Perry knew trouble was brewing when Lane was at work before him, sitting in the chair across from his desk and grinning like the cat that got the cream—plus a couple mice or maybe even a great big rat. "If you're for a raise, come back when you've actually done some work," he barked.
"Good morning to you, too, Chief," Lois said, laughing. "I don't need a raise. But I did set up your front page for you." She held up the mock-up, with the story he'd sent her and Clark after above the fold.
Perry just grunted, taking it from her and sitting down at his desk. Lois had always had the gift of being able to write a good hook; the first few lines of any of her articles tended to insure that people read the whole thing. And this one was a wild ride indeed. "A collapsed bank, human trafficking, gambling, racketeering, money laundering … hmph. Sure you couldn't have worked in a riot or something?"
"Well, there were some confiscated bits of endangered wildlife, the kind used in traditional Asian medicine. But I didn't think you'd let me write 'tiger penis soup' on the front page." Lois was actually beaming, proud of herself and her ability to raise Perry's eyebrows.
"And where's your coauthor?" Perry asked.
Lois' hazel eyes rolled extravagantly. "Are you kidding me? It's my story. Clark's sources filled in some details, but I was the one who broke into the bank."
Oh, that statement brought flashbacks. Perry kicked back in his chair and just studied his protégé for a moment. Lois had been wild-eyed and fearless as a young woman, and some things apparently never changed. He remembered the day she'd fallen from a helicopter, been saved by Superman in his first public appearance, and then gone ahead and interviewed the President. That said it all about her, really.
Perry had only been able to persuade Lois into administration because of the twins. When they were little, they'd needed their mom home on a regular schedule, but now that both kids were more or less out of the house, Lois had been fretting over the restrictions. And he knew it. Half the reason why Perry had demoted Lois was to let her work out some of her stress.
And the whole reason he'd sent Kent with her was because her husband had at least a snowball's chance in hell of reining her in from the craziest stunts. Perry wouldn't have been at all surprised to learn that Lois had waited for Clark to be distracted so she could break into the bank.
"Surprised Inspector Sawyer didn't haul you in for that," was all he said.
Lois grinned. "There was no official report of a break-in, and the info I gave her was solid. Mags married a reporter, she knows when to turn a blind eye."
"Yeah, but her reporter took a promotion and stayed there," Perry shot back. He was baiting her, and they both knew it. Tobie Raines at the helm of the Daily Star was no threat to Lois, but implying that her choice was better than Lois' would set his star reporter off. They needed to just go ahead and have this out, once and for all.
The steely-eyed—and steely-haired, these days—reporter glared at him. "Knock it off. You know I'm not cut out for the desk work. You damn sure didn't train me to file paperwork and host meetings."
Perry stifled a grin. "I didn't train you to listen to me, either, and I kinda regret that now. You taught yourself, Lane, I just let you do it."
"Bullshit," Lois scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. "I had the brain and the guts, but you taught me how to use them."
He really couldn't argue that. Not when he'd heard her giving his advice to every wet-behind-the-ears wannabe in the City room, or when he knew his own six 'golden rules' had been expanded into 'Lois Lane's Ten Rules of Reporting'. And even Perry had to admit that Lois' phrasing was catchier.
When he didn't immediately rebuff her, Lois went in for the kill. "Tell you what, Chief. Let me be a reporter when I need to, and I'll be an assistant editor when you need me to. Sound good? You're happy, I'm not driving everyone crazy, the paper gets its star reporter back now and then. Great plan."
Perry snorted amusement. What she'd just suggested was exactly the compromise he'd hoped to make, but it wouldn't do to give Lois her way too easily. Besides, she thrived on conflict. "What makes you think you can have both, Lane?"
"Seems I remember a certain Editor-in-Chief running down a story or two of his own. Doesn't matter if you call them editorials, I know a story when one's waved under my nose. And if I do it that way, it'll have the same outcome as when you did—keeps the bullpen from getting too complacent, knowing the boss could snipe them off the front page." Lois crossed her arms triumphantly and glared at him.
