Jason wasn’t sure what, exactly, he was supposed to talk to Donna about. Shared commiseration over the loss of their powers? Advice for dealing with normal life when you were used to punching through steel?
What she wanted to talk about, it turned out, was that normal life. “I had it all,” she said, once they got on the topic. “Husband, son, house, car, a nice little life for myself. I went from Titan to housewife, and Jason, I loved it. I liked taking care of the house, planting flowers along the walk, teaching Robbie nursery rhymes, having dinner on the table for Terry when he got home. Even my photography was more of a hobby than a career, but I was doing what I loved, and that’s what mattered.”
“That sounds like a pretty good life,” Jason admitted.
“Something you’d like?” Donna asked.
He grinned. “Yeah. I don’t know about the gardening thing, but I can cook.” That startled a laugh out of her, and he shrugged. “It’s the 21st century, men can be house husbands if they want and if their wives are cool with it. But yeah, I want that—a house and a family.”
“Which most of us don’t get in the hero business,” Donna said. “I think part of the reason I jumped at that chance was … well, I was one of the original Titans. I was saving the world before I could drive. That kind of pressure gets really intense.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does,” Jason agreed, nodding. “And if you’re part of the leadership, too? Oh man, it’s like the whole world is riding on you.”
“So I saw a way out, and I bolted, and I had the life I wanted.” Donna sighed and looked away. “The life I thought I wanted.”
“What went wrong?” Jason asked quietly.
Donna turned to him with a quizzical look. “You don’t know?”
He shrugged. “I don’t pry into other people’s business.”
For a long moment, Donna stared out over the fields. Birds sang in the hedgerows, and somewhere in the distance a tractor was running. When Donna spoke again, her voice was quiet and controlled. “Terry … was my college professor. A lot older than me. I liked that about him, though. I liked that he had his life together; I liked that he didn’t get all tongue-tied over Wonder Girl. I’d been around so many boys that a real man just swept me off my feet. But what you like about a person when you’re thinking about dating them has a way of becoming the very same thing you hate about them when you’re married.”
Another pause, and she glanced at him. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“Because it’s about the life you choose and the life that was laid out for you before you were born?” Jason speculated. “Also maybe because I don’t know, and I don’t judge people. Ever.”
Donna nodded slowly. “Yeah, maybe. Anyway. Long story short, it got to the point where the only reason I stayed was Robbie. And then … the accident. From Titan to housewife in one leap, and then from housewife to widow in one horrible night.”
Jason didn’t know what to say. That kind of tragedy, he just couldn’t imagine. Heck, he couldn’t imagine how Donna stayed sane. “I know it’s not much, but I’m sorry to hear that.” The words sounded paltry, and he covered her hand with his, giving it a gentle squeeze.
She smiled wanly, squeezing his fingers once. “Thank you. I’m … better. Healing, at long last, and I never thought I would. My point is, even before the accident, I was starting to think I’d made the wrong choice.” Donna laughed a little. “I never talked to anybody about this. Just recently I told Dick, and I always told him everything, but when I was in the middle of it, laying awake at night wondering what the hell I was going to do, I never told him.”
Jason kept quiet, thinking, and then said, “The difference is, I didn’t choose to lose my powers. This got thrown at me, and maybe … maybe it’s meant to be.”
Donna arched an eyebrow and gave him a too-knowing look. “Are you so sure?”
Morning of their last day in Smallville, and Kala woke with the sun, as always. She snuck outside in her pajamas for a sunbath, soaking up the golden rays, and sighed happily. As much as she loved the farm, she was ready to get back to Metropolis. A three-day weekend was time enough to see family and friends, time enough to enjoy the peace and quiet, time enough to take a mule trail-riding and be thrilled to spot a bobcat crossing the stream. Kala knew from experience that staying too long, say anything over two weeks, would only draw her attention to the things Smallville lacked: twenty-four-hour stores, her favorite brands of makeup and clothing (with the exception of L. Lang jeans), and a good Indian restaurant. And she had always made it a point to never get to that point.
