I was going to wait and post this at the weekend, when it's due to go up on the Archive. But with so many people apparently about to go away, I thought perhaps I should post now instead. Part 2 will follow tomorrow. smile

Author's note:
Many, many thanks to the Kingsmeadow Gang, Yvonne, Meredith, Jenni and Chris, who were bludgeoned into beta-reading this recently when all they thought they'd come for was a pleasant weekend break. wink And thanks, too, to Kaethel, the missing member of the gang, who was extremely encouraging about the premise and was her usual TTT-ish self. No wonder I think beta-readers are such a wonderful invention!
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~ Like a Brother ~


It was funny how different the Daily Planet building looked in total darkness, Lois thought, observing it from where she stood, shivering slightly, on the snow-packed pavement across the street. Normally, whatever time of day or night, there was some activity going on; staff were present, busily playing their part in getting the afternoon or morning editions out. Even at four in the morning, the night staff would be finishing off, the final morning edition having just rolled off the press. Some of the regular journalists might be there too, pulling an all-nighter or just coming in early to finish a big story before morning conference.

Now, the building was empty; the printing presses weren't rolling, and nobody was there.



Well, except for her; but then, she hadn't seemed to be able to think of anywhere else to go.

Lois wasn't even sure why she was here. It was Christmas Eve, not long after 11 pm, and she should be out celebrating with friends, or getting ready for bed. That was what most other people were doing. And, truth be told, she had been invited to a couple of parties. But for some reason she really hadn't felt like going.

So instead here she was, with less than an hour to go until Christmas Day, and she'd been wandering aimlessly about until she'd ended up in front of the Daily Planet. The place where she worked. Actually, the place where she spent most of her life. The place which held more meaning for her than her apartment, or her friends, or anything else.

The Planet felt more like her home than the place where she lived.

And wasn't that an indictment of her life? If Lucy was here, Lois could imagine exactly what her sister would say to her. She lived for her work. She had no social life. She had no life, full stop.

You don't have dates, you have interviews

I just want you to meet a super guy!

Well, actually, Lois thought, she had met a super guy. The most Super of them all. And, weirdly, it had happened not long at all after that conversation with Lucy.

Superman.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/SUPES16-1-vi.jpg?995908948[/img]

He'd flown into her life, and literally swept her off her feet. He'd even kissed her once - and what a kiss! Lois had been kissed before, but never had anything affected her so deeply. Her senses had swum, and every nerve ending had tingled; she'd felt totally consumed by the unleashed power of his passion. When he'd released her, she'd actually had to hold onto him for fear of losing her balance.

But it had only been the result of the concentrated pheromone. Lois knew that under normal circumstances he'd never have kissed her at all, let alone like that. Admittedly, she'd kissed him too on another occasion, and he hadn't pushed her away; he'd kissed her back, but kindly rather than with passion. They'd both known that it was a kiss for luck - he'd been on his way to stop the Nightfall Asteroid. That couldn't in any sense be called a lover's kiss.

Her Super man simply wasn't available, or was not interested in her. She had to accept that all he could be was a fantasy figure - or a friend. If she could stop throwing herself at him, he could be her friend.

A friend...

There was someone else in her life who could be her friend, if she let him - and if she hadn't completely frightened him away. And tonight as she stood alone in the snow, she realised something.

She wanted Clark to be her friend. That was a pretty astonishing admission, considering the way she'd reacted to him when he'd first joined the Planet. A "hack from Nowheresville' and "Mr Greenjeans' were just two of the many offensive ways she'd described him when she'd been partnered with him on the Messenger story; she'd been condescending, patronising and at times downright rude. And yet, contrary to expectations, Clark had refused to be intimidated. He'd given as good as he got - without being rude, though. He'd sparred with her, capped her exit-lines with ease, and even taken a very clever revenge on her when she'd stolen his story. She'd had to admire him for that.

And, gradually, he'd got under her skin. She'd found herself looking for him when she arrived in the newsroom first thing in the mornings - though the fact that he'd made a habit of bringing her coffee and snaffling her favourite doughnut from the box for her didn't hurt. She'd discovered that she looked forward to their verbal sparring, and found herself saving up lines to use against him - not to wound, but for the sheer enjoyment of fencing with someone who was equally as skilled as she was, but in different ways.

