Melancholy Memories and Christmas Cheer

By Elisabeth <all4_mr_d8a@yahoo.com>

Rated PG

Submitted February 2008

Summary: Lois comforts both Clark and herself after the loss of Martha Kent. A 2007 Christmas ficathon story.

This was written for the Christmas ficathon for my good friend Dandello. Most of her wishes are included at the end. (The last wish was included after the fact as an homage to Dandello's grandmother, who apparently enjoyed classic red Mustangs enough that she forgot to return one.) To the other gentle readers, consider this a spoiler that this is not a happy-go-lucky fic. Consider it a healing balm for those who are facing Christmas after losing a loved one this year. Many thanks to my ever-patient general editor, Caroline K, who works much faster than I.

For Dandello

***

They were the last to deplane after flight 498 came into Kansas City. Travel weary from all of the turbulence as well as an extra-long layover in St. Louis, dark circles ringed Lois' cinnamon eyes and her brown hair curled randomly instead of in her usually refined page-boy. Clark sighed as he hefted her bags atop his own and trudged down the concourse.

Still, they were a sight for Jonathan's sore eyes. "Clark! Lois!" he called to them, jogging over to where they walked. "I'm so glad to see you, Son. You too, Lois. Did you have a good trip?"

Clark merely shrugged, his tired spirit taciturn, but Lois felt the need to fill in the details. "I knew when I set off the metal detectors with a single stick of gum that it wasn't going to be my best trip..." she began. Clark tuned her out as he quietly followed his father down the escalator to the baggage claim area. "...That flight attendant was way out of line. Imagine her threatening to land the plane over such a little thing as that.

Besides, the 'stay seated' sign had been on for over an hour..." she continued as they hunted for their luggage. "Oh, that one's mine!" she exclaimed as she pushed past a heavy-set businessman to claim her hot-pink suitcase. "It was re-gifted to me from my cousin after her third wedding. Who would have thought *that* gift would be duplicated. Anyway, so after I got my cup of coffee..." she resumed. Clark tried to follow her train of thought, but having lived through it only a few hours ago and with so many things weighing down his heart, he felt his attention drifting. "So that's when I bloodied my lip," she finished as they made their way across the parking lot. "That's why I'm so cranky. Besides that, I'm famished. You would think at $732 dollars a ticket (although with my frequent flier miles I only paid $378 including tax) at that price you would expect them to serve at least a bag of peanuts. You know, with the number of trips you make back and forth to Kansas, it wouldn't hurt you to sign up for a frequent flyer club, Clark. It wouldn't take long for you to earn a free trip. Is this your car?" she wondered aloud as they came to a stop beside an older red Mustang.

Jonathan shook his head mutely as he set the bags down to unlock the trunk.

"It was Mom's baby," Clark quietly explained as he lifted the last of their luggage inside. "She married Dad in 1965, so when she found a '65 Mustang fast-back on sale for a little bit of nothing she jumped on it. Fixed it up herself."

"Oh." Lois' forehead wrinkled. "I'm sorry. I never even stopped to tell you how sorry I am for your loss."

Jonathan shut the lid to the trunk and patted her on the shoulder, pointedly not meeting her eyes. "You didn't have to say anything. You're here, aren't you?"

Clark opened the door for her, and she climbed into the back seat, tossing her purse on the floor console behind the gearshift. "It wasn't like I was doing anything else right now. It'll be at least another three weeks before the new building opens." She sighed, the air dragging her spirit down until her shoulders sagged in defeat. She pulled on her lap belt, closed her eyes and sank into the black leather bench. It had already been a long day. "They say it comes in threes. First, the Planet exploded; then there was my federal disaster of a wedding. I can't believe I didn't notice what a rat-fink of a fiancÚ he was--"

"We're not going to talk about him. Remember?" her partner prompted, flashing her a reassuring grin from the front passenger seat. "That's old history now."

"You're right," she agreed softly. "It's just been on my mind ever since I found out about... you know. She had said she was coming to the wedding, 'Wouldn't miss it for the world,' but that was before she got so sick. My own father wasn't going to make it; he gave a bunch of excuses, but they don't hold water. The trial's not until the end of the month. But Martha wanted to come. I know I'm not family or anything, but after she was there for me..." she choked back a sob, wanting to be strong enough to make it through her thought. "...I wanted to be here for her. I just wish I could have been here sooner."

