Jason and Kala had fallen back asleep at Martha’s house, the pair of them tumbled into one bed with their suitcases still unpacked. They slept until almost noon, jet-lagged and confused by the shockingly early start to their day. Only the smell of lunch cooking roused them, and Martha laughed at their appetites. Even knowing that they’d skipped breakfast, the kids ate comically huge portions. Their grandmother understood the Kryptonian metabolism, however, and planned meals accordingly.
After lunch, Martha let the pair head into town, admonishing them to take their coats. Jason and Kala gave her especially long hugs before going out to wander, looking for old friends and visiting the stores. Soon they were in town, surrounded by Smallville residents who’d known them since they were six. They seemed to be attracting more than the usual number of stares, and Jason could guess why.
Kala had always favored dark clothes, but since the summer she had been wearing almost all black. Her style was very elegant, and the immediate family had gotten so used to that quirk of hers that none of them really noticed anymore. At school, well, she was just another Goth kid. Black velvet, black lace, high-heeled boots, and a preponderance of silver jewelry were almost normal at arts school. But out here, where jeans and plaid would never go out of fashion, she stuck out like a black cat in a pack of hounds. Even her coat was an ankle-length black duster she’d found in a thrift shop, and it looked like a prop from some gangster movie set in the 30’s.
People were flat-out staring at his sister in surprise and dismay, and Jason cringed inwardly. Not for their opinions – she could dress however she wanted, so far as he was concerned, and anyone who got themselves worked up over mere fashion was a fool in his estimation – but for Kala’s ego. Jason, at least, knew that the bossy, brash girl who projected confidence at megawatt levels could be easily wounded by the opinions of others. And from the way she had pressed her lips together in a thin line, she was feeling like an outsider.
Before Jason could think of some way to distract her, Kala announced, “I think I’ll go in the general store and get some rock candy.” She didn’t wait for his response, just rushed off, and he grimaced. That was just like her, too. When she felt threatened, Kala tended to go on the offensive, and right now she was deliberately confronting the store’s hangers-on, perhaps the most staid members of the community.
Jason didn’t have long to worry about her, though. “Hey, city boy!” a voice jeered. “Betcha you throw like a girl!” A snowball flew through the air and whacked his back.
He whirled and snatched up a handful of snow, flinging it with keen accuracy. Dustin looked quite comical with a face full of snow, and Jason laughed as he went to help his friend brush the clinging frost off. “Betcha I don’t,” he replied, thwacking Dustin’s shoulder affectionately. “How’s it going?”
“Great!” the brown-haired boy replied. “I’m A-B honor roll so far this year, and Dad gave me a raise on my allowance for it. Wade’s letting me help out at the garage after school, too. How about you?”
“Pretty decent,” Jason said. “I’m going with a new girl, Giselle. Here’s her picture…” He pulled the photo out of his wallet and showed it to Dustin.
The other boy whistled appreciatively. “Hey now, she’s … gorgeous!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do, hypnotize her?”
Jason punched his shoulder, glowering in mock-anger, and the two boys dissolved into laughter. Dustin managed to get his breath back first, and asked, “Speaking of girls, where’s your sis…ter… Oh.”
Kala was just walking out of the general store, and Jason remembered Dustin hadn’t seen her since she went into Goth overdrive. Her shoulders were back, her head held high, and Jason knew that queenly stride and imperious glare meant she’d evidently found the confrontation she sought. Dustin’s jaw actually dropped, and he could only stare as she walked up to them.
Jason saw the splinter of hurt in Kala’s expression, but she’d composed her features into a superior mask. “You act as though you’ve never seen a girl before,” she said coldly, staring right at Dustin.
“Get the reindeer out from up your butt, Kal,” Jason snapped.
She turned that arctic glare on him, but he didn’t back down, trying to will her to come to her senses. Didn’t she realize how that one sentence had hurt Dustin’s feelings? The other boy was taken aback by her attitude, looking wounded, and he was their oldest friend in Smallville.
It might’ve ended badly, but just then a high voice called out, “Kala! Jason!” The three teenagers whirled to see Kristin pelting up the sidewalk, a manic grin on her face in spite of the fact that she’d only seen them a few hours ago when she and Richard left for the Lang house. Kala’s supercilious façade broke at once, and she laughed as Kristin leaped into her arms. Twirling the little girl around, Kala teased, “You are the silliest little sister ever, Little K!”
Kristin just laughed, throwing her arms around Kala’s neck. “Eskimo kiss!” she demanded, sticking her nose out. Kala dutifully rubbed noses with her, still chuckling.
