The Stranger's Always You

by Basingstoke

A million thanks to jacquez h. valentine for the kickass beta and to Livia and the spike for finishing touches.

The Stranger's Always You.


You wake up at six with a queasy stomach--you forgot why you don't eat pizza or drink Coke any more and had both with Clark last night. You expected Clark to eat more than his share, but then he bolted and left you with the bulk of it.

You lie in bed, wondering what that tapping noise is, until you realize the wind is blowing the seedhead of a vine against your window. You can't recall seeing a vine there before, but then, you haven't opened that window since the weather turned hot in May and your current gardener is a little giddy at the freedom allowed by Luthor money.

Last night you dreamed that your father shot you in the heart. You clutched your chest and found it was a seed. The seed sprouted, sending roots into your flesh and tendrils of vine over your skin. Morning glories bloomed, nodding at your father, as your breath slowed from the poisonous seed.

You rub the stress out of your forehead before you stand up. You stretch; you shrug into your bathrobe; you cross the hall to your office.

You grab water and peppermint Tums from the fridge and alternate them as you turn on the computer. It makes the queasiness worse at first, but you grimace and fight it down. Control over the body is nearly as important as control over the mind--that's from your father's second book.

You have some spam--you are briefly tempted to enlarge your breasts two cup sizes--an announcement from an old acquaintance about a show of his paintings in Metropolis, some hysterical email from the two-man K-State "Earth First!" group--apparently the earth will swallow the factory whole and the punish you personally if you don't immediately cease operations--some notes from Gabe on plant business, and at least a dozen vacation announcements. Sarah from Accounting will be gone on Tuesday. Jerry the sysadmin will be gone the whole week and questions should be directed to his minion Brett--and Jerry himself used that word; you consider blocking from the company network in retaliation. You also consider filtering vacation announcements straight to the trash until you hear your father's voice in your head once again: "No information about your business is useless."

You should never have listened to his books on tape. Even though they're useful. Especially because they're useful. You're starting to feel like your father is colonizing your mind.

You hope someone will shoot you if you buy a long brown wig. You make a mental note to speak to Alvaro, your butler slash housekeeper slash henchman, about that. He'd understand...and he has good aim.

You remember your dream--it's already fading. You remember that the flowers smelled of your father's cologne. You remember, faintly, that smell as your father carried you from...from...a place you can't recall. You remember only the smell of your father's coat and the scratch of the wool against your cheek. You wonder how old you were then.

You remember your father pulling you into his arms in front of the plant. you were too startled and it was too public to pull away. He smelled exactly the same.

You go take a shower around seven. You think about Clark. You didn't mean to scare him. It's amazing how little time it takes to fuck things up with a person.

It takes an unsatisfyingly short period of time to get clean, so you sit down on the warm tile, rest your hands on your ankles and your forehead on your knees, and practice clearing your mind; you try simply feeling the water and not thinking.

You jerk awake when your shoulder sags against the tile. You were never very good at meditation.

You don't get dressed right away. It's Saturday, you're not expecting anyone, and the staff is used to seeing you in your bathrobe. Still, you feel like you're getting away with something, like you're playing hooky. You wonder if it has something to do with school; you still get occasional short sharp shocks of panic--"what are my assignments? what am I doing? I forgot to turn something in!"--even though you've been out of school for eight months now. Of course, you were in school for sixteen years straight. You forgive yourself for your lapses of memory.

You haven't had a summer off in five years. You wander down the hall with your hands stuck in your pockets trying to remember what you used to do in the summertime. You come up with Nintendo and reject that as a colossal waste of time these days. You remember making cherry bombs with your chemistry set and smile to yourself.

Once--once--you dropped a cherry bomb into a toilet at the Metropolis house and gave your father the drenching of his life. The spanking you got left you standing up for days, but it was worth it.

You grin, remembering that, and end up in the media room.

The empty pizza box is still there, as are the soda cans. The DVD box rests on top of the TV cabinet. It was comfortable...Clark, pizza, talk about girls...until you suggested a movie. You picked "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" because you like it and Clark hadn't seen it--still hasn't. There was no hidden message! But Clark bolted as if the Devil himself had risen up out of the earth.

This reminds you of your email, and you imagine the earth swallowing you whole; you picture a tongue the size of a football field and jagged stalactite teeth.

You're restless. Your stomach feels better, so you go for a jog around the garden.

You had a gravel pathway put in for precisely this reason. You loop around the house twice, smelling the sweetness of the flowers and the allergenic tingle of a pollen-spewing tree. You do this three or four times a week. You take pleasure in keeping fit; you were a short, plump child and you still haven't gotten over the pleasant surprise of growing into a medium-sized, athletic young man. Your body stopped fighting you quite abruptly the summer that you turned sixteen. You grew like a weed, more than two inches that summer, and the baby fat melted away. The acne followed the fat, mostly, though the freckles stayed. You stopped tripping over your own feet.

That was when your father started talking business and hired a fencing coach. That was when Victoria stopped teasing you and started rubbing against you. It was a good summer.

