By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2004
Summary: It's Christmas, and Lois faces spending the holiday without Clark. But a mysterious stranger's encouragement to take a walk on the dark side leads to a very unexpected outcome.
Much thanks and appreciation to Kaethel and Tricia for beta-reading this at *very* short notice indeed, and without whose help I'd have felt extremely unsure about posting this story. You guys never cease to amaze me with your cheerful helpfulness — I owe you! Thanks also to Kaylle for being a fount of information about certain movie references. ;)
For all the FoLCs with December birthdays — in particular, Karen, Laura, Laurach and Erica. I know there are others, so consider it for you too if you're in that category!
All rights to characters in this story belong to DC Comics, Warner Bros and George Lucas. ;)
"What am I doing here?" Lois muttered, scowling as yet another Father Christmas knocked against her with his over-padded belly. She sighed, turning away and searching for a quiet, *empty* corner to get away from everyone in the function room for a while.
Why had she allowed herself to be persuaded to come to this farce of an event? she asked herself for about the tenth time since she'd arrived about ninety minutes ago. A masquerade ball. How… quaint.
She hadn't intended to be here at all. When Matty Harris, a city councilwoman who'd given Lois a few useful tip-offs in the past year, had called her asking her to come to the ball, which was in aid of children's and homeless charities, Lois had been definite in her refusal. She was happy to make a donation to the cause, she'd assured Matty. But she would be busy the night of the ball.
Well, she'd intended to be busy. But it had turned out that her partner, with whom she'd planned to be busy, had other plans.
Lois sipped at her drink again, wincing at the acidic taste of the warm liquid. Cheap Chardonnay, not even properly chilled. Didn't these people know how to serve the overpriced stuff they called wine?
Glancing at her watch, she noted with dismay that she still had to endure two hours before she could make her exit. It was only just after ten.
"It's a masquerade, Lois. That's what's going to be so much fun!" Matty had exclaimed. "Everyone's coming in a costume, but we'll all be masked too. Completely disguised. When people arrive they'll be given a number and a list to fill in, and there'll be prizes at the end of the evening — for whoever guesses the most correct identities, whoever manages to fool most people about who they really are, you name it."
Lois, on the other end of the phone, had rolled her eyes, grateful that she'd had a reason to decline. But then she hadn't had a reason any more. And when Matty, persistent as ever, had called her back, Lois had agreed out of frustration. After all, Clark couldn't be bothered to spend his last evening in Metropolis before Christmas with her. So she sure as hell was *not* going to sit around at home on her own, as if she had nothing better to do merely because her partner and best friend had *plans.*
She looked around the room again. The mayor was so obvious in his Henry VIII costume, his ample stomach suiting the role perfectly. And there was Maya Li of LNN, showing off her assets even more blatantly as usual dressed as Cleopatra. Didn't any of these people even *try* to disguise themselves? Predictable costumes, no attempt to disguise hairstyles, masks so thin they only covered the area around their wearers' eyes. Even Matty was easily recognisable in the Amelia Earhart outfit she wore.
Lois glanced down at her own costume again. She'd chosen to come as one of her lifelong heroines, Susan B Anthony, one of the great campaigners for women's suffrage. She was aware that, in the light of her partner's desertion, she was making another statement in her choice of role: by staying single all her life, Anthony had shown that women did *not* need a man in their lives.
It was a good costume, even if she said so herself, she thought in satisfaction. The full-length, long-sleeved and high-collared dress typical of women's wear in the 1850s, her hair dressed in the severe style Anthony had favoured for most of her life — and with a full Susan Anthony face-mask, leaving only gaps for her eyes and mouth — Lois thought she was highly unlikely to be recognised as herself. She'd pinned a facsimile of an early National Women's Suffrage Association poster to her back, for the benefit of anyone ignorant enough of American history not to identify her outfit.
Taking another sip of her tepid wine, Lois took another glance around the room, grimacing at the over-the-top Christmas garlands, lights and banners. The organisers even had Santa Clauses and sleighs and trees projected onto the ceiling. And every second song played was a Christmas song. If she heard Bing Crosby or Band Aid *one* more time…
Christmas. The one time of the year she hated more than any other. And yet she'd been ready to make an effort this year. For Clark. For the man she'd thought was her best friend. The man who she'd stupidly allowed into her heart, only to have him walk all over it.
He was going to Smallville for Christmas tomorrow, just as he had last year. He had three full days off, from midday Christmas Eve until the afternoon of the 27th. *She* had made sure that he had those days. She'd volunteered to work all day tomorrow and come in early on the 26th, doing a double shift, just so that Clark could have the time off. Perry had questioned her offer, pointing out that it was her turn to have extra time off for the holiday, but she'd shrugged, saying that Clark had further to go than she had to be with family.
Of course, she wasn't spending Christmas with her family anyway, but that was beside the point.
She'd done Clark a favour. And, okay, she'd sworn Perry to secrecy about it, and wild horses wouldn't drag it out of her, but still she found herself resenting his defection. His ingratitude.
"Come over for dinner on Thursday, Clark," she'd suggested a couple of days ago. Actually, she'd been meaning to ask him for weeks, but hadn't got around to it. Hadn't been able to find a way to ask him casually, because she'd realised just how much she wanted to spend a special evening with him to celebrate the time of year he loved so much. How much she wanted him to show her what was so wonderful about Christmas.
He'd given her a regretful look, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Lois. I have other plans for Thursday." As she'd backed away, waving her hand casually and babbling that it didn't matter, it wasn't important, it had just been a thought, he'd added, "I wish you'd asked me sooner. But I can't cancel this. I promised."
Yeah. She just bet he couldn't cancel it. And she knew very well who he'd made the promise to.
Mayson Drake. It had to be. The assistant DA hadn't stopped sniffing around Clark ever since they'd met back in October. She was so *obvious*! All that 'you're so brave to testify against Baby Rage, Clark!' crap! He was only doing what any concerned citizen would. What she would have done herself if she'd been a witness in that situation.
And then, after Clark had come back from the dead, she'd intensified her efforts to get into his pants. Excuse after excuse to come into the newsroom. Messages left for him all the time. Oh-so-casually bumping into him in places everyone knew that *she* and Clark went for lunch. And flaunting her body, and those baby-blue eyes, in front of him.
Well, Clark wasn't worth brooding over, she told herself angrily. He was just another man, after all. Just like all the rest. Men were obsessed with sex when it came to relationships. They judged everything from the perspective of their pants and not their brains. It wasn't worth letting herself care about a man like that.
And, since she had to be at this nightmare of a Christmas ball, she should just stop obsessing and make an effort. Dancing. People were dancing. So that was what she should be doing too.