“Hey there, Kristin,” Dustin said, smiling tentatively at Kala. The black-haired girl actually had a smile for him, and Jason quietly breathed a sigh of relief.
Once Kristin had been hugged and kissed by all three, Kala gave her a stick of rock candy. By that time Richard had caught up with them. “I swear, Kala, one day someone’s gonna see you with her and ask who the daddy is,” he joked.
“And I’m gonna say she’s my sister, not my daughter, and to mind their own d…darn business,” Kala sighed. “Hello, Daddy.”
He reached out and tweaked her nose gently. “Easy on the language, kidlet,” Richard warned, provoking a grumble from Kala over the nickname. He turned to the boys and asked, “Hey, Dustin, did these two tell you they’re gonna be here through Christmas?”
“Not yet,” Dustin replied, “but that’s the best news I’ve had today.” He smiled shyly at Kala again, his motives utterly transparent, and Jason groaned.
Clark and Lois had spent their last two days in Metropolis finishing up the shopping and packing, as well as getting everything shipshape at work for Perry to oversee during the holidays. Most of the gifts would remain at the penthouse until Christmas Eve, and they planned to take just one carry-on bag as luggage, which Clark could easily carry. Jason and Kala had taken the main bag with them, since as Lois liked to joke, Kal-El Air didn’t take cargo. Still, the carry-on bag would be enough to convince Ben Hubbard that they had actually taken a commercial airline when he and Martha met them at the Kansas City airport.
Mid-afternoon of the day they were supposed to leave, Lois went to get her files for the editorial she intended to write on vacation, and discovered they weren’t in her briefcase. Not in her purse, or on her desk, or anywhere else in the house. Clark heard the muttered profanity of the search and came into the study cautiously. “Lois?”
“I must’ve left my freakin’ notes at work,” she snapped, shoving her hair back off her face. “Stupid! Now I have to go all the way back to work and we need to leave soon so we can meet Ben and Martha at the airport…”
“Where do you think the notes are in your office?” he asked. “I can go up there and get them for you.”
Lois bit her lip; even after all these years, she tended not to just assume Clark would use his powers for her convenience. It never failed to surprise her when he offered, and such simple acts strengthened the sense of wonder and amazement that not even a decade of familiarity could erase. “Should be on my desk, but they could be on the couch, too,” she replied. “It’s the stuff about the water-use numbers for this year, and the ecology notes on Hob’s Bay.”
“Be right back,” he told her, and was gone.
Moments later, Clark walked into the bullpen, waving to Jimmy. “I thought you were on vacation,” the photographer called.
“Lois forgot some notes,” Clark replied with a shrug. “We’ll be leaving for the airport as soon I get back from here.”
“Lucky,” Jimmy said. “Tell Lois I said to have a great Christmas.”
“I will, if you’ll take your own advice,” Clark said, grinning. “Give your mom our regards, Jim, and tell your girlfriend we both said ‘Merry Christmas’, too.”
“Will do,” Jimmy replied.
Clark turned away from his friend to walk into Lois’ office, only to see another young man standing in front of her door. Eastlake. The parallels struck Clark; Eastlake was several years younger than Jimmy, but they were close enough in age to remember the same popular songs and television shows. And Jimmy admired Lois; he’d been sending her a white rose and an anonymous card on Valentine’s Day for almost two decades now. The difference was, Clark had known about Jimmy’s schoolboy crush ever since they met; he and the young photographer had often sighed over the perpetually-unattainable Lois Lane back in the old days. Clark had managed to win her, though, and Jimmy was ever a gentleman – he had been genuinely happy for her and Clark when they got married, and he was Lois’ friend first and foremost.
The investor, on the other hand, barely knew Lois and was already flirting with her. Clark was predisposed to dislike him on another count as well; where Jimmy had worked his way up to his current status as Head Photographer over nearly twenty years with the Daily Planet, Eastlake had inherited all of his wealth and status from his father. He likely didn’t understand working and striving for things, and that made Clark wary of him. People who expected life to just hand them whatever they wished for were often lazy and sometimes dangerous; they could be easily angered if balked.
For now, though, he intended to be pleasant to Eastlake, if only because it would shorten their encounter. “Good afternoon, Mr. Eastlake, can I help you?” Clark said.
“I was actually looking for Mrs. Lane-Kent,” the younger man said, and for an instant Clark felt his temper flare at such impertinence. In the next moment, though Eastlake was holding up a folder and saying, “I brought her the information she asked for about the computers; I know some people in the business and I might be able to get her a good deal when the Planet upgrades its servers.”
