by Sarah T.
The baby had been crying for what he thought was three straight days, but Lex couldn't look. Any time he went to the crib to see, the crying stopped, because Julian was dead. Cold, stiff, blue, wrapped in layers and layers of yellowing lace. A doll for the most morbid child on earth to clutch and pet, and once he looked, he always had to hold it, had to unwrap the robe for hours to see the livid finger-marks on the ribcage. Then, when he dropped the baby in horror, knocked the crib over and ran to the farthest corner of the room, the crying inevitably started again.
So he didn't look. Instead, he rocked on the floor and hummed to himself, for hours and hours, until suddenly someone spoke to him.
"For God's sake, can't you pipe down a little? Some of us are trying to catch up on our beauty rest, you know."
Lex's head snapped up. A lean, dark-haired man in hospital-issue pajamas was scowling at him, arms folded. Lex felt vaguely apologetic until he realized that the stranger was also shifting and shimmering in place. Just another hallucination. It was futile to talk to them, any of them, but something in the man's eyes pressed at him until it dislodged words from his mouth.
"I...I can't," he stammered. Don't look don't look don't look.
"Ah. I see." The man slashed his hand through space offhandedly, and the crying stopped. Silence. Pure, blessed silence, the kind he'd forgotten could exist. A soothing rush along his nerves. "I really would work on regulating that, if I were you. You're likely to inspire some antisocial behavior if you don't, and the local residents do have a gift for that sort of thing."
Lex rubbed his eyes and stared, disbelieving. Finally, he managed, "Who are you?"
"Would you believe me if I said I was from the Neighborhood Watch?"
He grinned, a hard, humorless grin. Cheshire cat. He did have an English accent. "Well, then."
He was just standing there as if that were enough, so Lex demanded, "What are you doing in my room?"
"That depends. What's your name?"
Lex studied the man. His eyes were dark, and his collarbone stood out prominently below his throat. His expression was calm and cheerful, but his cheek kept twitching nervously. He looked like an old dog, casually beaten and chained up to starve, pathetic but ready to snap at your fingers if you tried to feed him. "...Joseph."
"And what did you do to end up in Belle Reve, Joseph, to be killed inch by inch in this wonderland of euphemism?"
"Nothing," he said firmly. In the quiet, his firmness could gather and pool. "Why are you here? Are you insane?"
He laughed. It wasn't very convincing. "Oh, quite the opposite. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."
"What do you want with me?"
"Well, Joseph, I mostly wanted a little peace and quiet. Now that I'm here, though...I think we might be able to help each other."
"Help each other? With what?"
"Escape, of course. At first, I rather fancied the chance to take a rest here, but lately it's all started to seem so banal. Especially the color scheme," he paused and looked around at the blood-splattered walls, "though I do like what you've done with it in here. At any rate, I've decided to make my departure. And chosen you for the honor of helping me."
"Escape?" He came closer, willing his heart not to speed up. "How?"
"It's complicated, but..." The man raised his head and wrinkled his nose, as if he'd caught a sound or a smell he didn't like. "We'll have to discuss it later."
"What? No! Tell me now!" He grabbed at the man's shoulders, but his hands melted right through them. He was fading away right before Lex's eyes. "What's happening?"
"Your medication, my dear boy," came the distant voice. "It's wearing off. Don't worry, we'll talk lat...."
His last words were drowned out by the baby's screams.
Roger Nixon kept bleeding everywhere as he chased Lex around the room, gouts and gobbets, but Lex didn't mind that so much. What was a little blood between two people who'd tried to kill each other? He was too agile to slip in the pools, and he almost liked seeing the red footprints marring the perfect white of the walls and floor. The stranger had been right: it looked festive. No, it was Edge that was the problem. The trying to strangle him was only fair, but the way he wouldn't stay himself...that was what got to Lex. He didn't get to be Edge and Lionel and Jonathan Kent, not all at once! Also, since Lex was shooting him, not drowning him--he was a Luthor, he learned from history--Edge was supposed to stay dead, and...
"Well, isn't this a homey sight," came the drawl, and Roger and Edge-Lionel-Jonathan froze.
Lex stopped and bent over, gasping for breath. After a minute, he asked his neighbor, "How do you do that?"
He chuckled. "You are quite insane, my boy, and I happen to have a knack for manipulating the very stuff of madness."
"I am the stuff that dreams are made on?" he asked dryly. Oh, how Lionel would approve.
"Something like that." The man looked around. "You haven't been completely honest with me, Joseph. Fortunately, I can appreciate that quality in such a pretty young man."
"What do you mean?"
"You told me you didn't do anything to end up here." He pointed at the frozen figures. "These two seem to disagree."
"Those shootings were both justified."
"Oh, of course. They always are, aren't they? And if they just so happened to be ever-so-convenient as well..."
"I haven't done anything wrong," Lex said sharply. "It's all my father's fault I'm here."
"Your father!" His neighbor clapped his hands together with delight. "How classical. Most people feel they have to try to be original these days, but you have the confidence of your convictions. Very nice."
