Expect to see the next chapter in the next few days and the third next Saturday! Enjoy, all!
“Mommy?” Lois knew that chipper, questioning voice well, and she groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. Before she could hear it again, she quickly turned toward the back of the couch and buried her face in the pillow. “Mommy? Mommy?”
She was just waking up again and this was a little more than she could handle, even on Christmas Day. Maybe especially Christmas Day, the threads of sleep still clinging to her warmly. The reporter had gotten up very early, early enough to share coffee with Martha before Clark or the kids came downstairs hunting for presents. In other words, just after dawn, which absolutely attested to her insomnia. They’d had a little while to reminisce; seeing Ella’s coffee mug still in the cupboard, as if she might stop by Martha’s kitchen again, had brought more sweet memories than bitter grief.
And of course, as if they knew that the two matriarchs were swapping confidences about them, the twins and Clark had woken up not much later, and Lois had been swept into the whirl of opening presents. Despite herself, she was still furious at Clark for buying Kala the damn karaoke machine that had been verboten in her younger years. He’d argued, successfully, that Lois had told him not to buy it when Kala was still little more than a baby, and that her voice had surely settled into its adult range by now. There had been some bickering over it, but the reporter had mostly forgotten about it since then. Confronted with this engine of destruction once again, Lois had grumbled that there would be no peace in the house while their daughter wailed into a microphone like an banshee, even as Kala had squealed with glee and jumped up to hug her father. Never mind that the tag said it was from Mom and Dad; all three of them knew who had actually bought it.
At some point after breakfast, stuffed solid by gingerbread pancakes and more than a dozen apple sausages of her own, Lois had wandered back out into the living room and dozed off on the couch. She wasn’t even aware of the fact that she had fallen asleep until the Peeping had begun. And now that she had been caught unaware, the ghosts of Christmases past had returned to haunt her. “Mommy?”
It took no effort at all to know that was Jason, doing his best to imitate his own six-year-old voice, despite the way his voice had changed in the last couple of years, crouched beside the couch. Lois groaned pathetically again; the twins used to think this was the highest form of comedy, following her around chirping at her until she screamed and chased them. It was adorable at four, still kinda cute at six, but had absolutely lost its charm by ten. And neither twin seemed to be aware of how the joke had gotten old.
Now, at sixteen, it was the flat-out disturbing of a twisted horror movie in which she was the only victim. “Mommy?” Jason chirped again, closer now. Burrowing against the back of the couch, Lois could tell he was leaning in toward her. It was only the logy feeling the food had inspired that kept her on the couch. If she ignored him long enough, he’d stop. It had always worked that way when they were little…
“Mommy?” Damn. Damn damn damn! A higher voice, coming from over the top of the couch: Kala had come downstairs and joined her brother. Knowing her fate was sealed now that they were a united front, Lois snarled in irritation and yanked the pillow out from under her head, covering her ears with it as they began to chirp both in earnest and in unison.
“Mommy?” “Mommy?” “Mommy!” “Mommy?” “Mommy mommy mommeeeee!” “Mommy?” Jason kept to the steady questioning chirrup, while Kala varied her tone from demanding to whiny. Eventually she started a singsong repetition into which Jason’s queries fell like the percussion in a very weird song. “Mommymommymommymommy…” “Mommy?”
Oh my God, enough, enough, E-DAMN-NOUGH! Lois finally couldn’t take it anymore and leaped to her feet, swinging the sofa pillow wildly. Kala ducked behind the couch, giggling uncontrollably, but Jason took a direct hit to the face and toppled over to lie on his back, laughing. Lois threw the pillow at him, snarling, “You two! God! You two are absolutely, and always have been, your father’s evil plot to drive me crazy! If the public knew just how sadistic Superman is…”
“You have to admit that in your case, it’s a short trip,” Clark opined, setting both twins to cackling even harder, and Lois grabbed the other sofa pillow to fling at him. He caught it, chuckling, and she just glared at him poisonously. Martha was in the doorway watching them all and shaking her head slightly in amusement.
“This highly professional assessment of my sanity comes from a man with multiple identities,” Lois muttered, glaring at her husband. “Some help you are, hero!” He grinned, but whatever witty reply he planned to make was cut off by the sound of a car pulling up in the drive, followed by the thump of running feet on the wooden steps.