He scowled truculently at her, only because he wanted to beam and hug her. Great Caesar's ghost, Lois was so much like him Perry could almost forget she wasn't his daughter. They were related by newsprint ink and terrible coffee instead of blood, but he saw so much of himself in her that it almost hurt.
And that was a good thing, because Perry had plans for this paper. His son, Bryan, was thirteen now, and already showing certain reporterly traits. He was curious, always into everything, and smarter than his old man, that was for sure. Perry often found himself stunned by the glimpses of the young man Bryan would become. The Planet had to hold together for him, and Lois could certainly do that.
Not that Bryan would automatically inherit a place on the staff. Perry intended to start Bryan out at the bottom of the heap just like Lois had. Mailroom, janitorial, or cafeteria, that was how the best reporters started. It made them hungry for the stories, and they never got entitled like that jackass Galloway that Lois had replaced.
After a suitable time had passed, Perry gave a dramatic sigh. "Fine, Lane. You win. But you start hiding from meetings again, I'll bust your ass down to beat reporter again and give Kent your job."
Her eyes went wide, her nostrils flared, and Perry was certain Lois was about to erupt in profanity. Instead, she started laughing, and it was a full five minutes before he could make out what she was saying.
"He'd never—ha!—Clark'd quit before he'd have me working for him!" And then she dissolved into snickering again.
Perry just folded his arms and stared at her, fighting his own laughter. "Well, he did have to work for you once. Might do you both good to turn the tables."
Lois shook her head, her eyes bright. "Never happen, Chief. Never. Happen."
Spring break in Smallville was actually a really good idea, Jason decided on the long ride from the airport. It was bitterly ironic how Ben knew the secret now, and he still couldn't shorten the trip with a couple of super-jumps.
Enough of that. He'd promised himself he wouldn't mope and moan over what he'd lost. Zatanna was deep in research, and Dad was confident of her abilities. For the next week, Jason wasn't going to think about it if he could help it.
He took a deep breath of air sweetened by wildflowers; the fields and pastures alongside the road were dotted with bluebells, fawn lilies, spring beauties, and wild parsley. Jason smiled, remembering all the vacations to the Kent family farm during the summers, when Grandma had patiently identified every flower, leaf, rock, insect, or even lizard he'd happened to bring in—although she'd drawn the line at what would forever be known as "get that gosh-darned bullsnake off my kitchen table right this instant Jason Lane Kent!"
Jason chuckled at the memory, and Ben looked over at him. "Whatcha thinkin', son?" the older man asked.
"That time I caught the bullsnake and brought it in the house to ask Grandma what it was," he replied.
Ben laughed, too. "Oh, I remember. Your grandmother was a good God-fearing woman, and I don't think she ever swore a day in her life, but when you pulled that snake out of your backpack and put it on the table, I think that's the closest she ever came to cursing a blue streak that'd put your mom to shame."
Both of them snickered at that. "I have really great memories out here," Jason finally said.
"I'm glad to hear it," Ben replied. "I think everyone needs a place like this. Someplace you can get some peace and quiet and time to reflect."
"That's exactly what I need this week." Jason sighed, then looked over at the older man. "Something strange happened to me a few days ago."
Ben chuckled. "Jason, from what I know, strange things happen to or around the Kent family on a regular basis. Wanna talk about it?"
And just like that, he found himself telling the story he was trying to forget about. Jason summarized as much as possible; Grandpa Ben knew about their secret identities, but he wasn't up-to-date on superhero business. At the end of the story, Jason concluded, "So now I'm, well, human. Just like anybody else."
Ben raised one index finger from its place wrapping around the steering wheel. "First thing. You were always human, son. I know lots of people in this world who don't have a scrap of human compassion or decency or integrity. One or two of them right here in this town, I'm ashamed to say. And some folks are downright monsters. Anyone who can murder a child…." The old man shook his head. "Anyway, point is, you and your sister are half-human according to science, and all human where it matters: in the heart. Don't forget that."
