Ransom

by LaCasta


FB always welcome!
To Ren and Steve, you know why.


"Personal and confidential." Lex Luthor turned the FedEx envelope over in his hands. Through the paper, he could feel the glossy heaviness of photographs. Well, well, this could be interesting, although it was more likely to be tedious. He slit the top and let the contents fall onto his desk. They fell upside down, and he flipped one over.

God.

The hair was longer, neglected, the face thin and, yes, anguished was the word. He was lying on a cement floor, behind bars. Lex felt his heart clench with a mixture of equally instinctive distress and contempt.

Clark.

The farmboy he had loved. No, he angrily corrected himself, the farmboy he had loved and who deserted him. That first night they made love. Afterwards, he'd held Clark in his arms and when Clark had clung to him, crying a few tears of happiness and excitement and release of tension, the droplets on his forehead had felt like a baptism with the holiest possible water. Clean and loved. And then--the next day. Clark had disappeared. That night, he'd finally gone to the farm to look for him. He wouldn't have put it past Clark to have told his parents. Or for Jonathan to have responded violently. To have beaten Clark. Or at the least locked him away. So he waited until he could talk to Martha alone. He'd asked where Clark was. She looked everywhere but at him and then said she didn't know. He'd finally begged. Only a few scraps of dignity kept him from actual groveling.

He called or came by every other day for two weeks. She finally said that Clark had run away and reluctantly showed him a postcard. It was postmarked five days ago, from New York. Clark had just said that he wasn't coming back, that he was fine, and that he wouldn't write again.

Hoping that Clark was being melodramatic or having a brief moment of panic, he waited. And waited. Days turned into weeks. Each day corroding his heart. Anger replacing fear. Hate replacing anger. He'd bared his soul, shared it as much as he'd shared his body, and Clark ran away from it. And he? He'd returned to Metropolis, to his father. To a destiny that was obviously going to be Clarkless.

Well, whatever scrape Clark'd gotten himself into, he could get himself out of.

He'd test his resolve by looking at the other pictures. Test it? He'd strengthen it. A closeup of Clark's face, a grimace of pain, covered with perspiration. Good. Another picture of Clark behind bars, looking even more thin and frail. Excellent. Another showing Clark without a shirt, back bandaged. Perfect.

Last, the piece of paper. "I understand that the enclosed might be of interest to you. I will call at 10:30 to see what arrangement for a transfer might be made. Please instruct your receptionist to send a call from Mr. Ransom directly to you in person."

Mr. Ransom. Well, it showed a primitive sense of humor. But one that would be disappointed. He'd take great pleasure in saying so. He called his secretary to tell her to send a call from Mr. Ransom straight to him.

It came at 10:30 precisely.

"Lex Luthor."

"This is Mr. Ransom. I believe you received my package?"

"Yes, but it's of no interest to me."

"How strange. The subject said that you would ensure his release."

"That was presumptuous. If true."

"Oh, I can assure you, quite true. How quickly one forgets."

"Forgets? Why don't you tell me exactly what you mean."

"Three years ago in October, the...agency I serve acquired a particularly unusual specimen. It thought, at first, that we were interested in money and assured us that you would ransom it. It seemed quite certain of the fact, oddly enough."

"When in October?"

"The exact date was the 17th, as I recall."

Lex's heart skipped a beat. The day Clark disappeared. No. This was some story Clark had concocted. Extortion. What a miscalculation. Lex would have showered anything on him. Once. But apparently the price of remaining Lex's lover was too high. Even if Clark had said no more sex, Lex still would have almost worshipped him, poured everything at his feet, just to see that wondrous smile, the one he would have sworn couldn't be bought with money. But time can't be turned back. A faked kidnapping. Sorry, Clark, too much, too late.

"Aren't you a bit late in getting this ransom demand to me?"

"Our original intent was not kidnapping. It was...something else. Knowledge is as good a way of putting it as any. But now, you see, the subject is increasingly fragile. The consensus of my colleagues was to keep holding it, but I thought that the value from that is considerably lower than the ransom that Lex Luthor would be able to pay. Particularly if I make the arrangements privately."

"In other words, double-crossing your colleauges and selling him to me."

"To put it bluntly, yes."

"I do admire enterprise." Perhaps there was some entertainment to be had from this. String Clark and this Ransom along. Just like Clark had played with him. The door would finally be closed, that wound finally healed. "As a matter of curiousity, how much do you want?"

"I believe that $100 million would be adequate."

"Ridiculous."

"For a specimen like this? I should think that aside from whatever personal feelings that it explained you had for it, the industrial applications alone would be worth that much to you."

"Industrial applications."

"Unfortunately, my colleagues are far more interested in learning of its origins than of its use."

"Origins."

"Oh, yes, we've narrowed it down considerably. The only problem is, that particular solar system was destroyed, so there's very little to go on."

"I see." Well, no, he didn't, but he'd pretend that he did. "Frankly, Mr. Ransom, an amateur could create these photographs in any decent graphics program, and I'd require somewhat more certainty before we go any further."

"I expected no less. Would you like to speak with it?"

Lex briefly wondered why Ransom insisted on calling Clark "it." Doubtless some mind game or another. "Certainly, but that alone won't be enough proof."

"If you're still interested after a phone conversation, I'll arrange for you to see it in person, or for your authorized agent to do so. I'll call you back in three minutes, and it will be on the line."

He kept his voice deliberately steady as he picked up the phone again. "Lex Luthor."

"Lex?" A raspy, timid voice, but still immediately recognizable as Clark's. The voice that had struck him as being a clear, light blue. He'd always thought of voices as having colors. "Lex, is that really you?"

"Yes, Clark, what can I do for you?" His own voice, he was delighted to note, didn't waver at all. Didn't show that if Clark were here in the room, he'd want to wring his treacherous neck.

"Please, Lex, if you can, pay him. I'm scared, Lex, I think I'm going to die. I can't stand much more." Tears in his voice. Really, Clark and Ransom were barking up the wrong tree. With a body like that, hone those acting skills, Clark could bypass him for money and go right to Hollywood. Ransom could be his agent.

"Tell me what happened."

"After we...after I had to leave, well, I was so excited that I just started running. I couldn't stop. I was so happy." Lex felt his throat clench. He'd been the one who was so happy. Until... "I didn't think. I was just so...and I ran too fast, and too far...I got near Los Alamos."

"Los Alamos? Quite a run, Clark."

"I...I was going to tell you the next night. That...that I came with the meteor shower. That I'm an alien. I didn't want any more secrets between us." Lex nearly choked hiding his laughter. Of all the feeble stories!

"What happened then?"

Ransom interrupted. "Somebody's coming. I've got to take the phone away. I'll call back later."

When you have the rest of the story invented. Of course. How convenient. But how fortunate for him. He'd just been on the brink of wanting to be convinced, just from the sound of Clark's voice.


As Ransom walked away, Clark withdrew, shivering, to the corner of his cell that he'd chosen as the spot to sleep. There was no bed, no mattress, but somehow it was just a bit comforting to be there.

Lex's voice had sounded unchanged but...cold. Maybe that was why he was shivering even harder. Ransom hadn't said how much he was asking for but he seemed greedy. Maybe it was too much. Maybe Lex didn't love him any more. After all, even though he didn't know how long he'd been there, it had to have been a long time. Long enough for Lex to find somebody else. Maybe even forget about him. It might even have been years.

He fought tears again, not even sure why he fought them. Sometimes he wondered if he had only so many tears in him, and they all had to be shed before he could die. And he was increasingly afraid that he would die. His mind kept wandering. Every part of him ached. The last time they'd let him wash, his skin started to peel as though he were sunburned. He couldn't keep down food any more, even the tiny amounts they gave him. His metabolism had slowed to accomodate it. That was part of why he was so cold and felt so weak.

They weren't deliberately cruel. Going hungry was easier than having more pieces of meteor embedded under his skin to keep him weak. They'd even put a space heater near the cell and given him a blanket when they saw how he was shivering. But only at night--they took it away each morning so he couldn't hide anything under it, the same reason they only let him wear shorts. As if he was given the chance to find or steal anything. As if he could use anything to escape.

They even eventually told him what they were finding out about him, though they'd at first laughed at him when he asked, thinking he was playing ignorant. They told him they thought they narrowed his homeworld down to one solar system. Then they told him that it was destroyed when the star went supernova. They were focusing all their energies on scanning that part of the galaxy for signs of life. He used to hope there was something there, but now even that seemed unreal.