She'd only realised just how much she'd come to like him and enjoy his company when he'd almost been shot that time in Smallville. And then, barely a couple of weeks later, when he'd quit his job, she'd felt as if she'd lost her best friend. That goodbye kiss had almost made her cry; she'd sat in silence in the near-darkness of the newsroom after Clark's departure, just thinking about life without him. Being without a partner again. Being without the one person in her daily life - Perry aside - who seemed to be her intellectual and professional equal.

Being without her friend.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/dean67-vi.jpg?1007851639[/img]

Because Clark was the nearest thing she had to a friend. He'd worked hard to get her to accept him in that capacity, she knew, and she thought he was still trying; but he'd already more than succeeded, as far as she was concerned. She couldn't imagine her life without him now.

And he cared about her. For Clark, it clearly wasn't just a question of enjoying her company. He'd saved her life a couple of times in the last few days; three times, if she believed him about that noise which had sounded like a car backfiring, but which he'd said were gunshots. He'd practically risked his own life by dragging Sebastian Finn, disguised as Mr Trezewski, off her. And he'd actually been about to chase the would-be murderer, uncaring at the risk to himself, until she'd begged him to stay with her. And he had. He'd got right down on the kitchen floor, ignoring any thought of his good suit, and held her in his arms.

And she'd felt safe.

That was something else about Clark. She always felt safe when she was with him. Protected. Cared for.

...loved...?

Now there was a question she'd avoided facing for some time. Somewhere, in the dark recesses of her mind, she suspected that Clark was in love with her. Or, at least, she thought he might believe that he was in love with her. Though a crush was very different from love, she reflected soberly. After all, she had strong feelings for Superman - but was that love? Or was it merely a crush, as her family tended to assert and as she was very sure that Clark believed?

She didn't know. And it wasn't very likely that she'd get a chance to find out.

But Clark didn't have to be in love with her to love her, she supposed. Friends sometimes loved each other, and from what she knew of Clark he was a pretty affectionate, warm guy. But then, he did come from a loving home - unlike her. His parents were openly demonstrative towards each other, and all members of his family told each other, on a daily basis, that they were loved.

Lois shivered again, and a light flurry of snowflakes fluttered down around her. She stamped her feet in an effort to warm them up, telling herself that she needed to get home before she froze.

When was the last time someone had told Lois that they loved her?

The last time someone was trying to get me into bed, she answered herself sardonically.

Then, thinking of Clark again, she frowned as she remembered an interlude, two brief conversations during that horrible time when they all thought the world was going to end. The Nightfall asteroid was still on collision course with the Earth, and Superman was nowhere to be found. Clark, suffering from amnesia, had been completely disoriented by it all.

Clark had asked her, “Are we more than friends?”

She'd avoided the question, not even wanting to confront what he meant by it, much less answer it; she'd simply reminded him that they were partners, not even having the decency to admit that they were friends.

Then later, the conversation which still haunted her. She'd encountered Clark outside his apartment, and she supposed that what they'd been doing was saying goodbye. And he'd looked at her in a way which had disturbed her... His words had affected her deeply, too.

Lois, thank you... For whatever it is you've done for me that makes me feel so good about you.

When had she last done anything to make anyone feel good about her? At work, she was known as Mad Dog Lane, and she was well aware that most of her colleagues disliked her or thought her arrogant. Clark was the feelgood one of the two of them; he was the one who always chatted to everyone, remembered to ask about their families and to wish them well on special days in their lives. She was the one who always wanted to get straight to the point, dismissing polite chit-chat as a waste of time.

Clark's words had scared her. Embarrassed, she'd told him that he was pretty terrific too. And then she'd added, awkwardly, “I mean, I love you . . . like a brother.”

A brother.

She'd never had a brother, and she'd never felt the need of one. In some ways, not having brothers had pleased her, in that as a result her father hadn't got his dearest wish, a son. She'd felt that he didn't deserve it; not the way he'd always made her somehow feel to blame for not having been a boy.

