Lex Luthor lifted his chin and held still while Mercy straightened his tie. Fifteen minutes to show time, a new group of investors to impress, and silly details like the tie did actually count. Even if his mind was on far more complicated matters. “What’s our current status across the board?” he asked.
“Across the board?” Mercy repeated, faintly scoffing. That was a great deal of information, but he knew she had it at her fingertips. “L-Tech stock is holding steady, but Wayne Enterprises has unveiled a new chip that’s eight percent faster than ours. It’s differentiated enough that we shouldn’t even bother suing for patent infringement or trying to prove industrial espionage.”
“We couldn’t, in any case, since the technology is Kryptonian. Much as I’d love to see the Boy Scout in court trying to explain why he’s had this tech for years and hasn’t bothered to share it. The solar power applications alone…” Luthor shook his head with a sigh, checking his cuffs.
Mercy lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “We knew we couldn’t maintain an exclusive monopoly on the crystal technology forever. We have a competitive advantage in the market, at least for a little while longer.”
“True,” Luthor remarked. “And the rest of our current business?”
No need to check notes. Mercy’s memory was keen. “Project Scion is coming along nicely. At 28 months into the project, language and mathematic metrics are above projected values. So far the reproduction of Kryptonese is imperfect, but that is to be expected at this early stage. Time will allow for improvement.”
“We must be careful,” Lex warned. “There is such a thing as too much progress, after all. I will not have the perfect specimen flawed by too much experimentation.”
“The scientists have been cautioned,” Mercy answered with a faint smile. “No instabilities noted yet. Everything is proceeding at or ahead of schedule. Besides, in time this experiment will have its own self-defense capabilities online. To that end, Lex, you might want to spend some time in the east wing this evening. Better to familiarize yourself with this one.”
“Of course,” he replied. This had been the single success out of dozens of attempts, and Luthor would not allow anything to jeopardize it. The rest had all been destroyed, unfit for the purpose, and the sole remainder was as precious to him as anything. Hopefully it would know that; the very worst outcome was this one turning on its creator.
Mercy continued, “Project Uplift continues to encounter problems. The serum provides the expected benefits, but within a day the subject’s immune system begins to reject it. So far we’ve lost all the test subjects. One was kept alive in a medically-induced coma with heavy doses of steroids, but even it eventually expired.”
That provoked a scowl. Luthor didn’t like to take bad news standing still, so he started walking toward the conference room, Mercy at his side as always. “What about the gene therapy application?”
“Also failed. Inserting the genes, even at the embryonic stage, tends to cause unforeseen mutations. We’re going to try a new virus vector on the stage six trials, see if we can get a more selective range of genes spliced in. Perhaps those will enable the resulting offspring to tolerate the serum.” Mercy didn’t sound discouraged or upset by the daunting news, but then, most of this was academic to her. It was Luthor’s battle, not hers.
“Perhaps we can reconfigure the crystal matrix to do the splicing for us,” Luthor mused aloud.
“It’s a possibility. We need better access to encoded data, however. Hence, Project Scion.” She paused, and went on in a slightly different tone, “Speaking of our … challenges, Project Replica has gone missing again.”
“Has he now? Good luck to him.” Luthor couldn’t help chuckling. An early attempt at cloning Superman, the result was … bizarre, at best. The beast was normally kept securely contained in an Antarctic facility Luthor owned, which masqueraded as a research station. It actually did accomplish some research, but nothing of interest to Luthor was ever published. The cold and dark kept the cloned creature in a state of hibernation, but it had escaped before. It was not a critical asset, however, and Luthor could look forward to the discomfiture its existence would cause his nemesis.
Just in case the beast came hunting him—its actions were hard to predict, motivated more by whim than logic—he ought to have a line of defense ready. “How’s our stockpile of K?” he asked.
“Of the first iteration, we still have three hundred pounds stored in various secure locations, no more than twenty pounds each,” Mercy replied. “The successive iterations were all sold except for a reserve of a hundred pounds each. As of the fifth manufacturing run, the quality has noticeably dropped. Two hundred pounds are still unsold.”
