It was all Ron's fault. If Ron Troupe—a fine upstanding International reporter, and pretty great brother-in-law too—hadn't brought Lucy to the office Christmas party, she would've never overheard Clark's answer to Jimmy's question about his holiday plans, and everything would've been different.

"What do you mean, you're not doing anything for Christmas?" Lucy asked, her delicate blonde brows furrowed. Lois rolled her eyes and took a sip of the punch. Lucy didn't mean to be impolite, but there was no shaking her off-topic once she got that look on her face.

Even Clark had looked embarrassed under her scrutiny. "Well, Ma is all the way in Kansas. Don't worry, Mrs. Troupe, I'll call her—it'll be just like I was there."

Lucy had crossed her arms and looked at him sternly. "Clark, you can't sit home alone on Christmas Day. It's just … it's a holiday to spend with family and friends, not watching Miracle on 34th Street by yourself!"

"Yes, but Christmas is in the middle of the week this year, and there's not much point in flying home just for one day," Clark explained. "I just started working here a few months ago, so I don't have the seniority to take time off around the big holidays. It's all right, Mrs. Troupe, really." He offered her one of his smiles, which Lois knew were sincere and kind, but she couldn't help seeing that expression as more appropriate for a spaniel puppy. Clark was one of the genuinely nicest people she'd ever met, and in this city that was just asking for a kick in the teeth.

Lois did feel sorry for the guy. She'd spent a few Christmases alone, chasing stories usually, but Momma and Lucy wouldn't allow her to skip out on the family gathering too often. Honestly, she didn't want to. Even though Christmas at the Lane house was a reminder of all the things she'd chosen not to pursue, with Lucy being ridiculously cute with Ron and their kids underfoot, Lois loved it. Three kids, two cats, and one mortgage was a nice place to visit, once in a while anyway.

Lucy still hadn't given up, crossing her arms and looking at Clark with her infamous I'm-gonna-get-my-way expression. "If you're not going home to visit your mother, then you can come to Christmas dinner with us," she proclaimed.

That pronouncement made Lois cough in surprise. Unfortunately she had a mouthful of punch at the time, some of which went up her nose. This year's blend was particularly potent, due to the reporters' habit of adding extra liquor to the fairly-innocuous punch bowl. The high-test alcohol hitting her sinuses burned, and Lois couldn't help sneezing and coughing it out explosively.

All over Steve Lombard's brand-new suit. He turned to her, going purple with outrage, and her next alcohol-laden sneeze got him right in the face.

At least some good came out of this debacle.

"Lucy, you cannot just invite stray reporters home for Christmas!" Lois hissed, having dragged her little sister off to the copy room to 'discuss' this decision.

The younger blonde crossed her arms and stared. Lois might be the obviously-willful one in the family, the headstrong hothead, but no one who knew Lucinda Lane doubted her determination. "C'mon, Lo, the guy's gonna be all alone in the big city on Christmas. That's just not fair."

The raven-haired reporter didn't look convinced. "So? The first Christmas after I moved out I spent alone. I didn't drop dead of loneliness. Lucy, he's a grown man, not a lost puppy. He'll be fine."

"Why are you being so mean? Lo, you're the one who told me he's probably the only really good guy left in the whole city!"

"Yeah, Clark's a sweetheart, but that doesn't mean you go and invite him home for dinner without asking Momma or Ron or me, Luce!"

Lucy tilted her head to the side and stared at her big sister. "Why, are you afraid he'll have a glass of wine and try to get fresh with you after the dessert course or something?"

She normally wasn't that cruel, but the look of utter disbelief on Lois' face was worth it. It took a minute for the reporter to gather her wits enough to reply, "Lucinda Isabelle Troupe, we're talking about a guy who probably thinks holding hands is fresh. He's from somewhere in the wilds of Kansas and sends half his paycheck home to mom, for cryin' out loud."

"So what are you afraid of?" Lucy challenged, blue eyes meeting hazel and not backing down in the slightest. That was the surest way to get Lois to stop reacting automatically and think about what she was doing: imply she was acting out of fear.

"I'm not afraid of anything," she retorted immediately. "I just … fine. Fine. But don't make a habit of it, Luce. Clark's okay, but I wouldn't want any of the rest of this crowd to meet Momma. She already thinks I run around with a bunch of heathens thanks to the Chief."

"I promise," Lucy said, tracing a cross over her heart like when they were in grade school. Then, before Lois could completely recover, she asked, "So are you gonna bring the pie? And some cookies?"

"Yeah," Lois replied, with a faint smile. "I guess I have to spoil my baby sister somehow."

