"The Road Ahead"
New York – The Hokus & Pokus Occult Curiosities Shop
Madame Xanadu, Nimue to those that knew her very well, softly hums to herself, as she spread all the various ingredients out on her table. The only other sound was the jingle of her earrings as she shifted her head back and forth. Her usually flowing dark tresses are swept up on top of her head in a paisley headscarf to keep them out of her work.
In the few thousands years she'd been alive, she'd learned many spells and incantations. Some of the tomes and priceless manuscripts in her vast collection lay by her side. Within them, powerful, dark magic could be found, but that is not the agenda today. It's out of love she works her magic this afternoon.
In all those countless years, many had found their way into her heart, but only one held a very special place, Zatanna. She was the daughter Xanadu never had. When Zatanna's birth mother, Sindella disappeared soon after her birth, Madame Xanadu had come to Giovanni Zatara's aid and helped raise his young daughter. Over the years, as she watched her grow, Xanadu took a mother's pride in the beautiful woman Zatanna became.
When Zatanna became a mother herself, it was as if Nimue were given a granddaughter to fawn over. Like any mother, she worried about her daughter and wanted to help her. As she looked over all the exotic ingredients spread in front of her, Nimue smiled. She placed a cut glass bowl in front of her and started.
"A pinch of this, a dash of that, now where did I put that ground unicorn horn," Nimue murmured to herself as she glanced around the table.
The sound of the bell on her door pulled her from the search and the smile on her face vanished.
"We're closed," she immediately said. "Especially to you!"
"Your sign says otherwise, Nimue. I believe the exact words are enter and be unafraid."
"I'll remember to change it to exclude you, Stranger," she replied.
The Phantom Stranger stood just inside the door and smiled at her.
"It's been a long time, Nimue," he said. "You haven't changed in thousands of years. Your as breathtakingly beautiful as always."
"Don't try flattery," she fired back. "That worked once, long ago, never again. I know you haven't changed either, so what do you want?"
"To stop you from interfering," he replied.
"I thought you didn't interfere yourself, Stranger? Isn't that your motto?"
"There's exceptions to every rule," he said. He moved towards her, examining the contents of her table. "I know your heart is in the right place, but this would be wrong."
"I don't know what you mean," she said defensively. "I'm just making something to help a friend feel better."
The Stranger smiled and picked up one of the items on the table.
"With this? And is that ground unicorn horn I see over there?"
"Is it? I hadn't noticed," she replied.
"You're making a love potion for Zatanna, Nimue."
She had the look of someone that had just been caught red-handed, but quickly steeled her expression.
"So? What if I am? She's in love with him and he's in love with her. I'm just going to give them a little nudge, is all."
"You know you can't, Nimue," The Stranger said, shaking his head. "Your rule has always been you will aid those that seek your help, no others. Has Zatanna asked for help?"
"Well, no," she reluctantly admitted. "It's just a little nudge, hardly noticeable."
"You know as well as I do, you can't interfere with their lives."
"But I just want her to be happy," Nimue protested.
"I know how much you care for Zatanna, Nimue," The Stranger said. "I care for her too, but we have to let her lead her own life. You know that's what she would want."
Madame Xanadu knew he was right and hated hearing it, especially coming from him. Her mouth turned down in a frown and she crossed her arms in front of her.
"Oh, all right! I hate it when you're right," she finally said. "It's just that the cards and crystal are clouded to me about her. I can't see anything!"
"That's because you care too much and are too close," he replied.
"I hate feeling helpless," she grumbled. The Stranger sat down next to her. She shifted away from him. He smiled.
"Did you even consider him in this little plan of yours," he asked.
"He loves her and would be happy," she offered. "Isn't that what they call a win-win?"
"You know it's not as simple as that, Nimue. He's not an ordinary man, after all. He's just at the beginning of a long life that will have profound effects not only on Earth but the galaxy, as well. He doesn't even realize how many lives he's going to touch for the better."
