It was late, after dark and after love, but Richard hadn’t drifted off into blissful dreams the way he normally did. He tried telling himself he was too tired to sleep, but that didn’t work; they’d driven leisurely, planning nearly a week to travel the distance between Smallville and Metropolis, a trip Richard could make in a day if he had been alone and really pushed it. This pace was positively lazy, ambling along scenic routes and stopping at fine hotels long before nightfall. This was about as perfect a tenth-anniversary trip as Richard could imagine, so why was he lying awake and staring up at the hotel room’s ceiling?
Lana turned gently in his arms, her long hair tickling his bare chest. “Can’t sleep?” she murmured, and even in the dark he could see the concern in those sea-green eyes.
“Nah,” he sighed. “You?”
“I should be exhausted,” she chuckled, and the smile that curved her lips was irresistible. Richard leaned in and kissed her, his hands roaming beneath the sheets until she caught his wrists and nipped his jaw. “Stop, Richard. Once was decadent; twice won’t help either of us sleep.”
Richard gave her his best pleading look, and Lana laughed, kissing him, but she wouldn’t relent. He gave in, snuggling close, and murmured, “Is what’s bothering you the same as what’s bothering me?”
“Probably. Lois and Clark?”
“It might be nothing,” Richard mused. “They might be lying cuddled as close as we are right now, without a care in the world.”
Lana sighed in the darkness. “I wish I believed that. I don’t think it’s that easy. Whatever was going on at Christmas wasn’t just a momentary argument.”
“They’re in trouble,” Richard said flatly. He had wanted to delay this conversation, to pretend their idyllic second honeymoon could remain untouched by the rest of their lives, but it wouldn’t happen. The problems between Lois and Clark would haunt him and Lana until they talked about it. “I don’t want them to split.”
“Neither do I,” she replied, and her voice had gone hushed. “So why haven’t either of us done anything about it?”
Ten years ago, Richard might’ve wondered if that question was a veiled way of asking why he hadn’t done anything about it. He knew by now, though, that Lana didn’t play those kinds of games. If she felt the need to take him to task, she would do it without trying to veil her intent. Rather than be annoyed, he appreciated her honesty. Knowing how straightforward she was with rebukes made her praise more valuable to him. He blew out a frustrated sigh that flipped a stray lock of hair off his forehead. “Why haven’t we? Well, I’m sure you were trying to be tactful,” he said. “As for me, well, I don’t know what to do. They’re not an ordinary couple, you know.”
“Yes, they are,” Lana corrected him gently. “And if they have one main problem, it’s that they tend to forget it, too.”
Richard looked at her askance, raising his eyebrows. Lana smiled at him; she found his dubious expression very endearing, but didn’t let it distract her from her point. “Richard, when you met him, Clark knew who he was – he had been the hero for several years, and he knew about his heritage. Lois met him when he knew where he’d come from, and she was there when he started on his heroic career. But I knew him when he was a child. Martha and Jonathan didn’t tell him how they’d found him, and by the time he was Kristin’s age, all he remembered was the two of them. He was raised as a human, and I knew him when he had no reason to believe he wasn’t one of us.”
Nodding slowly, Richard smothered a touch of envy. Lana had known the world’s defender much longer than anyone but Martha, and that intimacy gave her a connection that rivaled Lois’. However, only Richard could claim he’d taught Superman how to fly, even if he was referring to single-prop aircraft, so he figured they were even.
“Clark may be from another planet, he may have powers you and I can only wonder at, but in his mind he is human,” Lana said. “He was raised to be a man, a human man, and he has the same sorts of problems that any man does. He has some unique issues, true – it must be very strange to always have to be careful how you handle people, knowing you could break ribs with a careless hug – but for the most part he’s another guy. A particularly cautious and ethical guy.”
“You’re right,” Richard said after a moment’s reflection. “Most of the time I forget who he is. He’s just Clark to me.”
“That’s one of the reasons why he loves you,” Lana said. “Anyway, what I think’s happened is this. Clark and Lois both forget that just because they’re the star-crossed epic romance of the century, they still have to do the little things that keep a relationship functioning. They’re trusting destiny, and destiny … destiny sweeps the floors, but it doesn’t dust the mantels, if you get my meaning.”
