. The original colonists may have been justified in rebelling against the British government, but nothing could justify the way the native peoples had been systematically pushed aside by wars, broken treaties, and the deliberate spread of infectious diseases.
Humans, Zod had pointed out, were the only creatures on the planet that would imprison, rape, torture, and kill for ideas. Nature was certainly cruel, but at least the actions of the so-called lesser animals had a sound basis in instinct and self-interest. Lions slaughtered their prey to feed themselves, and even a rabbit would kill a snake to defend her young. Only humans butchered each other over the ways in which they chose to worship their God. Sheer, savage madness.
Such things had been unheard of on Krypton, as Zod told her. Even the blood on his own hands, must as he regretted spilling it, had been part of an attempt to save an entire world. The High Council had reached the point where reason could not sway them, and he had been forced to use violence instead. But even he, proclaimed the worst criminal in all Krypton’s history, had never taken a life because of someone’s race or creed.
He had not been himself when he arrived on this world. Perhaps, if things had gone a little differently, the brilliant strategist would be one of her father’s trusted advisors instead of a reviled enemy. After all, Zod and Jor-El had been close friends, and the great scientist had respected the general’s tactical genius. Zod had exactly the kind of mindset they needed to defeat Luthor. If only he’d been given a second chance…
Perhaps if he had had someone by his side who knew this world and all of its foibles. Someone who understood humanity’s strengths as well as its many weaknesses. Someone who could show him where to apply force and where to use diplomacy instead. Someone who could curb his thirst for vengeance and temper his impatience with the defiance of this wasteful, backward people he found himself among.
Had there been someone like that from the beginning, perhaps the world would be a very different place today.
Martha smiled at the scene happening outside her kitchen window. Like any wise country grandmother, she had put the city-born kids to work, knowing that they would be eager to help out with chores that seemed novel and exciting. And they were even happy to wake at this early hour, awed by the hushed dawn over the broad plains. At this very moment, the three youngest were in the yard under Lucy’s supervision, helping shovel a path through last night’s snowfall to the chicken coop. They flung the snow off their small shovels with more enthusiasm than accuracy, but it hardly mattered. The snow wasn’t deep, and would soon be tromped down.
The scene was a pleasant distraction from her worries. If she was entirely honest, the house full of people had been such a blessing, making the time between updates more bearable. There hadn’t been any news on the search for Kala since yesterday, and she knew what the family was dealing with. It was all she could do to keep herself adequately preoccupied. But with kids in the house, that wasn’t too hard.
As if her anxiety had conjured a call, her cell phone rang, and she snatched it out of her pocket. “Hello?”
“Ma? It’s me.”
“Hello, Clark.” His voice, low and steady, soothed the worst of her fears. “How is everything going?”
“We’re going out to look at another location this morning,” he told her. “This could be the one, Ma. There’s a very good chance we could find her today.”
Martha closed her eyes and let out the breath she didn’t know she had been holding. The possibility of her grandchild being close enough to hold was almost enough to bring tears. “Thank the Lord,” Martha murmured. “Son, you be careful.”
His voice was grim when he replied, “I will, Ma. Luthor knows we’re in the area. He’ll be prepared. But we have to rescue her.”
Martha bit her lip. Why on earth did this man Luthor hate her son so much? Heroes like her boy were meant to inspire the greatness of the human spirit, but not everyone felt the same. Some, like Luthor, could only answer his glory with their own savage, merciless greed. “You will come out of this the winner,” she told Clark without hesitation.
“I wish I had your assurance.”
“Yes, but I know who’s on your side,” Martha told him coyly, and she heard Clark chuckle despite the seriousness of the situation.
“I would really appreciate some prayers today, Ma. I’ll be sending up a few of my own, too.” He certainly sounded stressed, but not as close to the breaking point as he had been recently.
“I’ll be glad to oblige. How is everything else?” she asked, wondering at the tone of his voice. Was that relief beneath the worry over the day?
Clark sighed, but she could hear the hint of a smile in his voice. “Trust you to figure it out. Yes, Ma, Lois and I had a long, serious talk, and we made up. We’re going to look into counseling once this is over. But we’re not giving up on each other.”
“Good for you both,” Martha said, her vehemence startling him. “Son, I may not have been sure of her when we first met, but you need Lois. She needs you, too. And none of us are fans of you two spitting at each other like wildcats. I’m glad you’ve got things right between you.”
Again that soft laugh. “Me too. You have no idea how glad. Ma, we need to start heading out. I love you.”
“I love you too, son. Bring Kala home to us. Good luck, and God bless.” Once she hung up the phone, Martha closed her eyes again to send up a brief, fervent prayer for the safety of her son and his whole family.