But sometimes, now that Clark was in her life, she wondered what it would have been like to grow up with an older brother; someone who would have protected her, walked her home from school, vetted her dates, threatened to beat up kids who threatened her, and generally taken responsibility off her shoulders. Of course, she reminded herself that she didn't need protection; but then, when protection came in the shape of Clark Kent, it was difficult to remember that.

She'd told Clark that she loved him like a brother.

And she still remembered the way he'd looked at her. Wounded. As if she'd struck him. As if she'd... rejected him.

And, of course, that was exactly what she'd done. The end of the world was approaching. For all either of them knew, that was it; they had a few precious hours left of their lives. If she had, just for once, forgot her customary caution, her fear of letting a man get too close to her emotionally, who knew what could have happened?

She knew what could have happened. If she'd had the courage to admit that her feelings for Clark ran deeper than mere friendship -

“Lois! What on earth are you doing here all alone?”

She whirled, astounded to see Clark walking swiftly through the snow towards her. Embarrassed at the direction her thoughts had taken just before his arrival, she just hoped that he didn't notice her flushed cheeks in the dark - or, at least, that he put it down to the cold.

“Uh... I was just... ummm... What are you doing here, Clark?” Grateful for the opportunity to deflect his question, she added, “Aren't you supposed to be in Smallville? With your folks?”

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/SGZA-vi.jpg?995908915[/img]

He nodded. “I'm flying down tomorrow, early.”

“On Christmas Day?” She stared at him incredulously. “There are flights?”

“Uhh...” Now he looked a little discomfited. Then, awkwardly, he explained. “Superman offered to fly me there and back. As a kind of a Christmas present, I guess.”

“Oh.” Now it was Lois's turn to be taken aback, again. Obviously Clark was closer to Superman than she'd realised, if the Super-hero was giving him Christmas presents! Why couldn't he... Well, she supposed that she didn't have family living hundreds of miles away, she reasoned with herself. Although Lucy was in California...

“I... uh, I guess flights are kind of expensive at this time of year,” she added, more as a means of filling the sudden silence. Then she shivered.

Immediately, Clark looked concerned. He stripped off his heavy wool overcoat and, ignoring her protests, wrapped it around her shoulders. “You'll get cold,” she warned him, though she was grateful for the additional warmth, and even more for his caring gesture.

“I'll be fine. I'm used to cold winters, remember? I'm from Smallville.” He grinned at her.

“Metropolis has its share of cold winters,” Lois pointed out.

“Yeah, but you don't have to go out to a freezing barn to milk the cows at five or six in the morning in Metropolis,” he countered, his smile wider.

“Ugh.” She pulled a face. “I'm sorry, I know your parents' place is nice, but farms really aren't my thing.”

“I know.” He smiled again, clearly teasing. “You're a city girl through and through. I'm well aware of that.” He gestured up the street. “You know, you should really get home. Is your car around here somewhere?”

Lois shook her head. “I walked.”

“From your apartment?” He sounded incredulous.

“It's only about five miles,” she said defensively. “I can walk that far unaided!”

“Lois, it's freezing. It's starting to snow again, and it's late. It's not safe to be out alone!”

“Even the night before Christmas?” she challenged him softly. “That's one heck of an indictment of our society.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Even the night before Christmas, Lois.” He paused, then added quietly, “Let's get you home. Want me to call a cab?”

“What, now?” She stared at him in disbelief. “Clark, it's almost midnight on Christmas Eve. Every cab in the city is probably booked up for hours ahead!”

“Then we walk,” he said firmly. “Ready to go?”

“You don't have to come with me.”

“I want to. And anyway, I'm not going to let you wander the streets on your own. If you think I could sleep tonight without making sure you got home safely, then you don't know me, Lois.”

“I know you,” she told him softly, reaching out to touch his arm. “You're a boy scout, Clark. And I kind of love that about you.”

In the glow from the nearby streetlight, she saw him blush.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/Clark1-vi.jpg?1007650277[/img]

*********

At first they walked in silence through the darkened streets. To her surprise, Lois felt no awkwardness; no burning desire to fill the quietness with words, any words. It was a friendly, companionable silence, which reminded Lois once again just how much she enjoyed Clark's company these days.