“She won’t be in today,” Clark told him. “We’re leaving tonight to spend Christmas at my mother’s place in Kansas.” Erik looked a little crestfallen, and Clark watched his face closely as he continued, “She happened to leave some files here, and I’m just getting them for her. If you like, I can take that folder to her as well.”
If the younger man had looked the least bit startled or nervous, Clark’s suspicions about his intentions would have increased exponentially. But the investor just grinned. “Sure, thanks, Mr. Kent. That’ll be great,” he said, handing Clark the folder. “Tell her to check out the storage capacity these new servers can handle – it’s phenomenal, and twice as fast as anything on the market now.”
“I will,” Clark said, and shook his hand, feeling relieved. “Thank you, Mr. Eastlake.”
The investor smiled, and then added one more remark. “You know, Mr. Kent, you really do have an amazing wife.”
Clark increased the pressure of his handshake just the tiniest amount; not enough to be uncomfortable even, just a trifle firmer than usual, for emphasis. “I do know that, Mr. Eastlake. I know it very well.”
With that taken care of, he headed out, stopping by his friends’ desks to wish them merry Christmas. Notes in hand, Clark got on the elevator, but Superman flew across town to make a rapid and unseen landing at the penthouse. Lois was on the phone when Clark came in, and he caught part of her conversation. “Well, you should’ve let me in on this… Of course I’ll keep mum! And enjoy planting a few red herrings in his path… Gotta run, my flight’s here. Yeah, love you too, Red.”
“That was Lana?” Kal-El asked, handing Lois the notes.
“Mm-hmm,” she replied, looking through the information.
“So what’s up?” It was a reasonable question, he felt.
Lois, however, didn’t seem to agree. “None of your business, Super-Nosy,” she retorted, then grinned. “It’s a surprise, and I promise you’ll know everything by tomorrow. Does that help?”
“It does,” Kal-El told her. “Are you ready to fly?”
“With you?” she asked, and her voice dropped to a purr as she reached for him. “Always.”
“Did they get lost?” Jason wondered for the fifth time. He was cradling a very sleepy Bagel, who’d spent the day racing around with all her relatives and now snored in his arms.
“No, they probably stopped to save the world,” Kala retorted, stamping her feet. It was just a little too cold for her out there without a coat, but she wouldn’t go back inside and get one, certain that her parents would arrive while her back was turned. Shaking his head, Richard brought one of the heavy parkas out with him when he joined their vigil, slipping it over Kala’s shoulders wordlessly. She grinned up at him, murmuring, “Thanks, Dad.”
Jason huffed under his breath, and Richard put an arm around his shoulders, hugging the tall boy. “They’ll get here,” he insisted. “It’s a lovely night – they’re probably admiring the stars. Look, you can see the whole Milky Way.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Jason said, “and we can’t start the bonfire until everyone’s here. It’s tradition.”
Richard sighed, and patted Jason’s arm. “Well, everyone isn’t gonna be here this year, son.”
“You mean Nana?” Kala asked softly, her breath smoking in the cold air. Those strange hazel eyes were so vulnerable that Richard reached out and drew her to him as well, kissing her forehead.
“Ella…” he began, and chuckled. “Well, she’s probably watching over us, wondering why we’re all freezing our toes off when we can see them land from inside. No, she’s not far at all. And your aunt’s staying with Ron and the kids at his family’s Christmas.” He didn’t need to add the reason: there had been many Christmases with Ella in Smallville, and Lucy would find the season less shadowed by grief back in Metropolis. Ron’s parents adored her, and even the disapproving sister would be polite on the holidays.
“Then who?” Jason asked. “Grandpa Ben? He’s right up the road at his old farm with his sons and their families.”
Richard sighed. Bagel had awakened, and she stretched her muzzle toward Richard, finding the tiny bit of bare skin between his sleeve and his gloved hand. She licked his wrist, large brown eyes staring up at him sympathetically. “Silly mutt,” he whispered, brushing his fingers over her muzzle. To the kids, he said, “Lana won’t be here for Christmas. She called while you guys were out here; there’s no way she can leave Italy right now.”
“Aww, that sucks!” Kala complained. “She can’t even get a flight in tomorrow and go back the next day?”
“The way things are going, I’ll be lucky if I see her before New Year’s,” Richard said. “And it’s our anniversary. Our tenth. The traditional gift is tin, the modern one is diamonds – I got her an antique tin box shaped like a heart and put a diamond ring in it.” He shrugged. “Now she won’t get that or her Christmas present until probably January. Life happens.”
“Dad,” Jason sighed, putting the dog down to hug him. “That really blows.”
