Martha was sitting in a wooden folding chair along the far wall of the ballroom, watching the dancers spin and whirl across the floor. Long, formal dresses swept over the polished parquet giving the illusion of weightlessness, or maybe that was just the lighter-than-air way the girls felt as their partners guided them through the dance. The boys' faces were flushed. Marilyn Gardeners' sweet sixteen formal was probably the first time some of them had ever been close to a girl.
"But I barely know her!"
Protests had fallen on deaf ears. William Clark was a highly respected, and disgustingly adept corporate attorney. Douglas Gardener III was one of his most important clients. Bill almost literally shoved Martha into Marilyn's rather prickly group of hangers-on; a gaggle of girls Martha found shallow and mean. Marilyn treated her as if she were a charity case.
And here Martha sat, at Marilyn Gardeners birthday party, wearing a gown every bit as expensive as the other girls' gowns, with her ears glittering with diamonds and her perfume wafting through the air at over one hundred dollars and ounce. Nobody danced with her. Nobody gave her a second glance. Her father was not really a rich man, he was a rich man's servant. Titles meant everything. Martha Clark was just "passing."
She picked at her gloves and tried not to cry as Marilyn swept by her in the arms of a handsome young man. Marilyn's expression was smug. The boy Martha recognized as the son of a senator. He looked back over his shoulder as Marilyn leaned in to whisper something to him. His eyes were mocking. He laughed out loud.
I want to go home.
A tear fell into her hand. She watched it slowly soak into the white silk glove covering her palm. The music screeched and wailed all around her, her misery warping the waltz into something unrecognizable.
Later, Martha knew, they would all escape the formality of the ballroom and go out to a club flashing their fake I.D.s at the door and piling the resident dealer with handfuls of cash for whatever pretty powder was in vogue this week. The door was always open to the rich kids and the drugs flowed like water, even if you were just barely sixteen. Martha went along with them. Sometimes she did get high, but mostly she just watched. She rode home in the front seat with the chauffer because she couldn't stand the smell of vomit and the pawing hands of whatever "friend" offered to take her home.
She watched Marilyn and the senator's son whirl around the dance floor.
I wonder if he knows she's not a virgin?
It took her a while to notice that she wasn't the only wallflower, and then only because she caught his movement out of the corner of her eye when he edged closer to her. She pretended not to see him. He moved another chair closer, and then another, until he was sitting next to her.
Martha rolled an eye in his direction.
He was cute, she had to give him that, with a pale oval face beneath a fall of thick brown hair. This made Martha smile, for the society set envied the long hair that was so much in style, but dared not cultivate it. Most of the boys wore short, military style cuts. This one did not.
His opening was simple: "Hi."
Martha turned her head to look at him more closely. She judged him a couple years older than her, but he had a bright, boyish glint in his green eyes, and a quirk of a smile. The low rumble of his voice gave her goose pimples. It reminded her of velvet. She caught the hint of an accent, but could not place it.
Before she could answer, or rather, decide if she was going to respond, he added: "Why aren't you dancing?"
She sniffed. His suit was fine, but ill fitting. His tie was askew. The term "bourgeois" popped into her head and she chided herself for her hypocrisy. Was he just "passing?" She looked again. He had the slight air of one nouveau riche. His diamond cufflinks were enormous. Martha wasn't sure what to think.
"I don't care for it," she said haughtily.
"Your foot was tapping." He pointed to her feet, where the tip of one tortuous high heeled pump was visible from beneath her gown. "I saw you watching."
Martha flushed. "What is it to you?"
With a shrug he moved over a seat, putting an empty chair between them.
Together they watched the dancers, unspeaking. Finally Martha turned to him.
"Why aren't you dancing?"
"Don't know how."
She raised an eyebrow. Irish maybe? There was the faintest hint of a brogue beneath the carefully cultivated tones of his voice. He smiled at her. His eyes crinkled up at the corners. Martha liked that. She smiled back. Her father would not have approved, but Martha didn't care.
"Then what are you doing at a dance?"