Lucy grinned at that. There was some holiday spirit in this cynical reporter, after all. "Momma's doing the roast and the potatoes and gravy. I'm bringing a couple side dishes. Should I ask Clark to bring something?"

Lois arched a dark brow. "I dunno, Luce. If you do, and he brings anything more complicated than corn on the cob, you get to taste-test."

"Sorry, Ma." Even over a long-distance call, Martha Kent could see her son's chagrined expression.

She couldn't help a chuckle. "Son, it'll be all right. You can be here for Christmas morning and you can come by after dinner with the Lanes. I'll save a plate for you for later on, if you want."

He sighed. "I just … Lois' sister took me by surprise, or I would've made an excuse. I can't believe I'm missing Christmas dinner with you."

"Clark, honey, don't think of it that way."

"Christmas is supposed to be time spent with family," he insisted. "And Ma, you're my only family. It's just not right, being away."

"Family and friends," Martha corrected him. "Listen to me, Clark. I'm not going to be upset if you have to leave for a while. I managed while you were away, training. I know that you love me almost as much as I love you, and I know I'll see you soon enough."

"You're too gracious, Ma," Clark finally said.

She laughed at that. "Son, I'm not going to be one of those mothers who makes her child feel guilty. Go, have fun, and come back here for dessert. Besides, I'm honestly glad you have a few friends in the city."

Martha didn't mention the fact that she did worry about him, however ridiculous that might've been considering his powers, and it soothed her heart to know that people as compassionate as Lucy Troupe were among his acquaintances.

Clark saw the dubious look on Lois' face when he arrived with a potato and broccoli casserole. He supposed it was deserved; for the last few months she'd watched him be completely incapable of carrying a coffee mug around the office without spilling it. Sometimes more than once. Little did she know all of that was an act.

Lucy—who refused to be called Mrs. Troupe—accepted the dish with a broad smile of gratitude, and stuck her tongue out at Lois when she thought he wasn't looking. Clark had only seen her in passing before now, but he was already beginning to realize the two sisters were as different in temperament as they were in appearance. A casual observer might've assumed they weren't related at all … until a moment like just now, when Lois made a face right back at Lucy, and both of them laughed. The same smile, almost, though Lois' was a bit more crooked.

Clark actually liked that about Lois. Lucy might be the more conventionally pretty of the sisters, and she was certainly more friendly, but Lois had a fiery determination unmatched by anyone else he'd ever met. She was quite simply amazing, even if she harassed him daily, stole his coffee, and threatened him with violence for so much as looking like he might be about to scoop one of her stories. All of those things, in fact, just made him appreciate her more.

Before he could get lost in reflection, Lois' mother came to greet him. The holiday dinner was being hosted in her home, and Clark had noticed the details before meeting the woman herself: the framed portrait of Lois' father, General Sam Lane; the polished silver and fine china standing on crisp linen; the carved mahogany chairs polished by time. So he wasn't surprised that Elinore Lane took both of his hands graciously and bestowed a smile on him that made it impossible not to smile warmly back. "Clark, it's so good to meet you," she said. "I've heard so much about you."

Probably most of it with Lois rolling her eyes, he thought. Unless she'd told her mother about Superman, in which case Ella had seen the spark of a born reporter's curiosity in her daughter's eyes. "Mrs. Lane, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for letting me join you."

"You're very welcome, but please, it's Ella to my friends," she told him. "Come have a seat. I'm just putting the finishing touches on now."

He found himself seated across from Lois and beside Lucy, with Ron across from Lucy and their two oldest children, Sam and Nora, on the other side of their parents. Baby Joanna was asleep in the other room, and the seat at the head of the table had been reserved for the Lane family matriarch. The table was decorated by a centerpiece of pine cones, bright holly, and evergreen boughs with a scented candle in the midst of it, and two plates of cheese and olives and crackers had been set out to give the kids—including the grown-up ones—something to nibble.

Ron and Lois were in the middle of arguing about something newsroom-related, so Clark had barely sat down before he got dragged into it. Lois caught his eye and demanded, "Clark! Tell this sheltered International journalist he has no idea what a Monday Morning Massacre is!" She pronounced 'journalist' the way a five-star chef might pronounce 'dishwasher'.

Ron rolled his eyes, laughing, clearly not taking the condescension seriously. "Lois has the crazy idea that the Chief yells at her department more than mine."

Lucy dropped her face in her hands, sighing. "Welcome to the family, Clark. Five minutes in the door and you have to take sides."

He had no time to catch his balance. "Well, um, Mr. White does tend to spend a little more time on his meetings with City."

Lois punched her brother-in-law's shoulder, and he gave an exaggerated wince that made the two kids giggle. "Told you!" she crowed.

