The Meaning In Things

by Caro

For Slodwick's Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Double Prints challenge. Thanks to Bexless for a fabulous beta, and to Nifra for giving it the one last look. Much love.

The paint is slightly chipped. He's never noticed it before, but it's visible at this angle. The cool of the floor presses at his stomach as he picks at the paint. Feels it flake and crumble under his finger.

If his father saw, he would be upset. He'd yell at Lex to find something more productive to do. And then at the housekeeper for letting his house get to this state.

His father isn't here.

Pamela's voice drifts down the hall. She's efficient with the doctors, doesn't let them pester his mother any longer than they have to. Mother doesn't like the doctors. She tells him, "ill news is an ill guest."

Lex knows what it means. The quote. The doctors. The strange, serious looks that pass between Pamela and his mother. The quiet tension in his father's voice when he does come home. The way sometimes he yells at Lex a little too quickly, the way sometimes he doesn't at all. There are meanings in the things that adults do beyond what they tell him.

He chalks it under the lessons he learned when he was in the hospital himself. The secret meanings of actions; eyes that would look away too quick, hands that never lingered longer than they had to. Of everyone, his father had been easiest to read back then. His visits were never longer than necessary; he came in, checked on Lex's progress, and then left. When it became clear that there would be no more progress, he stopped coming.

His father comes home less and less now. That means something too.

The door opens and Lex presses himself against the wall. He can hear his father's voice in his head even as he does. Luthors don't hide in the background. Luthors demand to be seen.

But the busy doctors don't see the little boy waiting outside his mother's door. And they don't know to hide their words from his ears. He picks up their words and memorizes them, runs searches on the computer later on, tries to learn as much as he can. His father once told him that knowledge was power. And that's what Lex needs right now.

A little bit of power.

There wasn't power at the hospital. Not at first. When his skin felt like fire and there were hands all over him, poking and prodding. His father's voice telling the doctors to fix him. An entire hospital wing if they could cure his son. He'd known where the disgust in his father's voice came from the first time they let him look in a mirror. Seen the freak he had become.

"Alexander." Pamela's shoes enter his field of vision. Brown loafers. More practical than pretty, and he remembers his father saying that before. They seem sturdy in this big house always filled with breakable things.

"Can I go see my mother now?"

"She's sleeping. Don't disturb her."

Lex nods, grinding the paint flakes absently into the rug as he does. Pamela doesn't ask him what he's doing. Or tell him not to worry. She says she's never gotten far telling Luthors what to do.

"Would you like to come pick some flowers for your mother's room with me, Lex?"

"I'm allergic," he begins to say before remembering that it isn't true anymore. "Okay," he says instead, and follows behind Pamela.

Outside, she picks flowers methodically. Jasmine, because mother likes the scent. White roses because they're pretty. The orchids they never touch. Those are his mother's.

"Is she dying?" he asks, carefully picking up a rose, avoiding the thorns.

Pamela pauses mid-cut. She looks down on him, the sun behind her making it look like her hat is glowing.

"I don't know."

"Was it Julian?"

Pamela shakes her head. "Your mother has always been sick. From when she was a child."

"Just like me."

"Just like you."

"I'm not sick anymore," Lex says.

"No, you're not."

"I don't want her to die."

"Neither do I."

"What happens after?" It's the first time he's ever asked that question out loud, though it's been on his tongue often. In the hospital back then, when he knew eventually the pain would stop and he would have to go home. The first time the doctors came to see his mother and he knew what their drawn expressions meant.

Pamela stops cutting all together, dropping the shears on the ground nearby. She lifts his chin so that his eyes meet hers.

"What do you think will happen?"

"I don't know." Lex admits, his voice wavering, but he refuses to give into the tears that threaten him. "What will happen to me?"

"Nothing, Alexander. I promise."

"I won't have a mother if she's gone."

"No." Pamela nods her head sadly. "But you'll have me."

"For how long?"

"Always. We're family."

"Father says that only blood counts."

"I'll tell you a secret, Alexander," she says, giving him a quick hug. "Your father doesn't always know everything."

He cracks a small smile at that. Pamela is always courteous to his father, but Lex once heard her say that even if Lionel pays her wages, she's a nurse and her first loyalty is to her patient. It's what makes him trust her like he can't trust anyone else in the house. They're loyal to the person who pays them.

Pamela is the only adult he's ever known that doesn't hide secrets in her eyes.

"You all right then?" she asks. Her hand brushes against the back of his head, soft with a gardening glove. She's the only one who ever touches his head, who doesn't freeze when she remembers the absence of hair.

"I think mom will like the flowers."

"It'll make her smile." Pamela hands him the nearly full basket. "I was thinking, since your father isn't here, that maybe you would like to have dinner in your mom's room, with her?"

"Do you think she'll like that?"

"I think she will."

And because Pamela says it, Lex believes her.

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