Okay, all, here's this week's installment. I can't say more than enjoy these last minutes before the final storm unleashes itself for the family once and for all. The final confrontation begins at the start of the next chapter. This is it. In the end, we'll see who survives the aftermath.
Richard held Lois’ hand, warm and limp in his, and listened to the soft beeping of the monitors. If he wanted to, he could look over and see her heart rate, EKG, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. He didn’t; it felt like too much information. He also didn’t want to see the tubes snaking under the blanket or the bags of fluids and medicines hung on the pole beside the bed. What he wanted, more than anything, was for Lois to wake up and see him sitting there and curse him affectionately for being a maudlin pathetic bastard. And start the world back to making sense again. If Lois were awake and full of fire, he could believe that the other three would come back.
Her hand in his twitched slightly, and he could see her eyes move behind their pale lids. Richard watched, wondering what she was dreaming. After the first four or five times, he’d stopped hoping it meant she was waking up. The doctors had warned him that she could sleep for quite some time, and from personal experience he knew that when Lois was really sick she slept like a stone.
Once, in their early days together, she’d come down with the flu. In typical Lois fashion, she fought it tooth and nail so the twins wouldn’t see her sick, forcing her body to stay active with the help of a slew of over the counter medications. Richard had been there at her apartment when she’d finally collapsed from exhaustion and fever on getting in the door that Friday night – it was before they’d moved in together. He’d carried her to bed, dosed her up, and got the twins calmed and settled.
Of course it had been a long weekend; Lois had struggled with the virus all week, waiting until she had time off to succumb. He’d nursed her through the days and nights, bringing her medicine, feeding her broth, bathing her fevered skin with cool cloths. And managing the kids, of course, who worried about their mom but couldn’t get too close while she was contagious. Flu was the last thing the twins needed, with their asthma and delicate constitutions.
Richard remembered lying beside Lois at night while she slept, listening to her breaths. He’d taken her hand then, too, so if she flung off the covers or shivered with chill he’d know, even if he managed to fall asleep. He remembered when the fever broke and she woke up, those lovely eyes finally clear of pain and confusion. He’d give almost anything to have a moment like that now.
Instead, his phone buzzed. He wasn’t strictly supposed to have it on in here, but the nurses had whispered permission as long as he kept it very quiet. Lana and Elise were across the road, checking into the hotel there. Someone would be with Lois all the time, but the other two had to sleep sometime.
Never letting go of Lois’ hand, Richard answered the phone quietly. It was Clark, who said without preamble, “We’re going in. We learned everything we could from my father. This time, we’re not coming back without Kala.”
Richard swallowed the lump in his throat, and squeezed Lois’ fingers slightly. All of them knew the possibility existed that Clark and Jason wouldn’t come back. But there was no thinking like that allowed in this family; everyone would come home. There was no other possible outcome. “Be careful,” Richard warned, his voice choked in spite of himself.
“We’ll try.” The voice paused for a moment, the determined tone failing briefly when he spoke again. “Richard…”
The words never left Clark’s lips. “Don’t tell me to take care of her if you don’t get back,” Richard responded harshly, making his stand on this clear to his friend. “You’re coming back. I managed to fob her off on you, fair and square, and there’s no return policy. So you’d better come back here with both kids before your wife wakes up and starts cussing you out for being late.” He rubbed his eyes angrily.
The message would obviously received, as Clark managed a laugh at that. “All right. Point taken. But Richard, I’m worried about Jason. Part of me says this is what he’s been training for, this is what he wants – needs – to do. And the other part says he’s my son, I should lock him up here and keep him as far from the action as I can.”
Richard sighed. He understood perfectly. Oh, Jason. The loving, gentle little boy, the one they all counted on to be the good twin, the one who was steady and calm whenever Kala had histrionics. It was hard to think of him facing Luthor, risking his life. But at the same time, who else?
Having palmed the kryptonite out of casual sight, Luthor pressed his hand against the access panel to Kala’s room, and the door slid open obligingly. It was time to teach this insolent brat a thing or two about being a hostage. Just because he needed to keep her functioning didn’t mean that the packaging had to stay pristine. Someone needed a reminder of just who was running this show. His teeth bared in a fierce smile, the bald man entered Kala’s quarters. His eyes swept the room, wanting to locate Kala while she was still disoriented, wanting to see that broken look in her eyes again. One down, three more to go. And soon. Come on, princess, Uncle Lex wants to have a little talk with you about the way we do things here.
