This originally was a work in progress written in LiveJournal before the premier of "Velocity." Once that episode came out, slight changes and revisions were made to the existing story to tie events in more closely with canon.
Thanks to my glorious French Canadian racing goddess, Lapetite Kiki, for her amazing tech beta, as well as the indispensable Rhiannonhero and the incomparable Dana for their betas. Any mistakes left are mine alone.
Feedback is highly appreciated!
There was a time when Clark would say how great he thought it would be if Lex and I could be friends someday. He'd make sure to be looking down and mention it under his breath, like he was making a wish he knew wouldn't come true, so what could it hurt to say it out loud?
He knew where I stood as far as that went. It was nothing against Lex personally. I'd gotten past the point where I blamed him for everything bad that had happened just because of his last name, but the truth was we just didn't seem to have much in common beyond Clark.
I had other stuff to deal with, anyway. Growing up with brothers and a sister, I'd always had to share whether I wanted to or not. It was just expected. But I never expected having to share my best friend.
I'll admit it took awhile before I was really okay with the shift. It sure didn't help when Lex always seemed to be doing something to make any halfway intelligent person suspicious of him. But just from watching Clark lock horns with his dad over the guy, I knew it wouldn't do any good to say anything negative about him. It would just push them closer together.
I guess I was too busy hanging out with my new girlfriend to notice, but when Clark just blurted out at lunch one day that he'd been spending a lot less time with Lex, it really caught me off guard. When he followed that up with a declaration that he didn't think he could keep being friends with him at all, the milk I was drinking almost came out of my nose.
One thing about Clark is he's fiercely loyal to people who are important to him. I couldn't believe he'd just drop Lex like that, but I couldn't get him to tell me why he'd made what seemed like an extreme decision. But when Clark's walls went up, that was it. It didn't matter if you grew up with him and were so close his family called you one of their own. It didn't matter if you told him every detail of the first date with an unbelievable girl you just knew you'd marry one day.
It didn't even matter if at one time he trusted you enough to share the biggest secret of his entire life. When Clark decided to keep things to himself, there was no force on earth that could change his mind.
A couple of days later I got a phone call that changed my whole future. I wasn't sure what he wanted, what he thought I could tell him, but you couldn't exactly hang up on Lex Luthor. After I'd made it clear I had no idea why Clark had basically dumped him, I expected him to just do the normal thing, end the call, and that would be it.
You have to know Lex to know he never does what any normal person would. He offered to pick me up from school that day and drive me home. I told him I had my own car and I didn't need a ride, and he told me that was fine...
...Maybe some other time I'd get to ride in his brand new SLR McLaren.
Normal people don't drive $450,000 German imports. I've never exactly been religious, but to this day I'm grateful to God for making Lex so very abnormal.
I have an uncle who was once heavily into cars. He was the crowned prince of classic American steel. For reasons that go back a few generations and have something to do with bad experiences on the Ford and GM fronts, my family has always been faithful to Chevrolet. My Uncle Charlie carried on the tradition happily, a Corvette man all the way.
He had a fleet of them all over his property in various stages from complete disrepair to mint condition. The fortieth anniversary edition was his pride and joy: ruby red, convertible top, triple chrome plated wheels, six-speed tranny, fewer than ten thousand miles on the clock, and an engine that hummed like a penthouse hooker.
My aunt wasn't too crazy about his hobby, though. When he wasn't washing, waxing, driving, or tinkering, he was online looking for other Vetteheads to enable him and point out good deals on parts from every corner of the country.
Aunt Leslie finally had enough, took the kids out of the house, got the cars in a messy divorce settlement, and gave them as a wedding present to her new husband. My Uncle Charlie stays too drunk to answer the phone anymore. I learned how easily a harmless hobby could develop into something that had vicious little hooks underneath, holding you fast while those important to you moved on.
Some people had to worry about alcoholism passing down through their genetic line or gambling tendencies, or being prone to cancer or strokes. We Rosses always tended to lose our minds over cars. Especially fast ones.
I was no exception. My own personal experience was a harsh reminder of this. Clark knew all too well about it, although he went to lengths to make sure not many others did. I ended up sympathizing with my uncle, who lost everything, even though I'd gotten off a lot easier. I hadn't cared about consequences, and when the time came to face them, I dragged Clark into the mess and expected him to clean it up.
Months had passed since then. In that time I'd unofficially sworn off obsessing over cars. I'd told myself from that point on, they would be nothing to me but a means of transportation.
Some days it even worked. This particular day was not one of them.
The minute I climbed into that high-end, gull-winged, sleek black Mercedes with its streamlined, extended nose and V8 engine purring low and impatient, I knew I was in trouble. Lex lowered his sunglasses and looked at me like he knew it, too.
"Nice ride," I said lamely.
Lex smirked and tapped the dash. "Fresh from Frankfurt."
I thought the alliteration was a bit much but didn't do a lot more thinking once we got rolling and the engine started to pick up steam, firing quickly into an Indy-worthy roar when we fishtailed out of the lot.
Man, that was a noise I knew I could learn to fall in love with, if I hadn't already. And once he'd straightened out and the engine shifted into fourth, I decided my Camaro felt like a Schwinn in comparison. I was reminded of the days when I could shake loose and ride on a nitrous high for hours.
It was like flying while standing still. It was better than porterhouse steak, better than Six Flags, better than a cool swim on the hottest day. I wouldn't say it was better than anything I've done with my girl, Sharise, because she was in a category all her own, but I would have been lying if I said it didn't come dead close.
Of course straight-lining speed was all well and good, but as I'd learned in a sometimes roundabout way over the years, Lex was all about throwing hard, ruthless curves. There was nothing economic or tentative about the way he unleashed that beast in a hard left onto a secondary road and blasted past tall rows of glossy cornstalks.
I suppose there were many things I could've yelled while we were abusing the unsuspecting Kansas asphalt. Things Lex would've expected, like, "Didn't you crash driving this fast one time?" or "You're going to get arrested!" or "If you don't kill us, my dad will!"
But in the end all I managed to say was, "You paid half a million for an automatic?!"
Lex must've liked what he heard because despite the fury of the engine, I could hear him chuckle in the relative quiet of the interior. My pathetic attempt to downplay this supreme sensory experience didn't slow him down a bit and we took the next right at sixty-five, the turn tight and complete, balancing out smoothly with no hint of rubber burning to slicken the street behind us.
He eventually eased down to just above the speed limit as we neared my neighborhood. Something told me I wouldn't need to point out which house was mine, and sure enough, he reigned in the horses once we were on my street and stopped dead in my driveway, the mind-ripping haul we'd been on fading into memory.
I hesitated, not sure what response the situation really called for. "I appreciate the lift," didn't begin to cover it.
Lex saved the moment for me. "Thanks for helping me to christen her, Pete."
I smiled as the hydraulics lifted our respective doors. "Sure, man. She's a monster." I climbed out and pushed the door down gently. I eyed Lex as he took a few steps towards my house, silently appraising it.
"You gonna keep her here in Smallville?" I asked casually, hiking my backpack onto my shoulder and feeling awkward, as if I was equating the car with one of his, well, other conquests.
Lex's gaze never left my front porch. "Oh, no. I wanted to test her out on empty roads, but I'm having her transported to my private garage in Metropolis tonight."
I nodded stupidly, knowing he wasn't even looking at me. "You...want to come inside?" I asked, fairly sure he hadn't gone to the trouble of bringing me home to leave without grilling me for more information on Clark.
Lex took off his funky purple glasses and gave me one of those genuine smiles that made you feel you might actually have accessed something likeable.
"Sure," he said quietly. "I think we have a lot to talk about."
I shrugged and clomped up the steps, rubbing the head of my lab, Klungo, before I unlocked the door. Lex glanced at Klungo but didn't pet him or say anything to him.
At the time I'd found myself hoping he wasn't a cat person because I was convinced I could never be friends with someone who couldn't roll around on the floor and play with a dog.
I'd quickly come back to myself, not knowing which was more pathetic: thinking Lex was actually interested in becoming my friend, or waiting until he was on the outs with Clark before inviting him into my home.
I turned to glance over Lex's shoulder at the incongruity of the sports car in my drive and knew I wasn't fooling myself. Or anybody else.
Lex wanted my help, and somehow he knew just which buttons to push to get it. Much as I hated to admit it, part of me really didn't mind.
We went into the foyer, where I tossed my backpack on the floor at the foot of the stairs.
"You can hang your coat up here if you want," I said, gesturing at the hall tree in the corner.
He thanked me, slid out of his jacket, and hung it on one of the empty hooks. I walked down the hall to the den and peeked in, hoping it wasn't a mess.
"No little Rosses running around?" Lex asked, and I jumped slightly. He was standing next to me and peering into the unoccupied room.
"Nope. I'm the baby." I jerked my thumb towards the kitchen. "You want something to drink? Mom might have some bottled water in there," I added, wondering why he couldn't just drink soda like a regular person.
"Whatever you have is fine." He walked around our old blue sofa and sat down, then hunched over to glance through my dad's copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut lying on the coffee table.
I walked to the fridge and fumbled around inside to get water for him and a Coke for me, hoping he wouldn't start lecturing about New Wave cinema or something else I didn't get.
He took the water from me when I came back and thanked me again, unscrewing the cap and taking a small sip. Since my dad's chair was on the other side of the room, I instead fell back into one that was closer, which happened to be my mom's recliner. Something told me it was a good strategy, apart from just being polite.
I was pretty sure etiquette was a big thing with the Luthors. Every move you made, every word you spoke, they all probably meant a hell of a lot more to them than to most people.
He closed the book and drank a little more. I became aware of the cool can between my palms and put it on the end table.
"You have a really nice home." He leaned back and looked around approvingly. "Your parents work hard, Pete. You should be proud."
"No question about it," I quickly agreed. "I've got a lot to be proud of. And thankful for. Not everybody needs a mansion on a hilltop to feel good about themselves." I bit my lip after that last remark and opened my can to distract myself from my stupidity. He hadn't deserved that. Not really.
He smiled in kind of a stiff way and took a white handkerchief from his pants pocket. He placed it flat down on the table and set his bottle on it.
"You and I have never been on the same page about much of anything," he said slowly, clasping his hands together and looking at me with the determination of a man ready to change all that. I had to admit I was a little impressed. A little intimidated, too, but I hoped it didn't show.
"What I know for certain," he continued, "is we both care about Clark. We want him to be happy, and we both know he's not."
"I hope you're not implying that's my fault," I answered a bit too warmly. My defenses were on high and I couldn't figure out how to get them back to controllable levels. I drank my Coke and waited for him to admit that if Clark was unhappy, it was because of something he'd done, not me.
"Of course not, Pete. He's still talking to you."
"Well, I already told you he won't say what happened with you guys. You're such good friends with him, you should know why he backed off. You should be telling me."
He looked down and shook his head. "I honestly don't have a clue."
This was weird. The only time I'd seen Luthors helpless was when they had a gun in front of them or they'd lost something important to them. I guess Clark's friendship fit in the latter category.
"It shouldn't be that hard to figure out. I mean, you've got enough skeletons in your closet to open your own graveyard. He probably found out about something sketchy you did and he's pissed."
Lex frowned at the suggestion. "No, no, he would've said something. He's never hesitated to confront me about anything before. It's got to be something else." He pursed his lips in concentration.
I fidgeted in my chair. What did he want from me? Why wasn't he haranguing Lana? She was Clark's ex-girlfriend and Lex's business partner. Or even Chloe. I knew they'd been kind of friendly lately.
It then occurred to me maybe he'd already talked to them and they had even fewer answers than I did.
"Well, then it's probably got something to do with you investigating him. He told me all about that. Maybe he's just had enough of it."
He looked at me coldly, like I'd gone too far. "Again, he would've come to me if that was the case."
He had a point. Whatever this was all about, it was something so personal Clark didn't trust either of his best friends enough to discuss it.
I twisted the pull tab on my can around till it fell off. I was torn between feeling disloyal to Clark by sitting there with Lex trying to figure out what was going on with him, and being almost as anxious as Lex to discover the truth.
He wouldn't stop till he knew what that truth was. I saw it in his eyes and it scared me. I resented having a Luthor in my house making me feel that way.
"I really wish I could help out, but he didn't talk that much about you two having problems. If anything, he was always defending you. He's like your biggest fan or something. At least he was." I admit I took some pleasure in that last dig.
Lex sighed with a finality that made me then feel like a real jerk. The guy had things about him that bugged the hell out of me, I couldn't deny that, but there was also something kind of helpless there that brought down a heavy load of guilt on me. Not to mention that no matter what his motives might have been, he had brought me to my house in one of the finest set of wheels this side of the Atlantic. He was doing his best to be nice to me. To be straight with me. He didn't need my passive aggression.
I put the can back down and backpedaled. "Listen, man, I'm sure whatever it was isn't that big a deal." I couldn't tell if my tone was consoling but I pressed on, anyway. "Clark's not the kind of guy to just cut people out of his life on a whim, y'know? I say just let him stew around for awhile. I'm sure things'll be back to normal before long."
He replaced the cap on his bottle and looked at it thoughtfully. "I guess that's the only choice I've got. Clark doesn't respond well to being pushed."
"No, he doesn't. He's more comfortable if he's the one pushing." Lex laughed at that and I smirked in return. It was true, though. Lex and I both knew it. Clark didn't have a subtle bone in his body.
"I should go," he said as he looked at his watch then back up at me. "Do you need a ride back to school to get your car?"
"Nah. I'll take the bus in the morning. Sometimes it's good to mix with the masses. Keeps the ego in check." I smiled when I said it just to make sure he knew it was a joke.
He got up, retrieved his jacket, and offered me his free hand as he opened the door.
"It was good talking to you, Pete."
I shook his hand firmly and looked him in the eye. "No problem."
He looked outside and narrowed his eyes in the fading sunlight. "You know, I have to take my cars out from time to time just to blow the soot out." He put those trippy glasses back on and then slid his hands in his pockets. "You're always welcome to go with me."
"Sure. That'd be great," I answered without hesitation. He nodded before leaving and I closed the door behind him, wondering if I was making a friend or an ally. Wondering further if Lex knew the difference. Or if I really did, either.
Sharise had the warmest smile I'd ever seen. Her chin would tilt down and her eyes would look up, and it seemed there was always something new there mixed in with something familiar. She knew how to hold my attention without having to say a whole lot. I liked that. Me, I'd had a habit from childhood of talking too much, but just being around her gave me time to settle down and appreciate how lucky I was to have someone like her interested in me.
Sometimes she'd be at my locker between classes and we'd just stand there and hold hands for a couple of minutes. That smile would appear and make me forget where I was and then I'd feel her fingers lightly stroking my cheek.
As my luck would have it, Sharise was out sick from school that day and instead I got Clark waiting there, looking at me like I was personally responsible for international terrorism.
"What's wrong with you?" I asked without looking at him, instead concentrating on my lock's combination. "You look like you lost your best friend." I've been known to make Clark laugh, but I guess he didn't think that was too funny.
"I'm just trying to figure out who you remind me of more, Judas or Brutus."
My gaze went up slowly to meet his. "You don't want to go there."
"What am I supposed to think? The minute I tell you I'm not friends with Lex anymore, you're out riding with him in his new car? Can you really be bought that easily?"
I was not in the mood for this conversation, but I couldn't just walk away. I had to get my books. Unfortunately, he was holding the door shut.
"You wanna move your paw, King Kong?" I asked, waiting for him to step back. When he finally did, I shook my head and lifted the handle. "You got Chloe spying on me or are you doing it yourself?" I mumbled.
"It's a small town, Pete, and an even smaller school. I don't need to spy. And I don't care who you're friends with, as long as you're friends for the right reasons."
I found the books I needed and slammed the door shut. "The right reasons. Okay. So just tell me, what are the reasons I shouldn't be friends with him? You obviously have a lot of them, so why don't you share one or two with me?"
That shut him up.
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
"He was asking about me, wasn't he?"
Playing mediator was never my style. I've always firmly believed if you've got a problem with someone, take it up with them. Leave me out of it. But the fact remained he was right. Lex had been asking about him. Still, it was hard to know exactly what I owed Clark, especially when he was acting like such a tool.
"He was being nice to me. Since you won't talk to him and tell him what your problem is, he thought I could help." Clark rolled his eyes at that and leaned with his back against the lockers. "Nobody bought anybody. I want you clear on that. All he knows is the Luthor way of dealing with people. They use what they've got to get what they want. And it's not like I've got a lot to give. I suppose if he got anything from me, it's my sympathy. We both know what a lousy friend you can be."
"What?!" He straightened to his full height, fists clenched by his sides. "What's that supposed to mean?"
I was not going to be late to class for this. "Hot and cold, Clark. Hot and cold. That's all it means. I'll see you around." I left him with his mouth hanging open and maybe something to chew on. But with Clark, you just never knew.
I could still feel the thrum of the McLaren in my bones all that day in school, and instead of dwelling on the fight I'd had with Clark in the hallway, all I could think about was tearing up and down more of the county's back roads in the seemingly endless variety of street maulers Lex kept in that huge garage on his property. Not to mention the ones he had in Metropolis.
There were so many I'd seen him driving around town, and I couldn't concentrate in my classes as I catalogued them in my head: a rush of metallic colors with clean, aerodynamic lines, raw sound, superior precision, lightweight strength, and insane amounts of horsepower.
I noticed the heels of my feet bouncing on the floor while my fingers impatiently tapped my pencil on my notebook, then forced myself to sit still.
This wasn't good. I was so damn far gone. I tried to think of my broken Uncle Charlie and his Swiss-cheese liver.
I thought of someone else I'd known who'd been broken in a different way, ending up a corpse in a blood-soaked tangle of fiberglass and steel.
It was funny how malleable logic could be. Sure I'd made mistakes, mistakes so profound they'd cost a guy his life, but it also seemed like I was being given an opportunity to make up for past sins.
