A strange, low grunt woke Kala from her sleep. She bolted upright, her heart racing, and listened as hard as she could. Her keen ears catalogued everything in the house. In this room, four sets of breath and heartbeat: her own, Jason’s just a few feet away, Gazeera’s slower heart where the lizard drowsed in his cage, and Captain Jack’s quicker pulse in his cage by her bed. Just up the hall, Grandma slept soundly, her heart beating slow and steady. In the next room were Mister Ben and a quicker, slightly unsteady beat that took Kala a moment to identify: Barkley.
She listened to the entire house and heard no other living thing, then cautiously extended her reach. No reindeer prancing on the roof, no quick, merry beat of Santa’s heart as he touched down. No Mommy or Daddy either, but she’d heard them going away somewhere. Daddy must have taken Mommy with him to help Santa – it seemed as though Jason was right for once. “Mommy must be really excited,” Kala sighed into the quiet of the room, using her own voice to try to scare away the boojums. “She’s gonna get married, and she gets to see Santa Claus.”
The weird noise didn’t repeat itself, and Kala couldn’t identify it. She was fairly sure it had come from inside the house, though. Sometimes Daddy Richard had told her that noises in the night were just the house itself settling, and that seemed as likely an explanation as anything else. Sighing in contentment, Kala burrowed back down under her covers and let her amazing hearing fade…
…only to be disturbed by the same low grunting sound, repeated twice and getting louder. It sounded like it was coming from the hallway, but as Kala trained her hearing in that direction, she caught only a loud thump that silenced the creepy grunting and made her sit bolt upright in bed with terrified eyes. And just to make it worse, there was nothing else after that – no new heartbeats or breathing sounds in the house.
Completely spooked now, Kala scrambled out of bed to make a beeline for the one next to her. Glancing at the door to their room worriedly over her shoulder, she attempted to wake her brother. “Jason!” she hissed softly, leaning into his face. “Get up! Somethin’ made a noise!”
Jason, however, had no interest in her worries. “You’re dreamin’,” he managed sleepily, swatting at her. “Go back t’ sleep, big baby.”
She shook his shoulder roughly, then pulled on his pillow when he ignored her. “No I’m not! I’m awake, Jason, and there’s somethin’ in here making noises! I heard it! You gotta wake up!”
Jason’s blue eyes opened slightly, to glare at her in disgust before looking out into their bedroom. That petulant look didn’t change as he listened. Usually either Gazeera or Captain Jack moved around in the night, but not even that caught his attention as he stared into the dimly-lit darkness. “I didn’t hear anythin’,” he growled, going to close his eyes again.
“I did!” Kala whispered urgently, shaking him again. “I mean it! An’ I can hear better than anybody ‘cept Daddy!” After a moment, Jason’s blue eyes opened again and Kala tugged his arm. “Jason, come on!”
“All right,” Jason groaned, flinging back his covers and sliding out of bed. His hair was sticking up everywhere, and he rubbed at his eyes, his mouth set in a sleepy pout. “Better really be somethin’. If we miss out on presents ‘cause you made us both get up…”
Both twins froze, and Jason came awake all at once. They’d seen a lot of holiday movies recently, but there was only one with a child waking up to strange noises in the house on Christmas Eve. “The Grinch,” both twins breathed, eyes going wide. “But he only comes after Santa,” Kala added. Then the implication struck her, and her mouth dropped open in dawning horror.
“If it’s th’ Grinch, we better have a way t’ stop him,” Jason whispered back. “Or he’ll take them! We gotta save the presents, Kala.” His sister looked at him worriedly, then nodded.
As they rushed downstairs to form a plan to protect their presents from the thieving Grinch, trying to keep quiet, neither of them considered for a moment that the sounds might have a perfectly explainable origin. Say, an elderly beagle starting to bark in his dreams, and his owner throwing a shoe against the wall to silence him before he could start howling and wake Martha.
Kal-El woke slowly, curled around Lois in the circular bed at the Fortress. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Lois’ hand resting on his chest and the emerald ring sparkling on her finger in the dim light – the only thing she was wearing at the moment. Smiling, he kissed her forehead and chuckled as she grumbled at him sleepily before nuzzling her face into his shoulder again.
But the ring reminded him of the other reason he had brought her here tonight. So far, Kal-El had not told his father exactly what had happened almost seven years ago, when the Fortress had been first been discovered by Luthor and then destroyed by Kal-El himself. The last time they’d talked, Jor-El had been intent on finding out where his relationship with his son stood, trying to relive more than a decade’s worth of conversations between them. They simply hadn’t gotten around to Lois, the loss of Kal-El’s powers, and the arrival of the three Kryptonian criminals.
Now Kal-El got out of bed, gently disentangling himself from her arms, and dressed himself in the spare clothes he’d always kept there. Just as he turned to go, Lois rolled over into the warm hollow where he’d lain, cracking one eyelid open to stare at him. Just barely awake, she murmured fuzzily, “Where’re you going?”
“Hush, love,” he replied. “I’ll be back soon. Sleep.”