Lex decided that the man really couldn't be a hallucination. Whatever else the hallucinations were, they weren't simply annoying. "Look, I don't know what you're talking about, but my father really is responsible for all this."
"Really? The Lion King that keeps prowling the hallways?"
It was as if the room had just gone into free-fall. "You can see him?"
"No, but he makes my skin crawl every time he strolls by."
Lex laughed shortly and managed not to lurch as the floor abruptly stopped dropping away from beneath him. "Yes. That's him. He's drugging me to make me crazy. See, I know something about him that would send him to prison for good. So he sent me here."
"That's awfully unjust. And such a waste." The stranger swept him with a look that made his teeth chatter, the look that had made him tighten his fingers around the grip of his gun in clubs. "I imagine you'd like revenge."
"Right now I just want to get out of here. Afterwards..." Afterwards was a blank. He couldn't. He just couldn't.
"Of course," he said soothingly. "Speaking of that..."
"You said you could help me."
"Help both of us. If you're willing."
"To do what?" Lex asked warily.
"Your...madness. It's quite extraordinarily powerful. I haven't seen the like in years. What you perceive--I can work with it, the way I dealt with these two gentlemen." He nodded back at Roger and Edge. "I can make it more...tangible. Impose it on reality. It can get us out of here."
"What do you need my help for? You seem to be able to deal with them with no problem."
"You have to stop fighting. Right now you're struggling too much. Reality"--he knocked on one of the walls of the cell--"keeps intruding. The more you give in, the more powerful it will be. And the better chance that I'll be able to make something of it."
"Stop fighting it?" Lex frowned. "But I have to fight it. I have to get sane again. It's my only chance!"
"Forgive me, but I don't think you've got any chance unless you get out of here. You'll never beat the drugs on your own."
"You said 'a better chance.' Do you even know you can do it?"
"No, I don't."
"And...what if you fail, and I can't even get back to...this?"
"I'm afraid that's a risk we'll just have to take."
"You mean, I'll just have to take."
Another smile. "Well, if you insist on being brutally precise, yes."
Too smooth, too plausible in his cynicism. "How can I trust you when you haven't even told me your name?"
"You haven't told me yours, either."
"Yes, I--" He stopped. His neighbor's eyes were twinkling. "Why should I?"
"You shouldn't. It was clever of you not to. I'll tell you what. When you're ready, we'll trade."
"I'm not giving in to this. No matter what you say."
He waved a hand. "I'll give you time. I think you'll come 'round."
"What makes you think I will?"
"You forget, I'm seeing everything that goes on in here." He waved a hand. "Cheers."
But he was already strolling through the wall. As he disappeared, Roger growled, "Lex, you miserable son-of-a-bitch!" and lunged.
It was a new thing, that they could eviscerate him when they caught him.
The days spilled by like mercury spreading over the floor, impossible to hold and deadly even if he could. More and more, he wasn't even in the padded room at all. He was well-travelled, a notorious jet-setting playboy: why, there were all sorts of places for him to go in his own head. The bell-tower at Eton, where the bells' jarring vibrations seemed to be the only cover sufficient to hide his sobs from a Lionel half a world away. Club Zero, where the dancers twisted their deformed limbs sinuously and all roads led back to the floor where Jude Royce died. His mother's bedroom before she died, where Lionel had tried to smother the smell of coming death with endless bouquets of lilies. Worlds within worlds within worlds, and all the exit signs only led deeper. He kept trying to fight, to surface, but he couldn't remember who for anymore, and it was so easy to get lost.
It was on the desert island that his neighbor found him next. Lex was lying on the beach, digging his toes into the sand. The sun was high and it beat down on him fiercely. He didn't have the blister and flake of the summer to protect him; his skin was new and raw. No shade anywhere to hide in, but he didn't care. He wanted it to hammer him into blindness into pure brightness into nothing nothing nothing nothing--
"This is really rather nicer than the cell. But silly me, coming without my parasol."
The heat and dazzle retreated a little. He raised himself up on one elbow and squinted. His neighbor was sitting cross-legged on the sand near him, sweating. "Can't you make yourself one?"
"No. But you could. If you wanted to make me more comfortable."
A mocking smile crawled over his lips. "Between the will and the action lies the shadow of my not really liking you. Too bad you can't take shelter in that."
"Don't feel sorry for me. This would be terribly dull if you weren't playing hard to get. I've been chasing you a long way."
"And, boy, are your arms tired?"
"You have no idea. Still, I'm glad you stopped here. I think I'll take a swim."
"I don't think you'll make it." He'd tried, but the beach was endless, the water perpetually receding right in front of him.
"Oh. I should've expected that. Perhaps a nap, then."
"Be careful," Lex said earnestly. "It seems peaceful enough here, but there's a guy with some serious issues roaming around somewhere. I'm actually just waiting for him to come along and smash my skull in."
"Oh?" The man perked up, seeming to listen to the air. "Actually, no, there isn't. We're alone here, Joseph."