I sat there and honestly thought that if anything, my love for cars might make my life better instead of worse - that it could motivate me to strive for more. I might be getting an offer from someone to ride in some of the best cars in the world, but I'd never actually own one unless I was determined to make a success of myself someday.
After the final bell rang, I went outside into the school lot and climbed into my car. I looked around in disgust. It wasn't messy, but it didn't have that gleaming, high-tech, cockpit feel to it, either. I took my cell phone out of the center console, relieved to see it was still charged, and called Sharise to make sure she was okay, which she was if complaining about their pantry not having any Ghirardelli was any indication.
I smiled after she hung up and started to pull out of my parking spot. Nothing got my head on straighter than hearing her voice. I was glad she wanted to see me and was about to put the phone back in the compartment when the MetU fight song rang sharply in my ear. I stopped the car and reminded myself to change the ring tone next chance I got. I looked at the number on the display. Clark.
"Yeah?" I answered shortly.
I waited for more but it didn't come. I could hear Chloe on another phone in the background.
"You in the Torch office?"
"Yeah, I was just talking to Chloe about you and she said I should call. Before you left school."
I snorted. That was Clark, all right, always needing an outside party to shove him back in the game.
"Pete, I can't handle losing two friends in the same week," he admitted quietly.
I shifted the car back in neutral and set the brake. "Clark, you worry me, you know that? We had an argument. That's what people do. It doesn't have to end friendships. If anything, it should make them stronger. I would've thought you knew that by now."
He paused a beat before responding. "I do."
At least he was trying, I gave him that. Suddenly it was my turn. "Hey, you want a ride home?"
"Actually I'm gonna stay here a little longer. I've been informed by the management that my article needs some revision before tonight's deadline."
"Don't want to piss off the management."
"No, I've learned my lesson about that."
"It does take you awhile, sometimes," I agreed.
Clark was silent for a few more seconds before finally saying, "Um, Pete?"
"I know what I said before but--I actually kind of hope the same thing I used to. That you and Lex could be friends. He really needs one."
Weirder and weirder. I was more confused than ever. "He does? Just not you, right?"
"You just have to take my word for it. There are some things no friendship can survive."
An ominous admission that sent me back to a time that I'd almost forgotten when I was convinced I myself had lost Clark for good - that given enough good reason, even he could put conditions on friendships.
The not knowing the source of friction between him and Lex was what made my stomach tie up in knots - his total lack of willingness to be honest with me about why; about what exactly a person had to do to succeed in getting ejected from his life.
Despite what I'd told Lex the day before, I was pretty sure whatever was going on with Clark wouldn't just blow over. At that moment I really didn't even know where I stood with him anymore.
"Clark, man, I've gotta go. I was thinking I'd swing by to see Sharise. Take her some chocolate or something."
"Oh, okay. Sure," he said, sounding distracted. "Well, tell her I hope she gets better soon. I'll see you tomorrow."
I ended the call and looked at the phone. The readout showed me the last five people I'd received calls from and I arrowed down to Lex's number. There was some soot I needed blown out of my own system. Maybe he'd want to take out the red Diablo...
...then again, maybe not.
He was in his office and I could tell I was on speakerphone. I hoped his secretary or, God forbid, his father wasn't in there with him listening to me.
"Desiree burned out the clutch when she drove it and I never bothered having it repaired," he explained dully, as if his wives ruined $300,000 cars every day.
I didn't mention what a waste that seemed to me. Instead I started having second thoughts about calling him. It was a strong possibility he was just being polite when he made his offer at my house. I was getting a little embarrassed about the whole situation when he spoke again in a more personal tone.
"Look, Pete, you can have your pick. We'll go out in the car of your choice. But it'll have to wait till tomorrow. Today's been insane." The edge in his voice made the point for him.
I had always thought of Lex as the spoiled kid of a billionaire who, yeah, sure he'd been through a lot of horrors and didn't exactly have an ideal family life, but I'd never had an image of him as a hard-working executive. I guess I earned a little more respect for him after that conversation.
"Hey, that sounds good to me. Y'know, whatever works for you. You can just let me know when to come by." I hated the way I sounded even more than before. Like I was practically begging. This was not how it was supposed to be. I wasn't supposed to be the one asking favors from him. I kicked myself mentally. Stupid car addiction.
I put the phone back in the console and finally drove out of the lot to go see my girl, trying to be happy with the bucket-seated former love of my life with its all too apparent shortcomings: the intermittent misses, the unimpressive acceleration, the bulky drag, and the unpredictable handling.
It wasn't true what they said about the farm and Paris, I told myself. Paris may have been glitzy and distracting, but the farm was solid and dependable. At least if you changed the farm's fluids regularly and never took her over 6000 RPMs.
Lex was true to his word. I went over to his garage after supper the next day and the shiny minions were all sitting in meticulous rows, uncovered, enough space around them to maneuver each into reflector-lined lanes. To say I was impressed was to say it snows in Alaska. So many, such a variety. Jay Leno would shit his pants.
He then went on to point out his favorites to me. I was glad for that, because even though I was in heaven, I really couldn't spend all night in the place.
I recognized the desert silver sheen of the Aston Martin DB7 right off the bat.
"It has a smaller engine than I'm used to, but it's quick and responsive. There's a V12 version out now, but I'm in no hurry to acquire it."
I couldn't tell if he was trying to downplay his materialism or was truly disinterested in upgrading. He was on to the next one before I could process.
"This is the Lotus Elise S2. Best gear performance you could ask for. Aluminum chassis, ultra lightweight, great handling. She's a real show off."
I nodded my head dumbly and think I muttered something in agreement.
He showed me his Porsches. So many Porsches. Carreras. Targas. Speedsters. Boxsters. My head was swimming.
It was too much. No kid in a candy store had ever had it this good. I was practically drooling while we looked at the Ferraris. I thought the red convertible Spider was the one Clark drove but didn't think I should mention it. For some reason Lex was partial to the kind of plain blue F355, talking about its grip envelope or something.
"And she's got a wail that'll rip you apart," he said slyly, his eyes gleaming. I took his word for it, and then we'd moved onto what I supposed was Mercedes Row.
"I thought we'd ride the Roadster today, but like I said, it's your choice, Pete." He turned to look at the cars behind him, apparently expecting me to make a decision. I felt like Truman contemplating Hiroshima, only with less possibility of fallout. Hopefully so, anyway. I hadn't exactly shared my newfound interest in Lex and his collection with my parents yet.
"Yeah, that--that sounds good," I stuttered, grateful for the suggestion. I got in the passenger's side and closed my eyes, inhaling that leather scent and wondering how many women he'd seduced in this car.
All the cars. All the girls.
But I knew none of that stuff was as important as the one thing Lex didn't have anymore. It was such a simple thing to want and I felt terrible knowing it was the one thing he couldn't have. I had another secret of Clark's to carry around with me, that there was no hope, and all the thoughtless joy I'd had moments before slipped away as quickly as the engine turned over. I managed to smile but felt awkward. Like he was doing this as a favor for me and I wasn't living up to my end.
That feeling lasted as long as it took to exit through the open garage doorway.
We were driving on a state road soon after, and I was more relaxed than the last time we'd been out. Lex in his cars was always a man in his natural habitat, and he knew his environment well. His passion, confidence, and concentration while driving was like a professional's.
"You ever race?" I asked as we sped down Route 15, fences whizzing by, cattle a brown, black, and white blur.
"American Le Mans series. Miami. Then Gotham," he answered briskly.
My eyes widened. I'd had no idea. "When?"
"1999 and 2000. Wrecked both times." The sun was setting and we were driving east, anyway, so he wasn't wearing the sunglasses, and he had a reflective look about him. He looked at me pointedly. "Badly," he finished.
I was hardly surprised by that revelation. "Yeah, you tend to do that, don't you?" I joked, not knowing how else to react. I knew all about how dangerous racing was, though our experiences were probably worlds apart. "Would you ever do it again?"
"I'm going to. Project Metropolis. The ALMS is finally coming to Kansas."
"Really? But there's no track in the city," I said, frowning.
"Well, there's one nearby in Granville for practicing. But the race itself will be a road race."
My heart was trip-hammering in my chest at the thought. "You're kidding me. They agreed to close off the streets of Metropolis for a race?" I knew how much I'd love to see that. "When do you start practicing?"
"I have to make the team. It's not a done deal. Not yet, anyway."
"Still. Jesus." I had suddenly entered a familiar universe I was only barely aware I'd still been orbiting. "Does anyone know?"
"No one in this town has a clue." He glanced at me seriously. "I'd like to keep it that way for awhile, Pete. If you don't mind."
More secrets. I should've known. But oh, damn, the look on Clark's face when he found out. He would never have guessed Lex and I had anything vaguely similar in our backgrounds. Hell, neither would I.
I sat back and knew the kind of shit-eating grin I was wearing. "Sure thing, Lex," I said, leaning back in the seat. I put my hands behind my head and laced my fingers together. "You can trust me."
Over the next couple of weeks, I guess I rode in about a dozen of those colorful, powerful beauties. I had suspicions at the beginning that Lex was taking me out for rides begrudgingly, and I felt kind of guilty those first few days, but soon I sensed it was something he looked forward to. I could hardly blame him. If I was stuck in an office all hours with a hive of uptight worker bees, I'd want to drive fast down empty roads at the end of the day myself.
I had the feeling after awhile that there was some pattern to the routes he took, and he admitted there was a county grid he tried to stick to especially for racing speeds. The area was patrolled by someone on the force who apparently owed him a favor and gladly turned a blind eye. It was a familiar story, and I was grateful apparently corruption was alive and well in the Lowell County Police Department.
He seemed to enjoy having some company, as if an audience gave him the incentive to push himself past his limits. I noticed his cornering was getting tighter and his up-shifting smoother.
I always said I talked too much, but Lex didn't seem to mind it when I filled in the gaps on straightaways. He liked to hear me brag about my girlfriend and whine about my family. Or if he didn't like it, he sure put on a convincing act.
The only subject I was ever reluctant to discuss was the one he never brought up anymore. Clark. I didn't tell Lex that Clark was becoming moodier and quieter at school. And I didn't tell Clark that in all the time I spent with Lex, his life just moved on and Clark's name was never mentioned.
Then again, I never had to tell either of them anything. I could see it in their eyes when I was around each of them - they always just seemed to know.
Fall was officially two weeks away, but the days were as hot as ever. We went inside the mansion after driving for awhile early one evening and I was glad to sit in the cool of the library.
Lex picked up the latest edition of The Daily Planet from his desk and handed it to me along with a cold bottle of water. I started to see why he preferred it to soda, at least at times like this. It was the perfect followup to a dusty ride.
"It's official now," he said, gesturing at the front page. It was an announcement on Project Metropolis. The race was slated to take place in June and the mayor seemed to be drooling all over himself in anticipation, stating in the article that it was an exciting way to kick off the summer and how it would bring in needed revenue and nationwide attention.
"Although the racing series is still relatively new, founded in 1999, it has established itself in the hearts of America's racing fans, and I'm thrilled to have had a hand in convincing the ALMS to choose our city as its newest host."
"Sounds like it's really gonna boost the economy." I put the paper on the table and drank my water, envying Lex for getting the chance to be involved in this. "How exactly did the officials convince them to let Metropolis host the race, anyway?"
He snorted at that. "The politicians always take the credit. It's the corporations that are bringing them here."
I nodded slowly, comprehension dawning. "What Luthors want, Luthors get. Right?"
He smiled and went to sit behind his desk, propping his feet up on it.
"Yes and no. But just because I may have helped persuade them to come to Metropolis doesn't give me an automatic in."
"Yeah, but you've raced it before." He had mentioned awhile back he didn't have a guaranteed spot on the team, but I had assumed that was just a formality.
"That doesn't matter. I'm not a professional, and I haven't exactly made a name for myself in their little world. I was there from the beginning but I was too young and I screwed up too badly. Things like that tend to stick in people's minds, especially on this kind of scale."
I frowned and stared down for a moment before looking at him questioningly. "So, what does that mean? You have to try out? Show them you've gotten better?"
"Yes. But that's only part of it. It's a business, Pete. You have to treat it that way. And there's one advantage I had at that time that, unfortunately, I don't have anymore."
"Which would be...?"
He sat deep in thought, looking for a moment or two like he was tempted to tell me.
"What?" I asked impatiently.
He got up quickly and gestured for me to follow him out of the room. "We'll talk about it later. You want to drive tomorrow?" he asked as casually as if he were asking how I took my coffee.
"Do I what?" I was sure I'd misheard.
He crossed his arms and ignored my state of temporary shock. "We'll start you off easy. Something relatively tame until you get the feel. Maybe the Z3. What do you think?"
My spirits sank at that. "A Beemer?" I had to admit I was a little disappointed. I immediately regretted the words when I saw his reaction.
"I see," he said smugly and started to walk through the doorway.
Panic started to set in. "No, no, wait--wait a minute. That's not what I meant to say. I meant, `A Beemer?'" I tried to give my voice just the right inflection.
"You'll do just fine, Pete. It's all about your mindset." He gave me a subdued smile and I followed him into the hall, amazed at how spoiled I'd become in two short weeks, to the point of actually snubbing a BMW. Maybe Clark was right. Maybe I did have my price and it was way higher than it should have been.
Driving the Z3 had been a pretty watershed moment for me. It made me step back and look at things differently. I held back when I wanted to open up, instead just feeling the car itself in motion around me, tuning into its strengths and adapting appropriately. I kept my mouth shut and focused on the language of the engine, answering with precise and liquid movements.
I didn't want this to be the last car he let me take out. Too much was on the line for me to rush.
Once I'd earned Lex's trust and he opened up his (garage's) heart to me, it didn't take long to learn to treat his cars with a deep reverence almost bordering on spiritual. They were like Sharise, needing a gentle, guiding hand to get the right response.
I had asked him a couple of times if he wanted to drive, seeing as he was the one with the big race to get ready for, but he'd been airily dismissive and said he would be using the track in Granville with other potential competitors. I assumed that meant he wouldn't have time to let me be a fantasy car beta tester anymore but didn't say anything. He'd gone above and beyond anything I would've ever expected by letting me drive them in the first place, and I didn't want to press my luck.
He didn't end our sessions, though; in fact, over the next few days, he gradually got more intense when we drove. He talked a lot more than he did in the beginning.
Initially he continued to be encouraging, almost proud in the way he commended my handling of his cars. Then he started telling me I was ready to go outside my comfort zone and try new things.
When I apparently didn't progress the way he was hoping I would, he finally started berating me for being overly cautious.
He told me to pull over at one point and when I did, he got out of the car. I followed him to the side of the road and held my arms out to my side.
He put his hands in his pockets and stared at the road. "Pete, you know what you've got." He looked up at me and pointed at the Modena. "It's right there. It's not going anywhere. You're holding back and what I can't understand is why. What are you afraid of?"
I'd had plenty of chances to take his cars through their paces, but I hadn't. There was too much baggage for me when it came to cars to be as carefree with them as I once was. Besides, restraint was supposed to be a mark of maturity, and in that regard I thought I was doing pretty well.
"I...guess I didn't want to push it too far. It's not my car. It's hard to know where the lines are." He looked at me like he was disgusted. I couldn't believe we were arguing because I was being careful. "I was just trying to be respectful, man."
"You're not going to get anywhere if you don't take chances!" he shouted. "You can't just give up!"
It was then I realized this wasn't about me. It wasn't even about cars. The realization gave me some peace of mind. Hell, if he was going to use the situation to vent his spleen about Clark, I was just going to let him.
"I'm not giving up," I said defiantly.
"Prove it, then." His voice lowered as he approached me. "You drive just fine with your head, Pete. But you also need to drive with your heart. I always take my emotions out on the road. Now sometimes that gets me in trouble, but mostly it just helps me remember how good it feels...just to feel."
He had a kind of wild look in his eyes that made me the kind of uncomfortable you get when you're around someone who's had...problems, but I stood my ground and listened to what he had to say.
"You can't get there if you're doing it by numbers," he continued, a little more calmly. "Don't respect my car. Drive it. Drive it the way it was made to be driven. You do that and you'll be amazed how far it can take you."
"What if I wreck?" I asked dumbly, knowing he was right. I really was afraid. Things I wanted to forget came back in a rush.
I wondered if this was how Clark felt the moment he decided he'd had enough and walked away from Lex for good, for whatever reason. Maybe Lex had wanted him to take a risk he wasn't willing to take.
Maybe this was my chance to prove not all his friends would choose to bail on him.
"Everybody does eventually," he answered simply, "but if you have talent and aptitude, you can lessen your chances. And you have those things. The rest is just details."
"Yeah," I mumbled. "Me ending up dead, that's just a detail."
"I told you before, Pete, you have to have the right attitude. I promise if you work hard enough on that, everything else will fall into place."
He got back in the passenger's side and I stood looking at the car for a minute, wondering if I really had what it took to be the boss of her. If that was a place I even wanted to revisit.
The engine was patiently and quietly idling, waiting for me to make my decision. I rubbed my hands together and told my inner coward to take a hike. As I was slowly learning, when Lex Luthor gave the green light, you moved forward and asked questions later.
When I slid into the driver's seat, Lex turned to me and smiled knowingly. If there had ever been any doubt before, it was then firmly established just who was in control here.
"Okay, now listen," he said breathlessly. "In my opinion, this model offers the best introduction into how beautifully the Ferrari designers work with aerodynamics. You've followed the straight line at pretty high speeds already, and you noticed the low drag, right?"
I pulled the car back onto the road and quickly worked up to third. "Yeah. Guess that's why I feel like I'm practically sitting on the asphalt." I was in fourth and seconds later blasted past ninety miles an hour.
"Exactly. You've got a low center of gravity, moderate torque to keep you in your seat, and those narrow front tires that'll keep the turns sharp. You see how the stability isn't affected by your speed?"
The sensation was different yet familiar. The rumbling in my gut had to have been guilt mixing it up with anticipation.
