Kala was being distant, and Dustin didn’t know why. Honestly he was a little afraid to ask. Was it something he’d said or done while they were in Smallville? Or was it whatever was going on with the twins? He knew something was up, but he’d known Jason and Kala long enough to know that some things were just between them. Sometimes they had whole conversations comprised of looks and raised eyebrows, with just a handful of words thrown in so the casual observer wouldn’t think they were actually psychic.
Dustin could wish that his best friend or his girlfriend would let him in on whatever it was, but he knew better. His grandfather had had a saying about wishing for things that seemed to apply here. The original phrasing was saltier, though Dustin always thought of it in the terms Granther employed when kids might be listening. ‘Wish in one hand, crap in the other, ‘n see which one fills up first.’ Crude, true, but to Dustin it meant that realities outweighed wishful thinking. And the reality was that Jason and Kala had shared a lot of things, starting with a womb, that they never extended to anyone else. That was just part of life with them.
Besides, he did trust in one thing. If whatever was going on would affect him, they’d both tell him. Right now it simply wasn’t his business, and he saw no need to pry.
What did need prying into, though, was the way Kala looked at him. The whole trip back to Metropolis, there’d been a sadness in her eyes whenever he met her gaze, quickly hidden behind false cheer. Dustin knew it was false, too, but he let it go. Kala was switching between clinging to him fiercely and staring at him as if they were on two icebergs drifting apart. Something had to be done about that.
But the band was taking up all her time. Dustin had been with them throughout the process of getting together their ‘label packages’, making copies of the demo CD, getting Kala’s uncle-by-newsprint Jimmy Olsen to take professional photos of the band, choosing which news clippings to include. One night Kala, Sebast, and Morgan had argued until dawn over how to word a cover letter. It was all a lot of work, just like the constant practice and all the shows they’d been doing. Dustin privately swore that the next time someone back home wanted to run away and be a singer, he’d tell them it was more trouble than being a mechanic, for sure.
Now that an actual label rep was talking to them, they were in overdrive, and it felt like Dustin never saw Kala sitting still unless she was asleep. She even ate on the run, scarfing whatever she could while trying to make it to this appointment or that one. He felt a little lonely, even though she was staying over at the rental house more often than at her parents’ apartment, and that meant he got to sleep beside her most nights. Strange to feel lonely while she was cuddled up to him, gradually stealing the blankets and taking over his half of the bed. But then, Kala acted lonely, too, even though he was there for her through all of it, including the band stuff that he didn’t completely understand.
It didn’t help that Dustin wasn’t sleeping too well. He’d thought he might be able to adjust to Metropolis this time around. After all, he wasn’t a kid anymore. Lots of people lived comfortably in the big city despite the noise and traffic, but he found out the hard way that he just couldn’t. Ear plugs cut down on the nighttime noise, and then it was the light that bothered him. It was never fully dark in Metropolis, not the way Dustin was used to darkness, with the stars wheeling overhead in all their cold, untouchable beauty. He borrowed Kala’s sleep mask to much teasing from the other boys, but not even that worked.
Dustin suspected that he was just a little too in tune with his environment. The same sense that told him a deer was approaching when he was sitting in a tree stand in the chill morning air of a Kansas autumn, without any sight or sound he was conscious of, was probably playing havoc with him now. Metropolis was alive and awake at all hours, throbbing with the driving beat of its heart: its people. And he felt that life flowing around him, chaotic and constant, every moment he was in the city.
It didn’t bother Kala. As near as he could tell, she loved it; she swam in it like she was a trout and the mad whirl of city life was her stream. Sure, she enjoyed Smallville, but this was her element.
And it wasn’t his.
Everything came to a head one night when he just couldn’t sleep, and tried to get out of bed. Sometimes a glass of milk or a few minutes of reading would help. This time, Kala clung to him stubbornly. “Babe, I hafta get up,” Dustin whispered, trying to ease her arm off his shoulder.
“Nooooo,” Kala whimpered, twining her leg around him in protest. “Don’ lea’ me yet.”
He paused, one hand on her knee; unwrapping Kala when she was in a cuddly mood was a bit like wrestling an octopus. Yet? Dustin stopped trying to wiggle free and nudged Kala awake instead. She looked at him bleary-eyed and adorable, the literal girl of his dreams. “Hey, Kal. What’s up?” he asked, trying for gentle humor. “Did you dream you were the Kraken or something?”
“What if I’m the Kraken dreaming I’m a rock star?” she mumbled back, and snuggled in to his side.