“Merry Christmas!” they heard Kristin call from the front porch. “Daddy, come on!” A moment later, Richard opened the door for her, and she barreled into the room. The first thing she saw was Jason, still lying on the floor and snickering a little, and she leaped onto him with a gleeful yell. “Merry Christmas, Jason!”
The look on his face was nothing short of comical as all of Kristin’s sixty pounds came down on him in a bundle of happy nine-year-old. “Oof,” he wheezed, trying to sit up quickly to get in a breath as Kala scrambled to help him. “Hi, Little K.”
Watching the little redhead giggle as Kala took her turn for snuggles, Lois dropped back down onto the couch. “Vengeance is mine,” Lois chuckled. “Now you know what it felt like for the rest of us with you two. All the nutty crap you two pulled on me when you were little, the Cuddlebug is paying you back for in spades.” At the mention of her nickname, Kristin beamed at Lois and headed over for Lo-Lo hugs.
“Yeah, but we all know you love the kiddle-monsters,” Richard said, coming into the room after hugging Martha. “And you managed to laugh through most of it, I’m proud to say. Even when they were borrowing your makeup to paint Big Chief Jason’s face when they were playing cowboys and Indians, you managed to only scold them.”
That memory provoked an eye roll of epic proportions. “Oh yeah, and they couldn’t even get into the cheap stuff,” Lois remembered while she kissed Kristin’s forehead, smirking at the memory. “It was my $300 MAC stash. I guess we all know what started Kala on her way.”
“I still have the pictures from that somewhere,” her daughter said in a deceptively thoughtful tone. “When you get married, Jason, I’m gonna show them to your wife whenever she thinks about having kids.” Holding up an imaginary photo, she adopted a serious tone. “Ma’am, are you sure you really want this to reproduce?”
For this offense, Jason threw the pillow at her. “Pardon me, Colonel Panda, what was that?” he snapped with dramatic disbelief. “Exactly where do you have room to pick on someone? This is from the girl who owns five black lipsticks! One of which is named after death by suffocation!”
Kristin, however, had better things to do than listen to her siblings squabble. Once down from Lois’ lap, her blue eyes caught on the other pillow Clark had returned to the sofa. Sneaking over to snatch it up, she cheerfully interrupted the twins’ fussing by whapping Jason in the head. “Got you! Pillow fight!”
The sudden disappearance of Jason’s face behind the fabric of the pillow only startled Kala for a moment, although she resolutely bit back hysterical mocking laughter for a better punch line. One dark eyebrow arched as she made herself look as serious as possible. “For thinking you’re the one with the dazzling intellect, you’re eating a lot of pillow this morning, Kemosabe,” Kala observed drolly, fighting not to break character when their mother suddenly wheezed laughter.
It wasn’t normally very easy to get Jason riled up and hyper, but both twins seemed to have taken too long a sunbath after presents. It took just a minute for him to get the pillow away from his little sister and wave it threateningly at Kala. “I’ll get you for this, Raccoon Eyes, and you know I’m a dead shot at this close a distance,” he mock-growled. “No squaw makes fun of this brave!”
The unfamiliar word made the little redhead frown at her big brother. The stolen pillow and the threat against her beloved sister was forgotten at what she considered a greater slight. “Jason, Kala’s a girl, not a squaw,” Kristin complained, looking dubiously at Jason. “Whatsa squaw, anyways? It sounds like somethin’ mean.”
The opportunity just dangling there, it was Richard that took the bait. “It’s the noise Lo-Lo makes when you wake her up in the morning,” he said without even breaking a smile, and dodged Lois’ elbow as she aimed it at his chest.
“Richard White, that is enough. She said squaw, not squall, and all of you had better settle down,” Martha scolded, simply shaking her head at them all. For once not having been the one to start it, Lois gave her a wounded look, but the older woman just winked. “I don’t want my pillows messed up. And I think there’s a few presents left under the tree?”
That had the same effect as a trumpet sounding. Kristin scrambled off Jason’s lap and dove for the pile of wrapping paper around the tree. “Presents! Presents! Here’s one … it says Richard. That’s you, Daddy!”
“Thanks, baby girl,” Richard said, taking the small box and sitting down on the sofa beside Lois. She punched his shoulder for the comment a moment ago, and when he glared at her, she just smiled. Sighing, Richard opened his gift. “Fuzzy socks,” he said, looking back at Lois. “Someone’s got a sick sense of humor.”
