AN: For this, I was experimenting with a very episodic style, and frankly I don't know if it works as a long piece, especially since it involved so many changes of focus and direction. So if disjointed isn't a style you love, probably this isn't of much interest! ;-)
(Yes, I KNOW that if I went back and edited and rewrote, it might work as a long fic, but since as a freelance writer, I do fics just for the sheer joy of NOT having to edit and rewrite and generally fix things up for publication, that's not really an option. And ordinarily my Author's Notes aren't defensive, honest, honest, I just don't want anybody ending up feeling they wasted their time with this because they liked the start and not the end, or something like that!)
He had the helicopter take Lex to the Metropolis hospital. The boy's mother would meet him there while he finished up his business. He'd be discreet about it, the tabloids had been screeching lately about him. Newspapers for the failures to hate the successes.
He snapped his way through the meetings and stalked out. Driving back in the pathetic rented car, he wondered how Lex was taking the situation. His young son's mind was as incisive as his--a pleasure to mold--when it came to abstract problems on the chess board or a war game, but woefully inadequate about real world decisions. Cared too much about the other consequences. Was scared too much by them. *I hope this doesn't make him worse.*
A flash of motion alongside the road caught his eye. Some animal or another was racing the car. What on earth that fast and small grows in Kansas? He pressed on the accelerator and the creature kept pace. Got to see this. He raised his foot and as the car slowed, the figure changed its pace. *Can't be.* He pulled the car to a complete stop and the youngster bounded over, laughing up at him. The bright eyes were bold and confident.
Without even thinking, Lionel Luthor opened the door and the boy clambered in. "Who are you?" He was answered with a bright smile but nothing else, the same response he received to each question. *Now what? Well, sitting here won't do anything.* He resumed the drive, watching the boy gaze about with curious eyes.
"Hey, careful!" While Lionel had been watching the road, the kid had started playing with the lighter. He'd stuck a finger in, but was giggling instead of nursing a burnt finger. Lionel frowned, watching as the child repeated the action. Must be broken. He held out a hand and the boy obediently handed this new toy to him. *No, it's hot.* He looked more closely at his passenger. *I don't know who or what you are, but I think you're mine now.* With the stiffness of one unused to gestures of affection, he stretched an arm out, and the boy confidently cuddled close.
"Of course I want him! I just want to make sure that Lex doesn't feel that we got a substitute while he's in the hospital, or that this little guy doesn't feel that when Lex comes home, he'll be replaced!" Lionel watched in satisfaction as his wife jogged the boy up and down on her lap.
"That's settled then. I can push the adoption through immediately."
"What do we name him?" She contemplated the child as though she thought she'd find it written somewhere on his face. She paused, then looked at her husband cautiously. "Clark?"
Clara was the name she had chosen for the girl she had miscarried. He'd become firmer about her grieving, insisting that if they had another, she'd, if not forget, find the edges of the pain dulled. *It's a start.*
"Clark...and for a middle name, let's see...Clark...Clark...Lawrence, no...Leon."
"Clark Leon Luthor," she repeated, smiling at the boy who grinned up at her.
"Good idea. In fact, just what he needs. Not that I'm criticizing, of course, but I think he's become too, how should I put it, dependent on you. And God knows I have enough demands on my time."
*What's wrong with what you said? Let me count the ways. Since you don't hear even yourself any more.* "This one looks the best to me. One of the best reputations academically and I liked the principal when I called and asked to speak to her." Lillian Luthor handed a booklet to her husband, who glanced at the glossy cover and added it to one of the piles on his desk. Plus he can enroll at the semester. "I'll talk to him about it today, then. Once you've taken a look."
"Good idea." Sensing that she wasn't going to leave the subject yet, Lionel picked up the booklet again and leafed through it. His inspection was all but cursory. "I'm sure you've made the right decision."
"Lion, what about the fires?" She used the cajoling nickname for the first time in weeks.
"He's learning how to control it." *Cruelty to animals, fire-setting, well, at least Clark's never wet the bed. Or I'd be looking for a book on Parenting Sociopaths 101. But they wouldn't have an edition specifically for Parenting Sociopaths with Paranormal Powers. I don't think.* Her father had been a crime reporter and she remembered his telling her about the three classic childhood signs of a sociopathic personality. She'd never thought then that she'd be wondering how they applied to one of her children. "I'm proud of him. After all, the temptation to make everything go up in flames has to be huge for a kid his age." Lionel chuckled at his thoughts.
