By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted November 2000
Summary: Clark invites Lois home to Smallville for Christmas in this 2nd season story. Could the timing finally be right for something more than friendship?
I'd like to say a huge thanks to my beta-readers and friends, Yvonne and Helene, for reading this incredibly quickly and giving me enormous encouragement as well as some really helpful suggestions. Thanks so much, guys!
And a very happy Christmas to everyone! :)
All rights in the recognisable characters in this story belong to WB and DC Comics.
"So, Lois, it's Christmas Eve tomorrow — you going to tell me what you're doing for Christmas?" It was dusk on a cold day in December, and Lois and Clark were hurrying back to Lois's Jeep after a fruitless meeting with a possible source, on the edge of Suicide Slum.
"Why do I have to do anything for Christmas?!" Lois demanded loudly. "It's just a day, Clark. I don't have to do anything if I don't want to."
"It's not just a day," Clark argued calmly, ignoring his partner's rudeness; he'd known Lois for a year and a half now, and he was well aware that when she went on the offensive like that it was frequently because she was hiding her real feelings. "It's Christmas, the most special day of the year. You can't just ignore it."
"I can if I want to," she insisted. "Come on, Clark, what's so special about Christmas any more? Well? It's so darned commercialised! Santas on every street corner wanting money for some good cause or other. Shops encouraging you to buy expensive, pointless gifts. Kids demanding this year's must-have toy and making their parents feel like they're almost guilty of child abuse if they say no. Guys who treat their wives like dirt the entire year spending a couple of hundred bucks on flowers and perfume and thinking that makes it all right. People thinking that for one day of the year they can buy themselves a better live. What's so special about that?" Finally seeming to run out of steam, Lois stopped, drew a deep breath and gave Clark an accusatory glare.
Clark had listened to his partner's diatribe in silence, only once making an — unsuccessful — attempt to interrupt before recognising that Lois needed to get this off her chest. He'd known, or at least suspected, for some time that his partner didn't much like this time of year, but he'd so far been unable to find out exactly why. However, he could now make a pretty good guess at part of it. Christmas couldn't have been a lot of fun for two girls growing up in the Lane household, what with Sam Lane's workaholic tendencies and his numerous affairs, and Ellen Lane's alcoholism. Clark found it easy to believe that Lois's father would have tried to compensate for a year of neglect by giving — or perhaps sending — expensive presents on Christmas Day.
But he felt the need to explain why he felt that Christmas was a special time of the year for him, in a vain effort to show Lois that there was still some magic and real meaning in the season. "You're right, too much of Christmas is commercialised today. But that doesn't mean it can't be special if people make an effort, you know."
"What does it mean for you?" she surprised him by asking. "I mean, you've been talking about Christmas on and off for weeks now. And I guess you've got all your presents bought and gift-wrapped — "
"Weeks ago," he admitted with a grin. "Even yours — see, even though you claim to hate Christmas, I'm still going to give you a present."
She shrugged in what looked to Clark to be an uncomfortable gesture. "Oh… well, that whole present-buying thing is kind of hard to avoid, I guess. I… um. Well, I've got you a present too."
She had? Clark couldn't suppress the little thrill which coursed through him at the thought of Lois going out specifically to choose a present for him. How careful had she been to cater for his tastes, to choose something she knew he'd like, as he'd done for her? Or had she just taken the easy way out and bought him this year's best-selling biography or a gift box of Essential Toiletries for Men?
"Thanks, Lois!" he said, pleased. "But it's not presents which make Christmas special, you know. It's what Christmas means — it's a time for… well, for peace and forgiveness."
"Peace and forgiveness?" she interrupted incredulously before he could develop his argument further. "For one day, Clark, before resuming hostilities the very next day? Or even on Christmas Day, as soon as the turkey's carved and the presents are unwrapped? That's as long as 'peace and forgiveness' lasts in some families, Clark, if it even lasts that long," she finished cynically.
"Yeah, I know, and that's pretty sad," Clark acknowledged. "But that doesn't mean people shouldn't make an effort."
She shrugged again. "Sometimes there's just no point."
"That's very sad, Lois," Clark argued, hoping to shake her out of this negative attitude. "There's always a point in trying."
"That's easy for you to say!" she shot at him. "You were brought up by Mr and Mrs Middle America, the perfect parents and the perfect family. You never had to watch your mother getting drunk out of her mind when she was supposed to be cooking the vegetables for Christmas dinner, and you never sat at home all dressed up in your best clothes waiting for your dad to come home with the presents and the Christmas tree he promised to bring, only he never turned up. You never — "
She halted abruptly, as if regretting this rare moment of confiding in her partner about something so very personal — or maybe, Clark thought, she'd decided that she sounded too self-pitying. He grimaced inwardly at this confirmation that his earlier guesses had been only too accurate.
There wasn't anything he could say to make it better, to take away the unhappy memories of the lonely and neglected child she had been, or to apologise for what had no doubt seemed to her to be his insensitivity. Instead, he reached out and looped his arm around her shoulders, giving her a brief hug in silent apology before pulling away again.
As he removed his arm, she turned and gave him what he knew was a forced smile. "Sorry, Clark, I shouldn't have thrown all that stuff at you. It's not your fault that Martha and Jonathan are great parents. And you've got every right to enjoy Christmas without me trying to take all the magic away for you."
"You couldn't do that, Lois," he assured her. "But, come on, what are you going to do? Are you spending the day with any of your family?"
She shook her head, and for a moment he thought she wasn't going to say any more. Then she muttered, without looking at him, "Daddy's abroad on a business trip. Mother's booked herself into a health farm with one of her friends. And Lucy's in California and she's spending the holiday with her boyfriend's family."
And Lois would be alone. Without a second's hesitation, Clark invited, "Come home with me."
She halted and stared at him, clearly taken aback. "You don't have to take pity on me, Clark," she said at last. "And anyway, I wouldn't want to intrude on your family time."