“At least they’re gray,” Clark said. “She was eyeing a pair of pink ones. With bunny ears.”
Lois just continued to sit there with her arms crossed, smiling, as Kristin found one of her gifts and began to tear into it. Richard tried glaring at his ex, but as usual, it devolved into snickering. “Woman, you’re evil,” he sighed affectionately.
“Which is just the way you like me,” Lois retorted with a self-satisfied grin. “I think you liked me less when I was nicer to you. God knows you probably would’ve loathed me if I’d married you.”
Richard mussed her hair as he replied, “But Lois, I have no evidence that you’re nice to the man you did marry. Of course, he probably likes you evil, too…” He glanced up at Clark for confirmation, and Lois swatted at his hand.
Kristin squealed with joy over the model horse she’d just unwrapped, and dove in for another present. “This one’s for … Mommy.” She crawled out from under the tree and looked at the adults. “Daddy, how come Mommy’s missing Christmas?”
The pout she saw on Kristin’s face broke her heart a little, but she sighed regretfully, “Because your Mommy works way too much, Cuddlebug.” When Richard’s elbow hit her ribs, she added after a glare at the perpetrator, “Sweetheart, she had to go to Italy for her company. She’ll be home soon, I promise.”
Kala, trying for a little damage control herself, pulled Kristin into her lap and distracted her with another package. “Besides, then we get to open presents all over again,” she murmured into her sister’s ear, hugging her. “So it’s like getting two Christmases.”
That thought cheered the little girl up, but Richard was clearly still unhappy about it. Lois patted his shoulder consolingly, sneaking a glance at the clock. “Poor thing,” she murmured with a touch of relish, pitching her voice so that Kristin couldn’t hear her. “This year really is a prize-winner, huh, flyboy? Your wife is avoiding you not just on Christmas, but also on your tenth anniversary. Man, I dunno what you did to piss her off…”
The reaction to her taunting was immediate. The look on Kala’s face was incredulous, although the comment completely flew over her younger sister’s head. “Lois!” Clark hissed in disbelief, while Jason stared at her uncomprehendingly.
Even Richard was taken aback by it. “Don’t mind Lois, she can’t help being a first-class pain in the ass,” he muttered after a moment, trying to conceal his hurt expression.
The pain in his friend’s voice had Clark on his feet, his eyes stern on his wife. “That’s it, Richard, I’m going to get her,” the taller man stated. “If Lana had any idea how much this was bothering you she’d never…”
“No!” Lois responded sharply before he could finish. Noting the disbelieving eyes all around her, she quickly added in a softer voice, “Clark, how’re you going to explain that, huh? Kristin won’t be able to keep mum, and Lana’s parents will want to know how she suddenly got here…”
Richard sighed then, suddenly very interested in watching his youngest daughter opening her present. He didn’t look up when he spoke. “She’s got a point. It’s okay, Clark. Thanks.”
Clark stared, still unbelieving, at Lois. The woman herself had now become more than a little captivated by her coffee. In the midst of the awkwardness that fell on the group, Martha decided to distract them all by bringing out a tray of cookies and all present were more than willing to have their attentions diverted. Baked goods, the presents and Kristin insisting on opening them on Lo-Lo’s lap kept Clark from pulling Lois aside, although she got enough stern looks from him to know she was due for a major dressing-down for her insensitivity. Catching his steely look over the little redhead’s shoulder for the third time, he saw her just sigh heavily before looking at the clock again.
Martha had taken pity on Richard and made sure he got extra cookies, and he seemed to cheer up a little under the attention. Kristin had roped Jason and Kala into playing one of her new games, and Richard watched them with a wistful little smile. The gifts he received were much appreciated, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere.
Just as things had calmed enough for their presence to go temporarily unnoticed for a time, Clark was about to corner Lois in the kitchen and demand answers from her when Richard’s phone rang. He actually looked excited for the first time that day as he answered it. “Hello, beautiful,” he said, his smile making it clear to whom he spoke.