"Keep your lines tight and conservative. Make the throttle your friend and heel the brake if you need to slow down. That'll keep the RPMs level and the transmission will respond a lot better."
I glanced quickly down at my feet. "You want me to keep my heel on the brake?" It was a method of driving I'd never heard of before, much less attempted.
"And your toe on the accelerator. Conservation of movement is what you need when you're riding this fast."
I tried giving the car gas and then braking a bit with my heel as I pushed the clutch in with my other foot, shifting into third, and the jerk that resulted almost bloodied my nose on the steering wheel.
"You just need practice," Lex said a bit shakily, his hand pressing down on the dash. "Your instincts are there. Try it again."
I bit my lip and repeated the steps, watching as the RPMs lowered evenly instead of jumping up as I slowed down.
"See how much it helps on the downshift? And you don't lose traction this way. Now speed back up and try it again."
The car raced up to 120 miles per hour and I used the maneuver again with an even smoother result.
"You're getting there. Honestly, you're a natural." I could see his head nodding in approval as I drove, and I felt a smile creep up on me.
"You ready for fast cornering?" he asked, almost tauntingly.
The scent of a dare was thick in the confines of the car. Cornering had never been my strong suit. It was one reason I'd always been so glad Kansas roads had so few turns. I had already come this far, though. I squeaked out a yes before I could change my mind.
"Now what did I say about braking?"
"Um, try not to do it too much?"
"Basically, right. When you corner, you need to go in slow and come out fast. Without getting too Zen about it, the car knows what to do. You don't want to over-control it. If you feel like you're fighting its natural tendencies, you're doing it wrong."
"You say go in slow, what do you mean? Like how slow?"
"I just mean you let off the gas before your turn-in point. You hit your apex when you're turning and then push back down on the throttle for your corner exit."
I listened while he gestured around the interior with his hands. It was obvious he loved having someone to share all this with. I just wanted to live to remember any of it.
"You have to know where you're starting and exactly where you want to end up. Make the connection, follow through, and you should get a consistent force throughout. Of course, the sharper the turn, the earlier you want to slow down. And if it's a really tight one, you will have to use the brake."
I felt like I was back in Driver's Ed, only this was not the kind of stuff they taught. Ever.
"So let's take this next turn and see how much tire you leave behind," he joked.
"Okay." I let my foot off the gas, probably too early, but Lex didn't say anything. I tried not to jerk the wheel when it seemed I might not complete the corner in time, and I ended up tearing through the grass and almost into a telephone pole before straightening out.
"Holy shit," I breathed. My heart was pounding like crazy.
"That was actually pretty good."
I put the car in neutral and braked to a stop. "You can't be serious."
"No, really. You did what I asked, but your timing was off and you didn't connect the points. But you also didn't brake hard and spin out. I'll admit it was a little close, but you just have to keep trying until you get the feel for when to do each step. That's all driving is. Getting the feel for it."
He was irritatingly calm. No one could be that calm after a near collision. I took deep breaths and wiped my palms on my pants.
"I really think you're getting the hang of it. But maybe you should take turns at under sixty until you're more comfortable."
I rested my head against the steering wheel and closed my eyes. It was there, so deep inside I couldn't hope to get rid of it. Something unnerving was encouraging me, making me realize how much I really did want to get it right.
"I'll give it a try," I said with all the enthusiasm of Luke Skywalker in the Dagobah swamp.
Lex chuckled and gently squeezed my shoulder before patting it. "It's all cake from here on out, Pete, I promise. You've got the nerve. The rest will come in time."
Time. There wasn't exactly a shortage of that in my life. And it was either that or cut down all the telephone poles for a ten-mile radius.
Lex's mechanic was not exactly the nicest guy in the world. I was never sure if it was because he resented Lex giving me carte blanche to use his cars anytime I wanted or because every time I did take them out, it meant more work for him when I brought them back.
I'd always prided myself on the ability to get along with just about anyone if given enough opportunity, but with Hans it was a dead end. We gave each other a wide berth whenever I came by the garage, but the man was a professional. The cars were always in pristine condition, maintained with the kind of care only someone who truly loved his job could give.
Lex told me not to worry about the dust, the dirt, the tire wear, the mileage, or even the condition of the interior - that Hans could have any of the cars looking and running like new again every time. Even if he did give me a dirty look each time I saw the guy.
Having my choice of cherry cars at my fingertips was an amazing privilege, and I took advantage of it every chance I could. Sometimes Lex would go with me, but most of the time he was at work or over with Team Ferrari at the track going over terms of the LuthorCorp sponsorship, endorsements, schmoozing with the crew, and earning laps as favors. Like he'd said, it was a business.
The only thing was, I had a hard time finding anyone I really cared about to share my excitement with. Talking about it with Clark, much less riding with him, was out of the question for obvious reasons. My parents wrote my interest off as some flashy period I was going through and said they hoped I'd outgrow it. Sharise was cool about the whole thing but really never had understood my fascination with Lex's cars and didn't see why I preferred them to my own Camaro.
So I ended up carting around various members of the football team just for company but abandoned that idea after they started implying I was only friends with Lex because he was rich. I guess that accusation hit a little too close to home for me and, just like Lex used to, I ended up spending most of the next few months driving alone.
Clark was still a little distant with me, spending insane amounts of time working at the Torch and skulking around the halls. He still acted like Chloe and I were the highlights of his day, but that really wasn't saying much.
I felt bad because I hadn't really talked to his parents about how he was acting, even though it worried me and I knew it had to worry them, too. Clark rarely invited me over anymore and occasionally came over to my house when I asked him, but he usually made up an excuse not to.
Once a ruthless Kansas winter hit and the roads were too dangerous to take the cars on as frequently, I saw even less of Lex and figured the honeymoon was over, even though he did make a point of telling me he'd take me out to the speedway when spring came.
That's when things between me and Clark started to get back on track. Somehow he knew I wasn't going over to the mansion anywhere near as much anymore, and even though he'd claimed he wanted me to be friends with Lex, he acted relieved that we'd hit a plateau.
It was too cold those days to do much of anything but hang out in the school gym, sprawled out on the bleachers and waiting for the basketball team to finish up so we could play one-on-one.
"How do you think you did on the chem exam?" I asked as the jocks' sneakers squeaked across the floor and a barrage of balls attacked each of the backboards. I wasn't sure, but I thought if the way he was acting was any indication, his grades had probably dropped over the semester. If they had, I thought it would be a real shame because I knew when Clark applied himself, he could be brilliant.
"I dunno," he mumbled. "It's hard to get thrilled over mole ratios and covalent bonding."
"Where did you hear high school was supposed to be thrilling?"
He shrugged and watched the smooth movement of coordinated lay-ups with cool disinterest.
"I guess now that Chloe's got you sucked into the world of investigative journalism, everything else kinda pales in comparison."
"Maybe. Sort of like how Lex got you sucked into the world of fast, shiny cars."
I'd figured it wouldn't be too long before we hit that particular sore point. "You talk to him lately?" I asked carefully, wondering if Clark would ever get back to himself without Lex in his life. It seemed less and less likely all the time.
"We don't have anything to talk about," he said shortly, then folded his arms and rested his head against the seat above him. He watched me out of the corner of his eye. "Why? Did he say something?"
"I didn't think you cared." I picked up the ball lying next to me and spun it on my middle finger. Clark made a dismissive noise and it hit me how much he wished he didn't care. As for me, I felt helpless, useless, and out of the loop. "Do you ever talk to Chloe about him?"
"What? Why would I do that?"
"Well, sometimes it's easier to talk to girls about stuff like this. I talk to Sharise about you."
He grabbed the ball from my hands and frowned. "Really? What, you tell her what a jerk I've been lately?"
"Why? Do you think you've been a jerk?" I took the ball from him and passed it back and forth between my fingertips.
"I think you know what I have to deal with and you know it's not easy. Sometimes certain things just have to give."
"Even friendships?" He squirmed and said nothing. "Come on, Clark. I understand the whole weight-of-the-world thing better than anybody. I just don't like seeing you so miserable all the time."
"I'm not," he said defensively. "I'm keeping busy and Chloe and I are filling out scholarship forms for MetU next fall. Once I'm out of this town, things'll be better."
"Right. I probably don't need to remind you, but Lex works in Metropolis."
"Why do you think this is all about Lex?" His voice was louder than either of us had expected, and the entire gym stopped what it was doing as Lex's name echoed off the walls.
"Because I'm not an idiot," I whispered after the noise level returned. "If you want my opinion, until you get things square with him, you won't be fit to live with."
His mouth dropped open. "You talked to my parents, didn't you?" He kept his voice down, but just barely. "Just how many people do you talk to about me, anyway?"
"Calm down, Clark. Before you say something really stupid. Your parents haven't said anything to me. But I know you. If you're like this at school, I can imagine what you're like at home."
"I'll work it out, Pete. I just need you to back off a little." He went from looking like he wanted to punch me to looking like he might cry. "It's just you're the last safe place I've got," he said softly.
I put the ball between my knees and hunched over, staring out over the court. "Sure, man. Whatever you want." I really wished he felt like he could talk to me, but at least I wasn't the only one feeling helpless.
Warm weather came back, hopefully to stay, when Lex finally brought me inside the Granville Motor Speedway. It seemed larger than life, just as much so as when I was a kid and my dad took me there once for a NASCAR race. The only other things from that trip I really remembered were the smell of smoke from both cigarettes and tires and how damn loud it was.
It was early morning, but the track already had at least two dozen cars on it, buzzing around the half-mile track in a blur of motion. I felt like I'd walked into some other-worldly nest full of giant, mechanical hornets.
"Use these!" Lex shouted over the steady whine, handing me a sealed packet of earplugs. I ripped it open and put them in, but they didn't really seem to make a huge difference.
"Come on over here, Pete. I want you to meet my teammates."
I started to walk with him towards one of the pavilions but stopped and wondered if I'd heard right. "You're on the team?"
He grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me along. "I redeemed myself to them with my practice runs. Plus they're grateful for the Maranellos that LuthorCorp's given them." He smiled slyly. "They knew it was the right thing to do."
That weird gleam was in his eye and I knew better than to ask for any more details than that.
He introduced me as "an experienced driver" to everyone from the mechanics to the engineers to the team manager. I didn't bother contradicting him. I supposed them believing it was harmless enough, and truth was I was kind of flattered.
I looked around at them and wished they were wearing name tags because over the noise and confusion, I didn't catch half their names.
"Where are the other drivers?" I yelled, getting several confused looks from the crew.
"I'm still working on that," Lex said with hesitation, looking around at questioning faces with a lack of assurance that seemed strange coming from him.
"You said you'd get him to change his mind by now, Lex," said a big, French-sounding dude who I think was the manager. "If you make me wait much longer, I'll have no choice but to go with the alternates."
"I can only do so much, Luc. He's in negotiations with three other teams."
"He drove with you in the other competitions. Why can't you convince him this time?"
I was feeling totally lost by the exchange, which I could hardly understand with that weird accent of his. "Who is he talking about?" I chimed in.
Lex sighed, and though he was still looking at Luc, he spoke to me. "Harry Hardwick, Jr. You know," he said, turning his head towards me and raising his eyebrows in amusement, "Victoria's brother."
There was a name I had definitely not expected to hear. "Ohhh," I said, pretty sure I understood what the problem was.
"Luc, if he falls through, I'll find someone else. Someone better."
"This late in the game, Lex? I highly doubt it." He chuckled at Lex then looked at me curiously.
One of the other team members came up beside Luc and gestured at me. "What about this little guy?" He pronounced it `leetle' and I assumed he and Luc were from the same part of the world. "Exactly how good is he?"
I was about to laugh at the suggestion when Lex blurted out, "Why don't you judge for yourselves?"
I felt blindsided and could do nothing but stare stupidly at Lex for a few moments. "What?" I finally managed, backing away from him. "Are you nu--"
"Just a minute, Luc." Lex interrupted, putting his arm around my shoulder and leading me onto the grass away from the tent.
He took hold of both my arms and stared at me with that intensity I guessed all Luthors were just born with.
"Look, Pete. They just want to see what you can do. Look around. I know it's a different layout than what you're used to, but it's really not that hard. Don't get intimidated by the format."
"I didn't come out here today expecting to drive. Did you know they'd ask me to?"
"I thought they might." He let go of my arms. "I didn't want to spook you. I guess sometimes I'm too fond of the element of surprise. I'm sorry. But come on, Pete. All I need from you is two laps."
I looked around the track and all I could think was how pissed Clark would be if he knew. I'd already put him through so much. I wanted to say no. It was just one word. Why was it so hard to say?
"Look, they're not even racing each other. No one's going to try to squeeze you."
I wasn't convinced.
"Pete, I swear I wouldn't ask you to do this if I wasn't absolutely certain you'd do a great job."
The art of persuasion. It was all just part of business. And I was getting caught up in it.
But it was also about strategy. I suddenly remembered what he'd told me in the office.
"So Hardwick was that advantage you told me about. The one you didn't have anymore. And I'm just a stalling tactic. That's what you've groomed me to be from the beginning, isn't it?" I had already been yelling to be heard but then realized I sounded hysterical.
"No, that's not true. You've been a friend. And you're good. You know you are. Don't you want to prove it to them?" He pointed at the tent where we were being watched. "Please, Pete. Two laps. That's it. That's all I ask."
I wasn't about to let this go that easily. "I don't get it. If you knew you'd have a hard time getting him to race with you, why didn't you just find another partner? Why are you so anxious for me to go out there and risk screwing it up for you?"
"Harry was the only one who really believed in me. Everyone else thought I'd just blow it again. As per usual, I'm a bad risk."
Sympathy. Another business maneuver? It was hard to know. I seriously considered the possibility he knew more about me than he was telling.
"You must be if I'm all you're left with," I said guardedly.
"Once they see how good you are, they'll give me more time. And you'll be safe. You'll be wearing the full protective gear, and you won't have to fight for position. And the car is in excellent condition."
I'd never seen him this excited and anxious. It was pretty unnerving. But also tempting.
"I'll be on the radio with you every minute. You'll have everything you need."
"As long as I'm in the right frame of mind."
"Exactly." He smiled with relief. Unfortunately, it didn't have the power of reassurance he probably thought it did.
"Right. My attitude will keep me from being a greasy spot on the wall."
"So you'll do it?"
"My parents will kill me if they find out. I mean, completely, utterly dead."
All of the almost childlike enthusiasm drained from his face. "Your parents. That's right. You're not even eighteen yet, are you?"
For some reason I became the enthusiastic one. "Hey, my birthday's only two weeks away. What they don't know won't hurt them," I suggested. Against my better judgment.
"No. No, this wasn't a good idea. I didn't think of that. How could I have not thought of that?" He seemed disgusted with himself and walked a few steps away from me.
"Can't you hold them off a couple of weeks? Who knows? Maybe by then Harry, Jr., will have signed."
"What's his deal, anyway?" I wasn't sure it was my business, but it seemed a fair question, considering what I was willing to do.
"Well, he didn't really have a problem with what I did to his father. He's always hated him. But he never forgave me for involving Victoria. He just can't see straight when it comes to her."
"What if you can't get him on the team? What, you just withdraw?"
"I never quit," he said sternly. "I'll make it work."
I didn't like the way he looked at me when he said that, like he really thought I was a viable option. I felt like my head was on the chopping block but consoled myself that no one, not even a Luthor, could make me do something I didn't want to do.
I tracked the cars speeding around us, hardly able to believe I'd have the chance to be out there with them soon.
Despite how much there was to lose, I couldn't convince myself I didn't want that chance.
Up to that point, my life had always been pretty busy, so I never understood what people were talking about when they'd complain about "days dragging by."
I learned the meaning of those words while I waited for my birthday to come.
Those long days left me feeling pretty tightly wound. I was nervous, anxious, and excited waiting for the day when I could get out on that racing oval and prove myself; using everything I'd learned and testing my mettle in an extreme situation.
In my parents' opinion, I was the family underachiever. To them my interest in cars continued to highlight my lack of ambition and reinforced their belief I'd never distinguish myself at anything they thought was important. Needless to say, I wasn't looking forward to telling them the reason I was so restless.
My mom wondered what was wrong and I kept snapping at her, saying it was nothing and could we please talk about something else. Dad didn't much care what my problem was as long as it didn't directly involve him.
I actually did try a few times to think of some way to let them know what I was planning to do on the remote chance they wouldn't completely freak. It would have been great to think they'd be proud of me for pursuing something I really wanted, but reality kept me from opening my mouth. They'd find out after the fact and I'd deal with it then. I might be in trouble, but at least from a legal standpoint I wouldn't have done anything wrong.
When my birthday finally rolled around, it wasn't exactly big, but I didn't get the shaft, either. Mom made me a vanilla cake with strawberry frosting and gave me a $50 gift certificate for Best Buy. Dad gave me his dark brown leather jacket he'd bought in college along with a tarp and a new set of Good Years.
Sharise came by for lunch and right afterwards, Clark treated me to a Jet Li movie. By the time we got back to my house, I was kind of disappointed that I hadn't heard anything from Lex. I double-checked my cell to make sure it was on when I got out of the truck.
"What's wrong, Pete?"
"Nothing." Stock answer I'd become pretty used to. I smiled at Clark. He'd been in a fairly good mood the whole time we'd been together and I didn't want to take the chance of wrecking it by mentioning Lex. Especially the reason I was expecting a call from Lex. "So, you wanna come in and have a sandwich?"
"Have you ever known me to turn down food?" He clapped his hand on my shoulder and we started up the walkway when I heard the distinctive sound of Lex's favorite SLK coming down the street.
Clark's hand slid away from my arm and his face darkened. "Did you guys make plans?" He tried to sound indifferent but the resentment in his voice was unmistakable. I didn't know whether to be glad Lex had finally shown up or upset that his timing was so lousy.
"No, but he said he might stop by."
Lex parked the Mercedes next to the truck and eased out. Clark jammed his hands in his pockets and lifted his chin almost defiantly.
