A narrow strip of highway curved through the countryside, whipping Metropolis off and skimming into the lush fields of Lowell County. Corn stalks waved furious salutes as Lex's silver Boxter streaked past, welcoming it home from the city. Just past the sign that said Smallville - 50 Miles, the car veered off the state highway and onto a questionably-paved country road.
"I found a shortcut," Lex said, rubbing his half-gloved fingers casually on the stick shift. He'd thrown his jacket in the trunk, but left his tie hanging unlaced around his throat. Between that and the driving leather, he looked strangely like himself again after several hours of polished social performance at the Metropolis Museum. "If I avoid going through town, I can cut ten minutes off the drive home."
"Yeah, but my house is fifteen minutes from yours." Still tied up tight, Clark shifted back and forth in his seat, finally giving up on the uncomfortable jacket and reaching for Lex's CD case. Flipping it open, he smiled to himself and teased, "Ten, if you're driving."
Lex bit down on a grin as he casually pushed the Porsche past ninety. "If I avoid going through town, I can cut at least two tickets off the drive home."
"Now the truth comes out." With a laugh, Clark leaned his head against the window, still thumbing through CDs. He pulled out the liner notes, neatly catalogued behind each disc, glancing up at the road before studying the song list. "You should risk the tickets. This road is supposed to be haunted."
"Phantom hitchhiker?" Amused, Lex snagged the disc and slid it into the CD player.
Sprawling as much as he could in the tight confines of the car, Clark nodded. "Sorta." He laughed, rolling his head against the seat to look over at Lex. "Actually, not really."
The music and the engine hummed the same minor scale note, and Lex accelerated, adding the shrill harmony of the wind to the mix. "Enlighten me, Clark."
"It's just a campfire story, Lex. Ghosts in the back seat, disappearing cars, stuff like that," Clark said, gesturing lazily at the streaks of green outside the windows. Closing his eyes, he tended a wry smile, rocking gently as they tore over rough patches of graveled potholes. "They probably made 'em up to keep kids from speeding."
"So I take it I won't be getting a story out of you tonight?"
Clark clasped his hands behind his neck, arms half-spread like butterfly wings. There wasn't much room in the Porsche for him to sprawl, but he did his level best, knees splayed, and his elbows encroaching on the window and Lex's side of the car. Sleepily amused, he finally answered, "Probably not."
A fleeting smile lit Lex's face, fading as he quirked his head just enough to examine Clark's profile. Even on limousine occasions, Lex had never been able to sleep in a car. Being driven or driving himself, the steady rhythm of running engines raised his pulse and kept his mind running fast. Clark didn't seem to have that problem: with dark lashes fanned on his cheeks, and his nose flaring with even breaths, only an occasional shift against the seatbelt hinted that he hadn't yet drifted off. "No advice in the event of an encounter with the undead?"
Quiet for a long moment, Clark finally answered with a sleepy smile. "Run."
An explosion woke him. Clark jerked his head up and saw stars everywhere, flickering, dancing- disappearing as clouds filled the car. Blind, then upside down, Clark pushed at the clouds; they felt like nylon. They tasted like chemicals. His seatbelt cut across his shoulder, a minor annoyance, but real enough to wake him up. Not clouds, airbags. And they were falling.
He could see a thousand things in a second: Lex buried in billowing white fabric, the CD case falling in slow motion to land on the inside roof of the car. Clark wrenched at the seatbelt, mechanical debris floating up when he broke the latch. Intuition told him to brace the roof with his shoulders, and a moment later he was rewarded by another crash, another impact that reverberated down his spine in a brief ache. The car rocked back and forth, an airy whine cutting through the sudden quiet.
Bracing his feet against the door, Clark hesitated. Lex already had one Porsche enshrined in the mansion; this would make two. He could imagine the body shaped dent in the roof, and the wire-frame computer reconstruction of the accident already. A soft groan cut through the consideration, and Clark pushed. Safety glass plinked like hail, metal protesting the abuse. Digging his heels into the ground, Clark wrenched himself out across a bed of debris.