Jason nodded. Ben popped the next finger on that same hand up. "Second thing. You are not just like anybody else. There's only one of you. No one else on Earth knows everything you've learned, or has seen everything you've experienced, or understands everything you've felt. Not even Kala, and she's your twin. So don't go thinking you're nobody just because you can't throw a tractor into Missouri from here."
He couldn't help smiling. "Thank you for putting it in perspective, Grandpa."
"You're welcome. That's what us old farts are good for. We've got so much perspective we just have to share."
"You're not an old fart," Jason protested.
"Sure I am. Even Martha knew that. No shame in it, though. Only shame in getting old is if you have too many regrets, and I don't. Just the one big one." Ben looked wistful then, as if his eyes saw everything except the road.
"What's that?" Jason asked, and then realized how horribly impertinent it was. "I mean … sorry, that's none of my business."
"'Course it is. Only thing I really regret is taking that job at the steel mill right out of high school. My dad worked in a machine-shop up to Kansas City, and the summer before he'd gotten distracted and lost three fingers off his right hand to the stamping press. He wanted me to go to college, y'see, be the first one in our family with more'n a high school diploma. Problem was, I was the only boy out of four and I saw how tight things were. My mom was taking in other people's washing and selling baked goods to make ends meet, and we had a road stand to sell eggs and vegetables and such, but we were poor. And I hated it. I didn't want to go off to college in my only set of good clothes and know my folks were counting every penny for my books. So I took the job, and with my first paycheck I went over to the general store and paid off our whole tab, plus bought a whole smoked ham an' all the fixings. The girls went crazy; little Eileen thought it was Christmas morning and cried 'cause she didn't get any presents." Ben smiled at the recollection, and it rolled decades off his face.
"Sounds almost worth it," Jason said quietly.
"Yeah, that first paycheck was. Martin Lang's father ran the store back then, and he'd give credit. He'd take farm produce in trade, too, and he always knew where to put his thumb on the scales if a family had kids. Heavy on the stuff they brought to trade, light on what he weighed out to 'em. Had a habit of dropping penny-candy into the bags by accident and sayin' it was too much fuss to dig out." Ben sighed. "Those are gone days, son. Both my boys went off to college, made their granddaddy real proud, but in the end they came back here to raise their families."
He shook himself slightly. "I'm wandering. Look, the thing about that steel mill job was, once I had it, it got easier and easier to convince myself not to try for anything else. I could've worked a year, saved up all my extra pay from overtime and such, and then gone to school and left enough to see the family through. But after a year I'd convinced myself I needed another year, and by the end of two years I'd got so used to having that savings that I borrowed from it all the time. I'd need a new shirt, or I'd still be hungry after my sack lunch and want something from the cafeteria, or I had a date and wanted to take her somewhere nice."
"By the time three years went by, I figured I'd forgotten most of what I knew in high school, and after four years I was married to Sally with a baby on the way, and boy do kids eat up your savings! I should've jumped when I had the chance, and I still regret it—but I had a good life anyway. And by the time the steel mill closed down I'd already found myself another job, less dangerous but not paying so good, so I was lucky. We always kept the land, unlike some folks, and if you take care of the land, the land'll take care of you. So long as we could put in the time to garden and raise some chickens and rabbits and a goat or two, we always had food. I don't ever remember being hungry, and neither were my kids. We didn't have a television and we just got a computer for my granddaughter about five—no, maybe six or seven years ago. But it was a good life."
Jason could only sit there, thinking. In some ways it was like Ben was from a different world, and he realized just how much things had changed within his own lifetime. He remembered when cell phones weren't allowed in school; more recently, he'd seen middle school kids texting while they walked whenever he went along to pick Kristin up. Kids these days even complained because they didn't have the cool new phones. He and Kala had gotten indestructible flip-phones in high school and liked them because they could text. They hadn't been replaced as long as they worked, not even when Kala stole Jason's phone and had it painted bright green with black stripes. He'd gotten her back by paying a visual arts major to paint her phone pink and white with lavender hearts. That had lasted only until Kala found a black marker.
