Lois was actually having fun at her belated birthday party. She’d learned the same trick as thousands of other captives before her in the history of human warfare. Focusing selectively on the day to day instead of the big picture, she was able to live almost normally, without letting the cold fact of her circumstances crush her. True, the unexpected news that she’d missed her own birthday had momentarily rocked her equilibrium, but Lois was a survivor. She had the mental resilience to pick herself up and go on.
And besides, this was fun. Kal-El had delighted in every step of the process, even the part where he got coated in flour. Now that his mother was here and getting into the spirit of the celebration, he was practically vibrating with joy. Lois knew that no matter what it was, she would love it. The mere fact that he thought so much of her….
A prickle of warning swept up her spine, and Lois turned to catch Lara looking at them both with a very thoughtful expression. He cares too much about me, and it’s obvious to her, she thought. Holy shit, if she starts asking him questions, how long before she finds out we kissed? And then we’ll both wind up in quarantine somewhere, and the whole plan goes to hell. She had to straighten up her act, and fast.
The next time Kal-El beamed at her, she returned it only with a demure smile. The perplexed look in his eyes hurt to see, but Lois smothered that. She’d explain later, if she had to. Luckily after a few minutes Kal-El seemed to catch on, and both of them behaved with more Kryptonian restraint.
“I believe it is time for gifts. Am I correct, Lois?” Kal-El asked.
She couldn’t help smiling at him then. “You’re just like my little sister, always wanting to get to the presents even when it isn’t your birthday. All right, let’s have the gifts. I’m sure they’ll be wonderful.”
“I do hope you will enjoy my gift,” Lara said, with an encouraging smile.
“I’m certain I will,” Lois told her. “You’ve always been very kind, even when I wasn’t. I am sorry for the way I behaved when I was in your home.”
To her surprise, the Kryptonian woman waved her off. “Lois, you have nothing for which to apologize. You merely behaved as any high-spirited young person would in such circumstances. I am more than pleased to see you happy, now.”
That was completely sincere, but Lois knew she’d have to continue to be careful. Lara was no fool, no matter what she’d thought of her when she’d been living in their house, and Lois couldn’t afford to make her suspicious.
Kal-El’s robots returned with the gifts and set them on the table in front of her. Wrapping paper wasn’t a commodity on New Krypton, so both gifts were encased in opaque crystal. Lois eyed them both, but the faceted ovals gave no hint of the contents. The ruby-red one was fairly small, about the size of a clenched fist, and the pale blue was big enough to theoretically hold a basketball. “How do I open them?” she asked.
Lara seemed about to answer, but Kal-El spoke first. “Part of the challenge is figuring that out.” Lois narrowed her eyes at him for a second, but he was too proud of his ingenuity to be chastened. Sighing, Lois returned her attention to her presents.
Deciding to start with the bigger gift, Lois picked it up hesitantly. It was moderately heavy, and Lara quickly said, “Do not turn it over. The contents need to remain upright.” Right then, Lois knew it was some kind of plant. Lara’s greenhouse was a source of both pride and comfort to her, and her parting gifts to Lois when she moved in with Kal-El had been tomato plants imported from Earth. Funny how Lois didn’t even like tomatoes much before all this happened, but she relished them now as a taste of home.
None of the facets moved or slid or pressed down. The structure seemed perfectly impenetrable. Lois glared at it, thinking hard, knowing Kal-El was watching her with gleeful interest. Once in a while, a very great while, he could make her feel like a lab rat doing a great trick, but this wasn’t one of those times.
That was when Lois noticed Lara tapping her fingers lightly against the table, as if in impatience. But Lara would never be so rude, not when she was at such pains to make Lois feel welcome. So it had to be a hint. Taking another look at both containers, Lois noticed they came almost to a point at the top, capped with a single flat facet of crystal. Smirking triumphantly, Lois reached up and tapped that spot with one finger. One tap didn’t do it, but two in quick succession caused the entire crystal structure to shift and move, facets sliding against one another.
The pale blue crystals retracted, revealing a beautiful plant with three large blooms, much like a lily. Its petals were deep blue lightening at the tips, with a thin streak of white down the center and dots along the edge. The leaves were narrow and rust red. “Wow,” Lois whispered. She was no botanist, but it was stunning plant.
“Is that…?” Kal-El said, and Lara nodded. “Amazing. I had no idea they were even cultivated.”
“Your aunt Allura discovered the secret. They require a very specific additive to the hydroponic growth medium.” Lara looked hopefully at Lois, and asked, “Do you like it?”
“Of course!” she replied truthfully. “It’s gorgeous.”
Lara smiled broadly. “It has one other interesting property. Kal-El, dim the lights?” Once he did so, Lara told her, “Bring your hand near the flowers.”
Lois did so, gingerly, and gasped when the white streaks lit up with a faint glow. Kal-El gasped too. “They are bioluminescent?”
