I didn't want to leave this note, but I couldn't NOT do it and not warn for potential tears.
As we said the other week, we'll be back in two weeks with the next ATU chapter, this week being spent on vacation and plotting. We'll see you guys on May 5.
“I trust our guest is sufficiently … composed for us to pay a social call?” the man asked of his companion.
The pretty blonde shrugged one shoulder; she didn’t care for their guest or his companion, and her boss knew it. ‘Boss’ was being technical; they were more partners than anything else, these days. “If you feel it necessary. He ought to have recovered by now. You know I don’t think he’s trustworthy at the best of times.”
“Of course he isn’t trustworthy,” he chuckled. “No one is. You and I only trust one another from long association and mutual goals, after all.”
“Yes, but there’s a difference between acknowledging that we’re all dangerous and inviting a scorpion into your home,” she retorted.
“Apt metaphor,” he remarked, but proceeded anyway, pressing a button on the intercom beside his desk. “Forgive me for intruding, but I thought I’d visit … if that wouldn’t be much trouble?” he asked.
An accented female voice answered him after a pause. As usual, the dark-haired woman’s voice was coldly formal. “It would be no trouble at all. After all, we are most grateful for your hospitality. He is resting now, but in an hour we would be glad to receive you.”
“Thank you, my dear,” he told her, knowing she hated the endearment. She loathed him as much as the blonde sitting across from him loathed their guest. The only thing the two women disliked more than their opposite’s master was each other.
Personally, he was glad that he and the other man had forbidden conflict between their vassals. (That was his word, vassals, and he had adopted it, liking the taste of it on his tongue.) He did not underestimate his colleague’s protégé, ever. She was just as deadly as his own blonde bodyguard, perhaps even more so. Letting the pair of them face off would at best end with two valuable assets damaged, and at worst might destroy them both. No, neither of the men would allow that to happen.
Their partnership, if it could be called that, was based on mutual respect for each other’s capabilities. His own blinding intelligence was complemented by the other man’s wisdom. They had their differences, of course—he found mysticism rather boring, and his guest disdained profit for profit’s sake as mere avarice—but enough of their goals aligned to make this partnership fruitful. For now, anyway. None of their set had ever formed long-term associations. Even between mentors and protégés, relations eventually broke down into rivalries. That wasn’t a problem for the other side, but then, they spent so much time deluding themselves into believing in things like justice and morality that perhaps they found it easier to convince themselves that sharing all of one’s knowledge and power was a good idea.
The allotted hour passed in reflection, his companion musing along her own lines of thought. When the time came, he closed the text he’d been reading and stood up. He stretched, feeling his spine crackle, and reflected that while his mind grew sharper with age, his body did not, and all of the supplements and exercise regimens and everything else only prolonged the inevitable march of time. Not even their guest’s fantastic discovery could completely turn back the clock. Nor did he even consider making use of it himself. He wasn’t fooled by the talk of extensive rituals; that was all so much mystic mumbo-jumbo, a convenient cloak to cover the fact that after doing whatever he needed to do, the man who wished to turn back time was largely incapacitated for several days. Not a price he would choose to pay, not when his own projects promised a safer way.
With the blonde at his side, he moved through the corridors of the facility with the ease of long familiarity. What they sought had been an accidental perk, discovered when they’d excavated the underground labs six years ago, long before he planned to occupy this facility. At first none of them had realized what it was, even scientific analysis failing to identify the substance bubbling up from a crack in the ground, and the construction crew had sealed off the chamber containing it. It didn’t seem dangerous, and they weren’t located near any major seismic faults.
The chemical analysis had attracted attention, however. It was of very great interest to one in particular, whom at that time he knew only by hints and whispers. Then again, he knew who most of the other players on his side of the game were—it was hard not to, when most of them yammered for attention in a completely disgraceful manner. Personally, he preferred to keep a façade of legitimacy, though the Lane woman had thoroughly ruined that for him. His corporation still operated freely, she hadn’t been able to stop that, but he could not participate in any major way. She was too busy watching for him.
He and his guest both had their enemies, and even if the unknown liquid hadn’t drawn the other man’s attention to him, the collusion of their foes eventually would have. Most of the people on the other side had gotten organized, and they championed teamwork with their precious League and their Titans. Quite of few on his own side had decided to follow the example, and now the Injustice Society existed. Neither he nor his guest directly participated in it, but they had their contacts and agents within it. The real power players on this side worked alone, or with their own hand-picked teams.