"We are?" He'd been expecting Lewis, and wondering why he hadn't turned up. Getting his skull smashed might mean a few hours of oblivion. "Then I must not be as crazy as last time." He felt a vague stirring of hope.
"You're not. In fact, you're holding up astoundingly well. For a human."
For a human. The phrase resounded in his mind with a clang, but he couldn't remember why. "For a human? Is there an alternative?" The answer was somehow terribly important.
"You'd be surprised. I once--"
He dropped back down on his back, shielding his eyes with his arm. "Shut up." He couldn't hear it, couldn't hear it, but the sun wasn't blasting anymore and there was no new world for him to fall into just then.
"You are a delicate plant." He could feel the other stretching out beside him, very close. He pressed his mouth just below Lex's ear, and his breath tickled and soothed in the same gust. "And very lovely. Such a pity you should be wasting your fragrance here."
It was as if the sand was under his skin, crawling. His neighbor's arm insinuated itself over his chest, and he wasn't even wearing the ruined trousers of the summer anymore. His vision swarmed with tiny pinpricks. "I'm not..." His mouth was so dry he had to stop and swallow. "I'm not promising anything."
He laughed. "Of course not."
They writhed together as it got brighter and brighter, and then there was oblivion.
The sun wavered in the sky, as if it didn't want to be there. Lex couldn't blame it. He didn't know exactly what was going to happen, but the handsome ranch-style house on the outskirts of Smallville was far too serene, too bucolic--no blood, no monsters, no nature boiling into chaos. Nothing good could happen here. Even the warm quiet was stretched taut with menace.
"This is where you live? How...pastoral."
Lex didn't answer his neighbor with more the slightest shake of his head, didn't even look over to see where he was. His throat had gone as tight as with an asthma attack. Windows. Eyes to the soul. He had to watch the windows. They were opaque now, but--
Gunshots. A man fell from the house to the lawn. Inside, voices raised. Familiar, so familiar, like the people he used to hear talking when he snuck out onto the landing after bedtime in Metropolis, but maddeningly elusive. He crouched down, wanting to hear more, but sick with dread.
The man lay still, but only for a moment. Then he rolled over and began crawling towards the detached garage. His face was completely blank, as if someone had wiped his features away with a cloth. Lex knew he should recognize him, knew that if he could recognize him, it would all fall into place, but...
"I don't think you want to see what happens next," his neighbor observed softly. "Come on, let's get out of here."
The sense that he was right swam over Lex in another wave of nausea. He didn't want to see. It was worse than finger-marks on dead flesh, worse than blood spurting from mouth or chest, worse than drowning drowning drowning.
"I'm still not sure--"
Pounding feet, and he was standing before his own astonished eyes on the grass, raising a gun. The dead man gunned the engine of the car, aiming it right at him.
He waited to see himself die, but--no. That wasn't right. The thought fell flat in him, making not even a ripple of its own in the great terror he quaked with.
Clark. In freeze-frame.
Clark looked out the window, mouth comically half-open. Clark stood in the doorway, one arm half-stretched out. Clark was mid-stride on the lawn, ill-fitting jacket bunching around the shoulders. Clark. Clark. Clark--
Was still, only inches from his other self. His neighbor crouched next to him. "I can't hold it, there's no time--"
"Let's do it," Lex said harshly, the scrape of metal on stone.
"Tell me your name."
He turned and looked. His neighbor's eyes flashed fire. "Lex. Lex Luthor."
"Ethan Rayne," and the kiss was searing. "You know what to do."
And he did. It was the easiest thing in the world, and the hardest. Let go. Let go. Let go...
Infinity passed, and then the world broke and rolled like thunder around them. Snapped up like a window-shade pulled too low and released. He was standing in his perfectly white padded cell, hugging himself in a straitjacket. He was facing the mirrored wall. He could see his reddened eyes, and Ethan next to him.
Only it wasn't a mirror anymore. Their reflections were trembling on its silver. It was a lake. It was...
"Go through," Ethan said.
He reached out to touch the wall, the jacket magically unravelling around him, and his hand slipped into icy smoothness. Water. He took a deep breath and stepped into it. For half a second the world was muffled grey, upside-down images, and then he was out.
Out into a world that howled with color, rioted with shapes all the way to the endless horizon. He couldn't begin to take it in. He knew at once he'd made a mistake. He was lost for good. No bread-crumbs for him, not even from the Kent kitchen.
A small gurgle, and Ethan stepped out behind him. "Fantastic," he breathed. "I adore what you've done with the hallway. Belle Reve will never be the same."
Lex turned and smiled. "Come here, Ethan."
Ethan grinned back and slid his arms around Lex's waist. Lex took his face into his hands. Ethan was making no attempt to hide the glee there. "Sweet child..."
Ethan's neck made a satisfying crack as it snapped. That, at least, was real. The body fell away as soon as he let go. The world, however, refused to settle back into familiarity. It had been stupid of Ethan, to make the change so permanent.
Lex stepped over his fallen form towards his new horizon. It wouldn't be long, he suspected, before his arms were wings.
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