With a variety of super-powers at their disposal, the League had already cleared both survivors and casualties from the Nevada site. There had been many more of the latter, but enough of the former to raise their hopes. “Unfortunately most of them have identified themselves as part of the security force,” Dinah was saying as they walked down the path cleared through the debris. “They’re all ex-cons with violent offenses on record, and their knowledge of the operation here amounts to nothing. Some type of research was going on involving crystals, that’s the most we’ve gotten.”
Kal-El breathed a small sigh of relief at that, and Dinah continued, “They also don’t seem to know a lot about the personnel. Most of them know about Luthor’s vendetta and his prior crimes, but they didn’t know who Zod was, just that he had some sort of powers and was important enough to Luthor to be beyond any retaliation. They also don’t seem to know anything about Kala, except that she injured several of them before Zod took her under his protection.”
It still made Kal-El queasy to think of his foe watching over his daughter, but the end result was that she hadn’t been harassed by Luthor’s goons. “At least he didn’t tell them all everything he knows about me.”
Dinah shook her head. “He never would. Knowledge is power, and his type doesn’t share power. If he told his henchmen, one of them would eventually leak it, and his advantage would be lost.”
Of course Kal-El knew that about Luthor, but it was a lot easier to be academic about what he would or wouldn’t do when it wasn’t your identity, your family, your entire life. “What about the crystals?”
“The place is riddled with them,” Dinah said. “Most of the doors had access panels made out of crystal. There’s a medical section with a huge crystal assemblage in it, which we’re guessing is some sort of diagnostic device – it’s in pieces now. We found a room full of crystal screens, which we assume was the surveillance center. But the part I think will interest you the most is right down here. We just uncovered it today; most of the explosives seemed set to destroy this specific area.”
The broad tunnel they’d been walking down ended with a vertical shaft, down which Kal-El carefully dropped. He found himself in much more cramped quarters, with fragments of crystal grating underfoot at each step. He had to crouch down to make his way to the end of the tunnel, and then the sight that met his eyes wrung a gasp from him.
The crystal console from the Fortress was still recognizable, even though the upper portion of it had been shattered by the collapsing roof. Kal-El had known Luthor had access to the information on the crystals, but to see such an essential component of the Fortress recreated here, in the monster’s lair, was still a blow to his psyche. Considering that he’s put the crystals to so much use here, I have no choice but to agree to Bruce’s plan. Luthor’s clearly several years ahead of what L-Tech actually markets, and if I want to keep him from monopolizing the technology, I have to hand it over to someone I trust.
They still hadn’t found Luthor himself, and Kal-El had already accepted the fact that his nemesis had probably made a clean escape. But I will never stop hunting him – and Lois has all sorts of information on L-Tech now. We’re closer to finding him and putting him away for good.
He remembered that Dinah was waiting above, and called out to her, “It’s what I hoped I wouldn’t find. Just a moment.” Kal-El nearly had to crawl to reach the console, and he carefully braced his shoulder against the roof before snapping a few crystals off the side. But when he reached inside to remove a knowledge crystal, his hand met only emptiness. A quick check with his x-ray vision revealed the rest were gone as well. Of course Luthor had moved those components before the showdown – he always had a backup plan, someplace to retreat to.
Dispirited, Kal-El worked his way back to Dinah’s side, ready to start his own stint as part of the recovery team. Dusting crystal fragments off his hands, he told her, “If you see Bruce before I do, tell him Wayne Tech can have everything they can salvage. There’s nothing left here for me.”
Nick should have known better than to show up like this, especially in light of his involvement with Kala, maybe even more so because he’d had a hand in Jason’s girlfriend being able to stow away. Really, he had been surprised when Sawyer had left the voicemail telling him when and where Kala’s family would arrive home. Maybe one of them approve, since she’d been willing to at least let him see the girl was safe. Weird that it was the cop, out of all the options, but maybe she felt duty-bound to tell him.
After the way things had gone the last time he’d encountered the extended family, Nick hung back. The twins’ three uncles, already present, had glanced in his direction when she had first approached and he saw the looks traded amongst them. That hadn’t been a real surprise; all three of them had close ties to Kala and had no real reason to trust him. He could understand that. Because of that, he stayed several feet behind them and kept his gaze on the gate ahead. Kala’s opinion was what mattered right now.
