The last few days in Smallville had been unaccountably good. Jason discovered he could actually get to like this life, the rhythm of the days predictable and strangely sweet. He didn’t need super-strength to heft a bale of hay to his shoulder and take it to the mules, breaking it up into flakes for them. Speed was of no use in certain farm chores, either. To move quickly around the hens was to frighten them into a clucking, flapping welter of confusion, and the goat probably wouldn’t have appreciated being milked any faster than human speed.
Sure, nailing a new board in place or twisting a corroded bit of pipe fitting loose would’ve benefited from a touch of his powers, but there was an odd sort of satisfaction in tackling those tasks with purely human muscle and determination. Jason even found that he liked the weariness at the end of the day. He was never exhausted, the farm wasn’t that much work or Ben couldn’t have kept it alone for more than a day. It was just that his body was telling him he’d done a full day’s work, both mental and physical, and could take a well-deserved rest.
Jason couldn’t really remember that feeling in his daily life before. Maybe when he’d been involved in a really big save, that mingled tiredness and sense of accomplishment had been there. But it had always been a rare thing, and now it was normal. Funny how something so simple as being tired could be so heartwarming.
This was peace, and the more he looked out over the farm, the more Jason knew that he wanted to be the one who kept it in Kent family hands. Not just an obligation, either. He wanted this, even moments like right now, brushing out the mules’ coarse coats and making dust fly up with each stroke of the currycomb. By the time he got done, he’d smell of mule and his clothes would be coated with fine dust and hair.
Still, the point was sound. This place had played a large part in how his father had grown up to be the Superman he was, and it deserved to be cherished for that, too. It had its challenges, the commute to the kind of career Jason wanted being a big one, but Smallville was a good place to live, a good place to raise a family. And someday he wanted one of those, too.
A little melancholy intruded on Jason’s thoughts at that, and he tried to push it away. There was no point in wondering if he and Cassie had a future if his powers didn’t come back. She would be horribly offended if she ever knew he’d questioned it. But the simple fact was, to be a hero without powers took years of training, and Jason was far behind the game. Plus he had years of habits formed from being bulletproof. One misstep in the field, one accidental reversion to the days when he’d been deployed as a living tank, and he could be killed. No, if he was powerless, Jason wasn’t even going to try to rejoin the caped crowd. He’d find his heroism in other ways.
And he had the terrible feeling that if he dropped out of the Titans, that would become a wedge between himself and Cassie. The two of them and Tim were very well balanced. If it became just Cassie and Tim running the group, well, Jason worried he might feel like a third wheel whenever they were all together. The other two would want to talk caped business, and he’d be left out. Besides, he couldn’t really see Cassie out here. Not long-term, anyway. But then he couldn’t have seen himself out here long-term until this week’s patient clarity.
Jason chuckled to himself. If Grandpa Ben could hear the thoughts running through his mind, the older man would scold him. “Don’t borrow trouble” was one of Ben’s pet phrases. It didn’t mean that one should ignore potential consequences and pitfalls. Just that worrying about what might happen several “ifs” and “maybes” down the road was a waste of energy. It was far too early to fret over who he planned to raise kids with! He was still in college, he had only been without his powers for a week, and all the things that concerned him were still just probabilities on the horizon. Better to think of the here and now, and finish brushing Patsy before she put a hoof on the edge of his shoe to remind him she and Betty were owed apples after this.
Just then, his cell phone rang, and Patsy flicked an ear in annoyance. “Hold on, girl,” he said, pulling the phone from his pocket. “Jason here.”
“Well hello, handsome,” Cassie said, as if she’d somehow known he was thinking of her.
It was a welcome surprise, the reality of her voice blowing all the megrims out of his mind. “Cassie! Hey, gorgeous, how’re you?”
“I’m good. Wondering if my boyfriend has met any cute country girls while my back is turned.” Cassie’s laughter was as refreshing as the little spring-fed creek Jason had waded through this morning, carrying his shoes as he crossed it.
While most people tended to think he was the serious and responsible twin, Jason had a streak of mischief as deep as Kala’s, if not as broad. He grinned and chuckled, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m standing here with two country girls.”
“Is that so?” The disbelief in Cassie’s voice was mingled with amusement. She knew there had to be a joke in this somewhere, but she couldn’t resist following along.
“Mm-hmm. A redhead and a brunette. They’re both younger than me, too.” That happened to be true. Back when Jason had first visited Smallville, Ben had had a pair of geldings named Jack and Bob. When Bob passed on, he’d gotten Patsy, and then a few years later when Jack passed away, Ben had gotten Betty.