"Hey, Pete." He had something in his hands as he walked towards us. "Clark," he continued in the same friendly manner, nodding in his direction.
Clark gave a short, forced smile, and then looked down at the concrete.
"I won't keep you guys. I just wanted to tell you happy birthday and get you to sign these." He held out the folder he'd been carrying and handed it to me.
"Oh, okay." I took the folder, frowning slightly, not knowing exactly what kinds of papers it held but certain they had something to do with getting me cleared to do a practice run. I glanced over at Clark briefly then back to Lex, trying to let him know maybe this wasn't the best time or place to do this.
"What are those for?" Clark asked acidly. "Are you signing some car titles over to Pete? A little Luthor birthday gesture?"
I shoved him with my elbow. "Shut up, Clark."
Lex just laughed. "No, Clark. They're release forms. I need Pete to sign these so I can get them back in the morning." He looked over at Clark, whose nostrils flared angrily. "You can make it tomorrow, can't you?" He was still watching Clark as he asked, but I assumed the question was meant for me.
I couldn't imagine why he was saying all this in front of Clark. Maybe he thought I'd already told him everything. Maybe I should have.
Clark faced me furiously. "Exactly what has he got you involved in?"
Then again, maybe not.
"Yeah, Lex," I said, ignoring Clark's question. "Just tell me when you want to go."
Lex turned and walked back to his car. "Meet me at the mansion at eight and we'll go from there." He gestured at the folder as he got back in his car. "Just don't forget to bring those. See you then, Pete." With that he started the engine and rolled out of the drive. He zoomed up the street and braked sharply, honking at two kids who almost ran in front of him.
Clark sighed and looked up at the sky. "You're not going to tell me what all that was about, are you?"
"It's not like you tell me everything," I said angrily. I walked the rest of the way to the house, hoping he wouldn't follow me, still expecting me to feed his face. "Thanks for the movie," I called out over my shoulder.
I stood inside the house and closed the door behind me, resting against it, clutching the folder in front of me. I hadn't even noticed until then how badly I was shaking.
I didn't sleep much that night and arrived at the mansion in the morning practically diving for the coffee pot that had been set out on a nearby tray. I poured myself some and drank it down as Lex watched me from behind his desk, looking amused and calm. I put the cup back on the tray.
"I can't believe you gave me these in front of Clark." I tossed the signed papers on the desk in front of him. "In case you thought I'd told him about the Project or any of the rest of it, I didn't. But thanks to you, now he knows something's up."
"He would've found out eventually."
"You were the one who said you didn't want anyone knowing about your plans."
"That was last year, Pete. It's going to be hard to keep a lid on it when my name's listed as a team driver."
I supposed that was true enough. "But your name's not on the list yet," I said cautiously.
"It will be after today. They'll watch you tear around the track a few times, and then they'll have renewed faith in my ability to retain a viable partner."
"A few? I thought before you said a couple."
"Sit down and relax for a few minutes, Pete. The helicopter should be ready to go soon."
I let out a long, slow breath and wandered over to the sofa, sinking down into the soft leather and closing my eyes.
"Nervous?" he asked, leaning against the front of his desk, arms and ankles crossed, the picture of confidence. "That coffee probably didn't help. Don't worry, Pete. You'll do great."
"Great at what?"
My eyes shot open as I instantly recognized Clark's voice. Shit.
"Good morning, Clark," Lex said without a hint of surprise. "Glad to see you're still taking advantage of my open door policy. Have a seat."
"I don't need to sit down. I need to know why Pete had to sign a release. And where you plan on taking him." His edgy tone had me rattled but Lex looked more relaxed than ever.
"What do you think, Pete? Should we let him in on our little secret?"
My mouth dropped open. I wasn't sure where to even begin, but Lex spoke for me.
"Pete and I are going to the Granville Speedway. He had to sign those papers to be able to drive a LuthorCorp-sponsored vehicle there."
Clark looked like he'd swallowed kryptonite. I straightened in my seat.
"It's just for kicks," I explained, trying to convey a lightness of spirit I didn't remotely feel.
"He couldn't do it before because of age restrictions but now he's all ready to go. You're welcome to join us if you like, Clark."
The explanation had sounded good to me up to the point, and then I felt my eyes go wide in disbelief. Had I just heard right? Had Lex just invited Clark along?
Clark was looking more pissed with each passing second. "Do your parents know about this?"
"They know I drive Lex's cars. They don't know I'm going to Granville to do it. It's just..." I remembered Lex's own philosophy and thought it suited the moment. "It's just details." I really resented Clark for playing the parent card and gripped the leather tightly in my hands.
"Well, I can't say much for your judgment," he said, his voice growing louder. "If it was really just a detail you shouldn't have had a problem telling them. And as for you," he shouted, walking a few steps towards Lex, "I can't believe you'd actually encourage this. Hell, you probably paid for him to have the whole place to himself, didn't you?"
"No, Clark, I didn't," Lex answered quietly in contrast to Clark's bellowing. I wanted the cushions to swallow me whole. I would never forgive Clark for embarrassing me like this.
"So he's going to be out there with experienced racers? Putting his life on the line for `kicks'? This is--" He shook his head and crossed the room in two broad steps to pull me off the couch. "You're going home, Pete," he said roughly.
"Fuck you, Clark!" I shouted, pushing him away from me. "I'm eighteen now. I'll do what I want. And you don't know the whole story, anyway, so just back off."
He did just that, looking just the slightest bit contrite. "So then why don't you tell me the whole story? The real story." He looked from me to Lex, waiting for one of us to talk. I sat back down and stared at the wall, refusing to say a word.
Lex cleared his throat before speaking. "The whole story, Clark, is that there's going to be a race in June. In Metropolis. In order to be in it, I have to show the team I'm trying out for that I can provide another driver as a partner. Pete offered to run a few laps to show them I can find qualified personnel. He's doing me a favor. Once they see I'm actively looking, I'll be officially added to the roster."
Clark plopped down next to me, taking in the facts as Lex presented them, and I scooted away from him. He looked confused, which I definitely preferred to his anger.
"Lex, I know you have some idea you're invincible or something, but you're not. You have no business driving in a race like that."
"He's done it before," I answered for Lex, feeling defensive. "He's been in two races for your information, Clark."
From the expression on his face, Clark had had no idea. "You have?" he asked, leaning forward to look intently at Lex. He acted almost impressed.
"Not just any races," I continued, feeling vindicated. "American Le Mans races. Road races." I neglected to mention he'd crashed in both of them and hoped the subject didn't come up.
"Pete's proven to me over the past six months that he can do this. He knows how to handle Ferraris. He has exceptional technique and maneuvers. I know exactly what he's capable of."
I'd seriously needed to hear those words. I'd needed Clark to hear them, too.
"I'm doing this, Clark." I was pleasantly surprised by how firm I sounded. "I'm doing it to help a friend and I'm doing it for myself. If you want to come along, like Lex said, that's fine. But you're not gonna stop me, so don't even try."
Clark stood up quickly, glared at us both like we were nuts, then headed towards the door. Lex shrugged his shoulders and I dropped my face into my palms. If he told my parents, I was going to kill him. When I pulled my hands away, Clark was leaning casually against the door frame.
"So if we're going, let's go," he said simply.
The atmosphere of the speedway was a lot different on a Saturday morning than it had been on a weekday afternoon. The high, steady hum had grown to a shrill and muscular roar.
I stood outside the pavilion and tried to estimate how many cars there were, but I kept losing count. There had to be more than fifty of them out there. I could make out bright primary colors in addition to blacks and whites, but at what must have been nearly 150 miles an hour, I couldn't tell a Porsche from a Nissan. It was hard to imagine being out there with them, and I picked a spot in the stands to focus on for a few seconds, concentrating on steadying my nerves.
When I turned to look at Clark, his face was almost green and his hands were held firmly over his ears. Lex disappeared for a moment and returned with some new sets of earplugs.
"Clark, you don't look well," Lex yelled as he placed the small plastic container in Clark's palm. "Do you want to go home?"
Clark shook his head violently. "No! No way!" He grimaced as he put the foamy material in his ears.
Lex's smile spread across his entire face, making it shine golden in the morning sun. He gazed around at the screaming cars and deeply inhaled air reeking of gas and smoke.
"It's a different kind of energy here. For me it's like reuniting with an old friend." His eyes flickered over Clark for a moment before turning back to the automotive onslaught.
Clark was still futzing with his earplugs. "Yeah," he shouted, wrinkling up his nose. "If your friend's loud and smelly."
I gave Clark a dirty look and Lex came up next to me.
"It's too bad we had to wait this long. Looks like some of them are jockeying for position." He carefully assessed the activity on the track. "Things might be more competitive today."
"I can handle it," I said firmly, and he seemed reassured.
"Then let's go get you suited up."
I motioned for Clark to follow us into the pavilion, where the noise wasn't quite as invasive. We removed the cushions from our ears, and I recognized the manager instantly.
"I see you brought the little one back. And a big one, too," he said dryly.
"Everything's in order, Luc. He's ready to test."
Luc put his clipboard on a nearby table and rubbed the corner of his mouth with his thumb. The crew turned to watch him, as though it were strange for him to stay quiet for so long.
"Is there a problem?" Lex asked, annoyance clear in his tone.
"It's too late, Lex. Hardwick signed with Risi this morning. Rivera came over an hour ago to tell me. We have to go with the alternates."
Lex stared down at the grass as the sides of the tent fluttered slightly in the wind. When he looked back up at Luc, his lips were in a tight line, eyes hard and cold.
"You've got to at least let Pete run recon. You haven't even given him a chance."
"Why should I?" Luc countered. "He was never planning to partner with you. It's a waste of my time." He waved me off dismissively. I was fuming and seriously wanted to throw something heavy at him.
Lex acted for a moment like he was going to say something else but instead turned and walked over to one of the cars, apple red and shiny. His fingers ran slowly along the length of it.
"Let's go, Pete," Clark said, already making his way to the open flap.
"I'm not just gonna leave. You go ahead if you want." I went over to join Lex by the car and he turned around and leaned against it. I crossed my arms and looked at Clark in challenge.
"There's no reason for us to stay," Clark said in a patronizing way I didn't like at all.
"Clark's right," Lex said, his voice clipped and strained. "I'm sorry I brought you out here for nothing."
"You're telling me after everything I went through, you're just giving up?" It probably wasn't a fair thing to say, and I wasn't sure why I reacted like that. I should have been grateful. I should've been relieved. Instead I was just pissed.
"That's not what I'm doing. I didn't make the cut. It's that simple."
"You didn't make it because you didn't have a partner." I ground my teeth together and put on my best smile, deciding to show it to Clark. "But you do now."
Clark ignored me and narrowed his eyes at Lex.
"What are you saying, Pete?" Lex asked, his surprise at my offer genuine. Clark made a disgusted sound.
"I'm saying I'll join the team. If I can qualify. You can talk him into letting me try, can't you?"
"No. Everything's changed. He's already made up his mind."
I bolted away from the car and got right up in Luc's face. "You have to let me ride before you make your decision." I swallowed nervously.
"I don't have to do anything," he said abruptly. "Go back home and race your go-kart."
Clark took Lex aside and tried to draw him into an argument. I was hardly able to miss Clark's accusation of manipulation, but I blocked the rest out.
"What are your drivers' fastest lap times?" I asked.
He scratched his chin and thought about this briefly, grabbing his clipboard to find the figures. "Duggan averages about 137 in 14, and Champagne's is 142 in 13.5."
"And how fast is Lex?" At that point Lex had walked away from Clark and was standing next to Luc, examining the numbers.
"It says here he's at 141 in 13.6."
"Will you give me ten laps to match that? If I can, that's only, what?" I calculated quickly. "A little more than two minutes of your time?"
"Plus your warm-up lap. And the time to repair any damage you do. And to balance the tires. And refuel. And--"
"You're just making up excuses now, Luc," Lex interrupted.
Clark rounded on us and snatched the clipboard away, flinging it across the tent. "I've heard enough. There's no way Pete's going 140 miles an hour with all those other cars out there. That's suicide." He got up in Lex's face, his own nearly purple with rage. "And I can't believe you'd be this irresponsible. You're putting his life on the line so you can be in some stupid race."
I pushed my way between them, furious with Clark. "What, did you think they'd let me putter around in my own lane? You saw how fast they're going out there. Didn't it occur to you before that I'd have to drive just as fast? Did you think I'd get special treatment?"
Clark backed away. "I honestly didn't know what to think. Maybe I thought I could talk you out of this before it was too late."
"Fat chance," I said angrily.
"Pete," Lex said quietly, pushing Clark back further. "Let me talk to him, okay? You just get ready. Right, Luc?"
"I'm in an insane asylum," Luc groaned, turning away, leaving the three of us looking at each other awkwardly after the unexpected and jarring comment. He came back with clothes, shoes, helmet, and a balaclava for me. I took off my shoes and started to dress, straining to hear what Lex said.
"I know you're trying to help, Clark, but you're making it worse for him."
"I can't believe you're doing this. I just can't believe it."
"You really think I would let him out there if I didn't think he was ready?"
Clark was silent and I pulled the uniform past my waist and put my arms in the sleeves.
"You know what the biggest strike is that he has against him, Clark? You not believing in him. Do you have any idea how important a person's frame of mind is in racing? Distractions, uncertainty, low self-confidence, all that can affect performance just as much as or more than driving ability."
I wiggled my feet into my shoes. I wasn't the only one listening. The entire crew had fallen silent in rapt attention.
"He's got the skills he needs. He and I have worked on those. It's up to you to help him from a psychological standpoint. Because if you can't, then you have no business being here. You're endangering him far more than I could ever think of doing."
I picked up my helmet and looked at it with hesitation. It always came down to attitude with Lex. But he was right. I needed to think positively and no matter what his intentions were, Clark was a damn downpour on my parade.
"Ready," I said enthusiastically.
Clark actually smiled. It didn't look sincere, but at least he had shut up.
Lex took the radio Luc offered him. The mechanics had started the engine and were rolling the car towards the pit.
Clark came up and offered me his hand, although he couldn't look me in the eye. "I'm sorry. Good luck," he said weakly. I shook his hand and pulled him into a quick hug, the helmet bumping him on the back. "You'll do great," he added, doing his best to convince me.
I pulled away and looked at the relentless blur of motion around the track. Lex came up next to me and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked toward the Maranello.
"Find a fixed point on your corners. Carry your speed out of them. All these guys are thinking about is getting faster averages, not winning. Drive aggressive but don't engage. Don't let them rattle you, okay?"
"Yeah," I agreed, a bit shaky but excited by the rush of adrenaline.
"I'll be right here talking you through it."
I got in the car and put on my helmet. I let myself be strapped in by some guy who was all business, checking and double-checking as if his own life depended on my safety.
Once he finished he hustled Lex away, who began speaking to Luc and one of the other engineers. Clark stood back near the tent, hands in his pockets, looking grim. I caught his eye and he pasted on another phony grin. I wanted to be happy that at least he was trying, but more important things held my attention at that moment.
I shifted quickly into first and started down the lane, knowing I'd have to hit at least 100 by its end if I wasn't going to risk having a car barrel into the back of me.
"You hear me, Pete?"
"Yes," I answered, giving everything to the throttle between gear changes.
"Good. Try to break out of the lane at 125. The computer readout has you clocked right about there. Push a little harder."
I got to the end of the lane and somehow timed it perfectly, finding a gap I could fill until my speed caught up.
"That was beautiful, Pete. I couldn't have done it better myself. That's half the battle right there."
I let out a shaky breath and took the first turn. It was then a blue Corvette cut in front of me, zooming past before I could even think of tapping the brake.
"Watch those zones. They've got established lines. You'll have to find your own line at the next turn. Give her more throttle. I want you to really take advantage of that straightaway."
I glanced at the odometer and saw I'd made it up to 145. I would have to maintain at least that speed to compensate for the significant slow downs at the corners.
"Remember, Pete. In slow and out fast. Get in the outside lane and find a path to the inside on your apex."
I had a clear line towards the outside of the track as the turn started and I arced through until I was near the inside edge, as close as I dared with a black Audi that seemed inches away. Once he passed I gave more gas to come out of the corner, tapping the berm with the outside of the tires and unwinding back onto the straightaway.
There were audible sighs of relief on Lex's end from various members of the team and I could practically hear his smile.
"Excellent, Pete. That's Salo in front of you. Try to stay in his slipstream. He's got a 146 average. If this were a race, he'd shake you off, but I think he'll let you ride back there. You can try, anyway."
I did as Lex suggested, hesitating at first to be that close on his tail but eventually mirroring his car's movements and following his line. It felt like a bit of a cheat, but apparently it was a fair strategy in practice sessions.
It suddenly occurred to me with the brightest clarity that if all went well, I would be in an actual road race in just a couple of months. Not an illegal one in a tricked-out custom job, but a legitimate one put on by the great city of Metropolis. When that happened, all free rides would be over. This was literally easy street compared to what it would be then. I shook off the thought and found my current had been stolen by a yellow Bentley.
"Shit," I said, hoping it had been low enough that I wasn't heard.
"That's all right, Pete. You're at the end of your second lap and you're averaging 142! Luc wants you to go ahead and finish out a fifteen-minute run. Are you up for it?"
"Yeah, absolutely," I said, nodding furiously, my chest swelling with pride as I squeezed in between a red Viper and a blue BMW, hoping for a significant downdraft. My speed stayed constant and at the next turn in I knew I'd hit the perfect stride when I didn't have to fight the steering.
I saw the team huddled together outside the pavilion, watching me, and caught a glimpse of Clark, sitting on the grass alone, staring absently at the cars passing him. I didn't want him to worry. I'd given him enough grief for one lifetime. I determined to give more effort and be more aware than anyone else on that track so he wouldn't have to worry.
My top speed was 146 when I straightened out the wheel after the next turn, and my position was set firmly behind the Viper. A few more minutes of this no longer seemed quite as intimidating.
