Disclaimer: the characters are the property of persons richer than I.
Notes: Signe did the beta when I thought Bexless had forgotten about me. Bexless agonised over the kiss with me instead.
Feedback: will be followed by cake and ice cream.
Summary: The one who isn't there is always the one you want.
Lois knows something, but Clark is sure she hasn't figured it all out yet. He knows this because there are twenty people hiding behind furniture in his apartment, it's his birthday, and Clark is sure this has something to do with Lois.
When he first arrived in Metropolis, Clark checked every door before he went through. Checking for hazards, he would tell himself, but also because he could. X-ray vision had always been his favourite. It's not obvious, like speed and flight. There are no consequences, like fire and ice. Sometimes he'll look too deep or train his eyes in the wrong direction, but it's still x-ray vision that causes Clark the least problems.
He had to stop checking every room and door. Clark was already taking his time, forming his words and waiting to speak. With the pauses before sentences and pauses in front of doors, something had to go before Lois wrote him off completely.
These days, Clark still checks his own apartment. Superman has to be ready for any unexpected attack. Lex still has his key and he gave one to Lois, just in case, and both are known for their drop-in visits.
More than a month has passed since Lex forgot they had broken up and showed up, drunk, in the middle of the night. Clark thought he was dreaming and let it go too far. After Lex passed out in his bed, Clark slept on the couch. Lex is still ignoring him, and even though it's Clark's birthday, he knows it wasn't Lex who invited the people hiding behind his couch. Besides, Lex has known about the x-ray vision since the beginning.
Clark likes the hearing too. Through the door, he can hear Lois' hissing whisper.
"He's right outside. Get down, you dolt!"
Clark almost walks away. There's a bar down the street where he gets free drinks from the regulars who want to see him drunk. He leaves every night as sober as he came, but tonight it's his birthday; maybe tonight it will work. X-ray vision kicks in like second nature as he takes another look at the door. Clark won't be going anywhere.
The apartment is packed. He recognises a number of people from the Planet, ones that he can put names to and more that he can't. Clark sees the two girls from next door he always runs into in the laundry room and the married couple from down the hall. He sees Pete, but not Lana, and he already read Chloe's email saying, "Sorry, but Happy Birthday" this morning. He finally spots Lois, crouched behind the kitchen counter. He doesn't see Lex.
He shakes his keys and makes too much noise as he unlocks the door. He steps inside, flips on the lights, and braces himself.
Clark puts on a big grin, not fake, but a little exaggerated, as he gets drowned in confetti. He wants to give them something for all the work that must have gone into the red and blue decorations covering his walls.
"Happy birthday, Kent." Lois rushes forward to gather him up in a hug.
"Thanks." He puts a kiss on her cheek. "Lois, where did you find these people?"
"Oh, I had to use some of my own friends to fill out the numbers. You don't mind, right?"
She grabs Clark's wrist and pulls him into the crowd. Jimmy slaps him on the back. The blonde from next door reaches up and kisses him too long. Clark almost goes back for more when Lois pulls him away again.
The surprise over, guests and voices start to mingle in the tiny space of Clark's apartment. Some have emerged from their hiding spaces, drinks already in hand. The music gets turned up. Clark doesn't recognise it, until he remembers a stack of CDs Lex still hasn't taken back. Lois lets go of Clark in the kitchen, long enough to put a glass in his hand and serve the punch. It's red, fizzy with a bite of alcohol. Clark pokes at something blue floating in his glass.
"They're blueberries, Clark. Are you okay?"
He smiles up at Lois. "I'm just surprised, that's all."
"Really? You're having fun?"
Clark nods. She watches for a beat, decides she believes him, then leaves him at the counter. Clark finishes his punch, smiling with the tickle on his tongue. The party has taken over the living room; the coffee table has been pushed out of the way and the impromptu dance floor is filling. He eyes the punch bowl, then, while the guests are distracted, pours himself a glass of milk. Draining the glass, Clark just manages not to choke when a hand comes to rest on his shoulder.