His nerves were like piano wire by the time the discussion between the three picked up in earnest. Checking his watch, Nick realized that it was nearly time. He had just made the decision to move in closer when someone ran past him to his left. What had to be a young man in a gray hoodie darted over to them. The boy’s hands were uncovered and he only knew one person it could be. Sebast. I should have known. Almost immediately on his walking up, the older men spotted him with grins. Immediately they began to harass him, Kala’s uncle Ron catching the top of the hood and shaking it. Something about hacking his hair off, it sounded like. Nick tried not to care about the ease and warmth with which the Latino boy was received. They’ve known him for two years and he’s not a threat. Get over yourself.
When the new arrivals deplaned, he quickly lost sight of the four of them in the crush. He was trying to spot her in the crowd, the sounds of over a dozen people having joyous reunions adding to the distraction. Once he managed to find his way through, he got a clear view just in time to see Sebast kiss Kala. A dull flush of anger crept up his neck at that, but he stifled it. Hard. She wasn’t even his girl, after all – they hadn’t really been dating before this, and after New Year’s Eve he didn’t know if she wanted to ever see him again. And besides, he knew Sebast was her best friend. Her gay best friend. Even if that kiss didn’t look particularly platonic at the moment.
He waited while Sebast shook her and cursed her, while Kala laughed and enjoyed it, and saw the moment when the Latino boy’s hoodie fell back. Kala stopped entirely then, yelping at the sight of his dramatically shortened hair and looking aggrieved. Sebast raked his hand through it. “I had to pretend to be Jason, so he could sneak out to look for you, and I couldn’t pass for him with my hair that long,” he heard him say in a voice that was trying for nonchalance.
Kala looked staggered this revelation, on the verge of tears. Over hair? Really? “Oh my God, Sebast. You cut your hair for me?” Nick gritted his teeth at that tone. It sounded like the kind of syrupy squeal you’d hear from a group of teenage girls looking at puppies in a pet shop window. Not something he would ever have expected to hear out of someone like her. Sebast said something half-sheepishly while Kala bit her lip and stroked the shorn locks.
Nick was getting a little impatient about then with all the lovey-dovey stuff, feeling like he really shouldn’t have shown up anyway. Most of the parents were drifting off, not paying a lot of attention to the kids in this relatively safe space. The only other person here he’d met more than once was Elise, and she was glued to Jason’s side. He was the outsider, the stranger, the one who didn’t belong, the idiot still trying to talk to a girl five years too young for him.
That was when Kala spotted him. For a moment their eyes met and they both froze. That piercing hazel stare had always transfixed him like that; Kala herself might be sixteen, but her eyes were timeless, at once new-minted and a thousand years old. Nick looked into them and saw surprise, anger, and confusion.
He was close enough, however, to hear Sebast say, “He was looking all over for you. That’s how your Aunt Maggie found him. And he helped me and Elise and Jason.” The younger boy’s voice was grudging but fair.
Nick approached her slowly, Kala watching his every move. “I owe you an apology,” he said quietly.
“You think so?” Kala asked, her voice neutral. She didn’t seem quite like the girl he’d known a scant week ago. Kala carried herself differently, she seemed more wary and less spontaneous – it seemed like she’d done a few years’ worth of growing up practically overnight. At the same time, the air of polished elegance she spent so much time cultivating was gone, leaving her seeming younger and more vulnerable.
“Yeah. I mean, it shouldn’t have gone that far. I was the one who was supposed to know what I was doing. I should’ve stopped it. So … I got too caught up. I’m sorry.” He gave a little shrug, rueful, worried about how she would react. The last time he’d seen her, she had looked terrified, bailing out of his car and running into the night. All because he’d been too swept away to pay attention to the time.
