She had been through both bookstores with nothing to show for it, browsed the duty-free shops, bought a few items at Lush, and drank two Pumpkin Spice Frappucinos before wandering back to her terminal. Well, that left another forty-two minutes and sixteen seconds before her flight arrived, Lois thought as she glanced for the millionth time at her wristwatch.
With her layover in Chicago seeming to go on forever, Lois spent more time in her own thoughts than she was comfortable with. Remembering that Martha had told her that Lana had slipped out last night without warning, she flipped her phone open and dialed a number that was rapidly growing familiar. The least she could do was check up on her… What would it hurt? The phone was answered on the second ring by a pleasant voice saying, "Hello, Lois."
"Hi, Lana," Lois said just as good-humoredly. "Listen, I was just calling to thank you for buying the twins’ plane tickets. Clark and Richard and I all thought one of us had already bought them."
"It wasn’t any trouble," Lana told her, her tone a trifle sheepish. "I figured out that all of you were caught up in planning how to get them out to Kansas, and I thought I’d make at least one thing easier for you."
"And the gesture is much appreciated," Lois said sincerely. "But those plane tickets are just too expensive. Send me the bill and I’ll reimburse you."
"I’m serious, Lana. It was bad enough that you had to pay to bribe them with books and lunch, but buying the tickets was too much."
"It was my pleasure," Lana said, sounding slightly exasperated. "Lois, I don’t have children of my own, and the twins are a delight. And I know how much you cherish them. That you’d trust me to spend six hours with your kids is an honor worth far more than two first-class tickets."
"You flew them first class?" Lois exclaimed. "Lana! They’re six!"
"What?" Lana asked, honestly bewildered. "Have you seen the seats in coach? You might as well sit in the lap of the person next to you. And the food is awful, too."
"Lana, it’s first class," Lois said. "That’s really expensive. Besides, I fly coach all the time, and it hasn’t killed me yet."
"Yes, well, I prefer a little more space and comfort when I fly," Lana’s voice was just a tad defensive. A loud public address system briefly drowned out her last few words.
Lois’ attention shifted the moment she heard the amplified voice. That sounded awfully familiar… "Lana, where are you?" she asked, one brow arched as she concentrated on the background noises.
The other woman paused, Lois heard a sigh, then Lana answered in the fewest words possible. "The airport."
Unfortunately for her, Lois was a reporter and a damn good one. "Which airport, Lana?"
That same reluctant pause before the answer: "Charles de Gaulle."
"I knew that announcement sounded French," Lois muttered. Well, that answered the question of why she had slipped out in the middle of the night. "Okay, why are you in Paris?"
"I’m on a layover," Lana said, and then sighed. Lois wouldn’t give up trying to pry information out of her, so she gave up trying to conceal it instead. "I’m on my way to Milan, Lois. If you read your own gossip column you’d know I was due there several days ago."
"Yes, I do read my own paper," Lois replied, "and our three closest competitors as well. The real question is, does Richard know you’re going to Milan? Because the last time I talked to him it sounded an awful lot like he thought you were coming back to Metropolis."
"I told him I would be back in Metropolis eventually," Lana said quickly. There was that defensive posturing again. "I never said I was coming back right away. And if he read the same article he knows I’m due in Milan."
"You do know you’re running away, right?" Lois asked, keeping her tone light. When only silence answered her, she prodded a little more. "I never figured you for a coward, Lana."
The words were calculated to make Lana just a bit angry, maybe irritate her enough that she would stop being so reticent. "Lois, I am not running away," Lana replied hotly. "I’m doing my job – I put off going to Milan long enough, and all because of him."
"That’s justification," Lois responded, almost lazily. "You did put off going to Italy before; you’re just using it as an excuse now. Is it me?" The flippant question hid a very real worry. Lois could see, even if they couldn’t, that Richard and Lana would be perfect for each other. The last thing she wanted was for Lana to shy away from that chance at happiness simply because Richard had so recently belonged to someone else.
"No, it isn’t you," Lana replied, sounding a little testy. "Although it makes my head hurt to think that the only person who wants us together as much as my mom does, is his very-recently-ex fiancé. This is almost surreal, but I’ve gotten the message loud and clear from you, Lois."
"So why are you leaving now?" the reporter asked quickly. "And why haven’t you told him? If it’s common knowledge, then why…?"
"Forgive me if I need a little time to get my head together about all of this," Lana snapped. She reined in her temper and continued more calmly, "Lois, I’m not you. I need some time alone to think things through – I’m not as good at making decisions under pressure as you are."
"What kind of decision do you actually need to make?" Lois asked, glancing at the departures board. "Has he already up and proposed marriage or something?"
Lana laughed ironically. "No. The question is, do I really want to get involved with him? Lois, I barely know Richard…"
"So get to know him," Lois interrupted. "You have to quit running if you want to do that, though. It’s hard to know someone if they spend all their time an ocean away."
An irritated sigh met Lois’ ear. "It’s not just that," Lana said. "And I need to get going if I want to catch my flight. Lois, trust me, I’m not running away. Is that good enough?"
"I’ll trust you for now," Lois replied. "And when you do get back to Metropolis, remember to bring me the receipt for those plane tickets!"
