It's cold. That's the first thing he notices, because it's such a marked contrast from before. Cold sand, impossibly white and impossibly wet, oozes between his bare toes in jagged clumps. Cold water washes around his ankles and melts the sand away; he shivers and takes a step backward. Cold air brushes against his scalp, and with a cry, he jerks his hand up to feel the newly exposed skin.
The sky's no longer on fire. Perhaps it's already been burnt away - it's simply black, stretching to meet with the navy water on the horizon. There are stars here and there, but not numerous enough to provide anything substantial...they might even be nothing more than reflections of the sand. No moonlight, but despite that, it's not dark. He shivers again and casts his eyes around. The cornfields. He needs to find his way back to the cornfields. That's where he was before, and if he gets back there, maybe -
More water curls around his ankles, and it startles him enough to jump backward again. Strange...there aren't any footprints where he was standing before. The water washed them away awfully quickly. He frowns a little, then shoves it aside. Footprints don't matter. Getting back to the cornfield does.
He starts to plod though the sand, slipping and stumbling a little as his feet sink downward. He'd forgotten how hard it is to walk on a beach - it's been ages since he's been to one. Was he four, five when he first took that trip out to California? So long ago. He squints a little, trying to remember what it was like. Nothing like this, he's sure.
But there's something else he can remember now, too. Not about the ocean...about the cornfield. There was a boy, tied to a pole...heat, so overpowering and harsh that he could feel his skin begin to sear...the too-familiar feeling of a crushing pressure on his chest...paper-thin leaves that crunched underfoot. And the ground, the way it moved like this water in front of him and swallowed him whole - he remembers that, too.
He doesn't cry out. His legs simply buckle, and he falls onto the soft white sand. Saltwater laps around him, soaks through his clothes and touches sensitive skin, but he doesn't care. (Though a voice in the back of his mind chides him, /you shouldn't get your clothes wet. daddy'll be mad./)
Something terrible happened in that field. He remembers everything about it except what it /is/. What could it be? Maybe...maybe he died. It's a troubling thought, but not as troubling as he'd expected. Maybe he was buried by that dirt-wave and suffocated to death. Maybe he died, and this is Heaven.
/I didn't think it would be this cold./
He frowns again and digs his fingers into the sand, feeling it clog under his nails and scratch his skin. Something else must have gone wrong, if he really was dead. Because he'd always thought Heaven would be warm and soft and light, and that he'd have wings he could use to flutter between the clouds. He's always wanted to fly. It's always been his favorite part of those stories, the idea of bird-mimicking, that perfect freedom.
Of their own accord, his hands have begun to shape the sand into small mounds. He watches as his fingers poke holes in the impromptu sculpture, forming craters that disappear the instant he draws away. But he notices that if he concentrates after digging the hole, it will stay until his attention turns to other matters. It becomes a game: see how long you can make it last before giving up and letting it close on itself. He has a record of forty-two seconds before boredom sucks the fun away.
He tries it with bigger holes, displacing giant scoops of sand by the handful. Those are harder to maintain; they flow together into nothing if he thinks of /anything/ but their existence. And he tries it with a crudely built sandcastle, more of a broken mountain than anything else (for he's had little practice and lacks the proper tools). That, too, threatens to collapse at the slightest thought, and he bites his lips and squints his eyes to keep it alive.
It hurts. He thinks, for an instant, that he can taste blood, and wonders how you can bleed if you're already dead.
The voice makes him jump; the sandcastle dissolves at his knees. It's a voice that echoes forward and backward in time: infinite, and laced with the expansive darkness above. He twists his head around and cranes his neck to see.
There's a man standing above him, tall and stick-thin. His robe sparkles with stars and glitters with flame, and his skin is deathly pale; untamed black hair hangs over shadowed eyes. It takes a moment to realize that the eyes /are/ shadows, holding twin red stars that mirror the ones above. There's a tangible power about him, almost visible, almost making the air shimmer and bend like it does in the summer heat. He may look frail...he is anything but.
His heart clenches. Slowly, so slowly, he rises to his feet and turns around to face him. The man regards him for a moment, but says nothing more.
"Are you God?" His own voice is soft and tremulous, and he's glad his father isn't there to hear the very audible terror. Luthors don't show fear, after all.
The man shakes his head. "I am older than any god that will ever be," he says.
His eyes widen, then he frowns, forehead creased and eyebrows knotted. "So...I'm not dead?" he asks tentatively.
At this, the man smiles slightly and extends a bone-white hand. "No," he says. "You are merely dreaming. And now it is time for you to wake up."
