Totally ignoring the chill in the air, Kala was standing in front of a café table outside Fuel four days before Christmas, trying not to be sick as Jason and Giselle walked up to meet her, all the while giving each other puppy-dog looks of a revolting degree. Hazel eyes rolled up toward the overcast sky as she pulled her coat closer and wondered, for the millionth separate occasion since the holidays had begun, just how quickly she could convince Jason to ditch his clingy rebound.
Before she could even begin to formulate an excuse, her phone began playing Für Elise. That ringtone had always made her smile, even when Jason had complained about how corny it was. Now it was nearly manic in appearance. Speaking of her twin… Even while she took her phone out of her bag and flipped it open, she looked to see if her brother had heard that particular song. Nope, he was oblivious, so fixated on the Pink Princess of Doom that he wouldn’t have noticed a line of chorus girls running down the street. Unbelievable.
For the moment, and for once in history, Kala considered it a bit of brilliant timing. Rolling her eyes, she couldn't help an evil grin to herself as she spoke. “KLK Enterprises, how can I help you?”
At the sound of the voice of the other end, Jason’s twin grinned all the wider. “Kala, you are so weird,” Elise griped immediately, sighing with annoyance. “Like it wasn’t odd enough the first time. I can’t believe you’re still doing that after six months. I usually give this advice to boys, but you need a new line.”
“Oh, well hello, darling,” Kala said without a hitch, knowing just how she could play this off as Jason and the Ditz of Destruction approached. The fact that they were both acting googly-eyed and in love would just make this all the more fun.
Obviously, he was distracted, but not distracted enough to miss the happy purr in her voice. Before she could say anything more, Big Brother was at her side. “Who’s that?” Jason asked. His arm was looped around Giselle’s shoulders and a suspicious gleam lit his eyes.
Too bad that Super-hearing isn’t so hot for you, huh, Dopey? Wouldn’t you love to know? “None of your business,” Kala replied loftily aloud. The effort to hold back her mirth hurt, but would be so worth it later. What Big Brother didn’t know… “But since you asked, brother mine, it’s my study date. We’re discussing homework. Weren’t we, dear?”
There was a pause on the other line as Elise realized what Kala was up to. “Oh my God! Kala! You are sick and twisted. Why are you talking to me with him standing right there? What’s wrong with you?!”
“It’s no big deal, sweetheart, it’s just my brother and his little girlfriend,” Kala soothed, never letting on that Elise’s panic was making her hilarity even harder to hide. “And I’m sure they don’t mind, do you, Lizardboy?”
Jason thumped Kala’s shoulder irritably, too polite to interrupt her conversation with a vociferous protest of that nickname. His scowl promised retribution later.
Elise finally laughed at that last, torn between horror and amusement. “It’s bad enough that he doesn’t know we’ve been talking, Kala. He’s gonna kill you if he knows you’re on the cell phone with me right now.”
“He’s nowhere near as overprotective as you think, honestly.” Kala’s tone was the vocal equivalent of spun sugar as she threw a bright smile over at the glowering Jason. “And no, really. Really. He’s not the jealous type, either.”
Elise was wheezing laughter by then, almost as if she could see the affronted look on Jason’s face and the nauseated expression on Giselle’s. After several false starts that ended with snickers, Elise managed, “Please tell me you’re still coming over this afternoon and we’re going over Mr. Carter’s assignment for the break, right? You said the other night that you were still having problems.”
This time Kala laughed with her. “Sure. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I have to do a little last-minute Christmas shopping on the way there, though.” Thinking of that made her think of how she’d only had a cup of coffee and a bagel for breakfast. Stopping to consider how close this visit with Elise would put her to curfew tonight, she added a little wheedle to her tone. “But if you really want me to come over to your place, order a pizza. Extra peppers and mushrooms. Me, Jason, and Daddy have plans tonight without my Mom, so I may miss dinner if we run late. I’ll pay my half when I get there, okay? Please?”
“I swear you have two stomachs, Kala,” Elise laughed. “Okay, fine. I’ll order a pizza. And what happened to double pepperoni on every pie?”
She winced, remembering how badly she had wrecked her diet earlier this year. Thank God she had better self-control now. “That was then and this is now. I’m back on the wagon,” she said just a bit defensively.