Richard couldn’t help laughing, nuzzling her hair in amusement. “That’s the last metaphor I would’ve used for the two of them, but I get you. It works.”
Chuckling, Lana said, “Destiny writes headlines, but it doesn’t research articles. Does that work better for you?”
“Yeah, I know, love. We had to do our share of dusting the mantels.” Richard went quiet as he looked into the depths of her eyes, one hand lightly rubbing along her spine. He and Lana had had their struggles early in their marriage. The beginning of their relationship had seemed almost too good to be true, and the last eight years had been heavenly. But the time between them settling into being married and when Kristin was born hadn’t been easy. It had been harder than Richard could’ve imagined, and both of them fell silent remembering their shadowed time.
Lana’s pregnancy had been hard on all of them. Many women were moody thanks to the hormonal imbalances and drastic changes in their bodies, but Lana had reacted worse than most. Her worst personality flaw had come raging to the forefront, making her incredibly possessive of Richard. She’d even had a jealous fit when a woman answered his phone at work, too paranoid to accept the simple explanation that the receptionist was supposed to take calls when someone’s line was busy. Only learning that said receptionist was a very young-sounding fifty years old had calmed her, but Lana remembered those waspish months with bitter self-recrimination even now.
Worse, she’d been madly jealous of Lois during that time. Richard would have liked to turn to Lois and Clark for support, but he couldn’t speak to his ex without triggering angry recriminations from Lana. That didn’t hurt him as much as he’d thought it would – he knew she wasn’t fully in control of herself, and she’d warned him she was jealous-natured when they were only discussing a relationship. What wounded Richard so deeply was the way Lana would realize how she was behaving and turn her anger on herself. She was far more severe in self-recrimination than in anything she said to Richard, and he couldn’t convince her to stop, since the things she said and felt about herself had more than a grain of truth to them. She was irrational, she was paranoid, she was cruel to him, and when the first rush of her anger drained away, Lana knew he deserved none of it. She’d wept bitterly over her foolishness each time, believing that she would eventually drive Richard away, but helpless to stop the next jealous rage.
Those were unhappy months, and even now the memory of them brought a cramp of pain to Lana’s expression. Richard caught her hand, squeezing her fingers tightly. “Stop it,” he said sternly. “I knew you weren’t completely in control of yourself. I could deal with that. I just couldn’t handle watching you hate yourself. Lana, get real. You are far kinder and more forgiving than most people on this planet. Learn to forgive yourself, okay? It was over a long time ago.”
“You didn’t deserve all that,” she replied softly, bending her head to kiss his collarbone.
“You gave me Kristin,” was Richard’s immediate response, deftly overriding whatever she would have said next. “She’s worth every moment of it. And you’ve been extra nice to me for the last eight years, especially in bed, so…”
Lana saw the salacious smirk, and finally laughed. “You are impossible, Richard White. Is there anything you won’t turn into an excuse to flirt?”
“Not really, no,” he chuckled, and tickled her side until she swatted at him. The moment of levity aside, they returned to the problem at hand. “So Lois and Clark are slacking off on the small stuff because they’re soul mates?”
“And their problem is a fairly ordinary one, if my guess is right,” Lana said. “Think of him like any other man dedicated to a cause that doesn’t exactly let you go off-duty. Something like a doctor, a fireman, or a minister. He’s driven by other people’s need for him. And he thinks that just because he knows he loves his family and they’re important to him, that they know it too.”
“But that’s something you have to show people, it’s not like you can tell them or psychically expect them to figure it out,” Richard said. He and Lana had learned that early in their relationship as well. They were so close in so many ways that they both sometimes forgot that the other didn’t know what they were thinking. “And he has been getting kind of hard to reach the last few months. Seems like I see him on TV more than in person.”
“And if Lois feels the same way, she wouldn’t say anything to Clark about it. Her biggest weakness is her fear of being weak.”
“That’s very Zen of you,” Richard teased gently, “but it makes sense. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to admit you’re scared or you can’t do something.”
“Especially when you’ve spent your life trying to prove there’s nothing you fear, nothing you can’t do,” Lana sighed. “I could smack her father senseless… Anyway, this is all speculation – we need to talk to them to find out what’s really going on.”