She also missed the anonymity of Metropolis. Back home, Kala could travel six blocks and find herself in a crowd of strangers. She could use super-speed and flight with only a careful check to make sure no one saw her taking off and landing, and no one ever questioned how she’d arrived anywhere. In Smallville, where absolutely everyone knew her, she had to take travel-time into consideration. If she were seen at the general store at eight in the morning, and then at the gas station on the county highway at five minutes after eight, someone would notice and comment.
When she heard sounds of movement in the house as someone else got up, Kala dragged her mind away from those thoughts and went back indoors for a quick shower in the hall bathroom. She came back to her bedroom to pick out her clothes for the day, letting the steam disperse and the mirror un-fog so she could do her makeup.
Dustin had stayed over last night—something to which Grandpa Ben turned a blind eye—and for once he wasn’t out of bed at the same time she was. Of all the mornings for him to be a lazy bum. Kala frowned, and nudged him. “Hey, sleepyhead, wake up. It’s Sunday.”
He only made a fuzzy noise and buried his face more deeply in the pillow. Kala poked his shoulder. “Dustin. Honey, getting up is kinda a priority. We have a plane to catch. C’mon.”
“Fi’ minu’s,” he mumbled, which Kala knew from years of living with Jason meant he wanted five more minutes. She shook her head and sighed, heading back into the bathroom. It would’ve been nice to use super-speed, but eyeshadow tended to get powdery when applied that fast, and eyeliner would smear, so Kala took her time, amusing herself with the notion that at least Dad never had to worry about this.
It was more like ten minutes when she returned to the bedroom to find Dustin still hugging his pillow in a death-grip. “Seriously, I love you, but we have to get moving. Wade’s gonna be here to pick us both up in an hour. We’ve got to get dressed and finish packing and have breakfast.”
His reply was unintelligible even to her. Kala leaned down and kissed his hair, then his ear, murmuring, “Oh, stop grumbling. Don’t you want to go home?”
“I am home,” Dustin mumbled in a sleep-thick voice.
That simple, sincere phrase shouldn’t have scored so deeply, and yet it did. Kala froze while the words processed. Oh God. Her heart crashed right out of her chest, straight through the pine floor beneath her feet, dropped through the living room below, and ended up somewhere in the root cellar among the cobwebs and the smell of stored potatoes. For a long moment she just stood there, looking at Dustin with her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth and her eyes starting to sting. The worst part about it was that she had known. Somewhere deep down, she had known it was only a matter of time.
There was no way he would ever say those words to her while awake, but … that didn’t make them any less true. To deny it to herself would be blatant foolishness. Smallville was home for Dustin in a way it never would be for Kala. Hadn’t she just been thinking about how she couldn’t stay here for more than two weeks without the homey closeness starting to chafe?
Kala sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling lost and alone and bereft while mere inches from the best guy she’d ever dated. Dustin loved her like crazy, and she loved him the same way. But she couldn’t make him live in Metropolis for the rest of his life; he might do it for her, but it would be cruel. And while their time on the road had been fun, even then she had known he was longing for home. It didn’t matter that she’d gotten him to try vegetable biryani and he’d liked it, Smallville would always call out to him as home. The sound of a whippoorwill calling at dusk, the long straight miles of empty road, the fields green with corn or golden with wheat, the impossibly broad blue sky overhead, all of it was his world.
Just the same way that the hustle and bustle of Metropolis, or any major city really, called out to Kala. The traffic, the sounds, the skyscrapers, the neon lights, the funky little shops tucked away in corners, the neighborhoods alive with personality, the constant mix and flow and blend of dozens of personalities and backgrounds and ethnicities all rubbing elbows in the arteries of the great city. A world where she could have the best bagels in town for breakfast, stop at a falafel cart for lunch, and then swing by a taco truck for dinner, all within a mile of each other, all delicious and fresh. A world where people actually organized gallery crawls and museum crawls, the arts and culture scene was so hot. A world where a Goth girl with purple streaks in her hair and silver eyeliner was ordinary. To Dustin it was all a whirl of constant interruption and diversion, but Kala loved the novelty and the fast pace.