All he could hope for was Lex. If Lex would save him. Maybe, even if Lex didn't love him any more, he'd at least set him free, let him go back to his parents. At least he knew they still loved him. If they were still alive. If he was dying, he didn't want to be so desperately lonely. Kind eyes looking at him. Caring arms holding him tight.

Or maybe he wasn't dying. After all, until now, he didn't have any experience in being sick. Maybe Lex was in time and would save him and take him home. As ritualistically as though they were prayer beads, he summoned up images of faces. Mom and Dad. Pete. Lana. Chloe. And finally, Lex.


Nobody at LexCorp was allowed to have a very good day. Lex left no skin unflayed during the day's meetings, even the one with the still strictly unofficial advisor for his campaign for governor. If he couldn't take it, he should get the hell out. Lex knew what he wanted and was going to get it.

Except when it came to a certain farm boy. He didn't even know what he wanted there. The answer should have been simple. Payback. But what if Clark hadn't left him. What if Clark had been taken away from him. Stolen. No. Bullshit. That ridiculous story about Los Alamos. About aliens. Keep it simple, stupid. If Clark had just said that he'd been kidnapped, he probably wouldn't have been able to keep himself from paying. Just in case it was true.

Anybody who to take advantage of him, who thought they could play on his emotions, became more than fair game for retaliation. With no holds barred.

When his secretary announced another call from Ransom, he picked it up and purred, "Lex Luthor."

"Yes. I can arrange for you to see the merchandise in question."

"Is the asking price still $100 million?"

"It is potentially...negotiable."

"I'd advise you to be flexible. After all, prolong the negotiations too long, and the value will plummet to zero."

There was a long pause. "I'm aware of that and that is the basis of my willingness to be flexible."

"It doesn't do to be greedy, you know."

Ransom sounded piqued this time. "Are you interested in seeing the merchandise?"

"That really depends on the price."

"Ninety."

"That's really not enough of a reduction. Forty."

"Eighty-five."

"Fifty."

"Seventy-five."

"Sixty." Ransom said nothing but the sound of his internal struggle was clear. "And that's dependent on my judging from inspection that it's a worthwhile investment." Let Clark make of that what he likes, if he's listening, Lex thought.

"I'm willing to call that our current basis of negotiation. After you see the goods, you may be interested in matching my price."

"Where and when?"

"Tomorrow."

"You're in a hurry. Perhaps we should take more time to think this through."

Ransom's voice showed the tension he was under as he ignored the taunt. "Our agency transfered him to a facility in Montana. You'll need to fly there, there are no roads in the area." Ransom gave directions.

"You understand, of course, that I take extensive precautions against any kind of attempt at hostage-taking. My people will know exactly where I am at any given moment and won't hesitate to come after me if they deem it necessary. The consequences won't be attractive; they don't follow any rules other than preserving my safety."

"Certainly. I should point out, in turn, that if you were intending to bypass paying, you'd find that the value of the merchandise plummets to zero, as you put it before."

"Then we understand one another."

"I believe so."


Lex deliberately kept his mind on other things. The ostensible cause for his flight out to Montana was for purchasing some land there for wilderness preservation. He'd acquired thousands of acres of undeveloped but promising land with that announced intention. Some of it had already paid off. When the land was unexpectedly, by all except his research staff, discovered to have high-grade mineral resources, he'd justified development by plowing the profits into more purchases elsewhere.

He firmly focused on the geological analyses of some more land in Nevada, where his first investigations had found more fossils than expected, indicating the possibility of oil. But when he didn't force himself to concentrate, his mind kept wandering back to Clark. That first night, he'd kept switching from daring to shy, touching or kissing or licking Lex and then blushing, eyes lowered. Lex had found it charming and amusing, and even a bit touching. He'd chuckled and reassured Clark that whatever he wanted to do was perfect. He was a clumsy lover but Lex didn't mind a bit. It had completely changed his theory that sex with a virgin was a waste of time and effort.

He'd even thought at first, when Clark had slipped out of his arms early that morning and not come back, that Clark was made skittish from embarassment, so he'd waited happily for his return. Well, now he was waiting again, even happily, but the quality of his happiness was quite different.

He realized that he wasn't reading the reports any more and put them back. He'd think about Clark instead. Think about his plans.

The helicopter landed on a clear space of land. Lex frowned as he looked out the window. There was no sign of any building. But there was a man standing at the side of the clearing. Alone. Strange, Lex would have expected him to bring Clark with him. Lex walked over to meet him.

"This way." Ransom indicated the bodyguard that Lex had brought with him. "They can come as close as the facility. But they can't come inside."

Lex smiled. "They can, actually. I'll tell them not to."

Ransom wasn't as good at these mind games as Lex was. Having that in common with 99.9 percent of the world's population. He just nodded and led the way.

The facility was well-hidden, with the entrance built into the ground and hidden from any kind of aerial scrutiny by a thick grove of pine trees that would keep it unobserved even in winter. "Another person is bypassing the security for us. Look as though you belong if anybody sees us." Lex wondered for a moment about this, then decided it had to be window-dressing. A Potemkin village.

They only passed a few people as they made their way through the facility. The lighting was full spectrum, but Lex was still aware of being underground. It didn't bother him, but he wondered how many people were involved in the charade.

After what seemed an interminable period, they arrived in a hallway that was bathed in a strangely familiar green glow. Lex frowned as he recognized it. The meteors from Smallville. Now that was taking setup too far. He wondered how much they'd spent on this elaborate touch. A bad investment, in any case.

Ransom opened a steel door and gestured at a cell. Lex's heart clenched again as he saw an equally familiar figure, curled up on itself, in a corner.

Ransom spoke coolly. "He's here."

Clark moved sluggishly and sat up. "Lex?"

"Why, yes, Clark. It's been a while, hasn't it?" Seeing the traces of tears on Clark's face made Lex broaden his smile.

It was warm in the room, a space heater going at full blast, outside the cell doors, but Clark seemed to be shivering. He looked, Lex swallowed as the words came into his mind, more dead than alive. There was something terribly wrong with his back. It was covered with veins that stood out almost like growths. His skin was a sickly greenish gray, not just on his back, but all over his body, and his hair was not just unkept but thinned. But even more, it was the way he looked frail and moved as though each motion cost a terrible price in pain.

"Come here," Ransom said sternly, and Lex found himself wanting to glare. He should be the one issuing orders to Clark. He was already rising and walking uncertainly towards them. Lex reached for his wallet. He knew what he was going to do. Pull out three hundred dollars, toss them to Clark, say that Clark left so suddenly he hadn't been able to pay him for the sex, and the debt had been preying on his mind. Then turn around and leave.


It was the not knowing that kept her awake at night. Clark's disappearance meant that there were a lot of things Martha Kent didn't know any more. Not just about her son, her precious gift, her miracle, but about her husband. Clark's disappearance had turned him into an old man, an angry, embittered old man. He was still the same to her, but to everyone else, he was cold. Brooding. Quick to find an insult in anything.

She'd always known--and so had he--that one day, Clark would leave them, as all children do. But that would have been the natural course of things. She'd have been sad to lose him as an everyday presence in their lives, but known that he was leading an independent life, finding his own direction. She'd have been proud of him, the pride and happiness in his happiness so bright that the tinge of sorrow at her loss would have just served to make it seem more luminous. Even if her worst nightmare, of somebody taking Clark away, had come true, she'd have fought for him to the last ditch. There wouldn't have been any sorrow, even, nothing but determination and fire burning out everything else.

But Clark had left them. Just the disappearance and then the terse postcard as an indication that he hadn't disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. It was his handwriting. Nobody could have forced him to write it, that much she knew. Or rather, only a threat to somebody he loved and couldn't protect any other way. But that was such a small circle. For a child who came to them from the stars, he lived in a small world. Nobody had threatened her or Jonathan, that she knew. And of his friends, none of them could have been so good an actor to fake the utter bewilderment and eventual grief at his disappearance. Lex was the only one she hadn't known for long, and despite Jonathan's suspicions, if she'd ever seen genuine misery and confusion, it had been what she saw in him. The last time he'd come to ask if she had any news, she'd feared for his health, mental as well as physical, when she showed him the postcard. He'd been on the verge of breaking.

