Mercy had found Luthor not far from the plateau. He was dazed from the explosion, and rather than try to escape right then she had merely sought to conceal them both from prying eyes. There was no point in moving during the heat of the day. Not only was the desert landscape dangerously hot, even in January, but the entire area was crawling with searchers. It would be much easier to move undetected at night, and though the desert grew bone-chillingly cold once the sun was down, activity would help keep them warm.
So instead of heading right for the road, she’d coaxed Luthor along the bottom of a rocky arroyo that angled off in the opposite direction. Mercy had explored this terrain in her free time; the stark landscape appealed to her. The desert scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, but for the unwary, such a breath could easily be the last. That combination of magnificence and menace drew her to seek out its secrets.
And one of those secrets was a small cave high on the wall of the arroyo, out of reach of all but the most devastating flash floods. Luthor had recovered enough to understand her plan as soon as she pointed out the cave opening. It was just barely wide enough for one of them to slip through at a time, and the chamber itself had less space than the interior of a compact car. Not comfortable quarters, but with Mercy’s camouflage pack blocking the opening except for an air hole, it was nearly invisible.
Her pack was a Camelbak, which had an integrated water storage system with a tube they could drink from. It held sufficient water to keep one person hydrated for a day, easily enough to keep them both safe until nightfall, especially since they were out of the sun and wind.
As she and Luthor lay side by side, occasionally sipping water, they’d heard four search parties sweep through the area. In the near-perfect darkness of the cave, they couldn’t share a worried glance, but Mercy had felt the tension in Luthor’s body, and he had heard her breathing speed up. They hadn’t dared talk, just waited. Either they wouldn’t be found, in which case they would keep waiting, or they would be. If they were found, they would decide whether to fight or not based on who discovered them. Cops they could fight; Mercy herself could take down three or more fit, armed men in seconds. But if they were heroes, well, some odds were simply too long, and it wasn’t worth getting injured or humiliating themselves.
Finally, the little sliver of light coming in through the gap beside the pack began to darken. Mercy sighed with relief, and Luthor touched her arm once, in silent agreement. It would be very nice to get out of here and…
…from somewhere above them came the crunching of footsteps on loose pebbles. “He’s out here somewhere,” a voice said, harsh and cold. More footsteps, three or four people. Luthor was tense again; the voice had sounded familiar. Not like one of the cops, more like a hero with vengeance on the mind.
They waited for that group to pass by, and prudently waited some more. Sure enough, another search party passed by, this time walking along the floor of the arroyo. One of them stopped so close to the cave opening that they could hear the man swallow as he drank from his water bottle.
Evidently the searchers knew Luthor had been in the facility until just before it self-destructed, and since they hadn’t found his corpse, they were searching diligently. Mercy and Luthor thought the same thing at the same time: New plan, sit tight until dawn. Until tomorrow night, if necessary. Not comfortable, not easy, but certainly doable.
The sun went down swiftly in the mountainous desert, and the gap beside Mercy’s pack had gone from a bright spot to merely a lighter gray area in the blackness around her. Still, she noticed when it abruptly winked out. Perhaps the searcher’s shadow blocked it … but no, she hadn’t heard footsteps. So what could be blocking her view? The gap was no more than ten inches from her right hand, she could reach out and feel, but she didn’t dare make a move. If they could hear the searcher swallowing, he might hear the tiny scrape of skin on stone.
She got her answer as something warm and smooth touched her hand, sliding across the back of her knuckles. Outside, the searcher moved on, but now Mercy had another reason not to move. Something sleek and firm slid against her forearm, catching slightly on the cuff of her sleeve, then continuing down along her arm to her side. Mercy felt it pressing against her armpit, snuggling close to her warm body.
After a long moment, the gap reopened, and the weak light revealed the back half of the snake that had crawled into the cave with them. It held the last two inches of its tail loft, and Mercy knew perfectly well what sort of snake did that.
“Mercy,” Luthor whispered questioningly, his voice softer than the faint breeze picking up outside.
“Rattlesnake,” Mercy breathed.
“If this is an elaborate plot devised by Luthor to drive me completely out of my mind with sheer boredom, it’s working.”