Blinking, the reporter seemed to consider his answer before she lifted her head and asked, “Kiss?” Once he obliged her, gladly, she curled back under the covers with a happy sound and promptly resumed her sleep.
That left him to go into the main room and face Jor-El. Taking a deep breath, Kal-El placed the father crystal into the central slot of the console, and watched Jor-El’s face appear in midair. “My son,” Jor-El said, and pride warmed his voice.
“Father,” Kal-El replied. “I have come to tell you more about the past.”
Jor-El nodded. “Please continue, Kal-El.”
“It is a tale with much darkness, Father,” Kal-El cautioned. “Folly, treachery, deceit, and danger.” He had already decided not to accuse Jor-El of lying about the supposedly permanent loss of his powers; he would simply tell the story, and let his father come to his own conclusions.
Kal-El’s voice never rose or wavered as he reported the plain facts of what had happened back then, concluding with General Zod, Non, and Ursa in maximum-security prison facilities and himself returning to his usual duties as Superman. “I believed that I must give up the woman I loved to protect the world I also loved,” he said. “And I did so. I erased her memories of our time together, in an effort to spare her grief, and not longer after, I left the planet. Scientists had discovered what appeared to be Krypton itself, whole and undamaged.”
“Krypton was destroyed,” Jor-El said softly. “The earthquakes had begun even as I laid the last crystals into your ship. My son, if there was any chance of our planet surviving, of being able to raise you on your homeworld…”
“The planet had cracked in half, Father,” Kal-El informed him. “The scientists had seen the side that looked undamaged, but the other side was a jagged ruin. And all of the crystal had become radioactive with the death of the red sun Rao. Those crystals were green instead of clear, and the radiation from them nearly killed me. Kryptonite – for that is what the deadly substance is called now – is fortunately very rare on earth. After years of exposure to a yellow sun, it is the only substance that can harm me. But the planet that I might have once called home had become one gigantic mass of this radioactive crystal. I was fortunate to escape with my life.”
Jor-El was driven speechless by that, unable to respond. That the world he loved and had tried to save had nearly been the death of his own son…
“I was able to make my way back to Earth and safety,” Kal-El continued. “But on returning, I found that much had changed in my absence. All things changed but one – my love for Lois Lane.”
“My son, this attachment you feel for the human…”
For the first time in his life, Kal-El cut his father off mid-sentence. “It is an emotion more powerful than any other I have felt, Father. And when I faced my old enemy Lex Luthor again, this time on an island made entirely of kryptonite – made with Kryptonian technology, stolen from this very Fortress – it was my love for Lois that aided me. Duty gave me courage to face Luthor, but love gave me strength to survive the encounter. And then Lois herself literally saved my life, rescuing me from death in the ocean at the risk of her own life. Father, I cannot and will not turn away from her.”
“Again you would defy me? Did you learn nothing from your prior mistake, my son?” Jor-El spoke with an edge of worry in his voice.
“Father, I love her,” and the warning was clear in Kal-El’s tone. “And I will not be denied again.”
“Kal-El, when you once before spurned your duty for her …”
Once again, he didn’t get to finish the sentence. “Why can I not have both?” Kal-El interrupted him. “The woman I love and the mission I am sworn to fulfill?”
“The world needs you,” Jor-El’s disembodied head scolded. “Will you turn your back on them yet again?”
“They need me, but I need her,” Kal-El argued. “How can you deny me this, Father, when even you were married? Your marriage didn’t interfere with your calling, and neither should mine. It is through loving her that I come to love all of humanity even more.”
“You are not one of them,” Jor-El replied. “Loving a mortal will not make you mortal, either. Even if you sacrifice your powers, you can never truly be one of them. Your Kryptonian heritage will always set you apart.”
“You are wrong,” Kal-El retorted, the first time he had ever spoken those words to Jor-El. And he spoke with conviction, unaware that Lois had woken up and was watching the confrontation. “I can never forget where I have come from or the legacy you bequeathed to me, but this is my world, Father. This is my home, and these are my people.”
He sighed heavily, looking down, then turned resolute eyes to his father’s visage. “I am not asking your permission, Father. I am telling you, as one grown man to another. Lois is the woman I love…” He took a deep breath, and added, “She is also the mother of my children. When I left the planet in search of Krypton, Lois was already with child. Because of my great folly in leaving her, I missed the first six years of my children’s lives. But now the legacy of Krypton lives on in my son and daughter, and I as their father must guide them. I will make Lois my wife and raise our twins, who will carry Krypton’s heritage after I am gone. This is my will.”
Jor-El’s expression seemed caught between surprise, distaste, and anger. “You cannot…” he began, and then the hologram flickered. “Not one of them … not…”
Kal-El winced as his father’s image vanished. Apparently he had just exceeded the limits of the artificial intelligence programmed into the crystals. Sadly, he started to turn away, his heart aching for some kind of resolution. Could his father not accept that, being raised as a human, he would want the same things humans wanted: a wife, a family, people who loved him for himself and not for his wondrous powers?