That was also the summer that Lana Lang caught you skinny-dipping with Nina Worley. You would blush, if you were a blusher.

This is Clark's sixteenth summer. He's already grown, but he doesn't seem to realize it. Perhaps this will be the year he blossoms. You'll enjoy seeing it--if he lets you.

You loop around the house twice and then veer into the arbor, where you have hurdles set up, seven of them in a row. You've always enjoyed jumping. Even when you were short you had long legs.

You don't see the things on the other side of the fourth hurdle until you land on them.

You stumble, fall and roll into the fifth hurdle, which topples as it's meant to. You don't try to stand as there's a god-awful sensation in your foot--a deep feeling, a wrong feeling.

The dew-laden grass soaks your sweats. The skin of your sole has a hot, taut tingle that promises buckets of pain. You pant--shocked, but not in shock. You look at the house.

Your arm throbs. You've fallen on more of those things that you stepped on.

Alvaro is running over the grass shouting "Lex!" He saw you from the window. He cares.

The pain swells up through your foot and the tears prick your eyes then--a natural reaction. You're not as hard as you'd like to be. "Jesus," you whisper, because you have to say something about the pain, and then you say "Be careful--there are more," to Alvaro.

"Oh, my God, that thing--don't move, I will call the police and the doctor." He touches your knee and you simply nod.

You think it's called a caltrap. Or possibly a caltrop, because a caltrap is a piece of hiking gear, you think--but whatever they're called, what they are are four nails welded together so that one will point up, no matter which way it lands.

One of these is buried in your foot. Another is stuck in your arm. There are police investigations and tetanus boosters in your future, but right now, there's just a great deal of pain, and the constant question of why people hate you this much.

You try not to be maudlin, but it's been a very difficult 24 hours.


Your shoulder throbs from the tetanus booster and your forearm throbs from the bent-nail booby trap. You still can't remember whether it's caltrap or caltrop, but that's all right, because the question lets you think about something other than feeling sorry for yourself.

Your foot is thankfully numb. You've had X-rays and a thorough cleansing and bandaging; you're having some orange juice and waiting for the police.

You fucked things up royally last night. By accident, but it really won't matter.

You were tired. Clark took you by surprise with the pizza and soda--he dropped by unannounced. You forgot why the DVD was lying out in the open. You opened the case and there were Nixon's photos.

You salvaged the photos from his camera. You should have put them in the safe with everything else, but you didn't; you had them out, were looking at them when you had a visitor; you stuffed them in the DVD case and left it out to remind yourself to put them away.

You've been distracted these days. The town, the plant, your best friend the alien. Careless--you've been so careless. "Care separates the successful from the failed," your father said in his first book. "The successful businessman is never too busy to check the details."

Clark took off running and left you with most of the pizza. You ate the pizza to stop yourself from chasing him.

You close your eyes and wonder who your enemies are. You wonder who your friends are, too. Things are in flux.

You smell blueberries and dirt. "Lex?"

"Yes?" You open your eyes. "Mrs. Kent?"

"How are you feeling?" she asks you. She's standing in the doorway, crushing her purse between her body and the door frame. She's dressed in threadbare jeans and a blue Metropolis University t-shirt. Her fingernails are dirty, as if she washed up quickly but didn't have time to scrub.

"I've been better.... I suppose you heard what happened."

She nods. She looks at you for a long moment and then she steps into the room and closes the door. She sits in the chair beside the bed and looks you in the eye. "Both things that happened."

She's angry. You can feel it humming off her skin like an electrical field. "Clark has a key," you tell her. "The photographs are--right where they were last night. If you want them, you can come and get them. I'll be in bed for the rest of the day."

Her eyebrows flicker downwards. "How long have you known?"

"I've known for two months, since the tornado. I've suspected ever since the crash. I couldn't get a straight answer out of Clark, so I had him investigated; it backfired, and for that I'm very sorry."

"That reporter."

"Yes. I got the pictures from his camera. It survived the tornado better than he did." Sometimes honesty is the best policy. That's one lesson you've learned on your own. There is nothing of your father's voice about it.

Her hands clench her purse. "Don't you dare hurt Clark," she says, low and furious. "Don't even think about it."

"Mrs. Kent!" Pain flashes up your arm when you move it; you were going to grab her arm, but give up halfway. "Dammit," you whisper. She glances down to the bandage on your arm.

You hitch yourself up on the pillow. You look her in the eye. "I will not bring Clark any harm," you say. "To the best of my ability, I will keep him from harm."

You slump back. She closes her eyes for a moment. "I know this is all very strange--" she says--

"No! It's incredible," you burst out, because you have two computers at home doing nothing but running Seti@Home and because you have a complete run of Warrior Angel and because you've never really believed in the X-Files versions of aliens and because you really, truly love "Close Encounters" and you wanted to share it with Clark.

Mrs. Kent's brow furrows and she looks hopeful and scared all at once, and you tell her, "This is even cooler than the jet-car that Bruce built," because that's all you can think to compare it to. Bruce Wayne fastened a small jet engine to a race car; it goes 600 mph, albeit for very short distances.