She dumped her unwanted wine-glass on a convenient shelf and cast a glance around for a suitable partner. Someone who wouldn't stand on her toes or bore her rigid with inane talk.
"Hey, you wanna dance?"
She spun and found herself staring at a portly, short, balding man of about forty, wearing an utterly ridiculous reindeer outfit. The pungent scent of stale garlic drowned in bourbon assaulted her.
Unable — and barely willing — to prevent a grimace, she stepped backwards. The reindeer stepped closer. She took another step back. "No. No, I don't wanna dan — urgh!" She broke off as something behind her hit her solidly in the back. Or some*one*.
"Hey, are you okay?" The voice was male, but strangely muffled. Strong hands cupped her shoulders and steadied her.
She turned her head, and saw only black.
"Hey, I saw her first!" the reindeer, clearly drunk, protested, trying to grab her arm.
A hand, clad in what looked like black PVC, shot out and caught the reindeer's hand firmly. "The lady said no, I believe." Again, Black PVC's voice sounded distorted, as if it was being filtered through a bad telephone line.
The reindeer looked belligerent, but his expression quickly changed to one of pain. "Okay, okay, I get the message!" he muttered, and looked relieved when Black PVC Guy released him. Rubbing his wrist, he added, "Frigid bi —"
Before he could finish the word, Black PVC Guy had reached past Lois and grabbed him one-handed by the throat. "Don't say it. Just get out of here before I decide to show you what your mother obviously forgot to teach you about how to treat a lady."
His expression angry and humiliated, Reindeer Guy turned and hurried away, almost slipping on the polished floor as he did so.
Lois turned to her rescuer, who let go of her with his other hand as she did so. "Thank you. He was kind of persistent."
Then she noticed his costume and realised why his voice was so distorted. Just her luck. Was there no end to the weird costumes tonight? Darth Vader?
She began to roll her eyes, but then reminded herself that the guy had actually done her a favour. At least, she thought, he'd had the good sense to leave the cape at home. That really would have been over the top.
She made herself smile at him.
Of course, she couldn't tell whether he was smiling in return or not. "I was glad to help. Though I was beginning to think I'd have to use my light-sabre on him if he didn't take his hand off you."
Lois eyed him, pretending wariness. "You carry that thing with you? Do you have a licence?"
"Darth Vader does not need a licence!" he pronounced sonorously. Then he extended his arm towards her. "So… is it just reindeer you don't dance with, or men as a species, Ms Anthony? Cause I wouldn't want to risk offending a fine suffragette such as yourself."
A science-fiction geek with a sense of humour? Stifling a grin, Lois replied, "Well, I've never danced with an evil interplanetary overlord before, so I guess I could give it a try."
Darth inclined his head. "I'm honoured."
She went into his arms in an easy movement, and found him an excellent dancer. "They must teach you well on the Death Star."
"Subliminal programming," her partner deadpanned. "Uploaded to our brains every night as we sleep. The Empire doesn't like wasting time."
"Efficient," she agreed. "Do they also pre-programme you to treat women as equals? Because if not I'm not sure that I can afford to be seen with you…"
"Women, equals?" Darth queried. She could hear his incredulous tone even through the distortion of his helmet. Actually, she thought, he had to be really hot under there, especially given that his outfit was made of PVC too. "That does not compute," he said solemnly.
Lois rolled her eyes. "You're supposed to be Darth Vader, not Mr Spock!"
He laughed. "So I get my universes mixed up. You going to exterminate me for that?"
Daleks, she thought, recognising the reference. Dr Who. "Well, I don't know… I mean, Luke Skywalker would be an awful lot safer if I did…"
He made a scornful sound. "That puppy? He'd get into a lot more trouble if I wasn't keeping him occupied, believe me."
She was about to say something scathing, but then he swung her around suddenly, in time to the music, and she had to catch her breath. He was definitely one of the best dancers she'd encountered in a long time.
And she had no idea at all who he was. The distorted voice didn't help, of course. The outfit was reasonably close-fitting in parts, enough to allow her to see strong, muscular biceps and powerful thighs.
The music came to an abrupt end then, and Lois felt disappointment flood her at the thought of parting from her strangely-attired partner. He released her and stepped back, and she tried to force a smile to her face. "Well, thank you for —"
"Can I get you a drink, Ms Anthony?" he enquired politely.
Well, that was something. He clearly wasn't in a rush to move on to his next partner. "What, warm, cheap wine?"
She heard a faint sound which could have been a laugh. "I think I can manage better than that. Wait here. I won't be long."
Lois glanced at the queue around the bar and rolled her eyes. At that rate, she'd be lucky if he got back to her before unmasking time. And, for some strange reason, she was reluctant to have the identity of her anonymous rescuer revealed yet. As he was, completely hidden by his disguise, he was mysterious. Intriguing.
Once that bulky hood came off, he'd just be an ordinary man. The kind she'd pass in the street every day. Probably not even good- looking, and certainly not courtly or dashing. And not mysterious at all.
She sighed, and reminded herself sardonically that handsome, dashing heroes didn't exist outside the pages of lurid romance novels.
Perhaps she'd better ensure that she was nowhere near him come midnight. That way she wouldn't have to see her fantasies dashed when he turned out to be the kind of nerd she'd never go near. Or completely boring once he didn't have his outfit to hide behind.
"Your drink, Ms Anthony."
She swung around. Darth Vader stood in front of her, holding out a glass of pale yellow liquid. The glass looked chilled. She accepted the wine and sipped it. Not acidic at all. And very definitely chilled.
"How on earth did you manage that?"
There was definitely a grin in his voice. "I just asked nicely."
Shaking her head in admiration, she dropped into a faint curtsey. "And I appreciate it, my Lord Vader."
He gave her a courtly bow. "My pleasure, my lady. Being on the Dark Side is sometimes very useful."
Lois winced, briefly reminded of her own brush with the dark side during her engagement to Lex Luthor. For a moment, it occurred to her to wonder…
No, that was crazy. Luthor was dead. She'd seen him crash to his death herself. And, okay, there'd been that flaky, fit-for-the- nuthouse doctor who'd thought she could bring him back to life, but… no, it was stupid to imagine… Although his body had disappeared, never to be found…
Oh, this was stupid! Of course her mysterious dance-partner wasn't Lex! He was just some ordinary He guy with old-world charm — or knew how to put it on — and a great sense of humour. Come to think of it, that was another reason why it couldn't possibly be Lex. Lex had never exhibited much of a sense of humour.
She sipped her wine again, and noticed that Darth didn't have a drink; she supposed it would be kind of difficult with his helmet/face-mask thing, and wondered whether he'd thought of that inconvenience before choosing the costume.