The ice broken, he relaxed his shoulders into a rolling shrug and pushed his hair behind his ears with both hands. "Got an invitation, thought it could be interestin'."
"Someone lied to you then," Martha said, and he laughed.
"It's dead boring," he agreed. "Especially if you can't dance."
Martha hesitated. She looked out at the dancers, who were beginning another waltz. "Would you," she asked shyly, "like me to show you?"
"Here?" He looked somewhat alarmed.
"We could go into the foyer. We'll be able to hear the music, but no one but the butler will see."
He stared at her, his gaze intense and filled with longing. "Yes," he said finally. "I'd love to."
Martha stood up and he took her hand. Together they skirted the edge of the dance floor around to the doors leading out into the foyer of the Gardener mansion. The music swelled out from the ballroom and was immediately lost in the high cathedral ceiling. Beneath the twinkling lights of a massive chandelier Martha took her partner in hand.
"It's just a box step," she said. "Glide and slide. One, two, three, four...."
They left the party early.
"Do you want to go for coffee....or something?" he'd said, and Martha went.
Sitting in the diner, dressed in formal wear, they were happily incongruous among the working folk coming off the late shift. It was after midnight and everyone was eating breakfast. They talked about movies and music over bacon and eggs. Martha had a secret passion for hard rock. He listened to Schubert.
"No electric guitar in the garage?"
"Steinway in the parlor." His long fingers circled the rim of his soda glass. "My mother made me take lessons. She used to say it might serve me well in the future."
He shrugged. "No," he replied softly, but then regarded Martha with a smile. "Although it does seem to make an impression on pretty girls."
She felt her cheeks growing warm. Her fork became very interesting. "You know, I probably should be getting home."
The disappointment was clear, but he was the gentleman. "Sure," he stood, holding out a hand for her and helping her out of the booth. "Thanks."
"Not laughing at my choice in eating establishments." There was a hesitation in his voice, as if he were disclosing a secret. "Sometimes....they get to be too much." He did not look at her as he paid their bill at the register.
Quietly, Martha looped her arm through his. "I know what you mean."
Her presence so close to him made him start, but as he looked down at her his expression grew warm. He led her out to his car, and they drove beyond the bright lights of the city to the suburbs, where the mansions of the very rich, gave way to the made-for-show homes of those who served them. In comparison to the huge colonials surrounding it, the Clarks' Tudor was startlingly modest.
They stood by the hood of the car at the foot of the driveway, in the circle of a decorative street lamp. Martha drew in a deep breath, and let it out again.
"Thanks for the dance."
"Thanks for teaching me."
"And breakfast," she added, with a little laugh.
There came a moment of awkwardness, wherein he nervously pushed his hair back, and Martha fiddled with her gloves. Pulled rapidly toward adulthood by the demands of society they had been, but beneath it all - still children. Martha raised her head and met his eye. Her confidence made him brave. He kissed her cheek.
At the house, a light switched on, and Martha heard the door rattle.
"I guess that's my cue," he said.
He waved a little as he got back into the car. The tires of the blue Porsche squealed as he pulled away from the curb, and the car fishtailed a bit as he gunned it. Martha watched it go until the last flicker of its taillights vanished around a turn, a small, goofy smile on her face.
She met her father at the door. He was stern.
"Who was that?"
It was then that she realized she had no idea.
Martha once found a stray cat as a girl, and secretly named it in her head. She believed that if you named a stray the odds were good that you'd get to keep it. She'd been allowed to keep the cat.
She began calling the boy "Clark" in her head the moment he'd looked up at her and smiled. When she thought of him her heart seemed to swell. It was love at first sight.
He was home now, with Jonathan. The two of them were taking turns watching him and going into town to offer what support they could to their friends and neighbors. Smallville was in chaos. Martha was on her way downtown to mind Nell Potter's shop. Even in the face of tragedy there were still bills to pay. Nell couldn't afford to close down for more than a day or two.
She stopped at the hospital before continuing to the shop.