He whirled around to see the hologram of Lara in place of Jor-El. “Mother,” he whispered, shocked. He had seen her image in the teaching crystals, but never programmed into the artificial intelligence.
“Your father does not know I am recording this,” she said, and her voice was slightly rushed. “He has great plans for you, but he is a man of logic and science. Perhaps he has not thought enough about the state of your heart.” She paused, and glanced away, then back. “Very well. He has considered that you may think yourself in love with one of these humans, and he has devised a plan to discourage you. But I am your mother, and I think this idea will fail. If you are seeing this recording … it has already failed. You have lost your powers once, and regained them. Perhaps you have learned that the effects of our sun are not permanent, and can be reversed by high-intensity exposure to a power source derived from the rays of a yellow sun. Most importantly, you have come here again to question your father about this woman you love. All of those conditions had to be met for this recording to be accessed.”
“If the human you love has been with you through these trials and remains at your side, then your relationship can stand the many tests you will face together. It will not be easy to balance the needs of the world against the demands of your heart, but your love is strong enough to defy your father’s will. It shall be strong enough to endure all else. And there is one more thing…”
The image flickered. “So you have spoken of children. My grandchildren, whose dear faces I will never see, whose voices I will never hear. Know that they may inherit your great powers, my son, and see to it that they also inherit your mission, your responsibilities.” She sighed, and the smile she gave her son was heartbreakingly beautiful. “Through you, Kal-El, our glory lives on in your new home. Upon you and your family, I bestow a mother’s blessing of love. Love is the key that unlocks so many doors, my son. Cherish it…”
Lara faded, but just before her holographic projection disappeared, she turned her head to glance up and to her left. Kal-El followed her gaze, and saw Lois standing there above them, one hand pressed to her lips as she watched. In the last instant before her image disappeared, his mother’s blue eyes seemed to be locked on the hazel pair he adored. And it was clear that Lois was just as effected as he was.
For a moment, neither could speak; this was so far from anything they ever expected to hear. Kal-El was struck speechless by the sight of her there, her rumpled hair, wearing only his uniform shirt, most especially when she smiled at him and shrugged a little guiltily. All he wanted was to take her in his arms and tell her he loved her, forever and ever…
But despite the solemnity of the moment, he heard someone stirring back at the Riverside house. The twins were drifting toward wakefulness; they had been up during the night, Kal-El knew, and from the sounds they’d made, they had gone down to peer at their presents. That he could live with, as long as they didn’t open anything, and he had fallen asleep listening for the sound of crinkling wrapping paper.
While he was listening to the twins, Lois said in a soft yet matter-of-fact tone, “So you went ahead and told him.”
“Yes,” Kal-El replied, floating up to the ledge on which she stood. “He has to know. And I hope he’ll get used to the idea, although I’m glad my mother approves.” Lois smiled, and he kissed her before she could ask anything else. For a long moment, neither spoke, only held on to each other tightly. As he reluctantly pulled back to look down at her, he added, “We can talk on the way home – the twins are going to wake up soon.”
“You can hear …” she started to say, then rolled her eyes without finishing her sentence. “Well, duh, Lane. Of course he can. Damn! What time is it? They usually sleep in until seven!” Lois turned away to start back toward the other room, already muttering, “Where are my clothes?”
Kal-El chuckled softly at her. “We have a little time,” he said, following her. “Their heartbeats are just a little faster, not all the way up to fully conscious speed.” He caught the sleeve of his own uniform before she had gone more than two steps and pulled Lois into his arms, kissing her quickly. “I love you, beauty.”
“And I love you,” she replied with a soft smile, clinging to him for a long, breathless moment. “So what are we waiting for?”
“Lois, I need my shirt.” He glanced meaningfully down at the blue uniform emblazoned with the s-shield.
She arched an eyebrow, looked down, then looked up again with a smug smile. “Sounds like a personal problem.”
Ben had slept soundly, waking only slightly to shush Barkley some time in the wee hours. So when the full-throated baying of the old hound shattered the predawn silence, Ben nearly fell out of bed, his heart thumping crazily.
Barkley howled at the bedroom door, all his fur standing on end, his neck stretched out stiffly as the power of his voice shook his elderly frame. “Barkley! Hush!” Ben called, hurriedly getting out of bed and rushing over to his dog. Faintly from next door, he heard Martha exclaim something in mingled surprise and disgust. He picked up Barkley and shushed him roughly.
Some kind of commotion was going on downstairs, and that seemed to be what had woken Barkley. Leaving the beagle in his room, Ben pulled a robe over his pajamas and headed out to see what the matter was. He met Martha in the hallway and both of them came downstairs to see Clark carrying a sleepy but protesting Kala. “But, Daddy, we’re awake now!” the little girl pleaded.
“No presents before dawn,” her father responded, trying to keep his tone stern.
How familiar that sounded. Martha couldn’t resist shooting him a fond grin. “She gets that from you, you know. I remember you once set all the clocks ahead and tried to convince us the sun was late.”
Looking abashed, Clark’s face showed it when he replied, “Well, I was really hoping for a pony that year.”