A lesser man would’ve gnawed at his lip. Luthor only narrowed his eyes. “Eight hundred pounds of kryptonite in varying purities. That should be enough, don’t you think? And we won’t dilute the sample any further. Next time we process a new batch, use the third iteration for the seed, and mix the fifth run’s product into the new crystal when it goes up for sale.”
Mercy nodded, making a mental note. Kryptonite wasn’t yet illegal to possess, since most of the world still didn’t know about its extremely limited application, but being the only person to actually produce it was an advantage Luthor had no intention of giving up. There wasn’t much kryptonite elsewhere in the world, and he was protective of his monopoly.
Making more was simple. It was just like the creation of New Krypton, only on a smaller scale. And, since the facility was in the middle of the most godforsaken part of the Australian outback, the electromagnetic pulse created by each run wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable as the one that had briefly shut down the city of Metropolis. The only drawback so far had been the decline in quality over each success batch, as the impurities sapped the effectiveness of the pure crystal. Still, he’d kept the best of it for himself, and realized an obscene profit selling the mid-grade stuff to everyone who wanted to keep Superman at bay.
Which reminded him of something. Having an abundance of kryptonite meant Luthor could offer to give it away, not that doing so set easily with his principles. But he’d made a gift of it, once or twice. “Any word on our ‘friends’?” Luthor asked Mercy. They were nearing the conference room where Luthor would give his presentation to the stakeholders. This was a top-secret meeting, and even so, he would not appear under his own name.
Her lip curled in an unmistakable sneer. “Last I heard Ra’s al Ghul was fomenting rebellion in northern Africa. At least, our sources suggest his hand at work. You know he operates through so many layers of deception, it’s nearly impossible to discern his true motives.”
“I know. A man after my own heart, that one.” Although the older man’s caution was excessive even by Luthor’s standards, if everything he claimed was true, then perhaps Ra’s had earned the right to be so wary. Almost as an afterthought, he said, “And his daughter?”
“That’s actually interesting. She’s been out of pocket, according to our sources, for almost a week. He seems to keep her on a fairly short leash, but she hasn’t been seen in his company for six days. And our eyes and ears within his organization suggest trouble between them.” Mercy shrugged. “Our spies are poorly placed. We can’t really trust that information is accurate, and even if we could, there’s always the possibility that it’s a setup of some kind, falsified for any potential watchers.”
Luthor came to a complete halt, his eyes focused inward. Mercy waited for him, of course. When he spoke, his voice was low. “Our eyes in Gotham, didn’t they report on this Red Hood business recently?”
“Yes. He confronted the Batman, and hasn’t been seen since. Presumed killed in an explosion, but you never know with Gotham.”
“When was that?”
She caught the reference immediately, nodding. “Six days ago.”
Luthor grinned coldly. “The same time Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter jumped ship. And Batman is one of his foes. I think that’s no coincidence.”
“You think they were funding Red Hood? Maybe he’s one of their agents?” Mercy asked.
Shrugging, Luthor moved onward. “Maybe he is, and she’s pretending to go off-script to keep some plausible deniability to their involvement. Maybe he wasn’t, and she’s recruiting him. Maybe she’s playing both sides against the middle. Who can tell, with that one?”
Much to his surprise, Mercy actually gave a little shudder. Lex turned to her with a questioning look, and she gave him a taut smile. “Remember that day we spent in Nevada, hiding from the capes and cops? Remember the snake?”
The two of them wedged into a tiny cave, a breath from discovery as vigilantes and law enforcement hunted them both, with only a small supply of water and no food between them. And just to top it all off, their hiding spot was the den of a very large rattlesnake, which had slithered in to join them. The thing’s head had been as big as Luthor’s hand, and neither of them had dared breathe deeply for eight hours while the serpent shared their space, its coils pressed tight to their warmer bodies. Oh yes, the memory of that day still lingered. “I remember,” he said flatly.
“Dealing with those two reminds me of that day,” Mercy said. “We’re lying down with serpents, Lex. We’d best be very, very sure they don’t decide to bite.”