And Chloe. She'd come by after dinner each night, with her homework, to sit in a corner and wait. Her attempts at confident declarations that Clark would come back soon and that she just wanted to be the third person to ream him a new one were among the bravest things Martha had ever witnessed. Then she came every other day, then once or twice a week. Now Martha just saw her in passing downtown. Chloe always came over to talk to her, but the unspoken question seemed to hover like a pollution in the air, dimming the girl's smile and voice and eyes.

Lying brooding did nothing. She knew that her tossing and turning would be more likely to awaken Jonathan than if she got up. Looking at her husband, she felt a floodwave of compassion, as she always did. Clark's disappearance had aged his body as well as his mind; they hadn't realized how much they depended on Clark's help until he had gone. And Jonathan had thrown himself into even more physical labor than he needed to, trying to keep from thinking. But he was a man with too much heart to keep from feeling. From feeling wounded and betrayed as well as feeling grief and bewilderment.

Maybe they should have taken the money Lex all but begged them to take, to go to New York and look for Clark, to let him hire every agency that looked for missing or runaway youth, to let him help. But Jonathan had refused point blank. She herself had been uncertain enough to let that decision stand. Lex's intensity had filled her with unease as well as yet another reflection of their shared confusion and grief. He'd acted like a man who had lost hope, not a man who had lost a friend whom he'd known for only a short time, and with whom he had little genuinely in common. It had seemed too much, and she had backed away. Everything else Jonathan had said about Lex turned out to be right after all, so his instinct there was probably right as well.

It was almost morning. Jonathan would be waking up soon. Then her kitchen would have the full assortment of ghosts. Her past happiness and his, as well as the now bewildering image of Clark. She wondered if they had ever really known him. Part of her said fiercely that of course she did. The boy who left was as much a stranger as if somebody had substituted a changely. But her doubts kept whispering that perhaps it was Clark's heart that was the true alien, incomprehensible, foreign, and as indifferent as the meteors that came with him.


Clark reached the bars of the cell and holding with one hand for support, reached the other through to Lex. The gesture was tentative, almost blind. Clark's eyes weren't fully focused, Lex noticed. He decided to prolong the game and reached for Clark's hand, which he clasped in his.

"Lex. You came." Clark's hand was cold and the skin felt like cracking leather.

"Naturally."

"All right, you've seen it." Ransom interrupted as Clark was about to say something, and Lex felt Clark's fingers tighten. "Are you still interested in paying?"

It was the perfect cue for Lex's prepared lines. Perhaps he should...no. Not quite yet. He wanted to linger over this.

"I'd like to know more of the background first."

Ransom spoke impatiently. "Fine. After we interrogated it, which was quite an extensive process, we concluded that it was genuinely ignorant of its origins, but decided that as small as the possibility was, letting it go free would be too high a risk, if only because of the general concerns it might raise if the public knew that there was a real alien here. To keep it from attempting escape, we continued to weaken it, as you see. It's greatly enfeebled by the implants in its back."

"Implants?"

"Yes. Material from the meteor shower." This man must be related to Chloe Sullivan. "We also found that reducing its food intake to ten grams a week of carbohydrates helped weaken it, so we combined that with the implants rather than using more implants, as they also cause it considerable pain."

"Humanitarian of you."

A thin-lipped almost-smile. "We have no interest in inflicting unecessary pain, even on aliens. And while we avoided the trap of anthropomorphizing it, it appears genuinely capable of suffering and of expressing that suffering in human-like ways."

"As I see. How will you explain what happened? After all, I'd hardly like to pay that much and have one of your double-crossed colleagues come after me."

"All cleared up. Several of the scientists have expressed a concern that it is dying. I and a colleague will report that we found it dead and as the corpse seemed to be decomposing at an alarmingly accelerated rate, we destroyed it as a possible biohazard."

"I see." Lex looked speculatively at Clark, who hadn't release his feeble grip on Lex's hand. "What if there is a bio-hazard? I might be unleashing a plague by bringing him back to the surface. Not the fame I want associated with LuthorCorp or even my own name." Let them think that their story was backfiring, that he was slipping away with a regretful gesture. He released Clark's hand.

"It's safe. The changes from the implants create toxins that affect only it. There are unknown bacteria in its system, apparently in a symbiotic relationship, but when we isolated and tested them, they didn't cause harm to any of the animal subjects we tested. As fascinating as the topic is, and I mean that sincerely, delay doesn't serve either of us. Are you interested in paying?"

Time enough.

He barely recognized the voice coming from his throat as his own. "Sixty." He hadn't meant to say that. Why had he said that? It must be that he wanted an even more thorough revenge, was willing to pay for it. Plans started in his mind, new plans based on the new situation.

Ransom bit his lower lip. "All right. Here's the account number."

Lex stepped back and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "This will work here, won't it?"

"It should."

"Greta? Lex Luthor. Liquidiate the AlTech stocks. What will that bring?"

"Twenty point six."

"Half the WestCorp holdings. How much?"

"Seventeen point four."

He thought for a few moments. What else was at its likely peak or under-performing and unlikely to rebound? "One-third of the precious metals stocks."

More sound of keys. "Four point three."

"The Treasury bonds."

"The ones that have matured, six point nine. The ones that haven't, eight point five."

"Just the ones that have matured. Take those, plus enough from the cash reserves to total sixty, and transfer the amount to this account. Immediately." He read the number.

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you, Greta."

He hung up and looked back at Ransom and at Clark. Why in God's name am I doing this, he paused to wonder. "I assume that you can check the validity of the transfer."

Ransom pulled his own phone and dialed. "Has it gone through? Good," and hanging up, gestured to Clark. "All yours."

He entered a code into the lock and opened the door. Clark came out, slowly, as if not certain that it weren't a trick or a dream. Lex took a quick step towards him as he stopped, shaking. "I don't think he'll be able to walk all the way out." Clark seemed ready to fall to the floor and Lex put a hand under his elbow.

"We use a chair to transport it." He went out and Clark sagged against Lex, closing his eyes. Grimly, Lex admired the thoroughness of their preparations. Clark was genuinely cold and almost skin and bones. Ransom returned with a wheelchair and Lex noticed that it had cuffs at the ankles, wrists, and neck, each with a green piece of meteor embedded. He frowned to himself as Clark appeared to be waiting for Ransom to pull them into place. Why continue the pretense now that the price was paid? For the first moment, he felt a doubt that it was a pretense. The acting, the setup all seemed too complete, too well-placed. As Ransom started to push the chair, he could see Clark seem to relax a bit, as though he'd realized that the cuffs wouldn't be used.

Ransom muttered, "We might be stopped on the way out. Act bored, a bit irritated by bureaucracy if we are. You're here from the Centers for Disease Control. And be careful not to touch it."

Lex smiled calmly, enjoying Ransom's agitation. He let his eyes occasionally rest on Clark, but casually, as though Clark were just another object in the halls.

"Ransom? Where are you taking him?" A man in a dark suit looked puzzled as he came out of a corridor. Interesting, Lex noted, this one calls Clark "him."

"Lab sixteen. Dr. Parker is here from the CDC."

"The CDC?" He turned to Lex and shook hands. "Frank Pederman. I didn't know you Bug Boys were in on this."

Lex nodded. "They briefed us Friday. There've been some interesting possibilities. Good and bad, unfortunately. We need to take a look."

The man looked at Clark for a long moment before turning his attention back to Lex. "One thing. He's not human, that much we know, but...he reacts as though he were."

"Even though it's not a duck, it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. Quite a reversal." Lex chuckled. "I don't plan to treat him...any differently from the way you have."

"I was afraid of that." The other man looked again at Clark, seemed ready to say something, and then walked down the corridor.

"Quickly. He'll probably tell other people."

Despite Ransom's increasing agitation, they made it outside without any futher questioning, though there were a few puzzled glances. "I don't think the chair will help much on the ground. I'll help you carry him back to your helicopter."

"I can walk," Clark protested, adding, as both men looked at him, "if you help me."

"We'll see if it's any faster." As they supported most of his weight, Clark half-walked, half-stumbled the rest of the way to the clearing.


"All right, we'll take him from here." Lex gestured and the bodyguards came over. "Carry him in." Clark felt them take him by the shoulders and legs, and settle him into a seat. Lex followed him in and as the door closed, Clark moved closer, though he didn't try to touch him. He wasn't very clean, and besides, he wasn't sure that Lex would want him to. Plus, there were people around. Instead, he closed his eyes and luxuriated in being close, in hearing Lex's voice, in smelling that rich, subtle scent. He wasn't sure if it was cologne--it couldn't be aftershave--or it if was just Lexness pouring off. But he'd never get tired of it.

