Perry White narrowed his eyes at the man sitting across the table from him. Lean, tanned, fit, with smile lines showing at the corners of his eyes, he looked like someone who was perfectly content with his life. And that was at odds with the statement he’d just made. “So how come you hate your dream job all of a sudden?” Perry asked, scowling.
His nephew Richard took another bite of his steak, chewing and swallowing before he answered. “Well, the management’s been swapping things around for a while. Used to be as long as I got in my monthly quota of articles, I could come in whenever I wanted. Now they want us punching time cards and working eight hours. Then some idiot decided it’d be a great idea to browse porn on the company computer, and of course the network picked up a virus that took it down for two days. So now our system’s also locked down so you can’t even check the weather on the company’s machine without putting in an access code.”
That earned him a scoffing laugh—Perry couldn’t imagine imposing those kinds of restrictions on even his Features department. Creative people functioned best with some freedom, and newshounds had to be let off leash to run properly. “Your boss is a damned idiot,” he growled.
“Tell me about it. But hey, I have to have a job. Otherwise I’d get bored. You’re not hiring, by any chance, are you?”
Perry chuckled richly. Of course this was the real reason Richard had wanted to go to dinner on a day when Theo just happened to be unavailable. Too worn out from golfing, apparently, a sport which utterly confounded Perry and which he thought of as a sort of disease his brother had acquired while living in Florida. At least the fact that Theo had been out there in ugly shorts whacking a tiny ball across a big lawn meant that he was adjusting to the new normal in his life. And Richard sniffing about after a job meant he was adjusting, too. Ever since his mother’s death he had seemed shell-shocked, but in the last few days his keen sense of humor was coming back. “What makes you think I’d hire someone who already quit on me once?” Perry asked him.
“I quit to keep the peace at the office, and I gave you plenty of notice,” Richard pointed out. “Besides, you know I’m an asset, and you know I already get along with your management. You don’t have to worry about healthcare, since I’ve got Tricare. Heck, I won’t even sweat you for the salary I deserve.”
The older man had a biting retort about deserved salary on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t say it. His heart picked that moment to go into a lurching gallop, and Perry rubbed his chest, wincing. His pulse steadied within a few seconds; these occasional palpitations had been showing up sporadically, but his EKGs were still looking good—well, good for someone who’d had a massive coronary fourteen years ago—so it wasn’t an issue. His cardiologist was keeping a close eye on the condition. As long as it didn’t come with pain, weakness, a feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest, or sudden weight gain, it was probably just part of getting older.
The five or ten seconds it last, though, was long enough to alarm Richard. “Uncle Perry? You all right?” In that moment he looked like his boyhood self again, wide-eyed with concern.
“I’m fine,” Perry said brusquely. The one thing he couldn’t stand was being hovered over like an invalid, though he had to cut Richard some slack considering how suddenly he’d lost his mother. “Just the thought of giving you what you think you deserve gave my heart a lurch. You really feel like coming home to the Planet, huh?”
“It is home, you know. Most of my friends and family are there, and I visit all the time.” He shrugged one shoulder, but his blue eyes were watchful, and Perry cursed his heart’s timing. Damn thing would go and get his nephew all worried; he’d be lucky if he and Loueen didn’t try to talk him into giving up caffeine. Again.
“What’s your wife think?” Perry asked.
At that, Richard grinned again—just as Perry had planned. Bringing up Lana was always a sure way to distract him. “She thinks she’ll only have to make one stop to bring lunch to all her favorite people. Lana loves an excuse to drop by the paper.”
Perry snorted at that. “She doesn’t need one, she still owns almost a quarter of it. At least she lets me do my job.” He picked up his sandwich and bit into it, chewing thoughtfully. They both knew he would say yes, eventually—Richard was right, nephew or not, he was too good a reporter to let him keep languishing at the Aviation Journal. That was like Mickey Mantle sticking to the minor leagues, for crying out loud. That he’d stuck with it this long privately amazed Perry, but then, Richard did love his planes.
After a long moment, he continued, “You know you’d have to go through the whole hiring process like anyone else. And I couldn’t give you a plum job right off. You’d be in the City bullpen, most likely. It’s not just the nepotism thing, it’s being married to a shareholder.”