His arm came around her shoulders suddenly, pulling her into him. She froze; now, when he'd lulled her into feeling good around him, he was making a pass?
"Careful," his distorted voice rumbled near her ear. "Someone almost knocked you over." And he gently tugged her to one side, closer to him still, just in time to evade a drunken couple who were stumbling past.
Oh, okay. Still a knight in shining armour, despite his costume.
"Actually, I should have asked. Are you here with someone?"
"Huh? No, I'm not."
"Ah, I should have guessed. Ms Anthony never did see the point in men as a species, did she?" The humour in his voice was audible even through his helmet.
"I don't remember Darth Vader being much on women, either," Lois pointed out. "Although I guess he had to have had at least one encounter with a woman."
"Ah, my secret's out, I see," Darth rumbled. "That was a mistake. That I should have fathered one child was bad enough, but *two* — and two such traitors to the Dark Side, too… I am ashamed."
Lois had to stifle a giggle. "I always did think that Luke was a bit of a girly, myself — and as for Leia's hairstyle, if I looked like that I'd shave myself bald! But I did have a kind of a crush on Han Solo…"
"I should have run him through with my sabre while I had the chance!" Darth growled. Taking her near-empty glass from her hand, he put it down on a nearby shelf. "I can dance *much* better than that renegade." And he swung her onto the dance-floor again.
Lois didn't object. She'd always enjoyed dancing, as long as it was with a partner who knew what he was doing, and Darth certainly did. The thought crossed her mind that, unmasked, maybe he wouldn't be as much of a disappointment as she feared. She shouldn't be so pessimistic. So far, he'd been a very amusing and considerate companion. And, since the man she was desperately trying *not* to be obsessed with was so clearly not interested in her, maybe she needed to start dating again herself.
<Date Darth Vader?> an incredulous little voice asked her.
Well, why not? It was only a costume, after all. And, okay, it was a geekish kind of costume, but the man wearing it didn't appear to be a geek in reality. He was more than capable of laughing at himself. Plus, he seemed to be intelligent, witty and knowledgeable…
… like Lex had been intelligent and knowledgeable, even if not quite so witty, she remembered.
<Stop imagining you see bits of Lex in every man you could be halfway interested in!> she told herself furiously.
Clark was intelligent. And very funny. And considerate… well, when he wasn't blowing her off to spend time with Mayson Doe-Eyes Drake.
<I will *not* think about Clark!>
"Are you okay in there?" Her dancing-partner's amused voice came from somewhere above her head.
"I'm fine," she insisted. "Sorry — I was just thinking about something…"
"Must've been something important. You were really out of it for a minute or so there. I spoke to you twice and you didn't answer."
That was it. Enough! No more brooding over her so-called best friend's defection. He was having a terrific time tonight with his girlfriend. Well, she was going to have a great time too with this guy.
"Sorry," she repeated. "It wasn't anything important."
"Oh, well, that puts me in my place, then," he teased. "Ignored in favour of something completely unimportant!"
She couldn't help laughing. "Okay, okay! Look, I was just thinking about this guy, okay?"
"Uh-oh. You mean I've got competition?"
He was a flirt, too, it seemed. And that was just perfect. She was completely in the mood for flirting right now. Perhaps she would stick around with him until unmasking, after all. Perhaps, depending how she felt, she might even manoeuvre it so that they were standing underneath one of the sprigs of mistletoe which were scattered throughout the room…
"Maybe," she said lightly. "So you're the competitive type?"
"I duel six times a week before breakfast," he deadpanned. "Competitive enough for you?"
"Ooh, a guy who likes to keep himself in shape." She made a murmur of appreciation. "And I can tell — that's a pretty revealing outfit, and you have *great* muscle definition."
<Eesh> she thought, hearing herself say that. <Going *way* over the top there, Lois!> She'd better pull back the flirting a notch or two. Otherwise he'd be expecting a lot more than just a midnight kiss.
And anyway, she wasn't even sure that she wanted that. Sure, it was a nice idea to toy with for a moment or two, but the guy was a stranger. And anyway, she really didn't like the idea of kissing anyone…
Anyone but Clark. Or maybe Superman, but even then, for some reason, Clark had leapt to the top of her kissable males list. She wasn't even sure why. The thrill of the unattainable, perhaps? She was very well aware that, for almost an entire year, she'd known that he was attracted to her, but she'd barely given him the time of day.
Now, when Mayson Drake was all over him like a rash, she wanted him. God, she was an idiot.
"Now, I hope it's not me who's made you sigh like that," her dance partner said.
"What? Oh, no. No, it wasn't you." Flustered, Lois realised too late what she'd given away.
"Who, then? Some worthless human male? And I thought you had no time for the species!"
"Oh, some of them have a few redeeming features." She tried to recapture some of the light banter she'd been able to engage in only a few minutes earlier, but she knew that she wasn't succeeding very well. The teasing tone she'd aimed for had fallen flat.
Darth's arms tightened around her briefly, almost as if in a hug. "Want to talk about it?"
She was amazed to find that she was actually tempted. "No. Thank you, but… no."
"Hey, I could be the best possible person to talk to," he said. "I mean, you have no idea who I am. I can just disappear before the unmasking, if you like. You'll never have to know — I could just be the mystery man you knew for only an hour or so."
That was so close to what Lois had been thinking earlier that she caught her breath. And he was right: he was the perfect confidant.
"All right," she said. "There is a guy I… sort of care about. But he just doesn't feel the same way. I still hoped that maybe… but I found out a couple of days ago that he's just not interested. And I guess I'm finding it tough to accept. I shouldn't let it get to me, though."
She shouldn't. She was turning into a wallower, and she hated wallowers. *And* she was with someone who seemed to be a nice guy, who might even be fun to get to know, and all she was telling him was that she was hung up on someone else.
Okay, she *was* hung up on someone else… but she wished she wasn't.
And she wished that it wasn't Christmas, and that she wasn't being assailed with *annoying* Christmas music and decorations and costumes and greetings at every turn!
And the man she was with still hadn't said a word in response to her self-pitying monologue.
"Sorry." She patted Darth's arm lightly. "I guess when you asked if I wanted to talk about, you didn't really want to hear it."
"Don't make assumptions." He shook her gently. "I asked. That means I wanted to hear. Anyway," he added, so quietly that it she had to strain to hear, "I do know how you feel. There's this woman…"
The pang of jealousy was so unexpected that Lois almost winced. "She isn't interested in you either?"
She felt him shrug. "We're friends. But she'll never take me seriously any other way. She only has eyes for this other guy… someone I know I'll never match up to as far as she's concerned."
Torn between sympathy for his situation and almost delight that it meant he could be open to other offers, Lois shook her head. "She must be an idiot."