"You wouldn't be intruding," he assured her instantly. "Come on, you know my folks would love to have you. And I'm not taking pity on you. I *want* you to come." And he did; he wasn't just saying it. He wanted Lois with him, for all sorts of reasons. He didn't want his best friend to be alone at Christmas; he hated to think of her alone in her apartment, eating a TV dinner while watching some old movie, or worse still, sitting at her laptop and trying to work. He wanted to show her what Christmas could be like: decorating the tree — his parents always waited until he got home before doing it; singing carols in the town square before hurrying, cold and laughing, into the little church for midnight service; back to the farmhouse for hot chocolate before going to bed and waking up to snow and delicious smells and presents the next morning. And, more than anything else, he wanted to show Lois how it felt to be in the centre of a warm and loving family. Even if she didn't want his love in a romantic sense, he wanted her to feel loved as a friend.
She was watching him, a multitude of expressions crossing her face: uncertainty, yearning, regret, doubt. On impulse, Clark reached for her gloved hands and held them in his own. "Come with me, Lois. I promise you, you'll have a great time."
"It… sounds wonderful," she said wistfully. "But… I couldn't anyway, Clark. All the flights will be booked solid by now."
That was a minor hiccup he hadn't anticipated; of course, he knew nothing at all about the state of flights to Wichita at this time of year, since he'd be heading home under his own steam. But he couldn't exactly tell Lois that. And he really didn't want to fly commercial, even if he could get two seats at this late date.
Making a swift decision, he grinned at her. "Not a problem, Lois. Superman promised to fly me home, as a kind of Christmas present. I'm sure he wouldn't mind taking you too."
"Superman did?" That clearly surprised her. "Oh, yeah, you guys are friends."
"Yep," he agreed briefly; he was feeling less and less comfortable these days lying to Lois about the precise nature of his relationship with Superman. "So, you see, you don't have any excuse to say no. Unless you don't really want to be with me and my folks, that is."
She looked embarrassed. "It's… not that, Clark. I just feel kind of awkward about descending on your parents with little or no notice, especially at this time of year. I know they'll make me welcome, but that's not the point."
He gave her hands another squeeze. "I told you, they'd love you to come. But if you really hate the idea so much, I'll stay in Metropolis and we can spend Christmas together at my place."
Lois immediately looked horrified. "You can't not spend Christmas with your parents, Clark! You always go home for Christmas."
"Sure, but that doesn't mean I have to," he said lightly.
She took a step backwards, meaning that Clark had to drop her hands. "I don't understand, Clark. Why are you so concerned that I shouldn't be on my own? It's not your problem."
He recognised the tactic; she was trying to retreat behind the high wall of her defences again. But he refused to let her. "Because I care, Lois. You're my best friend, and I love you. I'm not going to let you be alone, because you're important to me." He was taking a risk mentioning the L-word, Clark knew; but, on the other hand, it was a word which had been mentioned between them on a couple of highly-charged occasions in the past. She'd told him twice that she loved him as a brother; and even though he had once declared his love for her as a lover and she'd rejected him, he'd managed to pull back from that embarrassing declaration and get her to accept him as her best friend once more. Even though his love for her was so much more than the love of a friend, he felt safe using the word here; he knew how she would interpret it.
Her eyes widened, and he thought he could see them shimmer and blur; she swallowed and dropped her gaze from his. "Clark… I don't deserve you," she muttered. "I keep trying to push you away, but you're always there for me when I need you."
"And I always will be," he promised softly.
She raised her head again. "And I love you too, Clark. You're my best friend in the whole world, and I don't know what I'd do without you. When I thought I'd lost you last month…"
"Hush," he said quickly, stifling the guilt which always threatened to overwhelm him whenever Lois referred to his supposed death at the hands of gangsters — which wasn't often, much to his relief. His partner found it very difficult to talk about emotions, touchy-feely stuff, as she called it, and so they'd never really discussed that time. He knew, from things others had told him, that Lois had been distraught at his 'death', and he'd castigated himself for failing to realise what she'd been going through while he'd been holed up in Smallville. Had his secret been so important to him that he could have stood idly by and allowed his bestfriend, the woman he loved, to suffer?
But there was nothing he could do about that now; he didn't have the power to change the past. And Lois needed him now, in the present. He took a step towards her and immediately enfolded her in his arms, hugging her warmly and rubbing his hand up and down her back.
"It's okay, Lois, I'm here. I'm not going to leave you," he murmured quietly as she nestled against him, her arms clinging around his neck. After a few moments, she began to pull away, so he released her; but before allowing her to step back he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, something he thought she would allow at a time like this. They were frequently physically affectionate with each other, giving each other little touches and caresses throughout the day, but it was always platonic, as were the occasional hugs goodnight when they'd spent an evening together, or Lois's habit of slipping her hand through his arm when they walked together out of doors. Kissing was far rarer; although he'd kissed her on the lips several times as Clark, only one of those had been genuine, not part of some pretence or other. Now and then she kissed him on the cheek for some reason or other, but that was all.
She spent several seconds fussing at her clothes and hair, which he knew was an act to give herself time to recover her composure. Once she was ready, she gave him a casual smile, hooked her hand through his arm again and said brightly, "Come on, let's get back to the car — it's too cold to stand around here talking."
He complied, but reminded her of what they'd just been discussing. "You still haven't answered my question, Lois. Smallville or Metropolis?"
"Oh, so I don't get a choice about spending Christmas with you?" she threw at him in apparent indignation; but Clark understood her real meaning and knew that she was grateful.
"Nope," he informed her cheerfully.
"Then… if you're sure your parents won't mind and it's okay with Superman, then I'd love to come to Smallville with you," she told him.
"Great!" he exclaimed, delighted. "I'll call my folks as soon as we get back to the Planet."