He hesitates, wiping his sand-caked hands on his pants (daddy will be /furious/) before cautiously reaching up to grasp the stranger's fingers. They're warm, in sharp contrast to his pallor, and unnaturally skinny; he can feel each individual bone in them.
Only for an instant, though.
Because then there's a brilliant light pouring from between their clasped hands. It ignites the burned sky, turns the sand to diamonds, dances in the rippling water. It swallows them both, until he sees nothing but white - and in the distance, two dark shadows alight with red flame.
A sudden warm pressure wraps around his body: soft arms, a soft body. He hears a familiar voice, rough with poorly hidden sobs, and smells a familiar perfume.
"Lex, my child, my baby, my baby boy...."
He's been having dreams lately.
He stands at the edge of a vast cornfield, watching the greengold stalks sway under a warm wind. There's something in that field he has to find...he doesn't know what, he just knows something /terrible/ will happen if he doesn't. So he pushes the cornstalks aside and steps into the field, feet crunching on dead, frail leaves.
The corn is only up to his shoulders when he enters, but as he keeps walking, it begins to grow taller. His steps become ungainly and awkward, like weights have been strapped to his shoes; by then, the corn is well over his head and still growing. It's not until he feels a stray breeze sweep by without touching his scalp that he realizes...and when he cautiously reaches up to feel his head, his fingers touch silk-smooth locks of hair. He pulls a few strands down in front of his eyes to see their bright red, almost orange coloring. The corn wasn't growing - he's been /shrinking,/ growing younger and younger until he's nine years old again.
It's then that he hears a soft moan, and his heart stops. Slowly, he raises his head toward the source.
"Help me...please, help me...."
It's the boy, the crucified teenager from the living nightmare. But...oh, God....He feels bile rising at the back of his throat, and it's all he can do to keep from collapsing.
It's the boy, but nobody's come to rescue him. He's stayed in the field, tied to that post, for the last four years. His face is sunken, his skin ash-gray; maggots crawl from his nose and ears. The smell finally hits him - decayed, rotting flesh - and he stumbles backward in horror.
"Why won't you help me?" the boy asks plaintively, casting his worm-eaten eyes down at him. Slowly, agonizingly, he works one arm free of his bindings. The rotted skin slides off his arm as easily as clothing, leaving a bare, exposed bone and muscle. He turns his face away and closes his eyes against the grotesque sight, but he can still hear the voice.
"Why did you leave me here to die?" the boy cries. Something wet and slimy caresses his cheek, and he gasps, eyes flying wide open.
But it's not the boy that stares at him. Now, the decaying body chained to the pole is that of his own mother.
It's cold. It takes him a few seconds to realize it, because the air feels almost balmy compared to the river's numbing currents. But yes, the chill is there, ruffling his damp clothes and snaking over his scalp. He hugs himself and rubs his arms, trying to find warmth in friction. More water curls around his shoes, but he doesn't notice.
It's cold inside, too...inside his body. He frowns. One hand lightly taps his chest before settling there. There's no comforting throb, just a cold stillness: his heart has stopped. It's something of a curious surprise.
This place...the place seems familiar. He massages his arms again and tries to think through the double-sided iciness. White, blue, black, and twelve-year memories click into place. He smiles suddenly, almost laughs, because if he wasn't dead then, it stands to reason that he's not dead now. Never mind the lack of a heartbeat. What was it the man had said?..."not dead, merely dreaming." Right. That's it.
And he laughs for real, and lets his hands drop, and settles down on a dry bit of sand. He unlaces his patent-leather shoes and peels off the soaked socks, letting his toes burrow in the beach. It's a small comfort, one to make up for what his heart cannot provide, perhaps. Reclining, he stares up at the black expanse, remembering the way the man's eyes had burned with starlight.
He idly spots a bird circling overhead, blending with the sky, practically invisible. A crow, he thinks. Or a raven. One of those dark predatory birds that peck through trash cans and cry to the clouds and whisper "Nevermore" to drunken poets. It makes the back of his neck prickle; those birds always have, ever since he found one crushed and bleeding behind the mansion as a child.
Crushed and bleeding...oh, God. He'd hit someone, hadn't he? There'd been a dark-haired kid sitting on the bridge, and he'd hit him when he lost control of the car.
He swallows and tries to ignore the sudden lurch in his stomach. Had he killed him? No. No, he couldn't have. There wasn't any blood, not that he could remember. The reasoning is irrational - he knows that - but it works. He sucks in a deep breath and nearly chokes on the air's salty taste.
But he's calm again.
Goosebumps weave up and down his arms; he senses a sudden presence beside him and glances sideways. Someone is seated there: a young man dressed in white, almost a ghost, with a brilliant green pendant around his neck. When he turns his face toward him, he knows why he looks so familiar: he has the same shadow eyes as before.