Richard scowled. “That’s the part I’m worried about. I’m worried about them, but is it our place to call them out? Lois at least will resent us butting in.”
“Too bad,” Lana said, her tone showing the steel that lurked beneath her gracious and accommodating demeanor. “I love them both too much to watch them hurt each other. And I hope they’d do the same for us, if we were having problems again.”
“I feel the same way, but still…” Richard trailed off, tracing his fingertips idly along her side. It felt like an intrusion to him, calling Lois and Clark out the way Lana apparently intended to.
“But still, whose place is it if not ours?” Lana countered. “Who else on the face of this earth is going to tell Superman he’s being a less-than-perfect husband and father? Not his mother. Martha doesn’t see it, partly because she doesn’t see them as often as we do, and partly because he’s her son. Ella would have seen it…”
“And given them both a tongue-lashing,” Richard said affectionately. “God, I miss that woman.”
Lana kissed him, sliding one arm around his shoulder, and they held each other as she murmured against his neck, “I know, love. I miss her too. She had such a gift for knowing what all of us were thinking and helping us work through things… It’s my task, now. Someone has to be the voice of reason in this family. I may not be her child in blood, but she knew I was going to inherit her position as family peacemaker.”
“Is that what she told you, when…?” Richard asked, almost shyly. When Ella had spoken separately to each member of the family from her deathbed, she hadn’t told them not to share her final words with the others, but they had all kept those conversations in confidence. It was almost as if the nearness of death had turned Ella into some kind of oracle, and each person feared to alter their prophecy by speaking of it with the others. So far as Richard knew, not even Jason and Kala had shared what their grandmother told each of them with the other.
“Among other things,” Lana answered. “So we’ll confront them? Because we love them both, and because no one else will force them to see what they’re doing to each other?”
“But not ‘til after New Year’s,” Richard cautioned. “Lois is so worried about hosting the party, if we add any more stress, she’s liable to go nuts and start throwing furniture off the balcony or something. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“Until New Year’s,” Lana agreed. “You know what they say about New Year’s Day. Maybe if we talk to them then, they’ll spend the year getting back to normal.”
“Sounds good to me,” Richard said, relieved, and kissed Lana’s forehead.
She tilted her face up and caught his lip between her teeth for a teasing nibble. “If that’s settled,” Lana purred, “maybe I could be persuaded to change my thoughts about an encore?”
Richard was only too happy to take up the challenge.
Clark stared up at the ceiling, listening to Lois’ even breathing beside him. She was well and truly asleep, which wasn’t all that surprising when he considered that she’d gotten up early, gone in to the office for a few hours, and then spent most of the evening working on her computer. He’d gone into her office once to bring her something to drink, and Lois had closed the laptop the moment he walked in. That was becoming uncomfortably familiar. Ever since just before Christmas, Lois had been very secretive about whatever she was working on.
That wasn’t uncommon when Lois was chasing a lead, and when he’d asked her what she was up to she’d blithely told him it was research. The answer would have satisfied him, if Clark had never glimpsed Erik Eastlake’s name in her email. In fact, there had been several messages from the young investor in Lois’ inbox, and Clark had once interrupted a phone conversation between the two. They’d been discussing networks and servers, but Clark had heard the laughter in Lois’ voice. And she was being secretive again, taking off for lunch meetings she never filled in on the calendar at work, hiding her briefcase and clearing her browsing history on the computer.
He shouldn’t be jealous. He shouldn’t wonder and suspect. He really ought to just stamp out that nagging little what if voice, but somehow he just … couldn’t. Clark tried to force the thought away, looking over at Lois. Her face softened with sleep, and the sight of her struck him anew, so vulnerable when she was normally so fiery. Love and anguish intertwined, filling his chest and strangling his throat. I’m losing her…
No. She was right there beside him, and he had no real evidence of what he feared most. He knew she wasn’t having an affair; ashamed of himself and unable to stop, Clark had taken to listening in to her at random intervals whenever she was out of his sight, and he’d always caught the tapping of computer keys or business conversations. But the question still nagged at him. She was faithful … but for how long? What if not even she knew what direction she was drifting in, letting the younger man get closer and closer to her heart everyday, unaware of where he would lead her?