This was going to be a great Christmas, Clark thought as they walked together back to where they'd left the car. Lois hadn't wanted to bring the Jeep all the way to where their source had insisted on meeting; she'd commented that she wanted to have some wheels left by the time they got back to it, which wouldn't happen if they drove all the way over to the Slum. So they'd left it in a parking lot with CCTV three blocks away.
As he was answering Lois's question about his planned departure time on the following day, Clark became aware of a faint sound. Trying to drown out Lois's voice, he listened, but it was impossible to Super-hear when his partner was talking right next to him. Putting his hand on her arm, he said, "Shh — I think I can hear something."
"What?" she demanded. "I can't hear anything!"
"Quiet, please!" he demanded, irritated. She gave him a glare, but remained silent. Then he heard it again; a tiny, weak cry. It was coming from the alley they'd just passed, and Clark had a pretty good idea what it was.
Hoping he was wrong, he pulled away from Lois's grip on his arm and ran back into the alley, only vaguely aware of his partner following her. Concentrating all his senses on looking and listening and even smelling for the source of the cry, after a few moments he found it.
"What on earth are you doing, Clark?" Lois called, sounding annoyed. "There's nothing here — it's just a dark, dirty alley with rats running around," she added distastefully.
Bending down to examine a small bundle lying next to a pile of refuse, Clark's heart contracted as he revealed it to be what he'd dreaded finding. "This, Lois. This is what I heard," he called to her, gently lifting the tiny baby and cradling it in his arms.
Lois hurried over to him. "What is it?" Then, as she saw for herself, she exclaimed, "A baby? What kind of person could leave a baby *here*?"
"I don't know, Lois," Clark told her, his voice heavy.
"The kind of person who doesn't care whether their child lives or dies," she said bitterly. "I mean, look around, Clark! Who's going to find a baby abandoned here? And it's freezing! It's going to snow later, too. I'm surprised the poor kid hasn't already frozen to death!"
That was something which had already occurred to Clark. He knew the baby wasn't dead, because he'd heard it crying. But the cries had been very weak and faint. Pushing back the thin blanket which seemed to be the baby's only covering, he touched the tip of his finger to the child's forehead. It was very cold.
His first thought was to warm the baby with his heat vision, regardless of Lois's presence; but, although he'd used his special vision on adults, he had no idea whether it was safe for a baby, and he didn't want to take the risk.
"Lois, take him," he told his partner urgently, holding the child out to her. Taken aback, she accepted the tiny bundle, holding it awkwardly against her body. Swiftly, he stripped off his heavy overcoat and removed the jacket of his suit, replacing his coat quickly. "Here, wrap him in this. That'll help to warm him up a little."
"Him?" she asked curiously as between them they gently wrapped the baby in his jacket. "It's a boy?"
"I haven't looked," he told her dryly. "But it feels wrong, calling him 'it', somehow."
"I guess," she agreed. "What do we do now?"
"We need to get him to a hospital," Clark told her. "God knows how long he's been here, or what state his mother's in — "
"Mother!" Lois exclaimed in disgust as they walked swiftly together back out of the alley, Clark carrying the baby again. "What kind of mother could do this? She doesn't deserve any consideration!"
"Come on, Lois, you know as well as I do the kind of pressures which make women do things like this," Clark said, a little impatiently. "When was it we wrote that piece on abandoned babies — three months ago? You know the profile as well as I do. Teenage girls who barely knew they were pregnant and who're terrified of their parents finding out, homeless kids who won't go anywhere near social services, women with a history of mental disorders — you almost never find anyone who's done something like this in any calculated way." He paused, then added more quietly, "I'm not saying it's right, you *know* that. But this kid's mother probably needs help every bit as badly as he does."
"You're right," she agreed, sighing. "But… Clark, most of the time they leave their babies where someone's going to find them. Who was going to find a baby *here*?" She swept her arm back towards the alley they'd just exited. "That baby didn't have a chance. If it wasn't for you — and I don't know how you heard it, because I didn't hear a thing!"
Only too well aware that Lois was right, Clark stayed silent for the couple of minutes it took them to get back to the car. "I'll drive," she told him abruptly. "I know my way around this city better than you do, and I'm better in heavy traffic."
"Yeah. Just hurry," he told her, climbing into the passenger seat and arranging the baby on his lap, ensuring that his jacket was still tucked securely around the tiny bundle. The baby hadn't cried once since being picked up, but now, as Clark stroked the tip of an index finger along his face, he emitted a couple of tiny whimpers. His skin temperature felt a little warmer now, but not much.
"Hold on, little buddy, we're getting you some help," he murmured, willing the child to be okay.
Lois stood next to Clark, peering through the glass window into the neo-natal intensive care unit and the incubator which now held the tiny body of the baby they'd found in the alley. Naked except for a diaper which looked far too large for its wearer, and attached to wires and machines, the child looked frail and vulnerable.
"She looks so fragile, Clark," Lois whispered, one hand involuntarily reaching up to touch the glass in front of the incubator.
"She's being taken care of," he replied, sounding equally affected by the sight. "You heard the doctor — we got her here in time. She's cold and hungry, but they can deal with that. And she needs love and cuddles once she's strong enough, and she'll get those from the nurses."
"I guess," Lois agreed, unable to tear her gaze from the baby girl. When they'd arrived at the hospital's emergency department, Lois just abandoning the Jeep outside the entrance, and run in with Clark still holding the baby, medical staff had come running as soon as she'd told someone what the problem was. Then they'd had to wait as the baby was taken from Clark and carried through to a treatment room; neither of them had been willing to leave until they knew how the child was. Clark had gone out to move the Jeep while Lois called Perry to let him know they'd be later getting back than they'd expected.
It was now an hour later and they had just now been allowed to go up to the NICU to see what they now knew was a baby girl. "A preemie, too," the competent-looking paediatrician had told them. "Probably thirty-six, thirty-seven weeks' gestation, which isn't all that unusual and won't cause her too much harm. You did the right thing by keeping her warm and getting her to us as soon as possible."