“That we should,” he murmured, already thinking of the best way to defang the Head of the Demon … and his daughter.
After morning rounds, Kal-El flew back to the apartment in time to put coffee on and have Lois’ first cup ready just as she slapped at her alarm clock. Some things changed over time, but Lois was still not a morning person. She’d pawed the alarm off and started to sit up when Kal-El appeared at her side. “Good morning, beautiful,” he told her.
A wordless grumble as she took the coffee and sipped it, sitting hunched up around the mug. Kal-El dropped a careful kiss on the top of her head, ignoring the growl in response, and moved the alarm clock back to its proper place. They’d had to replace several of them over the years, because Lois had either smacked them off the table or, in the case of the old-fashioned one with actual bells, outright thrown it against the wall out of frustration. Clark had found pieces of that one around the room weeks later. Hearing about the incident, Jason had said that their house was where bad alarm clocks were sentenced to die.
Kal-El had joked about buying the high-tech version that rolled itself off the table and underneath the bed when the snooze button was pressed, but the look on Lois’ face had nixed that idea before he even fully voiced it. Especially when she told him in all seriousness, “I would frikkin’ shoot that thing, Kal-El.”
No, the best way to wake her was put coffee in front of her and then stay at a prudent distance until the caffeine percolated through. The only other method was to snuggle up tight, but that only worked when he had time to let her wake slowly. Even then, he got swatted a few times for moving or breathing too loudly.
After a few minutes, Lois’ eyes actually opened, and Kal-El was ready with a bagel and a fresh cup of coffee. She smiled then, and said, “Thank you,” in a sleep-rough voice.
“You’re welcome.” Since she was talking coherently, it was safe to sit down beside her, put his arm around her, and enjoy the warm and snuggly softness that he personally believed her grumpy demeanor was intended to hide. Lois leaned against his shoulder drowsily, demolishing the bagel and sipping the rest of the coffee.
“I know what you’re doing,” she informed him. Kal-El looked at her curiously, and Lois’ hazel eyes had a bright spark of mischief. “You’re taking advantage, Kal-El. I’m too sleepy to stop you from stealing cuddles.”
“And I will steal all the cuddles I possibly can,” he replied, grinning. “I haven’t quite caught up to the six years I missed.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Whatever. I’m not cute or cuddly.” Even as she spoke she was nuzzling into his shoulder gladly.
“Your secret is safe with me, Mad Dog Lane,” Kal-El said. For a few moments they just held each other in comfortable silence. Thirteen years of marriage, and it only got sweeter with time.
After a while, though, a stray thought made Kal-El smile. “Could be worse. The twins could be home. Remember how they’d jump on you in the mornings?”
“It’s a wonder they both lived,” Lois growled. “And you didn’t see them when they were really little. They had a knack for waking up and wanting to be fed right when it was too late for me to go back to sleep, and too freaking early for me to just get dressed and go to work.”
It had always amazed Kal-El how much latitude the twins got. Lois was not known for being forgiving and tolerant; she’d broken Steve Lombard’s hand when he trespassed and humiliated scores of others who had the temerity to presume upon her. Her acid tongue was legendary, especially first thing in the morning. But her children could literally jump on her before coffee, and they got no more than an irritable mutter. Kal-El had occasionally come home from rounds when they were little and found both of them playing what looked like touch football underneath the covers while Lois curled into a long-suffering little ball around her pillow. She never snapped at them, not even when she was in the middle of a blazing fury at someone else. The way she could switch in an instant from Mad Dog to Mama Bear never failed to amuse him … and touch his heart.
There had only ever been once when she didn’t. The terrible argument between Lois and Kala on that New Year’s Eve, when both of them had said things they still regretted. Lois had slapped her daughter across the face, and Kala had been perfectly ready to strike back before Kal-El stopped it. That said, it had been provoked—very strongly provoked. And no such thing had happened since.
As if she knew his thoughts, Lois murmured, “I miss them. I miss my babies … especially the bratty one, God help me. I miss Kala like wildfire. Skype and text messages just don’t cut it, y’know.”
“I know. I miss them both too. Especially now.” He didn’t have to elaborate; they both remembered last week.