Clark still couldn't make himself believe that he was out and free and safe. He wished that Lex had been a bit warmer, a bit less business-like, but then that was probably expecting too much. Lex had dozens, no, hundreds of people beating on his bedroom door, all more sophisticated and better-looking and wittier and more in Lex's world than Clark would ever be. A lot had probably changed in Lex's life, and he could hardly have assumed that Lex put everything on hold to make sure that he'd still be Clark's best friend...and lover. And even though he'd never been beautiful, as Lex had told him he was, now, well, he knew he was ugly. He'd not seen himself in any mirrors, but he could look down at his body and see how it had changed.

But Lex had ransomed him, hadn't he? Sixty million. He had no idea how much that amount meant to Lex but it sure sounded like a lot to him. Even if it was chump change, Lex had still paid it. So Lex still had to care a little about him, even just for old time's sake. He'd come in person, too, instead of telling somebody else to deal with it.

The helicopter was so noisy. He hadn't realized how quiet things had been in the facility. The whirring of the heater, every now and again, somebody coming to give him water to drink, maybe the person would say something to him, or he'd say something and usually the person would answer. They'd not tell him anything of what was happening in the outside world, just as another precaution. He couldn't really blame them, he guessed. They were just trying to keep things safe. Make sure he wasn't some kind of alien spy.

"Lex?"

"Yes, Clark?" So level.

"Do you...do you happen to know...are...is everybody all right, back home?" He'd given in tamely to everything they'd done because they'd told him what would happen to the Kents if he did. Ransom had to promise that they were bluffing before Clark would agree to talk to Lex, to ask to be ransomed.

"What do you mean?"

"Mom and Dad. Pete. Lana. Chloe."

"I really don't know, Clark. I left Smallville fairly quickly."

"This is going to sound so dumb, but...how long was it since...how long has it been?"

Lex pursed his lips. He had to think about it, Clark thought mournfully. "About three years, give or take."

Three years. A lot can happen. A lot probably did happen. He desperately wanted to grab Lex's hand again, or to bury his face in Lex's shoulder. Instead, he clasped his hands in his lap and gripped them. Lex would help him. He still had some tiny part of Lex, at least. Even if it was only his pity. Even a more or less indifferent pity. It was still some tiny bit of him.

Clark saw the ground change from nothing but thick tree-cover to fields and finally to scattered trees among buildings. The helicopter started to descend. Lex, who had pulled out papers again, put them away and looked at him.

"I'm taking you back to Metropolis in the jet with me. I'll decide what to do then."

Something was strange about that, but Clark couldn't figure it out. It didn't matter, really. "Maybe I can call my parents?"

"Not now." Oh, right, it's not safe to call on an airplane or something. He hoped he wouldn't be stupid for good as well as ugly. It wouldn't matter to his parents, of course, or to his friends, but...he didn't want to be somebody they'd spend time with because they loved him, he wanted to be somebody whose company they'd enjoy. He was never able to keep up with Lex's mind, of course, but Lex had liked him anyway. Maybe they still would, too. Or maybe he'd get better. Three years, though. They'd have graduated, or be getting ready to graduate. College. Wow. He'd probably have to go back through at least all of freshman year. Would they even let him? He wasn't sure what the rules were, now that he was older.

Lex was looking at him with a strange expression. It was amused, but as if he really weren't. "What are you thinking about, Clark?"

"School."

"Already." Lex's amusement was clear.

"Well, I'll probably-" He felt his eyes fill with tears again. God, Lex wouldn't want to talk to a crybaby. Sure enough, Lex looked away. Maybe he was being polite. Maybe he wasn't disgusted, or not much.

"Carry him into the jet." Lex got out of the helicopter so easily, while they were hauling him like a sack of potatos.

The jet was something else. He'd imagined it would be something like a regular plane, but instead, there were only a few seats, and a big table. The lights were nice and so was the carpeting. Lex told a man in uniform, "Pull down the bed," and turning to the man carrying him, "You can put him there."

The bed had nice sheets, Clark could tell that just from craning his head and looking at them. Linen or something. "No, really, I'm all dirty, I don't want to get it-"

Lex interrupted. "Put him there."


Lex watched as the staff went into the rear half of the plane and closed the door, then turned his attention back to Clark. He was awkwardly trying to turn on the bed, and Lex couldn't help but think of a turtle trying to right itself. He went to the cabinet and poured himself a drink, but taking his eyes off Clark only for the few necessary seconds. Clark had the same goal as that overturned turtle, it appeared, and was face down after a few minutes, then turning his face to the side as he lay on his stomach.

The boy's muffled voice interrupted his train of thought. "Lex? Are you still there?"

"Right here." He crossed to sit where Clark could see him, and made a few notes on the papers he had taken out again. Let Clark keep guessing what he wanted.

"I...I don't know what to say. `Thank you,' you know, it just sounds..."

"Inadequate?"

"Yeah."

Let's give him something to think about. He added a note of amusement to his voice. "Sixty million isn't that much to me, Clark. I only bargained as a matter of principle. And after all, I was so besotted with you, I'd probably have tried to give you twice that much in presents by now, if we'd stayed together."

That got him a wince. "'Was?'" Oh, looks like he might want to make up for lost time, Lex thought, his lips curving upwards.

"Time waits for no man, Clark."

"Yeah."

"Not that there still aren't matters between us, of course."

Clark tried to smile at him, in a pathetic shadow of the grin that once could have outshone the diamonds on any Metropolis dowager's throat. He closed his eyes and Lex took the chance to look more closely at him.

He wanted--and was surprised and angry at how deep the want went--to believe the ludicrous story about aliens and meteors, but it was as feeble as Clark's other inventions. The very preposterousness of the story marked it as Clark's. And everything that gave him cause to try to believe could be explained away. Clark's wasted state--window dressing. People went through ordeals on national television for a paltry one million. For, say, the thirty or more million that he assumed would be Clark's share of the payout, who knows what somebody would do to himself?

The elaborateness of the setup? A bit harder to explain but still eminently possible. A magician's misdirection. Just to return and ask for money would be a bit much. A more conventional kidnapping? They probably knew that LexCorp had enough hired muscle and other resources to find and get a captive out of nearly any facility except the best military ones. So this would keep him from trying to rescue Clark with anything but money. There was that postcard, as well, which indicated that Clark had left voluntarily and was staying away voluntarily.

And he still hated Clark for that. For drawing him closer, enchanting and fascinating him with what seemed like radiant honesty and goodness. For making him think that maybe he wasn't meant to be alone after all. For making him shed every bit of armor and stand naked of body and soul and heart in front of another human being. For making him believe again that he was capable of love. For making him believe again that he could be loved. Only to leave him. And now, to try to manipulate him.

"Lex?" Clark had opened his eyes again and was staring at him. Lex didn't know how much of his thoughts were visible on his face and quickly forced the calm mask back on. "Can I ask you a big favor? Would you, I mean, would it gross you out too much to look at my back? They implanted pieces of the meteor rocks there and maybe if they're sticking out or something, you could pull them out? They...they're hurting pretty badly."

"I'll take a look."

"Thanks."

Whatever they'd done to Clark's back, it had left it a mess. It reminded Lex faintly of photographs he'd seen of necrotic tissues after some kinds of snake bites. Lionel had made sure that Lex read those very closely when he'd visited Costa Rica. "Just keeping you aware of the dangers of the situation, Lex," he'd said, with mock gentleness. Another lesson he'd resented at the time but saw the point of now.

"There's nothing protruding from the surface."

"How...how would you think that I could get it out, then?"

"I'll get Toby to look at you when we're in Metropolis."

"Toby?"

"My very discreet doctor. The one who treated Kyle"

Clark's voice registered alarm. "Lex, I'd really, really rather not have a doctor."

Lex smiled and let Clark stew before responding. "First, he's discreet. Second, he knows that keeping me happy is in his best interest. Third, suppose that he does start talking about treating...an alien. Everybody would assume he'd been sampling his own goods."

"I guess so."

"Remember, Clark, you're in my hands completely."

"Yeah." Clark hadn't picked up on the hint of a threat, or thought that his manipulation of Lex was complete, as his sigh sounded almost contented, Lex reflected as he saw Clark's eyes close again.


