This would finally be the year, thought Clark, entering his third store since arriving in Metropolis. The year when things finally went right for a change. Not just right – perfectly. Lana deserved for her birthday to go perfectly. Strange to think that in all the years they'd known each other, this would be the first time they were really a couple on her birthday.
She wanted the celebration to be on a small scale. He could relate. His own birthday's had generally gone unmarked, at least until one year Lana had appeared in his barn with a cake. He'd had parties since, but somehow they never topped that simple, intimate moment shared with the girl he loved.
Scouring the various jewellery on offer, he still managed to be stunned by the cost of some of the stuff. Nothing was too good for Lana, of course, but he could hardly afford anything here. He passed by the engagement rings with only a momentary glance. Not so long ago he had proposed to Lana, and shortly afterwards she'd died.
It had always been his greatest fear; worse than kryptonite, worse than being considered a freak. Thinking that someone might get hurt because they knew his secret. It had happened to Pete, who'd left town to try and prevent anything worse happening. And merely hours after he'd told her his secret, nothing worse could have happened to Lana.
Sometimes he still felt ill thinking about it. For over five years he hadn't told her. While he could always pretend he would tell her one day, once she knew she could never stop knowing. Or so he had thought. Thanks to Jor-El he had lived through the day again. Lana lived, his father died. There was no engagement, no reveal of the truth. He could have prevented the accident that killed Lana – but he'd always have been waiting for the next one. As soon as Lana had known the secret, Lex had known she'd known. He could protect Lana from a lot of things… but maybe not a Luthor.
Then again, his father's life had been traded for his own. Maybe he wasn't worthy of being a protector, he thought as his phone began to ring. Lana's name was on the screen.
"Hey Lana," Clark said as cheerfully as possible. For all the conflicted feelings and thoughts he had over how their relationship should be, he wanted her to know he had no doubts about loving her.
"Hi, Clark. Where are you?" asked Lana.
"Oh, I'm just running an errand. For my mom," he said, all too aware of how obvious the lie was. For all that he managed to keep the truth from people, he was not necessarily a good liar. If he was, everyone close to him wouldn't always suspect he kept secrets at all. Fortunately a lie like this was easily forgiven.
"Well, I dropped by the barn, but I guess you're not running any errands here. So as it's not a wasted trip, how about I take a look around and see if I can find my present?"
Clark smiled warmly; a woman in the store thought he was smiling at her. He looked away awkwardly.
"Present… present… why would there be a present?" asked Clark.
"You're working on it right now, aren't you?"
"You spoke to my mom?" guessed Clark.
"She's standing right next to me, Clark. She says 'hi' by the way. I just told her the good news: looks like Aunt Nell will be able to make it after all."
"Lana, that's great. I know you really wanted her to come," he said, peering at a selection of pendants stored behind a glass case. One had a picture of a wolf on it. That certainly wouldn't do: it reminded him of Kyla.
"Don't worry though, she won't be arriving until later, so we can still have dinner for two. I'm just glad there's no party for her to hijack," she said. After a moments pause, she added: "There's no party, is there Clark?"
"No party," he replied. "Just a small social gathering. Us, Nell and her husband, Chloe, Pete.."
"Pete's coming?" squealed Lana.
"Yeah, he's going to be back visiting his father, so I asked if he wanted to come along. You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not! I know how much you've missed having Pete around. Truth is, I've missed him too. It'll be good to catch up and talk about old times… as long as we're not going to spend the entire evening talking about you're football career."
"There are still a few stories I know are going to make him so jealous…"
"Clark…" warned Lana, a smile in her voice.
"I'm sure it won't take all night," said Clark. "All right, Lana, I'll let you go." Geez, that made it sound like he'd taken her hostage.
"Drop by later if you get a chance. Love you," said Lana sweetly.
"Love you too," said Clark, ending the call. A little kid, being dragged around the store by his father, made a fake vomiting sound.
"You'll never get married with that attitude, son," said the father. "On second thought, keep it up. It ain't worth it."
