Bureaucracy and international politics being what it was, March's thunderstorms cracked over Metropolis before the Justice League received custody of Big Barda. Within minutes of donning her armour, Barda demanded a flight to Krysybestan. The Justice League obliged. They were just as eager to solve the mystery of the sinkholes. As official liaison to the League, Lois was one of the few reporters allowed into the site.
On this mission, Clark, Conner and Diana-- Superman, Superboy and Wonder Woman-- were joined by Green Lantern, Black Lightning, Grace and Black Canary along with Conner's teammates, Beastboy and Secret. Robin wasn't available. Batman's official excuse was that the mission was inappropriate for his team since they had no meta powers. A team of paramedics waited beside an ambulance ready for a worst case scenario.
"I'm just saying if I was her, I'd be plenty pissed by now. She's been imprisoned for half a year just because she woke up thinking we were attacking her," Conner said as they prepped. He secured his minicam on his shoulder.
"Despite her warrior's enthusiasm, Barda seems to know patience," said Diana. "A skill I assume you are working on?"
Clark couldn't stop his grin at Conner's red face. His son still lost all coherence when faced with Wonder Woman. He suspected Dina found his reactions more cute than annoying and, in an attempt to familiarize him to her presence, sought him out for small talk. It was a pretty hopeless venture. Alien heritage aside, Conner was a sixteen year old boy through and through.
Lantern herded the small press contingent to one side as the rest of the League went into position. "If anything happens, stay close to me. I can shield you until you reach safe cover."
"Are you expecting something to happen?" Lois asked.
"Those pods have been quiet for nine months, Ms. Lane, but as always we prefer to be prepared. You're permitted within six metres of the sinkholes. You'll also receive visual feed from the mini-cams worn by Superboy and Big Barda and audio feed from our commelinks. Superman, Superboy, Big Barda and Secret will descend the pit; the remaining League members will be on stand-by. If Barda okays it, they will attempt to open the pod. If not, we will leave sensors on the pod and bury it."
"How do you know you can trust Big Barda?" asked a reporter with a Spanish accent.
"Her actions throughout her incarceration as well as numerous interviews with League members and independent consultants indicate she is harmless."
A hundred metres away, Barda whirled a sceptre-like weapon over her head before smashing it on the edge of one pit. A concussive blast rumbled the earth under their feet; the roar rang their ears half a second later. Superboy coughed.
"Well, relatively harmless."
At his go, Conner's deploy team jumped into the sink hole. Conner whooped as he free-falled, pulling his arms and legs straight, streamlined for speed. Barda did the same. Clark shot past them, winking at Conner as he whipped by. He would catch them and slow their descent in time. He saw well enough this deep down but Clark lit a maglight for the minicams.
The pod's ragged shell resembled roughly hewn rock except for its matte blue colouring. The seam on this one lay face down into the rock face but the position revealed a carved rectangle. Barda wrote something on the rectangle with her fingernail. It glowed yellow. Sentences of a sort projected from the yellow glow, the symbols resembling made up of wedges and circles.
Hissing, Barda yanked her hand away. The yellow rectangle faded.
"What's wrong?" asked Clark.
"This pod contains the Ultimate," she said. She made gesture unknown to Earth but Clark had a pretty good idea what it meant especially after she spat on the pod. "If you are able, destroy this and the creature within it."
"What is it?"
"The opposite of creation is destruction and the Ultimate is destruction personified. It is said the creature was created as to be the first and last weapon needed in war, a being constantly capable of changing its structure to any force it combats. But the creature worked too well and hated too much. It knows nothing but destruction and nothing of loyalty, fear or honour. Darkseid's great-grandfather used powers beyond imagination to trap him within this pod. Even then, it escaped. As a Fury, I have had to help contain it twice. Nearly half my troop died in the effort each time."
"We can't just kill it if it's helpless inside that pod," said Clark.