Jonathan nodded, not trusting his voice.

Clark's voice was misty as he reminded her, "It took us all by surprise. Besides, you're here now and that would have meant a lot to Mom."

They lapsed into silence, watching the patchwork quilt of Kansas pass by their windows as they finished their long journey. Only the purr of the engines kept them company as they each found solace in their own thoughts. Night was coming as they pulled onto the gravel road that led to the farm. Lois glanced toward Clark, waiting for the light of home to return to his eyes, but he seemed lost.

Jonathan parked Martha's baby in the carport by the kitchen door. Lois hopped out to carry her portion of the luggage, but the old farmer waved her off.

"I really appreciate you for putting me up, but you know you didn't have to do that. A motel room would have been just fine."

"And have Martha come out of her grave to spank my behind?" Jonathan kidded as he thrust open the door and allowed Lois to enter--it wasn't even locked. "I don't think so."

Clark smiled. "She would tan your hide like cheap leather. That's for sure. Besides, it's not like we don't have the space. You can sleep in my old room and I'll take the hide-a-bed in the sewing room, just like we did during the Corn Festival."

"But don't you have family members coming in?" she worried.

"Most of them are semi-local." Her friend set her mind at rest. "Is Penny coming in from Texas?" He noted his father's nod before he continued. "She'll probably stay with my Aunt Sal in Cedar Hollow. Tim and Sue will probably spend the night at Uncle Roy's and Aunt Rachel's in Parker Springs; that is, if they're able to come."

"They're not," Jonathan firmly decided. "They called this morning, but I told them, 'thanks, but no thanks.' Their little guy is only five weeks old, and it would be too much of a burden to travel all this way. Sometimes it is the thought that counts."

Lois slid into a chair at the kitchen table, glancing distractedly at a shining metal sculpture which hung in the mud room. It hadn't been here on her last visit. "I'm sure there are a lot of people thinking of you guys right now."

"Yeah, I've gotten calls from half of the prayer chain at church already," Jonathan solemnly informed them. His eyes brightened with unshed tears. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see a man about a dog." He fled from the room, wiping his nose.

***

Sleep didn't come easily that night as Lois pulled the soft quilt over her face. Clark had found three quarters of a lasagna in a casserole dish labeled "Watson" which he heated up for supper along with a green bean salad and some garlic bread that looked suspiciously homemade. Jonathan hadn't joined them for supper, claiming he was still stuffed from lunch and just plain tuckered out from the long trip to Kansas City and back. It must have taken him a good four and a half hours to pick them up at the airport and farmers did stereotypically turn in early, so it was always possible he was telling the truth. Still, Lois planned to keep an eye on him to make sure that grief wasn't causing him to skip meals.

She certainly couldn't be found guilty of that. She'd eaten almost as much as Clark did, and he certainly hadn't been keeping track of Weight Watcher's points. When dinner was over, Clark had heated up a farmer's size serving of raspberry cobbler and served it with a heaping dollop of homemade whipped cream. She should have just rolled herself up the stairs when she was only halfway finished, but she had stayed until the last delicious bite was chipmunked down. It wasn't as if she was entirely lacking in self-control, though. She hadn't opened the extra makeup kit--the one filled with the emergency stash of Double Fudge Crunch Bars. That one stayed hidden under the garment bag filled with her black wool suit, her microfiber off-black tights and her best black pumps. The dark chocolate and the dark suit kind of went together in her mind, since they were both relegated to the dark times of her life.

She breathed evenly, hoping that sleep would soon tuck her in with a bittersweet kiss on the forehead. Outside, the entirely unnatural sounds of nightlife in Kansas filled the flat land, from the shrieking of frogs or possibly even some insects to a strange thumping that she couldn't even identify. It was way too loud to be a bunny, wasn't it?

Worse yet, there were none of the normal sounds. Her imagination could fill in all of the details that were supposed to be there: the buzzing of neon, the muted blaring of sirens as distant emergency workers blurred up and down the roads, the slurred clamor of drunks trying to quiet each other as they wandered up one street and down the next trying to find their cars, the rattling of pipes as the old man in 209 worked the diuretics out of his system. She wasn't sure if she could sleep without them singing her their Siren song.