‘The girls’ as Ben called them were now both in their late teens and showing no signs of slowing down. Betty’s rich sorrel coat still shone brightly when Jason brushed her, and Patsy still had the black stockings, dorsal stripe, and shoulder cross from her bay dun coloring that made her look so classic. Neither of them were old by any stretch, and Ben had just been telling Jason the other morning that Patsy was perfectly capable of chasing coyotes out of the pasture she shared with the goat.
Cassie sighed into the phone. “Right. Two country girls. Whose kids did you get roped into babysitting?”
“Not kids,” Jason laughed. “Patsy here’s old enough to vote. I should probably mention that they’re both stark naked, too.”
“What?!” Cassie yelped. “Jason Lane Kent, I swear…! All right, wise guy, what’s the punchline?”
“Nothing. The three of us are just out here enjoying the spring sunshine. And I was brushing Patsy’s hair for her. Here, you want a picture?” Still snickering, Jason pulled the phone from his ear and brought up its camera function. “C’mere, Patsy babe, gimme a kiss,” he said for Cassie’s benefit. And then, holding the phone at arm’s length, snapped a picture of himself puckering up as if to kiss the un-amused mule’s nose. In the background, Betty had perked up her ears, the white star on her forehead catching the sunlight.
Jason sent that on, and then put the phone back to his ear. “See what I mean?”
“You’re an ass,” Cassie laughed. “I love you, you great big goofball.”
“Actually, their fathers were asses. Of the donkey variety, of course. And I love you too. What’s up? Called to find out what we do for fun in Kansas?” Jason tried to prop his arm on Patsy’s withers and lean against her, but the mare adroitly stepped away just as he started to rest his weight against her, almost making him stumble. He went over to Betty and found her more congenial.
“Apparently play with mules and troll our girlfriends,” Cassie replied. “No, really. I wanted to know if you had some free time away from prying eyes.”
“Why Cassie, I had no idea you had a farmboy fantasy,” he replied, trying to sound suave and not managing to suppress his snort of laughter. “We do have a lovely barn with a secluded hayloft for your convenience.”
To his surprise, he heard two sets of feminine laughter. “Oh my God!” Cassie wheezed. “Jason! That is so not what I was thinking! Eww, hayloft, isn’t that itchy?”
“You ask like I’d know!” he replied, indignant. “Who else is over there?”
“My sister. I don’t think you’ve met Donna, have you?”
Great. And now Donna Troy’s first impression of me is bad innuendo. Thanks, Cassie. This is why I usually leave the trolling to Kala. “No, we haven’t met. Heard a lot about her, though.” Of course, that was deliberately vague. Donna was a legend, even among the original Teen Titans with whom she’d trained. And there was some sort of recent tragedy that it hadn’t been Jason’s business to know.
“Yeah, well, I thought it might be a good time for you two to meet. With the whole situation going on right now.” And that was a reference to his current lack of powers; Jason remembered hearing that Donna had been de-powered, too.
“Sure,” he said. “I mean, the only one around right now is Grandpa Ben, and he knows about us—Dad and me and Kala and the legacy. I should probably ask if I can have visitors, though.” Jason suddenly realized he smelled of hay, which was all right, but also of sweat and mule, which probably wasn’t. He would need a shower before seeing Cassie.
“Do that, and call me back,” she said. “We probably couldn’t make it ‘til tomorrow anyway.”
That was complicated. “Tomorrow we’re picking my sister up from the airport, and she’ll be here the weekend with her boyfriend. Maybe that’s good, they can run interference.”
“We’ll see. If all else fails we can come see you later. And Jason?”
“I love you. No matter what.”
“I love you, too,” and his heart leapt into his throat at those words. On that note they hung up, and Jason went inside.
In the midst of gloating over her most recent editorial—a work of genius that drove that final nail into the coffin of the Chinatown investigation—Lois’ cell phone rang. She knew who it was by the ring tone, but answered with her business-voice out of sheer habit at first. “Lane, Daily Planet. Hey, Red, what’s going on?”
Lana sighed in relief. “I was just about to drop in, if this is a good time.”
“It’s always a good time if you bring me lunch,” Lois replied, chuckling.
For once, the redhead didn’t return the humor. “Sorry, Lois, I didn’t even realize it was lunchtime yet. I’m still a little scattershot. I can grab something….”