"Then your world is doomed," Barda said. "You and Green Lantern have the ability to fly through space; hurl the creature into a star."
Clark exchanged alarmed looks with Conner and Secret. "We'll talk it over but I think we'll probably take a page from your book and contain him."
Barda shrugged. "Be it on your head."
"I hope the other pod has better news," said Secret.
"The Ultimate's presence bodes ill for that hope, little one."
Conner sidled next to Clark. "I'm thinking she's perfect for Batman. Badass, bad tempered, occasionally froths at the mouth. What do you think? It might be true love."
Clark choked down his laughter. "Your commelink is still sending," he said, reaching out to rumple his son's hair. Conner dodged it.
The last sinkhole lay three and a half miles from Barda's and the Ultimate's. The reporters took a van to the location while the League members travelled by air. Some grumbled about the lack of action; the more experienced few were glad of it. Barda stared dourly out the window of the helicopter, her thumb rubbing the trigger of her mega-rod.
"Diana's reports on your place in the rebellion are fascinating," said Clark, trying to draw her out of her shell. "I understand you were raised to be a completely loyal warrior for Darkseid. Why did you change your mind?"
A minute passed by as Barda weighed his sincerity. "If you could meet Prince Free, you would understand. He is... peace."
"He was really peaceful, you mean."
"No. He simply was peace." Her eyes lowered. "I had never... he was... different."
She loved Prince Free, Clark realised. It was obvious in the tonelessness of her voice and the way she held her shoulders. He wanted to give her arm a squeeze, the way he would with any League member who had suffered a loss. He knew she wouldn't know how to react to the gesture. Instead, he patted her leg.
No one spoke as they descended the last sinkhole. Barda's melancholy affected them all. What would he do if he ever lost Lois? Clark wondered as he floated down. He doubted he'd be as collected as Barda. The possibility of losing her confronted him with every madman that attacked Metropolis, heck, every time Lois crossed the street. Having the baby made her more cautious but there was simply no way to escape danger. Plus, God only knew what a fully developed kryptonian baby would do to--
Barda's scream shook Clark out of his ruminations. She had fallen to her knees, pounding the pod with her fists. She yelled in her own language, too overcome to use English. This pod's rectangular pad still glowed.
"What did it say?" he asked Secret and Conner. The two kids shook their heads.
"Should we, uh, stop her?" Conner asked.
"I think she's gone..." Secret drew circles beside her head.
Clark kneeled beside her. "Barda, what is it? I can't help you if I don't understand."
She pointed her mega-rod at it. It whined as it charged up. Clark yanked the rod away and, in the same motion, forced her head up to face him. The eye contact broke her madness.
"Aseppa kogg! Nanisi aseppa lahyabre kogg!"
Clark's forehead wrinkled as he tried to translate. "Kogg, my. Nanisi, here. Aseppa... what the heck is aseppa?"
"Free!" Barda blurted out. She punched the pod again. "Here free mine."
Clark shook his head, still not understanding.
"Free mine! Prince free!"
"Prince Free!" Light dawned on all three Leaguers as once. "Are you sure?" Clark asked Barda. "Sighutaynuh ku?"
"All right, Secret, go up and report." Clark immediately turned to Conner as Secret wisped away. "The prince's pod is more embedded than the other two. We'll have to drill around it and open it topside."
Conner saluted. "Roger, Supes. Need help hoisting it up?"
"I'll be fine. When we're done, jump out of this pit. I'll throw it out and you catch it, okay?"
He approached Barda. "I'll throw you up."
But she shook her head. "No. I stay here."
He didn't waste time arguing; she was implacable. From five feet above, Clark spun faster and faster, his arms vee'd over his head until he became a makeshift drill. He bore holes around the pod as Conner smashed the weakened rock plate into gravel. The pod shifted and loosened just enough for Clark to get a good hold on one edge.
Conner crouched, gathering strength for his jump. At the last minute his eyes widened. "Hey, I think I can feel the gravity field." Like a tightly coiled spring, he shot up the shaft of the sinkhole.