As soon as he stood, he lost his balance again. His skin burned, needles piercing his veins and stealing his strength. Pain blossomed when he fell to his knees, the crack of contact against the rocky earth echoing sharply. Raising his head, he saw a new glitter- a green glitter- everywhere. Trying to quell the nausea that cramped his stomach, Clark pushed himself onto his back and called out. "Lex?"
Clark blinked. Three round faces peered down at him, moon-pale and bald, with impossibly large eyes. He registered green, blue and brown, with long lashes and curiously curved eyebrows. Kids, a bunch of little kids- it didn't make sense, but Clark tried to push himself up on his elbow. "Lex..." Clark recoiled a little when the children leaned closer to him. "Lex is my friend, he's still in the car. We need help..."
Three little bodies, blunt and clumsy, swarmed around Clark, chubby fingers thrusting into his hair and pulling on his clothing. He didn't want to shove them, but their clammy hands left prints, cold touches that felt infected on his weakened skin. They smelled of groundwater and old potato peels, a scent so pervasive, he tasted it in the air.
One stuck a finger in Clark's ear, snatching his hand back when Clark shuddered. They all opened their mouths at once, each speaking a word in turn to make up a whole sentence. "Somebody's gonna help us soon, they can help you, too."
Shifting onto a hip, Clark looked back at the car, shrugging the tiny hand that fell on his shoulder. His muscles trembled as he tried to rise to his knees, little emerald pebbles stinging through his pants. Past the limp airbags, Clark could see Lex hanging in his seatbelt, strangely peaceful, his arms hanging in a halo around his head. Squinting, Clark's head pounded with exertion, his x-ray vision strobing from skeletal to full-flesh. Making out a pulse in the middle of it, Clark closed his eyes and slumped again. Lex's heart was beating, at least. "I have to get him out of there."
Vaguely aware of hands petting his hair, Clark made one more push toward the car before he saw stars behind his eyelids, and fainted.
Instinctively, Lex turned away from the cold. It stung on his cheeks, unpleasant but not enough to disturb him, not until it smoothed over his head. He batted the touch away, biting down hard to keep from hissing when his whole body protested. Something skittered, and Lex raised his head to try to make out the surroundings. High walls stretched above him, damp stone faces that elongated into blackness. He moved experimentally, rewarded with sharp twinges for his trouble. Cast in the darker shadows of the upturned car, Lex caught the edge of something pale darting around it.
"Clark? Is that you?"
"He's sleeping now." Spectre children circled around the car, squatting down to stare at Lex.
Unnerved, Lex loosened his collar button and sat up a little straighter. He tried for a friendly voice as he processed the vision in front of him, children in rags, smooth-headed, with dark circles gouged out beneath their eyes. "What do you mean, he's sleeping?"
Turning at once, they all rolled their thin shoulders and pointed toward a silhouette slump nearby. "He wanted you out, but he fell asleep." Six pairs of eyes turned back to Lex at once, and three mouths curled up with delighted smiles. "We got you out."
"I appreciate that," Lex said, catching a natural ledge and pulling himself to his feet. His throat tightened when the children swarmed around him, knotting fists into his pants and turning their faces to look up at him.
"You're like us," they said, one word after the other hushed with reverence. "Only you got big."
He didn't know what to say to that. Rubbing a hand over his head, Lex pushed past them, his dress shoes crunching on the uneven ground. "Who are you?"
The children considered this for a moment, sweeping close to him again when he crouched next to Clark. They plucked at Lex's jacket, and one of them managed to pull off his loose tie before he shied away. "Evanhannahcaleb. We're just Us. You can call us that."
"Okay." Lex nodded, sweeping Clark's bangs back. Even with his attention fixed on Clark, he could feel the kids creeping closer; they brought cold with them, and the distinctive, mucousy snuffle of kindergarten breathing. It filled his ears like white noise, and he had to curl his fingers beneath Clark's nose to make sure he was breathing. "Clark. Clark, wake up."