Once he was standing in the middle of the room, Luthor realized something that just enraged him further.
She wasn’t there.
Fuming, Luthor moved on to the suite’s bathroom, but it was empty also. There were no other places to hide. His intended plans upset, Luthor growled under his breath. In a fine fury, he strode from the room with a now single-minded focus. The girl was going to pay for this. For just this kind of eventuality, the facility had conveniently located intercoms, and he took advantage of one of those to raise security. “Check the footage of camera 42 and tell me where the girl is,” he snapped.
When the answer came back, it surprised him. “Sir, the sensors indicate that she’s in the General’s room.” That was most definitely not the answer he had expected. With a curious frown Luthor clicked off the intercom, staring at the door across the hall. Hmm. Well, this was interesting. And could possibly have brought yet another weakness to light. It didn’t matter where she was, quite honestly. In the end, it wouldn’t change the end game. He stalked over and pressed his hand against the crystal panel, a cat-like smile crossing his lips now that he knew were the mouse had hidden.
It didn’t light up, and the door didn’t open. Twice thwarted, Luthor was losing his patience; he had allowed Zod a modicum of privacy, making sure that only Zod, Mercy, and himself had access to this room. But all the panels in the facility were programmed to admit Luthor, so why wasn’t this one working?
Once again, he pressed his hand against it; once again, the panel still failed to light up. A tight rein on his building rage, Luthor stormed back to the intercom and called security again. “Run a diagnostic on the access panel for Zod’s room.”
A moment later, the intercom crackled with the answer. “Sir, our access to that panel is denied.”
Enough dawdling. Luthor headed up to the security center himself to sort it out. He quickly discovered that Zod had somehow altered the programming of the crystal panel. Evidently the General knew more about the technology than he’d let on, and his ‘adjustments’ had somehow gone unnoticed until now.
Balked at every turn, one nemesis loose in the world, the other foe’s child safe from him in his own lair, Luthor fumed quietly. This time, someone would pay for this. And let the chips fall where they may.
Batman listened intently to the message Oracle was relaying to him. So Superman was asking to put a few of the team on standby – which was sensible of him. He still wanted to handle this himself, again for perfectly understandable reasons, but he knew that Luthor likely had some nasty tricks up his sleeve and wanted to go in prepared. And if it looked like Superman was winning, they all knew Luthor wouldn’t hesitate to play all of them. Better to have potential backup waiting.
“He also asked if we could spare any personnel to keep watch on Las Vegas Medical’s ICU,” Oracle was saying, and only someone who knew Batman very well would have caught the wince within his silence.
Someone in Superman’s family was badly hurt, that much was clear and Bruce couldn’t help but wonder which it was. Not that there was a degree of difference in the outrage it would provoke. Blood relation had never been taken into account in Clark’s family. It was little surprise that Luthor would apply his hatred for the Man of Steel to the more vulnerable members of his family. Those were the kinds of tactics that infuriated Batman, drove him into an icy rage that only ever stopped just short of killing the perpetrator.
Knowing the Boy Scout, he was forcing himself to be noble and solemn as he prepared a counter-attack as well as the immediate rescue of his daughter, and feeling guilty because what he actually wanted to do, what any sane man would want to do in his place, was flash-fry Luthor with his heat vision, freeze the ashes into a solid mass, ball that up into something the size of a walnut, and throw it so hard it would achieve escape velocity.
All of that thought took place in an instant, even as Bruce spoke into the communicator. “Who volunteered for watch duty?” It went without saying that someone would; this was Superman they were talking about.
She gave him the code names for the Flash – and Wonder Woman. Interesting, that. Remembering his conversation with Lois before she and Clark had left for Nevada, he reasoned that this might just be the time to get things out in the open. In his own personal opinion, this had gone on for too long. Without another word, Bruce had made a beeline to corner Diana alone. Once he been sure that none of the others would observe the conservation, he had spoken to Diana, quietly, professionally, and without anything approached sarcasm or superiority in his voice. He could do that all too easily, be as clinically unemotional as was necessary at the time. And when he’d told her what he had observed, dissected the motives she kept concealed even from herself, he’d had to be that cold. The slightest hint of any tone would have completely negated the usefulness of his advice.