Dustin stroked her hair softly. “Kala.”
“Dustin.” Her eyes were already closing again.
“When I tried to get up, you told me not to leave you yet.”
She blinked again, and those hazel eyes were wide awake—and wary. “Well, I don’t want you to leave me,” she whispered.
“I don’t want to leave you, either,” he replied, and solemnly rubbed his nose against hers. His mother had called those ‘Eskimo kisses’, and it was one of his favorite ways to remind Kala that he loved her.
That was it; Kala drew in a hitching breath, and squeezed him tight. “But you will,” she mumbled. “You’re not happy here. I can tell, Dustin. You can’t even get a full night’s sleep.”
It was true, no sense in denying it. “Well, what’s that plaque in your mom’s office say? ‘Sleep is for the weak.’ Maybe I’ll buy one for myself.” That was hardly a solution, just his attempt to delay the inevitable.
Kala sat up slowly, swiping at her eyes in a vain attempt to hide tears. “I love you, Dustin. You’ve been a great friend ever since we were just kids, and you’re the best guy I’ve ever dated. I really, really love you.”
“I really, really love you, Kala.” Dustin took her hands as he sat up, and kissed the backs of her knuckles. “You’ve been a bossy annoying little brat since we were kids, and you’re still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Even when your idea of fashion was matching hair ribbons.”
She laughed, and tugged him close for a kiss that tasted faintly of salt. “This sucks. I want to be with you, but I love you too much to make you stay here and be unhappy. It’d be like … like keeping a horse in an apartment. No room for you to be yourself. And the long-distance thing sucks even worse.”
Dustin only nodded. He knew about the deal she’d made with her father. If Kala couldn’t get her band signed in two years of trying, she had agreed go back to college and pursue an alternate career. Something like that might’ve led her to a job where she could end up living within commuting distance of Smallville. But if the audition next week went well, she was going to be a full-time singer, and that meant hours in the recording studio plus months on the road.
All he said aloud was, “I always knew you weren’t going to be a mechanic’s wife in Smallville, Kala.”
Her lip trembled, and she closed her eyes. “For you, I…” she began, her voice breaking.
He reached to cup her cheek, making her look at him again. “No, Kala. You love me too much to make me live in the city, and I love you too much to make you do that. You were meant for so much more than what I can give you. This is what you’ve always dreamed of, Kal, and someday everyone’s gonna know your name.”
Kala could only look at him pleadingly as Dustin brushed the tears from her cheeks. “It’s like … you’re a mermaid, Kala, and I’m just some guy on a ship who happened to see you and fall in love. I’m so lucky you love me back, ‘cause you’re like something out of a fairytale to me.”
“You are so much more than ‘just some guy’,” Kala insisted vehemently.
He let that pass with a faint smile. “But as much as we love each other, you belong to the ocean and I belong to the land. I can’t live in your world without drowning. And I can’t ask you to give up your fins and be something you’re not.”
She sighed heavily, trailing her hand over his bare chest in aimless patterns. “That last morning in Smallville? When I tried to wake you up, I told you we were going home. And you said you were home. You don’t want me to settle for anything less than my dream—well, I don’t want to make you live somewhere you’ll never feel like you’re at home. I love you too much to make you unhappy.”
So that was what had been bothering her. Dustin looked at Kala steadily. “I’ll always love you. You know that, Kal. But we both know what’s going on here.”
Her voice was a tiny whisper, none of the rich bold tones that he knew were going to bring her fame and fortune in the music industry. “We’re not gonna be able to stay together. For good, this time.”
“No, we’re not,” he admitted. And this was the most painful thing Dustin had ever done. Yet there was a weird kind of rightness to it. Kala had been his first crush, given him his first kiss, and been his first lover. It was only fitting that she was going to be the first one to break his heart, too. At their first breakup, they had both drifted apart, staying close friends with that flirty edge that had been part of their relationship ever since she kissed him. But this time around, they’d been together longer, pretty much lived together, and they were both older and wiser.
This time, the unfairness of it was killing him. Dustin still couldn’t see himself living like a gypsy half the year, and he never could see Kala settling down in Smallville. The mermaid analogy had worked for her, but he also thought that asking her to move there was like planting a wild rose in too small of a pot. She’d get strangled by her own spreading roots, grow pallid and weak, and never be more than a shadow of what she should’ve been.