Clark swallowed, lashes fluttering a little. "Lex?"
Crowing in delight, the children shoved closer. "He woke up!"
Fighting the urge to shove them, Lex concentrated on helping Clark sit up. He felt like dead weight, and his skin shone with a sour, sick sweat. Lex dipped his head to catch Clark's gaze. "Clark. Clark, are you with me? Do you know what year it is?"
"Nineteen eighty nine," the children offered in concert.
With an unsteady hand, Clark tried to wipe his face, and lost his balance. Swaying against Lex, he struggled to right himself. The meteor rocks seemed to pulse around him, waking up with him to drain more of his strength. His heart beat impossibly hard in his chest, but slowly, and getting slower. With hazy visions of laboratories and his father's warning rasp rattling in his head, Clark managed to catch Lex's arm, and squeezed. "You've gotta get me out of here, Lex."
"I will." It carried the weight of a vow. Lex reached for his cellphone, only to find an empty pocket. Craning around, he suppressed an involuntary shudder when the children edged back with matching steps. "I had a phone, have you seen it?"
They shook their heads, gazes turning in different directions.
Lex narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but he didn't argue it. Working his shoulder beneath Clark's arm, he braced himself. "You're going to have to help me, Clark. Ready?" When Clark nodded, Lex took a deep breath and counted to three. Heaving against dead weight, Lex struggled to stand, wincing when they fell back against the sharp stone wall. Inhaling deeply, Lex murmured a vaguely encouraging sound and pushed off the wall.
Offended, the children scrambled to their feet, aligning themselves side by side. Their eyes glittered, sharp little teeth snapping as they joined hands. "We're waiting for help."
"We're going to find help," Lex said, guiding Clark to take a step with him.
The shriek tore through the cave, a shimmering wave following it. The wave crashed into Clark and Lex, cracking their heads against the wall and flattening them against it. The force knocked loose facing free, raining shards of rock down on them. A trickle of blood coursed along Lex's temple, and he fought to turn his head. Clark stared back, a bruise spreading on his cheek.
Climbing up the car, one of the boys perched at the highest point, the other two flanking behind him. "The teacher said for us to stay here. She went to get help, so we hafta stay here."
"We can help you find your teacher." Infinitely reasonable, Lex even managed to sound a little kind. "She probably got lost."
The boy wrapped his hands around the Boxter's wheel and gave it a spin. "Uh uh. The teacher knows everything." The children nodded together, clambering off the car to get close to their visitors again. Lighting up with feral smiles, they tugged on Lex's fingers and Clark's shirttail. "Everything. She said stick together and nothing will hurt you."
"We're not trying to hurt you," Clark said. He blinked slowly, his eyes rolling back for a moment before he managed to focus again. "You can stay here, okay?"
Distracted by a low rumbling in the distance, the children scattered, then disappeared into a narrow crack. "We hafta wait!"
Rivulets of sweat coursed along Clark's skin, stinging in his eyes. His breathing slow, and all of the color washed from his skin, he looked like he would collapse if they weren't pinned to the wall.
Lex licked a streak of blood from the corner of his mouth. "Care to share that ghost story now, Clark?"
Wheezing with a faint laugh, Clark tried to look over. "Not really."
"That's too bad, I could use the distraction." Lex closed his eyes, trying to force his shoulders against the wave that held them in place. "We'll get out of here."
Clark made a non-committal sound. Quiet for a moment, he forced his eyes open, rubbing his lips together before he offered a small confession. "I'm allergic to the meteor rocks. That's what's making me sick."
"That helps." Lex wrenched against the invisible weight again, his eyes snapping open when he felt it give a little. He tested it again, almost afraid that the slight pull was wishful thinking. "I don't have a plan yet, but that helps."
"Think they've been down here since the meteor shower?"