Lois was lying back in the bed, a thunderous expression on her face. Forced stillness was wearing on her even in the face of continued pain from her wounds. There was nothing she could do to make life easier for the rest of the family and they were still here because they were waiting for her to be fit to travel. Jason had informed her that Kala was having persistent night terrors. And she had just been forced to submit to her second sponge bath since she had woken from the coma and it was just one too many as far as she was concerned. The immediate threat posed by Luthor over, her children retrieved, Lois Lane was more than ready to be back on her own turf. “I can only sleep fifteen hours straight a couple of times. I need up, I need out of this bed, I need to be doing something. I mean it, Clark. If I have to lay in a damn bed, I can at least do it in Metropolis. Hell, I promise to even stay in the damn hospital without complaining; I just want to get all of us home.”
Her husband had been seeing all the signs before now and understood what her real anxiety was over. The longer they stayed in Las Vegas, the longer all of them would be haunted by the last few days. Especially Kala. “That’s exactly what I wanted to plan out today,” he told her soothingly, taking her hand. “All of us need to be getting home soon. And getting the others home, too.” Everyone had gathered in Lois’ hospital room for this discussion – and partly to distract her from her growing frustration.
Lois gave him a frustrated sigh, then glared at the IV line as if it had personally offended her. “Well, great. Can we get on with it? I’m so sick of this damn desert. No wonder I always avoid this place.”
“Even you need time to heal, Lois,” Clark chided, giving her a reproachful look. “The last thing I want is for you to push yourself too hard, too fast. We got too close to losing you once already. I want my wife in one piece for a very, very long time.”
Not even Lois could argue with that. But she just couldn’t give up without one more potshot. “Yeah, well, you and I both know that the only time I enjoy spending the entire day in bed is when you’re in it with me, and that’s out via doctor’s orders,” she muttered, smirking at him. The kids all winced, Kala sticking her fingers in her ears; it was very clear that they thought it was the pain medication had loosened Lois’ tongue, rather than a need to startle her husband.
Richard cut in as Clark gave his wife an astounded look. “You’re not alone, Lois. Just be glad we’re even discussing you transferring to Metropolis. What we really ought to do is sedate you senseless and leave you here until the doctor says it’s safe for you to travel.”
“Yeah, you try that, flyboy,” Lois growled in mock-annoyance, tossing a small box of tissues at him. She was getting her way, from the sounds of things. She could afford to lighten up. “See where it gets you.”
The threat didn’t faze him, especially since Lois was still walking slowly and deliberately when she was out of bed. “Anyway, some of us have businesses to run, kids and dogs to retrieve, that kind of stuff.”
“Not to mention getting back in time for school, too,” Elise said, and Jason looked at her in surprise. Everyone had lost track of time while the hunt for Kala had raged on. “Winter break’s almost over, you know.”
Lois glanced at her daughter then, her expression growing a trifle worried. “Well, maybe not all of you. Kala, maybe…”
Kala, perched on the end of Mom’s bed, made her thoughts on that known immediately. “Uh-uh. No way. I’m going back to school on time and trying to act like everything is fine. After the BS Giselle spread, it’s the only way I can possibly repair my reputation.” At the mention of the girl he had thought he had known, Jason looked away, more than a little ashamed. Elise just squeezed his hand.
Lana spoke up gently, taking the girl’s hand. “Sweetheart, I think your mom’s a little more worried about stress than your reputation.”
Kala met her gaze, considering, then turned to her mother. If she were honest with herself, there was nothing more she wanted to do than to hide away from most of what had happened and not think about it. Not dwell on it. But it wasn’t an option for her. If she ignored it, it wasn’t like it was going away. So there was only one choice here. And she knew it. “Okay, then, so what’s the alternative? I sit home and brood about this? For how long? It’s not going to magically fix things. No thanks. I’ll take school to burying my head in the sand. At least I’ll be able to focus on doing something, getting on with my life. My mom won’t give up just because of a few stumbling-blocks; why should I?” That earned her a beaming smile from Lois that warmed the girl from head to toe. She couldn’t help but grin back.