Kala hugged him too, and Richard let the kids hold him up for a moment. You’re not gonna be alone for Christmas, he told himself sternly. You’ve got almost your whole family here – and it just so happens, everyone who knows the truth about Clark and the twins will be here tonight. Everyone but the one person you need the most. He cut off that line of thought before he got maudlin, kissing both twins. “Hey, guys, it happens,” he said. “This is the kind of noble sacrifice a millionaire’s boy-toy has to make.”
Jason groaned and Kala made retching noises. “Please don’t ever say that again,” she pleaded. “It’s just … urgh. That was gross ten years ago, and it’s grosser now. It became supremely gross when we were old enough to know what it meant.”
Richard smirked. “Hey, I like being her boy-toy,” he protested, and Jason pretended to collapse in disgust. “You’ll understand when you grow up.”
Kala snorted amusement, and further hilarity was prevented by Bagel’s high-pitched bark. The little dog was staring up at the sky, her tail wagging madly. Richard couldn’t see anything yet, but Kala and Jason both had better vision. “Dad!” they yelled in unison.
The next moment, Superman was drifting to a graceful landing, Lois in his arms. The romantic picture of their arrival by moonlight was slightly spoiled by the carry-on bag slung over Lois’ shoulder, but Richard couldn’t help grinning. In moments, Clark was changed, the bag was stowed inside, and Martha came outdoors bundled up in her warmest coat.
Lois had hugged and kissed the twins first, and she was now standing next to the huge pile of dead wood and dry corn husks. “C’mon, Laser-eyes, light it up!” she called. “I’m freezing my ass off!”
Richard couldn’t help it; he was standing closer, and smacked her rump. “Nope, still there,” he replied casually, and then yelped as Lois smacked him. Everyone else just rolled their eyes at the pair, until Clark cleared his throat.
“If you two are done?” he said gently, smiling at them both. Once he had everyone’s attention, he looked at the bonfire – that peculiar look of intense concentration.
A crackle, then the first tongues of flame sprang up. The dry wood caught easily, and soon they had a roaring bonfire. Richard grinned; something about a good fire always seemed to warm the heart. And even if Lana wasn’t going to be here, and Kristin was asleep at the Lang house, it would still be a good night.
Martha was handing out long skewers and marshmallows. “Who wants to read The Night before Christmas?” she asked.
Kala had thrust her marshmallow directly into the hottest part of the fire, letting it catch on fire and then blowing out the flames. She wolfed it down, blackened crust and all, and shook her head to indicate that she’d read the poem last year.
It should’ve been Lana’s turn, as Richard suddenly remembered, but Lois was reaching for Martha’s copy. “I’ll do it,” she said, to everyone’s surprise. She’d been known to scoff at reading poetry aloud, but not tonight.
While she reread the poem quickly to familiarize herself, Clark patted Richard’s shoulder. “You know, if it’s really bothering you, I could go get her. She’d be back in Italy tomorrow with none the wiser.”
Chagrined that his expression had given his loneliness away, Richard smiled wanly. Before he could say anything to that generous offer, though, Lois interrupted. “Clark? Remember what Lana said about wanting a seat belt if she’s gonna fly? I don’t think she’d be up to a trans-Atlantic night flight on Kal-El Air.”
“She’s right,” Richard sighed. “You married the adrenaline junkie, Clark, I picked the millionaire. If it doesn’t have reclining seats and an in-flight gourmet meal, Lana’s not comfortable. I’ll be okay.”
Clark looked over at Lois for a moment, and Richard wondered what he saw in her expression to make him look so confused. But then the taller man shrugged. “If you say so.”
The twins had noticed too, and Kala came over to give Richard a hug. “I love you, Daddy,” she told him, with the slightly crazed smile that always reminded him of her at six years old.
“Love you too, Munchkin,” Richard replied. “Now come on, I want to hear your mother’s rendition of a Christmas classic.”
Lois cleared her throat and began, “T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house – not a creature was stirring, not even a freakin’ lizard, thank God…”
“Mom!” Jason yelped. “Gazeera’s not even here to defend himself!” While the dogs had flown along on this trip, the iguana and ferret were being watched over by Michelle Troupe, who was delighted to pet-sit.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” Lois continued, “in the hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there … and wouldn’t pass out from the smell of Richard’s socks.”
Martha gasped in amusement and shock. “Lois!” she exclaimed, but the reporter only grinned wickedly as she returned to the narrative.
The rest of the family was laughing now and Lois was on a roll. Richard knew she was lightening the mood just for him, and he loved her for it. Loved them all, really; this was his family, minus a few members but still strong, still full of life and love and laughter. “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of meerkats danced in their heads…”