Kala was quiet a moment, just looking at him speculatively. And it was clear from the way she was worrying her lower lip that she was considering what she was going to say. He truly wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Then she took a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. Sighing out that breath, she gave him a small smile. “Nick, look. I’m in a kinda screwed-up place right now. A lot just happened and it’s probably going to take a little while to get my shit together. I liked you a lot. I would never have gotten into that car if I didn’t. I still do, but…” Kala heaved another heavy sigh. “But I’m not in a good place to try a relationship or anything. Things are going to be pretty weird for me for I don’t know how long, but I’m gonna try to get back to where I was. Feel like sticking around while I do that?”
For a second there he thought she was going to totally blow him off, which would’ve been understandable. It hurt more than he’d expected to think about, but he couldn’t say he wasn’t half-expecting it. The only reason he came here today was to give her the apology he owed her. Nick hadn’t expected anything more than that, certainly not that they’d pick up where they left off. “I’m not asking for anything from you,” he said, raising both hands to show his empty palms. “Except maybe the chance to do this right. I started out as the guy who made sure you didn’t ride the subway alone. Maybe I can still be that guy, only this time I’ll be the guy who’s met your family and your friends and your brother. Everything aboveboard and honest, no sneaking around like idiots. We were pretty good as friends – wanna try that?”
“Enough. You’re not a bad guy, Nick. You’re not the Big Bad Wolf and you didn’t attack me in the woods. Stop beating yourself up, okay? Two to tango.” Kala was smiling a little more now. “And I’d really like to try. A girl can never have too many friends. Or bodyguards.” Glancing over her shoulder at Elise and Sebast, she added, her tone grateful, “Besides, a little birdie just told me that you had a hand in The Great Escape. I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t helped Elise and Jase get on that plane, and they only managed that because you helped her and Sebast sneak in. I think that would earn you ‘friend’ status even if I didn’t already consider you one.” She paused for a minute then before leaning in to kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Nick.”
When she kissed him, he wrapped his arms around her – gently, so she could avoid it if she wanted to. She stiffened but didn’t pull away, so he held her tight for a long moment and whispered in her ear. “I was so worried about you, Kala. I didn’t know what was going on, and when someone finally told me … when they found me to tell me … I didn’t know what to think besides being scared half out of my mind.”
She hugged him back tightly before pulling away. “You weren’t alone. I didn’t know what was happening either. But you know what? I’m alive, I’m okay, and I’m not going to do anything that dumb again.”
“Good, because it’s totally out of character for a smart kid like you,” Nick retorted with that familiar wicked grin.
Richard saw Lana’s eyes narrow, and followed her gaze to Kala and Nick. She didn’t say anything about it, though by her expression there was going to be a Serious Family Discussion regarding the college boy at some point in the near future. That was fine by him – they needed to talk about Nick. So far as Richard was concerned, the boy had proven that his motives regarding Kala were, if not innocent, at least not wholly base. If Kala wanted to date him – and if the relationship could survive parental scrutiny – then Richard was willing to let her. What Lois and Clark had to say about it remained to be seen, but from her expression as she watched them Lana’s vote would be a decisive NO.
He also saw Jason and Elise draw away from the reunion in progress when Michelle almost ran them down to get to her daddy. Sensible kids, to get away from the stampede. The pair headed for a quiet space, which happened to be over by Richard himself. Richard grinned at them, shrugging lightly to bounce Kristin where she rode on his shoulders. “Don’t worry, one-third of the Terrible Trio is safely confined; you can only get trampled by two.” Kristin giggled at the reference. She, Bryan, and Michelle were all born within about a year, and tended to flock together in gatherings.
“Two’s enough,” Jason sighed, and Elise smiled wanly. This was a lot of noise and bustle after the past few days spent mostly in the company of the four parents.
“You guys ready to get out of here?” Richard said.
Jason shuffled his feet a little before he spoke. “Yeah, but … I want to walk Elise home. Well, you know, go with her on the subway. Her parents aren’t home yet and, well, I don’t want her to be alone. At least not ‘til she’s safely home. So…”
Elise snickered, and Richard smiled. Trust Jason to be thinking of others, even now. “We all should be getting home…”
His voice faltered, and he turned to Lana as he realized that the two of them couldn’t go home. He had no idea if the Metropolis police were finished processing their apartment, and even if they were, even if those horrible bloodstains had been cleaned away, could he really ask Lana to walk back into the place where she’d nearly died? The place where she’d taken another woman’s life, in defense of herself and their daughter? Could Lana ever walk into that kitchen again without remembering the blood and terror of that day?