Lois followed him, carrying a rather snuggly Jason. He didn’t even bother to hide his yawn. “Don’t blame my daughter. I’ve seen this sort of thing far too many times not to suspect who was the ringleader. Your son put her up to this, I’ll bet.” Lois glanced down at her armful of sleepy little boy. Jason looked properly woebegone under the indirect chastisement, ducking his little face under her chin to avoid further persecution.
“But what happened?” Martha asked, reaching out to smooth Kala’s dark hair. “I was asleep until that idiotic mongrel started yowling.”
Clark looked down at both children. “Someone apparently thought the Grinch had come to steal their presents. We went outside for a bit and walked back into a trap. They’d hung their jingle-bell wreath on a piece of string across the doorway, and when I set it off they jumped for me. Someone had the idea that they had to protect their gifts. Now these two are going back to bed until it’s time to open presents.”
“I heard a noise,” Kala complained, already starting to pout. “It wasn’t you an’ it wasn’t reindeers so it had t’ be the Grinch. He prolly knew you an’ Mommy were off … weren’t here, so we had t’ protect everybody’s presents.”
“With a frying pan,” Lois sighed. “You could’ve hurt someone, Kala. You’re lucky your father’s not all banged up.”
“She didn’t hit me that hard,” Clark added, squeezing Kala’s hand to keep her from saying anything in front of Ben.
Kala, however, was more preoccupied with the fact that she had just attacked her father with a frying pan. “I didn’t mean t’ hit Daddy!” she wailed, sniffling. “Jason said if th’ Grinch came in we hadta get ‘im! An’ … an’ I heard the bells ring so I went t’ hit the Grinch an’ it … it was Daddy!”
“It’s all right,” Clark soothed, hugging her as he kissed her temple. “Munchkin, I know you didn’t mean to hit me. It’s okay.”
“Come on, sweethearts,” Martha said softly, stroking both of their backs in calming circles. “Your father’s right. You should go back to bed for a while and let us all wake up. I’m sure your parents are fully awake in spite of the hour,” she added with a shrewd glance at Lois’ still-rumpled hair. “But Ben and I still need to wake up a bit more.”
With that, Lois and Clark took the twins upstairs, while Martha and Ben headed down to get coffee and breakfast started. Kala and Jason were still sleepy enough that they got back into their beds with only token protests – until Lois stroked her son’s unruly hair, and he glimpsed the ring out of the corner of his eye. “Kala!” he said excitedly. “Kala! She’s wearin’ the ring! She said yes!”
“Told you,” came the grumpy mutter from Kala’s bed, snuggling her cheek into her pillow. She had to fight a yawn before she could add, “Mommy’s smart.”
That made Clark laugh softly. “See, honey? Agreeing to marry me just proves your brilliance.”
“And last night proves why I agreed to marry you,” Lois said with an arched eyebrow as she watched her daughter stretch out and drift off. Jason finally settled, falling back asleep with a wide grin on his face, and his mother headed out with a last fond glance at her babies before closing the door.
“That’s not the only reason,” Clark whispered, kissing the top of Lois’ head as she passed him.
“No, it isn’t,” Lois said seriously, pausing to lean against him and let him hug her tightly. “You’re also a pretty good cook. And I would never have gotten those freakin’ bikes put together without you.”
“I see,” Clark replied against her hair. “So you keep me around as a lover and a domestic servant?”
“Pretty much,” Lois teased, tilting her head back to smile at him. “Makes you wonder why you keep me around, doesn’t it?”
She had expected some sweetly romantic answer, or some teasing about Clark’s fondness for surly caffeine addicts. Instead he grinned and replied, “Broodmare, mostly. The House of El must go on…”
Lois yelped and swatted him. “Oh, really? Just for that, you big jerk, I’m going to go get a shower. You can make my breakfast. See if you get another night like the last one anytime soon…”
“Not until we’re married, I won’t,” Clark replied softly. At Lois’ startled look, he only smiled and kissed her forehead. “We were trying to behave anyway…”
“You were the one who started that last night, not me,” Lois said a tad defensively, pulling away slightly to look up at him.
Clark only smiled at her. “Yes, well, last night was a special occasion. Lois, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. No more indefinite engagements – let’s set a date and go through with this. And until we’re married… Well, we survived being apart for six years; we should be all right for a few months of me not sleeping over. Right?”
Lois looked up at him dubiously, but she knew that his scrupulously moral heart was still bothered by the fact that the twins had been born out of wedlock. She finally gave a dramatic sigh and muttered, “Sometimes I hate you, Boy Scout.”
“I love you, too,” he replied, kissing her forehead.
After the twins came down four times in two hours, each time insisting that they were wide awake (even while they yawned) and they’d been waiting for hours to open their gifts, the adults finally relented. Kala and Jason, whooping with delight, dived on the presents – a larger pile of loot than ever before, thanks to the newly-extended family. Ben and Martha were there to witness it, but it was clear to Lois at least that Ben had not quite recovered from being prematurely wakened by Barkley.
