It's that time again! :D
Jhan-Or lingered after a meeting of the Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Expansion, and Kal-El hung back as well. The elder Kryptonian had given no sign that he particularly wanted to speak to him, but then Kal-El knew that so experienced a politician would not show his hand readily.
His suspicions were confirmed when Jhan-Or turned to him with the faintest suggestion of a smile. “So, I presume you are interested in furthering our discussion?”
“Of course,” Kal-El replied.
“Very well. To summarize: all but four humans are currently under the guardianship of members of the Society. We are in touch with the hosts of the remaining four, and their situations are at least comfortable, if not ideal. All of our humans now have Earth-style beds and clothing for their comfort, though they understand the necessity of conforming to Kryptonian customs in public. Most importantly, all of our humans have freedom of movement, and there have been no incidents that would give the Council probable cause to revoke the privilege. We have accomplished much in a short time.”
“As you said during the meeting,” Kal-El said. “What of the ultimate goal?”
Jhan-Or raised a skeptical brow. “Of what ultimate goal do you speak?”
“The one which we discussed without discussing,” Kal-El said. He hated the way suspicion forced him to talk in circles; it was his nature to be honest and forthright. But even he knew that to speak openly of freeing the humans was unwise beyond all measure.
Sighing, Jhan-Or looked at him for a long moment before answering. “I did remark that patience was necessary to this venture. Kal-El, the progress made in that direction will by necessity be glacial. To act too late is to lose a little time; to act too soon is to lose all.”
“You are correct, of course.” Crestfallen, Kal-El could not help feeling a tiny flare of resentment. What was being done to Lois and her people was an injustice, and the knowledge of it—the complicity in it—chafed at him daily. Much as he enjoyed her company, he was never unaware that Lois was here under duress, and if he was not resolute the knowledge would cast a pall of his every interaction with her.
Chastened, he and Jhan-Or spoke of less volatile things for a short time to explain their tardiness if questioned. Specifically they discussed the issues regarding a few of the humans who were proving quite timid. Exposure to their bolder brethren did not seem to lessen their fears, only making them more wary. Kal-El resolved to discuss the matter with Lois. Surely her insight would be of assistance.
He arrived home with that thought in mind, and immediately sought out Lois. She didn’t come to greet him as she usually did, and he found her in the solarium, with a worried—and worrying—lost expression on her face. Kal-El had to call her name to get her attention.
Lois sat up straighter, startled and wide-eyed for a moment, and then stood up to come to him with a tense smile. “Hello, Kal-El. Sorry, I was lost in thought for a minute there.”
“It did not seem a pleasant thought in which to be lost,” Kal-El remarked, wrapping his arms around her in a hug. He had noticed the humans always hugged one another on meeting, assumed it was a greeting between friends, and promptly adopted it. After the first few times, it felt completely natural to embrace her, and in fact Kal-El had grown to enjoy it.
A part of him knew it was intolerable intimacy. He could not imagine behaving so familiarly with anyone else—the idea of hugging his mother, or Lyla Ler-Ol, was ludicrous. This was only for Lois, and only because she was human, because the closeness was normal for her species. Never mind that it was decidedly abnormal for his, or that he would miss the contact if she chose to stop. Some deeply-buried instinct in Kal-El had recognized the protective, affectionate nature of the gesture, and had adopted it as shorthand for everything he felt toward Lois.
Lois pressed her cheek against his shoulder, still tense and unhappy. “What is wrong?” Kal-El asked gently, pulling back just enough to make her look up at him.
“Do you know what day it is?” she whispered, her brow furrowed. Such clear turmoil in her hazel eyes, for once not trying to hide her distress.
He knew the date by Kryptonian reckoning, of course, but he paid little attention to the Earth date. “No, I am afraid I do not. Is this day of some significance?”
Lois laughed, a short , choppy sound as she began to fidget with a strand of her black hair. His heart went out to her, though he still didn’t understand. “No. No significance at all. It’s two weeks ago that was important.” With that she broke away from him, pacing.
Kal-El knew her well enough now to know that the pacing was a sign of stress and turmoil. Lois could not contain tension or frustration; she had to express those feelings with physical movement. Kal-El did not try to restrain her, merely positioning himself so that he could keep watch over her. “What important event occurred two weeks ago?” he asked.
Again that ugly, pained laugh, now combined with a telling stricken expression washing over her features. “My birthday. I’m seventeen now. And I didn’t even know until my father wished me a belated birthday over the videoconference. I didn’t even know it was October! I had no idea I’d been here that long.”