With a tug, Lex managed to free his hand. Smiling grimly, he worked on the rest of his arm. "I'd say it's a distinct possibility." Pinioning his elbow against the wall, Lex slowly pried his arm loose. "Tell me something, Clark." He only hesitated long enough to let the words fall, then continued. "Why didn't your parents move away when they realized you were allergic to the rocks?"
"I don't know." Clark's voice trailed down to a murmur. "Because of the farm, I guess."
"What's interesting to me," Lex said, then braced himself and shoved hard. The wave shimmered again, then disappeared. They hit the floor hard, falling on their hands and knees in the dark. Suddenly efficient again, Lex pulled Clark's arm over his shoulder and stood up, more easily this time. Adrenaline flowed now, making up strength from determination. "Is that aside from the occasional oddity, the meteors made everyone else healthier."
Clark lost his balance, barely catching himself before he pulled them both down. "Uh huh."
Concerned, Lex braced himself again and tried to move a little faster. Reasonably, the caves had to connect to the Kawatche site- Lowell County wasn't that big- there had to be an outlet somewhere nearby. "We'll talk about it later."
With a groan, Clark shook his head. "There's nothing to talk about." The cave seemed impossibly large to him, each step piercing through him. He hurt all over, foreign pain amplified by movement. Head swimming, he was grateful when Lex stopped, letting him lean against the wall as he crouched to examine a crevasse.
"They went this way. Logic dictates it leads somewhere." Lex looked up at him, his expression smooth, and question clipped. "Can you crawl?"
The narrow passage opened to sooty dark, probably a larger chamber, because the echoes took longer to repeat. Icy ground water soaked their hands and knees, and splashed when Lex stood. Clammy cold twined around him, and as he centered himself with a palm against the wall, Lex fought back a shiver. "We must be descending. In theory, that should work to your advantage."
Clasping a rough-hewn edge, Clark pulled himself up. His stomach turned, but he felt a little stronger here, enough that he could keep himself upright without help. "I feel a little better." Licking his lips, he focused hard, stripping through the dark in search of an exit. Across the chamber, a pile of boxes seemed to make a bed, and a few glowing, scattered piles that could be blankets indicated some kind of nest. Before he could finish the sweep, pain hooked behind his eyes and Clark squeezed them closed. "We need to keep moving."
Lex flattened himself against the wall, knotting a hand in Clark's sleeve to keep track of him. "When we get out of here," he said, his voice a low and thinly amused, "I'm going to invest in geological maps of Smallville."
"Mr. Summers said that we have the most complex cave system in all of Kansas."
With careful, measured steps, Lex held a hand out to feel for another opening, working by sound and sense to determine how far they'd gone. "And Mr. Summers would be?"
Clark's knees gelled suddenly. Sucking a sharp breath through his teeth, he rubbed his foot against the ground, then kicked a round, heavy shape into the distance. The pain faded as the rock bounced into the distance. "Freshman science teacher. Until last year, anyway."
"Summers, Summers..." Lex stopped, his fingers slipping down Clark's arm as he investigated a depression in the wall. "His son was the one who..."
"Yeah. Thanks for reminding me." Snorting a little, Clark didn't move until he felt Lex tug on his sleeve again.
Lex scraped his heel against the floor as they inched around the chamber. "Actually, you brought it up."
Ceding the point, Clark skimmed his fingers through the cool air, catching the edge of Lex's jacket. "Sorry. It wasn't my best day."
"So I noticed. I believe you offered to let me hit you with my car?"
Pulling Lex to a stop, Clark steeled himself and tried to focus again. "Okay, it was a really bad day." He managed to catch a flash of iridescent green, a wide curve that seemed to lead out just a few steps away. He blinked when the hook tugged behind his eyes again. He'd never used the x-ray vision in true dark, and the violent lurch from bright, bizarre perspective to absolutely nothing made him queasy.
Lex squeezed Clark's arm. "Are you all right?"