"The world does change," Jason said slowly, and looked over at his grandfather as they stopped at an intersection. "But we need it all, you know. We're always gonna need people who know how to grow food and fix a bike and put together a quilt. Everything always comes back around. I mean, I know you've seen the homesteading movement…."
Ben laughed again. "Oh yeah. City kids wanting to come out to the country and live like their grandparents did. But they can't give up their lattes and their internet. Y'know, couple of 'em bought what used to be the Finch property, falling-down barn and all. They're raising some kind of fancy purebred sheep out there. Brought an expensive sheepdog with a pedigree full of champions to work 'em, too."
Considering that Ben raised working beagles and only showed them at hunting trials, Jason could imagine how that had worked out. "What happened?" he asked.
"Damn fool dog got lured off by a coyote. One of the lucky ones, though. Showed up in town a week later footsore and skinny, and next thing we know there's some coyotes with white spots around. Coy-dogs, really. Anyway, Ellzey's oldest daughter and her husband took pity on the poor kids, let 'em have one of their farm collies—on the condition they neuter the champion or send him back East. Don't want any of that fancy blood messing up their good collies. Damn fine dogs, those collies. They'll herd sheep, ducks, cattle, whatever you got; they'll kill off the rats and the possums and anything else that'll eat your crops or your feed; they'll watch your kids and holler up a storm if they wander off; and they'll keep out the coyotes and things that'll eat your stock. If I wasn't a beagler I'd have one."
That, from Ben, was high praise. "I dunno, I kinda favor the beagles myself," Jason admitted, thinking of Bagel and Dusty and Chewie.
"Yeah, they're good dogs too. Not too many hounds'll drive like a beagle and still be mellow enough to fall asleep in your lap at night. You need to come out here some autumn and hear 'em running through the woods. It's beautiful, whether you get a rabbit or a deer or just get to hear them singing while they run."
Jason grinned a little to himself. With two beagles in the relatively small apartment, it was less 'singing' than 'howling cacophony'. If the Whites came over with Dusty and Narcissa, the beagle-song would even get the poor Doberman to howl, though Jason thought it was more in protest than sympathy. Luckily everyone in the family had learned how to quiet them. A handful of treats tossed onto the floor bought instantaneous, blessed silence.
There was silence in the cab of the truck for several miles, Jason and Ben both comfortable in their thoughts. Finally Ben said, "I mean that about the land, you know. I want the Kent family farm to stay in your family. And I'm glad you're thinking about taking it on."
"It'll never be sold," Jason said stoutly. They'd discussed the farm situation after Martha's death. The way the deed was structured, Ben could live in the house for the rest of his life, but Clark was the technical owner. His life was in Metropolis, though, as much as he loved the family place. And Jason did love the farm, the contented peace that seemed to settle on it towards the end of each day.
Right now, it was just what he needed.
Jason didn't realize he'd said so aloud until Ben nodded. "Yeah, when times are hard, this is a good place to come back to. People always say you should go to the mountains or the desert or something to think, and maybe that's true. All the camping trips I took with your grandmother, sometimes it seemed like we could solve all the world's problems sitting beneath the Montana sky with a bellyful of trout that'd been swimming an hour ago. But there's value to coming home, too. It's got a perspective like nothing else. And this is home for your family. This is where your dad grew up."
He nodded. "That's part of why I wanted to come for spring break. Everyone else can have Cancun and the Keys and whatever else. I need to think. I need to figure out where my life is going, and what I'm gonna do if—well, if I never do get my powers back. And even if I do get them back somehow, I guess this is also my chance to find out what living like a regular human is really like. I've never been one. When I was little I was so sick, and then once the powers really kicked in I've always been kind of … untouchable, I guess."