“No, come on up. I was just teasing,” Lois insisted. Now she heard the utter exhaustion in Lana’s voice, and it worried her.
“Actually, if it’s all right I’ll meet you at the café downstairs. I’ll warn you, I need to ask a huge favor.” Hell, she sounded stressed to her limit, and Lois had so very rarely heard that in Lana’s voice that it unsettled her even more.
“C’mon, Red. Whatever it is, you’ve got it. You know that.” Lois would’ve agreed to any request without even being asked. She wasn’t a generous person by nature like her little sister Lucy, but this was Lana. The redhead wasn’t just a good friend, she was one of the very few people who were in on the secret, and that as well as her marriage to Richard made her family. Besides, no one from Smallville would ask something serious without there being real need.
“Thanks, Lois. You’re a lifesaver,” Lana said tiredly, and hung up.
As she grabbed her purse to leave, Lois glanced left, past the Chief’s office where Perry was haranguing some poor intern, to the International office. Kal-El wasn’t there; he’d taken a long lunch to deal with some JLA business, but her gaze sought him when she worried. He was her touchstone in times of trouble—in all times, really.
In his absence she twisted her wedding band around on her finger, the gold warm and smooth. Martha’s name was engraved on the inside, and Lois never forgot that the ring she now wore had seen so many decades of loving marriage. Despite some of the struggles she and Clark had weathered, their bond was just as powerful as the first two people to wear these simple, lovely bands.
Within fifteen minutes, Lana showed up at the café. It was a simple affair, just coffee, soda, salads, and sandwiches for those who forgot to brown-bag it. Lois had taken a table off to one side, and Lana dropped down across from her with a faint smile. “I’m sorry to spring this on you,” she began.
Lois waved her off. “Come on. Lana, you know whatever it is, I’m on it. And if you have to spring it on me that just means you didn’t have any warning either.”
“Oh, but I did. I just didn’t recognize it at the time.” Lana rubbed a hand over her face, sighing. “This is just … it’s all hitting at once, and there’s so much to do.”
Reaching across the table for her other hand, Lois used her best coaxing-secrets-from-a-source voice. “Red, tell me what’s going on. Start from the beginning.”
Lana took a deep breath and let it out. “All right. So you know Richard went down to Ft. Lauderdale two weeks ago, right?”
Lois nodded. He went to visit his parents more frequently as they were getting older, just to keep an eye out. Theo and Sylvia White lived in a very nice gated community with good security and friendly neighbors, but they were Richard’s parents. Of course he wanted to take care. And he was a pilot, after all. He could fly down as often as he could afford the fuel, and that was pretty much whenever he wanted. Only business and family obligations in Metropolis kept him from dropping in every weekend.
“Sylvia’s been acting a little odd, he told me the first night he went down there. Odd for Sylvia, that is. She’s been cheerful and relaxed, and if it wasn’t his mom, Richard would’ve asked if she was smoking pot. Plus she’s been having insomnia, and … just little things. Putting the sugar in the fridge and leaving the milk on the counter. The kind of forgetfulness that happens when you get older, you know.”
As someone who relied on sharpness of wit in her daily work, Lois dreaded the forgetfulness Lana spoke of so easily. It was bad enough that her particular kind of controlled-chaos went unaccepted as a valid organizational system, despite the fact that she could lay hands on any file or note she wanted to with minimal searching. If she actually started losing things, losing track of where she’d left them, that would be a nightmare. And the thought of losing her memory, losing her mind … Lois could barely suppress a shudder. No way. That wasn’t going to happen to her, no matter what.
“No one thought anything of it,” Lana was saying. “It wasn’t a big deal. Richard was having a good time down there, I had everything under control up here, you know how it is. The world keeps on spinning like usual.”
Lois nodded, wondering where this was going and not liking the hints her journalistic senses were giving her.
“So this morning, Richard gets up and he and Theo are talking about basketball while Sylvia’s making the coffee, and they both hear a crash from the kitchen. Turns out she fell, she bumped her head on the floor, and they take her to the hospital because she seems a little out of it. On the way there, Richard notices her frowning and he tells his mom not to worry, they’re just going to check her out, and she turns to him and says ‘Of course I’m not worried,’ only all of a sudden she sounds almost drunk, and the frown is only on one side of her face.”
“Oh, no,” Lois whispered, her heart sinking. Personality changes, forgetfulness, clumsiness, and then slurred speech and one-sided weakness: she knew what that added up to. “Sylvia had a stroke?”