“Yeah, but I already know how to take orders from your assistant editor in City, so that’ll be fine,” Richard joked.
Perry cut him an arch look. “Last I checked, you didn’t take those orders all too well.” Richard just shrugged. Then again, much as Lois had loved him, in the end she and Richard had turned out to be too much alike to make a marriage work. Which is why they’d married into Smallville, both of them, something that had baffled Perry at the time. It worked for them, though.
Pretending to deliberate further, he finally gave a heavy sigh. “What the hell, Lane needs someone in her department who’s not afraid of talking to her before her second coffee. Send your resume through HR.”
“Thanks, Uncle Perry,” Richard said, and his eyes gleamed with mischief. “Or maybe I should start calling you Chief, since I’m working for you and all.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want people to know I’m related to you,” Perry retorted, and both of them laughed.
Text messages were traceable, so Tim used them sparingly. But he did know Steph in and out of the cowl, so it wasn’t suspicious to send her a quick message asking if she’d made it home all right. The last he’d seen her, she was mopping up a fight, handily dispatching her opponents. Everything should’ve been okay … but she hadn’t come looking for him after the riot finally fizzled, and she usually did.
There was no immediate answer, which didn’t really worry him. Or so he told himself. Sometimes Steph couldn’t reply instantly. She did have homework, and her mom was watching over her on the alert for any caped crusades. Crystal Brown worried a great deal about her daughter’s safety, not without reason. And beyond that, it was perfectly reasonable to assume Steph was simply asleep at this house and not answering her phone.
He still worried. Tim sent another message ten minutes later, and when that got no response, he slipped out of the Batcave while Bruce was still analyzing the night’s events and made his way to the Brown residence. Steph’s bedroom window was unlocked; that meant she was probably still out. But Oracle wasn’t reporting her active, and Tim hadn’t seen her after the fight. He hoped she had only forgotten to lock her window, and eased it open to step into her room. “Stephanie?” he called softly. The comforter on her bed was rumpled enough that she could have been lying there…
…but she wasn’t, as Tim discovered when he pulled the comforter back. Steph was still out there, and his stomach dropped with queasy foreboding.
The lights abruptly came on then, and Tim dropped into fighting stance, a batarang in one hand. Mrs. Brown stood in the doorway, having just flipped the light switch, and her eyes were hard and haggard. “You,” she spat. “I knew it. She said she was giving it up, but no, she never could. Not while you were still out there playing dress-up. Where the hell is she, Robin?”
Tim straightened up, knowing he was flushing with embarrassment. He might be Red Robin, he might be partnered with the best and bravest hero in Gotham City, but somehow Steph’s mother made him feel guilty. For all sorts of things. “I don’t know, Mrs. Brown,” he said in his calmest and most professional voice. “I was looking for Stephanie myself.”
“You don’t know?” He realized an awful thing then, as her voice cracked on the last word. Mrs. Brown wasn’t angry, she was terrified. “My baby girl is out there in the middle of a riot with all you madmen, and you lost her?!”
There was no point in saying that he and Batman had both tried to discourage Steph from putting on the Spoiler costume. No point in saying that she wasn’t his responsibility, that he’d been at Batman’s side taking care of the worst of the fighting while she cleaned up the fringes. No point in any of it. So far as Mrs. Brown was concerned, it was his fault that Stephanie had gone missing.
It didn’t help that Tim agreed with her.
“I’ll find her,” he promised, and vaulted out the window. An easy tumble on the lawn, and he was on the comm before he’d even cleared the property. “We have a problem.”
Jason didn’t use his trust fund much, with most of his school expenses taken care of, so when he overheard the news of the fight with Metallo while his roommate was watching television, he saved the paper he was typing and switched to his browser. A couple of minutes searching found what he was looking for, and he made the transaction quickly. “Hey, can you make sure Gazeera has water tomorrow if I don’t make it back first thing in the morning?” he asked.
“Sure,” his roommate replied, looking only a little curious. “What’s going on?”
“Family stuff,” Jason answered, stowing the laptop. “I’ve gotta get to Metropolis tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow to feed Gazeera, but I don’t want him running out of water.” With that, he grabbed his wallet and headed out the door at a jog. He didn’t have much time if he was going to catch the train.