Clark was fighting the urge to sleep, though he gave in on keeping his eyes open. He could still feel things that way, the comfortable bed, the clean sheets, and above all, Lex's presence. Lex wasn't close enough for Clark to smell him, but he heard the sounds of Lex turning papers and and more importantly, could sense that he was there, even sense the movement when Lex crossed his legs. He knew how unreasonable it was to think that if he fell asleep, he might lose these things, but somehow he was still afraid.

There was motion and suddenly Lex wasn't close by any longer. His eyes jerked open and he looked about. Okay, he was just getting another drink. The motion of the jet seemed to change and he asked, "Are we landing?"

"About twenty more minutes, I think. Then I'll take you to the penthouse."

"You don't have to...my parents...I don't want to be more of a bother than I've already been. Though that sounds pretty stupid, under the circumstances."

"No, Clark, I'm taking you there." On one hand, he didn't like the note of command in Lex's voice, it sounded almost like his business voice, but on the other hand, it was somehow reassuring to know that Lex was making the decisions. But there was the one thing he had to know but didn't know how to ask without sounding pathetic and needy and pushy and demanding and even ungrateful. Maybe wanting what he wanted was pathetic and needy and all the rest of it. But he had to know, instead of trying to guess.

"Lex...I know it's different now, but...if I were normal again, if everything was like it was before...would you still, well, want me?"

"That's an interesting question."

"I mean, I'm sure there have been other people..."

"Many other people. Why do you ask?"

"I...I was just wondering...nothing's like it was."

"Heraclitus said that you can never step in the same river twice."

"Hmmm? Oh, I get it, I guess, the river changes."

"The water keeps moving." He figured that was Lex's way of telling him that he'd moved on. He so did not want to cry again but couldn't help the tears coming to his eyes, as he wondered who else had moved on.

The jet was clearly descending and Clark felt his ears pop. Lex sat down again and buckled the seat belt. The descent became steeper and the roaring sound began to hurt his ears, so he raised his hands to cover them. It felt strange to be able to feel pain and do something about it. After a while in the facility, once they'd decided that he didn't know anything more than what he told them, they first tried to sedate him rather than implant the rocks, but that hadn't worked, any more than the painkillers they'd given him after the implants. Even if they had worked, it would have been somebody else controlling how much or how little pain he felt. After the jolt that indicated they'd landed and the plane stopped moving, Lex got up, went to what looked like a half-size wardrobe and gestured for him to get up.

"I can hardly let anybody see me carting you half-naked, even if it's just from the limousine to the penthouse."


Lex noticed that Clark was shivering again. Odd, that had stopped for a while.

"Wow, you have a change of clothes on your plane."

Lex smiled thinly. "You never know when you might need one. You're too tall still for the suit but the raincoat will cover you up." He raked his eyes up and down Clark's body but Clark seemed oblivious to the appraising glance. Clark stood up and Lex, after seeing how clumsily he still moved, held the coat for him. "If anybody looks closely, they'll probably think you're a flasher but nobody's going to get that close. Until we're inside."

"Hmmm?"

"Toby, of course." Lex let his voice's lightness border on mockery.

"Sorry, I'm...I'm not...I can't think real clearly..." Clark lowered his eyes and looked more wretched than before. One of the crew opened the door and Lex stepped outside, Clark following. Clark clung to the railing on the way down the steps and looked at the small airfield. "Where..."

"Just outside Metropolis."

A limousine pulled up across the tarmac and Lex set a brisk pace to it. When he looked behind, Clark was looking forlorn and Lex called back, "Carry him, would you?" Two men scooped him up by the shoulders and knees. In the car, Clark muttered, "Sorry...I...it's weird, for most of my life, I was stronger than anybody else and now...it's taking some time to get used to it..." As the car started to move, Clark looked at him plaintively. "Can I call my parents now?"

"No."

Clark actually had the audacity to look dubious. "Why not?" No, his look was bordering on petulant.

That was the last straw for Lex. He'd not lost his temper in years but some opportunities are just too good to pass up. "You started this game, Clark, and you just moved your pieces into my territory."

"What?"

"You aren't in control of this situation, Clark, even if my paying sixty million made you think you were. I'm a Luthor, remember? And we're willing to pay a lot for revenge."

"I...I don't get this. You came because...because you...you..."

"Shut up. Don't even dare to say it."

Clark winced and at the helplessness of the gesture, he wondered for a wild moment if Clark's story was true. That would change everything, particularly the target of his revenge. But it would mean...all those ingenuous glances when he probed for the truth, the evasions, even the righteous indignation, had been nothing but lies. Never more so than when Clark had said that he loved him and had shyly made love to him. Either way, Clark was lying to him now or had been before. Nobody did that with inpunity. Look at what had happened to Victoria. And a few dozen others along the way.

"But..."

"What did I tell you about shutting up?" Why were Clark's lips still slightly parted moving barely perceptibly, as though he were mouthing words he had to say, no matter what?


This was worse than anything he'd imagined. Lex's voice, his eyes, and the expression on his face of hate and contempt. And a well-hidden pain. If he hadn't learned, slowly, how to read Lex's face, he'd never have seen it there, but it was as obvious as though it were written there, in the tiny clenching of his lips, the way his eyes didn't quite want to meet Clark's for longer than an instant.

They'd not only taken away three years of his life, they'd taken Lex's love away and substituted a Lex who hated him and was hurting because of it. A Lex who was darkened. He wasn't just afraid for himself but for Lex. Whatever Lex did to him would only make him darker. He remembered that unsettling glee on Lex's face when Rickman had made him shoot him. He'd convinced himself them it was just Rickman's shadow but it had been difficult. Now, that darkness was there again, but even worse because there was pain underneath. Lex had obviously fought the part of him that didn't want to, that still cared about Clark--and he had conquered it.

He tried to imagine how he'd feel if things were reversed. Not good. But he'd not want to hurt Lex? Or would he? Maybe just a bit, at first. But if he knew that Lex hadn't left because he wanted to, and hadn't been trying to get anything out of him, and had always wanted to tell him...

"Lex..." The look he got as he spoke was as hard as though Lex had physically struck him. Clark dully wondered if that was what Lex was going to do, beat him, even torture him. Or maybe Lex was going to kill him. He didn't even know what he hoped for, since there was no way that he could hope for Lex to take him back to Smallville or care about him again. Wishes were another thing and he could feel them spilling over in a pile of wasted little "if only" fragments of dreams.

"I'll tell you when I want conversation." Lex turned his head to look out the tinted window.

The limousine pulled into a parking garage and Lex pushed a button. "Support him in as though he's drunk." The driver and another person in the front seat got out, opened the door, and hauled him out. Lex led the way past a doorman, who chuckled as Lex muttered, "Never agree to host a college student."

"In there," Lex said briefly to the men supporting him as the elevator door opened into the penthouse. He pointed. Clark looked up to see Toby, wearing the same scruffy leather, sitting on a couch made of much more polished leather, as they half-helped, half-shoved him into a dark bedroom.

"Toby, clear up whatever's wrong with his back."

"Hey, don't I know this guy?"

"You met him once a few years back. He's...changed."

"I'll say. What'd you do to yourself, kid?"

"There's something...embedded in my back. Green pellets."

Toby's hands were surprisingly light as they probed at him. "This is one gross situation."

"Always glad to get the professional medical opinion, Toby," Lex responded. Clark looked up to see him leaning against the wall and watching.

"Okay, lie down and I'll see what I can find, if somebody will give me decent lighting, not mood lighting." Lex casually reached out and flipped a switch, and Toby whistled as he looked more closely.

"There should be three of them," Clark added.

"Yeah, there are three areas where it looks pretty damn ugly. I'm going to start digging up what's in the center. Lex, I assume you really don't want me just throwing it on the carpet?"

Clark heard Lex's chuckle. "I'll get you a wastebasket." He didn't like the way that Lex emphasized the word, very faintly. He couldn't feel anything beyond more pressure in his back and was surprised to hear Toby mutter, "One down, two to go. Whatever this shit is, it's powerful stuff, that thing's not bigger than a grain of salt, and look at what it's done. Lex. You and your buddies aren't playing with chemical weapons, are you? What'd I tell you about war being bad?"

"You want to forego your usual payment, that's fine, I'd respect your hippie ethics."

"Heh. Milk the industrial complex, that's my motto." After a few more moments, "There's two. Come to Papa. Well, that's Lex, not me." He hadn't felt much when the first one came out, but with this one, Clark felt a strange warmth in his back, as though it had been asleep and was starting to regain circulation. "Now, come on, you crafty little mother, I know you're in there...okay, all out. Now, just got to slap a few pounds of disinfectants in there, wrap the mummy, and give you some good strong antibiotics."