I allowed myself another split second to think about Clark, knowing that getting him out of his funk wouldn't be nearly this easy.
Clark sat next to me in the stands while we waited to find out if the team thought I was good enough to join. I'd held a solid 142 during the entire run, but after Clark's outburst in the tent, I was pretty sure Lex was having to do damage control to convince the guys I was ALMS material.
I didn't have to tell Clark what I was thinking. It was obvious in the way he was hunched over and avoiding looking at me that part of him regretted making me look like some rank amateur in front of all those people. The fact that I was a rank amateur was hardly the point. Still, I found it hard to blame him. Everything that was happening around him was a painful reminder of circumstances I'd forced him into the year before.
And standing there listening to Lex lecture him about not being supportive... that couldn't have been easy.
We were both feeling pretty regretful right about then.
When we finally caught sight of Lex coming towards us, I guessed by the way he was grinning so openly that I'd been approved.
He worked his way up to our row, feet practically bouncing on every step, eyes eager behind his purple lenses. It was only then I allowed myself to grasp the fact that I was actually on the team; an overwhelming reality, simultaneously exciting and chilling.
He grabbed my hand and shook it with both of his, smiling hugely, and sat down next to me. "You're in." Lex let go of my hand and took off his glasses.
I turned to see something like approval from Clark mixed with something else that might've been fear. Maybe it was fear that he'd lose me as a friend if he didn't give his blessing. Or maybe it was fear that something bad might happen to me out there and he wouldn't be able to stop it in time.
Then again, maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. It seemed like I felt that way any time I was around the two of them.
Clark turned away, a blank expression taking over whatever had been there before.
"Not only that," Lex continued, "but we've been bumped to the top. You keep pushing yourself like you did today and we'll stay there."
"Yeah. I can do that." I'd said it without hesitation, but I wasn't sure which of the three of us I was trying to convince. "I can do even better."
"I don't doubt that. We have an hour-long slot open three days a week through May." He paused as if something had occurred to him. "Your parents won't disown you when they find out, will they?"
My parents. They were the last thing I wanted to think about at the moment.
"I've spent most of my life disappointing them," I said, shrugging. "I don't think this'll make that much of a difference."
"Just let me know if I need to talk to them." He glanced at his watch. "We should be getting back." He leaned forward and his eyes measured Clark, who was in an almost dazed state. "Clark, you know you're welcome to come here with Pete and watch him. If that would make you feel better about all this."
"Yeah, sure," Clark said, his voice hollow and barely audible.
"Good. Well, the occasion calls for Cristal but circumstances rule that out." He stood up and put his sunglasses back on. "Let's get you home so you can share the good news."
I stretched my legs before getting up. "Maybe Sharise'll put me up if they throw me out."
"I doubt it'll come to that," Lex said, laughing. "But if it does, I've got plenty of room."
"That's not necessary," Clark interrupted. "He could stay at my house."
Lex didn't react to the offer and simply walked down the steps with us in tow. Once again I felt like a shadow, a handy excuse to continue whatever unfinished business they had.
Looking down at the Ferrari being washed by one of the techs, I realized at least I'd be a fast shadow. Not to mention one with consummate style.
Of course my parents weren't thrilled to find out their youngest had chosen to pursue professional racing as his latest passion, but they didn't seem as surprised or shocked by it as I'd thought. I think my mom had given up on trying to protect me from the dangers of the world. After all I'd put her through in my life, maybe it was just easier for her that way. My dad, on the other hand, secretly looked at me with a little more respect than he used to. I leaned on that and blocked out the rest.
There were a lot of stats to memorize over the next few months. Racing, it turned out, was about more than just reaching and maintaining the fastest speed possible on varying courses. It was about knowing who you were racing against and studying the weapon of their choosing.
Apparently we were in one of the two production classes, the GTS, the other being the GT. The remaining two classes consisted of more Formula-modeled prototypes, the LMP 900 and the LMP 675. Speed and horsepower were the advantage for the production cars while the prototypes had lightweight bodies and better cornering and braking abilities going for them.
Personally I was glad not to be riding around in a car that looked like something kids pulled out of cereal boxes. And while the Formula-type cars might've handled better on open roads, in the event of a serious accident they'd be more likely to crumple. That in itself was pretty reassuring, especially considering Lex himself had been in two wrecks that could've been a lot more serious if the cars he'd been driving hadn't been solid and durable.
Clark made going with me to Granville one of his priorities, although he always squirreled himself away in the stands with his nose in his books. It was reassuring having him there, not just because his abilities made me feel safe but because he really seemed to be making an effort to understand why we were there - what we were trying to accomplish.
Things stayed fairly civilized on the track. After a lot of trial and error, I figured out who would let me ride in their streams and who would get aggravated and shake me off if I tried. There were some who'd let cars pass without taking any real notice and others who'd take the opportunity to cut you off and try to send you into the wall. I learned early on to stay far away from the Risi Competizione cars as one of the drivers was Lex's old racing buddy and was seemingly out for both his blood and mine.
For a long time, Hardwick always seemed to be around on the field. I'd been told by Luc that he'd been asking questions about me, sizing me up as a competitor, and he never missed an opportunity to try and rub it in to Lex how inferior and inexperienced he thought I was.
"I'll bet his feet barely reach the pedals," he'd once joked in his sneering Cockney accent. Lex had given no response. I'd just fumed.
"Is he out of his training pants yet?" he'd said another time, creeping up behind me. I'd jumped and almost scratched the car's paint with a screwdriver I'd been holding. That was the day Luc's French Canadian temper exploded.
"Sors d'ici, mon petit plein de marde! Et ne reviens plus jamais!" he'd screamed. My French was pretty basic but I knew enough to realize that was the last time Hardwick would come over to harass us.
It was right about then he decided to send someone else over to try and shake us up. Someone he assumed would be far more effective in rattling Lex than he himself had been.
If part of the plan was to send our team into spiraling distraction, then it was working like a charm. The minute she came in wearing silk that clung to every curve, no one could keep their minds or their eyes on what they were doing. No one but Lex, who seemed amused by her visit.
"Victoria. I can't say I'm surprised," he said dryly.
"Lex," she drawled, slinking over to him. She tilted her head and crossed her arms slowly. "Is that how you greet all your old lovers?"
"As I recall," he said smoothly, looking at her with curiosity more than anything else, "when I raced with your brother you stayed as far away from the track as you could. Something about the noise giving you a headache?"
I leaned back against one of the work tables and gave them my full attention. Lex didn't seem to have much luck with women but, like cars, over the years he'd learned more about them than I had. Besides, being such a talker, Mom had often gotten annoyed and told me to work on my listening skills.
"Practice today is over, Lex, or hadn't you noticed? Besides, I wanted to meet your new partner." She looked at me appraisingly. "This must be him."
"H-hi," I stammered, shifting my weight to my other foot and sensing many pairs of eyes trained on the two of us as she approached the table.
"Victoria Hardwick, that's Pete Ross," he said, sounding annoyed at having to introduce us. "Pete knows all about you. All about what a loyal and trustworthy individual you are."
"It's a shame I know so little about him." Her eyes traveled slowly from my face to my feet and back up again. I smiled a little shakily. "You seem awfully young. Are you still in high school?"
I cleared my throat. "Yeah. Um, yes, m'am. It's my senior year."
She laughed, a soft and almost charming sound. "You certainly like the younger crowd in your little town, don't you, Lex?"
Lex came over to stand next to me and she looked at him innocently.
"I suppose you and Clark are still joined at the hip? He never seemed to be far from your side. Where is he now? Have you got him tied up and tucked away in the boot of that car?" she asked, pointing at the Ferrari.
Lex looked almost bored at the teasing question.
"Oh, that's right. You already did that to one of your...friends. Wouldn't want to repeat ourselves, would we?" she quipped.
I didn't know what the conversation was about but her presence was hardly turning Lex into the drooling, unfocused mess the other team members had become. I wondered exactly what effect Hardwick had been hoping for.
"I'm sorry your social standing has sunk to groupie status in racing pits, Victoria, but we have work to do in here, so if you don't mind?"
She gave him the same once-over she'd given me and shook her hair back over her shoulders.
"Then I'll just have to find some other way to entertain myself while I'm here." She gazed around the tent as if inviting someone to offer his services. Several faces darkened with lust but she ignored them. She instead strolled casually towards the open flap looking out over the south side of the empty track. I could see her carefully scanning the stands. When she focused on one point, I knew exactly where she was looking and from the way Lex blanched, so did he.
"Yes, I see great opportunities for entertainment here," she said boldly before leaving, a trace of her perfume lingering behind.
Clark wouldn't say a whole lot on the helicopter ride home that day. Lex sat quietly beside the pilot, feigning disinterest as I talked, but I knew he was listening as I started asking Clark questions.
"What did you two talk about?"
"Did she come on to you?"
"I saw the way she was looking at you. I wasn't that far away."
"She was thanking me, okay?"
"For saving her life," Lex continued for him.
Clark stayed quiet after that until he finally blurted out, "She just said she wished she'd done it sooner."
I waited for Lex to make a retort but he went silent again.
"Was that it? She was there for awhile. If you ask me, she seemed pretty interested in you. Did you ask her out?"
"Pete!" Clark said, his tone reprimanding.
"Of course you didn't. What was I thinking? You have to wait ten years before you ask a girl out. Unless you happen to be on--" I stopped myself, horrified by the realization of what I had almost blurted out.
Lex turned in his seat to stare at me. "What?" he asked. "What were you going to say?"
"You're an idiot, Pete," Clark growled.
He was right. I was an idiot. But that didn't keep me from wondering what Victoria was up to. As little as I knew about women, I knew the kind like that didn't waste their time on high schoolers. Not unless there was something to gain. Exactly how much did she know about Clark?
"Just don't be passing on our secrets to the enemy, okay?" I joked, hoping to divert some attention away from my goof.
Clark glared at me. "I could say the same for you."
I was shocked into silence. Maybe I had almost let something slip, but in the end I hadn't. And just when had he made the jump from Lex as no longer his friend to Lex as the enemy?
I squirmed in my seat the rest of the way to Smallville, almost to the point of wanting to jump to my death just to escape the tension.
That was it. I'd finally gotten sick of this. And if I felt that way, I could only imagine how Clark's behavior, the things he said, and the things he wouldn't say, were affecting Lex.
This was no longer something that was none of my business. I was right in the middle of it. I decided the minute I could get Clark alone I was going to have it out with him, once and for all.
I took Sharise home from school the next day and made out with her on her sofa for awhile since her parents were still at work. Her breath was sweet, her touch made me feel connected, and when she told me how much she'd missed me lately, I made a commitment to spend more time with her.
She wasn't exactly happy when I told her I had to leave, but when I'd said it was to help a friend, she was more understanding. I went home and spent the next couple of hours pacing the floor in my room, willing myself to just go and confront Clark - get him to tell me the things he'd kept to himself for so long. Too damn long.
When I got to the barn, Clark was standing outside, like he'd been expecting me. It was a little unnerving.
"Hey, what's up?" I asked lightly as I got out of my Camaro.
"I thought you might show up," he said, walking back into the barn. I followed him in and each step we took rising towards the loft was like growing up a little. I think both of us knew we wouldn't be able to go back to what we were leaving. But neither of us hesitated.
I looked around the loft - never exactly clean but always neat.
"You must've heard me come down your drive." I was stalling. When did friendship become so hard? I couldn't just jump into it. Part of me really didn't want to hear what he had to tell me since there would be no going back.
"Pete, I heard you come down your drive." He sat on his couch and I sat on the table.
"How did you know I was coming here?"
His eyebrows raised and then he smirked. "It's a valid question. But I don't really have the answer. I just had a feeling."
I nodded stupidly and glanced down at my fingers. I saw motor oil under the nails that had been there since yesterday. It was years since I'd had dirty fingernails. The last time was when I was little and Clark and I had dug around in the dirt for hours every day. Before I knew what he really was. Before it dawned on me that he probably could have dug the kind of hole to China every kid wished for.
Clark was strong in so many ways, but it had taken me this long to understand that even he had to have help every now and then. Even if he didn't know how to ask for it.
I took a deep breath. "So what's going on with you?" I asked, plunging in.
He laughed a little at my directness. I didn't mind. The weirdness of talking about something real was new to me, too.
"What you mean is, why can't I get along with Lex."
"No," I answered quickly. "That's not what I asked. Not exactly. I want to know about you."
He looked at me like he was seeing something new there, something he wasn't quite sure how to respond to.
"I don't understand what you mean."
"Clark, I don't know what happened between you two that made you change so much, but you have to realize that you have. Changed, I mean. You haven't been the same for a long time. And unless he threatened to sell you to his father and watch you get cut up in some lab, I can't think of any reason for you to act the way you do around him. Or the way you do around anybody, really."
He rolled his eyes, but before he could respond I cut him off. "Clark, I'm just worried about you. And I want to understand."
He changed his mind about whatever he was going to say and sat, resigned.
"I let you keep it to yourself. I didn't push. I guess that was my mistake because I've just been standing around while you turned into this stranger. There was never any love lost between me and Lex, so I guess I thought it wasn't a big deal if you didn't want anything to do with him. But it's obvious this goes beyond him."
"You're wrong," he said hotly.
"I don't mean the trigger. I mean the effects. Ask anybody. You're worse than you were when you got back from Metropolis. You're more distant, moodier, more of an all-around asswipe. And now that I know him better, I'm pretty sure whatever this thing is Lex may have done, he doesn't deserve to have you keep punishing him for it."
Clark put his chin in his hands and stared at the floor. Maybe I'd gone too far, calling him names and putting him on the defensive. I sat without the answers I needed and no idea how to get them.
"You really think I'm an asswipe?" he asked softly.
The question was asked - the horse out of the gate.
"If you want my honest opinion, if I were Lex I would've knocked your teeth out by now. Or at least tried."
He pulled at a stray thread in the cushion next to him and everything around us became unnaturally still. I felt sweat break out on my forehead and my heart seemed to fill up my entire chest. Was that the stupidest thing I had ever said? Was sticking up for Lex really worth making Clark my enemy, too?
"Look, I don't know why I said that. Let's just...forget about Lex for a minute. The fight, misunderstanding, whatever. It's ancient history. But you've still got this weight. I don't know. I think maybe you like carrying it around."
"You think I'm a masochist?"
"I don't know what you are, Clark. You're just not the guy I grew up with. He knew when to let things go."
"Yeah, well, he didn't have a clue what his future would be, did he?"
He shrank in upon himself, but to me it was like something had come alive inside the room. "Is that what this is about? You're afraid Lex won't be part of your future?"
It was hard watching him struggle to say what he really wanted to, what he had to. I pressed my lips firmly together, not giving him another excuse to clam up.
"The day before I told you he and I were through?" he began, and I leaned forward to hear every word. "Well, I'd walked in on him at the mansion. It's stupid, really, but seeing it for myself, something just clicked. It was like I knew I couldn't change what he was, and I couldn't stand to stick around and watch it happen."
"What do you mean? What was he doing?"
"He...he was just with someone is all. Some girl. They were, you know, just doing things. Things that were none of my business, and I left before they saw me."
I tried to think what this had to do with anything. It then occurred to me Clark had watched Lex go through one painful relationship after another, and maybe he'd thought this one would end up the same way.
"Okay, wait a minute. I think I see where this is going. You were afraid if he saw you, he'd be asking you to be the best man before you were out the door."
I'd thought I was on the right track but Clark gave me an odd look I couldn't read. Then it was gone and he was smiling like his old self.
"Right. Exactly. He does kind of rush into things like that." The smile faded and he looked away from me again.
I was proud of Clark. I knew it hadn't been easy to say any of this, and maybe in the long run it might not actually change anything between him and Lex. After all, he'd developed a habit of lashing out at Lex unpredictably, and I was having a hard time understanding that. But he'd shared this with me and I felt closer to him than I had in a long time.
Not that any of it made any sense to me. For as long as Lex and I had been hanging out, I'd never even seen him with a girl. Except Victoria. And if she were all I had to go by, I'd swear his interest in women was nonexistent.
I guessed Clark figured Lex had a destiny to be unhappily married yet again and there was nothing he could do about it, so he would distance himself from Lex. Then maybe it wouldn't hurt as much to watch him go through it all over again. I didn't pretend to understand his logic but at least I had a better idea why he didn't want to be close to Lex anymore.
Something seemed to be missing, though, and I couldn't put my finger on what it might be.
"Are you sure that's all it is?"
There was a kind of desperation in his eyes, like he was trying to gauge if he could trust me enough with the whole truth. I tried to keep my face blank and without judgment, but I must've failed miserably because when he blinked it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"It's something I've got to deal with, I guess. I'm just sorry I acted so badly. I'm glad you made me talk about it."
"Clark, you know you can tell me anything," I prodded, hoping he'd take me up on my offer while something deep inside me dreaded the chance that he might.
"Lex is lucky to have you as his friend."
I shook my head at that. "I guess I'm okay as a substitute. But you're the only one he's ever really wanted. I shouldn't even have to tell you that."
He didn't agree, and I didn't know how to convince him Lex's love life would never keep them from having a future together. So I kept my mouth shut and stayed a little bit longer. He found some old Bicycle cards and we played a few rounds of blackjack.
I left him around midnight after he'd fallen asleep on the couch. I still wasn't sure if things would be less tense between the three of us, but I went home and slept soundly, knowing at least I'd tried to make things right.
Maybe it was naive of me, but I'd thought after our talk Clark might attempt some kind of reconciliation with Lex. He kept his distance, though, and apparently Lex had no interest in rectifying things, either. He'd decided to ride back to Metropolis the days we were in Granville, spending the night in his penthouse rather than subjecting himself to awkward rides with us in the confines of the helicopter.
Somehow I'd also thought Clark would have no more interest in spending time with Victoria, but the same three days a week we were there, she showed up, too. She'd sit next to him the full hour Lex and I were on the track, and still be there the time we spent afterwards in review.