“That reminds me. Did our favorite lawyer talk some sense into the billionaire? Is it even possible?” Lois looked up at him, honestly curious.
Kal-El sighed. “Bruce is…. He let Tim and Steph come home. And since Diana talked to him, he lifted the lockdown on Gotham.”
“How bad’s the fallout been?” Lois asked.
“Well, Bruce and Diana aren’t together anymore, but give it a week or a month,” he said with a little shrug. The two had broken things off at one or the other’s instigation—sometimes by mutual decree—fairly frequently over the past three years. Diana cared about him, though, and she always ended up mixed up in things, offering her help or just her company, and somehow they’d be back together again. Bruce, too, had shown up at Diana’s side when she needed a shoulder to lean on, often claiming that Kal-El had sent him, but all of them knew better. By now Kal-El had accepted that the caring would last, even if the relationship didn’t. And Bruce badly needed friends he could rely on.
“Those two…” Lois sighed. “How about the rest of Batclan?”
“Pulling together after a crisis like they always do. The kids will be fine. They’re all watching each other’s backs, and Dick’s staying at the Manor for right now. Plus Dinah’s sticking around the city for Babs.” Luckily Lois was the official media liaison for the JLA, and unofficially the keeper of secrets for most of them, so he didn’t have to remember to use code names.
She nodded slowly, and then asked a very journalistic question. “So where was he all this time, and who the hell supported him? You don’t start a war like that without backers, financial and otherwise.”
“We don’t know yet,” Kal-El admitted. “We don’t know how he survived or where he was. As for the funding, some of the equipment he had was very close to Batclan’s own gear. Bruce has an idea who might be behind that. He’s not saying, of course, but it takes a lot of money to get into that level of tech. The usual run of Gotham villains just don’t have that kind of money, and none of them would’ve been able to keep from gloating over having access to the gear, much less knowing anything about where Jason was.”
“Yeah, those vain bastards would’ve shouted it from the rooftops if they knew,” Lois murmured. “Frikkin’ Penguin would’ve taken out billboards.”
Kal-El sighed. “Bruce does have a nemesis with the resources and the patience to pull something like this off: Ra’s al Ghul. If it was him, that might be our answer as to how Jason survived. Or came back, as the case may be.”
Lois shot him a very dubious look at that. She knew a great deal, but she didn’t know everything, and knowledge of the Lazarus pits was as closely guarded as Kal-El’s own identity. When he didn’t offer any more information, she sighed heavily and leaned against him. “I don’t know how to feel, Kal-El. Part of me wanted to put a bullet in the rotten little shit for going after Bruce and putting Tim in the hospital and blowing up half of Gotham. I mean, seriously. But then most of me remembers what he went through—trying to find his mom, finding out she was working for Joker, the goddamn clown killing him, and then somehow he survived—and all I can think is ‘that poor damn kid needs a hug’. It’s not right. It’s like some sick fucking joke that he ended up this way.”
Lois was a mother, always in doubt about her own maternal abilities but a great mother nonetheless. She couldn’t help responding to Jason Todd’s quest to find his birth mother, or reacting to him as a lost son above all else. Most of the time she was objective about heroes and villains and those who lurked between, but not in a case like this. Kal-El kissed her once, softly, and she nuzzled his cheek. They could both grieve for Red Hood, for what had happened, what he’d done, and what he’d become. “He was a good kid,” Kal-El murmured, remembering how hard the second Robin had worked to try filling his predecessor’s shoes.
Another long silence, in which Kal-El supposed both of them were grateful for their own children and the comparatively mild struggles they’d gone through. And then Lois tipped her head back to look up at him. “Why do you guys let Bruce raise all the children, anyway?”
“He doesn’t raise them all. Green Arrow’s got … I forget how many it is now.”
Lois paused, arching an eyebrow. “Him, too.”
The true answer was the JLA didn’t actually have oversight of its heroes. There were no Heroic Enforcement Cops who could say, ‘You have too many sidekicks’ or even, ‘You’re doing this wrong’. They were all independent operators allied by common goals. Everything had to be settled by discussion—unless someone was egregiously flouting the law or presenting a danger to the public, in which case they’d be stopped and placed under arrest like any criminal.