“The reaction is triggered by the movement of air currents,” Lara said. “Apparently they are pollinated by large moths, and the bioluminescence serves to guide the insects to the nectar.”
All of the science aside, she truly was blown away. Just from Kal-El’s reaction, this was something uncommon for one to own even for a Kryptonian and it was hers. “That really is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Lois told her as Kal-El brought the lights back up.
“I am most glad that it pleases you,” Lara replied.
If Kal-El had been younger and less Kryptonian, he would’ve been bouncing in his seat with eagerness. In spite of herself, she couldn’t help but chuckle and shake her head. He really was very charming, without even trying to be. Lois could read the anticipation in his bright blue eyes, and reached for the smaller gift. “I hope you like it,” he said nervously.
“I’m sure I will,” she soothed, and tapped the spot on the crystal surface that made it open. The dark red crystal blossomed to reveal a small box, which Lois opened. Inside, nestled in fabric, was a pair of silver drop earrings set with pale stones. As soon as she picked them up, the light played across the smooth surface of the stone with every hue imaginable. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, only look at him in wide-eyed shock. “Oh my God, are these opal?”
“Yes, they are, imported from Earth,” Kal-El replied. “My research indicates this stone is believed to bring good fortune and luck. Are they pleasing to you?”
“They’re … wow. Kal-El, they’re beautiful.” She wasn’t going to cry, she wasn’t. Kal-El didn’t know her mother had a lovely opal necklace that had been in the family for years, which Lois would have been allowed to wear this year if she hadn’t been too busy being a hostage of fortune.
She hadn’t brought any jewelry on this trip, and the necklace around her throat could hardly be considered such. But that bitter thought had no place at this table, and Lois shoved it aside. She put the earrings on immediately, wincing at the way her pierced ears had to stretch again after so long without earrings.
Meanwhile Lara murmured to her son in discreet Kryptonese, “Kal-El, do gifts of jewelry not have … other connotations among humans? I had read it is often considered a courting gift.”
He shook his head. “No, Mother. To give a ring, in certain circumstances, is to offer betrothal, but decorations for the ears seem to be an appropriate gift for women of Lois’ culture regardless of who bestows them. Furthermore, because we are celebrating the anniversary of her birth, Lois is well aware of the intent of the gift, which rules out any potential miscommunication.”
Lois looked up then, beaming at them. “Thank you both so, so much.” It hurt, at that moment, not to be able to hug the both of them, to have to express her gratitude through words alone. “You’re really … you’re the best.”
It wasn’t really surprising that emotion overwhelmed her then; she hadn’t even asked Kal-El to cheer her up, and he’d gone and thrown her a party, complete with a cake and a lovely gift that echoed home in the best way. And his mother hadn’t needed to arrange a meal to her tastes and bring a gift of her own, something of startling beauty and rarity. Lois couldn’t think of them as captors anymore. They were people, just like her, stuck in a bad situation and trying to make the best of it. Trying their best to make her life better, too.
All of that probably explained why she choked back a sob, her eyes watering. And then, to her utter mortification, Lois Lane started crying just like the teenage girl she tried so hard not to be.
Kal-El was immediately alarmed. “Are you all right? Lois, I am sorry if I offended you…”
The protest came immediately and a part of her hated that he could even think it. “No, no, it’s fine,” she said, waving him off. “I just … sometimes humans cry with happiness. It’s weird, I know. Just … I’m okay, really.”
Lara was looking at her with some trepidation, and Lois managed to put on a brave smile. “It’s nothing either of you did. At all. I promise. I … I completely missed my own birthday, and I was upset by it, and you two went and made it all okay again. I didn’t expect that.”
“Is that not what friends do?” Lara said gently.
Lois bit her lip. Oh God. “Yeah, it is,” she said softly, nodding.
After that, the party was officially over, and Kal-El escorted Lois to her room, hovering worriedly the entire way. At her door, she dashed the tears away and looked up at him with as much of the old Lane fierceness as she could. “I’m fine, Kal-El. Now go convince your mother I’m not too much of a human influence on you.”
He looked perplexed for a moment, then nodded gravely. “I had forgotten. Thank you, Lois.” And then, timidly, “You do like the earrings?”
Lois smiled a broad genuine smile. “Oh, Kal-El, I love them.” If it had been any other situation, if his mother hadn’t been in the other room, she would’ve kissed his cheek. But that would have to wait for another day.
The resistance had begun meeting in larger groups, crossing paths casually in the public gardens. Geoffrey had discovered that no one bothered to come looking for him if he wandered outside the paths; all they needed to do was wait for a moment when no one was looking, hop over one of the low walls, and keep the taller plantings between himself and any casual stroller’s line of sight. Not that many Kryptonians were out and about on a daily basis.
Henri provided the next piece of the puzzle, and filled in Huang and Lois when they took their afternoon constitutional. His keeper was a sentinel, a sort of domestic security personnel position, and had been drafted into the Bureau of Human Affairs. His normal job was something like a police officer, but without actual police powers, as that function was strictly controlled by Chancellor Zod’s military. As Henri explained it, Tar-Kon had been a lot like a mall cop or private security guard in terms of respect and authority—in short, not much of either.