It was probably her conscience that was keeping her awake. She had come here to comfort mostly Clark, but also Jonathan, and instead she had found herself unable to keep her mouth from fluttering with nonsensical grumblings and overly crabby complaining. She had to restrain herself better tomorrow, but today had been so nerve-wracking that she just couldn't hold her tongue.

It had started during their layover at St. Louis. Clark found a pay phone while she waited in line at the ladies' room. On the way back she overheard him talking to his dad. "I'm sorry I'm not already there for you, but I thought it best if I waited and flew in with Lois. It was so important to her to come that I didn't want to turn her down." He'd paused to listen to his dad when the truth had sunk in for Lois. Clark had turned down an earlier flight just to keep her company. She had tried so hard to get them there as soon as possible, but all of the earlier flights were booked solid. It never occurred to her that Clark had been on one of those earlier flights.

He should have told her. She would have understood. Instead, he had hung behind to hold her hand on the way in, when he should have been busily comforting his dad. Maybe he had changed the plans so they wouldn't have to come to the airport two times. But even that was his fault. She had wanted to rent a car, but Jonathan had insisted that the quiet car trip would do him some good. Some trip! She hadn't shut up long enough to give the man a moment's peace.

She pulled the clock off of the bedside table to try make out the shadowed face in the unlit room. Hopefully it didn't have real bells that would awaken her at some inhospitable hour--just the kind of thing that would give Martha fits of giggles as Lois stuffed it under a pillow, having found it impossible to turn it off without fully awakening.

Thinking of Martha caught Lois off-guard. She quickly wiped the tear away, hoping to stem the tide before it got out of hand. She had already promised herself that she was going to leave the chocolate stash untouched tonight, so it wouldn't do to get carried away emotionally.

Unless she had mistaken the minute hand for the second hand, it appeared that forty-five minutes had passed since she had crawled in. It didn't feel like forty-five minutes, so perhaps she had dozed off without realizing it. She held onto that distant hope for a long time as the night chirped on.

***

It felt as though she had just nodded off when a raucous cacophony sounded at what seemed to be the foot of the bed. Her body pulled itself upright before she had fully awakened. She jerked on a robe and scooted one foot into a slipper. Since the other slipper was absent from its assigned location, she padded into the kitchen with one foot overly cool on the hardwood floors.

Clark was waiting near the coffee pot as she wandered in. She attempted to say, 'Good morning;' she really did, but it came out more like a muttered, "Harrumph."

Her partner nodded without approaching the bear too closely. "Just a few more moments, and I'll have enough coffee brewed for half a cup. This old relic takes forever to fill a pot."

A glance out the window showed that dawn hadn't fully cracked yet. It was so early they were probably still snoozing in Tokyo right about now.

He slid a mug into her waiting hands. She sipped it black, unable to pause long enough to doctor it up.

The racket repeated itself again. This time it sounded as if it was coming from outside. Without conscious thought, she found herself edging closer to Clark. "What is that?" she worried.

"I'm sure they got a new batch of chicks a few weeks ago. No matter what you request, they never sex the young ones right," he patiently explained.

Her eyebrows shot up. Was he trying to pull one over on the greenhorn from the big city? Maybe he thought that since she was half asleep she wouldn't know any better.

She laid on the sarcasm, just to let him know she wasn't as na´ve as she looked. "You're telling me that all of that racket is from a hen who is upset that she isn't getting any?"

Clark choked, although he didn't appear to be drinking any coffee. She slapped him on the back as he continued to sputter. "Thanks," he gasped grabbing a large glass of water to chase down whatever had been caught in his pipes. "No, I mean they didn't sex it right. That's a rooster they claimed was a hen." He caught her dubious glance out the window and hurried to clarify, "That nonsense about them crowing at sunrise is just an old wives' tale. He'll make that noise any time he feels like it. Dad would probably have already served him for dinner if he hadn't been spending so much time at the hospital lately."

She nodded since he seemed sincere. She dropped into a kitchen chair, breathing the coffee in on a cellular level.