She took his hand, her green eyes perfectly steady. “Richard, we probably can’t go home yet. And even when we get the all clear, the carpets will have to be replaced, the walls will have to be repainted… We’ll have to hire a professional cleaning service.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, peripherally aware that Jason and Elise had both gone pale with the reminder. They hadn’t even seen the carnage, had only heard about it, but it was still vivid in their minds from the description.
“I will not let Luthor drive me out of my home,” Lana said, and in her voice was the steel so rarely glimpsed beneath her gracious exterior.
Jason spoke up then. “You guys can stay at our place, you know. We’ll have to shuffle around a bit, but I’d rather have you all there instead of worrying about you staying in a hotel. I bet Kala would rather have you there, too, especially with how Little K wants to cling right now. And you know Dad would insist. Mom would, too.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Richard replied, feeling quite the same way. Safety in numbers had worked out pretty well for them thus far, even until they were sure Luthor was no longer a threat. “I also think you accompanying Elise home is a good idea. We’d like to keep her around a while.” He shot her a grin then, trying to take some of the bite out what he knew her parents were going to do next.
Elise returned it, even if it looked a rough around the edges at the reminder. “You might not get that if I go home, but hey.” She glanced up at Jason with something that couldn’t be misconstrued as anything other than love. Jason returned it just as strongly. “He’s worth it. Both he and Kala are, really. Just don’t tell her I said that.”
With laughter and thanks all around, Elise made them promise to keep her updated on Lois, and the two kids headed off, Richard watching them go with interest. Elise was surely going to be grounded for disobeying her parents, so this was likely the last quality time Jason would get with her for a long while.
He didn’t worry about sending the two teens off alone. While searching for Kala, there simply hadn’t been enough time or energy to spend on Jason and Elise. All four of the parents had treated the two teenagers like adults, expecting them to pull their own weight during the search as much as possible and keep out of the way when they couldn’t do so. The pair had reacted by behaving as adults, proving themselves worthy of the trust bestowed on them.
“It’s going to be a bit difficult for them to remember how to be kids again,” Lana remarked quietly as Jason and Elise disappeared into the stream of people in the main hall, her mind running along the same track as Richard’s.
“But a relief after all of that, I think,” he replied, and squeezed her good hand lightly. He turned to check on the other kid, and saw Kala standing next to Nick, looking up at him. Apparently their reunion had gone well, since she hadn’t beaten him up. Sebast was standing a little to one side, his shoulders tense, clearly casting a disapproving eye on the proceedings. Richard decided to put an end to that before the overprotective best friend attacked the big bad college boy. “Come on, let’s separate Kala and Nick before Sebast throttles him.”
“I want Lo-Lo and Daddy Clark,” Kristin said as he moved.
“Lo-Lo had to go to the doctor, sweetheart, and Daddy Clark is busy,” Lana soothed her. “But we’ll see him tonight, and I’ll take you to see her tomorrow, okay?”
Kristin sighed at the inconvenience, getting grins from both parents.
Getting settled into Met Gen was actually a lot easier once Lois fainted in the lobby. It hadn’t been expected in the least, Lois managing to keep it together until her body just decided it had had enough of her shenanigans and made her light-headed just as they came in the automatic doors to Admitting. She never even knew what hit her after the strong spike of pain in her side. Lois was in a state of utter confusion when she regained consciousness just as an orderly lifted her into a wheelchair; unfortunately from her perspective it felt like a strange man picking her up, and she lashed out with her unaffected elbow to his temple before her eyes were even open. An after-effect of a week with her and her family’s lives constantly on the line. Sadly, the young man had no idea of this when he had picked her up. Cat and Tobie, caught between hilarity and horror, had to get her into the chair while Kay and Laurel apologized profusely.