Kal-El knew what Lois was really talking about. Why was it that the least likely fathers among them were raising the most children? Bruce with his past certainly didn’t seem like good father material, although he was devoted to his adopted children … in his own way. “I don’t know, honestly,” he answered.
“That ought to be you, y’know. The man with a dozen sidekicks.” Lois intoned the last half of that with a fake broadcaster’s voice, making Kal-El grin.
At least he could turn this from darker subjects. “So what you’re telling me is, you want more kids in the house?”
Her mouth quirked up in a sarcastic smile. “Yeah, hero. Head on down to whatever sidekick supply depot Bruce uses, I hear they have a two-for-one special.”
“I’ll get right on that. Sorry the super-beagle project didn’t work out as planned,” he teased.
Unfortunately, ‘beagle’ was one of the words that both Bagel and Chewie knew and responded to, and as soon as he spoke the younger dog howled. Lois barely had time to swear before both of them were yipping and dancing in anticipation of their breakfast.
Something was up with Kala. Dustin had known that for days, ever since she’d talked to Jason. What that conversation had been about, he still didn’t know. He’d texted Jason asking if everything was okay, and been told that it was a college friend’s brother going through some heavy stuff. Jason had just needed to hear his twin’s voice.
Right. And if that was the whole story, Dustin would eat his still-fairly-new cowboy hat without ketchup. Still, Jason and Kala did keep certain things just between the two of them. He would’ve written it off as Twin Stuff, if not for Sebast.
Dustin was well aware that Sebast was Kala’s best friend. Other guys probably treated him either as a rival or someone they could ignore, but Dustin loved her, so her friends were his. No matter how jarringly out of place they were in his hometown. And Sebast was a good friend to have.
He’d come to Dustin yesterday, a shadow lurking in his eyes. “Has Kala told you what the hell has her so wound up?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Dustin had replied. “You?”
Sebast had scowled. “No. One of us has to pry it out of her. It’s not good for her to keep bullshit locked down like this all the time. Eventually the pressure will get too high and she’ll blow up. And trust me, mijo, that won’t be pretty.”
“I’ll see if I can get her to talk,” Dustin had offered.
“You’re the one sharing her pillow. Make with the pillow talk.” That had sounded almost … jealous, and Dustin had been thoroughly perplexed.
But not as confused as he was when he finally tried to get Kala to talk to him about what was bothering her. He waited until they were comfortably in bed, snuggled close in the afterglow, no urgent plans in the morning that would make staying up to talk a bad idea. “So how’s Jason’s friend’s brother?” he asked.
Kala’s whole body tensed. “Not good,” she answered in a small voice.
Dustin kissed the top of her head. Her hair always smelled like some kind of candy, a delicious scent that made him want to rub his face against her. “Is he gonna be all right?”
“No one knows. No one even knows where he is.” Kala huddled close to his side, burrowing in for comfort.
He wasn’t quite sure what to say. “What’s going on, exactly?”
She’d been tense before; now Kala’s shoulders were like iron cables. “I … it’s not my place to talk about it. It’s not Jason’s, either.”
“I’m not trying to be nosey,” Dustin demurred, wrapping his arms around her. “I just hate seeing you upset, is all.”
For a long moment, Kala was silent, just her breath warm against his neck and her arms around his chest. When she spoke again, her voice was almost too low to hear. “What’s happening to him … it almost happened to me. That’s why Jason’s scared. He almost lost me the way T—his friend lost his brother.”
“What happened, Kala?” Dustin asked. He hated that lost tone in her voice. One of the many things he loved about Kala was her fire, her gutsy determination. To hear her sound broken and afraid made him want to take a tire iron and find whoever had made her feel this way.
Kala shook her head slowly. “I can’t … Dustin, I can’t talk about that. It was when I was kidnapped. Things happened … I can’t.”
Snuggling her close, trying to lend her every iota of warmth and strength and security he had, Dustin murmured, “I’m here. You’re safe now. No one’s gonna hurt you.”