"Where is your dad? Is he able to sleep through this racket?"

"Sometimes," Clark confirmed as he pulled out a chair for himself, bringing his own half a cup along for the ride. "It's kind of normal to him. But I think he's been out in the barn for almost an hour now."

"No way!" she gasped. "I thought a farmer's life started at dawn. It's still plenty dark out there."

"I imagine he just couldn't sleep and wanted to get a head start on his day's work. I asked if he wanted a hand, but he turned me down."

She nodded incredulously. "So what's on the agenda for today?"

"Dad met with Meg at the funeral home yesterday before picking us up. There's a wedding at the church on Saturday, so Dad's planning on holding visitation at the funeral home on Sunday night and the funeral will be late Monday morning at the church."

Lois nodded as she absorbed the information. What were they possibly going to do for three days while they waited for the visitation? "Is there a lot yet to do?"

Clark shook his head and stared into his coffee. "Mom and Dad both planned their funerals about four years ago, and Dad already gave them all they'll need for the obituary. I think the only thing we need to do is prop up Dad and get some pictures ready."

"I can do that," Lois decided, but then suddenly felt bad. Of course, she could do that; she hadn't just lost her mom. "I mean, I can do that if you can."

Clark covered her hand with his own in a silent gesture of friendship. No offense had been taken.

The rooster wannabe sounded off again. "Isn't there something we can do to make him shut up? I would love to get a few more hours of sleep."

"Not normally," the country boy chuckled, "but I'll talk to dad about relocating him if you would like."

"I would pay big money for some peace and quiet."

"Go back to bed. I'll go talk to Dad." She didn't need to be told twice. She wandered back to Clark's boyhood bedroom, stuffed a pillow over her head and drifted back to sleep.

***

It wasn't the squawking that awoke her the second time. Instead it was a clamorous chorus that she immediately recognized as a revolt among the local bird colony. From the sound of it, they must have called in reinforcements from all over the state of Kansas. At least, the sun had passed its pink stage this time.

She reached over to the nightstand and pulled on her watch. It read 7:35, but of course it was set to Metropolis' time. If she added up all of the pieces, she had slept six hours--at most. Still, it felt like she had pulled an all-nighter.

She ran tired fingers through the tangles in her hair as she tiptoed into the kitchen. Clark had left her a glass of orange juice and a plate with some kind of blueberry pastry on it. It looked homemade and smelled fresh, so it was always possible that some neighbor had stopped by before the birds were up.

With the number of friends Martha Kent had and the small-town hospitality that made dropping food off practically mandatory, it was probable that none of them would be cooking until long after the funeral--just another rural remedy for what ails you.

She glanced out the window, her eyes immediately focusing on the two men as they walked to their next task. She wished there was something she could do to help them--not with their chores or anything; they seemed to be doing fine on that front. She wanted to do something more for them--to ease their pain and help carry their burden.

Instead, she was acting like the stereotypical city girl stuck in farm town. They had obviously been hard at work for hours while she slept the morning away.

She felt an urgent need to hasten herself along, gobbling her food down and slapping a little cold cream on her face so she could be ready when they needed her. The only problem was that she didn't know what she needed to be ready for. She had nothing to do.

Outside the window, Clark patted his dad on the shoulder as they headed into the barn.

She was an outsider looking in, invading the sanctuary of their home during this sacred time of mourning. Why had she even come?

***

Lois cooed over yet another baby picture of Clark. He certainly had been a happy baby, with natural dimples that were unbelievably photogenic. "I love this picture of you and your dad." She passed it over to him. "How old were you?"

"Unless it has a date on the back, your guess is as good as mine." He shrugged and reached for the next album.

"I thought you had a photographic memory," she challenged him.

"I don't remember much of the first three years of my life. Must have been the rough treatment," he quipped. "I have vague recollections of strained peas and diaper rash."

She smiled, as much from his boyish grin as from his clever remarks. It was nice to see him relaxing at long last. The last few days had taken quite a toll on him. "So how many pictures of your mom do we still need?" she inquired, looking at the small stack set aside on the table.