What was she going to do? She loved Dustin. It hadn’t been like this with Nick, as nuts as she’d been about him. It certainly hadn’t been like this with Alan, also known as The Great Mistake. Hell, it hadn’t even been like this the first time around with Dustin, when they’d been starry-eyed and ridiculous.
God, now she knew how Mom had felt the first time that ugly word divorce had been brought up. Kala leaned her head in her hands and tried to puzzle out some kind of solution, already suspecting there wasn’t a good one.
Just then, her phone rang, and she grabbed it as much to keep the mariachi ring tone from waking Dustin as to distract her from her thoughts. “Hey, Gomez, what’s up?”
“Are you sitting down, mamacita?” Sebast asked.
Oh hell, he sounded serious, and he hadn’t called her Morticia in response to the Addams Family joke that Jason had unwittingly started. Kala felt her stomach do a slow roll. What now? She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Yeah. Dígame.”
On the other end of the line, she heard Sebast taking a deep breath too. “So that one shady-looking guy at the last gig? The one asking all the questions? He called back. Kala, he’s an agent. He wants to sign us. We have an actual offer from an actual recording label.”
That news left Kala vapor-locked. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry; signing with a label was a huge deal, pretty much the first real step toward her dreams, and it should’ve been the best new Kala had heard in weeks. But right now it just sounded like one more bell tolling for the end of her relationship with Dustin.
Kal-El didn’t know what to expect from this meeting with Zatanna. She wouldn’t tell him anything about Jason’s situation over the phone, which did make sense—phone calls could be intercepted and recorded, after all. But he couldn’t help feeling unsettled by the lack of even a hint.
So he was already tense when he arrived at the designated meeting spot, a theatre at which Zatanna would be showcasing her sleight-of-hand and other stage-magic skills later on. Her stage manager, Mikey, was setting up when Kal-El got there, but the woman knew about her boss’ secret identity. “C’mon backstage,” Zee said with a tip of her head.
Behind the plush black curtain was a whole other world of props and catwalks and rigging, which Zatanna navigated smoothly and Kal-El just tried to follow without bumping into anything. Zee finally made a turn into a dressing room and closed the door behind Kal-El. “I can see that you’re worried, so I’ll get right to the point,” Zatanna said. “I’ve done literally everything I can think of to find the root of this problem. Scrying, tarot, a minute examination of both the opponent and the gauntlets he was wearing, everything. And I’ve seen Jason himself several times, including at Smallville—nice little town you have there, by the way.”
Kal-El knew a summation when he heard one. “I understand, and thanks. So what’s your conclusion?”
She sighed and tugged at the gloves she was wearing. “Honestly? From what I can find, this never should’ve happened in the first place. And from what I can sense, it actually didn’t, in a way.”
Frowning, he asked, “What do you mean, it didn’t happen?”
“There’s nothing wrong with Jason. Nothing. He has zero background magic operating on him at any given time—and other than some ley lines and Native American burial sites, Smallville is pretty neutral ground, magic-wise, so I’d be able to sense even something very minor.”
That took a moment to process, Kal-El just blinked as Zatanna looked up at him intently. “There’s nothing wrong…?”
“There is no magical influence blocking his powers. There might have been in the beginning, right after he was struck; it’s within the capability of the enchantment on those gauntlets to short-circuit a super-powered being. But that’s a very temporary phenomenon.”
“It’s been almost two weeks,” Kal-El pleaded.
“Yes, and his powers should have recharged normally by now, but they haven’t. Jason told me that even the main computer at your place up north told him there’s nothing wrong.” Zee adjusted the gloves again, which Kal-El realized was a nervous tic for her, similar to Lois and running her hands through her hair.
Slowly, he nodded. “His kryptonelles—the microcellular structures that fuel our powers—are intact but dormant. That’s what the results of that scan were.”
“Right. So the cause of his continued lack of power isn’t magical. It can’t be. And magic can’t fix it, either, because believe me, I’ve tried.” Zatanna gave a self-deprecating little chuckle, and added, “I’ve tried to the point where I’d better not screw up a trick tonight, because I don’t have the reserves to back up stage magic with the real thing.”
