by Mara Celes

Written for Katkim's birthday.

There are always hands around his throat.

They are gentle in the mornings, when he first opens his eyes. The ceiling stares back at him, its bland surface seemingly smooth and somehow comforting. He knows that if he looks closer, examines further, he'll be able to see the cracks, but he always closes his eyes when such thoughts occur to him. He doesn't want to see beyond the surface.

But the day can't go by with his eyes closed. His mother always yells up the stairs (Clark! It's time to get up!) as if nothing has changed, always bullies him out the door, into the school bus if he's early enough, out into the cool air if he's not.

He's late more often than not.

He goes to school every day, just like a good boy would. He doesn't talk back (I'm not your son!) in class, and nowadays, he always knows the answers. Physics is easy once you've defied its laws; English is a joke once you've lived its black humor. Lana doesn't look at him anymore, and he doesn't look at her either. Concentrating is so much easier when he's not pining for something he can't have.

The hands around his neck are merely stroking at such times, soft and gentle. He likes them then; they're a comfort.

It's only later that they become...unnerving. It's usually while he's doing his homework. He sits alone in his loft, calculating sums (That's a lot of money, Edge) and learning his French (How many ways can I say "no," you slut?!), and his friends don't come. Pete hasn't said a word to him since he returned, and's hard to talk to Chloe. She makes him remember.

Sometimes, Clark thinks that he'll go to them. But that's when the hands on him tighten, that's when he can't breathe, and anyway...who needs friends? He didn't need them in Metropolis.

He still sees Lex. The hands around his neck don't loosen when he does. Clark had thought that they would--he and Lex smile, after all, they smile and flirt. It's the old game, and Clark really is glad to see him. But Lex...tends to get distant. Sometimes, when they talk, Lex suddenly looks away, and it's like Clark isn't in the room, like he doesn't matter, like he's left all alone. The hands always have him then; Clark spends seconds, minutes, sometimes hours of his time not breathing. Though Lex always comes back, it hurts when he's gone ('re dead, you're dead, I never thought you'd die!). Clark has come to wonder if their friendship is worth the suffocation.

But it's not up to him. Lex always orders him back, after all; he needs his deliveries, his vegetables and fruits. And Clark can't look at Lex without something tightening in his chest, a tightening that feels good, somehow, that complements the hands around his throat. It's like Lex has a leash that's tied tight around him, lashed under his arms and through his bones to a collar; Clark always follows him inside. Sometimes, the leash feels warm, warm enough to substitute for his heart.

Never for long. He and Lex can't keep from dancing, after all, making Clark inevitably start to choke. But because Lex needs his produce, Clark always comes back the next day.

Three months in, and Lex is still distant. Clark sits beside him, at last wondering where Lex travels when he's gone--Clark had never thought to ask (it only mattered that he was alone), but suddenly it occurs to him and he has to ask. And so he does.


Lex blinks, and looks at him.

"What're you doing?" Clark asks.

Lex turns back to the fire; Clark watches flames dance in the blue eyes. It makes him think of devils, of doomed souls, of the circles in hell; he wonders if he has a place reserved for him there. He wonders if Lex would also be there, if it would mean they'd be there together.

When Lex finally speaks, his voice is soft, almost inaudible. "I never left the island," Lex tells him.

Clark tries to think about that, tries to understand...but his mouth opens, apparently wanting to respond without him. "I miss Metropolis," Clark hears it say. He wants his mouth to take it back.

But Lex only turns to him more fully. The angle chases the fire's reflection from his eyes, but the flames are still there. "Once upon a time," he says softly, and the burning is in his voice, now, too; Clark shivers from the unexpected heat, "we were going to run there together."

Clark looks away, remembering broken vaults and broken people, Metropolis in all it's stained and gory glory. It suited Kal--it suited him--but for all that Lex had claimed the city as his own, Lex really didn't belong there. Lex would never have stood by and let him become what he had become; Lex would have tried to stop him. Clark would have had just another broken body on his conscience.

"We were," Clark says, almost dismissively, and turns back to Lex--

--and stops. Because Lex's eyes are gone again; they're distant--Lex isn't there. It's as if Lex is seeing something else, someone else...and yet his eyes are focused. On Clark, waiting for something more then what's been said, wanting an explanation, wanting something, something...Clark doesn't know what.

But this Lex, this Lex who sees more than just Clark when he looks at him (Does he see Kal?), this Lex might have joined him. Might have stood by, and let Clark become a monster, let him rampage, and rage, and destroy, maybe he would have smiled at it all, merely considered it a legend's version of rebellion? Lex smiling that distant smile of his, never really there and yet wholly aware--of the world, of the damage, and most of all, of Clark himself?

Death and Destruction, hand in hand?

"We were," Clark repeats slowly, but Lex cuts him off.

"Is it too late?"

Too late for Kal, yes. Too late for the brilliance in Lex's eyes? Always. But too late for them?

Clark stands up.

"Let's go," he says.

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