"Did you ask Dad?"
"He said it would be a good idea."
"Good." She hadn't known whether she dreaded seeing relief or unhappiness on his face more but this quiet near-indifference was worse than either. "When do I go?"
"They can get you in this February, at the beginning of the semester. Your tests were just fine."
"I'll miss you, Lex." She sat down on the bed next to her son and kissed his smooth head. For a few moments, the tension that never left him, even in sleep, eased and he clung to her, but at a sound outside, he returned to that strange immobility of face and posture.
School is going well. I'm shifting some of my classes, moving up in Math and Chemistry and down in History. I was doing okay, but I just missed some of the background for the track. I don't mind, Ancient History is interesting and the teacher is really good. Even if he looks like he was an eyewitness.
This place is a retirement home for animals! All the horses are retired racers and the dogs are retired greyhounds and police dogs. I'm allergic to the horses, though, which sucks.
I'm learning how to fence in gym class.
We're supposed to do a service project each semester but I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the river cleanup this time and the otter rehabilitation next time. They don't let you repeat. Otter rehabilitation sounds like we have to tell them to straighten up or they'll end up in jail but it's really taking care of ones that got hurt by boats or something.
I have to go now--dinner. Can't wait, yum yum. (Just kidding.)
"Dear Principal Buchanan,
I'm slightly concerned about my son, Lex. He writes regularly and seems to be enjoying school, but he doesn't mention any friends. I hope this is just the normal teenager wish to keep a wall between friends and family (after all, we parents are generally embarassing to the human species and our kids in particular!) but I want to make sure. Can you tell me how he's fitting in?
Thank you for your time,
"Dear Mrs. Luthor,
Thank you for writing.
We've noticed some social tension in Lex's interactions with other students, as you'll find in the notes from his teachers. Ordinarily we don't send these out until the end of the first six weeks, so we ask you to remember that they reflect the awkwardness of settling in.
`Lex is unusually bright but standoffish. He much prefers the role of an onlooker to that of a participant in all activities except for solo projects. Some insecurity from his physical appearance?'
`Fourteen going on a cynical fifty!'
`Formed close bonds with seven out of the nine campus dogs, closing the gap with the other two and the campus cats. Skills don't translate to human species, snubs peer attempts at friendliness.'
`His peers accord him a cautious respect.'
Much of this, as I stated above, is likely the effect of settling in. Sometimes the brightest students--and your Lex is undoubtedly one of those--have the most difficult time in this. If he doesn't form bonds by March, we can provide counseling.
Thank you and please don't hesitate to call or email if you have any questions or concerns.
Principal, Grange School
Dear Mrs. Luthor,
As you requested in our conversation, we've started counseling for Lex. However, he makes it clear that he fiercely resents it. He has an unusually strong need for privacy and considers the counselor's efforts to be an encroachment.
I'd like to discuss this situation with you and with his father, particularly as I consider that persevering with counseling is far more likely to hurt rather than help matters.
Please let me know when is a convenient time for you.
Well, sure, I <bold>can</bold> tell you about the other kids here, but you used to tell me that if I can't say anything nice, I shouldn't say anything at all. Your choice!
Ooops, I guess I just said something. Oh, I could just cut my fingers off!
I've not figured it out exactly but the proportions are something like: Just plain stupid, around 58.6 percent. Snob, 21.07 percent. Trying too hard to get connected to a Luthor, 93.18 percent. Everybody falls into at least one of those.
But classes are pretty good. And freshman year we get to do independent studies.
Retired greyhounds are the coolest dogs. We're not supposed to let any of them in our rooms but the dorm proctor and I reached an arrangement.
I really like history class. The teacher, Mr. Del Amato, talks all about patterns in history and how things repeat when the circumstances are right. He and I got into a great fight, well, not fight, but great debate about whether there's such a thing as inevitability. I don't think there is; everybody has a choice at some point, don't they? And then there's chance and random things. He gave me a great story by Ray Bradbury, about a butterfly and dinosaur hunts. You like Bradbury, don't you? I bet you know the one I'm talking about, I forgot the title and I'm too lazy to go get the book!
*And not a word about the counseling. It's not that he's really lying to me. But...* Lillian turned the computer off and went into the library. Clark was sprawled across the sofa, stomach down, feet hanging over the edge.
"Giant." She bent over and tousled his dark hair. "You're taller than your dad now. His legs don't reach that far."
He looked up and grinned. "Can't wait for the next family picture."