Ten years of shared parenting duties allowed Richard, Lana, Clark, and Lois to come to an agreement in one swift set of glances. “Kala’s right. That might be for the best,” Clark finally said. “But you’re also going to need to see Dr. Marrin again, munchkin. And a few more family conferences might be in order as well.”
The idea didn’t exactly thrill Kala, but Dad had a point. Maybe it would make things a little easier. Even if it had to be Mom’s zillion-year-old ex that did the head-shrinking. At least she knew how to by-pass the secret with him. “No argument here, I guess. I think it’s safe to say that nobody wants a repeat of New Year’s Eve, least of all me.”
“Let’s put it this way, baby. You’re not the only one who could use some professional assistance. And you won’t be the only one dealing with Elliot,” Lois said, smiling sadly at her husband. They had already privately agreed to seek marriage counseling, as difficult as it would be with the things they couldn’t confide in even the most discreet therapist.
Clark patted the back of her hand. “Lois, we’ve got our priorities right again – that’s the biggest step in the right direction already accomplished. We’ll be fine.”
“I’ll already be seeing a physical therapist, so what’s one more? Yay!” Lois sighed, lifting her right hand. At the moment she couldn’t raise it above shoulder-height, or clench her fist tightly and, even then, it gave her considerable pain. That was going to be damned annoying until she got back the full use of her arm. To say the least.
“It’s not as though you’ll be going alone, you know,” Lana told her pointedly, to which Lois nodded. There was going to be an interesting few months ahead of all of them. With that, the group fell to discussing logistics of the various necessary journeys. They had one pilot, one superhero, and plenty of people to move – most without frequent flyer miles. In the midst of their planning, Lois’ cell phone rang, which Richard adroitly answered. “Lane-Kent war room, Lieutenant White speaking… Well, hi… You’re where? … Oh, well maybe we shouldn’t have kept you that updated… I’m just yanking your chain, Tobe… She’s in the VIP suite. There’s a cop at the door, but you’re just naturally good with cops.” He snickered at the angry cursing on the other end of the line, and hung up with a wicked grin.
Lois had been watching him mistrustfully throughout with one eyebrow raised. “What?”
“Oh, nothing. Just that the cavalry is on its way. Somewhere along the line we mentioned which hospital you were in, and your girls decided to fly out here. Tobie and Cat are switching planes as we speak. They’ll be here in a couple hours.” Richard leaned back with a smug smirk.
Lois hadn’t expected that news – but she should have. In spite of all the arguing, the three women always drew together in the face of adversity. She and Cat had gone to Tobie’s father’s funeral to help her lay old demons to rest; she and Tobie had staged the intervention that had been the first big step toward Cat getting and staying sober. Now the pair of them were determined to be here at her side … and she could use that, especially in light of the most recent message from Laurel. A plan began to evolve in Lois’ crafty mind, as the rest of the talk turned to getting everyone else home.
Once their plans had been finalized, there had been no more reason to linger. Only Lois and Clark were left in Las Vegas now, while Richard piloted himself, Lana, and the three kids to Smallville. He could’ve flown back to Metropolis without stopping overnight in Kansas – only a couple hours away, it wasn’t even a necessary fuel stop – but that would mean an extra day of separation from Kristin. Besides, the family in Smallville deserved to see Kala whole and well after the stress they’d been through. Furthermore, if he flew there, he could leave the seaplane docked at the lake he landed on, and rent a larger craft to ferry the whole family home at once. It was what they’d originally planned to do, before he and Lana had decided to run off to Las Vegas with a couple of stubborn teenage stowaways.
The flight itself was almost perfect, and Kala dozed off in one of the comfortable seats. She’d been napping on and off, but sudden sounds startled her awake, and she always seemed to wake up primed to fight. Jason kept a wary eye on her, always ready to soothe her when she snapped awake with that haunted expression.
They landed just outside Smallville to find Martha waiting with the old farm truck. Just that look of heartbreak on her grandmother’s face had Kala in tears when she walked up to her. Idiot. You didn’t even think what running away would do to her and Grandpa Ben. They could have had a heart attack. You need to think before you fly off the handle. Haunted by the thought, Kala hugged her tighter. Martha held Kala for a long, long moment, stroking her granddaughter’s hair, and not even trying to hold back the tears trickling down her face. She said nothing; no words needed to be said. Only once she stepped back from the girl did she say in a husky voice, “Come on, let’s get back.”
