Something Ritual

by slodwick

Without you I am nothing.
Without you I can't believe.
This gilded place has everything
But this comfort is not what it seems. It is not what it seems,
In between is everything I need.

It had rained all afternoon, the sort of slow, drizzling rain that made people tuck their coats a little tighter under their chins and threaten to move to California. The clouds drifted low, swirling since early morning, but late that afternoon, the sun broke through. It shone on the wet streets with an angry brilliance, seeking revenge for a day spent hidden. The air, however, remained chilly and damp.

As he entered the building, the sounds of the street outside were abruptly cut off, and there was a brief moment of near-blindness as his eyes adjusted. Tall panels of tinted glass flanked the revolving door and obscured the bright light outside, the vast lobby full of shadows. No amount of designer furniture or expensive paintings could put him at ease here. He shivered, but for now he could blame the weather.

He crossed the lobby swiftly, moving towards a tall desk in the corner. Beyond the desk was a narrow hallway. Down that hall, and around the corner, he knew there was a bank of elevators. Every car would be sitting idle, waiting for the visitors who seldom came.

The woman sitting behind the desk looked up as he came into view, and a polite smile touched her lips. He saw recognition in her eyes, and thought perhaps he should know her, but he couldn't quite remember her name. "Good afternoon, sir."

He stepped to the counter, and waited as she made a note of his arrival. Only six months coming to this place, and the routine was already second nature to him. He leaned against the rounded edge of the cool marble desktop, and removed his gloves. He didn't stuff them in his pocket, though. Instead, he just held them, running his thumbs over the seams in the slick leather. When she turned towards him again, he snuck a glance at the elegant golden nametag on her uniform.

"Good afternoon, Margaret. How long do I have this time before they kick me out?" He winced a bit internally. He knew his tone had been brusque, and it wasn't her fault he was late. But this was difficult enough without forcing false courtesy for a glorified receptionist. Besides, considering the setting, he had his doubts about the number of cheerful visitors she dealt with. She'd get over it.

Margaret looked at the slender silver watch on her wrist, and her smile faded. "Only about thirty minutes, I'm afraid." Her head tilted in genuine sympathy, and he felt guilty again for being so short with her. As he stepped back, she reached for the phone. "I'll just call ahead to let them know you're coming up. Have a good visit, sir."

"Thank you, Margaret." He walked past the end of the desk, and turned down the softly lit hallway. The colors there were muted, deep mauves and grayish blues, a palate he was sure the hospital had paid a design consultant far too much for. He hated it. Rather than giving the hall a serene atmosphere, they merely made it seem dusty and overly formal.

He walked briskly down the middle of the hallway, his eyes downcast. He was drawn to a spot on the carpet where a single thread had been pulled loose, a long line of fiber missing, running parallel to the wall. It was odd to see such a glaring error, and it disturbed him more than he thought it should.

The feeling was gone when he rounded the corner, where the elevators waited like silent sentries. He pressed the small, nondescript button halfway up the wall, not at all surprised when the door in front of him sprung open with a faint ding. He stepped into the car, with its thick carpet and mirrors all the way around, and pressed the button for her floor. The buzzing zoom of the tiny security camera in the corner was discreet, but he knew it was there. Not that he was hiding. There had been security cameras on him from the moment he'd walked in the front door.

It had been nearly two weeks since his last visit, and the guilt hung like a lead weight on his broad shoulders. He still loved her, desperately; there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't wake up and immediately think of her. He missed the sound of her breathing, the weight of her in the bed next to him. He ached nearly all the time, but morning was the hardest. So many days he wished he never woke up at all.

Lately, though, he had fought to keep himself occupied, had fought to fill his days with anything that would keep him from crying. Sometimes, that life that he needed just to function got in the way of these visits, and he let it. Maybe he invited it. Any excuse to keep pretending she was still there. As though she was just in the other room, or upstairs sleeping. It was easier for him to pretend, easier to imagine they were still living the life he had hoped for, the life he'd promised her, rather than face the nightmare of their reality.

As the elevator rose swiftly, he spread his arms and leaned back against the bar behind him. The eighth floor, the top floor of the hospital, arrived quickly. He sighed deeply, watching the reflection staring back at him. He had just enough time to really dislike the look of his new, thick glasses before doors slid open.