“No one hurt me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t what happened to me, it’s what I thought, what I saw, what I did….” With a convulsive shudder, Kala sat up, her eyes clearing as if a fog were rising. “Dustin, it’s in the past. It doesn’t do any good to bring it up. What I was scared of—what Jason’s scared of—didn’t happen. It could’ve though, and it did. To this guy. And—it’s extra creepy because his name is Jason, too.”
That made sense, and Dustin gathered her gently close again. What, exactly, she was worried about, he still didn’t know. What could she have seen or done while she’d been kidnapped? He saw the glassy look in her eyes, though, and knew that further questioning would only upset her. For the moment, he decided to let it go.
Kala seemed grateful at the reprieve, and nestled back against his side. Dustin stroked her hair until she quieted, and finally slept. He dozed off not long after she did.
A few hours later, Dustin woke to a sharp kick in the shin. He half-sat up, staring blearily at Kala. “Whuh wazzat for?” he groaned.
She wasn’t even awake, eyes screwed shut, curled up into a tight ball of misery. He knew from experience that Kala normally sprawled as she slept, taking over most of the bed and entwining herself around whoever was sharing it with her. This was strange and unexpected—like a lot of things tonight.
Dustin rubbed her back softly, but she cringed from the touch, kicking ineffectually at him. And mumbling, words that almost held meaning. He knew she spoke French and Spanish, but that didn’t sound like either. Some weird dream-talk, maybe, but the sense of hidden meaning haunted him.
Obviously this was some kind of nightmare. Dustin caught Kala’s shoulder and shook it gently. “C’mon, Kal, wake up. You’re okay.”
Her response was somewhere between a whimper and a snarl, curling even tighter into herself. That sounded downright creepy, and Dustin shook her a little harder.
Kala woke with a gasp, sitting bolt upright, and for a second she stared at him with such terror that he knew whatever had gone down in Nevada had to be what she was dreaming. “Kal, it’s me,” Dustin implored.
Then she recognized him, and the sudden rush of tears made him pulled her tight to him, arms around her protectively. But no matter what he did and said, she wouldn’t tell him the dream.
It was late, so late it was actually early, but Lois had been up all night fixing one of the biggest potential gaffes she’d ever seen or even heard of in her newspaper career. The entire front page had had to be rewritten overnight thanks to a sudden late-night revelation. No way was the Daily Planet going to suffer from a ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ incident on her watch, so Lois fixed it, emailed it off to the waiting print room, and then sauntered out onto her balcony for a much-needed bit of relaxation.
If Kal-El had been home, she would’ve found another way to relax, but clearly something had caught his attention. She didn’t question his late-night absences, knowing she’d read about them the next day. Instead Lois breathed the night air and watched the city lights twinkling. A distant part of her noted that this was just the sort of moment for a cigarette, but she’d largely shaken that vice.
While she was reflecting, she caught a faint glimpse of red and blue out of the corner of her eye. “Kal-El?” she said questioningly, turning, but he wasn’t hovering off the edge of the balcony like he usually did.
Instead she found herself swept up in a powerful grip, soaring through the city in a zigzagging pattern that was nothing like her husband’s flight. Almost like flying with her daredevil daughter, something she’d only done once. Lois was too startled at first to twist around and look at her kidnapper, but she quickly rectified that.
An enormous toothy grin met her gaze, set in a chalk-white face. Oh no. Oh hell no. She’d dealt with this one a year or so ago, and as far as villains went, he wasn’t so terrible. He just didn’t know his own strength, which was equal to Kal-El’s but coupled to an intellect that sometimes seemed to operate on the level of a child.
He thought he was Superman. He had some of the same powers, but twisted and changed—ice vision and heat breath, for example. The yellow sun slowly turned him to stone, and kryptonite actually healed him. Still, he believed he was Superman, and tried to follow the same priorities. Such as right now.
“Superman always save Lois!” the deep voice crowed, blue eyes bright with glee.
If she’d been able to, Lois would have dropped her head into her hands. Fuck my life.