"How can helping him find love be bad, Stranger," she asked.
"The butterfly effect, Nimue," he replied. "You change one thing ever so slightly and there is no telling what else you change. His destiny must come from the choices he makes."
"What if he makes a choice I don't like," she countered. "What if he screws up and disappears again and breaks her heart all over? What then, Stranger?"
"You'll be there to comfort her, as you were this time," he replied.
"That's a terrible answer," she said. "Can't you just tell me what choice he makes?"
"You know that isn't how it works. I can only see the possibilities at this point in time. Because of who he is, the possibilities are wide and varied from which he can possibly choose.'
"Blah, blah, blah, if you're not going to tell me, you can just leave, Stranger," she griped. He smiled, seeing the obviously unhappy look on her face. She was one of the oldest beings on Earth, yet she looked as lovely and young as the day he'd met her. Over the vast centuries they had a tumultuous relationship. She always favored action, while he continued to preach non-intervention. It had resulted in bitter arguments and hurt feelings. Whatever he might be now, there was still a sliver of his former self that would always be drawn to her. It was that small part that guided his next actions.
"I cannot tell you the outcomes, but I can show you the beginnings of some of the possibilities, Nimue," he said.
She brightened at this and actually smiled at him.
"Remember, they are just possibilities at this point, choices he may or may not make," he counseled. "They are also just the beginnings, Nimue."
"Yes, yes, get on with it, "she said impatiently.
"Thousands of years and still as anxious as ever, " he said with a shake of his head. She gave him a look, but before she could speak, he stretched out his finger and touched her crystal. The mists inside began to swirl and change colors. Nimue moved in closer as a scene appeared from the haze.
Metropolis – Twenty years in the Future
Clark Kent finished up work and headed home. The city was remarkably the same, only brighter with its omnipresent neon signs. Traffic moved silently through the streets as the rain drenched the city. Most pedestrians were too busy to see the apparently middle-aged man walking calmly in the rain.
The slight grey at his temples had been added to mimic the aging that should have happened, but hadn't. In truth, Clark didn't look a day over thirty. Time moved at a different pace for him than just about everyone else.
It had been a good full life so far. Watching his daughters grow into young women had brought endless joy into his life. Avida was always the quiet one. When she was old enough and the time was right, she had decided to return to New Genesis and become High Father's assistant teacher. Both High Father and Clark agreed. He saw less of her now, but he knew it was her life to live and he was proud of her.
Memo was a different case entirely. She was such a free spirit that even her mother was concerned. She showed no interest in following either of her parents paths and was currently somewhere in Europe working on a communal farm. Clark had tried to be the strict parent and talk to her about direction in her life and responsibility, but she just smiled at him and said she was happy. Clark could still hear Bruce's laughter when he told him how he'd caved in to her.
Yes, it had been a good life, but now and then Clark found himself lamenting never finding that certain someone to share his life with. It hadn't started out that way. It had taken time, but he'd put his failed marriage to Lashina behind him. He tried again with Zatanna, but too much time had passed and they found they were better friends than lovers any more. Lois had married and happily raising two sons. It had been Zee that pushed him into asking Diana out, but somehow they had never found the right moment together. He dated a little over the years, but nothing serious had ever come out of it.
In the late nights as he lay in bed, if he was honest with himself, he had never really recovered from his divorce from Lashina. His thoughts continuously seemed to drift towards what might have been. He loved his daughters desperately, but there was always a part of him that wished he could have been there for Fenris. He would always be Clark's son, so each new report of Fenris leading Darkseid's army against another world wounded him.
He saw Lashina rarely over the years, but it was always in the middle of a battle. Their eyes would meet and those old feelings would come rushing back. Time seemed to have past her by as well, and she only looked more magnificent and beautiful to him.
So here he was walking in the rain back to his apartment alone. His suit as soaked as the showers turned into a downpour. Everyone else seemed to have found shelter and he had the streets to himself. He barely noticed the rain, really. As he approached the park near his house he made a detour through it. It was quiet at this time of night and all the lights were all off.