It was one thing to hear that Superman and the mysterious Blur were not significantly injured in the fight. He had to see for himself, and it never occurred to him to just call either of them.
Trying to intervene in a riot—again—really hadn’t been one of Steph’s best ideas. As a matter of fact it was currently edging out the competition for Worst Idea Ever. That title normally belonged to her completely moronic choice to let Dean get in her pants, which had cost her far too much even if the guy himself was mostly a footnote in her mind these days. Somewhere in the world was a little girl who didn’t know her mommy fought crime … but who probably had a whole lot better chance in life than said teen mom did. Even now, giving up her daughter was a hole in Steph’s heart that had scabbed over but never quite healed.
Second billing usually went to agreeing to take the mantle of Robin. She’d been a placeholder for Tim, that was all, bait to get him back into the cape. And it had worked, too. She should’ve listened to her mother—and Tim, and Batman, and everyone else practically—and just given up. Burned the Spoiler costume with last fall’s leaves and been done with it.
Steph just … couldn’t. People needed help, and she could give it. Maybe not as good as the rest of them, but she made a difference. She’d seen it. And maybe once her head stopped ringing she’d let herself rest and let those oh-so-much-better caped crusaders take over the fight. Getting knocked unconscious twice in one night was no good for her.
She tried to open her eyes, wondering who had saved her this time … and gradually realized that she couldn’t feel her arms. Steph blinked, and raised her head, wondering how she was standing up when she’d been unconscious.
Only she wasn’t standing, she was hanging from cuffed wrists, and that was why she couldn’t feel her arms.
“Oh, shit,” Steph muttered.
Bad things happened to heroes. That wasn’t news. Steph had been threatened, beaten up, and kidnapped (once by her own dad), and a couple times the bad guys had tried to kill her. None had succeeded, and even during the other stuff she hadn’t felt like she was in a huge amount of danger. Well, not most of the time. There was always Batman or Batgirl or Robin on the way. Plus the people who tried to hurt her often underestimated her, and that worked to Steph’s advantage. Especially as Robin—the bad guys were too busy laughing at a blonde Robin with boobs, and they let down their guard enough for her to get her licks in.
Now, though, she was scared. After standing up and moving her arms rhythmically within the limits of the cuffs, she got enough feeling back to try working on escaping. First she took stock of her situation. The cuffs were welded to a chain that ran up to a high ceiling somewhere in the darkness overheard. She was nauseous from the blow to her head, and aching all over from the fight earlier and hanging unconscious by her wrists. Her kit was gone, including the lock-picks normally stashed in her gauntlets. She just had her costume itself and her wits.
After a few moments, Steph realized why this situation frightened her so much. It wasn’t being held captive, it wasn’t waking up alone in a big dark room and having to wonder what the bad guys wanted. It was a small detail: the welded cuffs. Someone had taken the time and trouble to weld a set of steel handcuffs to a chain. That meant they used this setup a lot, and didn’t want any chance of someone slipping away.
It meant this might’ve been an unplanned capture, but whoever had her had done this before.
Steph shook her hands, rattling the chain. When in doubt, she always picked bravado as her default option. “Hey! Anybody there? I’m getting’ kinda bored here!”
Only the echoes of her own voice answered her. And an unpleasant question in the back of her mind. If they took my kit, I wonder if they’re smart enough to remove the locator chip in it? How’s Oracle or Robin gonna find me?
“Metallo, huh?” Lois’ eyes blazed. “Sonofabitch. And he was robbing a bank?”
“I know, right? Freaking cyborg arm and kryptonite heart, and he uses it for grand larceny.” Kala sounded more casual and flippant than she felt. Her heart was still racing, more from seeing Dad hurt than kryptonite exposure. He was still searching for any sign of Metallo, but they all knew it was a lost cause.
“It doesn’t make any damn sense.” Lois paced, furious, occasionally raking her hands through her hair. Kala remembered seeing her like this quite often when she was little and Mom was hot under the collar over a story. The only thing missing was the ever-present cigarette from those days; Lois had cut her smoking down to almost nothing.