Enough. This was too much, and if he let himself worry about it he’d never sleep. Clark needed his sleep more than ever lately, his various responsibilities tugging him in too many directions to count. Even his sunbaths were few and far between, and he felt the lack of them keenly. Sunlight could push back the need for sleep, and vice versa, but these days he was short of both.
Rolling over to snuggle up to Lois’ back – and feeling wryly glad that she relaxed into his embrace – Clark turned his mind away from his fears with the reminder that they were probably groundless. He had more concrete things to worry about, like the twins. Giselle’s mother, Justine, had called to confirm her daughter’s attendance of their New Year’s Eve party, and Jason had been rather surprised by that. Something in the way his son had moped around that night hinted at an argument between them, and Clark had been annoyed with himself for hoping the couple had broken up. Giselle seemed like a nice enough girl, but Clark had overheard her making a few less-than-complimentary remarks about him.
That didn’t bother him personally; it just meant his secret identity was more secure than ever. But Giselle had been rather harsher in her disdain than any of the other kids the twins hung out with, though careful not to let any of her remarks stray in Jason’s hearing. The problem was that Clark could hear her talking to her mother while they were still in the car on the way over, and he was wary of any child who spoke so freely and so condescendingly of an adult. Maybe he was old-fashioned, but kids were supposed to respect their elders.
Come to think of it, that might be half of Kala’s problem with Giselle. Clark knew his daughter’s hearing was almost as keen as his, and she was intensely protective of his image. That could explain why her hatred of her brother’s girlfriend had reached epic proportions, and why his own efforts at peacekeeping had become equally intense.
Even though he knew it would cause problems, he’d given Kala permission to go out on New Year’s Eve. She and Sebast were planning on going to Fuel for a performance by the Flying Foxes, a local band that Kala admired. She’d even hinted that she might get a chance to sing if the band was running late, a frequent occurrence.
At first Clark had wanted to call off the whole party and go see his daughter perform. Singing at school was quite a bit different from opening for a band, even if the Stalmaster school sold tickets to the general public. Kala had downplayed his idea, though, reminding him that there was no guarantee she’d wind up onstage. Even if she did, it was more like karaoke than performance. She’d sounded much more excited last week when she had learned about Fuel’s innovative way of filling time before performances, but Clark figured that she might be too nervous to sing in front of the family at the same time as a room full of strangers.
He had given her permission, insisting that she be home by midnight. The show should have been over just before then, to allow for the kind of wild revelry Clark didn’t want her to participate in. And Sebast could be trusted to watch the time even if Kala got carried away. Clark had expected Lois to protest his decision when she heard of it, but she had only rolled her eyes and sighed.
Maybe things would be mostly all right for a little longer. Clark knew he needed to talk to Lois, but he couldn’t accuse her. Hopefully he could figure out a way to broach the subject of their estrangement without infuriating her, and somehow get back to the way things used to be.
Clark caught his breath at that thought, remembering days and nights so perfect they seemed lifted from a dream of paradise. For a while it felt like nothing could go wrong, and even his occasional argument with Lois had always dissolved into kisses. The connection between them had been so strong that they finished each other’s sentences, and Clark would no sooner notice he was thirsty than Lois would go get drinks for both of them. That sense of ultimate rightness had persisted, in spite of occasional wobbles, right up until Ella’s death…
…and if anyone thought Lois was handling that well, they didn’t know his wife. Lois had always subtly relied on her mother’s support and understanding. Without it, she was swaying with every storm, dangerously close to breaking. Clark had expected her to take more time off last summer, but she had insisted that getting back to work would be the best thing for her, and her vehemence had finally swayed Perry. Clark knew how terrible it was to grieve for a parent, and he had relied heavily on Ma. Lois’ mourning seemed to lock everyone else out, drawing a veil of normalcy over a core of hurt, and not even Clark could reach inside to comfort her.
But he was back to worrying over their problems again, and he’d spent enough sleepless nights on that account. Clark buried his nose in Lois’ hair, breathing the comforting scent of sandalwood and rose, and made himself forget everything except the warmth of her in his arms.