As a flash of lightening zipped across the sky, Clark thought he saw a figure near one of the main fountains. He took off his glasses to wipe them, but another bolt lit up the entire area. Clark's breath caught in his throat as he saw her clearly. Lashina stood just staring at him. For a moment he wasn't sure if his mind was playing tricks on him or if this was some cruel joke. It was when he heard her voice that he knew it was really her.
"Kal-El," she said, barely above a whisper. If felt as if his heart was going to hammer it's way out of his chest it was beating so fast.
"Yes, my love," she nodded.
"How? Why?" he stumbled to ask.
"Darkseid has been overthrown. I'm finally free."
"Darkseid's gone? How," Clark asked, shocked by the news. The smile on her face disappeared.
"Fenris,' she sadly said. "It seems our son has been conspiring with Amazing Grace all these years behind my back. He said it was to protect me, but I fear it was just a mad desire for power. He rules Apokolips completely now."
The news stunned Clark and for a moment he could only stand and stare in disbelief. Lashina slowly moved towards him, stopping just in front of him. She reached up and ran her fingers gently down his cheek.
"I don't like the grey at all," she offered. "It makes you look like an old man."
"I am an old man on Earth, Lashina," Clark countered.
"I know better."
She briefly smiled and then looked away.
"I'm afraid the news gets worse, Kal-El," she said.
"What? Tell me," he said, reaching out to turn her face back to him. She seemed to welcome his touch, but her eyes betrayed her worry and sorrow.
"Tell me, Lashina."
"Fenris plans on conquering Earth,' she plainly said.
'What? Why,' Clark gasped.
"Partly to show he is greater than Darkseid and can accomplish what the dark lord couldn't, but mainly I believe because of you," she replied.
"He hates you." It pained her to say the words, but she didn't stop. "I tried over the years to tell him the truth, but I fear Granny and Darkseid had already poisoned his mind against you. Even more than Darkseid, he hungers to defeat you, his father."
Every word was like a knife to his heart. All these years Clark had held out hope that one day he could reunite with his son, but those dreams turned to ash as he listened to Lashina.
"I'll have to stop him, Lashina," Clark finally said. "He may be my son and I will always hope we can work this out, but I can't allow him to destroy Earth because of me."
"I know, my love," she whispered. "A long time ago, I was forced to make a choice. Now I have to make that choice again. I would choose you this time, Kal-El, if you'll have me. Or is it too late for us?"
They looked at each other and it was as if all the years since that moment in High Father's garden had disappeared. No words were spoken. Clark reached over and pulled her to him, kissing her with all the passion that had lain dormant all these years.
The mists swirled again and the images disappeared. Madame Xanadu sat back with a disappointed look on her face.
"I didn't like that one," she admitted.
"As I said, it is only one possibility and only the beginning," The Stranger replied with a smile.
"Show me another one," Nimue asked. He chuckled to himself as he reached out and touched the crystal again. She leaned forward, as another scene began to take shape.
Gotham –Five Years in the Future
It was Christmas time and Bruce Wayne and his wife, Talia were having a party for a few special friends. All the Justice League members had been invited and they were currently mingling amongst themselves. It had taken everyone by surprise when Bruce announced he was getting married. They were even more surprised when they found out it was Talia al Ghul. It seemed she had renounced her father once and for all in favor of spending her life with Bruce.
The party was a double celebration as Bruce and Talia had just found out they were having a son.
The only thing that had surprised everybody more had been a year before when Wally and Shayera had announced they'd gotten married in Vegas.
Clark moved through the crowd, returning the well wishes. It had taken him longer than he would have thought to get over Lashina. Zatanna must have gotten tired of waiting, as she had moved back to San Francisco with Memo and resumed her career full time. They were still friends and he saw his daughter often, but it seemed the timing just wasn't right for them. It saddened Clark that he'd missed his chance, but he only wished that Zee find happiness.