At that, Lois finally seemed to lose some of her tension. Crossing her arms in a defensive posture, it was her turn to stare at Clark as he tilted his head, listening to both halves of the conversation. Lois could only hear Richard say, “What do you mean, look out the window…?” As he got up to go to the front window, with the three kids trailing him curiously, Lois gave an irritated little smirk at Clark. Martha glanced at the two of them, wanting to say something, but then turned to see Richard pull aside the curtains. “Holy crap!” he yelled in utter disbelief, the shock of this surprise clear. “You liar, you said you wouldn’t be back until New Year’s! Lana!” With that he dropped the phone and ran outside.
“No,” Lois whispered, still sitting on the couch as they heard Richard pound across the porch and down the front stairs, “she said she wasn’t sure if she’d be back before New Year’s.”
That stopped her husband’s glare all at once. How could she have known anything about this? Then he realized that Lois’ apparent cruelty toward Richard had been for a reason. “You were in on this,” Clark said slowly, watching her face.
Those hazel eyes were just a tad frosty when they met his. “Of course,” Lois replied in a firmly distant tone. She rose from the couch then with the utmost dignity, her armor steadfastly fastened now. “Did you really think I’d be that much of a bitch to him if I didn’t know she was going to be here?” She paused for a second, watching his eyes now, and then looked away with a tightening of her jaw. “You know what? Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”
“Lois,” Clark said, catching her hand as she went to the door. “I knew you had to know something I didn’t.”
Just as soon as he caught her hand in his, she pulled away from him gently, her brow nettling with hurt. In that moment, the distance that was growing between them loomed largely. “Sure you did.” The resignation in her voice was not unfamiliar to him these days as she turned and walked away from him.
Smarting from that, Lois could hear him echo her sigh as she moved to the living room, just behind the rush as everyone else came to see the spectacle. Only the reminder that this was Christmas and that Richard would understand what she had done kept her muddled emotions at bay.
Richard hadn’t noticed anything past the fact that Lana was here. He’d raced out of the house and swept her up in a fierce hug, twirling her around as she yelped in surprise. He set her down just long enough to kiss her, ignoring whatever she was trying to tell him in the immediacy of showing her how much she’d been missed. Finally he leaned back, eyes agleam, and said, “I knew you’d never leave me alone on Christmas, especially on our tenth.”
“Have you even looked at your gift?” Lana asked through laughter.
“What gift?” he said, not seeing a box in her hands. “Lady, you’re gift enough,” he added, and kissed her again.
Lana broke away and caught his chin, turning his face so that he saw the car she’d driven up in for the first time. He knew those lines instantly; Richard had always loved the Saab company and knew all of their models even at the briefest glance. This one was a silver convertible … with a large red bow on the roof…
“Holy shit, you bought me a car?!” he yelled, pulling Lana in for a hug that threatened to crack her ribs.
“Language, Richard,” she wheezed when he let her go, just before he pinned her against the car for another kiss. This one was intended to fully express his joy in the gift, and it was a Christmas miracle that Jason and Kala hadn’t started gagging after a minute and a half.
Kristin stared at her parents and then looked up at Martha. “Mommy and Daddy are silly,” she commented.
Martha crossed her arms and glanced over Lois, who was leaning against the doorway and watching them with affectionate amusement. “Yes, they are,” she replied. “Lois, should I get the hose?”
The reporter’s smile was so wistful it hurt Martha to see it. “Nah, let ‘em enjoy it,” the reporter replied with the appropriate jocularity, although her eyes held a haunted light. “Besides, we all know that Lana won’t let him make too much of a spectacle of himself. And if she does, we can always threaten to call Martin and Annette.”
Staying silent, Clark was watching with slightly bittersweet fondness. He and Lois used to be that unabashedly and spontaneously affectionate. But the last few months, it seemed that they only got along when at least one of them was making a concerted effort to do so. Where had they drifted off course?
Outside, Richard had finally broken away from Lana long enough to circle his new car, practically dancing in excitement. The rest of the family drifted outside to greet Lana and to admire the convertible. Lois tried for a passable smile and waved at Lana when the redhead had a chance to look up.
Lana waved back, the mischievous gleam in her eyes making it clear who her conspirator had been. Then the redhead returned her full attention to her husband and her daughter. Kristin had swarmed into Lana’s arms, already babbling about the wonderful Christmas she was having and how great it was that Mommy made it here on time.