Long corridors trail off in either direction, and a nurse in a stark white uniform stood next to another tall desk directly in front of the elevator. Behind this desk, however, was a rather imposing metal door, painted a dark, charcoal gray. A placard on the wall indicated that this was indeed the eighth floor, one of three floors housing the facility's "private patients".

The nurse was holding a clipboard, and had been busily scratching notes on some form, but she stopped when he exited the elevator. Much like before, he thought he caught recognition in her eyes, but he didn't remember ever seeing her before, and wondered if he was mistaken. There was no mistaking the slight disdain that followed close on the heels of her recognition, though. It was nothing new, but still nothing he needed today.

Without a word, she placed the clipboard on the desk, and moved to the door, opening a panel imbedded in the wall to reveal a keypad. He waited, still twisting his gloves in his hands, as she entered the proper code. Finally a deep, grumbling buzz indicated that the door was unlocked. Pulling the door open, she waited for him to enter first.

He stepped from plush blue carpeting onto a hard tile floor, the heels of his expensive shoes echoing flatly against the lackluster white walls of yet another hallway. One of the long fluorescent bulbs overhead flickered in an irregular pattern, and the uneasiness he'd felt downstairs came back to him again. The air was filled with a dark, unpleasant scent he didn't want to examine too closely.

The nurse passed him and reached the door at the end of the hall first. She gave a cursory glance into the room through the narrow window in the door before her hand reached for the key ring attached to her belt. Stretching the keys on their elastic tether, she unlocked the door and pulled it open just a few inches. As he moved to enter the room, though, she moved back a little, blocking his path. "You have thirty minutes before visiting hours are over," she said roughly. "When visiting with the patient, you will please remember - "

"Excuse me. She isn't 'the patient'. She's my wife. Her name is Lana, and I have been here before. I understand the procedures." His anger was sudden, rushing up like a spreading brushfire, burning up all the trepidation and anxiety he'd carried here. He liked that. Though he really had tried to keep his voice down, it echoed down the hall, resonating with a deep timbre that he could see had startled the woman. Her mouth hanging open, she nodded slowly, and moved aside, allowing him to enter the room. And he liked that even more.

Despite the appearance of the hallway, Lana's room really was rather nice, all things considered. The walls were a soft cream color, soothing and warm. A corner room, sunlight streamed in the windows that lined the two of the walls. If he listened, he could hear birds singing somewhere outside, and yet the hum of traffic and city life was absent. He had always suspected that they had Lex to thank for this room, but had never asked.

The area to his right, a space that would normally be occupied by another patient, was home instead to a chic sofa and coffee table. Some impressionist painting decorated the wall above the low sofa, and his mother made sure an ever-changing bouquet of fresh flowers always sat atop the table. He dropped his gloves there, next to the vase, like a dark stain on that cheerful denial. It was just a constant reminder that his mother visited more often than he did, despite her longer commute. The guilt just kept on giving.

There was a homemade afghan folded neatly over the arm of the sofa, horrible, wonderful clashing colors of orange and red and brown. He's used it before, on those longer visits when he's exhausted from a long day at work, but just had to be near her. There were times when Lana would sit on the sofa with him, silent as always, but allowing herself to be held. He'd spread the afghan over their legs, and they would sit for hours like that; he'd talk to her about his day, trying to save the world and fighting with Lex, or just lean his chin on her shoulder, quiet, and listen to her breathing.

Those were good days.

Standing in that spot, staring, lost in his thoughts, he realized that he'd yet to even look at her. Avoiding it wasn't going to make it easier. When he finally turned his eyes to her, he knew it wasn't a good day. Those days had been few and far between for some time.

"Hello, sweetheart." The words seemed cracked, squeezed out around the tears that tightened his throat. He leaned back into the door, hand rising to his face to hide his quivering lip.

She was sitting up, the head of her bed angled sharply, and that was a change. A small voice inside him clamored with hope that she might be better, that any difference could be a good sign, but he silenced it quickly, and shoved it down deep. It had been too long for hope. And, whether he liked it or not, the doctors had confirmed she was getting worse. There was nothing he could do.