He'd only returned earlier in the day, having been on a deep space mission. The League had its annual gift exchange and then everyone had transported down to Bruce's mansion for the party. Things had not gone quite as well as he'd hoped at the gift exchange. Before he'd left, Clark was sure everyone had decided on a strict monetary limit on the gifts. It was relatively low, as not all the heroes were billionaires. Clark didn't have much time, but managed to get something for everyone before he left.
While he was gone, it seemed they'd reconsidered the spending limit. He found this out as they were opening gifts. One person in particular was not happy. As he made his way through the party, he spied Diana talking with Wally. When she saw him approach her whole demeanor changed. Her jaw clinched and she crossed her arms in front of her, refusing to look at him.
"Hey, Merry Christmas, Big Blue,' Wally cheerfully said.
"Merry Christmas to you too Wally. Diana?" Clark ventured, knowing she was more than a little pissed at him. "Come on, Diana, you can't keep giving me the silent treatment. It's Christmas."
Slowly she turned, the fire unmistakable in her eyes. For a brief moment he thought she was going to hit him.
"Gloves, Kal. You gave me gloves for Christmas," she said, her voice almost brittle.
"Actually they were more like mittens, Diana," Wally offered. Clark turned and gave him a look.
"No problem big guy."
"Look, Diana, I explained that, I thought there was a spending limit. I didn't know everyone decided to change it."
"That was my idea," Wally proudly said. "The old limit seemed way too cheap, I thought. I mean what's a couple of extra bucks between teammates."
"You're killing me here, Wally."
"I know I'm relatively new to the tradition, Kal," Diana started. "I've accepted that Bruce always gives money, like he's my uncle, but gloves?"
"I like the little loops on them so they can attach to your coat," Wally offered. "That way you don't lose a mitten. That's just smart thinking, Blue."
Diana had a different opinion that was plain from her expression.
"Gloves, mittens, whatever, really Kal? What am I ten? Did you just forget and give me one of Memo's gifts instead?"
"You're lucky you're not a guy, Diana, it would have been socks and underwear," Wally joked.
"Wally, please stop trying to help," Clark begged. "Diana, I've already apologized several times. I don't know what you want me to say? I really thought we were sticking to that spending limit."
Diana wasn't impressed by his explanation and just huffed and turned away from him.
"Hey! I just noticed you two are standing under the mistletoe! You know what that means, Big Blue!' Wally had a wide grin on his face.
"Maybe not the best time to point that out, Wally," Clark replied.
"Yes, because you obviously don't see me as a grown woman,' Diana added. "I'm surprised you didn't shake my hand or call me buddy and punch in the shoulder!"
"Buddy, that' s a good one, Diana. She really got you were you live, big guy," Wally laughed. Clark looked from one to the other, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Mittens! Of all that thoughtless things," Diana started to complain.
"Oh, the hell with it, come here!" Clark cut her off. He reached out and pulled Diana into his arms and planted a kiss on her lips.
It started as just a kiss to shut her up, but when he felt her soft full lips against his Clark deepened it. Diana was caught completely off guard, but as the sensations rushed through her body, she instinctively responded. His arms circled her slender waist and pulled her in tighter. Her arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, her fingers running through his hair. It turned into a hungry, passionate kiss that sent shivers through both of them. When they finally broke apart, they were both breathing heavily. They stood very close together, their foreheads touching.
"Kal," she managed to say, as the most extraordinary feelings rippled over her.
"Diana," he whispered, completely caught off guard by the emotions kissing her stirred.
Wally stood with his mouth open in shock watching all of this.
"Wow! That must be some magic mistletoe! Let me borrow it for awhile and find the wife!"
He reached up and pulled it down and rushed off to find Shayera. Neither Diana nor Clark noticed him leaving. They stood looking into each other's eyes.