Or sometimes, when both parties were sufficiently powerful to be a significant threat to one another, and when they also had a compelling reason to do so, they might enter into a limited partnership with one another. He smiled, slightly. He had the alien technology and the strange substance bubbling up from the desert floor; his counterpart had a vast store of knowledge and an elite force of minions. A takeover might have seemed like the other’s man best strategy, considering the value of the assets in play, but he was wily and very, very careful. So partnership it was, and they had spent several years perfecting the Kryptonian cloning technology and putting it to practical use. Precisely what use the other man made of it, he didn’t know, and didn’t care to know. The balance of power between them was just where he wanted it, and too much knowledge could be as dangerous as too little.
They arrived at the guest quarters, situated around the chamber which had been excavated and finished by the other man’s operatives and according to his specifications. Two guards stood on either side of the door, and one of them knocked for him. He wasn’t fooled; if there were two visible guards, then there were six more around somewhere. His guest believed in finding and training the best of the best, and keeping them loyal.
The woman opened the door, giving him a smile that looked welcoming except for her eyes, which held too much caution and dislike for a true smile to reach them. She ushered them in amid the usual pleasantries, and moments later they were seated across from her father as she poured coffee for them all.
He studied the other man keenly; this was the first time he’d witnessed the transformation for himself. When he’d arrived here a week ago, the man before him had walked with a cane, his hair had been gray with white at the temples, and his face had borne the lines of old age. Now his hair was black, just starting to gray at the sides, his skin was smooth, and he seemed more muscular. Even considering the cane, he had moved gracefully before, but now in repose he was the very picture of latent strength. The only thing that remained the same was the green eyes: sharp with intelligence, and terribly haunted.
“So you see, Lex Luthor, the Lazarus Pit bestows its blessings,” he intoned.
“I never doubt you, Ra’s al Ghul,” he replied, adopting the other’s formal full-name mode of address.
“And yet you say you are not tempted to sample its powers yourself,” Ra’s said, reaching for a cup of excellent coffee. He did not look at Talia as he took it and sipped, his eyes fixed on Lex. This was a dangerous moment, for both of them—if Ra’s believed his precious Pit was in danger of being usurped, he might try to overthrow Lex, and he had far too much invested here to walk away again without a fight.
Deliberately, Lex shook his head. He decided to go for a measure of honesty; if Ra’s was as old as he claimed, he might have the experience to see through even Lex’s best deceptions. “No, I’m not. Leaving aside all your warnings, and the extensive preparation and recovery you’ve told me is necessary, even if I thought you were lying about everything and all I’d have to do to achieve eternal youth is to go swimming in your pool, I’d still say no.”
Cocking his head, Ra’s asked simply, “Why?”
Mercy tensed beside him; Lex knew there were at least three or four unseen ninja in this room, prepared to strike him down if they could and deal with the consequences later. He’d ensured that Ra’s knew that the entire facility would self-destruct upon his death and none of them would get out alive, but the other man might take his chances anyway, with a true Fountain of Youth nearby.
So he sipped his coffee and replied calmly, “I don’t like the look of your eyes, Ra’s. You seem entirely too thin, like a hologram of yourself. I have no idea what that chemical soup actually does to a man, and no desire to test it on myself. You certainly seem to have gained a double-edged blessing, at best.”
For a long moment, Ra’s merely stared at him. “You are entirely too intelligent for my peace of mind, Lex Luthor. But then, I knew that ere I met you.”
Lex simply shrugged one shoulder casually. “Since you surely know my IQ is un-measurable by any test devised by ordinary men, you should be secure in the knowledge that I have no desire to upset our current arrangement. I find it much too mutually beneficial for that.”
“As do I,” Ra’s said. He and Lex indulged in a little small talk, both careful not to reveal too much in case the other had not yet learned it, but the actions of both the League and the Injustice Society were well known to them both.
The entire time the two men spoke, Mercy and Talia glared each other down. They’d taken an instant dislike to one another, and though both were normally good at disguising hatred, once they both knew their masters had forbidden a fight, their only means of competition was in contemptuous glares.
Ben Hubbard half-woke in wee hours of the morning and got out of bed, heading for the bathroom. That was not an uncommon occurrence lately, and his doctor said it was normal for a man his age. Enlarged prostate, the doc had said, benign but annoying. He’d told Martha in serious tones that he was becoming one of his dogs, compelled to mark his territory every so often. She had laughed—and warned him away from her newel post. Barkley the beagle had been dead for years, but she’d never forgotten that incident.