"I remember you," he says with a small smile. Cocking his head to one side, "You weren't dressed like that before. Trying out a new look?"
The man looks out at the ocean and does not respond for several seconds. Then, softly, he says, "You could say that." His voice still has its infinite, echoing quality, but the once-heavy darkness is gone.
"Hm." He stretches out his legs and turns his attention back to the circling bird. "So I take it I'm still not dead. Dreaming, right? That's what you said before."
"So...where exactly am I? And while I'm at it, are you planning on telling me who you are this time?"
The bird heeds an unheard call and plummets toward them. It pulls up several yards above their heads, fluttering down to land on the man's outstretched arm. He cradles it close to his body. Only then does he answer.
"Here, where you are now, is the razor's edge between life and death," he says. "This entire realm is that of Dream and Nightmare. As for me...I am its ruler."
It wasn't at all what he was expecting. He blinks, runs a hand over his bare head, stutters a bit when he finally speaks. "Y-you mean you're, what? The god of dreams?"
"In the crudest sense, yes."
He can't think. He tries to sift through his suddenly jumbled thoughts, searching for something coherent and sane, and comes up with nothing beyond /this has to be a dream/. Irony at its finest, and he can't help but chuckle. The man - the /god/ - raises an eyebrow, almost looking a bit miffed.
"Not you," he assures him. "It's just...."
That's when another thought nudges against his brain and sends him faltering into silence.
"So you control dreams," he whispers. His fingers drift down to etch small circles in the sand, circles that fade as quickly as they appear.
The god gives a swift nod; the bird caws softly, and he almost thinks he can hear a human voice in its call.
"I...." He hesitates, then it tumbles out in a rush. "I've been having these nightmares, every night, almost, since my mom died. Where she's chained up and rotted, and - " His throat closes up, prevents the rest of the words from escaping. He tries again. "It's not as bad as it used to be, but I - it's hard for me to sleep anymore. And I...."
He looks up at the pale figure. He's not crying; it's hard to unlearn a twenty-one year lesson, after all. But he knows his eyes are pleading, begging, and he hates it. Luthors don't beg. They take, they conquer, they dominate. They /don't/ beg.
Gently, the god asks, "Shall I stop the nightmares, Alexander?"
"No. I mean, yes, I do want them gone. That's not what I'm asking." He licks his dry, cracked lips. "I just want to know why."
The god frowns, eyebrows furrowed. A green glow flickers in his night-eyes. "I do not understand."
"Did I do something to piss you off? Or, I don't know, hurt some other god you've got a relationship with? Because if they're some sort of punishment, I'd kind of like to know what I'm being punished for." He swallows, pushes past the lump in his throat, and waits for an answer.
A sigh. "You are not being punished."
A long silence. He's reminded, uncomfortably, of dinners with his father.
"You are not the first to be afflicted with nightmares," he says, finally. "Nor you will be the last. If this realm contained nothing but pleasant dreams, it would atrophy and eventually cease to be. They are a necessity...for you, for myself, and for the continued balance of the universe." He absently strokes the raven's head with a crooked finger. "Tell me: were it not for the nightmares, would your mother have stayed in your thoughts for so long?"
He opens his mouth, prepared to shout that yes, of course she would, what kind of question is that? He has photographs, after all, and gifts, and her old jewelry and clothing, and....
Then he stops to truly ponder it, and finds that there is nothing to say.
The god is whispering in his ear now.
"Close your eyes. It is time to return to the waking world."
He hesitates before obliging. Fingertips, warm and feather-light, brush against his eyelids.
/and he's in flight.
all of smallville is stretched out below him...who knew a cow town could be so beautiful? gold, as far as he can see, rippling at the wind's touch. it's cracked apart by roads, barns, fences, rivers - but it doesn't mar the beauty. no, it makes the sight even more gorgeous.
faster, faster, diving low to skim the treetops, soaring up to scrape the clouds. he smiles, then begins to laugh wildly. freedom. there's nothing but the wind, the sky, the sunlight, and him. freedom./
He awakes. He can't breathe. Reflex seizes control, and he vomits up a mouthful of river water, coughing and gasping as he tries to pull in air. His throat feels raw; the brackish water taste is mingled with blood's sharp tang. His vision swims for a second before finally clearing.
/Oh, God. Mom...?/
Because the eyes that meet his are /hers/: impossibly green, with the faintest flecks of blue and silver. He blinks, forces another weak cough, and looks again. The first recognition dissolves as another takes its place.
"I could have sworn I hit you."
Also, why not join Level Three, the Smallville all-fic list?