Kala took another bite of the leftover pizza that had been in the fridge when she dropped in. Since she was eating, Bagel and Chewie had glued themselves to her feet, and she didn’t dare glance downward for fear of falling prey to the irresistible cute of two mournful-eyed hounds. “I wish I hadn’t flown off so fast.”
At that her mother stopped and turned the full intensity of those hazel eyes on her. Some of the effect was diminished by the fact that Kala could see that same steely take-no-prisoners stare just by glancing in a mirror. Not much, though. “No, you did the right thing. It’s kryptonite. You had to get yourself and Kal-El out of there before you were overexposed to it.”
And just the thought of extreme kryptonite exposure made her put down the pizza as her stomach did a slow barrel roll. Kala’s nightmares had faded a little, mostly due to the insane amount of work she was doing for the label. Meetings with image consultants, stylists, PR people, and then trying to nail down the songs for the first album. There were some originals written by the band members, but the label was nudging them toward professional songwriters. All of it left her too tired to dream, most of the time. She thought tonight might be an exception to that rule.
Lois was still caught up in the problem Metallo presented. “I need to find out where this guy came from. There aren’t many places that can do the cyborg work, and if he’s from Cadmus … they’re gonna regret crossing that line. Of course if he’s from somewhere else we haven’t heard of, that’s a whole other problem.”
“My money’s on Luthor,” Kala said dryly.
“It’s not always Luthor,” Lois reminded her.
Kala scoffed, unaware that the sound and the expression on her face were a strong echo of Lois’ own expression of disbelief. “Nah, just every time I think Dad and kryptonite and sneaky underhanded cowardly ways of getting the two together, somehow Luthor’s name just automatically pops up in my head. Probably because he’s a chicken-shit rat bastard with an axe to grind.” Words she never would’ve said if Dad was home, and as it just so happened, a direct quote from Mom.
Lois stopped pacing long enough to rumple her daughter’s hair. “That’s my girl. I’m still pissed I didn’t get to shoot that sonofabitch on the yacht all those years ago.”
“I bet Aunt Maggie’s glad you didn’t,” Kala pointed out.
This time she noticed the similarity, when Lois scoffed at her. “Your Aunt Maggie was the one who made sure to tell me Nevada was out of her jurisdiction, when we went after you.”
And that was the first Kala had heard of that particular tidbit. She blinked; Maggie Sawyer didn’t compromise her ethics for anyone. But if she’d as much as told Lois to take a shot at Luthor….
Her mother saw the look on her face, and sighed. “This was after what happened to Lana, and after Giselle came here. Add all that to him taking you, and Maggie was pissed enough not to care anymore. I think she’d have shot him herself, if she got the chance, and damn the consequences.”
“Luthor is evil,” Kala said, almost blurting it out. “He’s not misunderstood, he’s not crazy, he’s not misguided. He just wants power, and he wants Dad and all of us dead because we have a kind of power he never will. Somebody ought to take him out.”
“Don’t go thinking it’s you,” Lois said in a sharp, cold voice. “Number one, he’s mine. Number two, it’s harder than you think, as lucky as he is. Number three, you don’t need to take on that burden, too.”
Kala quieted at that. She’d been off-kilter for months after the death of General Zod. It had been a necessary and justified killing, one not even her father could blame her for. Still … he had protected her from Luthor’s thugs, and even though he was using her for his own ends, that had to count for something. Dru-Zod had rescued her, and she’d killed him.
Her mother tousled her hair again, more roughly, and she pulled away with a complaining noise. “Hey. I know that look. Let it go, Kala. You can’t change the past.”
“No, but I can learn from it. And maybe I won’t make the same mistakes again.”
Lois blew an annoyed breath out through her nose. “For all the Lois Lane 2.0 jokes, sometimes you are so much like your father.”
That, at least, made her smile. “Super-guilt, the least-known Kryptonian power. Gotcha, Mom. I’ll dial it back. Although maybe I’ll write a song about Luthor or something. We can call it therapy—and it’s cheaper than Dr. Marrin.”