Richard seated himself in front of the steering wheel and breathed in deeply, his eyes half-closed as if savoring a fine wine instead of the new-car smell. Lana couldn’t help chuckling at him. “I’m beginning to be jealous of the car,” she said teasingly.
“Don’t be,” he said, grinning. “Wanna hop in the passenger seat and take it for a test drive?”
“We have an hour or two before we’re expected at my parents’ house,” Lana said slowly, knowing that gleam in his eyes too well. “And I doubt you and Kristin have finished opening your presents.”
“You have a few gifts under the tree yourself,” Richard said, getting out of the car again. Sweeping her into his arms for another hug, he whispered in her ear, “I might just have an extra present for you…”
“Wicked,” Lana breathed against his cheek. “I’ll think about it. Now let’s go back inside.”
Lois just shook her head, knowing exactly what Richard was up to by the expression on his face. As for Lana, she’d been the good girl for so long that a little bad behavior could only create a healthy balance. The reporter was so amused by their antics that she didn’t realize Kala was beside her until the girl nudged her arm. Kala held up one hand, smirking. “Gimme five, Mom. That was Oscar-worthy.”
Lois slapped her palm lightly, glad someone appreciated her subterfuge.
As they drove to the Lang house for lunch, with Kristin happily playing with one of her new games in the back seat, Richard and Lana were at first silent. They both appreciated the purr of the powerful engine (and the comfort of the leather seats) as much as they had on the first drive, but something else was on both their minds. Coming back to the Kent house to pick up Kristin after their test drive, they’d felt a tension that seemed to have evaporated earlier while gifts were being opened.
“Lois and Clark…” Richard began, and faltered, glancing into the rearview mirror to see if Kristin was listening.
Lana followed his gaze, saw that their daughter was occupied, but switched to Italian anyway. They’d both gained fluency in that language thanks to Lana’s frequent business trips to
“You know I think it’s sexy as hell when you speak Italian,” Richard said in English, but the remark lacked his usual mirth. He switched to Italian to continue, “I’ve been noticing for a while. Things aren’t quite right between them, are they? You see a lot more than I do in that department, though.”
She sighed. “Things are far from right. They used to be as affectionate as we are – Lois could tease us about sugar-shock all she wanted, but every time Clark smiled at her, she melted. Now there’s a little distance between them, always, a little stiffness in the way they touch each other. They’re trying to pretend like it’s not there, and they may have convinced each other, but not me.”
Richard nodded. “You know what it reminds me of?” he asked.
“You and Lois, around the time I met you both,” Lana said resignedly.
“Yeah. Growing apart and in denial about it. Heading for a wreck.” They were both silent for a moment, and then Richard said, “I think it was better for everyone that Lois and I split when we did. I don’t regret being with her at all…”
“Neither do I,” Lana interrupted gently. “Regret you being with her, that is. Lois did teach you a few useful things, after all.”
Her tone was honeyed, implying certain of his skills that she thoroughly enjoyed, but Richard knew there was more than that to it. “Mainly how to be a grownup,” he said, giving Lana a warm smile. “And the kids taught me how to be a dad. But I was saying, I’m glad I was with her, and I’m glad I didn’t marry her. I don’t think she and I could’ve really been happy together forever after.”
“I love you, too,” Lana said, running her hand down his arm affectionately.
Richard caught her hand and carried it to his lips for a quick, fervent kiss. “The thing is, I see her and Clark heading down that same road, but I really don’t believe they have to break up. Know what I mean? My relationship with her wasn’t – or shouldn’t have been – salvageable, but his should be.”
“Has to be,” Lana said quietly. “I don’t think he could bear the loss of her, Richard. I think it would drive him mad, or at least make him wall the rest of humanity out of his heart.”
“She couldn’t stand to lose him again, either,” Richard said. “Lois is one of the strongest women I know, but I don’t think she could handle that.”
“How come you’re talking Eye-talian about Lo-Lo?” Kristin asked suddenly. Richard jumped a little, but Lana turned to look sternly at her daughter.
“Because I might have a surprise or two for her this Christmas, and I strongly suspect she has a spy in my camp,” Lana said archly, giving Kristin such an exaggerated look of suspicion that the little girl giggled helplessly. “But you’re right, sweetheart. It’s rude of us.” Her glance to Richard, however, made it clear that this discussion was merely postponed, not ended.
To be contined before mid-week...