"No." His disagreement was immediate. "Just… thinks she's in love with someone else."
And he was desperately in love with her. Lois could tell. Something told her, too, that he wasn't the kind of guy to seek comfort somewhere else while he felt that way. He wasn't going to suggest that they ease each other's loneliness. And, while one tiny fraction of her felt disappointment at that thought, overall she was relieved. She wasn't going to have to fight off possibly unwelcome advances at the end of the evening.
The silence between them stretched to several moments. Then Darth broke it. "So, this guy. Does he happen to use a white stick, by any chance?"
"No." She smiled wryly at the thought. "He does wear glasses, though."
Clark missed a step, and had to concentrate to regain his timing. "Sorry. Just missed my footing," he apologised. Inwardly, his brain was reeling.
Lois was talking about *him*? Not Superman?
*He* was the guy who just wasn't interested in her?
But how could that be? How could she possibly think that? Didn't she know that he was head over heels in love with her… as he'd just told her?
Not that she would have known that he was talking about her, of course. Darth Vader was the perfect disguise for him tonight, in more ways than he'd appreciated when he'd chosen it.
He'd been *persuaded* — ordered, more like — to attend the ball by a friend of his at City Hall with whom he occasionally played basketball. He'd owed Alex a favour for a significant tip-off recently, and when his friend had hinted strongly that buying a ticket to the ball would go some way towards making them even Clark had shrugged and agreed. After all, he'd known that he'd be there anyway; Superman had promised to put in an appearance just before midnight to accept the cheques on behalf of the two charities to benefit from the night's activities. Wearing a costume that covered his entire face and head made it even less likely that anyone would realise that Superman had been at the ball the entire evening.
He hadn't been particularly excited about attending the ball. Okay, the masquerade element had sounded fun, but it would've been much more fun if he'd been there with someone. Unfortunately, the only person he wanted to be with hated this sort of event, so he hadn't even bothered asking if she'd come with him. Sure, he could've asked Mayson, but that would have been sending the sort of message he really didn't want to be giving her. He liked her, but not enough to offer her the kind of relationship he knew she wanted.
The last person he'd expected to encounter at the ball had been Lois. He knew her well enough to know that this kind of event would be her idea of hell. In fact, although he'd recognised her voice immediately, he'd refused to accept that it really was Lois — he'd actually peeked under her mask to confirm it.
The silence was stretching too long. And he didn't want Lois to suspect anything… even though he knew that the likelihood of her seeing through this disguise was even less than her seeing Clark Kent in Superman. But he was still trying to adjust his mind to believing that she… sort of cared… about him. Clark.
"So." Trying to keep his voice light, he pressed on. "Wears glasses, huh? No wonder he can't see what's under his nose!"
She shrugged. "Maybe he can, but he's just not interested."
"I can't believe that," Clark protested.
He shouldn't be doing this, he knew. He was now deliberately obtaining information from her under false pretences. And yet he couldn't do the right thing and let it drop. He wanted to know: to know what she felt for him, why she thought he wasn't interested.
"He's not! Look, if you must know — " Now she sounded irritated. " — We're good friends. Best friends. But he's been seeing someone else for a couple of months now."
Mayson? But surely Lois knew that he wasn't serious about her? He'd been out with her a few times, sure, but although he liked her he wasn't in love with her. And was never going to be. How on earth could Lois think that he wanted Mayson in preference to her?
"How do you know he's serious about her?" he countered.
"Trust me, I know."
He gave her a grunt of disbelief.
"Okay, look, he's going home to Kansas for Christmas tomorrow. And we won't see each other again for four days. So I thought it'd be nice to have our own Christmas celebration early…"
Oh no. Clark could see what was coming. He remembered her invitation. It had been very casual, along the lines of 'if you're not doing anything else'. And he had already been doing something else — he'd committed to attending this ball. So, very reluctantly, he'd had to say no.
Now, it was sounding as if the invitation couldn't have been less casual. And he'd turned her down without even explaining properly — he'd just said that he had other plans.
But why had she acted as if it couldn't have mattered less, when it had clearly been so important to her?
Immediately, he answered his own question. Because that was his partner all over. Never let anyone see that something mattered to her, because that would make her vulnerable.
But hiding it from *him*? That hurt. At least, until he saw it in the light of what she'd just confessed to the man she'd thought was a stranger. She cared about him — Clark — more than she'd ever let on. And so she would take great care not to let him see it until she was absolutely positive that he cared about her just as much.
Part of him wished that he could sweep her off now to a dark corner somewhere, remove his disguise and tell her how much he loved her. How much he'd wanted to spend tonight with her — and how happy he'd been that he'd recognised her within seconds of having collided with her after that idiot in the reindeer outfit had been hassling her.
Caution prevented him. He knew his partner far too well to risk the consequences of springing something like that on her. She'd be embarrassed, and therefore furious, that she'd been confessing her secret feelings to him, the guy she'd just confessed to… caring about, instead of some anonymous stranger whom she'd never see again after tonight.
Oh yeah, she'd just love that.
Okay. He was Darth Vader. He wasn't supposed to know who she was; he was just a stranger who started off by flirting with her a little because it was fun but now the two of them were sharing a couple of confidences and indulging in a bout of mutual commiseration. That was all. He needed to keep it light and not give anything away.
"So, what happened? He blow you off?" There. That was good. Nicely casual, but with just the right amount of sympathy for her and condemnation of the idiot who didn't appreciate her.
"Pretty much," she said. "He said he had plans. I mean, I was offering to cook him a meal — and I don't cook, trust me — with some nice wine, and music, and the whole Christmas thing — and I just don't *do* Christmas — and give him his Christmas present…" She broke off, and he could sense that she was biting her lip. "Anyway. I was really going to go to a lot of trouble. And all he could say was that he had *plans.* It didn't take too much imagination to work out what plans, either. I know he's with her. So, anyway, that's that. I guess I should really just forget about him, shouldn't I? I mean, what's the point wasting my energy on someone who doesn't want me…"
"Hey." He couldn't listen to her torturing herself any more. No; he wouldn't tell her the truth now. But at the earliest possible opportunity — *tomorrow* — he would get her alone and tell her how he really felt about her. How much he loved her. And he'd ask her out. Of course, they couldn't actually go out until he was back from Smallville, but that was only a few days away.
In the meantime, his alter ego — his *other* alter ego — had to say something reassuring.
"Don't, L- Susan," he murmured, preventing himself saying her real name just in time. "You don't know that he's not interested. Maybe he really did just have other plans. I mean, you're here tonight. Couldn't he have had some Christmas party to go to?"