"I'm in place at your twelve," Clark heard him shout down a couple seconds later.
Seeing Clark brace himself, Barda flattened herself against the pod, securing her place by gripping the seam. He pressed the pod up in a perfect weightlifter's hold. It was heavier than it looked, nearing fifty tonnes. His trajectory would probably be a bit off but it was a big target, Conner could compensate. Taking a deep breath, he lobbed it straight up. Another breath and he flew after it.
"Crap, this is heavy." Conner grunted, staggered and righted himself. Diana rushed to his side to help steady it even as Barda slid off the pod.
"Barda! Wait! Don't--" The concussive beam off her mega-rod ricocheted off the pod, narrowly missing Black Lightning and Grace. She aimed it again. Diana wrenched it from her hands.
"Peace, sister. We will open the pod."
"Now!" Barda growled.
Conner whistled. "Don't say it," Clark told him.
"You were about to comment and I'm here to make sure it doesn't actual leave your lips. Take the far lip of the seam and push on my three. One, two, three!"
Sweat popped out on Clark's forehead as the seam inched open. On his right, Conner cursed under his breath. He heard Diana alight on his other side. She braced her feet and hands and pushed. Barda climbed up beside Conner and did the same. Achingly white light flooded his eyes; Clark had to look away. Heat hissed out after it.
"I'm going to put something in to brace it," Green Lantern said. A glowing green block wedged itself near one side of the hinge. "Holy... that's heavy."
"No fricking kidding," Conner grunted. "Crap. Crappity crap... Superman, this is making my E-field screw up."
"Hold it steady," Clark said.
"I can't push and hold the field together at the same time!"
"Just-- actually, never mind. Let the E-field go."
"What?" Diana and Green Lantern exclaimed at a much louder volume.
"That field is what gives us strength. If he can let it extend, he'll crack the pod open. You have good enough control to keep yourself shielded, right?" he asked Conner.
His son nodded. "It'll be skinny; I'll need to get away ASAP."
Clark wiped his forehead on his shoulder. "Do it. On my three, Superboy, loosen your hold. Everyone else, run for it."
"I was going to do that anyway," said Green Lantern.
"One, two, three!"
Green Lantern arced backwards to form a shield over the reporters while Diana pulled the more vulnerable Leaguers out of the way. Clark dove to one side, taking Barda with him then quickly spun around to keep an eye on Conner. He floated spread-eagled in the mouth of the pod, every muscle taut, pulled or pushed by the E-field. The two edges of the pod trembled but slowly widened further.
Then it exploded.
"Whooooaaaaa!" Conner's yelp faded as the concussive force pitched him into the upper troposphere. Clark rocketed after him. To his surprise, his son was laughing. "Do you think if I flap my arms hard enough, I'll fly?"
Clark crossed his arms. "I could just stay here and we'll find out."
Conner hung in mid-air for a second. "Nope, can't find the gravity. Hey, Dad, race you." And he plunged back down to earth head first.
Clark let him fall most of the way down, catching him under his arms twenty feet from the ground to slow his fall then releasing him again. Conner rolled expertly onto his feet. A melee had broken out in their absence. Taking no notice of the medical personnel, Barda had dragged Prince Free from his pod, shouting in her language and shaking him awake.
"He's shorter than I imagined," said Conner.
Diana and Beastboy tried to still Barda's flailing arms while Black Lightning aided the paramedics with the prince's intravenous tubes and bag valve mask. Her desperation made Clark's heart pang.
"Let her hold him," he said.
"But she was ripping his lines out," said Beastboy.
"She'll be more difficult if she's not with him. Just let her go."
They obeyed. Barda immediately scooped the prince up in her arms again, gentler this time, allowing the paramedics to measure his vitals and administer medication. Clark kept a running commentary of what they did; in her state, she might not be processing English but she could remember later on. And his voice seemed to calm her.