Lana just nodded slowly. “So Sylvia’s in the hospital, and Theo’s going out of his mind, and Richard just called me because the doctor says it’s probably not the first stroke she’s had. There may have been other, smaller ones, before now, and nobody noticed. But her blood pressure is sky-high and so is her cholesterol, she’s got hardening of the arteries, and God alone knows what else is going on because Sylvia hasn’t been to the doctor in two or three years because she felt just fine.”
Lois could only groan. That sounded perfectly in character for the woman who had once almost been her mother-in-law. Sylvia felt okay so she was okay, and she was stubborn enough that no one could’ve convinced her otherwise. The risk factors were certainly there: Sylvia had always been a little on the heavy side, a woman who enjoyed her meals and thought calorie-counting was obsessive-compulsive.
But everyone else had thought her health was good, too. Lois certainly hadn’t seen anything wrong with Sylvia the last time she’d been down to Florida with the twins. She got up every morning and made breakfast for herself and her husband, she walked her two psychotic Yorkies around the neighborhood three times a day, she gardened and went to her book club and played bridge with three other ladies in the same community. A healthy, active lifestyle for a woman her age.
“So what’s the prognosis?” the reporter finally asked, dreading the answer.
“Not good,” Lana murmured. “They’re giving her medication to dissolve the clot, but there’s not much else to be done. No one will give Richard a straight answer, though. He says it doesn’t look good.”
“And you need to be down there with him,” Lois said, guessing the reason for the visit. Richard was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but no one wanted to be alone when a parent was ill … or perhaps worse. And Lana would be the perfect person to help Theo and Richard both. Her serenity and optimism were unfailing; only the sense of having to force an obligation on someone else had rattled her now.
“I really do. But I can’t pull Kristin out of school; her spring break isn’t for another week, and they’ve got that ridiculous school-wide test right before it. There’s no way she can come down, and really, she doesn’t need to be there if Sylvia’s doing that poorly. She just saw her grandparents at Christmas. If … if something does happen, that’s how I want her to remember Sylvia. Not like this.
“As for the dogs, the pet-sitter we usually use is booked up, and I won’t kennel them at the vet. It’s too short notice for any of the boarding places I would use. And I can’t bring them with me because of the Yorkies, plus Richard has our plane and I won’t make Narcissa fly cargo. I’d leave them with your sister but she and Ron just got a new puppy, and that’s enough adjustment; Kay and Laurel have cats that I don’t know how Cissa would act around, so I can’t ask them. And it’s really not fair for me to come up to you at work with absolutely no notice and say ‘Hey, Lo, can you take over my life for a while?’ But that’s sort of what I have to do.” The redhead propped her elbows on the table with a frazzled sigh, staring across at Lois.
She could only laugh quietly. “Lana. Relax. Yes, Kristin and both dogs can come stay with us. Or I might even just hang out at your place and house-sit until you get home. I’ve got keys, and Clark can commute back and forth.” That thought brought a smile; they both lived in penthouse apartments with convenient ‘landing areas’ for flying superheroes.
Lana reached across the table and took Lois’ hands, squeezing gratefully. “Lo, you’re a lifesaver. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Hey, that’s my line about you, Red,” Lois replied, remembering everything back to the wedding dress—and the wedding itself, with Lana quietly and capably handling all the details that drove Lois crazy, as well as running interference between what the no-nonsense bride wanted and what the two old-fashioned romantic moms wanted.
Lana smiled at the joke. “You know, the way we met, I never would’ve guessed you’d turn out to be my best friend.”
That called for some teasing to deflect the weightiness of the topic. “Yeah, right. Admit it, Lana: you only married Richard to keep me around.”
Sea-green eyes finally sparkled with amusement. “Of course not. I married him to keep your twins around. You were a great add-on to the package, though.”
“Atta girl. So when are you flying down?”
She ran a hand through her hair, thinking. “As soon as I can, probably. I don’t need to pack much, and I can book the first flight with a seat available.”
Lois nodded. “Call the school, tell them I’m picking up Kristin. Leave me a note on how much to feed the dogs. I’ll handle everything, Lana. Just keep in touch.”
“I will. Thank you, Lois.” The two women stood up, and Lana hugged her tight before hurrying off.
For a moment after she left, Lois just stood quietly in the café. She and Sylvia had never gotten along, but she wished the older woman well anyway. The quarrels didn’t matter; she was Richard’s mother, and Theo’s wife, and Kristin’s grandmother, and for their sake Lois hoped she would beat the odds.