Prison visiting hours, and the visitor noticed the lights were dimmed slightly, almost as though trying to set a romantic mood. Or maybe the cutbacks were worse than he thought. It took him only a moment to locate the man he wanted.
Most of the other visitors were family members, but he was a drifter, and no longer kept contact with his own. His name was Edward, and he was nearing thirty, though he felt like he should be older than that, somehow. He was wearing a chequered shirt with a denim coat on top. His long dark hair was tied back with a bandanna: it had the American flag on it. The man in front of him had no hair to tie back.
"Well howdy, Sheriff. Been a long time," he said pleasantly. The man offered him a weary look.
"I look much like a Sheriff to you nowadays, son?"
Ethan Miller had in fact been a Sheriff at one point, but that changed several years back. After being blackmailed, he had shot Lionel Luthor. While many people would have patted him on the back for that one, he had also framed his friend Jonathan Kent – and murdered someone else. He doubted there had been too many visitors for Ethan the past few years.
The time in here didn't look like it had been kind on him either. Dark shadows around the eyes, worry lines around the mouth. An agitated look about at him told Edward all corners of the world now held dangers for Ethan. Not at all like the easy-going good natured Sheriff Edward had once known. The kindness he remembered on his face was long gone.
"Hardly seems fair, does it? You rot in here while Lionel Luthor's incarceration was all too temporary," he said casually. He could have been talking about the weather.
"I could say the same about your own," said Ethan with a touch of bitterness. "I believed you when you said you didn't do it. Show's just what a fool I've always been."
"I'm sorry. Lying to you was necessary. My work wasn't done. It still isn't."
Ethan's eyes narrowed.
"And what work is that?" he hissed, flecks of spit flying from his mouth.
"Atonement doesn't only occur in here, Ethan," he said with a rueful smile.
"What are you doing here, you son of a btch?" barked Ethan. A few of the guards were now watching intently. Edward decided he'd better lower his voice.
"I'm planning to play a little joke on Lionel. Figured you might want to help out," he said in a whisper.
"I don't help criminals."
"Buddy, you are a criminal. The difference between you and I is simple: I do terrible things for a reason. You did terrible things for nothing. If Lionel Luthor had died, the greater good would have been served, and you're being in here would have meaning. But it doesn't Sheriff, because you failed. And now Lionel Luthor is on the verge of grasping more power than ever," he said, pausing to let Ethan think about things. "He needs to be stopped, but I can't do this alone anymore. Help me."
"Even if I agreed to this, there's nothing I can do in here."
"Quite right. That's why the first step is to get you out of here. Lionel Luthor got out of prison because he had friends in high places. Agree to help our cause, and you will too."
"Who? Who sent you here?"
"The wind guides me," smiled Edward. "I'm going to give you some time to dwell on what I've said. I'll visit with you twice more. We can talk about anything you like. But after the third time, I won't come back, Sheriff."
With a polite nod, he turned and strode towards the exit. Behind him Ethan had risen to his feet and was calling after him.
"What's Luthor going to do? Tell me! What's that bstard up to now!?"
Both students at Met U, Lana and Chloe shared the same living space together. It was a small place, but perfectly functional, and since both girls got along well there were never really any problems. Clark wasn't so sure he'd have liked living in a place like that with another guy, even Pete. He was used to having his own space in the barn his father had built. Two fathers, two places where he could find solitude. Jor-El's fortress was certainly the grander of the two, but it sure didn't feel like home.
He knocked on the door, remembering himself for once. Often when Chloe was alone he barged straight on in – strictly in times of crisis, of course. He was used to people arriving unannounced in the barn, but other people generally preferred you to knock. The door opened slightly and he saw Chloe peering out. She smiled as she saw him.
"Hey, Clark. Come on in," she said, standing back.
"I take it Lana isn't back yet?"
"She can hardly travel between Smallville and Metropolis as fast as you can. I don't think she'll be too much longer. Feel free to wait," she said, sitting back at her desk. Her laptop was switched on; it looked to Clark like she was doing research for an article.
"Thanks. I'm not in the way, am I?" he asked, seating himself on Lana's bed. It looked like it had been rather hastily made that morning. He thought Lana, once a perfectionist, might have picked up some bad habits during her stay with Chloe and her dad.