One paramedic guided her in positioning Prince Free onto his stomach to aid recovery. As they shifted his torso, he let out a chest-rattling cough. The other paramedics sprang into action, pulling out the artificial airway in his mouth and administering a bag valve mask. The prince coughed again, wetly this time. His abdomen spasmed. His eyes flew open and he vomited all over the dusty grass.
"Lahyabre." Barda cupped his cheek in the tenderest manner Clark had ever seen her make.
The prince blinked up. "Barda?" He grabbed her wrists. "Barda! Mahbubant ayes ku! Ayah, Barda!" He pulled himself up, still trembling from the drugs in his system. Barda met him halfway, wrapping her arms around, her face buried in his neck.
"Lahyabre. Aseppa kogg," she said over and over again while Prince Free tangled his fingers in her hair and whispered, "Immagohal kogg. Asheh, asheh, Barda kogg." They rocked in each other's arms.
"I have no what they're saying but I'm tearing up," said Black Lightning.
He wasn't the only one, Clark noted. More than half the hardened reporters had glassy eyes; one of them was Lois. Barda reminded him of Lois, he realised. His determination to help her had roots in her similarity to his partner-- her strength, her stubbornness and her willingness to do whatever it took to do what she thought was right. He hoped Barda and Free's happy ending portended their own.
Garlicky, herbs and lemons smells exploded into the room when Conner opened the oven. He threw a look over his shoulder; his dad winked at him and Aunt Lo sniffed the air deeply.
"That smells awesome, Junior," she said. "Crap, I drooled on myself."
"It's not totally done," said Conner. "Can you wait ten more minutes?"
"I'm sure it'll be worth it," Clark said. His son tried not to duck his head, pleased yet embarrassed.
In the background, a talking head on TV replayed a video clip of the Krysybestan mission. "Top news today: confirmation of Superboy's paternity. Since his appearance two years ago at Lexgate, the world has speculated on the relationship between Superman and his young counterpart, Superboy. The famously private Superman has thus far refused to comment directly but a recent Justice League mission in Central Asia has shed more light into the family of the Man of Steel."
Beside the news anchor, a screen depicted a cloud-streaked sky, an uninteresting subject save for the audio clip enhanced for the audience.
"Do you think if I flap my arms hard enough, I'll fly?" Superboy's voice came through although Superboy himself wasn't visible.
"I could just stay here and we'll find out," was Superman's reply.
"Nope, can't find the gravity. Hey, Dad, race you."
Beaming, the co-anchor said, "How exciting especially for the hero-fans out there! Once again, we have audio evidence of Superboy's paternity caught digitally during a mission in Krysybestan. The clip is available for download on our website. We're now turning to our panel of experts to discuss the implications of this discovery."
Clark grimaced and changed the channel. "The Pan-Asian economy is heading towards a recession and they're focussing on this?"
"I'm sorry," said Conner. "I totally forgot we were wearing commelinks. It was like playing on the farm, y'know? I should-- Dammit, I talk too much." His hung his head, all excitement about his cooking evaporated.
To his surprise, his dad shrugged minutely and said, "There's nothing we can do about it now. They're going to speculate no matter what and sooner or later, one of us would've slipped. Remind me to tell you about the early years."
For a second or four, Conner just stared, gape-mouthed. His dad being reasonable about the media? His dad who was so private, he had two disguises? The same guy who didn't give out autographs even to terminally ill children in African refugee camps for fear it would fall into the hands of an especially clever hand-writing specialist who might have access to Clark Kent's high school notes?
"Conner, I think your chicken's done," said Lois. "Dibs on drumstick."
"That's why chickens have two legs," said Clark. Seeing Conner still-frozen, he asked, "Did you want me to take it out?"