She was silent for a moment. Then, very quietly, she said, "But if he'd been going alone, he'd have asked me to go with him."
Would he? Clark thought about that for a moment. He hadn't asked her to come with him tonight, had he?
"Well, you just got through telling me that you don't do Christmas," he said, keeping a faint hint of teasing in his voice. "Maybe he knew that and decided not to risk you telling him what he could do with his invitation?"
A giggle escaped her, and he smiled. Good — it had worked. "Yeah, you might be right," she conceded. "After all, I have spent the last month telling Cl — *him* how much I loathe this time of year. So, assuming you're right — and I'm not saying I think you are — he was probably afraid I'd strangle him with one of his own ties if he asked me."
Well, she'd got that one right.
But then she added, so quietly that without his super-hearing he doubted he'd have heard her, "He still would've told me what he was doing. Unless he was seeing *her*."
Or, Clark thought, unless he was doing something Superman- related…
Then, to him and sounding as if the notion had only just occurred to her and she was taken aback, she said, "Actually, he's been secretive a lot lately. Just disappearing without telling me where he was going. Or not being where I expected him to be and just giving me stupid excuses for where he was. He's seeing her and just not telling me."
No, Clark thought. He was having to go and be Superman. But, put like that, he could see why Lois might think otherwise. She sounded upset, too, and he hated being the cause of it. Unfortunately, though, unless he decided that he was ready to tell her about his alter ego, there wasn't a lot he could do about it.
But what he *could* do was to reassure her about his feelings for her tomorrow, as he'd already resolved.
That wasn't going to help her right now, though. So he summoned his Darth Vader personality and said, in a near-growl, "You know, it sounds to me like this guy's not worth it. Not if he treats you like that. You want me to vaporise him for you?"
He expected her to agree. He knew Lois — and her temper — very well, after all. She'd been known to hold grudges for days over the most trivial of offences.
In a small voice, she said, "He is worth it. That's the problem."
More touched than he could say, Clark just held her in silence for several moments, continuing to guide her around the dance- floor. Then, when he could trust himself to speak, he said lightly, "You've got it bad."
"Yeah, well, it's my own fault," Lois said, still sounding miserable. "He *was* interested in me. But I blew him off. So I can hardly blame him for dating *her*."
Well, she was right about that — she *had* blown him off. But what she didn't know was that he hadn't lost hope that she might change her mind.
"Anyway," she continued, while he was still struggling for something to say, "you don't want to hear all that. And I don't want to talk about it any more. So, what about this woman you're interested in? She can't let herself fall for a Dark Lord, is that it?"
"Yeah, that whole evil empire thing tends to put women off, you know." Clark grinned behind his visor. It was much easier when he could get back in character. "Women, on the whole, are kind of squeamish. They wimp out when it comes to necessary tasks like killing people."
"And you do that a lot?" Lois seemed to prefer their 'in character' conversation too. "Kill people?"
"Only when it's essential. Or when I'm bored," he drawled. "You sure about this loser of yours? Because I really don't mind removing him for you. Or maybe the woman you think he's seeing. It would be no trouble at all. One blast of my light-sabre and poof! They're history."
She giggled again. "Well, I guess I wouldn't object if you wanted to vaporise her."
"Consider it done," he promised. It was true anyway; Mayson was history as far as he was concerned.
Oh, it was so tempting to wish that her mysterious partner really was Darth Vader and that he really could blast Mayson Drake out of existence. But what she'd told him was no more than the truth. She'd lost Clark by her own actions, not because someone else had come along and stolen him away from her.
If she were going to be alone for Christmas again — and that was a foregone conclusion now — she had only herself to blame. If she hadn't been so stupid as to fail to see what was under her nose, that Clark was the best thing that had ever happened to her, he'd be spending the holiday with her. He wouldn't just have been with her tonight; he'd have stayed in Metropolis to be with her instead of going to Smallville. Or she might even have gone to Smallville with him.
She hated Christmas.
But she shook herself mentally. Okay, so she was going to go home after this farce of a masquerade and weep through reruns of her favourite sappy soap opera, but that didn't mean she had to let anyone else, especially not a perfect stranger, see just how miserable she was. Time to pull herself together, definitely.
"You know," she said, forcing a light note into her voice, "you might not be safe here. I hear that Superman's coming to accept the cheques on behalf of the charities — he might feel that it's his duty as a concerned citizen to make sure that someone like you doesn't harm anyone."
"You're right," Darth rumbled. "Perhaps I'd better make a discreet exit before he arrives, do you think?"
Um. No, she hadn't wanted that. She was enjoying the guy's company, as weird as it seemed. If anyone had told her before that evening that she'd spend over an hour in the company of a man dressed as Darth Vader, she'd have given them a blistering stare and a sarcastic retort. And yet the guy was nice. Funny. Sympathetic. Maybe someone she might even want to get to know after tonight. If she couldn't have Clark…
But, even as she thought it, she knew that wasn't what she wanted. She might like to have Darth as a friend, perhaps. But she loved Clark.
There. She'd said it. She loved him.
No. She couldn't dwell on that now.
"You don't need to go. I'll protect you," she offered. "Superman's a friend of mine, so you'll be safe with me."
She thought she heard him chuckle. "That's very kind of you — and quite a sacrifice, too. Protecting a male of the species, I mean."
"Oh, well… You wouldn't want to believe everything you read about suffragettes, you know," she told him.
In the background, someone had stopped the music and was making an announcement of some sort. Lois ignored it; she wasn't interested in what any of the organisers had to say. She was just enjoying her conversation with Darth too much.
"Actually…" Suddenly, he began to detach himself from her. "I do need to go. Thank you for the dances — it's been a lot of fun." And he stepped back, inclined his head and started to back away from her.
"But…" Staring at him, Lois barely knew what to say. What had she done? What had she said to make him leave so abruptly?
Why did it matter? she asked herself immediately. He was just a guy. Someone she didn't even know. Why should she care whether he left now or in half an hour's time, at the end of the ball?
But she did care. She didn't understand why; it was just that something about this guy had… well, made her feel drawn to him. And she'd thought it was mutual; that he'd been enjoying her company as much as she had his.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I just remembered that I need to be somewhere else now, that's all."
He was going. She felt his withdrawal from her — both physical and mental — like a slap in the face.
"Will you be back for the unmasking?" she asked in a small voice.
He hesitated, then shook his head. "I… can't. I'm sorry. I've really enjoyed your company, but I have to leave."
And then he strode away.
To add insult to injury, the band was playing again, just music again and no singing, but the song was recognisable enough. All I want for Christmas is you.
"Yeah," she muttered, turning away so that she wouldn't have to see him leave — or have anyone else watch her watching him leave. "Just go. Just like every other guy. Just like Clark. Just leave me."