"The funeral home needs twenty to thirty pictures for their display board. Dad mentioned the church needing some shots, too, but I don't know how many or what for." He spread out the pictures of his mother for her to see. "So far we only have a baby picture--I'm not sure we should use it either since it's so fuzzy, this family portrait from when she was a kid--it says on the back it was Easter 1947, her senior portrait, her wedding picture, a couple of her giving me a bottle, and some formal portraits from when I was still living at home..."

Her shoulders sagged. That wasn't a lot to show for the hours of work they had put in, sifting through hundreds of prints. "We're still just getting started."

"I hadn't expected it to be so difficult. I didn't realize how few pictures there are of my mother. She was always the one on the other side of the camera."

Lois patted Clark on the hand. Just moments ago there had been a light in his eyes, but now he seemed discouraged again. "What we need is a new tactic. Could we call up some of those semi-local families to see if they have any pictures they would like to share?"

"Maybe," he considered, before standing up with a sudden burst of energy. "But I have an idea we might want to consider first. Come on."

***

When Clark had said they were heading into the attic, she had imagined climbing a ladder and squeezing through a tight hole in the closet with a flashlight in hand. Instead he had led her to the back of the house where a standard-sized staircase led to a six-paneled door. Her hand automatically felt for and found a light switch, even though sunlight lit up much of the room as it poured through tall, outset windows with built-in window-seats below. It looked like a dormer bedroom which was used for extra storage.

Hardwood floors and short, wooden ceilings magnified her voice as she asked, "What are we looking for exactly?"

Clark edged by her, his attention focused on the task at hand. He squeezed past a table lamp and some boxes labeled, 'Taxes 1984-1996,' heading for the sliding doors in the back of the room. "Mom kept a Christmas album. Every year around Thanksgiving, she would put the camera on auto and run to assume her place in the family portrait." Clark's voice was muffled as he set to work digging around in the closet. "She would print them up at Murph's General Mercantile and send them out with our Christmas cards. After that she would combine them with our snapshots from Christmas morning and any newsletters sent to us that year and add them to our Christmas album. I know it's back in this closet someplace."

Lois scrunched into the corner, trying in vain to wedge her head into the closet to help him work.

Clark glanced outside the closet, noticing her dilemma. "There's another door to the closet down there," he pointed out. "Although I think most of what I need is right here." He picked up a few boxes and carried them out. As soon as he was out of her way, Lois grabbed a few more and went to join him where he had set up by the wide window seat.

Her first box was filled mostly with lights and Christmas ornaments. She pawed through, even though she knew it probably wouldn't yield any of the pictures they were looking for.

In the years she was sober, Mother had always been insistent on having the perfect Christmas tree--matching porcelain blue and white ornaments from Macy's adorned a real Douglas fir with only blue lights and no gaudy iciclees.

Martha Kent's tree was a little bit different. Many of these ornaments looked homemade. There was a toilet paper roll hung by a ribbon that had been turned into the baby Jesus wrapped in diaper flannel, with a crayon smiley face and a shock of brown yarn for hair--Clark must have made it when he was still a preschooler. Another had his nine or ten year old face glued onto a silver cupccake liner. Such sweetly sentimental riffraff would never have been allowed in the Lane living room, but it looked right at home here in Kansas.

Lois swallowed the lump in her throat, unsure of why she was suddenly so emotional. She closed the lid and set the box aside. There would be time enough for grieving when the work was done. For now, she needed to pull herself together.

The next box was filled with shiny fabrics--too garish for tablecloths, but Lois had no idea what else they would be used for. It was always possible that there was an album tucked underneath, so she continued in her quest. Orange, green, blue, yellow--she pulled out one after another. One end had folds sewn in while the other hung freely, kind of like the drapery in the dormer window.

Lois glanced over at Clark, puzzled. Immediately, her thoughts were pulled to her partner. Tears brimmed his eyelids as he stared, unmoving at an open box.

"What did you find?" she asked, unsure of how to comfort him. She slid closer to him on the bench, allowing her leg to brush up against his.

He sat quietly for a moment, only moving a hand to rest on her knee to let her know he cared that she was there. "Mom's box of angels," he finally answered in a husky voice.

She nodded wordlessly, not knowing what else to say. Not that it mattered--Clark was a million miles and many years away right now, caught up in memories that were probably as real as her own presence right now.