"No, no, I'm good." As Conner set everything on the table, he warned them, "I'm not sure it'll taste right. I played around a bit with Grandma's recipe. There was this show on TV where they used cinnamon and parsley instead of the usual spice mix that Grandma makes and, like, I like Grandma's roast chicken but this looked really good especially since Aunt Lo wanted the whole Mediterranean thing with the lemon potatoes."
"Take a breath or you'll pass out before we can even try it," said Clark. "Let me take the potatoes and peas."
Once everyone sat and the portions divided, Conner watched their reactions. Clark slowed his chewing down, nodding, his lips curving up to a smile. Lois closed her eyes and moaned.
"Forget Gabriel/Gabrielle, we're naming the baby after this dish," she declared. "Holy crap, I'm in epicurean heaven. You actually got your dad to eat peas."
Beaming, he took his first bite. "Hey! It really is good!"
"You mean you didn't taste it when you were cooking?" asked Clark.
"I was but it was work-related. I wasn't sure if it was actually good or if I was just over-thinking it like those people who check on the wines and can tell the year and the location and how much rain fell on it." He took a spoonful of the peas and shredded potatoes. "I frickin' rock."
For a few minutes, the only sounds were forks and knives clinking on plates.
"So, you two went to S.T.A.R.?" Conner asked.
Nodding, Lois said, "Baby's heart is still beating. We saw it twitching around too but Chapel says it's too early for me to feel it moving around."
"Twitching is good?"
"Twitching is very good. It means the brain's working."
"She said the placenta looked bigger than average," Clark added.
Lois waved his worry away. "The baby just needs more food. Completely understandable considering how much you two plow down."
"What does that mean?" asked Conner.
"It means I should eat more."
Conner immediately refilled her plate.
A little edgily, Clark said, "Actually, no one really knows what it means but we have some guesses. The baby could be really big. Or it could run out of room in the uterus because the placenta's taking up all the space. She gave us more supplements--"
"That's my dessert," said Lois.
"-- as well as instructions to stay relaxed and unstressed." Clark stared at her over his glasses.
"I'll relax and unstress the same day you two shred your uniforms and open a sandcastle souvenir store in Hawai'i. Can I have the other chicken thigh?"
"Mom offered to move in with us when the baby's born."
Conner perked up "Really? Grandma here all the time?" Visions of daily culinary adventures danced through his head. He might even learn how to make her totally awesome peach cobbler with the sweetened coconut sprinkles. It would be the awesomest of all awesomes but Aunt Lo didn't usually like extended guests in her personal space, even Grandma.
To his surprise, Lois seemed to consider the idea. "It would be nice to have someone around who knows how to deal with steel-bending babies."
"Technically, I was a steel-bending toddler," said Clark. "We'll all be running blind with the diapering and breastfeeding-- Sweetheart, are you okay?"
Lois stopped rubbing her forehead. "What? Oh, yeah, I'm just a little hot."
"It's March," Conner pointed out.
"Maybe I'm menopausing; I don't know. I just... bleuch, I'm all sweaty."
"Go to bed after dinner," Clark said. "Conner and I will clean up."
The next day, Lois still felt lousy. Her joints ached and her eyes burned sure symptoms of the flu except she didn't feel like she had a fever, just the opposite. She wound her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Someone somewhere in this floor had to have a blanket. If necessary, she could ask Clark to run home for one. She sipped half-heartedly at her tomato juice.
"Boss-lady, did you get-- geez, you don't look too hot." Anna came around the desk and put a hand on her forehead. "You don't have a fever."
"Ten years you've been living here and you don't know that us city people hate close contact. Shoo. Before you catch it, too."
"Nonsense, sugar. I don't get sick. Maybe your blood caffeine's just too low. Want me to get you a nice, big cup of cheap, stale coffee?"
"No, I've got green tea and tomato juice."
Putting a hand on her cocked hip, Anna said, "Now I know you're sick. Green tea?"
"It detoxes your system," said Lois defensively.
"All right. Who are you and what've you done with my real boss?"
"I'm forty in a week. I have to start thinking about detoxes and breast lifts."