"Kal, I…" Diana started to speak, but once again he cut her off with a kiss. There was no hesitation this time and she responded immediately.
"Merry Christmas, Diana," he whispered to her.
"Merry Christmas, Kal," she whispered in reply. One kiss turned into two and then three.
The mist swirled again and the images faded. The Phantom Stranger looked over to find Madame Xanadu staring at him. Her expression said she was not happy.
"You're doing that deliberately, aren't you," she grumbled. "Next!"
"You are a difficult woman to please, Nimue," he muttered. He reaches his hand out again and set the mists swirling.
Metropolis- Two Years Later
It had taken awhile for Clark to get back into the rhythm of the Daily Planet. It was good to catch up with old friends again. Most of Clark's limited free time he spent with his daughters. They were the bright spot of his life. He was sitting in his office, when the door opened and Lois Lane stepped inside.
"Nose to the grindstone, huh, Smallville," she said.
"Just finishing this story up, Lois."
"Do you remember that joke about the Albino you and your little friends pulled on me?"
Clark nearly punched his finger through the keyboard; he was so caught off guard by her question.
"You-You still remember that," he ventured.
"Oh, yes," she said. Lois moved over and put her hands on his desk and leaned towards him. "I also seem to remember that you owe me, Clark. Just name it, I believe were your exact words."
"You do have an amazing memory, Lois," Clark nervously replied.
"I've decided to cash in that favor, Mr. Kent. I want you to take me to dinner tonight."
"Tonight's really not the best time, Lois," Clark started, but she cut him off.
"Eight o'clock, Smallville. Pick me up at my apartment. There's a new fancy restaurant I've just been dying to try," she said, moving towards the door. "Oh, and wear something nice."
"Stop!" Madame Xanadu exclaimed. "I know where this is going; everyone knows where this is going! Next!"
The Phantom Stranger grumbled but did as she asked and set the mists swirling again.
Metropolis- One Year Later
Zatanna was on stage performing in front of a packed house. Her career had never been better. Madame Xanadu was watching Memo this week. It had been standing room only for every show and she outdid herself at each one. Currently she was doing one of her signature card tricks. Tossing two decks in the air, she began to spin, catching the cards and firing them out over the heads of the audience. Faster and faster she moved, as the cards arched out and then returned, only to be fired out once again. It was a precision trick, choreographed down to the second. Timing was everything. Just as she reached full speed something was off. One of the cards didn't seem to be there, as it should. She managed to recover and finish the show, but that moment bothered her.
She came off the stage to thunderous applause and two encores. Her manager was overjoyed. He rushed up to her filling her in on all the latest offers. Zee half listened as she headed to her dressing room. It took a few minutes, but she finally managed to close the door and be alone. She started to change, but her mind kept returning to the miscue on stage. Finally she stopped what she was doing and went over to the decks of cards. After a quick count, she discovered one was missing. That shouldn't be possible, but after a second count she came up with the same results. Putting it down as just one of the strange quirky things that happen, Zatanna went back to changing into her street clothes.
When she later emerged from her dressing room, her manager was standing waiting. He had autographs and papers for her to sign. It took another fifteen minutes to get through all of it. There was a crowd of well-wishers waiting out front, but it had been a long week and Zee was tired.
"Head out the back, honey," her manager suggested. "Remember tomorrow's your day off so just relax and have some fun. You deserve it."
"Thanks Sid, see you Monday," she said with a smile. She made her way out the back door and thankfully, no one was waiting for her there, or so she thought.
"Amazing show as always, Zee," a voice said from the shadows. She turned and gasped in surprise as Clark Kent stepped into view. He smiled at her and she returned it.
"You were in the audience? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I just wanted to watch you do your thing without any added pressure. It was as amazing as I remember."
"Thank you," she blushed.
"Oh, I believe this is yours," he said and held up the ace of hearts.
"You took it, why," she asked, taking the card from his hand. "Wait, this is from a different deck."
"It's the one you tossed at me the first time I saw you perform," he replied.