The sunlight shone across the bed, across her face, washing her slender shape in a rich, buttery gold, and he wanted to cry. Her hair still shocked him a little every time. It was barely long enough to brush the tops of her shoulders now, but it wasn't just the length that bothered him. Lana's hair had been such a joy to her, thick and glossy, and every month they'd splurged on that special Italian shampoo she'd loved so much.

Memories crowded his mind of the first years of their marriage; it seemed like so long ago. He'd lie across the bed, reading the newspaper or whatever true-crime novel had caught his eye at the drug store, and she'd be rattling around in the bathroom. A half-dozen magazines would be spread out on the counter, and she'd be trying out whatever hairstyles she saw, with varying degrees of success.

If he closed his eyes, he could still see her strutting into the bedroom, wearing the sort of long silk nightgown that he liked, giving a little spin and asking how she looked. She'd laugh, and he'd stare. He'd always answered with the truth: You look amazing, Lana.

Now her hair was as limp and lifeless as she was, pushed idly behind her ears, almost like an afterthought. And the color was different; lacking its former warmth, it was ashen, faded like fabric left too long outside. It was just so unlike his Lana, the one that still rattled around in his memory and woke him up at night. It hurt him.

The next thing he always noticed was her skin. It was so pale, too pale, and it also had taken on a distressing ashen tone, which only enhanced the long burn scar across her forehead. So many times he'd looked at it, and the weight of it still burdened him. If he could have prevented it, could have gotten there in time, he would have. If he could have taken the pain for her, all the pain, all the scars, he would have. But he couldn't, and he didn't know how to resolve that in his heart. One more layer of guilt on him, settling hard and strong over the so many others, all so thick he didn't know how he could still breathe.

The pallid skin on her cheeks blended to darkened purple under her eyes, telling him that she wasn't sleeping again, and her once rosy lips had nearly no color at all now. It was like time was sucking all the warmth from her, taking her vitality, her essence. Stealing what was left of her from him.

Her head was tilted just so, eyes staring. Her mouth hung slack, and a string of drool dripped down her chin. It was enough to halt his distant observation, spur him to movement. Cursing silently, he reached into the pocket of his wrinkled jacket, and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe her face. He moved to the bed slowly, reaching out to her. He had learned this lesson before; sudden movements would only upset her and end this already shortened visit.

She didn't react as he dabbed at her face, simply staring into the corner. He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, and grabbed a nearby chair, pulling it close to her bed. He bumped the bedside table and the small stack of books Chloe had left here tumbled over, against the lamp. He grimaced as the metallic echo bounced through the room. His eyes fell on Lana, but again, she didn't react. Sinking into the chair, he reached for her hand, and that's when he noticed the restraints.

Black, ugly, and they bit into the sallow skin of her wrists. He slipped one large hand around hers, shocked at how cool it felt. He trailed his fingers slowly over her hand, from the cuff of the restraint to the tips of each slender finger. The fingernails were trimmed short, and he could see pale pink nail polish chipped away to nearly nothing. His mother's influence again. The line where Lana's wedding ring had once been was faded, hardly even noticeable if he hadn't known to look.

He'd ask the doctor again later if the restraints were really necessary, and he was sure he'd be told again that they were. He doubted that sometimes. Like outbursts that he didn't see weren't real, and could be denied. The doctors just shook their heads and assured him that there were periodic bouts of lucidity, and more often than not, they ended in violence. They worried that it could grow worse, that she could do more than break a mirror or shred her pillowcase. They worried she would lash out at the staff, or hurt herself. So now, her delicate hands lay limp at her sides, and he was angry.



He wanted to rip the bands off, free her arms. He wanted to kiss that skin, soothe the wrong done. Though he wouldn't admit it, he wanted to see the jagged line of those long scars, like dreadful bracelets, priceless. Wanted to trace them with his fingers, with his mouth, kisses that wouldn't heal anything. He was both fascinated and horrified at that constant reminder of her pain, her weakness, her frailty. He wanted to find a way to help her, but those restraints held them both.

"Lana?" He lifted his hand, and smoothed the hair away from her forehead. She still hadn't given any indication that she knew he was there. Leaning forward, he pressed his gentle kisses to her trapped hand. She still smelled the same, like something warm and wholesome, fresh bread or home. He missed her scent. In that moment, his eyes closed and lips on her skin, he could almost remember what it was like to be surrounded by it.