This prompted a bit more laughter on the other end of the phone. “Come on, Kala. You’re vegetarian again? Isn’t this the third time in, what, a year and a half?” Elise sighed and Kala just knew Elise was shaking her head at her. “Okay, fine, veggie pizza it is, but I’m putting sausage on my half. I’ll let you go torment Pinky and the Brain.”
Kala finally couldn’t take it any longer and burst out laughing. “Oh, I missed you so much. We have to get together more often. Give me an hour and I’ll be there.” Still chuckling, she and Elise said their goodbyes.
Giselle was huddled against Jason’s side as the snow continued to fall, glaring at her, but Jason just continued looking at her oddly. Uh-oh, maybe I did this too well. Big Brother goes into Protective Overdrive. “Kala, who was that?” he asked with a worried frown.
Determined to keep up the charade, his sister made herself look as nonchalant as she could. “I told you, my study date. Why?”
“I just realized I can’t remember the last time you went on a date,” he said slowly. “Who are you seeing these days, Kal?”
For a moment, the question froze her tongue. There hadn’t been anyone interesting since … the birthday party? That long ago? In other words, almost two months without a single date. At that thought, she heard her own voice taunting, I wouldn’t call this a date.
That had been Nick, whom she’d run into right here at Fuel one afternoon – he had cut into line behind her and paid for her coffee, making some teasing remark about finally taking her out somewhere. She’d told him food was an essential part of a date, and he had nodded sagely. A few minutes later, he’d gone up to get a refill on his soda, and brought her back a veggie wrap. “Now it’s a date,” he’d said, and his grin was contagious.
Kala had laughed at him. Of course it wasn’t a date, even though he’d sat down at her table and regaled her with stories about his philosophy teacher, who tended to wax poetic about Liebmann and Kant, often amusingly mispronouncing the latter’s name. Even though they’d talked for two hours, and even though he’d paid for her meal and made a point of getting something he knew she would like, it wasn’t a date. Because, well, she wasn’t seeing him. Only that was a train of thought that led into murkier realms…
“I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” Kala told Jason disdainfully. “It’s called ‘playing the field’, Jase, and it’s how you make sure you’re picking a winner instead of a loser. You really should try it sometime.”
Giselle caught the commentary immediately, huffing. The look in those eyes was just murderous. Jason, however, was too intent on Kala at the moment to notice the slight. “So if you’re not seeing anybody, who was that on the phone?”
Despite the fact that she had wanted him to question what she was up to, Jason rarely asked something quite that point-blank. “Your momma,” Kala shot back disbelievingly.
That made Jason smirk at her in smug amusement. “Well, Kal, that would be your mom, too,” he said drolly, and Kala couldn’t help rolling her eyes. Typical Dopey comeback. His persistence had been always annoying to her in situations like this, even when they were six and he just wouldn’t stop badgering everyone for the origin of some completely random word or phrase.
“Yeah, thanks, Jase. I try and forget that, but neither you or Mom will let me.” This third-degree of his was slowly starting to ruin all of her fun. Sighing, she gave him a look of long-suffering frustration. “Obviously you’re going to badger me until I tell you. It was Sebast, okay? Who else do I call sweetheart and all that romantic nonsense?”
Jason couldn’t see Kala’s crossed fingers, and he accepted her explanation. Giselle looked dubious, but kept silent. “Well why didn’t you just say so?” Jason asked.
Now it was Kala’s time to smirk, well-pleased to have lulled him back into a false sense of security. “Because you’re so cute when you’re frustrated,” Kala cooed, reaching to pinch his cheek. Jason swatted at her hand.
Finally, it seemed like Jason’s girlfriend couldn’t stay silent any longer. “If you two are done being silly, can we please go inside now?” Giselle asked, looking almost pleading. “I know neither of you gets cold easily, but I’m freezing. Please? ” Kala had to grant her that; she had learned how to spot an incipient twin-squabble, and even if she couldn’t ward it off, she could at least choose the venue. The three teens went inside, immediately enveloped in the smell of coffee and the riotous sound of the drum circle that was held every Tuesday night. Anyone who owned a drum – anything from a hand-held bodhran up to a set of bongo drums – was welcome to join the improvised jam session. Fuel would have been busier on Tuesday nights, as drumming was thirsty work, but the sheer volume of sound drove some of their patrons away.