"You saved it? All this time?"
'I wanted to remember that night, always," he said to her.
They stood there awkwardly, not sure what to say next. Finally Clark ventured an invitation.
"If you're not already busy, maybe we could grab a cup of coffee or something?"
"Okay, I guess."
"No pressure, Zee, I'll take this as slow as you want to," he said to her.
"Wait, Clark," she stopped and stepped back from him. "I've had a lot of time to think about this, well, us and I've realized I can't do this if it's just about the past or some sort of obligation over Memo. That wouldn't be fair to either of us."
He looked at her and then stepped closer.
"I know a lot has happened and neither of us are the same people we were, Zee. I've been dealing with so many things since my return. The thing is, when I put my divorce, Avida, Memo, everything else aside and I look at you, I can't help feeling it's not over, Zee."
He was very close now, almost touching.
"I don't think I ever fell out of love with you."
"Good answer," she whispered. He gently tilted her chin upwards and kissed her. She responded, deepening it. One kiss leads to another, until she finally pulled back for air.
'Still magic," he whispered. She blushed and smiled, her heart racing over all the emotions rushing through her.
"Maybe we should have that coffee, now," she quickly said, afraid it she waited another moment, coffee would be the last thing on her mind. It was already a distant second.
"Okay, we'll do it any way you want," he offered. She nodded and then started to chuckle to herself.
"What? What's so funny," he asked. She turned and walked back to him, stopping very close.
"It's just that I learned something while you were gone, Clark. No one else seemed to notice but I did," she said.
"And what's that?"
"I had a baby, Clark, a half Kryptonian, half Homo Magi baby."
"Yes, I've met our daughter, Zee."
"Oh, shut up and just listen. I had her through natural childbirth, Clark. It turns out that while I look human, we Homo Magi are stronger than we seem. We also get stronger as time passes."
"Okay, I'm still not quite sure what you're getting at, Zee," Clark said. She leaned in and whispered to him.
"We don't have to worry about the red sunlight anymore, Clark."
She gave him a devastating smile and then started walking away. Clark just stood looking stunned.
"Are you coming Clark?" Zee called over her shoulder in a very sultry voice. Clark smiled and straightened his tie before starting after her.
"And the adventure continues," he said to himself.
The mist swirled and the images vanished. Madame Xanadu sat back with a satisfied smile on her face. She hugged herself with joy.
"I like that one, it was perfect. I even get to spoil Memo for a whole week.'
She turned and lightly kissed the Phantom Stranger on the cheek.
"Thank you, Stranger."
"I'm glad you are pleased, Nimue, but I must caution again that this is only one possibility among a vast variety."
"I know and I promise not to interfere, but is it so wrong to hope for the beginning I like the most," she asked.
"No, I suppose not, but you must realize others are hoping for different beginnings," he pointed out.
"I suppose," she admitted.
"I must be on my way now, but I'd like to leave you with just one more of the many possible beginnings, Nimue."
"I've already seen the one I like, Stranger.'
"This one may interest you as well," He said. Standing he reached out and touched the crystal before heading for the door. Madame Xanadu glanced at the crystal and then back towards him, but he was already gone. It was always like that with him, she thought. Paying no mind to the crystal she began to put away all her books, potions and charms.
The mist cleared and another scene began.
Metropolis- Six Months in The Future
As Clark trudged up the stairs to his apartment, another long isolated weekend stretched out in front of him. He was worn down by all of it and starting to wonder if coming back had been such a good idea. Opening his door he stepped inside. He was instantly aware of the presence of someone in his apartment.
"What are you doing here," he demanded.
"Not even a hello, Superman?" An alluring voice coquettishly whispered.
"Hello, Aphrodite, now what are you doing here?" Clark said. He closed the door and moved over to turn on the light.
A/N: That's all for a while.
For those that read the stories, thank you. For those that read and reviewed the stories, a very special thank you. I did read and appreciate all the comments.