"What'll happen to her?" Lois had asked.
"That all depends," the doctor had answered. "The police have been informed, so they're trying to find the mother — I understand you two have already given them a statement?" On the two reporters' nods, the doctor added, "The Department of Social Services will get involved — if the mother comes forward and if she's willing and able to take care of the baby, then she might get custody, though it'll be under supervision. Otherwise, she could sign the baby over for adoption. Of course, a lot of that depends on why she abandoned her daughter in the first place."
"And… if she doesn't come forward?" Clark had asked, sounding concerned.
"Then it's Social Services' responsibility. She'll be taken into care, and the Department can apply for a court order to get permission for her to be put up for adoption. Don't worry," the doctor had added. "There are hundreds of couples out there in Metropolis desperate to adopt, and they're all thoroughly checked out. She'll be well cared for."
"Of course," the doctor had added as she left to return to her duties, "we just hope her mother does turn up — unless she had proper medical care while giving birth, she'll need medical attention. And it's highly unlikely that she did — our little Jane Doe's umbilical cord hadn't been properly cut."
"Which makes it more likely that we're talking about a teenager," Clark had commented once the doctor left. "Someone too scared to get proper help."
That was no doubt true, Lois reflected as they stood gazing at the helpless scrap of humanity who'd had such a narrow escape thanks to Clark's good hearing. All the same, she found it hard to understand, much less forgive, the fact that someone had literally left her baby to die.
Suddenly her partner's arm came around her shoulders again, and, grateful for the comfort, she leaned into Clark's embrace, dropping her head on his shoulder. His arm tightened around her, and she brought her hand up to cover his as it rested on her shoulder.
"Come on," he murmured after a couple of minutes. "We'd better get back to the Planet."
Perry shook his head despairingly when told of what had happened, and immediately agreed to Clark's suggestion of running the story on the front page of the Planet, together with an appeal for the baby's mother, or anyone who knew anything about how she came to be abandoned in that alley, to come forward. The police, when asked, were happy for the story to be run, though they had also arranged for an appeal to be broadcast on the local news that night.
Clark wrote the story; Lois wanted to help, but found it hard to disentangle her feelings of anger against the mother from her objectivity as a journalist; for once, she realised with a sense of irony, she was the one getting too involved with the story. Clark surprised her, however, when it was finished and had been sent to Perry, by agreeing with her.
"Yeah, I'm angry too that anyone could do that," he told her, his words clipped. "But I also know — just as you do — that there are reasons why someone could have done it. And I don't want to stand in judgement over some poor, scared kid until we know exactly why she did it."
"I suppose," Lois muttered.
"After all, Lois, how do we even know she's alive?" Clark demanded suddenly.
"She still managed to wrap up her baby and leave her in that alley," Lois objected. "It's not as if she could have died giving birth."
"No, I guess not. But… well, let's wait and see before condemning, yeah?"
Lois agreed, and Clark returned to his own desk to make a phone call; shortly afterwards, he returned to tell her that his parents were delighted to hear that she was coming to Smallville for Christmas. Lois, who had almost forgotten about the arrangement, just nodded and gave him a half-smile.
"Come over to my apartment after work tomorrow, okay? I'll arrange it with Superman to pick us up from there."
Clark refused Lois's offer of a ride home, setting off from the Planet on foot; shortly afterwards, he ducked into an alley and spun into the Suit, taking off under a second after leaving the main street.
He wanted to conduct a full search of the alley in which he'd found the baby, to see whether there were any clues to her identity or that of her mother; and, though he barely admitted it to himself, to ensure that the mother wasn't lying dead or bleeding somewhere underneath a pile of refuse.
But, an hour later, he had to admit defeat and go home, nowhere nearer to solving the mystery. And even the thought of Christmas in Smallville with Lois wasn't enough to banish the feeling of sick despair he felt that night.
"I just called the hospital — she's doing great," Clark called to Lois as she arrived in the newsroom the next morning. She didn't need him to explain who he was talking about, of course; nor was his news any surprise, since she'd called the NICU before leaving her apartment that morning.
It had taken Lois aback considerably to realise how much she cared about this abandoned baby. Children had never held all that much interest for her; she'd supposed that she might have one or two some day, but she wasn't exactly in any hurry for that to happen. She'd never been able to get excited when friends and acquaintances brought their offspring to be cooed over. Clark was far better at that; she was used to him pulling faces at babies in strollers and asking all the right questions of their parents.
And yet, something about that helpless baby in the NICU yesterday had really got to her. Even when Clark had suggested they leave, she'd wanted to stay, although she'd been well aware that there was nothing they could do, and that they had no reason to be there anyway.
It was just that… she was so vulnerable and so alone.
And, for an instant, although Lois hadn't realised it until later, it had almost been as if she and Clark were standing together gazing at their child. There had been a sort of common sense of caring and yearning and… yes, even love for the unknown baby. And yet, she and Clark? That was ridiculous, she'd told herself later that night. Clark was her partner — her best friend. There was no way he was going to be the father of any child she might have in the future.
Clark would make a great father, though, she'd realised. The way he'd held that little baby, as if she was the most precious, fragile thing in the world; his caring protectiveness…
But he was protective with everyone he cared for, she'd thought. With her, for instance — the way he hadn't wanted her to be alone at Christmas, insisting that if she didn't come to Smallville with him then he would stay in Metropolis with her. Comforting her when she'd got upset — putting his arm around her, and hugging her. He cared about her — well, he'd told her he did. He loved her. She was his best friend. The closest thing to a sister he had. And she loved him like a brother.
But yet… there was something inside her telling her that it had been a long time since she'd thought of Clark just as a brother…
<You love him. You realised it when he was shot> her conscience had pointed out. <Of course you want the two of you to be a couple>
Well… maybe that would be nice, she'd conceded. But it was obvious Clark didn't feel the same way.