Kala and Jason were both fascinated. The layers and patterns of sound were complex and enthralling, and Jason in particular liked to listen for that moment when the group – mostly enthusiastic amateurs – came together in rhythm. It was intriguing how they could fall into sync without any prior discussion. He knew from playing in a group at school how musicians could tune into the same wavelength, and it always felt sort of mystical to him.
Tonight, Kala barely listened to the exhilarating beat of the drums. She didn’t even notice Giselle wincing as some overly-excited djembe player whaled on his drum out-of-sync. Kala’s mind was too preoccupied by worrisome thoughts. She had been seeing an awful lot of Nick lately. He was on the subway whenever Jason didn’t accompany her home, he’d turned up at Fuel, and a week ago he’d been in the bookstore she frequented. Stalking her?
Kala dismissed the idea as ludicrous. A lot of high school and college students hung out at the same places. Any place that sold used CDs, used books, or vintage clothing attracted teens and twenty-somethings the same way malls attracted preteens. Nick had probably been going there for years, and she only noticed him now because she knew him. Of course he wasn’t stalking her.
Although his interest in her might be indecent, Kala knew she could handle him. He was just another boy, after all, and she’d been able to wind most boys around her little finger ever since her figure began to develop. The few who weren’t swayed by feminine wiles and were foolish enough to threaten her quickly fell to her old childhood tricks: a sharp kick in the ankles or knees, the unexpected head-butt, and best of all, the fake-out, where she feinted a knee toward her opponent’s groin but punched him in the head while he crouched to protect himself. If Nick tried anything untoward with Kala, she would give him something to think about.
Grinning – she was quite proud of herself, knowing she’d never be taken unaware and helpless like the little six-year-old who’d been so easily trapped by Luthor – Kala leaned back in her seat and enjoyed the music. A couple of professional musicians were in the group tonight, and they along with a few talented amateurs began to coax the enthusiastic and disorganized group into harmony. Soon the music grew almost intoxicating, and Kala even felt generous toward Giselle. The pretty girl was curled up beside Jason, his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him with a trusting smile. Kala found that she could almost like Giselle, at least when she kept her mouth shut.
Kala’s cell phone broke the moment. Its alarm was going off; if she wanted to meet Elise and go over their vacation homework, she had to leave now. Kala got up with a reluctant sigh and leaned over; with the noise level in here, she had to speak directly into Jason’s ear for him to hear her. “See you later,” she said loudly. “My study date summons me. And I have a little last-minute shopping to do before Dad takes us off tonight.”
“Girls and shopping,” Jason scoffed. He hugged her quickly, adding, “Take care, little sister.” Kala wrinkled her nose at the familiar nickname and headed out.
Amid the flurry of shopping and packing for their trip out to Smallville in a few days, Lois managed to find a quiet moment to sneak into the study and get her laptop set up with her most recent findings. All of this had had to be done on the sly, seeing as how her husband had quite suddenly become a little too attentive. It just figured; she couldn’t get him to spend enough time at home when she needed him there, but as soon as she was trying to keep something quiet, he was constantly underfoot. She just couldn’t win lately.
And the information she was currently attempting to ferret out was of a very sensitive variety. It had taken some time to puzzle it out and she had made a concerted effort to keep changing servers, but she had found more than a few threads to gather. And some of her leads on L-Tech were too precious to ignore, even for the few days they’d be in Smallville. She glanced through her files and chose which ones to copy, also finding the internet links she’d need to transfer… I’ve got you now, you son of a bitch, she thought as she transferred the most recent updates off her mobile drive. That’s what you get for hiding in plain sight. If you hadn’t started using Kryptonian technology on the public market, I might have let it go.
He made no sound, and Lois was only aware of his presence because the open door let a draft of cooler air into the room. She saw his shadow, not the man himself, and started to rise from her chair, but his hands were on her shoulders pressing her down. Acting quickly, Lois settled for snapping her laptop shut on her notes, heart racing as she craned her head back to stare up at the man standing over her.
His hands gripped her tense shoulders even as she stiffened, and Kal-El kneaded the taut muscles into relaxation. Unable to help herself, she let her eyes slide closed at his deft touch with a groan. Thank God for good reflexes. If she was lucky, he hadn’t seen anything. “Damn near gave me a heart attack, sneaking in here.”