Clark was a good companion, keeping pace with her and catching her arm a couple of times when it looked as if she might slip on an icy patch. After the second time, she looped her arm through his and held onto him firmly.

“Might as well save you the trouble of grabbing for me again,” she told him with a teasing grin.

“I see. You thought you'd just pull me down with you next time you slip?” he questioned, his mouth turning up at the corners in that half-grin she knew so well now.

“Naah. I'd make sure you went down first, so I'd have a cushioned landing,” she quipped in return.

That made him laugh aloud, which warmed her from the inside in a way she hadn't expected. Clark had a lovely laugh, joyous and warming and contagious; again tonight she was reminded of yet more of her partner's good features. She should have made the effort to get to know Clark right from the beginning, Lois told herself sadly. If she had, who knew what could have happened by now? Instead, she'd pushed him away and treated him like dirt. And, while he'd responded in a better way than she'd deserved, he'd also distanced himself. He'd never again asked her out, nor looked at her in that way, the way which made her feel that he could see right into her soul, and that he loved everything he saw.

But he did seem to be her friend, in a way or, at least, the closest thing to a friend that a workaholic like Lois Lane had. And she should be thankful for that.

A noisy group of revellers passed them then, knocking into Lois as they ran through the snow. She almost stumbled, but Clark's arm came around her shoulders, holding her securely against him.

“Okay?” he asked, his voice concerned. His dark eyes were gazing into hers, his expression anxious.

“I'm fine,” she assured him immediately. “Not even shaken. Idiots!” she added tersely, aimed at the now-vanished partygoers.

“Come on, let's get you home,” he urged again. His arm shifted, loosening its grip, and she realised that he was about to remove it from around her shoulders. In a pre-emptive move, she edged just a little closer to him, sliding her own arm around his waist.

“You're just the right height for this,” she commented teasingly.

He laughed again and, to her relief - a feeling which surprised her very much - he tucked her more securely under his arm.

“So, you're off to Smallville tomorrow,” Lois said lightly. “A real family Christmas, huh?”

She saw him smile; a flash of white teeth in the semi-darkness. “Yeah, you bet. Course, my parents are up early anyway to milk the cows and do the chores, and then we go to church - I should be there by then. And Mom cooks a huge dinner - turkey and all the trimmings - and we open presents by the fire afterwards. Sometimes we have neighbours in for an hour or so in the afternoon - I make great mulled wine. And in the evening maybe we'll watch an old black-and-white movie on TV. It's a great day. But what makes it best of all is that we're together, the three of us, as a family.”

Lois had been prepared to feel scorn for the rustic celebrations Clark described, but instead found herself feeling serious pangs of envy. This was what having a close, loving family was all about; and this was what she'd missed growing up in her dysfunctional family.

Clark was so fortunate.

But, after all, it was only a day. She'd be perfectly happy at home with her laptop, and the TV and the supply of old movies she'd rented, wouldn't she? And, since there wasn't any point in cooking a large meal just for one, she'd laid in a stock of junk food and TV dinners. And then the day after, civilisation would return. She could even go back to work if she wanted, despite the fact that Perry had given her two days off instead of one.

And anyway, why should she do something special? It was just a day, after all. A day like any other, except that it was irritatingly unlike other holidays, because absolutely *nothing* happened all day long. And yet people were made to feel like some sort of freaks if they weren't spending the time with their families - even if their families were totally dysfunctional and couldn't spend five minutes together without yelling at each other. It was as if there was some sort of nationwide conspiracy telling everyone that they had to be happy at Christmas, even if they had to pretend.

It stank. Christmas was a waste of time, and Lois didn't see why she should have to pretend to enjoy it.

Not that she really wanted to tell Clark that; he seemed to have such a good time with his folks, and it was clear that he was really looking forward to it. He'd only want to convince her that she should feel the same, and she really didn't want to ruin the friendly atmosphere between them right now.

“So, what will you be doing tomorrow?” Clark asked the question Lois had hoped he wouldn't.

Thinking quickly to make up something which sounded reasonably acceptable behaviour for Christmas Day, she began to answer, but the sound of bells pealing interrupted her.