"They told me you're Lois Lane," a hesitant voice interrupted her as she approached her desk. She looked around, to see an untidy-looking young woman — a girl, even — of about fourteen or fifteen watching her warily. The girl's hair was dirty and unkempt, her clothes were torn and she looked as if she hadn't washed for some time. Lois was amazed that she'd got past Security.
Suddenly Clark was beside her. "Hey, you look like you need to sit down!" he exclaimed, guiding the girl to Lois's chair. "Can we help you?" he asked gently. "I'm Clark Kent, and this is Lois Lane."
"You're the ones who found her," the girl said, in a voice which was at once belligerent and scared.
Lois glanced swiftly at Clark; he looked towards her simultaneously.
"You mean the baby we found in the slum?" Clark asked; although his tone was still gentle, Lois could tell that he was just about keeping control of his emotions. She could see the tell-tale muscle in his jaw twitching.
The girl nodded.
It was obvious that Clark suspected the same thing as she did, but Lois knew that they couldn't just leap to conclusions. "What do you know about her?" she asked the girl.
"Is she okay?" Their visitor's manner revealed far more than mere concern.
"Well, it's not really our place to say anything. And anyway, you haven't said why you want to know," Lois answered, sharply enough to earn herself a frown from Clark.
"Okay, okay, she's mine!" the girl admitted; then she burst into tears.
"I think we should take this into the conference room," Clark muttered, leaning down to help the girl to her feet. As he led her away, Lois noticed the dark brown stain on the back of her long skirt, and winced.
The story emerged slowly once they were in the conference room; their visitor, who introduced herself as Marie, was actually sixteen and had run away from her foster-home several months before. She'd been living on the streets more or less continually ever since, and had had no idea she was pregnant until the previous afternoon when, thinking she just had severe stomach pains, she'd gone to the bathroom in the homeless shelter where she'd been staying and emerged in shock an hour later with a baby. Not knowing what to do, she'd cut the cord with a kitchen knife and wrapped the baby in her own blanket.
What had happened next was somewhat confused; Lois wasn't clear whether Marie was really having difficulty remembering or whether she was deliberately pretending to forget. But it seemed that she'd wandered the streets for a couple of hours, a crying baby in her arms, until she'd found herself on the edge of the Slum. There had been a few people in that alley when Marie had first found herself there; she'd waited until they'd gone, and had then laid her baby carefully behind a refuse container, sheltered from the wind, assuming that the people would come back and the baby would be found.
"I didn't know what I was doing!" she sobbed eventually, having finished the sad little tale. "I didn't even know I was pregnant! And I… I have a new boyfriend, Joe, and he's got a job, and he was talking about us getting a place together and I didn't think he'd want someone else's kid… and I was just so confused."
"You could have got help," Lois pointed out. "You were in a shelter. You could have asked someone — you could have gone to a hospital."
"I know that now!" Marie protested. "I… I don't know what I was doing yesterday. But last night I just started crying and couldn't stop, and Joe wanted to know what was wrong, and he saw the blood on my clothes, and I told him what had happened. I thought he wouldn't want to know me after that, but he got me to take him to where I'd left her, and we searched and searched and there was no sign of her." She stopped,sobbed, and dragged the back of a dirty hand under her nose. Silently Clark handed her his handkerchief.
"Anyway, Joe said someone must have found her, and he wanted me to go to the cops, but I couldn't. I stayed at his squat last night. And then this morning he came back with the newspaper." She dragged out a tattered copy of the Planet's front page. "It said you two had found her and she's in the hospital."
"She is," Clark reassured her. "And she's doing fine." He got to his feet and caught Lois's gaze. "I think we should take you down there, okay?"
"I'll bring the car out front," Lois said, heading out of the conference room. She really wasn't sure how she felt about this development; Marie seemed to be plausible enough, but she'd still effectively left her baby to die. But it wasn't her responsibility to judge, Lois accepted. Marie would be interviewed by the police and by Social Services, and no doubt the medical staff at the hospital would have something to say as well.
A couple of hours later, Lois and Clark were again standing together outside the NICU, but this time the incubator holding the tiny baby girl had a young couple standing beside it. Marie and her boyfriend Joe were gazing down on the little girl they'd decided to name Noelle — because she was a Christmas miracle, they'd told the two reporters. Marie's hand was inside a glove which was affixed to the side of the incubator, and she was stroking little Noelle's head.
It had been a busy couple of hours. First, Marie had been examined thoroughly by an obstetrician, washed and given clean scrubs as well as a lecture on proper care of a newborn baby. Then she'd called Joe at work, and he'd impressed the two reporters by making it down to the hospital in minutes to be with his girlfriend. Both had been very anxious to be allowed to see the baby, and had finally been brought up to the NICU about fifteen minutes earlier.
Marie had burst into tears at the sight of her daughter, and had to be comforted by Joe and a nurse; but after a few minutes she'd calmed down enough to be able to stand by the incubator, as she was now doing.
Lois and Clark had again spoken to the paediatrician in charge, who had told them that Marie would shortly be interviewed by a clinical psychologist and the police, and would be kept in the hospital under observation for a couple of days. Depending on the psychologist's report, the police might not prosecute. From then on, unless there were strong grounds to believe that she might harm her child or would be a negligent mother, she would be allowed to keep her daughter, but assisted by and under the supervision of Social Services. Joe's presence was a factor in her favour, the doctor had explained. He was nineteen and had a steady job and had just paid a deposit on a small apartment to rent, which he would be moving into immediately after Christmas; he'd made it very clear to anyone who would listen that he loved Marie and that he didn't care that Noelle wasn't his daughter. Judging by the besotted look on the young man's face as he stared down at the tiny body in the incubator, Clark thought he would probably make a very good father.
"They look so happy, don't they?" Lois spoke, echoing Clark's thoughts.