“Zatanna,” Kal-El began, worried, and she held up a hand to halt him.
“Don’t start, you know I don’t run myself completely powerless unless the world’s at stake, but I’m definitely going to be driving instead of teleporting for a while. It’s worth it. He’s your son, and he’s a good kid, too. Only guy who’s ever asked me if I could put on some pants.” She smirked at that, clearly amused.
That did win her a chuckle. “I’m not surprised. His mom is Lois Lane.” Kal-El had long ago stopped paying attention to the uniform choices of his female colleagues, but even he knew that Zatanna’s stage outfit turned heads everywhere. Jason was more used to form-fitting spandex than fishnets all the way up to hipbones, so of course he’d been embarrassed and uncomfortable. Which was a good thing, from a fatherly perspective. Better than the leering some people thought was an appropriate response, and which Zatanna tended to handle with some very subtle magic.
“Now, I’ve got a couple of theories,” Zatanna said. “One is … well, you know I lost my powers once, right?”
“I remember hearing about that,” Kal-El said.
“I thought my magic was … dying, essentially.” That candidly-spoken sentence hid a wealth of dread, and Kal-El nodded in acknowledgement of it. He did know a few things about the loss of powers that had always been there, even if in his case it was completely voluntary.
Zatanna continued, “As it turned out, I’d made some mistakes, and each one cost me self-confidence, and as John Constantine would tell you, magic is all confidence. In his case, usually in the sense of a con game, but then he never was one to waste magic when psychology would do.” She smiled wryly as she spoke his name.
“Right, that makes sense. Your powers are essentially mental, and confidence plays a large part in that. But ours are physical.”
“How do you know that?” Zatanna countered. “Yes, there’s a physical component in the form of these kryptonelles, but that’s only part of the equation. We don’t know the exact mechanism for any of your powers, Kal. What if those kryptonelles are generating … something, some form of energy, that you’re manipulating by an act of will?”
“Most of my powers work without me having to think about them,” Kal-El replied. Thinking of it that way was odd, to say the least.
“All right, but what about flight? You don’t just float off like a balloon whenever you stop thinking about staying grounded,” Zatanna pointed out.
He had a quick answer for that. “I have taken flight unintentionally. One of the first times was while I was asleep.”
Zatanna responded, “And probably dreaming about flying, like a lot of people do. The thing is, Kal, there’s no physical or magical cause for Jason not to have powers right now. So it has to be mental.”
Kal-El paused, thinking deeply. It all made sense, but he’d never given it any thought before. Zatanna folded her arms and looked at him seriously. “It makes me wonder, when you have two children whose power sets show almost no overlap in intensity. There’s no power, except invulnerability, where the two of them are close to the same level. Jason’s strongest powers match his personality, and Kala’s match hers, from what I hear. Most telling, she can fly, and he can’t.”
“Why is that telling?” Kal-El had to ask.
“Because according to Jason, his sister has always wanted to fly, always been zooming off in search of something new and fascinating, even before she knew you were her father. And he never wanted it. He’s the most grounded person I’ve met, in all senses of the word. So maybe they didn’t inherit a genetic predisposition for certain powers. Maybe what they both inherited was the ability to express powers, and developed the ones that were in sync with their personalities.”
His jaw actually dropped a little. That could be the case. Kala certainly had the gifts she found most useful: hearing and speed and flight, with just enough of the others to get by. And Jason had the powers most suited to his own way of being. “So, if the expression of our powers is mental, you think Jason’s suffering from a lack of confidence?” That part of the equation still didn’t make sense; Jason was one of the most quietly confident young men Kal-El had ever met, even factoring in fatherly pride.
Zatanna shook her head. “No, I don’t think confidence is exactly his problem. I’m not sure what is, to be perfectly honest. But I do have an idea as to how we can get his powers to kick back in.”
“You do?” The hopeful news brightened Kal-El’s day considerably.
“Yes, but it’s going to take some staging, and you won’t like it,” Zee said.
It turned out she was right on both counts.