Clark tried to move as he felt the last piece of gauze taped down, but Toby put a hand on his shoulder. "Uh uh uh, not finished yet." He felt something wet and cold on his arm and then Toby muttered, "Weird. Hey, kid, you got thick skin there. Just broke two of my needles."

He forced himself to think. "Ever since I was a kid. Some kind of skin condition."

"Fine, I'll get you some pills instead." After a moment's pause, "Here's a prescription, pal. How you doing on those other pretties I gave you?" Hmmm? Oh, Toby was talking to Lex.

"I've not complained, have I? Here's the usual."

"You know what I like about you? You never whine about paying. Not like some of these folks."

"Luthors always pay. And get paid."

Clark wondered if Toby heard the implied threat, as the other man paused before answering. "Stay cool, Lex. You, too, kid. Don't go lifting weights or anything like that for a few days." He heard the door to the bedroom close, and then the outer door. It sounded like Lex had seen Toby out. Experimentally, he tried to move, and found that it was much easier.

However, as he tried to move from the bed, he felt a wave of dizziness. His body was still slowed down. If he could get something to eat, and could keep it down, he suspected that that would be enough. If he could get to the kitchen, or if he could persuade Lex to give him something to eat, then he'd start to recover his strength, now that the meteors were no longer embedded in his back.

Hearing Lex return, he tried to turn over and sit up. Unexpectedly, he felt a chilly but dry hand helping him, and looked at the figure standing over him. Lex was holding a handgun, pointing it at his face.


Lex smiled as he saw Clark realize what he was holding. Taking his time, he moved the gun closer and closer to Clark's face, finally placing the muzzle against Clark's lips.

"Suck it, Clark." He kept his voice low, even intimate. "Just like you sucked me off that night." He turned his wrist a fraction of an inch so that the gun nudged suggestively at Clark's lips. "Now, Clark. Do it now." He twisted the gun again.

He lifted his eyes from the gun and Clark's mouth to meet Clark's own gaze.

Clark hadn't changed his methods a bit. The eyes that met him seemed to overflow with what he could only characterize as an expression of trust, and innocence, and love. Clark must think that he was still an infatuated idiot. Somebody who hadn't learned the lesson Clark had mercilessly taught.

"Do it, Clark." He lifted the gun away to slide it across Clark's cheek, then back to his mouth. Clark's eyes didn't leave his for an instant, or change expression. If anything, his face seemed to become more gentle, almost otherworldly, with the pale skin over the pure lines of the bones, and the eyes huge and almost, almost disarming.

Lex took a deep breath. "All right, then." He'd drop the elaborate plans. Finish it now so those eyes wouldn't look at him any more like that. He pulled the gun back, pointing it directly at Clark's right eye, withdrawing it slowly so that Clark would have the chance to stop, to flinch, to break that regretful, tender gaze.

It felt as intimate a moment of mutual surrender as when Clark had timidly, eyes lowered, blushing furiously, said that he loved him, and Lex had responded. He pulled the trigger, noting as he did the faint tremor of his hand.

There was nothing but a red mark on Clark's cheekbone, then nothing but a bullet popping into the air, and landing, flattened, on the bed. He saw that both he and Clark were looking at it, and he reached with his free hand to pick it up.

It lay in the palm of his hand, just barely cooled enough to touch, the point smashed flat. He turned it over with his thumb, then looked again at Clark. Now, Clark's eyes were finally lowered.

He put it and the gun down on the table and touched the faint red mark on Clark's cheek, not moving his hand even after he felt the heat of the bullet's impact. Every motion seemed as slow and stylized as a Noh play, or as though all the possible futures this moment could hold were material in the air around them, and each gesture had to push through them. Clark's hand rose to touch his, lightly cupped over the curve of his own hand.

"So it was true."

"Yes."

"But you...you still lied to me." Lex tried to regain some coldness, some harshness. Instead, his voice was plaintive.

"Forgive me, Lex." No words of excuse. No explanation. Just the request.

"Would you have told me the truth?" It felt as though these moments were made out of honesty. A final, naked honesty between them.

"Yes. I don't know when. But I always wanted to. From that first time I saw that my hiding it hurt you."

Lex found another grievance, as he frantically searched his mind for something to rekindle the anger and hate that had been part of him for so long. "You wrote to your parents. Not to me." If he had been so blind and so wrong for those years, then he was beneath contempt. Clark had taught him about trust, but not enough. Not enough.

"They made me. They dictated what I had to say. I was afraid that if I asked to write to you, they'd think that you were helping me. They threatened my parents. I was afraid that by mentioning you, I'd already put you in danger. I wasn't going to risk it." Clark's voice was slow and hesitant, as if he were translating from another language. "Those years...I kept thinking about you. I didn't know whether to hope that you still loved me or that you'd forget about me. I never dreamt you'd hate me."

"How could I not? It was as though...as though you'd reached deep inside me, only to rip me apart." Lex shook his head. "That's a melodramatic way to put it."

"If I'd known..."

"We could both say that." The amusement that nearly rose to his throat in a laugh felt as tangible and bitter as bile. If he'd known that Clark had been taken away from him, well, he might have still destroyed lives, but it would have been to reclaim what was his. He'd have let nothing keep him from rescuing his lover, and Clark's return to his life would have been redemption.

"Lex...do you still love me?" Lex recognized this as the final question that had to be asked for honesty between them. Easy to say yes. Wise to say no. Painful to tell the truth.

"I...I don't know." And now he had to ask. "Do you still love me?" He had no doubts about the validity of the question, no doubts that Clark had loved him.

Clark nodded slowly. "All I could do there was keep loving you. If I'm still sane, it's because I was able to keep loving you. You and my parents and my friends. But especially you. "

Lex flattened his hand against Clark's cheek, so every part that could touch even a fraction of Clark's skin was resting against it. Clark's own hand flattened against his. "I don't deserve that. Maybe then I did. But not now." If seeing love in Clark's eyes was agonizing, he knew he'd never withstand seeing the contempt that would come with comprehension of the kind of man he had become. Lex moved his hand from underneath Clark's and turning, left the room.

Lex forced his mind to think of the practical things. Take Clark back to his home. He still had the Kents' number memorized. The answering machine picked up, but he couldn't think of what message to leave. They must be outside, he decided, they weren't the kind of people who would let the machine screen their calls. All right. He'd do what he could to make Clark more comfortable, then try again.

Clark must be hungry. He went into the kitchen, picked up a glass, and then threw it against the steel door of the refrigerator. Of course Clark was hungry. They'd been starving him. If he had only had the kind of faith that Clark deserved--the kind of faith that Clark felt--he'd have rescued him before then. Before his gentle lover was a pathetic wraith. Before he himself had become--what he was. The reflection of his father.

That was all very well, but brooding wasn't actually tending to Clark. Kicking the shards of glass aside, he poured juice into another glass, and looked around the kitchen. No, just the juice for now, he didn't want to make Clark sick. Now that was another beautiful piece of irony. He should start a collection.

But for right now, Clark was still oblivious. He could take each moment left, memorize each tiny detail before he had to give it up for good. Each look from Clark, each gesture of trust and love, as though Clark were his mother, or Pamela. Somebody he'd loved with all his heart, and who died. The irony. Clark presumably couldn't die, but he'd killed everything in him that Clark had loved.

He carried the juice into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. "Do you think you can drink this? It's just juice." Clark nodded and Lex slipped an arm behind him to support him, then held the glass to his lips. Clark sipped and then gagged.

"Sorry. It's too...too rich."

He should have thought. "I'll water it down." He returned, and this time Clark was able to swallow.

"Better now?"

Clark nodded sleepily. Lex couldn't keep himself from smoothing the tangled hair away from his forehead.

"Don't...I must be pretty disgusting...it must have been weeks since I washed."

"Never disgusting." He wouldn't think of the irony there. "But would you like, no, not a shower yet, a bath?"

"God, yes." Clark's smile, still sleepy, curled in anticipation.

"Coming up." As Clark tried to get up, he put a hand on his shoulder. "No, stay there, I'll get it ready."

He ran warm water into the sunken bathtub and took clean washclothes, putting them on the side, opening a new cake of soap. The temperature was just a bit warmer than right, but it would cool by the time he got Clark in. It felt good to let these thoughts to Clark's comfort occupy all his mind.