"Yeah." He sighed a little wistfully; he was pleased for Noelle's sake that her mother had come forward and that it looked as if she would have a family who would love her. But he'd been very conscious the previous evening of wishing that somehow the tiny scrap of humanity in that incubator had been his. Oh, it wasn't that he had somehow become quite that attached to Noelle herself; it was just that… well, he supposed he was getting broody.
One day, he told himself. One day, he would have a wife and children of his own. He hoped.
Although the only problem with that little scenario was that the only woman he wanted to marry was the person standing right next to him now.
He turned his head to study his partner; she was still watching the young couple by the incubator. After a moment, she seemed to sense his gaze on her, and she turned her head to smile at him. "You know, it seems a weird thing to say, considering what they've been through and the fact that things are going to be a struggle for them, but I really envy those two."
"Yeah, me too," Clark told her wistfully. At her surprised expression, he shrugged. "I've always wanted kids, Lois. Some day, anyway."
"That's the weird thing for me, too," she answered, frowning. "I've never really been all that bothered either way, but… well, she's just so sweet, and she was so helpless…"
"Well…" Clark drawled, barely able to believe that he was teasing her about this, and yet only half-joking at the same time, "if you do decide you'd like one of your own, and need some help in… um, getting things started…"
She stared at him, seemingly unable to decide whether she was supposed to laugh or take him seriously. Finally, she said softly, her gaze dropping to some level below his chin, "I'll bear that in mind."
He caught his breath; then, deciding that now wasn't the moment to find out what she'd meant by that, said, "Come on — we should go."
"Yeah," she agreed, and fell into step beside him.
On impulse, Clark reached out and took her hand in his; he waited, holding his breath, to see whether she'd pull away.
She curled her fingers around his, gripping his hand firmly.
Clark's hand felt good in hers. In fact, it felt so natural and… and just so *right* to hold his hand in hers. She was used to strolling with him with her hand tucked through his arm, but this was different — it was more intimate, that went without saying. But it also felt incredibly good; his hand felt so familiar in hers, as if this was something which was meant to be. It made her wonder why she'd never done it before — or why he hadn't.
They emerged from the hospital into the crisp, cold December day; snowflakes were falling in a lazy, dizzy pattern onto the sidewalk and road, only to be swept into mush by the wheels of cars as they passed by. The seasonal weather recalled Lois's attention to something she'd all but forgotten so far that day; she turned to look at her partner.
"Hey, Clark, it's Christmas Eve!"
"Yeah, it is, isn't it?" His broad smile was infectious. "You all packed for later?"
Suddenly shy, Lois dipped her head. They were off to Smallville later; she was going to spend the next few days with her partner and his parents. Her partner, who, in the last five minutes or so, seemed to have become much more than a partner. She remembered his teasing comment to her outside the NICU, about offering his assistance should she need it, and her instant conviction that he wasn't entirely joking; she hadn't been able to look at him then, but something had prevented her giving a jokey or dismissive reply. Her 'I'll bear that in mind' had been, she knew, a tacit acknowledgement that she wouldn't reject any overtures he might want to make.
And he'd shown that he understood that by taking her hand as they walked away.
And now, where did they stand in relation to each other? Were they still best friends… or were they on the cusp of something more?
She gave him a tentative smile, hoping that he would understand. She was just scared of where they were going with this. Clark meant so much to her; he was her best friend. What if it all went wrong?
He raised their joined hands, glancing down at them before looking back at her. "Let's not analyse anything right now, Lois, huh? If this feels good, then…"
"Yeah. Let's just… enjoy it," she agreed.
Did he mean some sort of holiday romance? But yet that didn't sound like Clark's style, somehow. Although she didn't know a lot about her partner's love life, Lois had always suspected that he wasn't into casual relationships, whether or not they involved sex. If he got romantically involved with someone, she suspected that he would take it as seriously, with as much dedication, as he took his work as a reporter. He was an incredibly conscientious person, despite his occasional habit of disappearing at inopportune moments.
So… exactly what was happening here?
But there was no immediate opportunity to find out; as soon as they were back at the Planet, Perry demanded a story on the discovery of Noelle's mother, and the reuniting of mother and daughter. Once that was filed, Lois had to hurry home so that she could get over to Clark's by the agreed time; he'd told her that Superman had been happy to agree to fly her out to Smallville as well.
She wondered how he'd do it: would he somehow carry the two of them together, or make two trips? As she mused on that, it occurred to her that she'd never actually seen Clark and Superman together, which was very strange considering that they were close friends. This would be a first; she looked forward to seeing how they interacted with each other.
And there was another thought. Although she wasn't sure what was happening between her and Clark, she remembered that Clark had seemed in the past to be jealous of her relationship with Superman. Which had been silly of him, really, since there had never been anything there to be jealous of.
<Hadn't there?> her conscience demanded as she threw items haphazardly into a travel-bag.
Well, she had been attracted to Superman — no, she'd believed for a long time that she loved him. And Clark had known that: hadn't she rejected Clark for Superman that long-ago day in Centennial Park? Foolish, foolish; as if Superman had ever seen her in that way. She understood now what he'd tried to tell her that night in her apartment. He did care for her, she knew that. But he couldn't have a relationship with anyone, doubtless for all sorts of reasons. And, no matter how well she thought she knew him, the truth was that she only saw whatever side of him he wanted her to see. She had no idea whatsoever what he did in his spare time, or how it was that Clark always seemed to manage to contact him.
Maybe she would find out today? But that wasn't important right now. Clark was.
A soppy smile curved across her face as she thought about her partner, her best friend, who was taking her home with him for Christmas.
Clark's manner when he let her into his apartment gave her no clues either. He smiled at her in greeting, something he frequently did — but was there something different about his smile? She couldn't tell. But he caught her hand to lead her down the steps and into the apartment, and didn't release it once they halted.
"Superman's just about to arrive," he told her. "I haven't quite finished packing, so maybe you could go first? I'll be right behind you, and anyway you know Mom and Dad, so you don't need me there."