Birthdays among humans were quite different from the solemn days of reflection celebrated on New Krypton, and Kal-El was chagrined that he had neglected to learn Lois’ birth date and prepare something for her. Gifts were traditional, he seemed to remember, along with the consumption of sweet confections called ‘cake’. Perhaps, if he were quick, he could mitigate her dismay. “Forgive me, Lois, I was unaware.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said, with a slashing gesture of one hand meant to cut off further apologies and attempts at mollification. It had been some time since he’d seen that look of frustrated helplessness, a sight he had hoped to never seen again. “I just … God. I’ve…Dammit, it’s starting to happen. I’m losing track of time. It’s been months since I hugged my sister, or sat down in a classroom, or broke curfew, or ate a pizza…. And my Mom… Dammit.” Lois was biting her lower lip then, her struggle to keep her emotions in check impossible to hide.
Her train of thought was heading in a morose direction, and Kal-El loathed seeing her miserable. He approached her as she paced ceaselessly, and placed himself so that she would have to stop to keep from running into him. “Lois. It saddens you to dwell on such things. We have no control of time, you and I, and your sorrow is poignant.” He did not say, Your loneliness drives me mad with frustrated compassion, and your grief causes me to make foolish plans, the sort of plans that would have me swiftly imprisoned by the Supreme Chancellor.
Lois looked up at him, blinking in surprise, and he wondered if perhaps she saw some of what he did not say. “You’re right. It just … it hurts. But you’re right.”
It hurts. Such simple words, but they summed up her situation and his perfectly. She was wounded in a way he could not heal, and the knowledge of it wounded him in turn. All Kal-El could do was ask, “Would it alleviate your dismay by some tiny fraction if we celebrated your birthday this evening?”
Again, that startled blinking. He had obviously surprised her. The corners of Lois’ mouth turned up ever so slightly. “What did you have in mind?”
“I might, given a little time, be able to procure ingredients for a cake,” he told her. “And I believe gifts are given as well. I do have something for you; I had only been waiting for an appropriate time to bestow it.”
Finally, Lois smiled at him. Truly smiled. He was even bestowed a laugh as she shook her head at him in what must be disbelief. “Kal-El. You…you really don’t have to. But, really? Yes, I think that would help some. You’re sweet for even considering it.”
Relieved, he hugged her again, and Lois squeezed him extra tight. “I do so hate to see you saddened,” he murmured.
She pulled back then, and looked up at him with a very serious expression. “Kal-El … you’re good to me. Incredibly good to me and I thank you so much for it. I don’t know what I’d do here without you. Whatever else happens, please remember that I appreciate that.”
“As you are good to me, Lois. You have been patient and understanding with my insatiable thirst for knowledge, and you have been far kinder than the situation warrants.” Her eyes widened a little at that, but she smiled at him, and the moment passed.
The cake—which proved to be somewhat of a daunting construction, especially when made from basic ingredients—was baking, and Kal-El and Lois were laughing over his mistake regarding the ‘flour’, which even now his robots were cleaning from every surface in the meal preparation area. Lois was telling him a story of her childhood, and her mood was much improved. “Once when Lucy was about three, she dropped a whole bag in the living room, and then played with it. I bet there’s still flour down in the pockets of that sofa.”
Kal-El chuckled, and was about to reply, when the communicator chimed, indicating an incoming call. He went to the main room to answer it, and saw his mother’s image there. “Hello, my son,” she said. “I trust I find you well.”
“You do indeed, Mother, and I hope I find you the same,” Kal-El said.
Lara smiled, and they passed a little time in small talk, catching up on the events of the past few days. Lara asked after Lois as well, and Kal-El responded only in general terms, not wishing to discuss Lois’ recent dismay while she was still in earshot.
Then Lara came to the purpose of her call. “Kal-El, I wished to inform you that your father is delayed in Council proceedings this evening, and to invite you to dinner in his absence.”
That presented a conundrum. Kal-El had never refused an invitation to his parent’s abode, but he had already made plans with Lois, and he did not want to risk her disappointment by altering them now. “Ah, there may be some difficulty. We are celebrating the anniversary of Lois’ birth according to human customs.”
Lois had peeked around the corner of the room, watching the call, and she whispered, “Invite her.”
He turned around, surprised. “Lois?”