The matching bicycles were a huge favorite and the first gifts to be examined, but the lure of unopened boxes soon drew Kala and Jason away from the biggest gifts. The next presents unwrapped were from Martha, and the twins squealed in delighted surprise at the tiny matching sweaters for Gazeera and Captain Jack.
“No, don’t bring the animals down here to try them on,” Lois cautioned. The mere thought was enough to break her out in a cold sweat. “Save the sweaters until after you’re done.”
Sighing, Jason picked up the next box, a very small one. “Mommy, for you,” he said, crossing the floor on his knees to hand it over. Lois blinked; someone had done something very elegant with silver paper and pricey ribbon. While she contemplated the small box and the unfamiliar script on the tag, Jason tore open the bigger box it had been sitting on. “Yay! A puzzle!” he cried, tearing off the rest of the paper to expose the front of the box and the picture.
“All right!” Clark quickly said, the very instant the paper fell away. “Daddy Richard got you a Superman puzzle. Awesome, Jason.”
The little boy’s blue eyes met his father’s, brightened by the shared secret. Lois, however, caught Martha’s glance and rolled her eyes with a sigh. “Richard is such a fanboy,” she sighed, opening her own present.
A pair of earrings and a matching pendant lay nestled in white velvet, made from silver so delicately worked that it looked less like jewelry than like the gleam of jewelry, made briefly solid. “Wow,” Clark said, impressed.
Thinking quickly, Lois turned the box over and grinned. Exactly as she had thought… “My investigative reporting skills strike again,” she said. “Made in Milan. Remind me to actually write Lana a thank-you note.”
Everyone wanted to see the jewelry, except Kala. She had wormed her way under the tree itself, her eyes fixed on a large box in the back. It looked almost big enough to be the karaoke machine she wanted so badly… To her disappointment, the card read Jason. Pushing that box out to her brother, she picked up the next one, rather smaller. That was hers, and she didn’t bother coming out from under the tree to open it. She did, however, notice that the tag showed it was from Mommy.
Kala actually shrieked when she saw the iPod. Only a few other girls at school had one and they were all older. “Oh, thank you, Mommy!” she yelled, scrambling out from under the tree and jumping into Lois’ lap. Amidst the shower of kisses and hugs, Lois could hear her exclaiming, “Thank you, thank you, thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
Martha and Ben couldn’t help laughing as Kala covered her mother in enthusiastic gratitude, Lois managing somewhere in between to reply, “You’re welcome, baby.” In the meantime, Clark opened one of his gifts, chuckling at the cologne Lois had bought him. “CK One,” he said, shaking his head. “Lois, you’re something else.”
Shortly after, Kala dived back onto the floor, and she and Jason were tearing open gifts in a frenzy of glee. While the kids exclaimed over each present, Clark quietly handed Martha and Ben several of their gifts to open, and got a couple more of the ones for himself and Lois. The adults were mostly quiet in their appreciation and gratitude, watching the kids with smiles of delight.
It took almost an hour to open all the gifts. Everyone came away with new clothes as well as more frivolous gifts; Clark couldn’t help laughing at the four new suits Lois had gotten him, and Lois rolled her eyes when she saw the L. Lang label on the red blouse – but that didn’t stop her from running upstairs to try it on. Kala had found her big gift, the iPod, early, but Jason waited until the end to open the big box from Daddy Richard. When it revealed a remote-controlled Godzilla almost Jason’s own height, his excited yell was nearly as high-pitched as Kala’s.
At last, it seemed the gifting was over, and both twins lay blissfully passed out on the carpet amid their spoils. Only then did Lois touch Clark’s arm with a fond smile and say, “I have one more gift for you.”
“Oh?” Clark asked curiously, looking even more bewildered when Lois handed him an unmarked black DVD case. “What’s this?”
“You’ll see,” she said gently, a warm light in her eyes. “Go on up to my office and play it there.”
Clark gave her a dubious look, which made her smile all the more, but did as she asked. Was this something he couldn’t watch in front of his mother? What on earth could it be?
Sitting down at Lois’ desk upstairs, he booted up her laptop and logged in with her password, which was still A-R-T-I-C. He slipped the plain DVD into the computer’s drive, and sat back to wait.
The first image on the screen froze him in his seat, eyes wide, his breath caught somewhere in his chest. Two infants lay in the same crib, one with a few wisps of blond hair, the other with a surprising thatch of black curls. The twins, Clark thought, his heart aching for what he’d missed.
Kala was obviously asleep, but Jason was awake and cooing at the camera, waving his tiny hands and kicking his feet. Lucy cooed right back at him; from the sound, she was the one holding the camera. “Who’s a big boy, then?” she asked, and Jason gabbled. “Who loves his Aunt Lucy?”
From just offscreen, he heard what could only be Ella comment, “Lucy, he loves everyone. He loved the nurse who gave him that shot yesterday. That is the happiest baby on the face of the earth.”
“Yeah, makes me wonder if he’s mine,” Lucy teased, reaching in the crib to tickle him. Jason had only laughed, smiling hugely as he grabbed Lucy’s finger.