Kala, Jason, and Elise rode in the back of the truck for the short journey to the Kent farmhouse. As soon as Martha turned into the dooryard, pandemonium broke loose. Melodious howls from the house and yard made it sound as if Ben raised gigantic bloodhounds instead of petite beagles, and before the truck had even stopped a pack of the dogs had gathered around, baying excitedly. Elise looked alarmed at the sheer volume of noise, but Jason just rolled his eyes and yelled, “Hush!”
That worked for most of them, the hounds subsiding to whimpers, but one dog suddenly screamed as if in mortal pain. Martha’s face went white as she got out of the truck, certain she’d accidentally run over one of the dogs – all the beagles were car-wise and knew not to venture into the road or to approach any vehicle too closely, but in the excitement…
Still shrieking in sheer glee, Bagel did her best to scale the tires toward Jason’s voice. He and Kala quickly jumped down from the truck bed to soothe her, but she kept up her crying as she leaped up to lick them both. Elise couldn’t help laughing at the spectacle, especially when Dusty started howling at his owners as they got out of the truck. Surrounded by a throng of delighted dogs, Martha could only catch Elise’s eye and sigh heavily. “You can’t feel unappreciated with hounds in the house – but a word of advice, my dear. Never marry a beagler.”
The family was pouring out of the house in the wake of the dogs, and Kristin made a beeline for her mother. Lana swept her up and kissed her, only to have Kristin start to struggle a moment later, stretching her arms to Richard. Once she’d snuggled both parents, she scrambled out of their arms and went straight for Kala.
The black-haired girl was already half-kneeling, trying to keep half a dozen beagle tongues off her face, when Kristin launched at her. She was knocked sprawling, Kristin hugging her and yelling her name. Again with the tears. Oh God, she had missed her baby sister. “Little K, Little K,” Kala laughed, squeezing her tight.
“You left me!” Kristin yelled, her face red and streaked with tears. Kala couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the little one like this. “An’ then Daddy Clark and Lolo left, and Mommy and Daddy left, and Jason an’ Elise left, and I had t’ come to Grandma’s house, all ‘cuz you left! And you scared everybody! Why, Kala, why?”
Why, indeed? Because of a stupid rumor, because of the momentary melodramatic belief that everyone in the family hated her and would be better off without her? It was easy to read the answer in the Dormouse’s face. “Teenagers are dumb sometimes, Little K,” Kala tried to explain, tears of her own welling up.
Kristin sniffled angrily. “I’m never growin’ up.”
That statement was greeted by relieved laughter as the family came back together. There were still many individual reunions and a couple of scoldings to be had – Lucy was already eyeing Jason – as well as news to share and plans to make, but for the first time it felt like everything was really going to be all right.
Back at the hospital, Lois made it clear she wasn’t going to stay a moment longer than she had to since her girls were on the way. In short order, she had cajoled Clark into agreeing with her plans before harassing the nurses into removing her IV lines. Getting out of bed and staying upright had been another hurdle to execute.
“I am not staying in bed,” she growled under her breath, and let go of the chair she’d used to stand, attempting to walk to the window.
For a few steps she was all right, but her attempt to move with her customary confidence and vitality caused a twinge in her shoulder and a warning ache in her side. Both pains at once cut her stride short, and Lois stumbled. Clark was right there, catching her elbow to hold her upright. “Take it easy.”
“I don’t know the meaning of the phrase.” Lois smirked as she said it, and held onto him for a moment before letting go gently and trying again.
“I could bring you a dictionary,” Clark offered, moving to catch her again when she laughed and almost tripped. Her only answer was a smile, grateful that he alone was witnessing her weakness.
Clark stood back and watched with a calculating eye as Lois made her way around the room, more and more confidently. She wasn’t up to full steam yet, still moving a bit gingerly, but she was clearly getting steadier on her feet rather than wearing herself out. A little smile played about his lips; of course Lois throve on long odds and challenge. If it was medically impossible for her to be up and walking with those injuries, then she was determined to get up and run.