Mrs. Kent laughs, short and sharp. She clasps her dirt-engraved hand to her mouth and her shoulders shake. "Lex," she says, "I always forget you're just a boy."

You shake your head and smile. She smiles back with tears in her eyes. "I'm a Warrior Angel fan, I admit it. I'm thrilled. I always knew they'd be like Clark," you say.

She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. "I believe you."

You're trying to put things into words--that you value Clark as a friend, that you care deeply about him, that you don't want to exploit him or his gifts--but you can't find any words other than your father's. Value. Exploit. Invest. Interest. You don't think those words will help. This isn't an area your father knows much about.

You try to summon your mother's words, but the cops arrive and Mrs. Kent leaves.

Then you find out that the caltrap-caltrop booby traps are not nails but sharpened tree roots, and you find out that the plant is encased in vines that weren't there yesterday, and you tell them about the Earth First! emails you've been getting for the past few weeks, and then they send you home with a 24-hour police guard.

Alvaro and Hess are arguing about security. You take a pain pill and go to bed.


You wake up tied to the bed. Vines or roots are threaded through your windows and doors and woven over the sheets. The room smells sharp and green and a little metallic, like blood.

You call out: "Alvaro?" You get no answer.

You lay quietly, fighting off shivers of claustrophobia. You used to have dreams like this when you still lived in your father's house, except then you were tied into your father's hair. You've often wondered what dreaming of your father's hair means. You suspect it's phallic. Most symbols lead back to sex somehow.

When you dream of Clark, it's almost always a flying dream. You fly over Smallville as you did when you were dead, hand in hand with Clark.

A root tickles your cheek and you jerk your head away. You should have seen this coming. In Metropolis they shoot you or stab you or try to run you over with their car--or your own car, for that matter. In Smallville they freeze you or infect you with radioactive pollen or set creepy telepathic children to try to read your mind. You can't decide which you prefer. There's a blandness to aggravated assault, but there's a terror in lurking mutants. Since moving here your stress level has gone through the roof.

You wonder if Clark will appear this time. You wonder if he's still running.

The sun shines aggressively through the forced window. The air conditioner is no match for a 100-degree Kansas afternoon and your body prickles with sweat. You wish you could kick off the covers. The roots move slowly, like earthworms on laudanum; the sharp smell fades into dusty earth and sweet sap.

You think of your dream again, but the vines smell nothing like your father. More like Clark--dry wine and hay.

Then Clark is there, all in a flash. He rips the roots from your body. They writhe like animals. You think you can hear a scream outside.

He shoves a bottle of whiskey into your hands. "Alcohol hurts them. I'll be right back," he says. He dives out the window.

You sit up, kicking the bedclothes and root fragments around, and you douse the sheets in whiskey. Your arm and leg throb distantly. The roots wriggle and recoil. You hear shouts outside--shouts and a crash. Splashing and more shouting. A scream, and the roots shrink backwards out the window and down the hall.

Clark walks back into the room a few minutes later. "Hi," he says. He stands by the bed with his arms folded over his chest, clutching the opposite elbow. He shifts from foot to foot.

"Hi," you say.

"The roots came from his fingers. I had to--kind of--break his arms," Clark says quietly.

"Good solution," you say. Clark looks at you sharply. "I mean it," you say.

"I try--" Clark's voice collapses into a sigh. "I want..." He looks at you and his mouth presses shut, lips sliding over each other as he makes faces instead of words. He shifts from foot to foot.

You have to catch him before he runs. You know that look. If you let him go, things will become strained and you'll lose him.

Your father's words aren't good enough--value, partnership, synergy. Your mother's words are hard to remember--love? and trust? and comfort?

You try to find your own words. "Clark, I'm--I'm not a racist."

Clark looks at you, eyebrows shooting toward each other, startled and puzzled.

"I'm your friend no matter where you're from."

Clark is silent.

"And I really want to see your spaceship."

And Clark cracks; he giggles, sounding a little embarrassed and a lot relieved. "Lex! That sounded like the world's worst come-on. Why not just ask about my etchings?"

"Cut me some slack, I'm medicated," you say, falling back into the bed. You feel around for your pillow.

Clark picks up the pillow from the floor. "What, exactly, are you on?"

"Percocet." You raise your head and he puts the pillow underneath it.

"Oh, the good stuff," he says. "Are you going to be a beat poet now?"

You arch an eyebrow at him. "You know, I thought you'd be smaller and greener."

"I thought junkies wore more leather."

"You ought to have a ray gun and a robot."

"You ought to have a tattoo."

"Shouldn't you be phoning home, ET?"

He slaps your shoulder lightly. He's still giggling as he runs out of the room.

You go back to sleep. When you wake again, you'll visit the Kents and give them the data you've collected. You know it's the right thing to do, but you're still nervous; you're fairly sure that Jonathan Kent won't cold-cock a wounded man, but you're not 100%. You suspect that Martha Kent will regard you with judging eyes for quite some time.

You know that Clark Kent is your friend, and that makes everything else worth the price.

Damn. There's your father's voice again.


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