A cloud passed over the sun, bringing cool relief to their difficult task. Lois was suddenly thirsty from the dry, hot attic. There was no polite way to excuse herself though, no matter how parched she might feel, so she remained rooted to the spot.

Clark shook his head. His eyes focused on hers and intuitively she knew that he was back in the present again. She smiled sadly, words failing her once again. Mentally, she cursed herself knowing what a lame friend she was being to Clark today.

"What did you find?" he asked, probably attempting to move to safer subjects.

She reached into her box and held up another cloth for his inspection. The red fabric cascaded down to the floor. There was something familiar about it, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Clark suddenly looked nervous and jittery, like a man who had drunk the water on a trip to Mexico.

"Oh, that..." he stuttered. "I didn't know that was still here. It, ummm..."

It clicked. "It's a cape," she stated definitively. Actually, it was a whole box of capes, as if Martha had taken it upon herself to clean up the dressing room of Zorro, the Gay Blade one day. They must have a very unique Christmas pageant at the First Church of Smallville if the wise men were so colorfully dressed.

"I can explain," he exclaimed. He sounded much too guilty. It wasn't as if she had found him parading around in women's underclothing. "Mom sewed that for..."

"Your mom made this?" she asked, wincing as she realized she had accidentally interrupted him. They had moved way beyond the top reporter/greenhorn relationship over the last few months; it was no longer her place to jump in shouting orders.

He laughed hollowly. "Did I say my mom made this? What I meant was... Of course, Mom did make this, but it isn't what you think." Her eyes narrowed; the fink was lying to her. Martha had raised him better than this.

"I'm not thinking anything," she snapped. "Should I be?" She didn't wait for his reply, but instead rummaged through the box, hoping to find answers he wasn't willing to share. Under the capes was a stack of bizarre ski costumes in every color and pattern imaginable. Something weird was definitely going on around here. She pulled out a leather strap, halfway expecting to find a pair of lederhosen attached. Instead it was a large leather belt that would look at home in a concert for the Village People. She eyed Clark strangely.

He sighed and gently removed the belt from her hands. She yielded it easily, searching Clark's eyes instead for the source of his perplexing display. "They're prototypes," he quietly explained. "Mom made them for Superman."

Superman? But that didn't make sense. She remembered clearly what Superman had told her the first time they had met. She complimented him on his suit, and he told her that his mother made it for him. Superman didn't lie, so if Martha Kent had sewed his suit for him, that made Clark...

"You're Superman's brother," she blurted. She studied his face intently. There was undeniably a resemblance between the two of them, so they must have been blood brothers and not adopted into the family. "That's why you can contact him so easily, why you get the best stories, why you were so nervous when Trask was giving us the lie detector test about whether we could get in touch with him..."

"It's not like that," Clark argued, but she was on a roll and couldn't be stopped. She sprung to her feet and dodged boxes as she paced. She had always thought best on her feet.

"But that means that... Superman's mother just died. Oh, Clark, he should be here right now, not me."

"Of course, you should be here," he snapped. His angry tone brought her wide-ranging feet to a standstill. "I told you that you were welcome, and I meant it." Two long strides brought his lanky frame next to hers. He looked taller than she remembered him being, but that could have been a part of the stern expression on his face. He grasped her hands and the anger washed away from his features, replaced with an earnestness that flooded his eyes. "Mom made those prototypes for me, Lois. I'm Superman."

Lois' head spun as thought after thought tugged on her mind, arguing for attention. "That doesn't make sense," she spluttered. "You told me that you loved me, and Superman said that I didn't have a future with you. It can't be both ways. You can't be the same man--not unless you lied to me."

He ducked his head, but not before she saw him grimace. His voice was husky again, although if he had any sense it was more from shame than despair this time. "I didn't lie. You don't have a future with Superman. He's not really real, is he? Besides, if you only liked Clark, you couldn't truly love Superman."

She jerked his chin up with her hand so she could catch his eye. "Who made you judge and jury over who I can and can't love? A woman's not allowed to love two men at the same time! So I picked one. So sue me that I picked hot salsa over Old Spice, if you're both you then it shouldn't matter."