"But I think that might be because he's mostly yelling at you, Lois," Clark finished.

The look that earned him! Lois stared at him like … well, like he'd just dropped in from another planet, as a matter of fact. Ron and Lucy both burst into laughter, Ron reaching across the table for a high-five that Clark reluctantly returned. "Good man! Don't let her lie to you. Lo buys her share of trouble with the Chief."

Recovering her composure, Lois said defiantly, "Well, you're right. I'm the star reporter. Perry holds me to a higher standard."

Ron snickered. "And you just finally ran who out a month ago? Star reporter already, Lo?"

Lois just lifted her chin with a haughty glare. "Galloway was dead meat the moment I set my sights on him. Besides, I'm the better reporter. You see anyone else turn in anything as front-page-busting as Superman and the President in the same night? And stay consistent since?"

Giggling, Lucy put in, "I don't know, you might have competition. Clark's been on the front page a time or two himself, and he's the newest reporter in City."

The hazel glare that got turned on him was almost as laser-like as his own heat vision. "Oh, no," Clark quickly demurred. "Lois is very much the better reporter. I mean, who else do you know who could turn almost falling out of a helicopter into front-page news and a follow-up interview?"

That was true, too. One of the reasons why he'd chosen journalism was because it was a level playing field. His powers could only help him type faster; he had to rely on wit and intelligence and writing skill to compose stories. And in those arenas, he had to admit Lois had him beaten—along with a dose of luck and timing and sheer brazen determination that left him breathless in awe. All kidding aside, Lois was one amazing reporter … as long as someone proofread her spelling.

"Exactly," Lois said, preening. "See, Clark, with observational skills like that, you'll go far in this paper."

Ron rocked his chair back, wheezing, and Lucy put her hand over Clark's. "Honey, don't encourage her. Lois needs friends to cut her down to size now and again, not to build her up so she eventually takes over the world."

"I have a pain in the neck little sister for that," Lois retorted. Lucy, clearly accustomed to that, only widened her eyes and grinned.

That was the moment that Sam chose to turn and look at his aunt very seriously. "You have one. I have two little sisters."

Ron put his hand atop his son's head and rocked him back and forth gently. "And we know you love them both."

"Not when one of them steals my G.I. Joes so her Barbies can have tea parties," Sam complained, darting a look at Nora.

Nora sat bolt upright, looking offended. "Boys don't go to tea parties. They needed dates for the prom."

Sam sighed and rolled his eyes dramatically, and Ron and Lucy quickly broke up the impending quarrel before it could escalate. Clark caught Lois' eye, and she gave a half-shrug and that crooked grin again, as if to say, Family, huh?

Yes, family—and he had forgotten what it was like to sit down at a noisy, convivial table. There was always that warmth when he and Ma had dinner together, and a coziness born of long familiarity, but sometimes he missed his youth. Pa had always encouraged him to talk about his day, and both parents had instilled in him such a sense of wonder that he was often excited, talking a mile a minute about what he'd learned in school or some new discovery on his wanderings about the property.

Clark surveyed them all with a smile, very glad he'd accepted the invitation. After all, what were friends if not family you chose?

Ella's arrival with the food silenced all the squabbling, and a single maternal look made Lois toe the line, too. That obviously surprised Clark, but Lois was no fool. Anyone who met Momma knew all about the gracious manners and elegant bearing, but her oldest was perfectly aware of the steel spine and unwavering determination that went with that. Lois had argued with her father the four-star Army general and decorated war veteran all her life—shouted at the top of her lungs most of the time, and even slammed a couple doors in his face—but she backed down before her mom without a trace of hesitation or shame.

Having taken possession of the seat of honor, Ella promptly turned the saying of grace over to the guest—Clark. Honestly, Lois was astounded to see him get through it without stuttering or stumbling over his words even once. Holy shit, when he concentrates the guy actually sounds … noble, as weird as that sounds. The blasphemy of thinking that during a blessing completely escaped her. As much at home as Lois might be among the trappings of her mother's upper-class background, she would always be a General's daughter and a reporter, neither of which lent themselves to delicacy.

Dinner was amazing, as always. Lucy had to jump up and go take care of Joanna only once, and Sam and Nora both behaved beautifully under their Nana's watchful eye. Lois was further shocked when Clark's casserole turned out to be pretty damn good. "Good God, Smallville, this is amazing. Where'd you learn to cook?" she asked, reaching for seconds.

"That's Ma's recipe," Clark demurred. "I'm a bachelor, you know, I've got to eat my own cooking, so it might as well be good."