Feeling sick inside, she located the ladies' room and marched towards it. She'd catch her breath, make sure that she wasn't going to disgrace herself and then, Matty or no Matty, she was going home.
Clark heard Lois's muttered words as he darted through the crowd on his way to find somewhere to change. And his heart sank. Now what had he done?
He knew what he'd done. Run out on her one time too many. And, given that she thought he was a stranger, from her perspective she'd been deserted by two men. He had left kind of abruptly, he knew, but he'd completely lost track of time and couldn't make his exit any less sudden.
There was nothing he could do about it now, he realised. The organisers had already given the cue that Superman had promised them he'd listen out for and would respond to. He was supposed to make his dramatic entrance any second now.
"I'm sorry, Lois," he whispered, slipping through a side door and from there to a fire-escape. Once outside, he was able to spin into his Superman outfit in less than a second and fly up to the large window along one side of the ballroom. He tapped loudly, as pre-arranged, and the window was opened for him to enter.
As he made his speech and accepted the cheques, passing them back to the organisers for safe-keeping, he looked around for Lois. It worried him that she was nowhere in sight. Especially since she hadn't even stayed around to watch Superman — that meant that she had to be upset.
Five minutes later, he'd done his duty. And he'd also managed to locate Lois. She was slipping out of the ballroom via a side exit. Something was telling him that she didn't intend to come back. Leaving via the window, he hovered above the hotel and watched her progress. She went to the cloakroom and collected her thick winter coat, dumped her Susan Anthony mask and cap in a trashcan, and then walked out to the lobby. He heard her ask a busboy to find her a taxi, and the busboy's reply that he would try, but he thought she'd have a long wait.
"It's two days before Christmas, ma'am. Every cab company in town has more custom than it can handle."
"Doesn't matter," he heard Lois say. "I'll walk."
Clark rolled his eyes. It was at least two miles to her apartment from here, and it had to be a couple of degrees below freezing outside. And, as a couple of white flakes floated past his face, he realised that it was snowing.
"Oh, Lois," he murmured. "Impulsive as ever."
He shook his head slightly, then headed towards her.
This wasn't one of the best ideas she'd ever had, Lois decided as she walked the first few yards from the hotel. It was *cold*. And it was starting to snow heavily — the effect of the freezing temperatures was to turn the snowflakes into near-icicles.
She'd bet anything that Clark wasn't out walking home in this weather. No; he was probably snug and warm in his apartment with Mayson — or in hers — making the most of their last evening together before Christmas. Unless… and she felt her heart wrench at the thought… unless he'd invited her to go to Smallville with him?
Her fists clenched. This wasn't good. She was getting herself stressed again. Darth was right. She should just try to forget about Clark. Which wasn't easy, seeing as she worked with him every day of the week and sometimes for very long hours, even well into the night when they were on a big investigation… heck, she saw more of Clark than most women saw of their husbands!
How was she supposed to forget how she felt about him, too, when he was so sweet on a daily basis? He knew just how she liked her coffee and kept her well-supplied when they were in the newsroom — and always made sure that he grabbed her one of her favourite doughnuts before they all disappeared. He frequently surprised her with a triple mocha latte from the Daily Java, or a double espresso when she'd had little or no sleep the night before. He always seemed to know just what to say to keep her going when she started to get dispirited about an investigation — or when she was feeling low generally.
He was about the only person in her life who made her believe that somebody cared that she existed! Well, apart from Perry, but he was more of a father-figure so he didn't count. Clark was…
Clark was her only reason for believing that there could be more to her life than the Daily Planet.
So how was she going to come to terms with -
"Aren't you going to say hello?"
The familiar voice jerked Lois out of her thoughts. Startled, she looked around her, acknowledging as she did so that she'd been walking along barely paying any attention to where she was going.
Darth Vader leaned casually against the corner of a building just ahead of her.
"What are you -? You left!" she exclaimed. And then she remembered that she wasn't wearing her costume mask any more and that her long coat hid most of her nineteenth-century dress. "How do you know who -?"
"Do you think anyone could forget you?" he countered, straightening and drawing himself up to his full height. He looked even more imposing than he had in the ballroom. Broad, powerful, dark, forbidding…
Oh, god, she was alone with him on a city street, and he was a stranger, and even if she screamed what guarantee was there that anyone would actually come to her rescue? Mentally, she began planning a few Tae Kwon Do moves to take him by surprise if he did pounce.
He stilled. She wished that she could see his face just to know what he was thinking. With that enormous helmet, she couldn't read his intentions at all.
Then he spoke again. And the teasing, humorous tone he'd used in most of their conversation had gone completely. "I swear to you," he said softly, "you're safe with me."
Yes. Strangely, without any evidence of his good intentions, she actually believed him.
"You left," she reminded him.
"I know. I really did have something I needed to do. But you left too," he added. "You're missing the unmasking."
She shrugged. "I wasn't interested. I'd already worked out who most people were."
"Oh, so you figured me out too, did you?" he enquired, and the amusement was back.
She shook her head. Snow was gathering on his head and shoulders now, making the dark outfit less stark. If they stood here much longer, she thought, stifling an almost hysterical giggle, he'd turn into a snowman.
"You've unmasked, Lois Lane of the Daily Planet," he said. "I think it's only fair that I do the same."
He knew who she was? She had no idea that she was that recognisable. So who was he? Someone she knew? Oh, that was a scary thought — she'd confessed her deepest feelings about Clark to a guy she knew? Frantically, she mentally went through all of the men she knew who would fit Darth's general height and build. Not Ralph. Oh, thankfully not Ralph. Eduardo? No, he wasn't tall enough. And nor was Jimmy.
Oh, god, if this was anyone from the Planet she'd be mortified. She'd have to consider quitting. Moving to a different city. A different country!
Darth's hands were on his helmet. Involuntarily, she squeezed her eyes shut. And then opened them again immediately.
The helmet was off. And she was looking straight at… Clark.
Her jaw did a rapid downward movement. "Wha -? How -? You! All along — you — and I — I told *you* — " Articulacy deserted her. Humiliation flooded her. And her gaze flitted past him, seeking escape.
Warm, firm hands, no longer in gauntlets, landed on her shoulders, holding her firmly and preventing her escape. "Lois. Please, don't. You know, you got it all wrong."
"All what? That I thought you were an honourable man who wouldn't… wouldn't play that sort of *despicable* trick on someone?"
"I didn't do it deliberately," he said calmly — and, somehow, even through her anger and mortification, she knew that he was telling the truth. "I didn't even know you were at the ball, Lois. And I only realised that it was you under the Susan B Anthony costume once we started talking. I thought about telling you it was me, but… well, I was just enjoying our conversation. You know, all that banter about Star Wars. It was just too much fun to spoil it by telling you it was me."