"There's the surprised face." Pete says, nodding his head. He leans back up against the counter, arms across his chest. "I didn't see it earlier. Were you using your powers in the hallway, Mr. Kent?" he asks, sounding like his high school principal, instead of his best friend.
"You can't tell Lois." Clark holds a finger up in Pete's face.
"I've been keeping this secret for years, Clark. I'm gonna slip up now?"
"Yeah," Clark agrees, but he may never stop being paranoid.
Pete's never even made jokes about his superpowers for fear the secret would get out. Despite the bad jokes he does make about Clark's perpetual lateness, superspeed has never slipped out. It's hard for him, Clark can see that, and he still hasn't figured a way to thank Pete for everything he keeps quiet.
"Will the mogul be gracing us with his presence?" There are also times that make Clark think Pete teases him about Lex because he's not allowed to do the joke he wants about heat vision.
"Lois invited Lex?"
"Yeah," Pete laughs. "Can you imagine that conversation?"
"I've heard it. From both ends, thanks."
Pete sips his punch, quietly. Clark sticks his head out of the kitchen, looking for Lois. She's on the couch with a man Clark's never seen before. She's laughing, the fake one she uses when she's distracting a receptionist while Clark sneaks past. It's also the laugh she uses at functions when she needs Clark to rescue her from a congressman. Clark ignores her with a smirk.
"What did she say to you?" he asks Pete, stepping back into the kitchen.
"About Lex? Nothing."
Pete turns away, busies himself with the punchbowl. Clark laughs, and wonders just how Pete has kept the secret if he's still this bad at lying.
"Pete." That's the Kent voice, something Clark picked up from his father. Lex used to call it his superhero voice.
"She didn't say anything about Lex, man." Pete turns, his face a little sad. "She's worried about you. We all are."
"You're not happy, Clark."
Clark lets his hands drop, twitching at his sides. He looks down, then back up to face Pete again.
"No. You're not. It's your birthday, Clark, and you're hiding in the kitchen. Drinking milk." Pete breaks into a grin at his last words and Clark lets himself laugh. "Have some fun, man. You never know who might show up."
Pete hands him a glass, which Clark takes reluctantly. Pete taps it with his own in a pathetic toast. They drink and Clark wrinkles his nose.
"Too fruity," he answers to Pete's raised eyebrow.
"I thought that was what you liked." He laughs and ducks out of the kitchen before Clark can get a hand on him. There should be a joke about superspeed there, but Pete knows better.
Someone calls his name from the living room dance floor and Clark steps out into the crowd. It's an odd feeling, being lost in your own apartment. Clark hasn't had this many people in his apartment since he moved in. He hasn't had a birthday party since he was twelve. Martha made cupcakes, frosted green, that looked like frogs. The next year, Clark decided he was too old, and Martha made a cake for just the three of them. There will be cake when he goes to Smallville tonight, but Clark saw the cardboard box from Lois' favourite bakery at the bottom of his fridge when he went for the milk. Tempted, but he didn't look. He'd already spoiled one surprise.
Lois' face lights up when Clark finds her standing in the middle of the floor. She throws a hand up and yells, "Hey!" trying to get the crowds attention. Her voice can't compete with the crash of music and Clark realises he probably shouldn't have been able to hear her from the kitchen. She grabs hold of Jimmy, whispering something in his ear. He sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles. Clark's never been able to do that, no matter how many times Jimmy teaches him.
Lois grabs their undivided attention and announces it's time to open presents. She hooks an arm around Clark's waist, leading him to a pile hiding his TV.
"Happy birthday, Clark." She gives him a kiss on the cheek and a box wrapped in blue.
Clark gets a seat on the couch and Lois puts herself next to him, but the rest of the guests continue milling around the apartment. There are only a handful of folding chairs his mom sent Clark when he moved out of the dorm. With nowhere to sit, the party continues while Clark unwraps his gifts.