His tears weren't going to wait much longer, and he realized he couldn't do this. Today, he simply didn't have the strength to face the stone wall that his wife had become. He stood, his fingers still twined in hers. Holding his tie back against his chest, he leaned over her, pressing another gentle kiss to her temple.

"God... I miss you, Lana," he whispered softly into her ear. "I'm so sorry. For everything. I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you then, and I can't be here for you now. I love you." One last squeeze of her hand, and he slipped his hand from hers, turning to leave. He only made it a few steps before he heard it.


He spun back around, and was shocked to see her looking right at him. Looking directly into his eyes. Seeing him. There was focus there that hadn't been there for months, something jagged and wild, and it scared him.

"Where is he?"

He stepped back towards the bed, but stopped short. He longed to reach out, his hands twitching with the need to touch her. "Where is who, honey?"

"Jason. My baby. Why won't you let me see my baby?"

It was as if she'd reached right into him, wrapping slender fingers around his heart, around the very center of his life, and squeezed, vicious and angry. That constant ache flared into sudden, sharp agony, and his hand shot out to the wall. Standing without help wasn't a possibility at this point. He closed his eyes and breathed in slow, deep. He needed time to think, time to choose the right words.

"Oh, God. Lana, don't you remember?"

There were flashes in his mind's eye of that day. The cloying, suffocating scent of too many flowers, the shuffling steps of too many people he wouldn't speak to. He had sat silently when the service began, staring at the beige carpet. It was inoffensive and peaceful, something utterly commonplace to counterbalance the unfamiliar terror and rage below the surface of his skin.

That tiny coffin in the corner, he wouldn't look at it. Couldn't look at it. The universe's worst possible joke, that he had to sit there and watch through his tears as his wife crumbled, slamming her fists against his chest and sinking, broken, to the chapel floor.

Until that day, he had thought he was unbreakable.

He was convinced, sitting in that pew, there was no way to survive it; no one could expect them to go on with life without Jason. But they did. They wanted him to go on, and so he had. He'd dug through the ashes, finding himself among warped pictures and charred toys. His world was blackened and rough, but he was still himself.

Not Lana, though. The part of her that meant everything lay cold and buried in a plot at Metropolis Memorial Gardens.

"Please, I just want to hold my baby. Please?"

Trembling tears pooled in her eyes, and her voice cracked. Whatever grace had allowed him to stand so long left him finally, and he sunk back into the chair next to her bed. The scar across her forehead seemed be more vibrant, outraged at the thought of being forgotten. She had crawled down the hallway, nearly twenty feet to Jason's door, before the ceiling had collapsed. The smoke had filled his room first.

They said she'd been lucky.

"Lana, sweetie, try and remember. He's... Jason died."

"No. No, he didn't." A slow, firm shake of her head, and the tears began streaming heavy down her cheeks. When she stilled, staring straight ahead, a lone strand of lifeless brown hair had fallen across her face, and caught on the moist trail the tears left behind. "That's a lie. You can't do this. He needs me."

"Shhh, Lana. It's ok..." He rose from the chair, reaching out to stroke her face, to wipe away the tracks of those tears, like new scars on her tender skin. Her blood was raging so hard he could see it clearly, pulsing beneath flushed cheeks. The color was returning with her pain, and her denial.

"No!" She jerked away, pulling against the restraints to escape his caress. "Who are you? God, please don't do this! Just let me see him, please? I swear I'll be good!" She was pleading, but there was a harsh fury behind those words. Just like he had trained himself to recognize the moments of her greatest joy, he'd trained himself to hear her pain. If only he could shut that out now. Instead it echoed inside him, reflecting hard on the surface of his own suffering, amplifying itself, spreading and making him tremble with its power.

"God, Lana. Listen to me! Jason's - "

"Do not say it. Do not tell me he's dead." Her eyes rolled towards him again, razor-sharp, rending him to the bone. "It's not true. It can't be. My Clark would never let that happen. You don't know anything about us." Bird-like hands, so delicate, now balled into fists at her side, and she was trembling with a different power. She'd had months of it, stored it up like a battery. He could almost hear her buzzing, and when she continued, he actually took a step backward.