"Oh? And how do you explain luring me into all those confidences?" she threw at him, now feeling herself shake — from anger or from cold, she wasn't sure.
Clark slid his arms around her, drawing against him. Even angry and humiliated as she was, she needed the warmth he offered too much to resist.
"You took me completely by surprise with that stuff," he told her soberly. "Lois, I had no idea! You seemed sad, and I wanted to cheer you up — then you started talking about this guy, and I was… oh, heck, I was crazy with jealousy and I wanted to find out who it was. And I almost fell over when I realised you were talking about me. That's why I said I wasn't staying for the unmasking, by the way. I knew you'd be horrified when you realised it was me."
One part of what he said jumped out at her. "Jealous? You? Why?"
His expression was rueful, and he raised his gaze to the heavens and back again. Snowflakes settled on his glasses, giving his eyes a blurry look. "I told you, Lois, you've got it all wrong. I'm not interested in Mayson. I never was. She's a nice woman, but… she's not you. And, as you can see, I'm not with her tonight."
Her heart was doing nervous flip-flops. "Then… what are you saying, Clark?"
He released her, and his hands cupped her face, warm against her chilled skin. "Haven't you guessed, Lois? I still love you. I've always loved you."
She swallowed. His beloved face loomed above hers, gazing down at her. Snow dotted his dark hair now as the flurries grew thicker, but she didn't care. Clark loved her. Clark loved her?
"Yes, you," he whispered. "And if I'd had any idea at all that you felt the same…"
"Oh, shut up," she exclaimed, half-laughing, half-choked with emotion. And she reached up and did what she'd dreamed about for a very long time — she kissed him.
Lois. In his arms. In his heart. Holding him. Kissing him.
Kissing… oh, wow, this was even better than flying. He slanted his lips over hers, returning her kisses fervently, drowning in the sensation of her body pressed against his, her soft lips under his, loving the tiny whimpers she made as she tried to get closer to him.
"Oh, Lois…" he groaned against her mouth, then felt his body shake as she took advantage of his parted lips. She was soft and beautiful and responsive. She tasted delicious. He felt warm and loved and dazed and delirious… he never wanted this moment to end.
And then she shivered.
And he remembered that they were out in the snow in below- freezing temperatures and that, although he never noticed the cold, Lois had to be suffering. Breaking the kiss, he gathered her more closely against him. "We should really do this somewhere warmer," he murmured.
"Ye…ah…" Her teeth were chattering, he realised.
"Come on." Decisive now, he turned her and, keeping an arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders, he began to walk. "If I don't get you home in the next couple of minutes you'll turn into an icicle. What the heck were you thinking of trying to walk?"
"There aren't… any taxis," she pointed out.
"We don't need a taxi." He grinned at her.
"Oh! You mean you drove?" She stared at him. "Did you hire a car or something?"
"Nope. Come on." And he led her into an alley between two office- blocks.
It was time, he'd decided. He'd revealed himself to her in one disguise, and she hadn't torn him limb from limb. It was definitely time that he trusted her with his other disguise.
"What the heck are we doing in here?" she demanded. "Clark… it's an *alley!* It's dirty, smelly… god knows what that is over there… It's disgusting!"
"Don't worry about that." He waved dismissively. "Just listen for a minute. Remember when I had to run off at the ball?"
She shrugged. "What's that got to do about anything?"
"I need to tell you the reason I ran off."
She stared at him in disbelief. "Do we really need to do this *now*? In case you hadn't noticed, it's freezing and we're standing in a filthy alley in the middle of a blizzard!"
"I said I'd get you home as quickly as I can. And this is the quickest way I know how." He smiled, hoping that his nervousness didn't show. "Lois, the reason I had to run off at the ball was that I was late for… another appointment."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you're always running late for appointments, Clark! They don't need to wait until you die to call you the late Clark Kent!"
"Lois," he said intently, calling her attention back to him and trying to emphasise that this was important. "My other appointment. It was to accept the cheques on behalf of the charities."
"What?" She looked baffled, then gave him a look which suggested that she thought he'd lost his mind. "Are you sure that costume didn't cut off your oxygen supply or something?"
"Just watch." And he whirled, his heart in his mouth.
When he slowed, he realised that Lois was swaying. He swept out an arm and caught her, tugging her into his arms again.
For about the first time since he'd known her, Lois Lane was speechless.
He… Clark… Superman… *How*?
If she'd thought she'd been shocked a few minutes earlier when she'd realised who was beneath the Darth Vader costume, now she was stunned. Staggered. Disbelieving. Bewildered. Traumatised.
She found her voice, but couldn't do very much with it. "You… I…"
But he was paying her no attention. She was being swept up in his arms and held against his chest in a very familiar manner. Against *Clark's* chest. And *Clark* was floating upwards, defying gravity as he glided through the snow and the dark sky.
Clark could fly. Clark was Superman. But none of it made sense. How could it make sense? Clark and Superman were two different people. Of course they were. She'd known them both for a year and a half, after all. She'd talked to both of them more times than she could remember. She knew Superman better than just about anyone… well, better than anyone except Clark. She was Clark's best friend! She'd *know* if he could fly… and… and see through walls and hear stuff from miles away and run at the speed of light and lift weights far too heavy for any normal man and… and…
…and it all made perfect sense. Clark frequently did things which he couldn't seem to explain and which just seemed part of his weirdness. How many times had he warned her that someone was coming? Caught something just in time to stop it falling on top of her? Acted like he'd been somewhere she knew very well he couldn't have been?
Had she *ever* seen Clark and Superman together?
Clark was Superman. Yes. Now that he'd shown her, now that the initial shock of discovery was wearing off, it all made perfect sense. As if scales had fallen from her eyes, Lois now saw everything she'd missed before. Everything she'd ignored, or written off.
She looked up at the man holding her in his arms, close to his heart, as he took her home. Superman. And Clark. The same strong jaw. The same mouth. They both had the same smile, she remembered. And the same brown eyes, which could dance with laughter and brim with gentle caring.
No wonder she'd fallen in love with both Superman and Clark. She could just kick herself that she'd allowed herself to be so dazzled by Superman's brilliance that she'd overlooked the wonderful man Clark was for so long.
"Seemed like you were on another planet there. I was trying to ask you if your window's unlocked."
"Oh!" Recalled to her surroundings, she realised that they were just above her apartment building. She tried to remember. "I think so. I mean, I wasn't expecting…"
"I know." He was smiling as she looked up at him. "That's okay. We can land in the alley beside your place."