Paperwork was filled out and phone calls were exchanged between Las Vegas Medical Center and Metropolis General, bringing everyone up to speed. Soon enough Lois found herself in another hospital bed, once again glaring at the IV line through which a cocktail of medicines was currently being delivered. Antibiotics, something for the pain, and she suspected a mild sedative by the heaviness of her eyelids. Normally, she’d be crabbing, but even she had to admit that she was down for the count now. Not that she’d ever say it out loud. She was back home, on her own turf, with both threats removed from their power. Rest was an option again. “You’re going to stay here until they tell you it’s safe to leave, all right?” Laurel was saying, arms crossed defiantly. “You lost a damn kidney, it’s not like a sprained ankle you can just walk off. Enough already. Or we’ll rat on you to Clark.”
“And if you leave against orders again, I’ll tell the doctors to tie you to the bed and leave Tobie to watch over you. Just Tobie,” Cat teased, waggling a blonde eyebrow salaciously. Tobie elbowed her while Lois sneered and Kay looked away to hide her amusement.
Despite the relaxation spreading through her veins, she had a façade to maintain. That and she was starting to wish they would just stop so she could sleep. A nap was definitely in order. “What part of ‘I’ll be fine’ do you guys not get?” Lois groused.
“We’re counting on it,” Tobie told her quietly, the look on her face frank with her worry of the last few days. When everyone looked at her, surprised by the sincerity in her voice, the Star editor switched gears in an instant and explained, “It’s your turn to buy lunch this Friday, Lane.”
At that, all of them laughed, even Lois. She wasn’t sure when the sedative kicked in, but at least this time the laughter that followed her into unconsciousness was loving and well-intentioned.
Jason and Elise made it to her parents’ apartment without any trouble. He’d been vigilant the entire time, eyeing everyone who came within a dozen yards of them. Elise couldn’t help grinning a little; he looked a lot like a dog with its hackles up, bristling with adrenaline. It was sort of sweet, in a way, how protective he was. Given that he can probably throw a taxi at anyone who tries to mess with us, it should be scary, but this is Jason. I could never be scared of him.
Once inside the apartment, though, they were at a loss. Jason lingered, not wanting to leave, and Elise didn’t want him to go. The close quarters of the time in Nevada made being alone anywhere a little daunting. Not to mention, being back together, only to be separated, wasn’t making them in any hurry to part. “Hang out for a second while I call my parents and tell them I’m alive?” she said hopefully, stalling.
“Sure,” he told her, and sat down on the couch while she made the call.
It was, as expected, not exactly pleasant. Jason tried not to overhear, but Elise’s harried tone was too obvious to ignore. “Yes, I’m inside with the door locked, and I’ll stay right here until you get home tomorrow morning. Yes, you can call any time. Yes, I have enough stuff for dinner. I’ll be fine, Dad, really. I know I’m already grounded.” She paused, and then sighed aggravatedly. “Look, I knew I was going to get grounded when I went to Nevada! I always knew I was going to get caught and punished. The point is, it was important. Kala needed me, it turned out even her parents needed my help. So I’m gonna take my punishment and deal with it. That’s fine. It was worth it.” A few more words, and then she hung up, burying her face in her hands.
“Dad won’t forget,” Jason said quietly, rubbing her shoulder. “He’ll make sure to thank them. A visit from Superman tends to impress.”
Elise chuckled weakly. “Yeah, I bet.”
“Besides, you’re right and everyone else in the family would agree. We did need you. I needed you. And now that you know the truth, we’re always going to have your back, just like you have ours. And I don’t think anyone would argue that you’re a good addition to the team. Thank you for coming with me. I couldn’t have done this without you.” Jason pulled her in for a hug, and Elise leaned against him, accepting the comfort gratefully.
Neither of them pulled away, just leaning on each other, and after several long moments Jason kissed her cheek. Elise smiled and drew back just enough to kiss him. Slow, careful, and thorough, eyes half-closed so she could catch glimpses of the intensity on his face, and after a few minutes she whispered against his lips, “You don’t have to leave right away, you know. I know you have to get back, you should get back, but…”
“I hate the thought of leaving you here alone,” he whispered, running his fingers through her hair between kisses.
“We won’t be able to see each other for a while.” That was the last whispered justification. Jason had just enough time to think that he should’ve known better in his relationship with Giselle, kissing her had never felt this right, and then coherent thought blissfully drifted away for a while.