“Good. If you call quote me in the lyrics, I want credit for it.” The devilish gleam in Lois’ eyes reminded Kala just where her drive and determination came from. Lois continued, “You finish scarfing up the last of the pizza, I’m going out.”
“…out?” Kala said, with the pizza halfway to her mouth. It was late enough that that was unusual.
“Like I’d leave the night desk to cover this. I want to see the scene of the crime,” Lois insisted. “Relax, it’ll be crawling with cops, I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, but I’m going with you,” Kala decided.
Her mother shook her head. “No way. The guy runs on kryptonite. If he does show back up, you need to be far away. Your father, too. I might have to call in a couple favors, but as it so happens, someone owes me one.”
In Gotham City, Oracle was still uncomfortably aware of her debt to Lois, but it was subsumed beneath an overwhelming frustration. “What do you mean, she’s missing? I didn’t have Spoiler on the roster tonight.”
“Spoiler doesn’t always respect the roster,” Red Robin said. “She was in the riot with us, but I lost track of her. Have you got any trace technology on her?”
“Of course,” Oracle said, and activated it. Two senses, one in the belt, one in the cowl of her Spoiler costume. They both reported in within minutes, and she gave Tim the address. Despite having that information, she also initiated a scan of her cameras’ data for the night in the area of the riot. With a little luck, she would see what happened to Stephanie and have more info for Tim before he caught up with her.
Babs sat back and rubbed her eyes. Steph was so different from the rest of them, so earnest and so … happy, in a weird way. She’d had a life that was no less operatically tragic than the rest of Gotham’s capes, in its own ways, but somehow she was getting through it without hardening her heart. Babs admired her for that.
And I never told her. She shoved the thought aside. This was no time for maundering. Steph might be hurt, so Babs alerted Dr. Leslie Thompkins. And then she contacted Batman. “B, this is O. Spoiler went off-line. R is proceeding to her signal location now. Assistance may be required.”
The first thing that really, truly frightened her was the way he answered her call. “When did Robin leave?” he asked of himself in a muttering tone that chilled her spine.
“What’s going on?” she asked sharply.
“Things that can wait. I’m en route. Do not notify Wing.”
“Affirmative,” she responded, shaking her head slightly at the typical Bat non-answer. Of course they were keeping this from Dick for right now, so he wouldn’t bolt out into the middle of it with ribs broken. Babs had had many a reason to be angry with her ex, but that didn’t change the fact that she still loved him. It was a different kind of love, not the excited-fluttery-heart kind, but a deep and abiding affection and concern for one another. That might’ve surprised some people.
Some people—all right, a lot of people—thought of her as a cold-hearted bitch. Babs was unsurprised by it. She was too intelligent to pretend otherwise, and she’d never had a great deal of tolerance for willful stupidity. She had even less after being shot and paralyzed. It had taken months to get her life back on track, to get her home completely re-fitted and everything else, and during that time she’d not only turned down Bruce’s charity, she’d closed herself off from everyone in Batclan. They would’ve wanted to help her, and during those months of grief and frustration, she couldn’t stand all the kind offers of assistance. At least when she let them back into her life, she had a life. She’d completely reinvented herself, and refused to let anyone peak behind the metaphorical curtain while the renovations were going on.
From that, she understood Stephanie’s determination. Babs had needed every ounce of tenacity in her soul to remake herself as Oracle. The girl had to’ve had a lot of it, too, to go back to Spoiler after Batman fired her. But stubborn will could be a problem in the field. Just look at Jason Todd….
The thought of him made Babs glance at the bottom of her screen. No alerts showed there. She was still tracing him, but he’d gone off-grid again, and it was anyone’s guess where he and Rose would show up next. Babs was trying to piece together what she could on Red Coin, but it was proving difficult.
Tim came back on the comm then, his voice panicky. “Her kit’s here, but she isn’t. Oracle, do you have anything else on her? Any kind of lead?”
She swore under her breath. “Momentarily. I also have B en route to you.” At least the video feeds from the cameras were coming in. She glanced through them swiftly, searching for any sign of Spoiler.
When Babs finally found something, though, her heart dropped. Sionis is still in prison, so why are his bully-boys surrounding her? Even as she thought it, she was querying Blackgate’s records. What she found had her swearing again.