When Ben was a child, he’d been afraid of getting old. As a young man, he’d thought old age was pitiable. In middle age, he’d begun to look forward to retirement. Now that he was old, he found it more of a nuisance than anything else. The petty annoyances began to wear on a man, after a while—the forgetfulness, the health problems, the way he got tired more easily every year. Sure, he and Martha both stayed active physically and mentally, but there was no escaping the fact of his mortality. Slowly but surely, his body was wearing out. His heart had a murmur, his hearing was fading, his joints ached, and his digestion grew more finicky each year.
And, of course, he spent more time in the bathroom, staring out the window, taking five minutes to complete what had once been a matter of seconds. Far away across the dark fields he could see a glow of light: the windows of the Hubbard house, where his two sons and their families resided. Like a lot of farmhouses in the area, the Hubbard home had been built to house multiple generations of large families. It had been quite simple for his two boys to divide it into a duplex for their own needs, putting in a second kitchen and some extra bathrooms. Hardworking boys, they were, gladly living the life of their forefathers even though farming was no longer profitable most of the time. At least one of Ben’s grandchildren had decided to stay on at the old family place, so the farm was safe for another generation.
It was always sad to watch the kids heading off to the big city, but that was part of life. There were more opportunities out there, more jobs, more money. Ben couldn’t blame them. He’d taken a job in Kansas City himself one summer, and had enjoyed broadening his horizons, but nothing the city had to offer could compete with the land his great-grandparents had settled. They had been English immigrants looking for farmland in the wide-open west, and they’d found rich fields and bright streams here, land that still called to his heart. Over the years they had intermarried with the Germans and Swedes who’d come to Kansas looking for a new start, resulting in a singularly American blend. With his grandson’s choice to stay on the land, that made six generations of Hubbards born and raised on the farm.
His business completed, Ben stopped musing on history, washed his hands, and went back to bed. It was odd that none of the beagles were pushing against his ankles, demanding attention. They were used to his middle-of-the-night bathroom trips by now and didn’t bark, but any time he got up they usually begged to be petted. He was still half-asleep, though, and paid it no mind as he turned back the covers.
“Just me, Martha,” he murmured as he always did, stroking her shoulder. Lately she’d become a light sleeper, and while he didn’t always wake her when he got up, his return to bed often did. Speaking to her soothed her back to sleep before she could fully waken.
Ben paused, sitting on the bed, his hand on his wife’s shoulder. She was too still. “Martha?” he asked, softly.
No answer. No soft sound of breathing. And that stillness … Ben pressed his fingertips against her wrist, then the side of her throat, carefully at first.
No pulse, either.
She was gone.
Grief came, but not in a blinding torrent like he’d felt before, with other losses. It was deep and strong, but he couldn’t say it was shocking the way losing Sally had been. They were well past eighty, now, and Martha had had some trouble with her kidneys the last few months, had changed up her medications a few times because of side effects. Ben let the wave of grief carry him along, not bothering to suppress the way his shoulders shook or the tears that gathered in his eyes. He knew he was grieving for himself, left behind, and not for the woman he loved, who had passed quietly in her sleep with a slight smile curving her mouth.
When he composed himself, he sighed, “Well, then,” and took her hand in his. Her fingers were just slightly cool, and he kissed the backs of her knuckles gently. There was no fear in him; death held no terror. Some people might have been unnerved to touch a dead body, but not Ben. The essential Martha, the woman he loved, was already on her way to a better place—might even be there already, saving him a seat at a bridge game like the ones he and Sally and she and Jonathan had played together, long ago. What she left behind didn’t frighten him any more than holding onto a jacket Martha that had taken off.
There were things that had to be done and calls that had to be made, but for the moment Ben simply held her hand, stroking her silver hair back off her forehead, and thought back over their lives together. The oldest memories were clearest: Martha, a strong-willed teenager with intense blue eyes and gorgeous blonde pin-curls. She’d been one of the smartest girls he’d ever met, and he was as surprised as Jonathan Kent when Martha went out with him. Of course, Ben had met Sally around the same time, and they’d double-dated together, meeting at the diner or the soda fountain and sometimes going on picnics.
He remembered making Jonathan and Martha godparents of his sons, the delight in Martha’s eyes the first time she held the eldest boy. Then the long years when the Kent place need a child around to liven it up, but no child came. The quiet sadness in Martha’s expression as Ben and Sally’s boys passed the milestones of childhood, while she and Jonathan were alone.