She just shrugged, her expression unreadable. “It’s traditional to invite friends and family. And your mom has always been nice to me.”
Nonplussed, Kal-El turned back to his mother’s image. “Lois has graciously invited you to join us. We are already preparing the traditional dessert, but I had not yet finalized my plans for dinner.”
“Then I shall accept, with pleasure, and you may leave dinner to me,” Lara replied with a bright smile. Kal-El knew she had tried very hard to lift Lois’ spirits when the human first arrived, to little avail. Being able to see her now that she was more settled in would be a delight. “Is there anything else of which I should be aware?”
“Only one—it is traditional to bring a gift for the honoree,” Kal-El replied.
“I believe I can manage that,” Lara said.
Once they signed off, Kal-El turned to Lois again. “That was most kind of you, to invite my mother.”
Lois shrugged one shoulder, her body language still guarded. “My pleasure. Really. Your mom really is cool. I think we both known that it’s your dad who doesn’t like me. Like, at all.”
“Father does not dislike you,” Kal-El protested immediately.
At that, Lois laughed. “Right. Kal-El, he and I were driving each other nuts. And I know he only sent me to you because he couldn’t keep me out of his lab any other way. Besides, I can hear the disapproval in his voice whenever you talk to him.”
Kal-El couldn’t quite deny that. It wasn’t that Jor-El disliked Lois; he disapproved of Kal-El’s interest in and advocacy of humans in general. However, he couldn’t explain that to Lois without the risk of accidentally revealing his larger plans, and Kal-El did not yet trust Lois to keep silent with such momentous news.
For the moment he was spared from further discussion by the door chime. “Your gift has arrived,” he informed Lois. “I understand it is to be kept secret?”
She smirked at him. “I’ll go in my room and not peek.”
The items he had requested were delivered by robot courier, and Kal-El promptly sent a message to the seller thanking him for his assistance. He’d had little time to prepare for the occasion, but he had been fortunate in knowing what sorts of goods were frequently carried on the black market, and who was stockpiling them. Such small items, to be so costly, but he hoped he had chosen well.
Kal-El knew that birthday gifts were customarily wrapped in paper, but he had not been able to procure any of this specialized wrapping paper in time. He did make note of it for the future; there was a major human holiday coming up in a few months, as they reckoned time. Instead of wrapping his gift, he enclosed it in a container of opaque crystal. It would have to suffice.
Within the hour, Lara arrived, her robots bringing a sumptuous feast of Kryptonian and human dishes that harmonized well together. She also brought a gift, which was encased in opaque crystal just as Kal-El’s was. Lois appeared much uplifted by the festive air, and Kal-El hoped he had diverted her, at least for a little while, from the depressed mood she’d been in when he arrived home.
At first, things were quite convivial. Not even the most suspicious mind could misconstrue Lara’s obvious happiness at seeing Lois adapting well, and Kal-El had some difficulty in hiding his pride. His father’s wisdom had only made Lois sullen, but his own compassion and kindness allowed her to finally blossom. And if Jor-El would not permit him to bring Lois to their home to show off her progress, then Lara would tell him of it after this visit.
By the time the robots served the cake, Kal-El had noticed a slightly distracted air about his mother. She waved off his indirect queries, instead remarking on the uniqueness of the cake. “It seems as though this confection is as much constructed as baked,” Lara mused, noting the multiple layers.
“If you decide to replicate it, Mother, I strongly suggest taking care in the handling of one ingredient,” Kal-El hastened to add, and that won a chuckle from Lois. “It is an extremely fine powder, and prone to aerosolizing at the least provocation.”
“By Lois’ laughter, I take it you learned this from experience, my son,” Lara chided lightly. Kal-El laughed as well, only a little embarrassed. He turned to catch Lois’ gaze, and shared a grin with her.
Because he had looked away, Kal-El missed his mother’s speculative expression. He could not have known that throughout their dinner she had taken note of the camaraderie between himself and Lois. Nor did he realize that his English had all but entirely lost the tell-tale traces of his Kryptonian accent. Except for the formality of his phrasing, he sounded like a human when he spoke to Lois.
He looked to her often, smiled at her frequently, and they laughed easily at each other’s jests. Kal-El could not have guessed that Lara was cataloguing all of those things, and drawing a conclusion that deeply worried her. Perhaps, if Lois had explained the concept of ‘mother’s intuition’ to him, he would have been less light-hearted about this visit, but for the moment he only knew that he and two of the people he cared most for were having a lovely evening.