"Never," she replied with a genuine smile. Chloe had been a good friend to him for a good few years now. More than ever now that she knew what he really was. She was always there to provide advice about his personal life or to help him investigate any weird goings-on. They made a pretty good team, he had to admit. Yet he knew Chloe had ambitions of climbing the ladder at the Daily Planet. Right now she was at the bottom, which left her plenty of time to help him out. Once she moved up, The Planet would require a larger commitment from her. Clark knew she had the ability to make it to the top, and he had no intention of standing in her way.
"You're quiet," said Chloe, not taking her eyes off the screen. "Which means everything must be going really badly, and you're waiting for me to ask, or everything's going really well, and you don't need me."
"Everything's fine, Chloe. I just didn't want to disturb you while you're working," he said, casting his eyes about the room. A lot of Lana's clothes were strewn about the floor; she really had picked up some bad habits. Not that he was so tidy himself, and that was with a super speed mode. He noticed the clothes were all of a much darker colour that Lana used to wear.
"Oh. Well, thank you. But it's not a problem, I can talk to you and work at the same time. Did you manage to get a present for Lana yet?"
"No, not yet. Actually, maybe that is something you could help me with…"
His trip around Metropolis had ended without success. With his speed he could travel around the world trying to find a gift. But at this rate he figured he still might come back empty handed.
"Forget it. This is one problem you can tackle without me. You know she'll love whatever you get her. If you're really struggling, why not ask your mom?"
"I already did. I even asked Lois, but she was no help whatsoever, of course."
Chloe turned round in her chair, frowning.
"You asked Lois before you asked me?"
"What are you so annoyed about? You never even tried to help," protested Clark, raising his hands in exasperation. Whether they knew his secret or not, he still sometimes thought women held more mysteries than he ever would.
"Have you heard from Pete?" asked Clark, trying to divert the conversation.
"Yeah, an hour ago," said Chloe, relenting. "He's a bit worried about seeing his father again. Apparently they haven't spoken much since Pete left Smallville with his mom."
"Pete and I haven't spoken much either," said Clark. Ever since they were little, he and Pete had been inseparable. His parents had been concerned about his spending too much time with other kids, in case he accidentally revealed his abilities. But they also knew they had to give him a chance to lead as normal a life as possible. If they didn't, he would be just as badly off as he would be locked up in some lab.
"You still seem to get along though. At least as far as I've seen."
"Yeah, I mean we can make small talk. But before you knew my secret, Pete was the one I could always turn to. Remember when I ran away to Metropolis?"
"I remember," said Chloe, face unreadable.
"When I came back, Pete was really there for me. I could talk to him about stuff I couldn't even tell my parents. And because of me, he had to leave town."
Sighing, Chloe got up from the desk and sat herself on the bed next to Clark.
"It was his choice, Clark. People move. Just because you don't see him everyday doesn't mean the friendship went anywhere. Just wait: when you see him again, it'll be just like old times."
The door opened a crack and Lana stuck her head into the room.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" she asked.
"Your present isn't here, if that's what you're worried about," grinned Chloe. Clark didn't think it was though; Chloe had become a confidant to him in a way Lana couldn't be. Lana was all-too aware of this, but as far as he knew had never pressed Chloe on the matter. In turn, Clark was aware that Lana was turning to Lex. He suspected very much that she spoke about the problems their relationship had. He could have listened in with his superhearing, but his parents had raised him better than that.
"Sorry I missed you at home," he said, rising and kissing Lana's sweet lips. She closed her eyes as he withdrew, as though she were still thinking about it.
"That's alright. I was there to see Lex anyway," she said, apparently unaware she'd just stabbed his heart. She took off her coat and hung it in the closet.
"You know you can ask him to the party if you like," said Clark, who did not want Lex there at all. His friendship with Pete might not have gone anywhere, but his friendship with Lex had been buried for good.
"That's very sweet of you, Clark, but it's alright. He did offer to buy me lunch though."