Lex stared out at them one afternoon and asked me to join him. "So, tell me Pete," he asked, his voice sounding far away, "what do you think they're talking about?"
I stood next to him and saw them having what looked like a casual conversation. "I have no idea," I said flatly.
"Come on. This is Clark Kent and Victoria Hardwick we're talking about. They could be up there discussing Wittgenstein's behaviorist analysis of intention. Or Panofsky's interpretation of perspective. Or maybe they're debating the relevance of Kantian views in contemporary cognitive science."
I just stared at him for a minute before laughing.
"I'm serious," he whispered. "If modern science could only harness their collective brain power...just think of the possibilities."
I was amazed at what a straight face he could keep. I laughed again, only a little ashamed of myself for being entertained at Clark's expense. I cleared my throat and slapped Lex on the back.
"You're really pretty cracked sometimes, you know that, Lex?"
"Probably." He stroked the tent's canvas distractedly. "I just wish the cat would find a different mouse to play with." His expression grew serious and I wasn't sure what to say to that.
"I really hope you guys can work things out."
He cocked his head to the side, surprised by my concern, I supposed. Touched by it for all I knew. It was the most direct conversation we'd had about Clark since Lex had dropped me off at my house all those months ago.
"If it's meant to be, Pete, we will." He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked outside. "But I wouldn't hold my breath," he muttered.
Victoria spent the next few sessions keeping an eagle eye on everything that happened on the track. She would wait until she was sure Lex was in sight before paying closer attention to Clark, talking to him more intently and putting her hands on him. I couldn't tell if Clark knew what was going on or was too flattered by her attentions to see through her act. Either way, he didn't come off looking too good.
Lex grew increasingly irritated by her brazen behavior. I saw him look in their direction on more than one occasion, and even though he knew as well as I did it was just a game, he wasn't amused by it for long.
"I always knew Hardwick was a liar," Lex spat out as he checked the air pressure on tires that had already been double-checked. "He doesn't give a damn about his sister. He's using her every bit as much as his father did. Having her up there coming on to one of my friends, thinking he can make me lose my focus. Fucking jerk."
It was the first time I'd ever heard Lex curse like that, and I would've laughed if I hadn't been taken off guard by how angry he was.
"It's not working, is it?" I asked carefully.
He tapped the tire gauge against his palm and looked at me in disbelief. "Of course not," he said unconvincingly. "Absolutely not. It's just such a new low. For Harry and Victoria. It's insulting."
"So what're you gonna do?"
"Nothing, I guess. It's not like I can forbid her to talk to him. And I don't have a good reason to get her ejected."
"You could talk to Clark about her. Let him know she's using him to get to you."
"Come on, Pete," he said sourly. "You really think he doesn't already know that? You think he cares?"
It hadn't occurred to me with any certainty that Clark did know. That Lex believed so firmly that Clark was actually playing along startled me. After the way Clark had treated him, though, it really shouldn't have.
"You want me to tell him not to come with me anymore?"
"No. You don't need to do that." He gripped the tire gauge tightly with both hands. "I just wish they'd all grow up." He threw it aside in disgust.
The more I thought about it, Lex was right. Clark might have been confused but he wasn't obtuse. He'd learned enough about human nature to figure out what was going on. But after what he'd said to me that night at the loft, I couldn't believe he'd really want to cause Lex further pain.
"For what it's worth," I said, weighing my words, "if Clark is going along with this, I don't think it's because he wants to hurt you. I think maybe he just wants your attention."
His expression softened at the suggestion, and I hoped what I'd said had at least a kernel of truth.
"If that's true, then I'm not crazy about his methods."
I wondered what else I should say, but I couldn't tell Lex what Clark had told me. It would have been a violation. But it didn't seem fair or right to let Lex believe the worst about him.
"He knows where I am if he wants to talk to me. I've got better things to do than indulge in sandbox politics." He got his keys from one of the hooks on the wall and stared at them blankly.
"Lex? You okay?"
"I was just thinking. We need more street practice. Maybe we should use the next couple of Saturdays to drive in Smallville. Use the Maranellos I have at the mansion." He snorted. "I'm tired of going in circles."
"Sure, man. Sounds good."
He stared at his keys again before walking off. "And if the subject of Victoria ever comes up," he called out, turning around, "just tell him to be careful."
Cold gravy always ruined my day. Hard rolls, dry turkey, tasteless peas, none of it bothered me so much as long as my gravy was warm.
Sitting there poking my lumpy mashed potatoes coated in cold gravy, I wasn't in the best mood when Clark sat down with me in the cafeteria the next day.
"You need to stop hanging around with Victoria, Clark," I said impatiently. "You're pissing off Lex and you're making a fool of yourself."
"What?" he asked, eyes wide in surprise, still holding onto his tray. "I'm just up there talking to her. Really more like just listening to her. Is that a problem?"
"Yes, it's a problem. Didn't you ever think how much it might bother Lex to have his old girlfriend up there hanging all over his best friend? Excuse me, his former best friend?"
Clark stiffened but I could've sworn I saw the briefest of smiles cross his lips. "He's an adult. I'm sure he can handle it."
"Are you doing it just to bug him?" I hissed. "Because when you bug him, you affect his performance. And that affects our team."
"I'm not doing anything wrong," he said defensively. "And after spending time with her, I honestly think Victoria's changed."
"What?" It was my turn to be surprised. Lex and Clark had both told me on separate occasions what a Mata Hari she was. "You really believe that?"
"She doesn't work for her father anymore. She's modeling in Europe. And she's trying to get an agent in Metropolis."
"Well, good for her. Give her a firm handshake, hell, give her a hug, then tell her to get lost and have a nice life."
He crossed his arms and gave me a look of keen disapproval.
"For one thing, Clark, she's got you totally snowed. But even if she didn't, just the fact that her being around bothers Lex should be enough to convince you to tell her to take a hike."
He scratched his neck and looked at his food. I hoped I was getting through to him. As usual, it was hard to tell with Clark.
"I know you might find it hard to believe, Pete, but she likes me. I listen to her and I don't use the opportunity to try and hit on her. I think that's something entirely new for her. And when she's around I'm not so focused on my own problems. She's easy to talk to."
I pushed my tray aside and leaned in. "Listen to me, Clark. She and her brother are being jerks and trying to get under Lex's skin. They're Hardwicks. It's what they do. You are enabling them. You're letting this happen. And it's not because she's `easy to talk to.'"
"Really? Then why?"
"Because ever since this incident at the mansion you told me about, you've been totally focused on doing things to get to Lex. It's become like your life's ambition."
"That's not true, Pete."
"Hey, and I'm sure you believe that. You don't even realize you're doing it."
"Why? Why would I do that?"
"I'm not your shrink, Clark," I said, picking up my tray and leaving the table. "But if I were you, I'd get it figured out. Before you lose your real friends."
There were only a couple of weeks left until the big day and things everywhere were getting tense.
Tempers were flaring on the track and wrecks were becoming more common. I'd even had someone from the Corvette Racing team bang my right fender up and leave me pretty shaken.
My mom was trying to convince my dad I had `extreme sports' issues and wanted to send me to a therapist.
Sharise was on the verge of breaking up with me if I didn't keep my promise about making more time for us to be together.
Finals were coming up at school and I was laughably unprepared.
Worst of all, nothing I'd said in the cafeteria seemed to have fazed Clark. He and Victoria were as chummy as ever.
The only thing that had gone right the last few weeks was the Saturdays Lex and I raced the streets of Smallville, him in a red Ferrari, me in a blue one. It was so much more freeing than trying to grip the track in Granville and a lot less nerve-wracking.
I was no longer intimidated by telephone poles and Lex made sure I stayed on my toes and backed off the brake. I admired his competitive spirit and was grateful he'd gotten me out in the fresh, open air again.
Preparations were getting intense as the days flew by, and suddenly we were left with less than a week until go time.
Tuesday was the day from hell. Everything that could go wrong at the track did. My car was understeering like crazy and Lex's had blown a piston, which meant a complete engine dismantling and cleaning. Two of the mechanics were threatening to walk because they were overworked and exhausted, not to mention tired of Luc screaming at them all the time.
Not only that, but of the two tire changers we had, one was at the shop and the other had broken down shortly after a new and very young mechanic's apprentice had torn it up trying to figure out how to work it.
Lex was usually cordial and under control around the team, but for him that was the last straw.
"The locking collar is shot. What the hell did you do to it?" he raged.
"I-I--I'm not sure," the kid said feebly. "I'm sorry."
Lex shoved the bulky machine aside, cleared off the nearest table, and heaved a nearly bald tire onto it.
"Could you at least find me a mallet and a tire iron?" he asked the kid testily.
"Yes, sir." He scrambled around and I helped him find the tools he needed.
"Still love to bark orders around, I see," a familiar feminine voice said, and Lex and I both jerked our heads around to see Victoria coming in. Clark was beside her, although he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.
"What do you want, Victoria?" Lex asked, his jaw set as he began prying the tire away from the rim.
"Unfortunately, I won't be here for the race. I've got a job in Paris and I have to leave tonight."
"That's a real shame," he said between breaths, having trouble keeping the tire on the table. I rushed over and held it down for him.
"I thought I should come by and say good luck to you. Clark here was nice enough to accompany me." She ran her hand down his arm and he smiled awkwardly.
"Thank you for thinking of me, Victoria," Lex said snidely. "I hope you have a safe trip."
"You know, Lex," she chirped, her hand sliding up into Clark's hair, "it's so sexy to see you working with your hands. Clark here has lovely hands, don't you think?" She picked one of them up and put it on her breast. Clark turned ten shades of red.
Lex's knuckles whitened as he twisted the iron and ran it jerkily along the rim. I backed away, wanting to be as far away from this scene as possible.
"He's so very good at so many things," she sighed, running her other hand along Clark's jaw and pulling him in close for a thorough and noisy kiss.
I didn't see what happened next but suddenly Lex was shouting in pain, blood pouring from his hand and spilling onto the tire. The tire iron clattered to the floor.
"Jesus, Lex!" I shouted, and before I could move Clark had sprinted over and was reaching for his arm. I looked to see a long, deep gash on his palm. I felt nauseous as I brought over a chair so Clark could get him seated. I really, really hated the sight of blood.
Clark ripped the sleeve off his own shirt and wrapped Lex's hand in it. By then Luc had come over with one of the engineers and a first aid kit to see how bad the cut was.
"God, I'm so sorry, Lex," Clark said, his voice trembling. He sounded on the verge of tears as Luc tended to the wound.
I expected Lex to look scared or shaken, but instead he was glaring at Victoria. I looked at her and she was eyeing him just as hatefully.
"We'll get you to the hospital," Clark continued anxiously, easing Lex out of the chair once the bandage had been fastened.
I ran in front of them to clear a path. Lex never took his eyes off Victoria. I glanced between the two of them as Clark helped him along, and I learned just how the game ended.
Victoria broke the gaze they held, staring off to the side. The only way I could think to describe the look on Lex's face was...triumphant.
According to my watch, I'd been sitting in the ER's waiting room for nearly two hours. The chairs were as uncomfortable as hell, the magazines old and boring. I called practically everyone I knew on my cell phone, including Chloe, who made me promise to give her an exclusive interview all about the race once I had some time.
I sat and stared at my phone, suddenly awakened to the fact that this race was real. It would be a tangible, physical reality in just a few days. There was going to be media there, racing fans, political bigwigs. It would be a huge weekend city event. They'd be selling hot dogs and beer there, for Christ's sake.
My Pepsi had gone room temperature but I drank it anyway. I put the can down and ran my hands over my face, stopping when I heard footsteps coming toward me.
"Pete, you stuck around!" Clark said, guiding Lex gently by the elbow towards the seats.
"I was worried, Clark." Had he really expected me to leave? "Tell me what happened. You gonna be okay, Lex?"
Lex held up a bottle of pills and smiled. He really looked pretty relaxed. "I've got my Vicodin. I feel great."
Clark grabbed the bottle away from him.
"Yeah, I'm gonna to take him home. Stay overnight and make sure he has everything he needs."
Lex laughed a bit at this and dropped down in the seat next to me. "You wouldn't believe what they did to me, Pete. They kept sticking me with needles. Needles everywhere. I felt like I was in an acupuncture session. Or that guy in Hellraiser." His eyebrows knitted in confusion. "What was his name?"
"They gave him a tetanus shot. And some Lidocaine. Then they put in some sutures."
"Some?" Lex asked, sounding incredulous. "They sewed me up with about a hundred of those things."
"More like twenty-five," Clark corrected.
I shifted forward in my seat and looked between them. What did this mean for Saturday? "Will he be able to race?"
Clark pursed his lips before answering. "The doctor said no. He said the stitches can't come out for two weeks and they'd bust open if he drove before then."
I rolled my eyes and fell back in the chair. "Great."
"No, no, no, Clark." Lex waved his arms around and shook his head. "He doesn't know what he's talking about. I'm a fast healer, Pete." He patted my shoulder reassuringly. I wasn't convinced. "I'll bet these things can come out by Friday." He brought his hand near his face and stared at it.
"Yeah, well, we'll see," Clark said dubiously, walking past me to sit on Lex's other side.
It was strange to see him so concerned about Lex after all the grief he'd put him through the past few months, but it was almost like things were back to normal. If only Lex's hand wasn't messed up, I would've felt great about how things had turned around.
"You worry too much, Clark." Lex's eyes were trained on Clark, his voice very quiet and just a little slurred.
Clark gave him one of his soft, dopey expressions that to me seemed almost maternal. Things really were back to normal if Clark was thinking of others and going back to his natural tendency to take care of them.
"All right, then," I said slowly, feeling like I was intruding on a long overdue reunion. "Guess I'm outta here. Can you make sure he's at the track tomorrow around five, Clark? We have to go over the circuit map. Right, Lex?"
"Don't worry, Pete, I'll be there," he mumbled, still focused on Clark. I wondered if he would even remember this conversation tomorrow, much less remember to bring the map. I'd have to leave him a voice mail as soon as I got home. I wondered if maybe Luc would have a copy lying around.
I left them at the hospital with a hundred things running through my mind, most of them leaving me feeling ill at ease. Still, as badly as the day had gone, at least Lex would be okay.
And we wouldn't have to put up with Victoria and her crap anymore.
When I got to the speedway the next afternoon, Lex was already there, sitting with Clark in his usual spot in the stands. He was kicked back in a black shirt and pants, splashed with a little color from the ubiquitous purple shades and blue water bottle he held. Clark was laughing with him about something, and they both seemed happier than I'd seen either of them in ages.
I felt like Lex had worked hard enough to deserve this break, so I tried not to hold the accident against him. Even if it had been a careless thing for him to let happen, it was history. Hopefully he really would be all healed up before Saturday morning. The thought of going through all that hard work just to have Duggan and Champagne take our places was too much.
I drove my fifteen-minute sessions solidly, cutting my own line, no longer wanting to stick too close to the other cars. I'd seen a lot of accidents occur when drivers became too dependent on that elusive slipstream and knew once we were on the street, the style would change 180 degrees, anyway.
"You looked good out there today, Pete," Lex told me when I came into the coolness of the pavilion. Clark was leaning casually against Lex's repaired Ferrari and nodded in agreement. I stripped out of my uniform, damp with sweat, and took the water Lex handed me.
"I've got the final version. Clark printed it out for me last night." Lex gestured towards Luc's desk, laying the map down and putting weights on each corner. He traced his finger along the course layout. Clark came to stand behind Lex and peer over his shoulder.
"We knew the circuit would be around the park, but see where it detours off Howard Boulevard? I really hadn't expected that. After we loop around the park's western end, we go straight onto East 1st instead of curving right along Howard. Then we take a hard right onto Planet Avenue. Then we take another right on 2nd and get back out onto Howard going south. There's another detour on 5th along the banking district, then left going north on Leavenworth Avenue. We make another hard left on 4th, turn right here on Vicker, right onto 2nd, then back out on Leavenworth till it intersects with Howard."
I looked at the key at the top of the map to see the pit lane and paddock were on the western end of the course. The grandstands ran parallel to them for the most part.
I hoped I could talk Sharise into coming to watch, although it would be tough. She wasn't thrilled about the idea of the Project at all.
"Looks like the VIP section is right in front of LuthorCorp Plaza," I noted sarcastically.
"Was there ever any doubt?" Lex asked, handing me a rubber-banded roll of paper. "This is your copy. You've got to know those turns inside out. I have a feeling those corners around the Daily Planet are going to kill us." He turned his head slightly and Clark was frowning at him. "Calm down, Clark, I don't mean literally. It's just the ones in Miami and Gotham weren't nearly that tight. The one advantage is the race is forty-five minutes shorter."
"How long is the circuit?"
"It's one point six miles. I figure if we average ninety, we should close each lap in about sixty seconds." He paused and drummed the fingers of his good hand on the map. "I know I told you I'd drive seventy percent and you could take the other thirty, but--"
"It's okay," I interrupted. "I can do seventy. I'd do the whole thing if they'd let me."
He smiled serenely. "I know you would, Pete. You need to drive that course in traffic just to get the feel for it. We'll meet back there Friday for the qualifying sessions. Who knows? We might even get pole position."
"No pressure or anything," I joked.
"I think we're the best in our class. It's not that much of a long shot."
I must not have looked at all confident because he backpedaled.
"Look, forget I mentioned that. You go on home. The helicopter will take you to Metropolis in the afternoon tomorrow and the car will be there for you to drive the route."
I held the tube of paper loosely in my hands. "I can't believe it's almost here already."
"We've come a long way, Pete. You know I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. You really came through." His eyes locked with mine. "I won't ever forget that."
"Come on," Clark said with a grin. "I'll drive with you to the helicopter pad."
"You're going back, aren't you?"
"I'm staying with Lex again," he answered sheepishly. "I kind of forgot how much I missed Metropolis."
"Clark, you already missed one day of school. Finals are coming up next week," I reminded him.