At least the conversation ended on a high note, both women laughing. "Lois, forget about the tickets," Lana said. "I’ll talk to you later – and I’ll remember what you said, all right?"
"You’d better," Lois replied, surprised by the almost-affectionate tone in her own voice. "Because if you find some other reason to stay gone, Lana, I’ll come find you myself."
Lois came down the concourse with her head up, shoulders back, her carryon bag thrown over her shoulder. She walked, as always, with confidence and a little sway in her stride, capturing the attention of everyone who glanced at her. Clark and Richard could see her ignoring all of the interested looks, however, and scanning the crowd for them.
One of them, anyway. Clark was supposed to meet her here and bring the car to her, but she wasn’t expecting Richard. She saw Clark first, his height making him easy to spot, and they both saw a smile begin to curve her lips. Then she saw Richard, and stopped abruptly.
Richard had known she would realize something was wrong the moment she saw him and Clark waiting for her together. But he felt responsible for screwing up with the twins, and didn’t want Clark to face the brunt of Lois’ anger alone. And she would surely be angry – they had all talked about how they wanted to avoid this very outcome, how they had to be careful about the way they told the twins what was going on. How could she not be furious when she found out how badly they’d mismanaged it?
Lois was frozen, her eyes wide, looking for the twins and not finding them. If Clark and Richard were here, the kids had to be here… She couldn’t make herself move, feeling panic rise in her chest, and at last the two men had to come to her.
"Lois," Clark said softly.
"What’s wrong?" she asked with sudden panic, and Clark could hear her heart racing. He could only guess the possibilities that were teeming through her mind. "What happened? Are the twins…?"
She sounded almost like Jason and Kala, and Richard felt a leaden pain roll through his gut. Not this again, he thought. I barely got through getting the twins to her mother’s house, and now Lois is going to blow up just like they did. "We miscalculated," Richard told her. "I didn’t know exactly when you were getting in, or that the kids were arriving separately. So I was at the house when Clark and the twins got there."
"And like an idiot, I immediately turned to leave," Clark said miserably.
"It was a noble gesture, trying not to interfere with my time with them," Richard interrupted. "But Jason and Kala kind of freaked out when they heard him say he was going, and they begged him to stay. So then I went to leave, and they panicked even worse."
"And we pretty much had to tell them because they were already figuring it out," Clark said. He couldn’t meet Lois’ eyes, staring down at his shoes. "They know Richard’s not going to be living with them anymore."
"Yeah, Jason sort of expected Lana to move in and we’d all be one big happy family," Richard added with dark humor. "We tried to do as much damage control as we could, but Jason insisted on going to your mother’s house and wouldn’t even talk to me the whole way over…"
Lois’ gaze had flicked back and forth between them, her eyes widening as they talked. The two of them had been hurrying to speak, almost stepping on the ends of each other’s sentences. Richard realized then why they hadn’t let her get a word in edgewise; they were both afraid of what Lois would say. In that moment, he felt closer to Clark than he ever had before. Both of them waited to weather the storm of Lois’ anger, united in their anticipation of her fury.
But the explosion of wrath they expected failed to happen. Lois just stared as they fell silent, her expression slowly fading from shock to something else. Something a lot like absolute heartbreak…
Clark and Richard were stunned to see tears well up in Lois’ eyes, and she choked on a sob, covering her face as she turned her back on them. "Oh God, I’m a horrible mother," she whispered, shoulders shaking as she fought the urge to weep. "I knew I’d screw this up. How can I do this to them? I always said that I’d never…" The misery in her voice struck both of them like a knife. "I promised myself that I’d never hurt them. They missed out on so much because of me. Now I’m making them change their world because Mommy can’t make up her mind. They’ll hate me; they’ll think it’s all my fault … and they’re right."
"No, Lois," Richard and Clark said at the same time. Clark slid his arm around her shoulders as he added, "You’re not a bad mother, not by a long shot. They’re just angry because they can’t have what they want. That’s life; changes happen."
"It’s only because they’re young," Richard said. His first reaction to seeing Lois break down was to put his arm around her waist, utterly unconscious of Clark on the other side of her. "They don’t understand. When they get used to the idea, it’ll be all right."
Both men supported her as she struggled to keep her composure. Lois shivered, wracked by guilt and shame; in spite of all of her good intentions, she’d managed to hurt the twins anyway. To see her in such pain wounded Clark deeply, and he looked across at Richard with desperation and raw agony in his eyes.
Trying to cajole her out of that awful feeling, Richard hugged her tight, glancing across her at Clark with a wan smile. "C’mon, Lois, you’re a wonderful mom. But even the best mom has to make choices her kids don’t like – otherwise they’d never go to the doctor and eat only burritos and candy."
Lois half-laughed, half-sobbed, holding on to them both for dear life. "A week ago they couldn’t even eat regular candy," she said with a sniffle.
"We should’ve reminded them of that. Change can be a good thing," Clark said softly, holding her to his shoulder. Between him and Richard, Lois could have fainted and not fallen; both of them were holding her up, and neither would let go at that moment. For that moment, the three just stood there on the concourse, united in grief.