"What do you mean it doesn't matter?" he bellowed. "Besides, it wasn't like you were making any big choices. You ran off to get married to Bachelor Number Three at the end of the conversation, or did you conveniently forget that little detail?" She had never seen his eyes blaze so hot before, but a little heat had never scared her off in the past. He turned abruptly and sat down on the bench. He sighed, the wind blowing out the flames of anger and passion. He bowed his head, scuffing his toe on the ground like a second-grade boy. "I don't want to fight," he mumbled, sounding much like the little boy he resembled.

He was right. She hadn't flown halfway across the country to argue with him. She was just extra-sensitive with all of the stress and exhaustion. She sighed, but it came out more like a yawn.

Her eyes opened wide as an errant thought zipped across her mind. "You didn't zzt the rooster, did you?"

He glanced up quizzically. She held her pointer fingers in front of her eyes like miniature guns. "You know, zzt with your Superman vision zzter."

"What makes you think Superman zzts farm animals?" he accused with a frown.

Her cheeks glowed a soft pink. "He just got superquiet, and I thought that with your superpowers..."

"...I knocked him off for you?" he finished, although the frown had faded into a bemused smirk.

"You didn't?" she worried.

"I talked to Dad, but neither of us were feeling up to slaughtering any animals today. Since he won't need as many eggs anymore, anyway, Superman selected a laying pair to donate to a grateful, but still poor farmer in Southeast Asia."

"Oh." She felt embarrassed by her earlier distrust. "That was really nice of you both."

"Thanks." He wasn't meeting her eyes again. "Dad's going to need the rest, too, so it seemed like the best choice."

"You shouldn't have told me," she quietly decided.

"No," he disagreed. "You asked. Besides, it's just a couple of chickens..."

"Not about that," she corrected him indignantly. "You should have told me those costumes were for a visionary reproduction of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or that I was right about your dad and he really did like dressing up in frilly clothes behind closed doors, or..."

"They're not really frilly," he interrupted, raising her ire once again.

Just what part of this apology business did he not understand? "You're missing the point. The point is that I obviously can't be trusted to make good choices right now. You tell me about your most guarded secret, and I respond by accusing you of nuking chickens. Some friend I am!"

Unexpectedly, he pulled her into a tight hug. Her arms wrapped around his middle automatically. What else did one do with a grieving friend?

"Back on that day when we both made our mistakes, you told me that you loved me like family, and when my family needed you, you were here. That's all the friendship I need right now."

He sounded so much like Martha Kent that he might as well have been her flesh and blood son. Her heart softened as tears sprang into her eyes. He was the greatest eulogy Martha would ever have. Just the way he viewed the world was a living tribute to her strengths and character.

"Come on," she told him, breaking the hug that had become his lifeline. "If you're Superman, that means you can find the album we need in nothing flat."

He wiped his face with the back of his fist. "How?"

"What do you mean, how? X-ray this place," she instructed impatiently.

He shrugged. "If frying chickens was a zzt," he mimicked her gestures impertinently, "I just wondered what x-raying would be." He smirked in a symbol of insolent friendship.

"How about I show you the human version of zzt, instead," she threatened, almost good-naturedly.

He lowered his glasses, glancing around the room. Even though she knew he was doing the Superman ping-ping-ping thing, he looked so much like Clark that it seemed normal. "I think it's over here," he reported, heading into the closet once again. He emerged with a box as half as big as her Jeep. She kicked their previous boxes out of the way to make space for the big kahuna.

Surprisingly, it didn't hold a Christmas tree. Instead, there were string after string of Christmas lights, wreaths, candles, bows, stockings, mistletoe and a stuffed Mrs. Claus with the face of a dried-up potato. Along one long end were several rolls of Christmas paper. She was convinced that, if they dug deep enough, they would find the Ghost of Jimmy Hoffa Past. What was probably the Christmas album was wedged underneath several wrapped boxes.

She fished out a heavy, book-shaped gift and a lighter rectangular one. "What do you have?" Clark wondered, peering over her shoulder. She shrugged. She could almost reach the album. "It has your name on it," he noted, with interest.

She paused in her quest. "What does?"

"That gift in your hand--it says, 'To Lois.' That's Mom's handwriting, too."