The move to the Bureau of Human Affairs was a boon to him, and to the resistance. Henri had successfully faked his comprehension of Kryptonese to the point where Tar-Kon conversed with him in pidgin English, never realizing Henri understood almost every word of his supposedly private conversations.
Worse, for the Kryptonians anyway, Henri had been an avid MacGyver fan back home and had watched reruns of the show obsessively. Not only did he remember many of the show’s solutions to various situations, he had adopted his idol’s creative can-do approach to any sort of puzzle. The technical details bored Lois, but she sat up in shock when Henri revealed that he was now able to hack his host’s computer system. “Of course, he has no idea I can even read Kryptonese, so I keep a separate panel set to old TV shows. If he ever catches me, I’ll just tell him he left it up and I found the TV station. I think he thinks I’m quite stupid, honestly.”
“My God,” Geoffrey whispered. “We have a direct line into their security for the Bureau of Human Affairs.”
“He never deletes his messages, either,” Henri gloated. “And guess what I found today? The technical specifications for these damn crystal collars.”
Lois gave a low whistle. “Any idea how to get them off?”
“If they’re out of contact with skin for more than thirty seconds, they automatically switch on and start beaming a tracking signal,” Henri told her, shaking his head. “But the good news is, that’s the only time they send a signal—otherwise they’re inert. Of course, they can be remotely activated and traced from the central office, but after the first week or two when they were testing the system, they’ve never used it. We’re all too well-behaved, apparently, to bother checking up on.”
“Are Zod’s people aware of that?” Huang said. “I can’t imagine a despot like him is comfortable with simply not knowing where the humans are all the time.”
“I don’t know for sure, but apparently the Bureau is satisfied with just being able to find us anytime they want. As long as none of our captors reports us missing, we’re basically unmonitored.”
Geoffrey mused, “And they won’t report us missing, because they keep sending us out on walks for our mental health now that all of them belong to this Benevolent Society of theirs. Which I understand is basically being run by your Jhan-Or, right, Huang?”
“Precisely. Although he was not actually the founder.” Huang looked at Lois then, and a shadow crossed his expression. “Lois, where did you get those earrings?”
Only then did she realize she’d worn them outside, and she touched them self-consciously. Uh-oh. “These? They were a gift. I just found out yesterday that I missed my own birthday. Lucky me, I turned seventeen two weeks ago.”
Now Geoffrey and Henri were looking at her too. The Quebecois frowned. “A gift from who? Your father? He didn’t strike me as the sort of man to smuggle jewelry. Unless there’s some other purpose….”
“No, not my dad,” Lois said, trying not to cringe. Maybe if she played it off casually, she could get away with it. “Kal-El gave them to me. I guess he got whatever he could on such short notice. His mom gave me a plant that glows in the dark, too.”
The three men stopped dead and stared at her. Huang was only a little older than she was, Henri was somewhere in his thirties, and Geoffrey was close to fifty, but at that moment they all looked like disapproving dads. “They spoil you,” Henri said flatly. “Lois, that’s not a good thing to flaunt.”
“No, they pity me,” Lois snapped. “They see me as just a kid, remember? I am the youngest one here.”
“And he buys you jewelry,” Geoffrey speculated. “How old is he in human years again?”
“There’s no perfect conversion, they age a little slower than we do, and besides a year on Old Krypton is like three years on Earth. And they still date ages in Old Krypton years instead of New Krypton years, even though there’s a month’s difference. More, since they’re operating on a twenty-eight-hour day.”
“And you’re dodging the question,” Huang observed.
Narrowing her eyes, Lois glared at him. “Really? Are you really trying to imply what I think you’re trying to imply?”
Henri stepped in. “Come now, gentlemen. It’s not as if Ms. Lane could refuse gifts on her birthday. And they don’t seem to wear jewelry here. Kal-El probably has no idea it might look suspicious.”
“She shouldn’t wear them out,” Geoffrey insisted. “The last thing we need is other Kryptonians noticing how well we’re treated. Gifts from our jailers? Suppose Zod decides our hosts are too soft on us, and switches us all over to new owners? We can’t afford to lose the contacts we’ve gained.”
“Right, I get it,” Lois said quickly. “I forgot I had them in, is all. It’s not as if I could take them off right after he gave them to me. I don’t want to insult him.”
“He speaks more freely than any of the others,” Huang said. “We can’t afford to alienate Kal-El. But even he will have to realize he can’t risk the appearance of favoritism.”
Feeling like she’d just dodged a bullet, Lois agreed not to wear the earrings in public again—stupid mistake in the first place, and she knew it—and to tell Kal-El why. Her three co-conspirators were extremely anxious that she remain in his good graces. Little did they know just how good those graces were.