Kal-El kissed the top of her head. “Perry told you he’d handle the heavy stuff until we got home, including any on-going assignments that hadn’t been turned in. Why on earth are you working the day before vacation, hmm?”
That made her glance away at the study’s far wall, feeling equal parts guilty and indignant. The guilt came from her decision to bring her contact information for Erik Eastlake along, just in case she could manage to squeeze more details on L-Tech and the processors out of him. Possibly draw out any knowledge of any other upcoming products the company was planning. Kal-El wouldn’t understand at all; he was unreasonably jealous where Eastlake was concerned. True, the young investor was a flirt, but he meant nothing by it. Lois was probably not that much younger than Erik’s mother, little as she liked to think of it. But the spark of irritation came from his Emperor of Eavesdropping powers coming into play. “Just because the old man says it doesn’t mean I hear it. And it’s not like you don’t know that about me. Working day, night, and on vacation is what got me a Pulitzer … two Pulitzers, if you must know.”
“Not as I recall,” Kal-El murmured, still massaging her shoulders and moving to include her neck and back in his ministrations. “You can’t relax even for a little while?”
She had to admit that it was rather difficult to stay furious with him when he was doing that. Heaving a deep sigh, she just let it go. He didn’t know what she was up to; he didn’t have to. Best to leave it be. She had plenty of time to catch up on her leads once they were in Smallville and he was distracted. Better than having him discover what she was up to. But she couldn’t give in too easily or he’d suspect… “Comes with having the really rough job of being assistant editor, Mr. I’m-Only-Running-International. Despite what Richard leaves you to believe, I have double the work on your plate every day and I have to glad-hand a lot more than you do. You’re just lucky because Ron’s staying here in town, hero.”
He let the comment pass, his fingertips resting on her collarbone, thumbs working along the nape of her neck. “But, Lois, it’s Christmas.”
“Not yet, it’s…” The dark-haired reporter started to protest, but he’d found that sweet spot on the back of her neck and pressed against it demandingly. Lois couldn’t help her gasp or the way her pulse sped up as his hands slid down the front of her blouse, and he kissed her just behind her ear.
“Close enough for an early present.” And with that phrase whispered in her ear, he was doing things with his mouth and hands that drove her current investigation far from her mind. There had been enough lack of his time at home to make it impossible to resist his advances. By the first shudder, Lois knew that getting back to what she was doing at any point this afternoon was a lost cause. The last thought that managed to linger was, I can always boot the laptop back up when the twins get home…
No seats were left on the subway, so Kala stood, fingers negligently wrapped around the handhold, swaying easily with the motion of the train car. For once, she was at peace with the world, the holiday spirit finally taking effect. She smiled to herself, thinking about the gifts she’d bought for everyone, how Kristin’s face would light up when she opened hers, how Dad would beam at her proudly.
As the subway slowed to the next station, she caught a glimpse of Nick Powell waiting for the train. He was getting into a different car, and Kala impulsively turned and made her way down the train toward him, weaving through the crowds of people getting on and off.
Nick saw her as she squeezed past an elderly couple to get onto his car, and he grinned fiercely. “Kala!” he called, opening his arms and walking toward her as the train began to move. “My best girl!”
“I’m not your girl,” Kala called back promptly, giving him a sassy smile. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel two inches taller and four years older, and she was unaware of the extra gleam in her eyes or the extra sway in her walk.
Nick, however, saw it and appreciated it. He met her midway and as Kala reached for a handhold, he rested his hand atop hers. “Good to see you, Kala,” he murmured, the pair of them now oblivious to everyone else around. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Y’know, I was just wondering if you were a stalker,” she replied merrily.
“Riight,” Nick teased. “If I was stalking you, I’d know where you live by now.”
“I told you, north of Washington and south of Toronto.” Kala gave him a devilish smile, snickering.
“You’re an incorrigible tease, you know that, Kal?”
Nick had only meant to flirt and flatter, but Kala’s spine suddenly stiffened. “Don’t call me that,” she said sharply, yanking her hand out from under his.
Nick raised both hands in surrender. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think it would upset you.”