The discussion could have been an incendiary level of bad. After all, not even the Dark Knight would walk up to Wonder Woman and tell her, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s husband.” No, not a good idea at all. Might as well call her a harlot, and lift your chin for the punch that was going to carry you into orbit.
However, when he’d finished speaking, Diana had simply stared at him, blinked a few times, and then acknowledged his words with a silent nod of understanding. She wasn’t the type to try rationalizing or excusing her behavior; she was strong enough to see she’d been wrong, admit it, and change. That was a rarer kind of courage than the sort that all of them used when facing insurmountable odds.
Zod knew better than to reenter the facility by the same point from which he’d exited. His absence had to have been noticed by now, and soon the vermin below ground were not the only foes he would face. He would be safer in the lab, and he had business there that needed concluding.
Hovering above the facility, Zod located one of the air shafts and plunged straight down it. The ventilation grill at the bottom clattered to the ground as the General landed on his feet in the corridor.
Once again, he’d surprised security, and the thugs patrolling the hall turned to him with comical expressions of surprise. “You fools,” Zod snarled. “What I have done, the son of Jor-El could easily do. Set some of your number to guard all of the ventilation shafts. Immediately.” With those words he strode past them.
Or tried to. One of the men moved to block him. “Luthor gave us kryptonite,” he said, one hand already in his pocket.
Zod arched an eyebrow and sighed, conveying utter disdain. “Is that so? What a marvel. Let me assure you, it will be of no use to you against Kal-El if you are so slow to reveal it – and I strongly suggest that you do not warn him that you are carrying it first.” Once more, he tried to stalk past, and this time they didn’t challenge him.
He proceeded to his rooms, keeping a brisk pace without giving the appearance of fear. Tension seethed in the air, and Zod knew the final fight was imminent. He could feel battle-readiness ghosting like electricity across his skin, feel his mind sharpening down to the pure crystalline brilliance of strategy and counter-strategy. At last, after laboring in secret for so long, he faced open warfare again. The knowledge was exhilarating.
One more task needed to be completed, and Zod moved to take care of it. He arrived at his rooms to find them silent, and for a moment he wondered if Kala Kal-El had inadvisably left. But then he saw her.
She must have been exhausted, and little wonder, considering the trials she’d faced over the past few days. Waiting for him to return must have weighed upon her until her only thought was of sleep. What else could explain her decision to curl up crosswise upon his bed, the blankets he’d left precisely aligned now huddled around her in a kind of nest?
Zod disliked any infringement of his personal space, but now was not the time to remark on it. Furthermore, her decision to fall asleep where she had spoke of exactly the kind of trust he meant to cultivate. He did not approach any closer than the doorway before calling her name.
Kala looked up at him blearily. “Dru-Zod? You were gone longer than I expected. Did you find out…?”
“I had to go further to find the answers I sought,” he replied calmly. “Your mother lives, Kala Kal-El. She is in critical condition and her prognosis is uncertain, but as of this moment, she lives.”
She blinked at him, and those too-wide eyes lit up. Perhaps he had not realized well enough the effects of her earlier confrontation with Luthor before his leave-taking. Something seemed to be off in her usual behavior. As he was pondering this and unsure of how to react, Kala was off the bed and running to him. Zod managed not to flinch when she flung her arms around him in an exuberant hug. He did stiffen slightly, and she quickly released him, rubbing at her eyes. “Thank you, Dru-Zod. I … I cannot express how relieved I am to know it. But how did you discover this?”
Zod shrugged gracefully. “Once outside the facility, it was simple to locate the hospital to which she had been taken. Simple, at least, because my power of flight has finally returned. I was able to hover long enough to ascertain her specific location and listen to the doctors as they discussed her case.”
The way the girl stepped back and watched him spoke volumes as to her reaction upon this revelation. “You can fly? And you got out?”
Kala’s tone warned that he was on dangerous ground just now, so Zod answered simply, “Yes.”