Lex returned to the bedroom and saw Clark's expression change briefly as he tried to lower his legs over the side of the bed. He put one arm under Clark's knees, the other behind his back.

"Stop, I'm too heavy, you'll hurt yourself."

"You don't weigh much at all." Clark was extraordinarily light, even for being skin and bones. He wondered if Clark's body was less dense, perhaps a different bone composition.

He'd forgotten about Clark's clothing, the thin shorts, and as he carried him into the bathroom, lowered him onto the dressing bench. Clark laughed faintly as Lex crouched to help him.

"What is it?"

"Remember? That time I sat on that antique chair and it creaked and broke? You just laughed and said that they hadn't built for modern men....you went on and on about how much smaller people used to be, because you saw that I was embarassed. And then you showed me the armor, it didn't even come up to your shoulder, and said that was part of why museums put them on stands, so they'd look impressive." Lex recalled, all too clearly, Clark blushing and apologizing and frantically gathering the splintered wood, his distraught air.

He wouldn't let himself look at Clark's body. Not so much for Clark's sake but for his own. Some things, it would be better not to remember once they were lost. Resolutely, he helped Clark into the bathtub, rubbed the soap against the damp washcloth, and careful not to let his hands touch Clark's skin, lightly rubbed him with the cloth.

Just as well, he thought to himself, that he was crouching next to the tub, so Clark couldn't see the effect of his air of sleepy abandonment and tiny noises of pleasure as he lazily stretched under Lex's ministrations.

"Sit up straight, okay? Those bandages shouldn't get wet."

"'Sokay. It feels like they've healed."

Lex was about to say something dubious and then remembered that his track record with understanding anything about Clark hadn't been very good. He gingerly peeled back the adhesive tape holding the first bandage in place. Sure enough, the skin underneath was pink, faintly wrinkled, as though recovering from an injury, but definitely healed. Was that a hint of a smug smile on Clark's face, as if to say "Told you so?"

"Fast work, Clark." He kept a deliberately straight face, before realizing he was slipping into the old rapport. It was definitely a smile turning into a grin, and Clark lazily scooped a few drops of water into his hand and splashed him. "I mean, of course, fast work on the reversion into childhood." He couldn't take much more of this--a naked, wet Clark was one difficult thing, a naked, wet, affectionate, playful Clark was quite another.

He finished washing him, and got up to take the terrycloth robe from the hook on the wall. Clark looked ready to protest and Lex had to keep himself from either laughing at Clark's expression--surely Jonathan or Martha would recognize that pout--or screaming in frustration. "You need to get some sleep."

Even Clark couldn't disagree with that, and Lex helped him up and into the robe. His powers of recovery were remarkable; not only was he able to walk back into the bedroom, but he barely needed Lex's support. Just like the child he'd resembled earlier, he was sound asleep almost the moment he was in the bed. Lex looked at him for a long moment. So much could have been different.

Looking at Clark wouldn't make it any easier. He'd go call the Kents.


While Clark had slept, Lex had gathered what he'd need, sitting with his laptop in a corner of the room so that he could watch over Clark. When he thought it over, he was faintly worried by Clark's child-like responses, and wanted to be reassured that they were just the result of exhaustion and relief, not the lasting signs of trauma, either brain damage or emotional aftermath. After all, Clark had spent three years in the equivalent of prison and torture, and might well have become helpless. But then, there were still signs of that sturdiness from his earlier life that had been visible even through the moments of vulnerability or doubt. He had to hope that was true.

He also hoped fervently that the Kents would let him help Clark return to his life. Tutors to make up for the lost years, rather than put him through high school, three years older than his classmates and out of three years of the latest movies and music, confused by all the casual references of conversation. Metaphorically alienated as well as literally. Then college--if that was what Clark wanted. Once he knew where Clark would want to go, getting him admitted would be no problem that a generous check and letter to the administration couldn't solve. Also, a cover story for his disappearance. He lightly drummed his fingers on the keyboard as he thought of the various possibilities.

There was movement from the bed and he looked over to see Clark clearly bewildered, not quite understanding at first where he was or why, and then the signs of recognition pass over his face.

"How are you feeling?"

"Much better." He believed it, from Clark's eyes and voice, much closer to the Clark he'd known before.

"Something to eat?"

"Yes, please." And there was a hint of the old smile.

"In here or-"

"No, I want to get up." Clark took his arm just as a precaution as he got up, and followed Lex into the kitchen.

"Wow. Is this a real kitchen or one of those `kitchen of the future' things?"

"Real kitchen. Real food." Clark leaned over him as he opened the refrigerator. "What looks good?"

"What're those?" Clark was pointing to a bowl of Ranier cherries.

"Ranier cherries."

"Cherries are supposed to be red."

Fortunately, Clark was joking rather than genuinely confused. "Expand your horizons." He handed the bowl to Clark and seeing Clark's struggle to eat politely, turned back to the refrigerator.

"Soup?"

He got a muffled response and then a sheepish, "What kind?"

"Aspargus and corn with crab meat."

"That's not a normal soup."

Lex pulled the container out, poured the soup into a bowl, heated it, and firmly handed it to Clark. Clark didn't even wait for a spoon, but raised the bowl to his mouth and gulped, then lowered it, blushing. "Sorry, I...it just..."

"More?"

When Clark had finished another bowl, more slowly than the first, he looked sleepy again. But rather than give in to the temptation to send him to bed, to keep up the pretense that they had a future together, he said, making his voice light, "If you want, we can take some food with us, and you can sleep and eat in the car."

"Car? Where?"

"I just talked to your parents while you were asleep. They're waiting for you back home."


"Hello?" Martha was still outside. Jonathan prefered for her to answer the phone, and she didn't mind, just shook her head and looked at him when he let it ring, but she hadn't heard it.

"Clark is with me." Lex Luthor's voice. He couldn't think of a thing to say.

"He's sleeping now, but I'll bring him back once he's awake."

"Where are you? Where is he? Where has he been all this time? By God, if you've-"

Lex's voice cut over his, but jaggedly, not the usual smoothness. "It's a long story. I don't want to leave him alone. I'll call before we leave."

"Martha!" He shouted out the door and she came running. "It's Lex Luthor. He says Clark is with him."

"Where is he?"

"Phone."

"Lex? Where? Is he all right?" Jonathan couldn't hear Lex's words, but could guess from the effect on her face. Anxiety springing up again, as vivid as during the first days after Clark disappeared, and then faintly wiped away.

"All right."

"No, don't leave him alone."

"Yes."

A long pause, and a quiet, "Thank you, Lex." She hung up.

Clark was coming back.

He'd repeated that sentence and all its possible variations numberless times, in the numberless different shades of fear and pain. And now, finally, it was a simple statement of fact.

Jonathan and Martha instinctively moved together, clinging for comfort and solidity. The world had changed again, and the only constant was each other.

"I can't believe it. He's really, finally, coming back." He could barely hear Martha's words as much as he felt them against his chest.

"He's coming back." He'd finally said those words out loud.

"I...I wish I'd thought to ask what happened," she half-laughed.

"He'll tell us soon enough."

"God. I feel like he always felt at Christmas. When it was far away, it wasn't too bad to wait, but now that it's close, each second takes forever."

He saw in his mind's eye, as he knew she did, the excited, restless face, trying to be good and not ask yet another time how close Christmas is, but the question bursting out anyway, in a little explosion of child energy.

"Everything's changed so much. He'll probably feel lost at first." The plant had expanded. Lex had kept the plant operational but made it an experimental facility. The town now had more engineers and chemists and physicists and managers than farmers or shopkeepers. Fortunately, organic produce was fashionable enough that they'd done fine, unlike many people whose rents and taxes had gone up drastically with the increased property values. They'd done better than fine, in fact; not feeling the slightest qualm about nearly doubling their official prices for produce. Of course, old customers got the old prices. Those down on their luck paid just enough to let them keep their pride and share a laugh; they knew that "those newcomers" paid more.

"I'm glad we left his room just as it was. Though, God, he's nineteen now." He remembered the first time the day they'd picked as Clark's birthday passed. He'd tried to ignore it, but when he saw that she couldn't, he was furious with Clark. With Nell, who had come by, of course by coincidence, to boast about her perfect adopted niece's latest triumph. With himself, for caring so much still.

"He'll probably say that he's not a little kid any more." He didn't have to try to smile. An idiot grin was spreading all over his face. To hell with the fact that they didn't know where Clark had been or what he was doing or why. Fuck the fact that Lex Luthor had gotten his arrogant ass involved again. Clark was coming back.