"Exactly." He herded me out of the pavilion, Lex following us. "Next week. I've had perfect attendance this year. Missing a couple of more days isn't going to keep me from graduating."
"You're not going Friday either?" I couldn't believe his parents would agree to that. "What does your dad say?"
"He's proud of me for taking care of a friend. As long as I keep up with my assignments, he and Mom are fine with it."
I got into the waiting limo with him. Lex closed the door and watched us leave.
There wasn't much left to say on the subject. I guessed he and Lex really did have a lot of catching up to do. I supposed I should've been glad they'd gotten past the animosity and tension. Still, he wasn't exactly acting as responsibly as he usually did. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling I couldn't quite shake.
The next day I did as Lex suggested, feeling strange knowing Clark was hanging around in the same city and I couldn't even see him. I thought about calling him on my cell phone to see if he wanted to ride with me, but for some reason I just didn't feel comfortable doing that. Maybe I still felt like that shadow, maybe even more so since they were getting along so well. I wondered vaguely just what they were doing right at that moment.
The route wasn't a difficult one to navigate in rush-hour traffic; in fact, it was painfully slow to get around even once. I couldn't see how it was possible to go completely around it in a minute. It was also hard to imagine the streets empty except for barriers, crowds, and all the corporate-sponsored racers.
I managed to get around about twenty times in two hours before I decided to go back home. I had a pretty good feel for the turns and memorized landmarks that would help me remember when to start my in and out points. Hopefully Lex had driven the streets often enough growing up there to be familiar with the layout, too.
The helicopter was waiting to take me back home. I got into it and looked out the window, thinking how unrealistic it was to think Lex would be completely healed by the next day. I couldn't stop thinking that all this was for nothing, that without meaning to he'd ruined our chances of being in the Project.
There was also the thought that since he and Clark were friends again, maybe it wasn't a priority anymore.
Clark was by himself in the paddock when I saw him the next day, his face looking drawn and worried.
"What's up?" Lex didn't seem to be anywhere nearby.
"Lex told me to meet him here. He wouldn't let me go with him back to the hospital. Said he didn't want me second guessing the doctor."
"Why would you do that?"
"I wouldn't. It's bull. He just knows they probably won't take the stitches out willingly this early, and he'll end up throwing his weight around to get it done."
"Clark," I said gravely, "tell me you're not going to stop him from racing tomorrow."
Clark backed away from me, giving me a strange look. "I can't make him do anything. But I know that's what you really care about. So go qualify, Pete. It's what you've been waiting for." He turned around and headed for the nearby park.
"Clark!" I called after him, and after another couple of steps he stopped.
"I'm sorry I said that," he said dully.
Lex showed up shortly afterward and attempted to placate Clark by showing him his hand and saying it was fine.
"It wasn't fine last night," Clark argued. He held onto it, and it looked like he might be x-raying it. I wondered idly if he could see any tissue damage or if it was only good for seeing bones. We'd never really discussed it. He didn't look convinced but Lex pulled away from him before he could say anything more.
Lex put on his uniform and I saw him surreptitiously wrap his hand in an Ace bandage before adding his gloves. He looked up, surprised to see me, then put a finger to his lips. I figured Clark had been right about Lex and his hand wasn't completely better, but it was too late to say anything.
It was going to be our team's turn to take qualifying laps in a few minutes, and everyone seemed anxious. Clark moped around, his head down and hands in his pockets. I felt the way Lex did when Clark and I first came to the speedway, wishing he would have a more positive attitude so this time Lex wouldn't be the one getting demoralized.
There ended up being nothing to worry about as Lex not only got the third best qualifying time but earned us the highly enviable pole position for the GTS class. My turn was nowhere near as good, but at least I made it through without bumping anyone or slamming into anything. Compared to the other cars, though, I was pretty rough. By the time my session was over, no matter what I may have accomplished at the track, I'd started to feel like here I was in way over my head.
I decided to take Lex up on his offer to spend the next couple of nights at the penthouse. I wasn't feeling very well, and the thought of getting back in that helicopter was completely unappealing; especially having to ride it early in the morning to get to the city in time for the race.
Lex had a lot of empty bedrooms, and I thought I'd sleep well in the huge bed with soft sheets that felt incredible against my skin, and down pillows my head could just sink into, but I was too preoccupied to enjoy any of it. The thought that I wouldn't perform my best if I didn't get enough sleep just made the insomnia worse.
At some point I fell asleep and Clark came in to wake me up since I'd slept through my alarm.
"Hey, Pete," he said softly and my eyes tried to focus on him. "Wake up, man."
I covered my face with a pillow and groaned. There was no way I was going to be able to face this day. It was just too much.
My stomach lurched and I threw the pillow aside and stared wide eyed into Clark's face. He looked alarmed, and as he reached out for me I leapt out of bed and ran to the bathroom.
The door slammed shut behind me and I got the toilet seat up just in time. I wretched into it, squeezing my eyes shut and feeling them start to water. I sat back for a minute before another wave hit me and I threw up for what I hoped was the last time.
I heard voices outside the door and figured Lex was coming in to see if I was getting ready to go. There was no way to face him, not like this. I just had to get myself together, take deep breaths, and I'd be okay.
"Where's Pete?" I heard Lex ask through the door.
"Um...nerves," Clark explained and I flushed the toilet for emphasis.
I got up and went to the sink, splashing water on my face and rinsing out my mouth. The sick feeling had passed. I turned off the water, sure I would be fine.
"Brings back memories," Lex said in a low, reminiscent tone.
I wasn't quite ready to face them after this kind of humiliation, especially since I was still wearing just my boxers, so I pulled back the shower curtain and turned on the water.
They were talking more freely then, and I thought about it a moment before going quietly over to the door to hear what they said. Something about the opportunity to listen in while they talked about me was too tempting to pass up. I could hardly hear them until I pressed my ear to the door.
"He'll be fine, Clark. Once he's cleaned up he'll feel much better."
There was silence for a couple of seconds before I heard Clark laughing lightly and telling Lex to "cut it out."
Great. That was real informative. It was almost like I wanted them to talk about me.
"Why? He's in the shower. He won't mind."
I frowned at that. What wouldn't I mind?
"It's his room."
"They're all my rooms."
Muffled noises I couldn't distinguish, and this was just weird.
"Uh, okay, that's an idea. Let's go back to your room."
God. Was Clark just joking? Clark was too tightly wound. He hardly ever kidded around. Still, they couldn't be doing what I thought they were doing. There was no way.
I swallowed hard before deciding I had to know for sure and pushed the door open. The first thing I saw was Lex's hand
where it had no business being. His lips were on Clark's neck and he pulled his head away when he heard me. I watched in shock as his hand slid back to his own lap.
Clark jumped off the bed and turned scarlet. He didn't seem capable of speech. Lex continued to sit there, not saying a word. Instead he told me with his eyes that he'd not been caught but interrupted.
I was almost relieved nobody spoke since before I could process everything, I was running back into the bathroom, vomiting heartily into the toilet again.
I'd closed the door and gotten into the shower when I heard someone knock.
"Go away, Clark!" I shouted, letting the water fall on my face and rinse the soap out of my eyes.
"I need to talk to you. Right now."
"Fine!" I shouted again. "It's open." I don't know why I said that. There was nothing he had to say that I wanted to hear. I didn't feel like even attempting clear thinking anymore.
I heard the door open and close. The toilet lid shut and I assumed Clark took a seat there.
"I'm sorry you found out that way."
"Found out what?" I asked angrily. "That you're gay?"
He didn't respond right away. Maybe it had sounded too much like an accusation. I hadn't really meant it to. I didn't know how I was supposed to react.
"I'm not sure what I am, Pete, so how could I tell you? There were times I thought I should say something, but I just couldn't."
I poured shampoo on my head and scratched my scalp vigorously with my fingernails. Liar, liar, Clark.
"Is that the excuse you're gonna give Lex when he finds out you're from Krypton? Or does he already know?"
"No," Clark admitted weakly. "He doesn't know. Not yet."
"He'll find out. Probably just like I found out about this," I said, water garbling my words a little as I rinsed out the shampoo. "Pure accident."
"Pete," Clark said, sounding defeated.
I turned off the water. "It'll have absolutely nothing to do with trust," I added as a final jab before reaching out and grabbing the towel.
"That's not fair."
I rubbed myself dry, shaking my head. "I thank God I'm not you, Clark. All the lies you have to keep track of. I'm surprised your walls aren't covered with charts and graphs just so you can keep up."
"I'm not going to make up excuses. Except to say I just wasn't ready to talk about it."
I wrapped the towel around me, opened the curtain, and stepped out. "I can live with that, Clark. It would just be a lot easier for me to hear it now if I hadn't asked you over and over and over again to tell me what was going on. Then when you did finally decided to say something about Lex, it was just more lies."
"Not necessarily," Clark said slightly defensively, still sitting. "It was the truth. Just not all of it."
Did he really think that made everything all right? I stepped past him and went back in my room, grateful Lex wasn't still in there.
"I'll meet you guys downstairs." My voice was so flat I hardly recognized it.
"You're still gonna race?" he asked as he followed me into the room.
"I made a commitment to do something." I fished through my bag and pulled out fresh boxers and a tee shirt. "I plan to do the best job I know how and not think about anything else."
"Lex'll be glad to hear that. He wasn't sure..."
"That shouldn't surprise me." I tossed my clean clothes on the bed. "He probably doesn't trust me any more than you do."
"Pete, you know more about me than anybody. Of course I trust you. Lex does, too."
I sat heavily on the bed, still not knowing what to think.
"No more lies, Pete, I swear."
He sounded sincere but also altogether too damn naive.
"Clark?" I said, the name feeling raw and brittle as it came out of my throat. "You better hope when the day comes, Lex Luthor is as forgiving as I am."
Lex must've known me better than I thought he did, because there was no mention from him about what had happened earlier when I came down and met them in the living room. I silently thanked God for this several times, because I just couldn't reconcile that guy in my room with the one on my team.
I passed up Lex's offer for breakfast for obvious reasons but sat at the table while they finished their coffee and discussed the movie they'd seen the night before.
Wonderful. I had thoughts I didn't want of them sitting next to each other in a dark theater.
Clark and Lex. I looked from one to the other. They weren't acting all that differently around each other than they used to back before...before what? The break up? At this point I didn't know how else to refer to it. Every time I thought about the two of them actually together, it just seemed like the weirdest dream I'd ever had. One I wasn't likely to wake up from.
Did they have a history before Lex hurt his hand? Was anything that Clark had told me in the loft true or just a huge cover story? Had Lex tried to seduce him long ago and Clark got scared off? What had happened? How did something as simple as an injury get them from being distant to feeling each other up in my room? Did I really want to know?
I told myself it wasn't my business, and I wasn't going to ask either of them because I didn't want to risk hearing more lies.
Their words were drowned out by my own thoughts. I became less and less happy with how I was handling the information. If it had been a straight couple, would I really have cared? Maybe having the evidence of it burned on my retinas so vividly was the reason I couldn't just accept it as no big deal and move on. I had an internal monologue that mostly consisted of asking myself just how PC I really was when sexual tolerance went from being some abstract concept to directly involving two of my friends.
I pinched the bridge of my nose, thinking introspection could be a real bitch.
We rode in the limo wearing our new uniforms. Lex had refused to wear red to match the cars, so we'd ended up in black. His excuse to the team was that he'd worn red in the other two races and look how he'd ended up, but I knew it was simply because he preferred the aesthetics of a darker color. The team knew it too, but they were pretty good about humoring him as long as he kept driving the way he did.
Lex gave me a pep talk while Clark sat across from us and smiled. I was pretty sure he was smiling more at Lex than at me but can't say I looked long enough to tell. At that point it would've been too much like staring at the sun. Just not a good idea.
Lex drank from his blue bottle. I grabbed a Coke from the mini fridge.
"Did Sharise agree to come?" Lex asked casually. He seemed genuinely interested and I smiled at the thought of her showing up.
"She said she'd hang around the circulation area and watch. She didn't exactly say she'd be cheering me on, though. I think she'll have her eyes covered the whole time."
"You think she'd mind if I bought us tickets to watch from the stands?" Clark piped in. I hadn't even thought of that. I'd figured he'd want to hang out in the paddock. Of course this was Clark, to whom sitting in the stands had become second nature.
"I think she'd like that," I said honestly, grinning a little. "Maybe you can explain some stuff to her. Ease her mind."
"That's what I was thinking. And we could commiserate."
Then I had a vision of it. Sharise worrying about her boyfriend. Clark worrying about his. I almost laughed, it was so bizarre. Almost.
The paddock was filling up quickly when we got there. There was a huge banner we passed under that read "For the Fans." Tents of every color imaginable lined Howard Avenue and there were people milling around everywhere. Tan girls, blonde with long legs and brilliant smiles. Wayward NASCAR fans with receding hairlines and beer guts. Families with kids dripping ice cream down their shirts. Old ladies shuffling along. Long lines of people standing around waiting for pictures and autographs from the different teams. It was everything I should have expected, but nothing had prepared me for it.
Lex and I were led to the Team Ferrari table where we sat with Duggan and Champagne, still on the alternates list and ready to go if either Lex or I had to cancel at the last minute. They nodded at us tersely, clearly aggravated that we'd stolen what they probably felt was their thunder. I looked at Lex and his expression said what I hoped mine did, too. They could get over it. There was always next year.
"Pete, look!" Clark teased loudly, pointing at the cameras. Speed Channel cameras.
I felt the blood drain from my face. "Clark, why don't you go find Sharise?" I suggested tersely.
"Not before I wish you guys luck," he said as he offered me his hand, shaking mine and smiling broadly. He then held out his hand to Lex, and I found myself closing my eyes and hoping this didn't end with inappropriate physical contact. I then wanted to kick myself for the moronic thought.
Clark left grudgingly and I saw a flash go off next to me. Lex was smiling and talking casually as he signed something some kid gave him. Then I had to sign it, too. I didn't smile or chat, though. I probably scarred the kid for life with my surly demeanor, but I was preoccupied and stressed out. So many people. All there to watch me die.
I snapped out of it before the thought could take hold. That would definitely not be a case of the kind of positive attitude Lex was always advocating.
They called us to the pit after what seemed like a dog's age of meeting and greeting practically every racing fan in the Midwest. Lex was okay with all that attention, although he didn't seek it out, but me? I practically wanted to run from it. It reminded me of a time when I took stuff like that way too seriously.
Lex climbed into the Maranello that was already running in preparation for his warm-up lap. The first of three green lights on the side of the car was on, indicating us as first in our class, and Lex was clearly eager to get started from his pole sitter position. I would have forty minutes before it was my turn at the wheel. Forty minutes to spend going over my strategy while watching the race on one of several monitors overhead.
Luc was preoccupied with the engineers monitoring the stack data on the computer. The mechanics were doing a last minute inspection of the car, and Clark and Sharise were probably already in prime viewing position.
I heard the familiar deafening roar as the cars took their preliminary tour, saw a flash of green flag, and realized the race had already started. Numbers and colors passed by, starting slow and becoming a blur. I looked up to the TV screen and saw them empty out onto Howard Avenue.
The GT and GTS models had the advantage with #71 Viper, #66 Porsche, and our #80 Ferrari barreling around the banking district. The first sharp turn left and two LMP models, #16 Lola and #55 Peugeot, took the lead. They were three laps in before the first accident happened. I winced as #23 Porsche crunched headfirst into the barrier, unable to make a clean turn out of Leavenworth as #63 Ferrari took an unexpectedly wide in point. Lex was third in position after the LMP's, sticking close and negotiating the fastest four successive corners of the course. He came out clean back onto Leavenworth while #16 clipped #55's rear left fender.
Several laps later, the stragglers started to bear down once clear of the tricky succession of turns, with #72 Morgan and #83 Saleen hot on the tails of the LMP's. They all blasted slickly past LuthorCorp Plaza and got serious about finding passing space once they neared the southern tip of the park, knowing the devastatingly tight wrap around the Daily Planet was just moments away.
The local yellow flag came out when the Morgan careened into the back end of the Saleen. Lex, the Viper, the Porsche, and the leading LMP's made it around the accident cleanly. The dispirited drivers drove their hobbled cars in pathetic, jerking motions back to the pit.
I discovered that once you found the right flow in a race like this, there was a good chance of keeping an advantage if you kept your head and drove intelligently. Of course there was always the possibility of some dickhead deliberately plowing into you - in which case he'd be disqualified - as well as the even higher likelihood of your car developing mechanical problems. I kept my eyes glued to the monitors and listened to the crew to stay aware of the car's condition.
After several more laps, Lex was still in third position, the Ferrari was still running perfectly, and two more cars, #77 Lola and #38 Audi, dropped back due to air hose and suspension problems, respectively. That made a total of five cars out of thirty that were either out of the competition or had little chance of winning.
Ten more laps went by quickly, with Lex falling back to fifth when two more LMP's, #10 Panoz and #27 Dallara, wound their way to the front. I put my fists in front of my mouth and tried to keep myself from thinking the LMP's were going to totally rule this race. Positive thinking. A good attitude. Lex must've been following his own advice because he maneuvered around the Daily Planet on the sixteenth lap and made his way back to third place. He took his last shot while on the smooth curves of the eastern side, ran it up to about 120 or so, and took the lead, which he held onto until the twentieth lap. I could sense his frustration as the Panoz and Dallara left him in their wake and formed a tight, impassable unit for the next several laps.
One of the engineers noted a tire pressure problem in the Maranello, and Luc told Lex to go ahead and pit as tires on cars everywhere were already starting to wear down and blow out by the thirtieth lap. I ran up to him and saw he looked pretty pale.
"Hot as hell in here," he confessed.
"You all right?" I asked while he drank the water I gave him.
"I'm fine, Pete. You might want to get out of the way, though."
"Oh. Right." I hustled back as the crew refilled his fuel and changed the tires. He was gone instantly along with whatever concerns I had, quickly taking his former place in third behind the Panoz and Dallara for his last several laps. I looked at my watch. Thirty-five minutes and closing.