Nodding, it took Clark a moment to realize that Lex couldn't see the gesture. "I'm fine. Really, I'm okay."
Lex steadied Clark before moving again, jerking when something cold dripped down the back of his neck. Thus far, he hadn't felt any repeating shapes against the wall, so it seemed they were still making progress. Over the incessant drip of water and their scruffing footsteps, Lex spoke again. "Lana's necklace."
"Nothing. It just makes sense now." Lex had that scientific timbre threading his words together, frighteningly analytical. "When I gave you my mother's..."
Before Lex could finish, a shock moved through the air. They heard it first, a roll like thunder before it struck. Slammed into stone, the wave knocked the breath out of them, and pressed to make it hard to take another.
"You were supposed to wait." Three voices melded together to make one, and another shock cracked through the air. "We went to get good stuff for you!"
"You shouldn't have," Lex managed to wheeze before passing out.
Clark couldn't feel his hands. Coming to, he understood intellectually that they were still attached, but no sensation responded when he tried to wriggle his fingers Trying to shift only made his wrists ache, his skin burning under a rough length of rope. Leaning against something warm and pliant, Clark swallowed when he saw Lex bound beside him, pale and motionless again. .
Oily light swum around them, cast by a collection of battered flashlights and old kerosene lamps, and the children sat on a filthy dais constructed from dilapidated apple crates. They looked up when Clark groaned, abandoning the ragged magazine they'd had spread open in front of them. "You're in time out."
Digging his heels into the ground, Clark wrenched against the ropes. His burst of strength ebbed almost instantly, and he only managed to tighten the binding and make Lex groan. Everywhere he looked, flecks of green taunted him. "Why are you doing this?"
The girl skittered down from her perch, tugging up the ragged hem of her skirt to hopscotch over to them. The boys followed, kicking at rocks. "We hafta wait for help, and you didn't wait. So you're in time out."
"Nobody's coming, don't you get it?" Clark snapped, instantly regretting it when the children swarmed close enough to breathe in his face. Flinching back from them, he tried to steady himself with a deep breath. "It's not nineteen eighty nine anymore. It hasn't been for a long time."
Their pallid mouths rounded to Os, and they huddled back to whisper to each other. Occasionally, they'd glare at Clark, their dark-circled eyes sharp and accusing. They seemed to speak without gestures, their arms hanging limply to their sides. Their motion lay entirely in their expressions, pale brows etching furrows into their smooth foreheads. Their beehive whispers buzzed, then faded as they turned back to Clark. "How did the Lex grow up?"
Clark shook his head, confused. "I don't understand."
Approaching again, they splayed their dirty hands, their touch falling on Clark's shoulder and Lex's head. "He got big, and we didn't get big."
"Don't touch him!" Clark kicked at them, sending them scattering again. "He just grew up. You should have grown up, but the rocks, the green rocks... I don't know what happened to you." Desperate, Clark tried to bargain with them. "I have a friend who'd know. If you'd just untie us, we could go find her."
They snapped back together, side to side. "You just want to go away."
"You could come with us." Clark rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, rocking against Lex to try to wake him. "Your parents probably miss you, we could go find them together."
An uneasy flicker crossed the children's faces, then one of the boys broke away. Digging through the rat piles surrounding their bed, he produced a magazine and edged toward Clark slowly. Thrusting the rotting pages into Clark's lap, the boy squatted and asked slowly, "Who's Britney?"
Frustrated, Clark tugged at the ropes again, then cried out when a thin shock crashed into him. He'd thought he'd convinced them, but the wave's painful vibrations told him he'd failed. Dropping his head helplessly, he glanced at the decrepit pages. "She's a singer."
"It seems they escaped some of the horrors of modern living." Lex's voice suddenly crackled to life. He leaned his head back, blinking and trying to adjust to the light.
The girl scrambled around to in front of Lex, nearly nose to nose with him. She seemed like a small, filthy mirror, her bald head and soft mouth in profile reflecting Lex's. "Who's Justin?"