“It's Christmas,” Clark murmured, and there was a note of wonderment in his voice. Surprised, she shot him a swift look. He really did like this time of year. It was obvious that, for Clark, there was still something magical about Christmas. For Lois, that magic had worn off even before she was old enough to understand that there wasn't really a Santa Claus.

“Happy Christmas, Clark,” Lois said softly, realising that for the first time in years she actually meant that benediction.

“Merry Christmas, Lois,” Clark replied, loosening his arm around her and turning to face her. For a long moment they simply looked at each other.

Then Clark brought his hand up and placed one finger lightly under her chin, tipping her face upwards. There was a question in his eyes, which she understood; slowly, hesitantly, she nodded. It was Christmas, after all. It was just a kiss; everyone kissed each other at Christmas. Social kisses, and they meant nothing.

Very gently, his mouth brushed over hers.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/kiss28-vi.jpg?994851899[/img]

Clark's lips were cool, unsurprising given the temperature was around about zero degrees centigrade, but strangely, she didn't feel cold. Instead, she felt as if she was enfolded in a cocoon of warmth, genuine affection and protectiveness... and all from one fleeting kiss which was over as soon as it started.

To her shame and embarrassment, she felt tears pricking at her eyes.

She pulled away from his loose embrace, ducking her head and recommencing the walk back to her apartment. But she hadn't got more than two steps before Clark's hand on her arm halted her.

“Lois? Lois! Did I... did I offend you? I'm sorry... I thought - I just meant - ”

He sounded worried, and unhappy; Lois couldn't bear to hurt her partner's feelings, tonight of all nights. She half-turned back to him. “It's not your fault, Clark. I... I wasn't offended. It was a beautiful thought.” She deliberately shivered then, not wanting to allow him to see how moved she was by what he'd done, or that she was close to tears. “Can we keep moving?”

He didn't move; instead, he lifted his hand from her arm and caught her jaw in a light, but firm, grip. “Lois, look at me.”

Reluctantly, she did. She knew that in spite of her best efforts one tear was sliding its way down her cheek; she was tempted to brush it away, but she accepted that doing that would only call Clark's attention to it even more obviously.

He surprised her by gently smoothing it away with his index finger, then raising his hand to stroke her hair in a light caress.

“Lois?” His voice was gentle, concerned. “What's wrong?”

She shook her head wildly. “Nothing. It's... I just hate Christmas, that's all.”

Had she really told him that? Grimacing, she quickly looked away, angry with herself now. It was bad enough that she'd let Clark catch her crying - well, almost crying. But that he'd somehow managed to get her to make that admission, too... She started walking again, quickly this time, hoping he'd understand that she didn't want to pursue the conversation.

No-one had ever believed that she meant it when she said how much she hated this time of year. In fact, most people acted as if she'd committed some sort of sacrilege; so instead she'd developed a habit of saying nothing and looking non-committal whenever Christmas activities were under discussion.

Clark fell into step beside her; he didn't say anything, but the arm which he wrapped loosely around her shoulders spoke volumes for his concern. He hugged her lightly and kept pace with her as they trudged through the snow towards...

...no, away from the part of town where her apartment was.

“Clark? We're going the wrong way!” she objected.

He hesitated, then suggested, “I thought maybe you'd like to come back to my place instead. I don't think I'm going to get much sleep tonight anyway, with Superman coming to get me early tomorrow morning. So maybe I could make us some hot chocolate, and we could just hang out for a while - have you ever tried my hot chocolate?” he enquired.

“Um... no,” she said awkwardly, unsure how to respond. Suddenly, she knew she didn't want to be alone right now, and she suspected that was why she'd ended up outside the Planet. Even if there hadn't been anyone there, it was still a place she associated with people, and with an activity she enjoyed. Going home alone to her apartment held no appeal; spending more time with Clark...

Right now, spending time with Clark appealed very much indeed.

“So, will you come?” he asked; his tone sounded casual, but something about it made her cautious.