Ben gave a thoughtful sigh. "Well, son, I guess you can start by helping me out around the place. Even if you can't float forty feet off the ground to fix a roof joist in the barn, I bet you can make yourself handy. And sometimes it's good for a man to do something with his hands, something he can look at afterward and say, 'I built that' or 'I fixed that'. We all need something real to reflect on."
And that was the perfect summary of Smallville if ever one exists. Jason found himself looking forward to this week, even under the current situation. He could resist a grin, though. "I see. You agreed to let me come stay for spring break so you could have someone to fob the chores off on, huh, Grandpa?"
Ben laughed, and slapped his shoulder affectionately. "Smart boy!"
Sebast flung himself onto the sofa, staring mournfully at Kala. "You're going to leave me here alone with these smelly boys for a weekend?"
"You like boys," Kala teased.
"Yeah, but not these boys. They're weird. And not always in the good way." He scowled, and when that didn't work, pouted.
Kala sat down in the narrow space beside him. "Oh, stop. It's four days. It'll give you bonding time with Ned and Robb and Morgan."
At that, Sebast grinned, waggling his eyebrows. "I wouldn't mind some bondage time with Morgan."
She smacked his arm, and he mock-winced. "I said bonding, not bondage, and Morgan's off-limits anyway."
"I know, I know, we don't chase the same man. But you're in a relationship," Sebast complained, rubbing his arm.
Kala leaned over him, practically laying across his chest. "Yeah, and Morgan's straight. You know you're just trolling."
Sebast rumpled her hair so it fell in her eyes. They were perfectly comfortable cuddling like this—but only because Dustin was still at work. If he'd been home, Sebast wouldn't be quite this snuggly and touchy with Kala. The concept of personal space between them had long since dissolved, and if he resented anything about her relationships, it was the way they interfered with his friendship with her. Some guys just could not understand how they could hug and kiss and lay all over each other, and it was just comfortable, not sexy. Sure, Kala was beautiful and only an idiot would fail to see that, but Sebast preferred hard muscle and strong jaw-lines to curves and softness. That was just life.
And Dustin was a good guy, the only one so far that Sebast had liked with Kala, but displays of affection like this clearly made him uncomfortable. He wouldn't say anything, being a good Midwestern boy and knowing they were just friends. Still, Dustin didn't like it, and Sebast knew that. With anyone else he would've flaunted the closeness just to remind the boyfriend that he'd been a part of Kala's life longer, but one, he wasn't rude to Dustin like that, and two, in Dustin's case it wasn't true.
Sebast occasionally found himself thinking that he wished he could find a guy who understood him as well as Kala did. But then, it was nice to be a mystery, to be the handsome and sexy singer who got all the groupies. If he did find someone like that, he'd probably have to settle down, and Sebast wasn't quite done playing the field. Not when there was so much glorious field out there, just begging to be played.
Apparently he'd let himself get lost in thought, because Kala flicked his nose. "Earth to Sebast. Come in, Sebast."
"Cut it out!" he grumbled, swatting at her hand.
"You were gone, Chupi. Total space-cadet. What were you thinking about?" She tilted her head, honestly curious.
"All the hot men I get to bring here while you're away," Sebast teased, and Kala scrunched up her nose in distaste. He chose that moment to tickle her, and she jumped away laughing.
"You great big jerk! I hope you have to spend spring break all alone."
"Mamita, you wound me," Sebast said, with his most pleading look. "You know it won't be the same without you around to critique my choices. And besides, you might not have me around, but you'll be with Dustin and Jason."
"Poor Sebast," Kala sighed, and leaned down to kiss his nose. "I'll send you a postcard."
"They make post cards for Smallville?" he asked.
"No, but they do for Possum Trot," Kala laughed.
Sebast chuckled at that, and rubbed his nose against hers. "Have fun, mi Kala. I'll miss you."
"I know. I'll miss you, too." Kala smiled indulgently at him. "I'll be back before you know it."