#37 Lola impressively dodged a flying tire only to be bumped from the side by #56 Pilbeam. When no penalty flags came out, Luc sensed there was going to be trouble and paced in front of me, shaking his head. It was right about then the Lola edged closer to the Pilbeam and squeezed him into the wall. With nowhere to go, the Pilbeam hit the barrier, flipped up into the air, turned over, and crashed to the asphalt. It was seconds and several brutal rotations later before it came to a rest on its blown-out wheels. Lex, the Panoz, and the Dallara were close behind and had to make hard turns to avoid the wreckage.
The Lola was black flagged and a full-course yellow flag was waved, halting the race. The air out on the road curled in waves of heat but the inside of the wrecked car was perfectly still. It wasn't long before all the cars were forced to pit and an ambulance arrived at the scene.
When the car stopped and Lex climbed out, I hesitated to get in. He didn't look like he could stand on his own very well. He pulled off his helmet and then his gloves.
"Motherfucker," he mumbled as he stared at his right hand, covered in blood.
Luc ran over to him, talking briskly on the radio to alert the medics on call.
"Get my cell!" I yelled at the tech behind me, who was staring stupidly at the scene before him. He ran and brought it back to me and I immediately tried to get Clark on the line. It was only a minute or so before another ambulance showed up.
"Clark," I said when he finally picked up after a couple of tries, "You should get over here." I tried to convey a sense of calm I wasn't sure I felt.
"Why?" he asked, the crowd loud in the background. "What happened?"
"His hand. That gash opened up. I don't know. It might be serious."
"Hey, is that Clark?" Lex said foggily as he jerked his halfway-wrapped hand away from the paramedic. "Can I talk to him?" He held his good hand out to me.
"Sure." I jogged over and handed him my phone. The smile he gave me looked like it required all his effort.
"Thanks, Pete." He held the phone to his mouth. "Clark, did you see me out there?"
"Will he be okay?" I asked the paramedic, who was guiding Lex over to sit in the back of the open ambulance.
"Clark, just--Clark, calm down. I really don't need a lecture right now."
The paramedic cut off his sleeve and looked over the arm carefully while his partner finished bandaging the wound. The arm was streaked with blood.
Luc was shouting that the driver was being taken to the hospital, the course had been cleared, and the race would be back on any minute.
"Looks like he didn't lose too much blood. Don't worry. He'll be fine," the paramedic assured me.
Luc breathed a huge sigh of relief and dragged me over to the car. "You heard him, Ross. Get your ass in that car!"
I did as I was told and tore down pit lane once the race restarted. I wasn't driving nearly as competitively as Lex had. It seemed pretty hopeless to me at that point as I was told on the radio that I was in seventeenth position. Still, there was still more than an hour to change things around. Lex had driven all that time, bleeding, yet had still managed to stay consistently in one of the top five spots. I had no excuses.
That was the thought I had to hold onto. Fear and hesitation would've been the death of me and I mentally pummeled them to the back of my mind.
I used the same strategy as Lex, hitting my top speed on the far eastern end once passing 4th Street. I was right alongside the #4 Corvette that had hit me during practice. He tried to force me over to the right when we got to the long turn at 5th Street, but somehow I passed him at the crucial moment and tore in front of him to plow down to the northeastern barrier.
I was determined. The downforce helped make the ride less jerky than I thought it would be and I wanted to stroke the Ferrari's dash and tell her how beautifully she was doing. She was taking corners better than anything else around, which was impressive at first, until I realized all the LMP's were way ahead of me. I didn't even see them until I was several laps in and asked Luc what my placement was.
"You're thirteenth now, Pete. The other Maranello is two cars ahead of you. Get around him and you'll be in front of all the other GTS cars."
"How's Lex?" I asked, even knowing that by doing so I would piss him off.
"He is in good hands. You will not be if you don't focus. I will personally tear you apart."
"Okay. I'm just asking."
The Viper was ahead of me, predicting my movements and blocking my attempts to pass. I really wanted to bump him but didn't want to risk a black flag penalty. I had to wait for the next corner because, really. A Dodge against a Ferrari? My confidence was high. Planet Avenue loomed ahead and his tires squalled in response to the braking he had to do, blowing out his right tire. That's what he got for trying to match my speed. I got around him easily and went south on 1st until I was back on Howard.
Several more laps went by until the Team Olive Garden Maranello filled the road ahead of me, black and lethal looking. I tried to get around him but he swerved wildly to shake me off.
"That's Hardwick behind you," Luc shouted. I saw the #34 Ferrari closing in and checked to see if the Maranello in front of me did, too. He only hesitated for a split second but it was enough for me to take the inside lane and race in front of him.
I'd made it from seventeenth to eleventh in twelve laps and concentrated on widening the gap behind me during the next few rounds. The 4th Street corner was dead ahead and I whipped by #55 Peugeot, whose engine started smoking. I spent several laps focused on doing whatever it took to get caught up with the LMP's leading the charge when Luc told me Hardwick's #34 was on my tail again, shadowing me.
He was a stubborn son of a bitch but kept his moves legal. I stayed to the inside on the long stretches in front of and past LuthorCorp Plaza, going to 130 until I heel-toed the brake at the last minute, riding around the southern loop, cutting to the outside and sending Hardwick sideways into the wall, and not feeling too bad about it. I could almost hear Lex laughing at that one. I definitely didn't imagine the obscene sound of Luc's raucous laughter in my ear.
I'd risen to ninth position as the field thinned out rapidly. Several cars had to stop for repairs and lost precious time. So many of them just weren't adapting well to the pounding they were getting, and I hoped my luck held out. By the time I'd driven forty minutes, only half of the original thirty cars were still in contention for a conceivable win. And as I'd suspected, they were mostly LMP's. Things had gotten brutal.
I pitted twenty minutes later, when the race had gone an hour and a half. I asked about Lex while they fueled up the car, checked the fluids, and changed the tires, and Luc said Clark had run him up to Met General to get him sewn up again.
I could imagine how upset Clark must've been with him. Lex could've had serious blood loss. He could've lost consciousness and run headfirst into a barrier at 100 miles an hour. Lex really had been damn lucky.
My thoughts were cut short as I had to get down to the end of the lane and merge back onto the course. I scraped ahead of the last two Porsches still in the game. Five minutes and several laps flew by. I was in seventh. The #48 Spyker was distracted by my approach and misjudged his timing going around 4th onto Vicker. He didn't crash but he spun out and that left me in sixth. Even so, there were at least four laps between me and the cars in the two top spots, still most likely riding closely together to complete their formidable little clique.
"Where are they, Luc?" I asked, desperate to see them.
"They're rounding onto Howard. Now stop talking and just drive!"
I got close but not close enough to shorten the distance on that lap. Still, there was no one near enough behind me to pose a threat to my standing. There was some of that Zen feeling when I went around the Daily Planet for what felt like the hundredth time. I felt like my momentum and timing formed a kind of symbiosis with the building, like the globe so high I couldn't even see it was spinning me around safely and quickly.
Three more laps went by before I had a hope of catching up. I saw #63 Ferrari nudge #16 Lola to the right in a desperate attempt to take over his third position. When the Lola hit the wall, his front bumper tore off and flew through the air, right towards me. I made a hard left and it barely missed my windshield. Things looked pretty grim for the Lola as it pitted for repairs, and the Ferrari was black flagged.
Fourth place. I barely had time to process the information before realizing with finality it was probably as far as I could possibly go. They were all LMP's ahead and had several laps' advantage. The Panoz and Dallara were still way out in front, practically holding hands, probably waiting until the last minute to cut loose from each other and bare their teeth.
"Pete, #10 is smoking!" Luc yelled, dragging me back to the present. "You might...ah, Jesus!"
"What?" I asked, frantic for information. It was a question that didn't need an answer. It all happened in seconds. The Panoz had left an oil slick behind him and was slowing down just as #7 Bentley slid right into the mess. The Bentley lost control as he started to pass and spun around until they collided fiercely.
The caution flag came out again until the area was cleared, and I was given new encouragement. There were only two of us left in the running, but the Dallara was still a good two laps ahead. Five minutes were all that remained.
"You're a lucky little bastard, Pete! Chase him down! Ahhh! Cut his nuts off!" Luc shouted.
I wasn't sure if he had the right translation but I got the gist. That LMP was so fast, though. So light. My red Maranello had never seemed heavier, like a bloated burden in comparison. No matter how well I took the corners, he took them faster and more effortlessly. I came close to him on the stretches but he stayed just out of reach.
The white flag came out to signify the last lap and I knew it was already over. He still had a two-lap advantage over me. I wanted to stop thinking negatively, realizing that if I didn't keep it together I'd be overtaken and I might not even place.
Luc had been right. I was a lucky bastard. I wasn't about to screw it all up and watch my luck run out all over the road like oil from the Panoz's busted pan. I took my threatened placement seriously and blocked passing attempts from behind, knowing I'd allowed myself to be distracted and had to fight for position.
And then it was over. The Dallara passed under the waving checkered flag with me riding his tail. I had come in second.
Hell, a little less than two hours ago I had hardly even believed I would finish at all.
I hadn't crashed. Lex hadn't, either. We were both alive and well. At least I assumed Lex was. I sure hoped he was okay.
We had done it. Second place. I let myself savor it. I felt incredible. I felt overwhelmed.
I felt like I was going to pass out.
Luc helped pull me out of the car and held my arm up. The road was unsteady beneath me - too still - but I managed a smile as flashes popped and I was given a trophy I could hardly even focus on. I felt a moist and light kiss on my cheek and turned to see Sharise by my side. She held my hand and gave me that warm smile that usually made me feel weak, but at that moment made me stronger. I handed Luc the trophy and hugged her tight.
I think she said she loved me, but I might've been hallucinating.
I didn't stick around for interviews, even when Luc told me everyone wanted to talk to `the little rookie who could'. I didn't know whether to find that flattering or insulting but regardless, I'd promised Chloe an exclusive when I got back to Smallville.
Sharise and I had somehow timed our arrival at the hospital to coincide with Clark walking out the front entrance, his arm around Lex, smiling as he gazed at Lex with open affection and what I guessed was relief.
"Pete!" Lex said happily. "We listened to the live feed! We didn't miss any of it." He grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. I looked to see the other one freshly dressed. "You did it, Pete," he continued, his eyes sharp, head nodding slightly. "That race was yours."
"I was second." That sounded stupid. Like false modesty. I hadn't meant to qualify it like that.
Lex laughed at that. "'Second.' Listen to him. You're amazing, Pete." His smiled evened out as he looked appreciatively over at Sharise. "Lex Luthor. You must be Sharise."
"Yes. That's me," she said brightly.
He let go of my hand and took hers. "Pretty proud moment for you, I'm sure. You've got a phenomenal boyfriend there."
Her eyes took me in. "I know."
I thought about it all being over. I didn't have any regrets. So many good things were ahead of me. This was my chance to start fresh and do the things I hadn't had time for the past couple of months.
We agreed to meet up with Lex and Clark at the park again that night for the ALMS Fest. Clark then insisted Lex stay at the penthouse to rest up beforehand and there hadn't been any arguments. Sharise had raised her eyebrow at me when Clark said he would tie him to the bed to make sure he didn't move. When I rolled my eyes, I think she got the picture.
I spent the rest of the day with my girl, tucking her head into my neck, inhaling her sweet smell, holding hands, sitting in the park together and watching the dismantling of the racing barriers. It had been so long since we'd been close like that with no pressure, no demands, no rush. I took pleasure in just enjoying the way my life had gone from so loud to so quiet in the span of a few hours.
The quiet didn't last as long as I would have liked. Once it got dark the concert in the park got started, but not before Mayor Lennox got in front of the microphone to make some boring speech. He applauded the ALMS and the city for making the day "such a resounding success." He didn't mention any of the drivers' names, though he made a point of personally thanking all the sponsors.
I'd had enough of that blowhard before he even left the stage, but compared to some of the local bands who started playing, his obnoxious preening was almost preferable. Clark found us and took us to where he and Lex were sitting.
We sat in our small group away from the crowd and ate some gourmet snacks they'd brought with them. I gladly accepted what I was offered, but truth told I would've preferred the barbecue that was being served by the vendors.
Lex made me tell them all about the race, and I guess I was happy to do it, but I was truly relieved it was over with. I recounted as many highlights as I could, and he especially liked the part about Hardwick careening into the barrier.
"I really wish I could've seen that. I wish I could've seen it all," he said wistfully, staring ahead. Clark examined his profile closely as if memorizing it and I turned to Sharise, who pulled me close to murmur something in my ear.
"Is that how I look at you?" she asked softly.
I tilted my head, not sure how to answer that, and when I glanced back at the stage, it had emptied to a lone woman, sitting at a piano.
She played a song I knew was one of Sharise's favorites. Sharise hugged me close and sang some of the words, asking what I was to her, telling me I was "deep as the shade of blue." I held her tight and rocked slowly. Muted whispers and other intimate sounds next to us made me aware something similar was going on, something private in public with the two guys who basically were the best friends I had, but I didn't say anything. There was no one around gawking, anyway. And maybe I was just too happy to care.
Yeah, I knew that's what it was. Things had worked out. There was no real damage. We were cool.
I still didn't know exactly what it meant, but I guessed we were Zen.
Cameras, trophies, articles, a sense of accomplishment, it was all nice but compared to that moment, somehow irrelevant. Right then I had the true spoils of victory and I wasn't about to let any of it go.
Sharise and I spent the night together in the room Lex was letting me use, and I woke early the next morning when my phone started playing that obnoxious fight song.
It was my dad.
"You need to come home, Pete. If you're not back here within four hours, I'll come up and drag you here myself."
"Yes, sir," I'd responded, and I thought maybe Sharise's parents had called mine, wondering why she hadn't come home last night, but I knew she'd already talked to them and explained things. They had seemed fine with it.
I hung up after the terse conversation and dressed hurriedly, but I let Sharise sleep so I could go say goodbye to Clark.
I knocked softly on his door but he didn't answer. I knocked again and got nothing. Then I saw Lex's door open. Clark was fumbling with the fly of his jeans with one hand while closing the door quietly behind him with the other. I felt my face grow hot and looked away.
"Pete, why are you up so early?" he asked, brushing the hair off his face.
"Sharise and I have to get back. My dad just called. He's really pissed at me."
Clark squinted at me, his eyes sleepy and confused. "Why would he be mad? Doesn't he know how well you did yesterday?"
"You know my dad," I offered, shrugging helplessly. "Mom was probably mad that I actually went through with the race and she took it out on him, so he took it out on me. My crazy family."
Clark smiled in sympathy. "Hey, you know, I never told you how proud I was of you. You really--man, I still can't believe it."
"It was an experience. I don't think I'd want to do it all over again, but I'm glad I did it."
"I'm sorry I made things so hard for you when you were practicing over at the speedway. I wasn't exactly supportive."
I gestured at the door. "You had other things on your mind." It had come out a little colder than I'd meant.
Clark looked behind him then back at me. "Yeah, you know, this really isn't how it seems," he said rather meekly.
"Of course not, Clark. You guys were up all night trading Yu-Gi-Oh cards. No explanation necessary," I joked.
"No, I mean it wasn't just all of a sudden. Well, it was, but it wasn't. We felt the same way about each other, it's just--neither of us said anything or did anything about it. Up until a few days ago."
I looked at the carpet and put my hands in my pockets. "I kind of wondered what the history was."
"Yeah, well. Y'know, Pete, I'm sure I really don't even have to ask you this, but..." He frowned, and I had a feeling I knew what he wanted to say.
"I wasn't planning on telling anyone, Clark." His sigh of relief made me laugh. "I really wouldn't expect to keep it a secret, though. I might've been clueless, but Sharise knew the first five minutes she saw you two together."
His sober expression made it seem that thought had occurred to him before. "Right. Well, believe me, I won't wait long."
He stood there looking awkward, and I decided to give him a break. I started walking back down the hall to get Sharise.
"See you tomorrow at school, Clark."
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll see you, Pete. And thanks."
I smiled. Things really weren't so different. "No problem," I answered.
We left Sharise's car in the city so we could ride together in Lex's limo back to Smallville. I needed the moral support. It was luxurious inside, and Sharise took advantage of all the comforts, but I felt just as nervous as the morning of the race. What kind of trouble was I heading home for?
I mentally listed the different things that could happen when I arrived at our house. Sharise's dad could be standing there with a gun, or even worse, her Mom with no weapon but her mouth.
My mom could have my car taken away and force me to spend the rest of the year going to and from school on the bus.
My dad could give me a three-hour lecture on how fast cars had never been anything but trouble for the Rosses and how lucky I was I'd not gotten killed.
The possibilities were endless. Sharise tried to make me feel better with calming words, kisses, and light strokes on my arm, but I couldn't snap out of it.
I had a feeling something strange was going on when we finally got to my street and I saw all the cars lined up in front of our house. I gave Sharise a mystified look, and she gave me an impish grin.
She took my hand as we got out of the limo together. Reluctantly, I let her lead me up the walkway. The front door burst open as we got to it and my parents were smiling, talking, and crying all at the same time. They pulled me into a hug and congratulated me.
I kicked Sharise lightly on her shin, but she just laughed at me. She was going to pay for that one.
It was a nice party, as parties went. Mostly it was friends of my parents coming over to coo over little Pete all grown up, but Chloe was there, too, begging for the interview I'd promised her.
I pushed Sharise towards her and said she could start off the interview with her own play by play. Chloe fell uncharacteristically silent and Sharise gave me a look that said we were even.
My dad looked at my trophy for awhile, running his fingers along it. He then placed it carefully on the dining room table, right next to an unopened bottle of Cristal.
I hadn't noticed the champagne being there until then. I walked over and picked up the small envelope it came with, marked only with LL on its front. I opened it to read the card inside.
There's just too much to say in this little space, so I'll try to be succinct.
Thanks for the ride.
Your friend always,
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