"Don't be mad," Lois says as Clark looks at the newspaper clipping in its frame. The first mention of Lex, after moving back to Metropolis unannounced, is barely an inch in the Inquisitor gossip column. There's the who, the where, and the when. They suggest the unknown man he's eating with is the why.
She's still waiting for his answer when Clark looks up. "I'm not mad," he tells her. "It's great, thank you."
"I didn't want it to bring up anything you didn't want brought up," she says. "I wanted to remind you of what brought you here in the first place."
"Thank you," Clark says again. He moves to kiss her, but Lois holds up a hand, stopping him.
"Okay," she warns him. "But don't let me get used to it."
Clark laughs, and teases, kissing her on the lips this time.
There are tickets to a Sharks game from Jimmy, with the promise of who Clark will take.
There's a card from Pete, with his promise for another year. "You want a present too? With everything I do for you?" he asks, incredulously, when Clark gives him a look.
There are CDs and gift certificates from the people who came for the food and don't know him that well.
From the kitchen, Lois throws him a garbage bag for the wrapping paper. "Who wants cake?" she shouts. A quick, and embarrassing birthday song later, Clark blows the candles out - carefully - and, cake served, the party moves back to the living room. Alone again, Clark pours himself another glass of milk, to go with the cake. It's chocolate, because you can't go wrong with chocolate, but there's cream filling and icing too, and Clark is starting to realise that you can have too much.
"Pour me one of those?"
Clark turns back to Lex smiling at him. He looks good, shirt crisp, black coat without a speck of anything on it. Clark had guiltily wished for dark circles under Lex's eyes, but he was never the one who had trouble sleeping.
"Yeah, okay." Clark opens the cupboard above him for another glass. He pours the milk as Lex takes a wrapped box from his pocket and puts it on the counter, then starts pulling his gloves off.
"Since when do you drink milk?" asks Clark, handing him the glass, and hoping for their fingers to touch accidentally, instead of the cheap ploy he used to try as a kid.
"I don't know," Lex smiles, taking the glass and letting them touch. Clark holds his breath as Lex drinks, knowing he can hold out longer. His eyes fall from Lex to the present on the counter. "That's for you," Lex says when the glass is empty. Clark watches the tiny box slide across the counter.
"What have you done?"
"Just open it, Clark."
"I just think, Lex, that maybe we should have talked before--" Clark gets the box open to find a key. "I don't understand. I already have your key, Lex."
"It's not mine," Lex tells him. "It's yours. I should have given it back a long time ago." He pulls his gloves out of his pocket and back on. "Happy birthday, Clark."
Clark doesn't say anything, holding the key up in front of him. Lex leaves as quietly as he arrived and Clark almost misses it. He's in the hallway when Clark catches him.
"I don't want it, Lex." He turns around as Clark closes the door until they're alone in the hallway. He looks mad, but Clark's not sure; he never could be.
"I never could give you anything, could I?"
Clark grabs hold of Lex's wrist before he can escape. "A key doesn't make any difference, Lex. You'd find your way in here if it was Superman himself guarding the door." Lex looks so quiet. He's not waiting to speak, the way Clark calls him on too often. He's just listening. Clark lets his wrist go, confident that Lex will stay. "I don't want my key back, Lex." Pete's right: he's not happy. "I want you back."
Lex's eyes slide close as he takes in the words and lets out a breath. "That's not fair, Clark. It was your--"
"Yeah." Clark reaches around and pulls Lex into a hug. He lets out another of those breaths and collapses into Clark, who holds them up with the door at his back. It's quiet, but Clark can't hear the voices inside his apartment anymore.
"I don't understand. I'm the same person you broke up with."
Clark tilts Lex's head up to kiss, the same kiss - with groans and soft bites - that Clark got on his birthday last year.
"Well, I'm not the same person I was," Clark tells him. "I'm a whole year older."
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