“It’s not that,” Kala replied, already feeling foolish. The subway route curved, and she gripped the handhold again. Nick folded his fingers around with infinite gentleness, and she sighed. “Look, only Jason calls me Kal. It’s a twin thing.”
He nodded, squeezing her fingers lightly. “It’s okay. How is your brother, anyway? I think I saw him the other day at the library, with his girl, what’s her name?”
Kala sighed, but it wasn’t as heavy as usual when talking about Giselle. Of course, everyone noticed someone like her brother’s girlfriend, even if she was walking brain death. “That would be his pretty little nitwit Giselle. Black hair, perfect smile, skinny body?”
“I thought she was very good-looking, but of course, she has nothing on you.”
“And you’re a flirt,” Kala responded. “I hate her. Actually, I’m on my way to a study date with his ex.”
“Ouch,” Nick said. “Kala, are you actively trying to undermine your brother’s relationship?”
“Hell yes,” Kala replied promptly, rolling her eyes and then giving him a look like he wasn’t too quick on the uptake. “She’s just a rebound. He has nothing in common with her, and nobody in the family likes her.”
Nick seemed lost in thought for a long moment before he finally said, “You know, Kala, I’d be willing to guess you’ve driven off all his other girlfriends, am I right? There was always some reason why they weren’t good enough.”
“Well, yeah,” Kala said. “Except Ashlyn, but she wasn’t really ever his girlfriend – they were always just friends, like it’s been since we were little. And his ex, Elise. She was my friend too, before she ever noticed that Jason liked her. I tried chasing her off, but she saw right through me.”
“Uh-huh.” The blond young man just stared at her for a moment, considering what to say next. “So even the one you like, whose house you’re going to right now in spite of the fact that she and your brother split up, even Elise you tried to run off?”
“Yes,” Kala answered slowly. The look in her eyes as she watched him was dubious. Suddenly this wasn’t sounding so good. “What are you getting at, Nick?”
He bit his lip, looking at her thoughtfully. At last he put his free hand on her shoulder and said solicitously, “Kala, I think you and Jason should start seeing other people.”
It took a moment for his meaning to come clear, and then Kala tipped her head back, her clear laughter ringing silver-bright over the noise of the train. “It’s not like that, Nick!” she said, struggling to control her chuckling.
“I know, but the fact is, you won’t let any other woman get close to him,” Nick said. His use of the word woman to describe her silenced Kala and recaptured her attention. “D’ya think you might be a little biased against these girls? I mean, no one can ever take your place in his life. You’re his twin – in some ways you’re closer to him than his future wife will ever be. The only other person who knows him like you do is your mom, and only because she carried the two of you. Even then, I bet there’s things not even she knows.”
Kala looked up at him, eyes wide. That much was true; she doubted Mom knew the whole truth about their shared nightmares, or Jason’s crises of conscience over the death of Brutus. “But some things he doesn’t share with me,” she whispered, unaware of the fear in her expression. “Sometimes he acts like … sometimes I don’t think I know him at all. I can’t even begin to understand why he … why Giselle…”
“You do know him, sweetheart,” Nick soothed, stroking her cheek. “He’s your brother, your twin brother. And you probably already know he’s still upset over the other girl, right? He’s just being careless, trying to prove it didn’t mean as much as it did. It’s something guys do. I’ve been known to be pretty stupid when I couldn’t get a girl I wanted. The good thing is, smart guys always come to their senses. And unless you got all the brains in your family, he’s a smart guy.”
That made Kala smile at last, in spite of herself. “Thanks, Nick. It doesn’t mean I like her, but I guess I can put up with her until he comes to his senses.”
Okay, his grin was utterly infectious, but that simple two-word statement sounded too much like something she’d hear from her parents after a pep-talk. Determined to change the subject, she quickly asked, “You said you were looking for me. Why?”
“To give you your Christmas present, of course,” Nick said. He swung his book bag off his shoulder and searched through it, coming up with a card in a silver envelope.
“Nice color scheme,” Kala commented as she opened it. The card within was black with a silver snowflake on the front. Just as she was about to open that, the subway car eased to a stop, so she and Nick waited as most of the passengers got off the train. They were almost alone as the train started up again, rumbling toward the last stop of the line.