With the story turned in to Perry, Lois could get back to dealing with her home life. She'd already gone to see Jason, the very night she'd found out about him losing his powers, and chewed both him and Clark over for not notifying her the instant it happened. But then, she'd been breaking into a bank at the time, so maybe they deserved some forgiveness.
Jason seemed to be handling it okay, all things considered. Lois remembered Kal-El without his powers, how completely horrified he'd been to take a punch and feel it. Now Jason had the same shocked look around his eyes, and Lois hated to see it. Nothing in the world was so frustrating as not being able to do anything to fix it.
Lois was close to all three of her children, and all of them knew they were loved. The days of doubting that were long past. Kala was so much like her it hurt, Kristin was the sweetest little girl on Earth, but Jason always had a special place in Lois' heart. Her son, her only boy, the one who had been laid in her arms first and into whose eyes she'd been staring when her whole world changed. The bond formed then would never be broken; he was always Momma's boy. Seeing him in distress and not being able to fix it was driving her mad.
So it was no wonder that Lois was doing everything in her power to make sure Jason would be all right. Today that meant exploiting her status as the media liaison to the Justice League of America.
Her press pass was sufficient to admit her to the JLA's on-planet headquarters. And the word that she'd arrived must've traveled fast, because J'onn J'onzz met her in the lobby. "Lois. It is a pleasure."
"Always good to see you, too, J'onn," Lois said, shaking the Martian's hand. He was one of her favorite heroes—after Kal-El, of course. That might have been because of the friendship between the two aliens who could pass for human, though it was more of a challenge for J'onn.
More likely it was because J'onn was just a great guy. And Lois couldn't help liking someone whose favorite Christmas gift was a case of Oreo cookies.
"How can I help you today?" J'onn was asking her as they walked. Usually she found a conference room or an office for the conversations she had with League members, and now she let J'onn lead.
Lois sighed. "Well, you can tell me everything you know about Zatanna. From what I've heard she's an accomplished stage magician, but I don't know much about her as a hero."
"Zatanna Zatarra prefers not to court the spotlight—not as a real magician, anyway," J'onn said. "Her cover is stage magic, and she is very good at sleight-of-hand and illusions. But she is also highly skilled with true magic. Your son is in good hands."
"So you heard," Lois said.
"I did. Anyone with the ability to remove powers is a concern to us all." On that note, J'onn turned a corner and held the door for Lois. This was one of several communications stations, and J'onn pulled out a rolling chair for Lois.
She sat down with a heavy sigh. "Kal-El told me no one's figured out how this guy even did it yet."
"Sadly, no. He did not absorb the powers into himself like the Parasite can. The man himself claims not to know what he did or how he accomplished it." J'onn shook his head. "I have seen into his mind, and he is not lying."
Lois huffed an annoyed sigh. "So my son got de-powered by accident? That's just... Ugh. Thank you for checking up on his story, though, J'onn."
The Martian shrugged. "I assure you, we're leaving no avenue unexplored. But you came to ask about Zatanna...?"
For once, Lois found herself tongue-tied. "What, exactly, is she doing, J'onn?"
"At the moment, studying the enchanted gauntlets Jason's opponent was wearing. And studying the man himself, to see if he has any latent abilities. He is currently in our custody." Lois sat forward, hope rising, and J'onn raised a warning hand. "You cannot interrogate him, Lois. No one could blame you for wanting to cause him harm, but we cannot allow that to happen. And I know your integrity, but I would not place such temptation before you."
She slumped backward with a scowl. "Dammit, J'onn."
"Lois, intimidation cannot get anything from him that magic and telepathy cannot uncover more easily." His tone was conciliatory, but Lois knew he'd be implacable.
"And you think that magic can help Jason," she finally said.
"Magic stole his powers. Magic should be able to restore them. And Zatanna is perhaps the most powerful magician on our side. Trust her. Trust us." J'onn reached out to place one hand over Lois'. When he added further reassurance, it was directly in her mind. [All will be well, Lois.]
If only she could make herself believe that.