"Could you be a little more specific?" Lex peered at her through half-open eyes. Dried blood had caked around his nostrils, and he contorted his face to try to satisfy the itch. It had the advantage of making the girl back away.
Snatching the magazine from Clark's lap, one of the boys peeled its sticky pages open. Sounding the words out slowly, he read the headline, the others falling to silence. "Justin heartbroken when Britney steps out on the town."
"Her boyfriend, sort of." Clark shifted to look around again, the odd collection of lights and piles of garbage suddenly making sense. Clark nudged Lex, whispering. "We're under the dump."
"That explains the smell."
The children's voices joined again, a small sound of frustration that hit just before another wave did. Lex's teeth knocked together, and Clark's ears throbbed, the wave hitting them in a physical blow. And somehow, they both found it a little funny. Catching their breath after the wave passed, Clark laughed under his breath. "We're going to die under the dump because you don't know who Justin Timberlake is."
Lex snickered. "At least I'll die with my dignity intact."
Enraged by the laughter, the children rose up in a wail, a long, curdling sound punctuated by hard, shimmering bursts. Like birdshot, the waves struck Clark and Lex, jolting them into the wall, battering them with vicious jolts. Bits of the ceiling collapsed, stalactites shattering with impressive force, shards of water-honed rock falling like hail. By the time the third child had run out of breath, neither Clark nor Lex had it in them to laugh anymore; instead, they both struggled to breathe, spitting blood out of their mouths.
"It's NOT funny," the children said in concert, baring their little, yellowed teeth. They twitched all over, as if pulsed by electricity. Their hands opened and closed, and they finally sat down hard, crossing their legs to make fleshy lumps of themselves in a sulk.
Sick at seeing his own blood, sick from the rocks, Clark swayed, rolling his head to look over at Lex. The force of the waves had split his lip, and blood crept from his ear. Purple bruises stained his skin, and for all the times Lex had bounced back, Clark wasn't sure this would be another. Choking on the iron-thick flavor coating his tongue, Clark leaned into him and murmured, "I'm sorry."
"I said we'd have a friendship of legend," Lex said. Turning to look at him, his brows wavered faintly. "Every legend has to end." Pushing against his restraints, Lex craned over and caught the edge of Clark's mouth beneath his lips. The sudden contact stung, awkward weight and sticky blood draining the pleasure from the kiss, but the significance remained. Slumping down a little, Lex's mouth slid away and he rested his forehead against the hard line of Clark's jaw.
"Boys aren't s'posed to kiss." The children layered their words together again, watching with grave interest.
Ordinarily, Clark would agree, but he felt the warm rush of Lex's breath fanning on his throat, and steeled himself. Fighting sickness and a rising sense of futility, Clark twisted his wrists against the ropes, slow, hard grinds he could hide. "How would you know? You're just dumb little kids."
"Uh uh, we saw pictures. Boys kiss girls." They ducked their heads, hissing whispers among themselves again, then snapped upright. "Do it again."
"Forget it." Flattening his mouth, Clark twisted again, swallowing the hard cry that rose to his throat. He could feel his hands again, and he wished he couldn't. A swollen, stinging pain buzzed through them, feeling like the skin would split at any moment, but he still fought the ropes until he felt them give a little.
The girl unfurled herself, propping herself on her hands and knees. Her back dipped like a cat's, she leaned forward and offered with a cold, pleasant smile, "No more time out if you do it again."
"I said no. He's hurt." Clark contorted his fingers, trying to scrabble at the fraying edge of the rope.
Her smile disappeared, and she rose up on her knees. "We'll do it some more." She glanced back at the boys, and their wilted bud mouths opened at once, starting a low, ugly hum that threatened to rise.