"You are the hottest forty-year-old my eyes ever did see. Maybe it's all the corn-fed beef you get." She winked and jerked her chin in the direction of Clark's desk, empty as usual.
"You have a filthy mind, young lady. Send me your copy already."
"I going to say, before I was overcome by your sickly appearance, that ass Lombard managed to infect the entire upstairs network with a spider so all the emails are frozen until we can figure it out."
"Christ. It's like he crawled out of a cave yesterday." Lois massaged her temple. "Okay, tell everyone it's hard copies until further notice which means they should plan to hand everything in earlier. I'll alert the copy editors."
"Done and done, boss-lady." Anna placed her pages on the desk, nearly paper-clipped. "You sure you don't need something? I've got ibuprofen in bulk."
"I'm fine. Don't hover around me when it's close to your yearly evaluation."
By lunch, Lois felt no better. She officially had a slight fever and stomach cramps. A year ago, she would have popped some pills and ignored it. This time, hands shaking, she called S.T.A.R. Labs.
Beth Chapel answered on the second ring. "Cir? How can I help you?"
"I feel sick." She rattled off her symptoms.
"Okay, it may be nothing but I want you to come in as soon as possible," said Chapel. "The stomach cramps could be normal indigestion or it could be uterine. I want you to have an ultrasound and a blood test. Can you call Kal-el?"
"I'll damn well try. Barring that, maybe Kon can take me." She collected her palmtop and some work files for her purse, her briefcase and lunch bag as she spoke.
"Whatever it takes. I'll be waiting with the lab prepped."
"Thanks, doc. I really--" A particularly vicious cramp hit her low in the pubic bone. "Oh shit."
"I don't know. I felt... I'll be right there. Anna!" Lois yelled out the door. "I've got to leave ASAP-- what's wrong?" Anna was staring at her wide-eyed and gap-mouthed, her eyes drawn below Lois' beltline.
"Sugar, sit down," she whispered.
Lois looked down. Her belly twisted and pulled down hard then liquid gushed out from between her legs. A bright red puddle widened around her left foot. She swayed at the sight.
"Oh Lordy, someone help! Call 911!" Anna yelled. "Lois, don't move. Did you get cut? What happened?"
Dully, Lois said, "I need to get to New York."
"You're not going anywhere but the ER. Has someone called goddamned 911 yet? Jay-sus Mary Murphy, you all're hard-eyed reporting types; stop being so useless!" Her voice echoed. Funny, the bullpen murmured too much for an echo to form. Lois looked up. Dozens of eyes blurred together, all facing her.
"Clark," she called out. Too soft. He might not hear. "Clark! Clark!" She screamed as loud as she could.
"Someone get Kent on his cell phone!" That was Perry. He didn't sound very blustery; she must be going into shock. Lois blinked at him then at his arms around her, holding her up in her chair. When did she sit down? "You're hanging tough, Lane?"
"Always, Chief." She blinked again and he came into focus. "I'm pregnant."
"Shit. Awww, shit, Lane." He rubbed her shoulders vigorously. "Hear those sirens? That's the ambulance coming up the street. They're gonna get you to the hospital right quick."
Lois shook her head vigorously. "I need to get Beth Chapel. She's my Ob-Gyn. She needs to be here. My purse. Where's my purse? My phone's in it." Anna shoved it in her hand. "Chapel?" she said after the second ring. "I'm haemorrhaging."
Chapel's voice was tight. "I'm heading for the chopper right now. Where are you?"
"At work. An ambulance is on the way. The paramedics just came out of the elevators."
"Tell me exactly what happened before the bleeding started and then pass me onto one of the paramedics, okay?"
"I just... I told you. I felt sick all night. Like the flu. Then a few minutes ago I felt feverish and my stomach hurt. It didn't feel like cramps, it just throbbed. Clark!" Lois held a hand out to her partner even as the paramedics guided her onto the stretcher.