“I don't need you to feel sorry for me, Clark!” she muttered, knowing that she sounded sulky, but she didn't really care. She hated the thought of being pitied, especially by Clark - she wanted him to be her friend because he liked her, not because he felt sorry for her.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/SGD-vi.jpg?994878089[/img]

Twisting away from him, she shoved her hands in the pockets of his overcoat and marched back the way they'd come, her head bowed.

Briefly, she wondered what he'd do this time; would he give up and let her go home on her own? She wouldn't blame him if he did. All he'd tried to do was to help, to be kind to her, and all she'd done in return was be prickly and downright unfriendly. But then, she thought uncomfortably, didn't that just sum up the nature of her relationship with Clark to date? Hadn't she just been castigating herself about that before he'd suddenly appeared out of nowhere?

Yes, it would serve her right if he shrugged his shoulders and left her to her own devices. Any sane person would if they'd been treated the way she'd just treated Clark - and, of course, in turning around she'd even more forcefully rejected his offer of company back at his apartment, which was effectively a slap in the face for him. Lois blinked back another tear as she accepted that she was her own worst enemy right at the moment.

But it didn't matter, and even if Clark had stayed to walk her home it wouldn't have changed anything. She was still going to be spending the following day on her own, and the day after, once she was back at work, she'd be lying to colleagues once more about what a great Christmas she'd had.

Though why she should even care about that, when she knew that Christmas was such an irrelevance these days anyway, she had no idea. Why was she letting herself get maudlin once again about what was no more than a massive consumer con, the commercialisation of what should be such a lovely time of year? Why did she even pay any attention to the mindless, endless repetition of such mantras as "Christmas is for families'? And that was so thoughtless anyway, given the vast numbers of people who didn't have a family. Someone should start a campaign to raise awareness about -

Then, she became aware of someone walking alongside her. A swift, somewhat anxious glance to one side showed her that it was Clark. He'd caught her up and was walking close, but making no attempt to touch her.

He was probably just being a gentleman. That was Clark all over. He'd be determined to see her home safely, no matter how rude she'd been.

She stole another glance in his direction. He was looking up at the sky; probably concerned that the current light snowfall might get heavier before he could walk her to her apartment and then get home himself.

“I'm sorry, Clark,” she said jerkily, before the small bout of courage which had allowed her to form the words disappeared.

To her relief, he didn't pretend not to know why she'd apologised. Softly, he said, “I've never felt sorry for you, Lois. Sometimes, sure, I feel concern for you, but never pity. You're far too... too vibrant a person for anyone to feel that way about you!” he added, and she could tell that he was smiling.

Vibrant? She'd never thought of herself as vibrant. Focused, certainly; obsessed, sometimes. And ambitious, definitely.

Clark thought she was vibrant? That sounded like a compliment, she realised. Clark did compliment her occasionally, that was true; but he also had a habit of taking her down a peg or two whenever he thought she was getting a little too full of herself. But his compliments tended to be reserved for her work. This was personal.

And, surprisingly, she liked it, although normally that kind of compliment from men embarrassed or irritated her - mainly because they saw it as their entry fee to whatever it was they wanted from her. Clark, though, had never behaved like that; he tended to be utterly transparent, and very sincere. She was the one who sometimes tried to sweet-talk him into doing things she wanted, she realised - and most of the time, he made it clear that he'd have done it anyway if she'd just come straight out and asked him.

Clark was honest and open and straightforward. That was something she really needed to remember and to respect about him. As he'd hinted to her not long after they'd met, not everyone had an angle.

“You're a flatterer, Kent,” she told him, ducking her head in an attempt to hide her pleasure at his description.

“Me? No. That's just the Lois Lane I see every day. And vibrant describes you perfectly,” he insisted. “Anyway,” he added then, “since you know I wasn't feeling sorry for you, will you come back to my place for that hot chocolate? I'd enjoy the company.”

So would she. Even if he was only suggesting it out of sympathy because of what she'd let slip. Nodding, she said, “I'd like that.”

“Good.” He turned to her, giving her one of his patented wide smiles. It was infectious; she smiled back at him. And when he crooked his arm towards her, she slid her hand through it.

[img]http://images.fotki.com/photos/1/11220/20163/lcsmile-vi.jpg?1008884461[/img]

**********

...to be concluded tomorrow.