An involuntary shudder rolled through Clark, his already tainted skin slicked with a new sensation of filth. Their savage stares pierced through him, and it suddenly clicked for him; they weren't children anymore- they hadn't been children for a long time. Glancing down through dark lashes, he considered the curve of Lex's cheek. Clark didn't let people die.
When Clark stopped struggling against the ropes, Lex stirred a little. A hint of blue eyes shone through the bruises, and with painful effort, he shook his head. "My dignity, remember?"
"I remember," Clark said, and covered Lex's mouth with his own.
Easily distracted, the children lost interest after a few kisses. They milled around the chamber now, aimless wandering that perhaps made sense to them, but no one else. Their tattered jumpers hung unevenly on them, and they seemed helpless, maybe even a little lost; especially so with their backs turned, and their cunning eyes averted. One of the boys tugged a stained, armless teddy bear from one of the nesting piles. Carrying it curled to his chest, he crouched down to watch something small and multi-legged walk across the floor. That made it harder.
Clark forced himself to subtract nineteen eighty nine from two thousand three. He added five to sixteen, and murmured under his breath, "They're not little kids." Tensing his muscles, he tightened his gaze too, concentrating hard on the kerosene lamps. The pulse of the meteor rocks around him intensified, staining his veins green, but he bit his lower lip and stared harder. A vague shimmer coursed away from him, and one of the wicks leapt up, blackening the hurricane glass around it.
Spiderweb cracks formed in the base of the amp, and Clark turned hard, shielding Lex the best he could before it exploded. Crystalline shards arched into the air, followed by frothed streams of kerosene. Fire devoured the trails, licking up around the children who only registered the explosion when the sound finally hit their ears. Even Lex jolted, jerking his head up from a slump. The children screamed, terror this time instead of a weapon, covering their heads and running.
With the last of his strength, Clark broke the ropes around his wrists, and pushed Lex to his feet. Heat licked at his skin, and for a drowsy moment, Clark enjoyed it. It chased away the bone-deep cold that had settled in, and the slickscented smoke cleansed the cave of its foul odor. Considering sleep, Clark started to loll back when he found himself hauled to his feet.
Lex had stepped through the loop of his own arms, still bound but much more effective with his hands in front of him. "Fight it."
Wavering, Clark nodded and followed Lex. Sound guided them again, running footsteps and shouts leading them out of the chamber as the fire spread to the nesting piles and the dry tinder of the crate bed. The sour smell of rotting garbage assaulted them as they forced their way through a narrow passage. The maze twisted in all directions, and they kept their bearing on sound and faint shapes moving ahead of them. Deeper into the pile, the smell rose, hot, foul bubbles of broken like cobwebs, sticking to their skin when they forced their way through tight passages. Breaking into another chamber, old dolls and broken chairs rose up in a steep grade, a mountain of discarded daily life. Clark nearly crashed into Lex when he suddenly stopped.
"It's a landfill, it has to have vents," he said. He turned in a tight circle, looking for an unnatural formation in the blacksludged walls. He half-turned again, then darted his joined hands into a thick, gelatinous stream coursing nearby. Sliding a few inches, he uncovered a hint of something metallic, and he swiped his joined hands over it to reveal a rung.
A roar echoed through the chamber, a blast of heat chasing the sound. Fire belched through a narrow crack, licking through it to catch drier trash on fire, and strange, bluish flames danced up, burning on the gasses in the air. Lex didn't wait to see if the pile would catch; grasping the rung he hooked his arms under the rung and hoisted himself awkwardly, only looking back to make sure Clark followed.
Exploding onto the surface, Lex clawed himself onto the shifting pile. Clark emerged after him. In spite of the new, pungent ripeness surrounding him, his color flooded back almost instantly. With quick hands, but not too quickly, Clark dragged Lex away from the vent hole, covering him when fire gouted forth in a great burst.
Collapsed on a nearby heap, orange light danced across their faces as the fire casually spread. Dipping his head, Clark fumbled with Lex's ropes, breaking them subtly until he freed his hands. His voice soft, Clark asked, "Do you think they got out?"