Martha was closest to the phone when it rang again.

"Hello?" Jonathan could tell by the look on her face that it was Lex.

"Yes, we'll be waiting." He'd not seen that smile on her face for a long time.

"Thank you again, Lex."

The three hours dragged. It felt absurd to be sitting looking at one another and waiting, but doing anything seemed ridiculous, anti-climactic, absurd. He tried to turn on the television, tried to read, tried to talk about anything, but finally, just settled down to sit next to Martha, her head resting on his shoulder, holding hands tightly in her lap.

Seeing headlights approach and then pass by, he muttered, "There should be a law against that."

"Absolutely."

"Do we have any brownies?"

"I was going to send a batch to the Talon, but if you want some now..."

"No, I was thinking Clark would."

"Uhm hmm."

The three of them sitting in the kitchen eating brownies. He looked at his watch again. Three hours had passed. Probably there was traffic. If he decided that it would be another half-hour, then that would mean that he'd be pleasantly surprised. That was a good, sound policy.

Headlights approached and then pulled in. He and Martha almost stumbled over one another to get to the door, and the limousine had barely stopped before the door opened and Clark emerged.

So thin, so pale, but there. In their arms, finally, and holding on as though letting go was not an option. That was being a family, he thought with satisfaction, after a few minutes had passed, none of them said anything about going inside, they were just suddenly walking inside. Clark looked over his shoulder. "Lex? You coming?"

"In a few. You get settled in first." There was something final about Lex's voice. Damn. The boy might have made all the wrong decisions--and Jonathan couldn't help but think that that particular phase started after Clark had left--but he was sensitive, no, deferential enough, to leave Clark with his family for those first moments. And the look of tenderness on his face as he looked at Clark. Better not think about it. Just about Clark.

There was Martha, putting the milk carton in front of Clark. "No glass?" he asked, looking up at her.

"I thought you said it tastes better that way." Clark grinned.

"What happened, son?"

"I...got caught. some government agency, I'm not sure who. I was running and I guess they picked me up on radar or something. They...actually used a missile to shoot me down." Clark's eyes were haunted again, and they both moved closer to him, enveloping him. "It knocked me out, and when I woke up, I was in this...lab. They had this hydraulic press, they used it to hold me down. They knew who I was, they looked in my wallet. So I had to tell the truth. They...didn't believe me at first, but finally they did, but they didn't want to let me go, just in case. They made me write that postcard, and then they locked me up."

"What did they do to you?" Martha ran her fingers along his pale, emaciated arm.

"They wanted to keep me weak and so they...dug meteor pieces into my back." Some of Jonathan's rage must have shown on his face, as Clark added, hastily, "They didn't do it to...to be mean." He blushed at the childish phrasing. "They didn't try to do things that hurt, they said they had to. Just in case."

Martha spoke up again. "How did you get out?"

"One of them...well, when I was first there, I thought I could...if I told them that Lex would pay them if they let me go, they didn't, of course, but when I started getting really sick, he called Lex, said that he'd make a private deal."

"So Lex ransomed you?"

"Yeah." Clark's voice was awed. "Sixty million."

Jonathan saw his own reluctance mirrored in Martha's eyes. He didn't want Clark to learn what kind of a man his friend, his rescuer, had become. More ruthless and hated and feared than his father. Nothing good ever happened to his enemies and nothing bad was ever proven about him. Hard to believe that about the man who had rescued Clark, who was standing outside.

A huge yawn from Clark let him stop thinking about that. "You're exhausted, young man."

"Go to bed now," Clark was practically purring. The milk traces on his son's lips didn't help Jonathan keep images of cats out of his mind.

"We'll talk more in the morning." It wouldn't all be pleasant, but at least Clark was there again. The Clark they knew.

They walked him up the stairs to his room, again, without even speaking, just moving as a unit. He remembered tucking Clark in as a young child. If anything during the day had upset Clark, the world wasn't quite right again until they'd both kissed and reassured him. Sure enough, he didn't quite settle into the pillows until they'd both leaned down to kiss him. "You don't have to do chores until, oh, seven."

"Daaaad," Clark whined, laughing.

"Sleep well, son."

When they went back downstairs, Lex was still outside, leaning against the car. "Come in, Lex," Martha called, her voice warm.

The young man's face looked...pinched. Fish-belly white. He nodded tightly and, clutching two folders, came inside.

"Clark told us...you saved him. There's no way to thank you enough," she continued. They went into the kitchen and after she and Jonathan sat again, with a clear reluctance, he sat on the edge of a chair.

His mouth twisted. "Here's what I have in mind. I don't want him branded as the kind of kid who runs away from a good family, or you branded as the kind of parents who make a person like Clark run. The official story--and I can get it thoroughly documented--can be that he had a brain tumor. Benign, but it caused first a personality change, then increasing memory loss. That explains why he disappeared and never got in touch with anyone. He couldn't get a job any more, as his condition got worse, and was living on the streets. He finally collapsed and somebody took him to the hospital. They found the growth and took it out. Clark recovered his memory, though not what happened after the tumor started, and when he was able, came back. He didn't tell you before because he was uncertain about how he'd be received. That way, if anybody asks where he was or what he was doing, he can easily say that he doesn't remember." Lex's voice was so clipped and precise, it was at odds with the tender--no, loving--look at Clark before.

"Is that acceptable, Mr. Kent, Mrs. Kent?" It sounded as though he were making an offer on a buyout.

Martha nodded, but an expression of confusion on her face, as well.

"I hope you'll let me provide him with tutors to make up for the years he lost of high school. It would be particularly difficult for him to return, and that way, he'd also be likely to complete it faster than three years."

"And take the GED?"

"Yes. If you'll also let me help with college admissions and tuition, I'd appreciate it."

"After sixty million, quibbling over that seems...petty." That was not at all what Jonathan had meant to say.

Lex nodded curtly. "That's in this folder, then." He put it on the table and then paused. "This second folder--copies of press clippings. It will be easier for him to find out that way, I think, than to hear from me or from you."

"Clippings?"

"About me." He got up. "You were wrong about me, Mr. Kent. You always thought I'd turn into my father." He paused and smiled bitterly. "I've become worse. And I know it." His eyes challenged them to contradict him. "He knows, by the way, that I didn't rescue him out of benevolence. I did it for revenge. On him. I slept with your son the night before all this happened. I thought he'd run away from me. I was going to make him pay for that. It turned out, of course, that he didn't. That doesn't matter now. Don't worry, I won't come near you or your son again. The sooner he's relieved by that, the better." He rose, pushing the second folder across the table, and turned to the door.

Jonathan was there before him. Blocking the way. "Coward."

That earned him a flash of anger. "One of the few charges that can't be laid against me, Mr. Kent."

"It's the worst charge that can. You're too much of a coward to try to change. Scared of trying and failing? Hmmm?" He couldn't believe he was saying and doing this. Or he could, rather. He just couldn't believe why.

"All right, I'm scared--but only of hurting your son." A chilling, almost menacing smile. "The one person in the world I'd actually mind hurting."

"You can't fool me. If you were a real man, if you had guts instead of money and a sneaky little mind, you'd march yourself right up those stairs, wait for him to wake up, and tell him to his face everything you've done. And then you'd make yourself change. God knows what it is about Clark, but he can make people change. Become better. Become more human. But that's too hard for you, isn't it? So you're running away. Isn't that what a coward does?"

Lex's lips were almost as white as his face. "Don't talk to me like that." Jonathan felt the rush of adrenaline. If Lex weren't shaken, he'd argue, not try to give orders.

"I suppose you aren't used to anybody telling you the truth about yourself." As Lex took a step forward, as if to push his way past Jonathan, he focused all his force of will. "I saw how you used to try to prove yourself to me. You failed, Lex, failed each time. Lost every battle. But all you have to do to win the war is go upstairs. You can't do even that. As I said, you're a coward." This was the one moment. The moment when the game would be won or lost. He stepped away from the door.

Lex's eyes dropped. Martha silently rose and stood near him, almost but not quite within arm's reach. "Go up, Lex." He raised uncertain eyes to hers. "Go up. You can do it." Taking a tiny step closer, she raised a hand and placed it, infinitely gently, against the side of his head. He jerked away from the gesture, and Jonathan felt a surge of resignation. They'd lost. Then, as he watched, Lex turned his head to look at the staircase, then slowly, silently, walked up the stairs.



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