Kala opened the card, and two things fell out into her hand. Her attention was already captured by the inscription, by Nick’s neat, precise handwriting. Merry Christmas to the loveliest lady I know, it read. May the season be as bright as your smile, and may all your gifts be as delightful to you as your company is to me.
That wasn’t what she’d expected; the flattery was, but the absolute lack of any reference to sex, no matter how veiled, surprised Kala. It sounded like a very heartfelt, and very grown-up, compliment. She smiled up at Nick. “That’s very sweet,” she said quietly, regretting that she hadn’t bought him anything for Christmas.
“Very true. Now look at your gift.”
Kala did so. She’d already guessed that one of the items that had fallen into her palm was a gift card. But then her eyebrows shot up and her hazel eyes widened. The amount was $50, and it was the card offered by the biggest bookstore in town, a chain that carried movies, music, and books, as well as having a café. In short, the perfect destination for Kala.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed, giving him an impulsive hug before turning her attention to the other item that had been inside the card. A dried sprig of some greenery … mistletoe. Kala grinned at Nick wryly. “And just what do you call this?” she challenged, holding it up.
“I call it a suggestion as to what you can give me for Christmas,” he replied, and there was just enough humor in his eyes to convince her that he was only half-serious.
“Oh, really?” Kala eyed him, wondering what it would be like to kiss him. The few boys she’d kissed had been either nervous, inexperienced, earnest, or all three. None had actually made her feel the way poems and songs said a kiss should feel. But Nick was in college, far too old for her; the only reason she’d flirted with him was because she knew it would never go anywhere. Now she felt the first thrill of nervousness, something she hadn’t felt about boys since she’d first realized how they stared at her. “And just what makes you think I’d kiss you?”
She was trying to challenge him, and she half-expected an arrogant answer along the lines of, We both know you want to. It would be true, but she thought she could brazen her way through a lie. To her surprise, Nick only smiled crookedly and answered softly, “The spirit of the season, maybe? Christmas wishes are supposed to come true.”
That was just the right balance of sweetness and humility, and Kala glanced down almost shyly. “Well, since it’s Christmas,” she said, looking back up.
She saw the wistful look in Nick’s eyes become serious, and he tilted her face up, leaning toward her. Kala let her eyes slip closed, lips parting slightly, and then he kissed her. Nick’s arm slid around her waist, holding her close, and the rest of the world was falling away.
This wasn’t like kissing a boy – none of the eagerness she was used to, none of the hesitancy, just a surety and strength that captivated her. At the same time, she began to feel the first tendrils of fear. Always before, Kala had been the one adored and pursued, the one in control of all her relationships, the one who walked away without a tear when each came to its inevitable end. Boys fawned over her, giving her anything and everything she wanted, and she had never really felt more than fondness for any of them.
Now, finally, she began to feel deliciously out of control, and wondered if this was love. If it was love, or even if it wasn’t, she was at last vulnerable; she was the one who wanted and needed Nick, and not necessarily vice-versa. She shivered at the thought, at the nameless fear that crept up her spine, meeting the cool rush of excitement flowing down her nerves, thrilling from the way he kissed her. The two emotions mingled but didn’t meld, each distinct from the other, and both heightened by the contrast.
When Kala drew back from him, her eyes were wide and perfectly frank, trembling with the riotous feelings of her racing heart. Above it all, though, she was conscious of the compliment he’d paid her time and time again, and she strove to contain her feelings, to behave like a lady and not the starry-eyed schoolgirl she was. She smiled slowly as the train came to a stop, and saw the first hint of something stronger than flirtation in his expression.
So maybe she was still in control; maybe, just maybe, Nick felt a great deal more than he let on, and like Kala herself he had masked his emotions in witticism. Maybe… No, it was best to leave this be for now, to get away to Smallville and be grateful for time to think about things. “Merry Christmas,” Kala said, hoping she sounded mysterious, hoping to leave him wondering. She backed away, knowing this was the end of the line and he’d have to get off the train, too.
“Merry Christmas,” Nick replied, and that confidence was in his smile again. She held her head high and laughed, used every ounce of advice gleaned from her theatre-major friends to make him believe that one kiss hadn’t shaken her world to its foundations, and then turned swiftly to slip through the crowd and get away.