Clark just nodded. He was very wary of Lana's friendship with Lex, but Lana didn't like being told who she could or couldn't be friends with. No-one did. He didn't have the right to try and run her life. But Lex didn't make that rule easy to follow…
He and Chloe exchanged a look. They both knew what Lex was really like.
"I'm going to head out for a bite to eat," said Chloe, shutting her laptop down.
"Don't go on my account," said Clark.
"People need to eat, you know."
"There's not exactly a lot in the fridge," added Lana.
"I'll see you both later," said Chloe, shutting the door on her way out.
Which left Clark alone with Lana. That would have been great – if not for the awkwardness over their love life. Specifically, the fact that they didn't have one. They had spent one night together – a wonderful, magical night – when he lost his powers. After years of longing, desire had finally been given in to. Since his powers had been restored though, he hadn't been willing to risk hurting her. Not even for that. Lana didn't understand it, couldn't, but wasn't prepared to pressurize him either. A silence passed between them and he knew she was thinking about it too.
"Are you hungry?" she asked finally. "We could go out –"
"No, I'm fine thanks. Mind if I put the TV on?"
"It's fine, but did you really come here to watch television?"
"Well, watch TV and hold my girlfriend," said Clark. He wanted to do so much more than just hold her, and they both knew it. Which made the whole thing even more puzzling for her.
She climbed on top of him, lips brushing his cheek like a soft breeze. Her breasts pressed against his body and he fell back, bringing her with him in his arms. She lay her head against his shoulder, moaning contentedly. Clark's powerful senses were permeated with her scent. He didn't think his sense of smell was going to develop like his sight or hearing, but he still thought it was greater than a human's. It made him able to take in more of Lana than anyone else, to appreciate her in way's others never could. These were great gifts… but they also kept her from him.
He was consumed with desire, but they both pretended this was enough.
Edward has spent a lot of time in hospitals when he was younger, but this time he wasn't here as a patient. He paced the corridors like he were lost, while in truth he knew exactly where he was going. No-one spared him a look as he went on his way, and that was good. He'd lost the bandanna – here it would merely be something to identify him later.
His body had been frail when he was younger. He'd been whisper thin, scrawny with a pale appearance. Worse, his heart had been weak. At the time, he'd been driven almost mad with his own bitterness and jealousy. His brother, fit and healthy, had been a football superstar. While he loved his brother dearly, a part of him resented him terribly.
It was during one of his visits to the hospital that he'd first met Bruce Wayne. Bruce had shared a room with him, lying in the bed next to his. As a billionaire, Bruce could have afforded private care, and Edward never knew why he hadn't taken that route. It was through Bruce he'd begun to understand how he might level the playing field when going against your physical superiors. By using your mind.
As he found the right room, he once again realised how much he missed Bruce. He'd thought he might have found a kindred spirit there, but he'd learned later that he hadn't known the man at all. No-one really knew Bruce. It pained him to recall their final encounter.
"Hello Cyrus," he said softly, looking at the boy in front of him. He supposed technically Cyrus was a man now, but essentially time had frozen for him on the day he fell into his coma. He'd been like this for three years now, and no-one was holding any real hope of him waking up. Although he was fed through a drip, he'd lost weight, and Edward didn't think he'd had that much to lose. His skin was hanging slack off his bones.
Cyrus was different from most of the meteor freaks, in that his power was to heal, not destroy or corrupt. As Edward understood it, he had saved the life of a bully, healing his broken neck before suffering a complete mental breakdown. It made things more difficult for him, knowing that. Often he could justify what he did with the knowledge that these were not good people he was dealing with.
His resolve had been tested before, however, and he would not waver. Tears filled his eyes; he had to fight back a sob.
"I have no choice," he whispered. "Forgive me."
Lifting the pillow gently from under Cyrus' head, he hesitated only a moment. There weren't many people who would miss him. A boy named Clark Kent had apparently visited him a few times, but not many others. Cyrus. The name would be added to the list in his head. It wasn't much, but it was all he could do to honour them. He placed the pillow over Cyrus' face, holding it down firmly, and waited for the end.