Lois scowled even before her family started snickering. Lucy, of course, was the one who blew her cover. "We'll have to send Lois out to Kansas for a month," she teased. "Other than desserts, Lois can't cook. She burns toast, Clark."

Narrowing her eyes, Lois pointed her knife at Lucy and mouthed, I'll get you for that. Ron chose that moment to support his wife. "That's why she's always grazing on everyone else's stuff at work, Clark. It's the only way she can feed herself."

Lois kicked his ankle under the table without bothering to hide it. "Enough, children," Ella finally said, with a warning look to both her daughters and her son-in-law. "Ron, Lucy, may I remind you that you both begged Lois to make cookies for you? And Lois, you've always said you'd rather win a Pulitzer than run a restaurant, so why complain about pursuing what you love?"

"You're right, Momma," Lucy said contritely, adding under her breath, "even if she does burn water."

"Shut it, Our Lady of Home-Ec," Lois replied out of the side of her mouth.

That was the last quarrel at the table, as Ella stared meaningfully at them.

Clark was startled to see a different side of Lois. Sure, she was still prickly and aggressive and stubborn, but there were hints of softness beneath that. The way she was with the kids, for example. Not so much Joanna, who turned out to be her namesake—and Lois groaned when Lucy mentioned her middle name—but Sam and Nora. Lois talked to them both like they were grownups, and they clearly adored their aunt's quick wit. Also, despite the sniping back and forth, it was obvious that she and Lucy were incredibly close.

At the end of the meal, when everyone was full of good cheer and better food, Ella announced that they'd draw straws for which one would wash the dishes. "But you're exempt, Clark, since you're a guest."

He would have insisted, but Lucy leaned over. "It's just washing the roaster and the fine china—everything else gets a scrape and into the dishwasher it goes. Don't worry, you are a guest and Momma would sooner wash this linen tablecloth with something red than let you do housework."

At that, he could only grin—until Lois drew the short straw. "Ugh, you beg me to bake, make fun of my cooking skills, and then make me wash up too? That's bull. Ron, I'll trade you. I'll make you coffee at work for the next week."

"The last time I drank your coffee, I stayed awake for three days," Ron said. "No thanks."

"Come on, Luce."

"Nope. Get washing, big sis." Lucy beamed at her.

Before anyone could stop him, Clark stepped in. "I'll give you a hand, Lois."

"Clark, no," Ella said. "Lois is just complaining because it's her way."

"I know, but helping out is my way," he insisted.

That was how he ended up drying the china as Lois washed it. "Suck-up," she commented, but with a little laugh. "Also, for God's sake, Clark, be careful. I don't think this stuff actually came over on the Mayflower, but Momma acts like it did."

"I will," he said faithfully, and intentionally fumbled the first cup for a second. Lois' eyes went comically wide, but it never really slipped from his grasp and she just took a deep breath before starting on the next one.

They worked in silence for a couple minutes before Clark spoke again. "You know, Lois, I'm really glad I got to meet your family. They're pretty swell."

"God, not that again. Don't say that; at least in that case, it's Lucy's ego that will swell," Lois replied automatically. But then she smiled and glanced at him. "Yeah, they're a great crowd, nutty sister and crazy kids and all. A little duct-tape over their mouths and they'd be perfect."

He laughed unexpectedly. "You love them too much for that."

Which prompted sudden honesty from her. "Yeah, yeah I do," she admitted. But then she turned, carving knife in hand, and fixed him with an intense look. "That said? Don't breathe a word of that around the office, understand? So far as they're concerned I was hatched from an egg—or just popped into existence at a newsstand. And I will know who told them. Ron's too well-trained. Got me?"

Clark looked down at the knife and blinked. Lois appeared to realize just then what she was holding, and quickly passed it over to be dried off and returned to the knife block. Scrubbing at the roasting pan, she continued, "I'm serious, you know. As far as the crew is concerned, they need to think it's all business, all the time."

She loves them, and misses time with them as much as I miss Ma, he thought, marveling. But out loud all Clark said was, "Whatever you say, Lois."

"That's what I like to hear," Lois said with satisfaction, scrubbing at a bit of stuck-on gloop.

After a moment, though, she stopped to look up at him with a genuine smile. "Hey, Clark?"

"Yes, Lois?"

"Merry Christmas." And then her smile became just a bit knowing, and she added, "It wasn't completely a disaster having you here."

The words would have hurt if he hadn't caught the teasing tone beneath. And considering that he'd overheard her conversation with Lucy about bringing home stray reporters, Clark could only smile broadly back at her. "Thank you, Lois. And Merry Christmas, too."

Both of them were laughing when Ella poked her head in to make sure her china had survived.