She was looking forward to seeing Clark with Superman, so she was disappointed when he released her hand and disappeared into the bedroom; a moment later, there was a whoosh, and Superman strolled out of the door leading to Clark's balcony. "Hi, Lois — are you ready to go?" he asked her, giving her one of his polite smiles.
She glanced back towards the bedroom. "But Clark — aren't you going to…?"
He reached out towards her, taking her bag and hoisting it over his shoulder. "I'll see him when I come back for him. We need to get going, Lois. I could be needed later, and I want to get you and Clark to Smallville as quickly as I can."
"Oh, okay. I'm sorry, I didn't think," she apologised, letting him scoop her up. Again, as she always felt when she was near him, she felt that pull of attraction towards the Super-hero, but she squashed it. He didn't feel the same way about her, and anyway, now there was Clark… at least, she hoped there was Clark.
For some reason, Lois didn't find the flight to Smallville as magical as she normally found flying with Superman. Although he was holding her cradled close to his chest, her mind kept drifting from her surroundings — and her companion — to think of Clark. Visualising him waiting in his bedroom, or finishing his packing, dressed in that gorgeous blue denim shirt which she loved on him, she wondered whether he was thinking about her, wishing for the time to fly past quickly so that they could be together.
Did he think about what had happened that morning too? Had he felt something special pass between them as they'd walked holding hands? Had his smile, when he'd greeted her at the door of his apartment, held more than mere friendship? And what would the next few days hold?
Then Superman was bringing her down to land behind the Kents' farmhouse and she had to push aside thoughts of Clark for now and greet his parents. As usual, they were welcoming and kind and she quickly found herself swept into the house and offered coffee and mince pies; she didn't even notice Superman leaving. He was gone before she realised that she hadn't even wished him a merry Christmas.
It could only have been about ten minutes, but it seemed an age, before the door of the farmhouse was thrown open again and Clark walked in, calling, "Thanks, Superman!" over his shoulder. He was embraced by both Martha and Jonathan before Lois could catch his gaze; he simply gave her another slow smile as he took a seat beside her.
"Isn't Superman coming in for a coffee?" she asked him, surprised.
Clark seemed to blink at that, before answering, "Oh, I think he had something else to do."
"And so do we!" Jonathan announced. "Now the two of you are here, we can decorate the Christmas tree at last!"
And so began an evening of whirlwind activities, during which Lois had no time to talk to Clark or be alone with him. From decorating the tree, they moved to adding holly boughs to picture-frames and door-jambs, and then back to the kitchen for supper and mulled wine; when they returned to the living-room later, Lois noticed that a pile of brightly-wrapped presents had suddenly appeared under the tree. She excused herself and pulled out the few she'd brought to add to the stack.
Later, it was time to go into town for carol-singing and church; Clark sat beside her in the back of Jonathan Kent's old car, chatting easily to her and to his parents, but half-way there he reached for her hand again as if it was completely the natural thing to do, and held it on his lap.
Then he kept her next to him as they sang carols; she tried not to giggle at his poor singing voice, while he murmured to her that he loved listening to her sing. The town square looked beautiful, she realised once she took her attention off her partner long enough to notice: Christmas lights hung on the trees, snow on the ground which made a satisfying crunch under her feet as she walked, and people dressed up in warm clothes, wearing sprigs of berried holly on their coats, singing to their heart's content.
Later, they followed the townsfolk into church to hear again the story about a baby born many centuries ago on Christmas Day. Standing next to Clark as they sang the final carol, Lois remembered the baby they'd watched together earlier that day and thought that Christmas had never seemed so real to her.
Then home to the farmhouse, and, to her surprise, Clark encouraged his parents to go straight to bed. "I'll lock up and show Lois where she's sleeping," he told them.
She was hugged by both elder Kents, and then suddenly, after all the rush and flurry and activity, she and Clark were alone. And she knew, by the way he was now looking at her, that she wasn't the only one to have felt something was happening between them.
"Lois." His voice was low, husky.
She took a step towards him, and he reached for her hand again. "Come here." She let him lead her across to the stairs, then stopped in surprise when his free hand pressed on her shoulder. "Right here."
Frowning, she gave him a curious look. "Why here?"
In answer, he simply smiled and pointed upwards with his finger. She looked, and saw.
"I don't really feel brave enough to kiss you without that as an excuse," he murmured softly, his lips curving into a teasing smile.
Now she knew, and that knowledge gave her the confidence to slide her arms up and around his neck. "You don't need an excuse, Clark."
"No?" Now he was smiling broadly. "Shame to let it go to waste, though."
"Shame…" she echoed on a whisper, leaning up to catch his lips as they descended.
The first touch of her lips beneath his felt unbelievably good. Clark tasted her lightly, gently, then pulled back to smile at her; she wrapped her arms even more tightly around him and pull him back to her. This kiss was deeper; her lips parted, allowing him access, and her tongue slid forward to glide over his lower lip.
He moved his hands to curve around her slender waist, delighting in the feel of her beautiful body so close to his. It had been torture being with her all evening and not being able to do more than hold her hand when no-one was looking, and smile at her. What was he talking about? The entire day had been torture from the point when they'd got into her Jeep and driven away from the hospital. He'd known she was curious — perhaps even worried — about what was happening to their comfortable friendship, but he'd also been well aware that the time wasn't right to talk about it.
He'd planned this, knowing that he could get her alone once his parents had gone to bed; he'd very carefully placed that sprig of mistletoe earlier, using his Super-powers to float up and secure it on the high ceiling above where she wouldn't see it until it was pointed out to her. At least this way he would be able to pretend that it was just a mistletoe kiss, if he'd been wrong about her response to his earlier overture. If she was still going to insist that all they were was friends… but she'd made it clear that she wanted the kiss too.
They pulled apart a little from each other, still holding each other loosely but simply gazing into one another's faces. Then Lois broke the almost suspended animation they'd fallen into by pulling one arm from around his neck and reaching up to caress his face. "Clark… why did we wait so long to do that?"