Martha had left a Christmas present for her. "But why would she...?" Lois began. Tears sprang to her eyes, etching trails down her cheeks as her knees buckled, sinking her onto the window seat. She was the outsider who had imposed herself on such a personal, private moment in the Kent's life. Yet, here was Martha, standing with the proverbial kitchen door open, inviting her inside.

"Are you going to open it?" Clark inquired softly.

"Don't I have to wait for Christmas?" She forgot what the protocol was. Was that one of Martha's last wishes--that she should open her Christmas present at Christmas time? If so, Lois should honor it.

"Why don't you open it now," he suggested, "while it stills feels like Mom is here."

Her hands shook of their own accord. It was difficult to see through the torrent of emotions that still flowed from her eyes. She dashed them away, but they were quickly replaced. "I don't know if I can," she confessed.

"If you don't want to..."

"No, I do. Just give me a moment." He didn't. He pulled her into a hug that set her shoulders shaking with a fresh round of tears.

His lips found hers and, to her surprise, she hungrily kissed him back. His chest was solid against her hands. She felt so alive in his arms. She could feel her heart pounding and hear his quickened breath--both symbols of the life that went on. She wished he would hold her tighter, but his one arm was achingly absent. She caught her breath as he pulled away from her.

"Mistletoe," he quietly explained. She glanced up to where he held a sprig aloft above their heads.

She wanted to tell him that he didn't need the excuse; however, she wasn't sure she trusted her voice. Instead, she giggled, sounding more hysterical than she had anticipated.

"Open it." The decision was made. She had no choice, but to obey. Besides, there was no way she could stand another five months of waiting.

Her hands jittered as she slid a finger under the metallic wrap. Martha had sealed it with an inordinate amount of tape, making the task extra difficult for such a fragile time. She quelled the giggles that mounted again.

"It's a picture," she announced--although Superman probably already knew that.

It was a framed snapshot of Lois and Clark line dancing at the Corn Festival. Martha had caught her son gazing at Lois as she danced, a look of adoration frozen for all time on his countenance. Mixed in a boy-next-door occasion, his eyes held the promise of happily-ever-after. His captured intensity took her breath away.

It had to be her ultra-emotional state that was making something out of nothing, she told herself.

She turned the photo over to show it to her partner. He studied it for a moment. She was surprised to see the fire return to his eyes. This time it wasn't anger that kindled it, but something far deeper that sizzled.

"But why?" she wondered as she looked over at his face.

He had been right earlier. She had been so fickle with his heart, rejecting him for a man he still couldn't bring himself to speak about. Yet, only a few weeks later, he dismissed that and invited her into her home.

He had more than just forgiven her. His expression held a balance of passion and promise which he easily offered to her.

"I suppose she wanted you to know that she loved you," he answered. Although he had misunderstood her question, his answer was true for both himself and his mother.

So this was what love offered: unbending forgiveness, appreciation, affection and desire. "Merry Christmas," she whispered to herself as she treasured the two gifts that had been offered to her.

"Merry Christmas," he echoed back.

THE END

Author's notes:

My dear husband and beta-reader said that I was crazy when I told him that when I read the three items she wanted, this idea immediately sprang to mind. "Who writes a death-fic for a Christmas present?" he asked. But of course, with her deep respect for the grief process and her unique marriage of uplifting but melancholy style of writing, I believe it is a fine fanfic for Dandello.

Hopefully, she will excuse all of the things that she didn't want in the fic that weren't quite there but weren't quite absent either.

One of the concepts in the story is stolen straight out of an old episode of Eight is Enough. In the original story, the children aren't sure if they should look forward to Christmas since it will be the first one without their mom. If memory serves, as they finally get around to going through the motions of Christmas they uncover a stash of presents that were wrapped up. The gift tags were written in their mother's handwriting.

When I watched that as a young, impressionable child, I decided that I too wanted to be the kind of woman who always had a few presents on-hand so that my family would always know that I love them. It occurred to me that a practical, yet sentimental woman like Martha Kent might feel the same way.

Recipient's notes:

Three things I want in my fic:

1. an unexpected gift

2. a kiss under the mistletoe

3. a revelation

Preferred season(s): Any

Three things I do not want in my fic:

1. Lex Luthor

2. amnesia

3. Lois cooking