He wasn't assembled. He didn't have his tie and his shirt was only partially buttoned up, the hem untucked. His hair stood in soft, curled spikes. His hands shook, hands that effortlessly lifted cars overhead. "I'm here, sweetheart." He stroked her hair, her cheeks, her shoulders, all the while shaking like a leaf. "I'm sorry I couldn't come faster. I'm sorry. I'm here now."
"I have Dr. Chapel on the line. She needs to be here now." Lois emphasized the last word.
For a second, Clark looked torn. Then he said, "Conner can get her. I'm staying with you."
She wished she had the energy to disagree.
Conner finally flew.
Nowhere near as smoothly as his dad but he got Dr. Chapel-- masked for oxygen and under a thick coat-- from New York City to the front doors of Metropolis General Hospital in an hour. In his panic, he let the sounds of the hospital overwhelm him before he found his dad's voice saying, "She's still in the OR, Mom. I don't know--"
"She's in the OR," Conner repeated to Dr. Chapel. "I can't figure out which one though. There's like twenty operating rooms."
"Just get me to the reception. I'll find a way there," said Dr. Chapel.
Once inside, he trailed behind the doctor who conjured up weird medicalese voodoo to bypass redtape. They headed through a warren of sterile hallways and brightly coloured rooms, around carts stacked with linen and scrub-clad teams casually ambling to their destinations. Conner wanted to shake some of them-- who cared about sports trades? His aunt was bleeding; they could lose his little brother or sister. Jesus, they could even lose his aunt. Everyone should have been rushing to help.
They turned a corner and his dad was there. Conner felt tiny in comparison. Clark hauled him into his arms and Conner hugged him right back, just as hard. Another pair of arms embraced him; his grandmother's homey scent mixed with ozone and disinfectant. He couldn't breathe properly. He blamed it on the embrace.
"I thought I was going to be too late," he said, finally letting go.
"You did great," said Clark. "I'm the one who slipped up. I was at a B&E in Colorado when I should've been with her all this time. She said she didn't feel good in the morning but she still went to work and I didn't push the issue."
Martha ushered them into the waiting room. It was empty, thankfully. She locked it and closed the blinds. "Clark, honey, you can't blame yourself for this," she said.
Clark's lips tightened into a white line. Conner knew he didn't hear a word Grandma said.
"I should've trained harder," he blurted out. Clark and Martha stared, confused. "If I had better control of my powers, I could've picked up Dad's JL shifts by now then Aunt Lo wouldn't have stressed so much."
"It isn't your responsibility to worry about that," said Clark.
"The fuck it isn't!"
"Boys!" Martha placed one hand on each of their chests. "No one's at fault. Things like this happen; it's horrible and heartbreaking but you can't blame yourself. Either of you."
"But Mom--" Clark said at the same time Conner protested with, "You don't understand--"
"No. Of all the people here, I understand."
Clark looked down. He felt for a chair behind him and collapsed into it. Conner sat across from his dad, unknowingly mimicking his posture.
"I'm going to get us something to eat," she said. "Call me as soon anything changes, okay, honey?" She kissed Clark's cheek, then hugged and kissed Conner. Her comforting scent disappeared when she closed the door.
Conner whipped around, needing to lash out. But, remembering his strength and the possibility that his E-field might frtiz up again, he could only stand, audibly swallowing air as he clenched and unclenched his fists. He eyed the vinyl-covered waiting room chairs. They were a nauseating seafoam colour and still faintly smelling of bleach. He couldn't sit on those. In the end, he braced his back against the wall then let his knees unlock until he sank to the floor.
Classical music piped gently into the room, nearly drowning out the buzz of the outside. Conner closed his eyes, his forehead pressed against his Clark's shoulder. He wanted to say something, to admit his fears or comfort his dad. But an invisible band tightened around his neck each time he tried and all that would come out were ragged hiccups.
His dad slid down beside him. "I'm sacred, too," said Clark. He squeezed Conner's shoulder. And they waited.