And, just as he said it, he was gliding to the ground. "I'll have to put you down now."
"Huh…? Oh!" And she realised that she was still clinging to his neck. "Sorry!"
"Hey, I don't mind! But I just need to…" He trailed off and became a blur again. And once more Clark stood in front of her, but not in his Darth Vader costume this time. Now, he was her partner, looking utterly gorgeous, clad in black jeans, a dark shirt and a pale jacket.
"How do you *do* that?" It was barely believable! One moment he was Superman, all resplendent in blue and red, and the next he was the familiar man she worked with every day. And the Darth Vader costume was nowhere in sight.
He gave her a crooked smile. "I'll tell you some other time. Lois… are you mad?"
Was she? "I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, I probably will be tomorrow. Right now," she added thoughtfully, "I think I'm just… awed."
"I'm still just Clark," he said softly. "With a couple of added extras, I guess."
As if compelled, she reached out and touched his hand with her fingertips. It felt familiar; the same hand she touched almost every day. His fingers closed around hers, his grasp warm and reassuring.
"If you're not mad," he said, "can I come inside with you?"
"Oh! Yeah!" she exclaimed. "I thought the whole point of this was to get me out of the cold…"
"It was." In one smooth movement, he removed his glasses. Then his gaze seemed to sweep over her, and in the same instant she felt warm. Her breath caught. Could he possibly affect her *that* much with just a look?
And then it dawned on her. Heat vision.
"Come on." Still holding her hand, he was urging her forward. "I seem to remember something about a private Christmas celebration, just for us… I'd really like that, Lois."
They hurried around to her building, running through the snow and laughing as they lost their footing a couple of times. And then they were inside and suddenly silent as they walked along the hall to her apartment. Seconds later, they were inside and standing close, looking at each other, as if unsure what came next.
"Christmas!" Lois exclaimed, needing to break the silence, the sudden awkwardness. She hurried to her CD rack, searching for and finding a CD which she'd bought earlier in the week and then buried at the very back once Clark had turned down her invitation. She slipped it into her player, and moments later the sound of festive music filled the room.
"The Christmas waltz?" Clark enquired, amused.
"Well, it's on the CD…"
He came over to her; his arms enfolded her. "Dance with me?"
"Oh yeah," she breathed.
He held her close to his heart. His arms felt warm and strong and loving around her. Her Clark. Her Superman.
"I love you," she murmured against his throat.
"And I love you," he said into her hair.
"…It's that time of year When the world falls in love…"
"This is the best Christmas present I could ever have, Lois," Clark murmured as the first song died away and they stopped dancing, standing in each other's arms. "You are all I ever wanted."
"Me too. But I thought… I was so afraid that I'd lost my chance with you."
He shook his head. "No. Never. If I'd only known… I really wanted to say yes, you know. But I'd already promised I'd go to the ball — both as Superman and Clark. I didn't feel I could get out of it."
That was Clark all over. Always taking his obligations seriously. Including those to her, which reminded her… "Why did you come back?"
"Earlier. As Darth Vader. You said you wouldn't come back — that you wouldn't be there for the unmasking. And you told me outside that you didn't want to stay because you thought I'd be embarrassed to know it was you. So why did you come back after all?"
"Oh, yeah. I… You sounded so hurt when I left. And I heard what you said as I walked away — that I was leaving just like every other guy. I couldn't just leave — not after that."
He deserved a kiss for that, Lois thought. In fact, she figured she deserved one too. So she reached up towards him. He clearly had the same idea, for he was leaning down to her. And in the next instant, their lips met.
It was only a strange sensation of something bumping against her head which made Lois break the kiss. And even then she was unwilling to pull away. But her head hit something again and she looked up.
"Clark! We're almost on the ceiling!"
"Oops." He gave her a rueful smile. "Sorry. That… can happen sometimes. If I get so carried away I lose control."
"And you lost control now?"
"Oh yeah." A dazed smile covered his face. And then they were drifting back down to the floor. "Now, where were we?" And his lips found hers again.
Lois had never thought a simple kiss could be so… dazzling. Passionate. Sensuous. She'd read trashy romance novels in which heroines felt weak at the knee when kissed by the hero, but she'd always dismissed such descriptions as over-active imagination on the part of the author. Yet here she was, in such a state that she knew it was only Clark's hold on her which was preventing her sliding to the floor.
She never wanted the kiss to end. She never wanted to let him go.
But, a long time later, and very reluctantly, she drew away. Clark, his hair somewhat dishevelled by now, gave her a disappointed look. "It's late," she said regretfully. "I mean, maybe you don't need to sleep, *Superman*, but I have to work tomorrow."
"Yeah." Slowly, and with gratifying reluctance on his part too, Clark loosened his grasp on her. "I should let you go to bed."
"It's Christmas Eve," she said softly. "I have a present for you… I was going to bring it to work tomorrow."
His gaze held her. "I don't want to spend Christmas without you."
Lois bit her lip. "Me neither. But it can't be helped — and it'll only be a couple of days."
"Come with me." He caught her hands, held them.
It sounded wonderful, but… "I can't. I'm working. All day tomorrow and the day after Christmas."
"Oh." His face fell, but only briefly. "You finish at five tomorrow, right? Come then!"
"But…" She began to shake her head. "I'd never get a flight out…"
"Hey, you have your own personal pilot here!" he exclaimed. "I'll come and get you. And let's talk to Perry and see if you can get the next day off — if you can't, I'll fly you back again, okay?"
She had forgotten. Her best friend — her boyfriend? — was Superman. She had no need to fly commercial ever again! But the best part of it was that she could spend Christmas with Clark. With a real family — a family who never wanted her to be anything other than who she was. A Christmas full of light and joy and happiness and belonging.
"I'd love to," she told him, almost shyly.
"And my folks would love to have you. Especially now." He squeezed their linked hands again. "I know they love you too."
"I adore your parents," she said wistfully.
"Hey, I'm happy to share!" he said with a grin. "Okay…" He sighed. "I guess I'd better go."
She walked him, hand in hand, to the door. His gaze rested on her for a few moments before his hand came up to caress her cheek. "Goodnight, Lois."
"Goodnight…" She wasn't allowed to say any more. His lips covered hers again in a sweet kiss full of promise, and then, too soon, he left.
But she would see him tomorrow, she reminded herself. And she was going to get to spend Christmas with him, too. And, she was sure, many more special times in the future too.
Closing the door behind him, Lois leaned against it for a moment, her eyes closed as she relived that last kiss in her mind. Maybe it wasn't so difficult to find out what was so wonderful about Christmas after all. All she'd needed was to see through a disguise or two. And, of course, to fall in love.
Merry Christmas, everyone!