Clark gasped. He had known they were little by the easy way they shared a crib, but seeing Lucy’s hand in the shot gave him a better idea of the scale. Jason and Kala had been born tiny, so small it seemed a miracle that they even existed. He didn’t have much time to wonder at that, though, because his son got excited enough to wave his free hand around wildly, and bopped his sister on the head.
Before Kala even opened her eyes, she opened her tiny rosebud mouth and mewled. Her face screwed up, and she let loose with a high wail that seemed impossible from something so minute. “Oh, crap,” Lucy hissed. “Kala, Kala, little Kala, hush, baby, it’s okay. See, it’s all right, he didn’t hurt you…”
Kala’s face was starting to turn red, and her crying got louder by the second. Jason was trying to look at her, but he hadn’t mastered the art of turning over, and could only squirm.
Offscreen, Clark heard a haggard but well-loved voice call out from just beyond the camera’s view. “Oh dear God, give her to me before she wakes the whole building,” a voice that could only be Lois sighed grumpily.
“You need your rest,” Ella began. She had already picked up Kala and was rocking her, but the little girl was still crying, and still getting louder.
“And I won’t get it with my very own fire siren going off,” he could hear Lois retort before her mother could go any further. “Give her here, Momma. Since you two woke her up with that damn camera, at least let me get her back to sleep so I can sleep.”
Clark felt a moment’s pain, wishing he had been there to help Lois – his absence was one of the reasons for her surliness. As Ella moved offscreen carrying Kala, Lucy kept the camera on Jason, tickling his toes to distract him. “Hush there, little boy,” she whispered. “Your sister’s doing all the yelling for both of you.”
In the background, Kala’s fretful wails slowed and suddenly got quieter, and Clark heard Lois speaking to her. “Oh, I know, I know. It’s just awful, isn’t it? But it’s okay now, little one. It’s okay, my Kala. My Kala Josephine.” She almost sang the names, and the crying stopped, peace descending on the little family.
For a moment. Lucy had taken the camera and come up behind Lois; all Clark could see of her was the back of her head and her shoulder. She’d let her hair grow out, and the raven waves tumbled partway down her back. As Lucy carefully eased around the side of the chair, Lois kept crooning to her daughter.
The camera showed Lois in profile first, that face he loved so well drawn by fatigue and seclusion. Clark felt his heart seize again, the agony of knowing this had happened while he floated through space toward the remains of a planet that could never again be home. He had never seen Lois look that weary and heartsore, and he loathed himself for having abandoned her.
But in the next moment, Lucy took another step, and Clark saw Lois’ face more from the front. She was smiling down at the baby in her arms, a tired smile to be sure, but one full of tender adoration. Clark felt tears well up in his eyes to see that wondrous expression on Lois’ face as she whispered to their daughter, and he silently thanked her for letting him see this alone. He didn’t have to worry about what anyone thought of his reactions, he could just try to weather the storm of emotions.
Lois had opened her blouse and tucked Kala mostly inside it, and the little girl was now busily nursing. Her suckling was audible on the tape, and Lucy couldn’t help chuckling. That made Lois look up and yelp with surprise at the nearness of the recorder, the protective look in her eyes clear. “Lucy! Knock it off! What the hell are you trying to film here? Move that damn thing!” The reporter twisted to the side, trying to hide from the camera.
Lucy laughed out loud. “Chill out, Lois! Nursing is perfectly natural. Besides, I thought you were the woman with no modesty whatsoever?”
“About as natural as me cramming that camera somewhere that’ll make it difficult for you and Ron to have any more kids,” Lois snapped, eyes blazing now. “The kids are barely two weeks old and they’re already dodging paparazzi? Get lost, Lucinda! My daughter is trying to eat!”
“Lucy, leave her be,” Ella said firmly. “If she doesn’t want to be filmed nursing, then quit bothering her. Come over here and film Jason, he loves the attention.”
Lucy sighed dramatically, but the camera swung away from Lois as Lucy headed back over to the crib, which Ella was leaning over as she played with Jason’s toes. He watched her tickle him with an air of utter absorption, just discovering his own feet. The little boy kicked and reached, but he was still too uncoordinated to grab hold of his foot to look at it. “This one’s going to wind up chewing his own toes like you did, Lucy,” Ella proclaimed, smiling down at her grandson.
“I never chewed my toes!” Lucy exclaimed from beyond view, while Lois laughed nastily in the background.
“Yes, you did,” Ella informed her. “Once you could get your foot in your mouth, you’d rather suck your toes than your thumb. We had to keep socks on you for about a month to break you of it.”
Lois was actually wheezing laughter by then. “Oh man, Lucy, and you’ve never stopped sticking your foot in your mouth since! Priceless!”
“Bite me, big sis,” he heard Lucy retort, trying to sound regal and aloof.
Unfortunately, Lois’ laughter had jostled little Kala, and the baby started to whimper. She was quickly winding up to her siren impression, and Clark heard Lois muttering, “Oh, no, you don’t, baby girl. Here, you can’t eat and scream. Go on, I know you’re hungry…”
Jason, however, had heard his sister wail, and seemed to realize she wasn’t beside him anymore. His face took on an expression of horrified shock, and he opened his mouth to cry out once.