Muffled conversations broke through Lois' anaesthetic-fogged sleep first. They confused her at first but, as the drugs wore off, the words threaded into coherent sentences. She didn't like what the sentences meant so she kept her eyes closed and slept some more.
When she woke again, the room was quiet and dark. Martha held her hand; Lois wiggled the numbness out of her fingers so she could feel her mother-in-law's touch. The room was too cold.
"Hi honey." Martha leaned across the railing to smooth her hair away. "It's early in the morning now. You've been asleep for fifteen hours. I sent Conner and Clark home to freshen up and get some clothes for you. They'll be back soon."
Lois wanted to say something flippant. A whole bunch of witticisms ran through her head-- "Conner's going to need at least an hour to pretty up for the nurses" or "Those Metropolis trucks have got to stop hitting me" or even "I'm glad MGH has my favourite knock-out cocktail on file." But when she opened her mouth to speak, all that came out was a ragged sob. Once that sob escaped, the dam burst.
Martha climbed into the bed and held her close as she shook with grief. She cried until her head ached from lack of oxygen and her eyes ran out of tears and her nose ran all down her cheek into the pillows. Her throat itched from the morphine or her wailing.
"I d-did everything right! How did... I was doing it all right and it... w-why didn't it work?"
"I know, honey. I know."
"I w-w-went to check-ups every week. I ate right. I exercised e-enough. I took all those goddamn supplements and pills and... they were worried about my age so I had to get st-st-stupid naturopathic sh-shots and... I followed a-a-a-all the rules. I followed every single one of their g-g-goddamned rules."
"Of course, you did. You're so amazing, Lois, you're so wonderful and amazing."
"Then why didn't it work?" Lois screamed. She punched the mattress. "Billions of women all over the world can do this. What did I miss? What else could I h-h-have... I must've m-m-missed s-something, I must've--"
"You didn't. You were wonderful, so wonderful, honey." Martha held her closer, tighter. "This wasn't your fault. This wasn't anyone's fault. It just happened. It's cruel and unfair and it happens but, oh Lois, sweetie, I wish it hadn't happened to you."
Words bubbled out of her, leaking through the now-cracked emotional shield. "I didn't even really want the baby. I don't like kids. They're messy and sn-snotty and they grow up hating everything you ever tried to do for them and I know I'd never be any good at it but Clark was just so excited about the idea. You know Clark; he's so g-good with Conner, I thought if anyone deserved to be a dad, it would be him, you know? He'd be so happy and...
"When we lost the first baby, I was fine. I was fine because I was prepared for it. Isn't that stupid? I thought it was a trial run for this one and... and I thought, hey my dad was blond, maybe the kid would look like Jonathan. Then he b-became real. And he became mine. I imagined his face." Her chin trembled. "Why didn't we tell anyone we were pregnant? I must've self-sabotaged or... or... something. I must've--"
"Stop that," said Martha. "You can't blame yourself. It's no one's fault. I'll keep repeating that until you believe it."
Lois shook her head. She'd never believe it. "Stupid, anorexic w-wastes of oxygen in Hollywood pop those damn b-b-babies out like gumball machines. Teenagers who barely know a d-dick from a pencil have babies! Everyone can h-have babies except me! I don't get it! I don't g-g-g-get I d-d-don't guh-guh--" And she had to stop.
"I know. Cry it out, honey. Cry it out, my baby. My poor, sweet baby, I'm here."
"Oh God, Mom."
She felt herself started to fall apart again so she gripped Martha's
shoulders and pressed her cheek against her chest. Her shoulders shook
again; she couldn't breathe properly. All she could do was make a keening
noise until the world faded away again into numbing sleep.
Beth Chapel is played by Tracee Ellis Ross. In the comics, Chapel is known as the second Dr. Mid-Nite, a superhero who can only see in the dark. For reasons that will be revealed later, I changed her powers slightly.