Lex rubbed his raw wrists, Lex's expression settled to neutral calm. "Quite honestly, Clark, I can't say that I care."
It took the fire department most of a day to put out the blaze at the dump. The Sheriff's department found the burned-out remains of the Porsche in a sinkhole fifty feet down, but only a few yards off the road. Mr. Grayson watched in dismay as the Surveyor's Office cordoned off his back forty, a phalanx of geologists tramping down his feed corn to better examine the interesting subterranean features.
Lex spent a day in the hospital; Clark went home and drained the water heater in a marathon shower. They made the late edition of the Ledger, and the early edition of the police ledger, answering questions from arson investigators in two separate rooms. When the Inquisitor wrote about it, the headline intimated that though Lex had a deeply cherished streak of pyromania, the police closed the case as an accidental fire in exchange for a new fleet of cruisers for Lowell County. As far as anyone in Smallville could tell, though, the cars remained the same.
Hiding in the Fortress, Clark drowsed in the hammock until he heard footsteps approaching. Rolling onto his feet, he smiled when Lex stopped at the top stair, where he'd knock on a door if Clark had one. "Hey, Lex."
"Your mother said I could find you out here." The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile. "I think your father wanted to say something, but he refrained."
Groaning a little, Clark nodded Lex in, and flopped down on the couch. "Yeah, he's been like that for a couple of days. If it makes you feel better, he isn't really talking to me, either."
"And they'll judge you by the company you keep," Lex said, sitting next to Clark, hardly relaxed. Knees splayed, he propped his elbows on them, rubbing his fingers together slowly. He still had bruises, pale shadows beneath his eyes, but they seemed almost irrelevant- decoration more than evidence of a traumatic event. "Are we okay?"
Matching Lex's posture, Clark leaned forward, his expression wide open and sincere. "It was an accident, Lex. Why wouldn't we be okay?"
A shiver of motion ran down Lex's back, and he laced his fingers together. Staring at the floor, his brows flickered, and his lips moved, like a faint rehearsal before he actually spoke. "That's not what I'm talking about."
Oh. Clark rubbed his palms against the knees of his jeans, smoothing the soft, worn fibers back and forth. Back and the color faded a little, forth, and it darkened. "It's a little weird, but..." He cut himself off when a muscle ticked in Lex's jaw. Leaning forward to catch his gaze, Clark put a hand on Lex's shoulder and finished his sentence. "It's not a bad weird."
"I just want you to understand, Clark, that I'd never..."
His mouth was soft; and tasted sweet without blood smearing it. Clark parted his lips, only a little daring, and shivered when the tips of their tongues brushed together. Lingering in the gentle caress, Clark curled his fingers against Lex's shoulder, rubbing the curve with his thumb before pulling back. "Really not a bad kind of weird."
Sphinx gaze intact, Lex merely peered into Clark's eyes. The air electric between them, Lex rubbed his lips together, clinging to silence. Coming to an understanding without saying anything, he finally relaxed into the couch, reaching into his jacket pocket. "I brought you something." He spilled a handful of fishing sinkers into Clark's palm, their irregular shapes tapping heavily together. "It's more practical than a lead suit."
Clark's bangs fell into his eyes as he smiled. "My dad'll probably let me keep these." Sinking against the back of the couch, Clark rolled the sinkers in his hand, his shoulder brushing Lex's, their elbows bumping with the motion. "Hey, Lex?" I didn't ask before, but... why did we go off the road?"
"I thought you might ask," Lex said, and reached into his pocket again. Offering Clark a folded sheet of paper, he watched as Clark spread it out. A fuzzy school picture in black and white filled the top of the sheet, the headline beneath it reading 'Students, Teacher Missing after Meteor Shower.'
Pursing his lips, Clark scanned the article, then looked over. "I don't get it."
"I saw her in the rear view mirror." Lex shook off a tense smile. "She said, 'please help my kids.'"
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