“She’s okay, my big boy,” Ella hastened to murmur, rubbing his belly. “Oh, Jason, Jason. You don’t have to cry, your sister’s fine, she’s just trying to get attention…”
Jason howled. He was louder than Kala had been, and Clark heard Lois saying, “For the love of God, you got him wound up too! Bring him over here and quit harassing my child! I swear, you two were supposed to be helping me, not wrecking the only decent rest I’ve gotten in the last month by making the kids fussy. Bring him here, now.”
Ella did the honors, Lucy filming over her shoulder as she carried the little boy to his mother. “It’s okay, sweet boy. Mommy’s here. Yes, Mommy’s here and they’ll leave you alone. Hush, Jason,” Clark heard Lois coo to him. She quickly got him settled under her shirt as well, and once he had his sister beside him and dinner in front of him, he quieted down to nurse. Lucy had wisely chosen a camera angle that was a little less revealing this time, but Lois still glared up at her warningly.
After several moments, the reporter sighed heavily. “Dammit. Look at me,” Lois’ voice was tired again, almost resigned. “Ever since I was sixteen years old, I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. And now look – my greatest life achievement so far is nursing both twins simultaneously. I’m just a damn vending machine.”
General Lane’s widow was not interested in putting up with such fatalistic self-deprecation. “Well, would you rather give them up for adoption?” she asked, crossing her arms and staring at Lois.
Lois looked absolutely taken aback, her eyes suddenly wide. She seemed just as shocked as he himself was by Ella’s words. But Clark could see the stubborn way her jaw tightened, her chin went up. “Mother! Don’t you ever say such a thing again! I swear, if I hadn’t just gotten them both quiet, I’d get up from this chair and…”
“Well, you keep going on about how much trouble they are,” Ella replied in an almost offhanded way.
“And they are trouble,” Lois growled, the look on her face positively irate. Clark knew her well enough to know that tone meant she was readying herself for a battle royale. “I never wanted kids, I was never particularly good with kids, and now I have two. One’s fussy, they’re both delicate, and I have no goddamned idea what I’m doing half the time! Not to mention my career’s been derailed. But these are my babies, and I don’t care whether they understand what you’re saying or not, don’t you dare ever even mention giving them up again. Don’t even hint at it. I won’t have them thinking they’re not wanted, because they are. I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.”
Lucy had kept the camera still and her mouth shut during the tirade, and she had both Ella and Lois in the frame. She captured Ella’s slow smile. “That’s my girl,” she said quietly. “Lois, I know you’re worried, but everything’s going to work out. You’re going to be a wonderful mother.”
“And a wonderful vending machine,” Lucy added with a chuckle.
“Shut up, you toe-sucking broodmare,” Lois growled at her, and the image started to fade along with Lucy’s indignant yelp.
Clark clicked on the pause button, rubbing his eyes. Wonder, delight, sympathy, guilt, longing, and laughter warred within him. I should’ve been here, he thought to himself fiercely. She should never have had to face that alone…
But the gift wasn’t intended to make him feel guilty on Christmas Day, and Clark forced himself to get past that to the wonder of seeing the twins as babies. So young, and their personalities were already evident: Jason the cheerful and inquisitive one, Kala the cranky drama queen. And Lois – he had only ever seen the one photograph of Lois while she was pregnant. Seeing her like this, even as careworn as she had appeared, was a revelation. A certain radiance clung to Lois, the beauty of a new mother bonding with her children, and the sight made him want to go downstairs and hug her. The twins, too – he wanted to snuggle them and hold them and never let them go again. He could go downstairs now…
Taking a deep breath, Clark decided to watch the rest of the DVD first. When he pressed play, the next scene came up, and the twins were older. Now Ella held the camera, calling to Jason as he crawled across the carpet toward her. Right behind him was Kala, occasionally grabbing his feet as she crawled. Clark just watched through a haze of wistfulness; most of the clips were only a few minutes long, but his avid gaze captured every nuance as the twins got older. All the milestones were on film: first steps, first haircut, first tooth, and first words.
Clark had to laugh when Kala looked up and clearly said, “Mama!” for the first time. Not just because of the dazzling smile on her face when she said it, but also because of the way Jason turned to look at her wide-eyed. A moment later, he looked up at Lois and repeated it; both children speaking that all-important first word on the same day had brought tears to Lois’ eyes. Ella, who had been filming the twins in the bath when Kala unexpectedly decided to say the first word, set the camera down abruptly to go shower her daughter and grandchildren with hugs and kisses.
He got to see their birthdays, several outings, all of the clips arranged chronologically. The videos stopped with the twins’ arrival in Metropolis, meeting their cousins for the first time, and when Clark turned the computer off he was momentarily overwhelmed by a wave of longing. Why stop there? he wondered. There had to be videos of the twins past their third birthday… And then the answer came to him. Richard.
Instead of being upset, Clark found himself touched by the gesture. Of course, at some point he would want to see whatever videos existed; he and Richard were coworkers already and were becoming friends, after all. Sighing, he composed himself after the emotional roller coaster of the DVD, and headed downstairs.