"Clark always rescues us. Always. And I know Clark. He would protect Jason, no matter what."

The same tone she'd once used to negotiate with contractors and discipline employees, now turned on him, and he was surprised to find himself afraid. Like she might actually be able to break free of those bonds, and leap at him. Maybe she'd take revenge for so many months he'd escaped the real consequences of that day, time spent outside the realm of grief that Lana still haunted.

"Lana, please..." He kept moving away, his hand stretched out towards her as though he could comfort her from a distance, could calm her with his sheer will for it. He didn't know when it had happened, but his cheeks were soaked now, too. Tears slid into the corners of his mouth, flavoring this moment, and he knew he'd never get that taste out of his mouth.

"You can't do this! He's all I have left! You bastards can't keep him from me! He needs his mother... now you let me see him. Where is Clark? Where is he, and where is Jason?</I>"

That name in his head over and over again, and it stung like betrayal. Old bitterness sprang hot and vibrant behind his eyes, wrapped around his mind. Why wasn't his son here? Because choices had been made. Lana had been saved, Jason had not, and there was no changing that, ever. Even if he wanted to.

And, there was no mistaking, he had thought about it.

He'd thought about how things could have been different. He'd played games with desire and regret, but it was pointless. It was just a different form of self-mutilation, with scars that were easier to hide. This sort of punishment could take longer to end a life, lasting for years.

Lana wasn't the only one who had suffered; she wasn't the only one who had lost a son. But she never understood that. His pain, his loss was secondary to hers, and until that moment, he had never recognized how much he hated that. There was so much anger driving him, pushing him to work harder, keeping him on the brink of exhaustion to avoid thinking again about the day his family fell apart.

"Lana, stop it! You have to listen!"

"There!" She sucked in a deep breath, and went still, stopped pulling against the cuffs. Her eyes widened to a frightening degree. "Don't you hear that? He's crying for me! He needs me! God, let me go! Why won't you let me see my son?"

He dropped to the ground, hard, his ankle caught at a strange angle beneath the weight of his body. Something in him broke, was breaking, as he watched her jerking against the bands on her wrists. He felt it, slick and oily in his throat, and when he squeezed his eyes shut, his tears were acid. He shoved the heel of his hand into his mouth, biting down until it hurt. It was possibly the only thing that kept him from speaking, lashing out at her. He'd do anything to keep from hating her for this.

"God, why are you doing this? I need to hold him! It's ok! Mommy's right here, Jason!" Lana was nearly screaming now, and her voice fell on him like blows. He pushed with his feet until his back collide with the arm of the sofa, gasping under the weight of her emotion. Hands on his head, he shrunk away from the door as it swung open, and three nurses rushed into the room.

One threw an accusatory glare at him, and he recognized her from before. She was the one who had tried to warn him. The nurse made no attempt to hide the syringe she carried, and it caused Lana to fight even harder when she saw it. She kicked her feet under the blankets, and the bed slammed against the wall with the force of her thrashing.

"No! No! Jason! Clark! Where are you?" She was wailing, ferocious, but her voice was cracking, desperation quickly sapping her power. She cowered on the bed, pulling in on herself in an attempt to avoid the nurses' grasps. "Jesus! Help, Clark! Why won't you help me?"

He couldn't decide which was better, the raving, heartbroken woman who could wound with her delusion or the silent woman who stared at nothing, felt nothing. While the nurses circled Lana's bed, he pulled himself to his feet, and made a move for the door. He wouldn't stay to watch them hold her down, to watch them inject her with something that would return her to the shadow she had been. That was just one more thing he wouldn't, couldn't see and still keep his mind intact.

He thought if he could make it to the hallway, out of that room, where her voice pushed every other thought out of his head, that he'd be ok. But the hallway was no refuge, her screams seeping under the door, chasing him as he stumbled towards the gray door. Somehow it's even worse, the voice thin and chilling, just enough to make the tiny hairs in his ear tingle. One more cry for her lost son, for her lost hero, and she fell silent.

There would be no rescues today.