Lois was meeting Lana at the airport, and she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Richard and Theo were still down in Fort Lauderdale, settling things at the house. After two days with no change, both men had finally accepted the inevitable and agreed to take Sylvia off life support. She had passed peacefully within the hour. As it turned out, Sylvia had been an organ donor, and Lois had bitten her lip at Lana’s description of Theo’s hand shaking as he signed off on the proper forms. Three people were getting another chance at life, and one was going to be able to see, thanks to Sylvia.
Finding out about that ultimate generosity made Lois wish she could’ve gotten along better with the older woman, but their relationship had been adversarial from their first meeting—when Perry’s sister-in-law assumed he was sleeping with the sixteen-year-old girl he’d allowed to move in—and the animosity had been set in stone when one of her yapping hell-beasts tried to nip Jason. Lois suffered no threats to her children … and Sylvia would hear no wrong spoken of her ‘pupkins’. That breach hadn’t been healed by Lana’s best efforts over the years, and probably never would’ve been even if Sylvia had lived to be a hundred.
Lois hadn’t gone to the memorial service over the weekend, feeling like she would’ve been out of place. Perry did, which gave Lois an excuse to stay in Metropolis and babysit the paper, and Kristin had gone with Perry. The Chief was still in Florida catching up with his brother, but Kristin was coming home with her mom in time for school on Monday morning.
Idly browsing the newspaper stand—and contemplating putting a stack of Daily Planet issues into the dispenser for the Daily Star—Lois heard their flight called, and turned toward the gate. After a few minutes she saw Lana, though at first she didn’t recognize the redhead. That harassed expression certainly wasn’t at home on Lana’s face, and she pulled her carry-on luggage like it had insulted her.
Kristin saw Lois, and reached up to wave. Normally she would’ve been jumping up to be seen above other people, but she was probably still subdued from the funeral. Lois waved back, and then they met with hugs and kisses on the cheek … and rumblings of discontent from the bag over Lana’s shoulder. “Let’s get this over with,” Lana sighed, hitching the bag a little higher.
Meanwhile Lois was staring at the bag, which had mesh sides—and had just growled at her. “Red, what is that?”
“Sergeant and Pepper are gonna come live with us now,” Kristin supplied quietly. Lois looked over at Lana with stark horror.
“Sylvia left them to me,” Lana said, with a thin smile. “Along with her entire collection of Yorkie memorabilia. Do you know she had two dozen Yorkie-embroidered tea towels in the hall closet that had never been used?”
Pressing a hand over her mouth, Lois just barely managed not to laugh. Of all the things Sylvia could’ve done…. “Oh my God, Lana, I’m so sorry,” she said, and one of the dogs yapped at the sound of her voice.
That was it, Lois snickered and spluttered laughter, with Kristin looking on confused and Lana just giving a long-suffering sigh. “Your fault,” Lois finally wheezed. “You and the damn cheddar.”
Lana scowled; she had dealt with the terriers’ misbehavior by loading her pockets with tiny cubes of cheese. If they charged her or Kristin, she tossed cheese over their shoulders to distract them. She didn’t suffer any threat to her child, either, she just had different ways of dealing with it, given time to prepare.
It had the unintended side effect of making both dogs follow Lana around whenever she visited the Whites, which was probably why Sylvia had left them to her. “I only ever wanted one dog. Now I have four. And two of them are completely untrained. Sylvia had them both paper-trained. They’re five years old, Lois!”
“So that’s why you wanted me to drop Cissa and Dusty at my sister’s place,” Lois said. “Planning to introduce them on neutral ground? And maybe fob the terrierists off on Luce while you’re at it?”
“I wish. But I wouldn’t give these two to someone I actually like,” Lana grumbled.
“Why isn’t Theo keeping them?” Lois asked as they walked toward the parking area. Lana never checked bags; any significant luggage would be coming home on Richard’s plane, or sent via FedEx.
Lana huffed, scowling. “He doesn’t want them, never liked them, and best of all, he’s allergic to them. That’s part of the reason he always spent so much time in the garage. Besides, Sylvia actually put it in her will that they’re to go to me, since I’m the only person in the family who has a strong bond with them.”
“Ah, the bond of cheddar,” Lois said.
That didn’t mollify Lana. “Strong bond my foot. They think I’m a cheese dispenser! Pepper already tried to bite me when I put her in the carrier bag.”
Lois cast a glance at the bag. She couldn’t see the inside very well through the mesh, but easily made out a flash of white teeth and a staring eye. “Maybe we can pour gravy on them and get Marny to eat them for you.”