Her eyes blazed, the fury in her flaring despite her state, and the girl switched back to English in the extremity of her anger. “And it never freaking occurred to you to take advantage of that? You could’ve gone right to my father and told him where I was! God, if you’re Krypton’s greatest strategist, no wonder the planet was doomed!”
In the face of this emotional outburst, Zod merely watched her, his expression cold and calm. In truth, it had not occurred to him to simply leave. Perhaps he had been too long a prisoner, to willingly walk back into this jail. Or perhaps he had too much unfinished business to take care of, all of it here. To realize such a thing about himself unnerved him, but he could not show that to the girl. He needed another reason to give her.
Fortunately he had them. “Firstly, Kala Kal-El, I have no reason to believe your father or brother would grant me a moment to speak before they attacked me with deadly force. And secondly, to do so would mean leaving you alone here even longer. Luthor is barred from entering these rooms, true, but he could dismantle the very walls given time and inclination. Let me assure you, he has the inclination.”
That silenced her, and Kala looked up at him, her eyes full of confusion. Her mind had been subject to powerful emotions for the past few minutes, and she was showing the strain. To push her much further could mean a final fall into madness, he knew, despite the strength of her personality. Zod took a single step closer and softened his voice ever so slightly. “I would not leave you to him, Kala.”
The proximity, the tone, and the familiar form of her name broke through the maelstrom of emotion that was tearing at her. A deep, shuddering breath escaped her as she struggled to regain any kind of ground she could have lost with her only ally. God, everything was so wrong. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She scrubbed at her eyes again, trying to get herself under control. Finally switching back to Kryptonese, she asked, “What must we do now?”
“Luthor has commanded the security staff to carry kryptonite. We must neutralize this threat to your father. Further, Kryptonian tradition demands retribution for the attempt on your mother’s life. Luthor must die.” He paused, and she nodded, her eyes wide. She was following his meaning quite well, comprehension secure in the way she was nodding. Heartened, Zod continued, “Your father and brother will not slay him. The duty falls to you, as her child, to avenge her.”
He watched as Kala swallowed, the assertion leaving her visibly shaken even as she agreed with this. “It is what she would do herself if she could, what she would want done. What she attempted to do to safe-guard our family. And you are correct, Father and Jason would never take a life.” She faltered then, her hazel eyes again gaining that lost light, “I know what must be done. I understand that. But … I do not know if I have the strength any longer…”
Zod was a military man, and knew how to recruit soldiers, how to take an ordinary independent person and turn them into something that would die for him or kill on his orders. First they had to be broken down, as Kala was broken now, exhausted and heartsick and unsure of themselves.
And then they could be rebuilt, to his specifications. All that was necessary was to inject some structure into the chaos the recruit found themselves in, and let that structure guide and shape the person they were becoming. In this case, it was even easier than before, as he had only the one person to focus on, and the image he wished to remake her in was his own.
Zod, who abhorred touch and scrupulously avoided contact, offered her his hands, palms upward. “Then borrow of my strength, Kala Kal-El, and make it your own, for if we are to succeed and survive, we must rely upon each other.”
Slowly, Kala nodded. She had been having nightmares of drowning again, of the cold saltwater invading her nose and throat after Luthor had shoved her off his kryptonite island. It had taken every ounce of her determination and courage not to break down crying for her parents to save her; being trapped here was a source of constant stress. Just to keep her mind intact was a daily battle, surrounded by enemies and powerless to stop Luthor from destroying her family.
Now, here was something she could do, someplace she could make a difference. To save them all from Luthor, to save herself and Dru-Zod too. The other Kryptonian was giving her exactly what she needed, offering her a hand to pull from the grasping waters of madness. Kala placed both hands in his, felt his steady grip curl around her fingers, and knew she was safe as long as she stayed by his side and followed his lead.
It felt like relief, not surrender, like carrying a heavy burden uphill only to have it lifted from her back by stronger hands. She sighed, feeling the tension in her shoulders finally relax. “And how shall we accomplish the death of our foe?” she asked, her eyes fixed on Dru-Zod’s.
He smiled, only faintly, but his pride in her courage showed and renewed her own sense of purpose.