He was sitting in a chair, one of many in a row of plastic chairs outside the intensive care unit. Head bowed, elbows on his knees, he looked exhausted, and at first Martha hesitated to disturb him. She tightened her grip on the thermos she held.
His head came up and instantly any sign of weakness fled from his features. Proud, stern, and commanding, he gave Martha an intense stare. It mellowed after a moment. He had recognized her.
Martha gestured toward the chairs. "May I?"
"Of course." He stood, exhibiting manners Martha had long thought antiquated. He sat back down as she took her seat.
"How is he?" she asked.
Lionel's face fell, but for her sake he managed a faint smile of reassurance. "Not well. I'm waiting to hear from Metropolis. He'll be transported to Metropolis General sometime today."
"And how are you?"
He looked startled, as if the question was completely out of his experience. It might have been, for Martha knew Lionel Luthor's not-so-nice reputation. He had once been one of her father's clients, until Lionel pushed Bill's moral envelope a bit too far and Bill dropped him. Attorney Clark could be a hardass, but he was an honest hardass.
"I'm fine," he said softly. "Thank you."
Martha handed him the thermos. "Vegetable soup. I made it myself. Keep the thermos."
This made him laugh. "Generous."
Their eyes met in the awkward silence that followed. Martha quickly looked away. "I should be going. I hope Lex will be okay."
Lionel rose with her. "Thank you," he replied, and glanced toward the ICU where his son lay sleeping. The boy looked horribly pale. Lionel's low voice dropped to a whisper. "I do too."
When he turned back to her he smiled. He reached out to take her hand, and like a gentleman of old, raised it to his lips. The sweetness of the kiss made Martha blush. He did not let go of her hand.
"You have lovely hands, Mrs. Kent. Do you play?"
"I beg your pardon. Do you play the piano?"
Martha laughed. "Oh no! I'm not very musical at all. I take it you do?"
With a shrug, Lionel released her. "My mother made me take lessons as a child."
"She used to say it might serve me well in the future."
She stared at him in shock, her mind flashing back nearly thirty years with perfect clarity. For weeks after that dance she'd tried to find out who he'd been and no one had known. For years she'd dreamed of dancing with him under the light of the Gardener's crystal chandelier. Her adolescent mind had built him up into a mysterious prince charming who would one day come back to claim her. She'd been in love with him for the longest time, until the day a pair of blue eyes and curly blonde hair made her forget everything and everyone else.
"It was you," she breathed, and she remembered the lilt of his voice, and the vibrant green of eyes eyes. The accent was gone, the velvet voice had grown deeper, but what remained were those intense green eyes.
And his smile. It was slightly patronizing. He had no idea what she was talking about.
"I taught you to dance."
Lionel started. The smile vanished and his eyes widened. "You're Bill Clark's daughter?"
"Yes. But....you knew that?"
She didn't know why, but she was disappointed. He could have come. He could have claimed her, but he hadn't.
"Not until much later," was the explanation. "And by then....." He stopped abruptly, and his expression changed. Martha understood the look. It was full of "things that might have been." In his eyes she was no longer someone he had just met, the wife of another man. There was remorse there, and desire, and beneath it all smoldered a look of determination.
Martha waited. She cleared her throat. "I have to be going," she said finally. He said nothing. "It's been a long time," she added.
That path doesn't exist anymore.
"A very long time," he agreed, and looked away from her. In a gesture he probably had not used in years, he raised a hand and pushed his hair behind his ear.
Knowing Lionel Luthor's secret made her understand him. His public relations people had invented a background for him that everyone knew. Martha did not know where he'd come upon his money (wasn't sure she wanted to) but she remembered the sweet young man in the ill-fitting suit and the diamond cufflinks. He had not been born into wealth. He'd had to fight tooth and nail among those of more distinguished lineage and sometimes he fought dirty. It had changed him. Martha could not have overlooked it. She would have not been happy. Destiny had driven her in another direction and it was just as well.
As she began to walk away, he called her name.
She turned around. He stood there holding the thermos. He made a little gesture with it.
Martha nodded. They looked at each other for a moment more, before Martha lowered her gaze, and walked out the door.
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