The attempt at joking earned her an unhappy look. “Don’t tempt me.”
Kristin promptly fell asleep on the ride over to the Troupes, proving yet again why her nickname was Dormouse. To break the moody silence Lois fell back on her journalistic instincts. “So what’s the situation with Theo? Perry said something about him coming up here?”
“He’s going to move to Metropolis, yes. They’re already talking about condos. The boys are getting the house in Fort Lauderdale in order to put it on the market, but we can probably get an agent to handle the sale. I expect Theo will be living here by the end of next week.”
“Wow,” Lois said. Theo and Sylvia had lived in Florida for at least the last twenty years; such an abrupt move sounded unwise.
“He needs a change of scenery, and Richard wants him nearby,” Lana said.
“Yeah, I get that,” Lois replied. In a way it reminded her of her own breakup with Richard. Neither of them could stand to live in the house they’d shared, constantly recalling what they’d lost. Which was why Lucy and Ron had taken over the payments and moved in. Now the Riverside house had a host of memories from family holidays over the years, and both of them were comfortable there.
Of course Theo saw Sylvia in every room of their home; she had imprinted her personality into every square inch of the place. Perhaps that might have become comforting, given time, but Theo had no other family in the South. It was better for him to come up to Metropolis where he could be around his son and brother and their families. Being alone wouldn’t help him.
Speaking of Sylvia’s personality imprinted everywhere…. “What’s the situation on the Yorkie stuff?” Lois asked.
Lana sighed again. “I just brought the essentials. All their other stuff is being shipped to the house. The sheer amount of things she had for these two is ridiculous. Matching seasonal leashes and collars, t-shirts, bandannas, sweaters, raincoats, booties, special bowls for the holidays, and the box of their toys alone weighs twelve pounds. They have special brands of shampoo and conditioner and detangler, and they own more hairbrushes than I do. Oh, and I almost forgot the doggy colognes with names like CK-9 and Pucci and Arfmani. Arfmani, Lois. That’s not even including the nail polish for Pepper.”
Out of all of it, the last was the most incredulous. “Nail polish? For dogs?”
Nodding, Lana stared straight ahead out the window. “There’s a nail polish to match every color of hair ribbon. All I could think was, ‘Dogs are colorblind’. And any of the dogs I grew up with would rather roll in roadkill than smell like Arfmani.”
Lois snorted. Her own beagles had one collar and leash each—well, all right, they both had Christmas collars, but that was different. And somewhere in the back of a closet were the Halloween costumes the twins had bought for Bagel. But none of that approached the level of indulgence Sylvia bestowed on her Yorkies. “How much of it have you already ditched?”
“Just the cologne, the nail polish, and the ribbons. As soon as I can get an appointment with a groomer, I’m going to have them both put into a puppy cut—reasonably short all over. No way am I going to put in the effort to deal with the long coats, so I won’t need the ribbons. And shorter fur means I might get some use out of the sweaters, too, so I’ll keep those.” Lana shook her head slowly.
“You’ll figure it out,” Lois said. “If anyone can turn those two mutts from Hell into model citizens, it’s you. You certainly trained Richard well enough.”
That won her a laugh. “Richard was already partly trained, though. And Lois?”
Lana reached over and took Lois’ hand that was resting on the gearshift, squeezing it lightly. “Thank you for listening to my whining.”
Lois gave her a fond smile. They both knew she was focusing on the dogs and the problems they presented to distract herself from the grief Richard and Theo had to be experiencing. And also from the fact that none of them were getting any younger. Martin and Annette Lang acted like they would live forever, but Lois knew that Lana worried about them both. She’d heard about an incident or two of forgetfulness—simple things like having to get a ride to church because they couldn’t find the car keys—which made Lana nervous. Luckily there were cousins and family in Smallville to keep an eye out on both of them.
And even more luckily, Lana had Lois to keep her mind off such things. “So you’re redoing the penthouse in black and tan Yorkie memorabilia?”
The look Lana cut her was incredibly skeptical. “Most of that is going to a Yorkie rescue down in Florida. They’re going to auction it off and use the proceeds to save more dogs. I did save a couple of items, and Theo is keeping a few things to remember Sylvia by. So is Richard, but I’m afraid he’s serious about wanting to hang the portrait of Muffin and Biscuit in our living room.”
At that mental image—Sylvia’s previous pair of terriers, painted on black velvet with ribbons in their hair and beady-eyed expressions—Lois laughed loud enough to wake Kristin up.