Lois was in the kitchen, brewing another pot of coffee, and Clark simply hugged her without a word. Nothing needed to be said – she turned in his arms, kissed him, and let him hold her as long as he liked.
“I love you,” he murmured. “Thank you so much, Lois.”
Nuzzling his cheek, she whispered back, “I love you, too.” The somber tone wasn’t one she could stand for long, so Lois drew back slightly with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “So, did you get a kick out of that first clip? At the extra special bonus of nursing twins? I damn near killed Lucy.”
Clark laughed, hugging her tightly. “Lois, I was watching the love of my life and my infant children, not ogling your chest.”
“That’s why I love you,” she sighed, cuddling into his embrace.
“I ogled your chest enough last night … and did a lot more than look…”
Lois pulled back to frown up at him, swatting his shoulder. “Clark! Don’t make me tell your mother.”
That night, when Lois should have been sneaking downstairs to eat up the last of the pumpkin pie, she found herself munching on donuts from a vending machine instead. “What a day,” she sighed to herself, leaning back in the waiting room chair.
Lucy, Ron, and their three kids had come over with Ella, which woke the twins and incited a huge romp in the snow outside. Clark and Lois had played just like kids themselves, making snow angels and helping the five children build snowmen while Ella, Martha, and Lucy cooked. Ron and Ben, it turned out, were both baseball fans, and spent most of the afternoon companionably arguing the merits of each major league team.
There were more presents to open as well, gifts from and for the Troupes and Ella. And a surprise as well; Lois had sensibly worn gloves outside, and only when she took them off to open packages did Lucy notice her ring. The reporter had seen Clark wince as everyone crowded around her with congratulations; last night, before falling asleep, she had told him she wanted to take a little time in letting their mothers know they were engaged.
So much for that brilliant plan, Lois thought, sipping Mountain Dew to wash down the donuts. Martha, Ella, and Lucy had all grabbed her hand, talking excitedly. She’d seen, out of the corner of her eye, Ron hug Clark and slap him on the back. Probably welcoming him into the family.
They had also heard from Richard just before dinner; he had sounded tired but happy, and after hearing about the twins’ Christmas, had rather vaguely promised that he was bringing them back an extra-special present. Lois kept the conversations short, partly because of the hint of exhaustion in Richard’s voice, and partly so as not to strain the twins’ hastily-given promise not to tell Daddy Richard about Daddy Clark and Mommy getting engaged. Lois wanted to break the news to him herself, gently.
The chattering about the wedding continued through dinner, the two mothers already discussing gowns and cakes and party favors. But when Lois bemoaned her fate one time too many, Martha and Ben had tried to take some of the spotlight off of her – by announcing their intention to get married. On Valentine’s Day, which made it one less date to remember.
Lois chuckled softly at the memory of Clark’s expression. ‘Horrified shock’ described it, or perhaps simply ‘dumbfounded’. She had grabbed his hand under the table and squeezed, forcing him to remember that he liked Ben, and that he and the older man had come to something of a truce while she and the twins were in Smallville.
He still looked startled, but he managed to congratulate his mother and her boyfriend in an almost natural tone. The rest of dinner had gone very well, a hint of the future; the Lanes, Kents, and Troupes all at one table, enjoying each other’s company and some truly splendid food.
Afterward, when Lois and Clark were trying to steal a moment to cuddle in the kitchen while everyone else had dessert, Lucy had chosen to display her impeccable Lane timing by going into labor. That was how Lois had wound up here at the hospital with her sister, her mother, her brother-in-law, and her newborn niece, Michelle. Clark, Martha, and Ben were taking care of the five kids back at the Riverside house, and Lois had stepped out of the maternity room to grab something to eat. Driving here over icy roads and then holding her sister’s hand through the labor had left her feeling drained and in need of sugar and caffeine, which had led her to the tiny break room and limited assortment of vending machine food.
She made her way back to the room only to find Lucy and Michelle asleep, and Ron nodding off in a chair by the bed. Only Ella was awake, and she smiled warmly at her oldest. “I think you and I ought to head out, sweetheart,” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Lois yawned. “I hope Clark and Ben and Martha got everyone to sleep.”
“I’m sure they did,” Ella replied. “Come on, baby girl. I’ll drive you home and take Lucy’s van back to my house.”
“Momma, I don’t like you driving that late,” Lois protested as Ella slid an arm around her waist and guided her out the door. “You can stay over with me. We’ll find room.”
“That’s probably a better idea,” Ella admitted as they walked down the hallway. She turned to her daughter with a smile and said, “Well, this has certainly been a Christmas to remember…”
“It’s been one helluva year,” Lois replied, thinking back to this time last year. She had been newly engaged to Richard and still occasionally staring at the sky, though she would never have admitted it. Now, she and Clark were engaged, Richard was in Florida trying to woo Lana and appease his mother, and the group of people the twins called family had expanded significantly. Looking back on everything, Lois added decisively, “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“That’s my girl,” Ella told her.