And then Clark came, the son of some out-of-state cousin of Martha’s. No one in town had ever gotten the full story—Jonathan had stoutly insisted, “He’s our son now and that’s all that matters”—but Ben had supposed like everyone else that girl in question might not have been married to the father of her child, and eventually the scandal got to her. Luckily for everyone, the Kents wanted a child, and they’d never treated Clark as anything but their own. Most people in town had probably forgotten that he was adopted.
Martha had come into her own as a mother. No one who saw her could doubt the immense pride and joy that Clark brought to her life. Ben had also noticed that he’d been an unusual boy, not as prone to mischief as others his age, serious and studious. Jonathan and Martha had loved him with every fiber of themselves. They’d been happiest together as parents, and though Ben had been absorbed in raising his own sons, he’d loved to see the bright smiles on their faces every time their paths crossed.
Then came Jonathan’s heart attack. Martha had been heartbroken, staying strong only because her son was completely grief-stricken. The boy had blamed himself somehow, and Martha couldn’t break down in front of him, needing to guide Clark out of self-recrimination. Ben had been there for her then. Martha as a widow had dedicated herself to Clark and to keeping up the farm the way Jonathan would’ve wanted, which eventually necessitated Clark getting a job in the city. Only Kansas City wasn’t big enough for him; Clark had gone all the way to the East Coast, to Metropolis.
And what treasures he’d brought back from there! By the time Ben finally married Martha—which seemed to the two of them like a foregone conclusion, with Jonathan and Sally both gone ahead of them, and no need to rush—Clark was planning his own wedding to the redoubtable Lois Lane. Ben had adored the dark-haired woman with her flashing eyes and sharp wit; even more he’d adored the two grandkids. He had indeed been blessed to be part of Martha’s life, to be able to put his hand on Clark’s shoulder and call him ‘son’, to have the twins look up at him and call him Grandpa Ben.
The last decade and a half held many memories that belonged to just himself and Martha, though, and they scrolled through Ben’s mind like photographs. The sunrise reflecting on a rippling stream, fish rising to lip the surface in search of food. The creak of saddle-leather and the rustle of hounds moving through the brush, then the full-throated bay of the beagles when they caught the scent. Puttering around in the kitchen with Martha, the house filling with delicious scents as they cooked. And lying right here beside her, his arm over her waist as they both dropped off to sleep.
It had been a good life, he thought, and smiled as he squeezed Martha’s fingers gently. Another memory came to him then, of a conversation they’d had about a year ago. He’d just come back to bed, awakening her, and Martha had told him about a dream she’d been having. “I was at a church supper, Ben, but in a church much bigger than either of the ones here in town. It seemed like everyone I’d ever known was there, and I didn’t notice it at the time but they were all people who’ve passed on. My parents, your brother who died in the war, Jonathan of course, and Sally. She was holding a baby, and I didn’t realize it right away, but it was the baby she lost back when you two were just starting out. Martin Lang was there, too. ”
Ben had merely nodded, holding her hand just like this and letting her talk. At the time, Martin Lang had recently passed, of complications after knee-replacement surgery. Annette had been a frequent guest at the Kent farmhouse, and Ben had supposed Martha’s dream was related to all the reminiscing the two women had been doing. She’d continued telling him about it, her voice soft with wonder. “Ella Lane came up and hugged me and introduced me to her husband. My first-grade teacher told me she was proud of me. It went on and on, so many happy reunions. We were all drinking some kind of punch that was clear as water, but it tasted just like the first warm breeze in springtime. And there were tables full of food, all kinds of dishes, some of them things I’d never seen before but every bite was delicious. Everyone was laughing and talking, just so happy to be together.
“I’d just stopped to talk to my grandmother when Shelby jumped up on me. And he wasn’t alone, my favorite cat who slept on my pillow for seventeen years was with him, and Blackie leaped up to my shoulders and put his forehead against my cheek and purred so loud, I thought my whole head would start shaking! I laughed and petted him, and rubbed Shelby’s ears … and then I woke up and it was Sadie licking my hand instead of Shelby.”
The two of them had sat in companionable silence for a moment, before Ben had finally said, “Well, my dear, it sounds like you had a little glimpse of Heaven.”
She’d chuckled, and kissed his cheek. “Either that or I have a very good imagination.” They’d never spoken of it again, and Ben wondered now if Martha was at that feast again, telling all of their friends and family that this time she’d come to stay, not just to visit.
He bent carefully to kiss her forehead. The time for reminiscence was over. “All right, love. I’ve got business to take care of. Tell everyone up there I said hello.” His voice was curiously hoarse, but Ben managed to keep his composure. There were things to be done, beginning with the call he dreaded making.