The buzzing mechanism of the door startles him a bit, and his broken stride stutters to a stop when it swings open. It was Margaret from downstairs. She peeked around the door, her face the very picture of matronly concern, and had he not been so frantic, he might have taken the time to comfort her. As it was, he just pushed past her, seeking the safety of the main hall.

He stopped at the desk, leaning forward and pressing his flushed cheeks against the cool marble. Maybe some of this grief could be leeched out, given away. He was still breathing in great whooping gasps, and his chest bumped the desk with every deep inhale.

The nausea was sudden, his stomach not yet caught up with the rest of him, still clenched and heavy. Turning, he rushed down the hall to his left. His body was moving without the benefit of his mind, guided by some memory he didn't know he had until he pushed through the door. He crossed the crisp green tile, and hurried into the nearest stall.

He'd had nothing for breakfast and been too busy for lunch, and for the first time, he was grateful. One knee wrapped around either side of the toilet, he braced his hands on his thighs, head hanging over the empty bowl. His stomach continued to protest, constricting in an uneven repetition, and each caused his entire body to lurch forward.

When his body finally began to calm, he sank to the floor, sitting against the cool metal of the stall. He threw his head back, connecting hard with the metal but not feeling it. It was a struggle to breath, and with each breath, he inhales the scent of his own failure. He failed her again.

There was sweat on his back, under his arms, and across his brow. It stung when it hit his eyes. Reaching up to his face, he bumped his glasses. He hated them so much, sliding low on the end of his nose, just barely clinging to his face. He reached up angrily and pulled them off.

Before his mind could question the action, he squeezed, feeling the brittle frame give, and the glass cracking under his fingers. It felt good. He enjoyed the destruction of something that could be repaired, something he knew he could fix. The pieces scattered when he tossed them, reflecting the bleak light over the sinks.

The door was visible from that angle, under the edge of the stall, and he watched it open a crack. Shoes, low-heeled and sensible, appeared just outside the doorway. There was a run in Margaret's stockings. It was barely visible in the small space between the cuff of her slacks and those flat shoes, but his eyes were drawn to it.

Just another scar.

He wasn't focused, though, and he didn't hear her words. He knew she was speaking, the sounds round and soft in his ears. He shook his head, replaying the moment mentally, trying to really hear what she said.

"They gave her something to calm her, to help her sleep, sir. She'll be fine. She's just... very tired."

"Yes. I know." What more was there to say? He pushed up with his legs, steadying himself against the open door of the stall, until he was standing. His hand rose to wipe absently, roughly, at his cheeks and mouth.

"There was a call for you during your visit, sir." She hesitated, and he didn't need to see her to know she was debating whether or not to deliver the message. "Senator Luthor asked that you telephone him right away."

He sighed, and it sounded like defeat. "Did he say what for?"

"I believe it has to do with his press conference tomorrow. He said he wanted clarification on the..." Margaret paused, and he could hear the subtle rustle of paper as she read the message. "He wants to clarify some points of the overseas regulations implied by your environmental protection plan, sir."

Thirteen months of planning and arguments and revision, and Lex was still coming to him with questions. Today of all days, however, he was not in the mood to deal with Lex's propensity for procrastination. It was a nasty habit that had developed since Lionel had died. He deserved a break from this.

However, he would be there for Lex, like always. Of course, he would be. Everyone expected something of him; the list of his obligations was never-ending. This guilt of just another shade, and he knew them all.


"Yes. I'm sorry." He stepped out of the stall, crossing to the nearest porcelain sink. Washing his hands quickly, he looked in the mirror, not entirely shocked to find he looked like hell. He swiped a moist hand over his face, and made a note to stop at home before heading to Lex's office. He needed a shower. He needed clean clothes. He didn't need to ask to know that Lex was expecting him, and he didn't need to be told that he'd be there all night. "Will you notify my driver that I'm ready to leave?"

"He's already waiting, sir," she said, holding out a paper towel for him. He took it, a little stunned at her gentle kindness, tears hovering just below his surface again. He shook his head, and wondered how long a man could live like this. He worried that it was a long time.

"Thank you, Margaret."

"You're welcome, Mr. Ross."

"This is where the gods play games with the lives of men, on a board which is at one and the same time a simple playing area and the whole world. And Fate always wins." - Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

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