He gave her a wry smile. "I don't know. I guess I never had the courage before now."
"And today? What made you say that to me, at the hospital? And hold my hand?"
That was a difficult one; Clark wasn't really sure himself. Some crazy impulse had come over him with respect to his only-half-teasing remark, and his instinct had told him that her response to that could mean… Well, anyway, suddenly reaching out to take her hand had seemed exactly the right thing to do.
"I love you, Lois," he told her softly; that, for him, answered all her questions.
She was watching him carefully; at that, she almost seemed disappointed. "I know, Clark, you told me last night. As a friend."
He shook his head. "No. I'm in love with you. I've always loved you, as long as I've known you. I loved you as a friend because that was all you wanted from me."
Her eyes widened. "Not for a long time now," she whispered, her gaze never leaving his, her voice sounding breathless. "Clark, I realised I love you when… oh, never mind!" she exclaimed on a soft laugh, pulling his head down to hers to kiss him again.
Several minutes later, as they disentangled from a lengthy and intense kiss, the old clock in the living-room struck midnight.
"Happy Christmas, Lois," Clark murmured, holding her tightly against him.
— Epilogue -
It was Christmas afternoon, and Lois was full, slightly drunk on wine and good company, and having the most wonderful Christmas of her life. She'd slept late, coming down to the kitchen to be greeted by the most delicious smells and by Clark's good-natured teasing, although Martha had shooed him out and offered her coffee and toast. Martha's knowing smile had warmed Lois's heart still further.
"You love him, don't you?" Clark's mother had asked.
Oh, yes. "More than I ever thought I could love anyone," Lois had assured her.
"Jonathan and I are delighted, you know. We couldn't think of anyone we'd prefer for our boy," Martha had insisted, sweeping Lois into a warm hug.
And then things had been busy, as every member of the household helped with the meal and with feeding the animals, then Christmas dinner itself, which had been delicious. And just as everyone was feeling replete, Clark started to hand around presents. She was glad now that she'd spent hours hunting for something special for him, instead of taking the easy way out as she'd done with other people on her shopping list; and his expression of delight at the gaily-patterned tie, the gold cuff-links with entwined CK initials and the silver-framed photograph of them together at the Kerths made all her searching worthwhile.
He kept her present from him until last. She tore off the paper from the very small rectangular-shaped gift he'd handed her, eager to find out what it was. A jeweller's box… and inside, a delicately-shaped gold locket, which looked antique. She removed it from its cotton-wool bed, fumbled for a moment with the catch, and then it sprang open.
He had already placed a photograph inside, behind one of the little glass frames. It was of her, her hair piled on top of her head, wearing an evening gown, and smiling up at someone not in the photograph. It had been taken at the Kerths a few months ago, just like the photograph she'd had framed for him. The *same* photograph.
She turned to smile at Clark, who was still kneeling in front of her; her vision was blurry, but she blinked the tears away. They were tears of pure happiness anyway. "I hope you have the picture for the other side," she told him.
His lips curved into a delighted smile. "I kept it… I hoped…" He reached into the pocket of the button-down collar shirt he was wearing, and produced an oval-shaped piece of stiff paper; taking the locket from her, he fitted it into place. Now, Clark smiled back at Lois inside the locket as well as in real life.
"Thank you," she whispered, reaching forward to kiss him.
He fastened the locket around her neck, then stood up. "Come for a walk."
Eager to be alone with Clark, for a chance to talk about their developing relationship, she seized his hand, allowed him to help her on with her coat, then set off for a stroll in the snow with him.
It was beautiful outside; dusk was beginning to fall, and their breath was visible as they strolled. She held onto Clark's hand, allowing him to show her his favourite places on the farm, until he suddenly halted by a large tree.
"Lois, I told you last night that I love you," he reminded her, his tone suddenly serious and very, very sincere.
"I love you, too, Clark," she assured him. "I mean it — I know I've claimed to be in love with people before, and I even almost married someone else last summer, but I've never felt for anyone the way I feel for you."
"I'm glad," he whispered. "Lois, I love you so much, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I know it's too early to talk about anything like that, but I really want you to know how much you mean to me."
"Me too," she whispered. After the fiasco with Lex Luthor, Lois could never have imagined that she would be willing to think about marrying anyone else this soon. But this was Clark, and he meant everything to her…
"I have to tell you something," he announced, releasing her hand and stepping back. "I know that you're going to be mad at me, and you'll feel deceived and hurt and betrayed. I know all that, and I promise I'll stay and listen to everything you want to say to me. You can even scream at me if you want. But, please, forgive me for not telling you about this sooner, Lois."
She frowned. What was all this about? And why was he so worried about her reaction?
"I love you. Tell me," she encouraged him.
Then he turned, and began to spin, faster and faster until he was a blur of colour… colours Clark hadn't been wearing! And when he slowed, and became properly visible again, she was no longer looking at Clark.
Lois swallowed. Oh, this explained a lot. All the disappearances, the silly excuses, the number of times Clark had known something which only Superman could have known. It explained the really strange sense she'd had for a long time that she was attracted to two men simultaneously. And… it explained, far more credibly, how Clark had miraculously come back to life after being shot dead.
She should be angry, for all the reasons he'd given her. But there was one very simple reason why she wasn't; she loved him. Oh, he owed her lots of explanations, and she was determined to get them, too. But they could all wait. Right now, there was something far more important.
"You know," she told him idly, "there was something I didn't get a chance to do yesterday."
He frowned, clearly puzzled by her reaction, which she knew was not what he'd expected. "What's that?"
She took the couple of steps which brought her up to him, and looped her arms around his neck. "Merry Christmas, Superman… and Clark," she murmured, before reaching up to kiss her hero and the man she loved.
"Merry Christmas, Lois," Clark the Super-hero from Kansas replied, before blotting out the rest of the world with his kiss.