“All right, love. I’m convinced.” That got him a winning grin and a kiss before he set out to fetch her clothes. He paused in the corridor; the ones she’d been wearing had been cut off in the emergency room. Even if they hadn’t been, the fabric was too deeply blood-stained to ever be wearable again. Realizing that gave him a chill; it had been so close this time. Instead he headed over to the hotel to get her suitcase.
He leaned against the door while she got dressed; that was further proof of her self-sufficiency, and though she was slow without the full use of her hand, Lois managed it. Only once she was out of the detested hospital gown and into one of her suits did Clark force himself to face the truth: she was really going to do this. They would really be separated, probably for most of the next day.
“We both know I’d rather be with you,” Clark murmured as Lois adjusted her cuffs. She hadn’t bothered to take off the plastic hospital bracelet yet, not having scissors or a knife to cut it off with, and just shoved it up her sleeve for now.
The smile that she gave him then proved just how determined she was to get things back to normal. “It’s okay, honey. I’d rather you were looking for that rat-bastard. Actually, I’d feel a lot better about everyone on the move with you looking for him. That’s what I want. And I’ll be fine with Cat and Tobie. There’s not that much trouble that I can get into with only a non-stop flight home. The wardens will make sure of that. Not to mention the fact that I’m good and medicated right now. It’s only a few hours. I’ll see you at the hospital tonight, okay?”
“Just be safe,” he sighed, and tilted her chin up for a kiss.
Her smile grew impish just before their lips met. “I’ll try. No promises. Trouble finds me, remember?”
What had been planned as a quick kiss quickly became more than an affectionate peck, especially with the recent reminder of their mortality. Lois lost herself in his arms, stretching up on tiptoe to kiss him and run the fingers of her good arm through his hair. It was a little awkward, her bum arm still at her side, but they managed with his arm around her waist. The rest of the world gradually disappeared, the pair of them concentrating only on each other and the first real time they’d had alone together since Lois had been shot. For this one moment, it was just the two of them…
Only they weren’t as alone as they thought. “Well, it’s nice to see the both of you getting along again,” Lois and Clark heard Tobie crack from the doorway. “Good thing we’re in a hospital, in case you choke the poor man with your tongue.”
The pair of them pulled away from each reluctantly, Lois rolling her eyes with great drama at the Star reporter. “Yeah, good to see you too, Raines. And you’re just jealous you don’t get goodbyes like this. You really ought to talk to Maggie about it.”
“Who says I don’t?” Tobie challenged smugly, crossing her arms.
At that, Cat elbowed her in the side and went over to hug Lois gingerly. “Oh, Lo, never mind her. We both know she worried about you, that’s why she’s being such a pain. Some things never change.”
Hugging the blonde back, Lois smirked affectionately at her fellow newshound over Cat’s shoulder. “I know. And I forgive her for it. God knows I’m used to it.” Tobie could only smirk back.
Clark couldn’t resist smiling at their antics; the peculiar dynamics of Lois’ friendships had always left him bemused. “Ladies, I’m going to trust you to get Lois safely to Met Gen.”
“You’re not coming back with us?” Cat asked, her brow furrowed.
“I still have to give a statement to the police, and wrap up a few other things.” He and Lois had decided to use that excuse to cover for his rendezvous with the JLA. Now that the rest of the family was heading home, he couldn’t resist the pull of duty. The Luthor fiasco was his mess, and it went against every instinct for him to allow anyone else to clean it up.
Since Lois was fine with that, neither Cat nor Tobie questioned it. With another kiss, a hug, and still another kiss from his wife, Clark left. Lois headed for the nurses’ station to sign herself out, trailed by her two best friends. As she was transferring to another hospital, she didn’t get much argument about leaving.
Only once they were on the shuttle to the airport did Tobie and Cat simultaneously lean forward to transfix Lois with identical calculating stares. “Dish, Lane. I know you’ve got something up your sleeve,” the brunette said.
Lois grinned. “Well, we’re going to Met Gen just like I told everyone … just not right away. I got this message from my secretary…”