"Do you have to remind me? Those poor photographers!" When it came to anything related to the family image, Lionel could make Leona Helmsley and Martha Stewart look insouciant.
"Well, it's important. Dad explained how it overflows into the business image and the political image, too. Those lobbyists aren't trying to convince a politician to do something that would get in LuthorCorp's way, but to interfere with a family man," Clark elucidated with all the earnestness of a ten-year-old helping to clarify the world to a beloved but naturally slow-witted and behind-the-times parent.
Lillian heard the murmur of a voice through the door and smiled in relief. She couldn't hear the words but her son's voice sounded casual and relaxed, even lazy. She knocked lightly.
Lex was in bed and not alone. In fact, he was underneath his companion. "Hi, Mom. This is Daniel. And this is, I think, an emergency backup Daniel," he added, indicating the piles of fur on the bed. The German Shepherd blinked peacefully at her and nudged Lex with his nose to indicate that whatever Lex might think, petting time was not yet over. Lillian rolled her eyes and bent over to kiss Lex.
Lex looked at her with a tiny frown creasing his smooth brow. "Have you been dieting or something? You look thinner."
"It's nothing to worry about, Lex, but I've..." As she paused, Lex sat upright and the dog, sensing the atmosphere in the room, whined faintly and nosed his hand.
"It's perfectly treatable and not advanced, but I've got leukemia." She sat next to him on the bed and put an arm around his tense shoulders, watching the lines of his throat and collarbone become rigid. "I'm going to the Mayo Clinic for treatment this week, and I wanted to tell you myself rather than call."
"You're going to be okay?" His voice, at sixteen a confident, liquid baritone, shook.
"They say I've got excellent chances. It's early and I'm in good physical condition overall. They're giving me a full marrow transplant and radiation."
"Can I come with you?" The question was a whisper.
"I don't think it would be a good idea." *I'd have to be strong for both of us and I don't think I can. How can I be so scared and sound so calm? I'm not even scared for me. God, don't make me leave my boys. No, I'll admit it to myself at least. It's Lex I'm scared for. Clark has Lionel. And ever since...that day...Lex has only had me. I love them both so much. But Lex needs me.* "I'd love you have your company, darling, but when they give me the radiation, I can't even be near anybody."
Lex stared blankly at the floor.
"They said they'll let you take the two weeks off, go home and stay with Dad and Clark."
Lillian felt her heart tighten as he looked at her with steady, sincere eyes. "I don't know, we'd just get one another more worried. If I can't go with you, then I'd probably better stay here, have other things to think about, keep busy."
*My poor Lex, you're lying. You don't want to go home, not to them. God, why do you have to make life so hard on us, if we're your children?* "All right. And it looks like Daniel needs another solid week of brushing."
"I never thought I'd actually buy a hairbrush. Life is full of new experiences." A tiny, tight smile curved his lips as he tried to match her confident tone.
Helena Buchanan often broke the rule about never touching a student, though when she did let herself slip, she made sure that there was always another adult present. *He's so brittle that if I hugged him, he'd break. Shrapnel kind of breaking. Or seeing something shatter after it's been put in liquid nitrogen.* She'd told Lex as gently as she could that his father was sending a helicopter to take him to the nearest airport, where he'd be picked up by a jet. His mother had only briefly responded to treatment. He had looked outside for an instant, then nodded. Even while they were waiting in the sports fields, he hadn't lost his composure for an instant, not a tear escaped. *I could push him into some kind of emotional reaction. But he'd disintegrate.*
A few of the other students watched as the helicopter began its descent. Some of the kind ones waved as Lex climbed aboard. If he noticed, he gave no sign.
"She's not conscious, Lex." His father's voice held a hint of reproof as Lex took the nearly transparent hand in his and said, "Mother? It's Lex."
Clark watched the interaction through his half-lowered lashes. "She was awake earlier. She might wake up for you."
"GodDAMMIT!" Lionel roared as his eye caught a reflection from outside. Both boys jerked upright and he muttered, "Photographer. Through the goddamn window. Vultures. Goddamn vultures." *She's not even dead yet. And they're already looking for some part of our souls to put on display. But they won't see a single one of us crying. That, I won't let them have.*
"Mother? Mom?" Lex's voice was controlled but Lionel, hearing the shudder underneath, moved to stand between him and the window. Lillian had asked him not to close the shade; she wanted to see real light.
If only death would take bribes. Everybody else does. But then there was nothing about her that I ever could have bought. It was all a gift. But not one I got to keep. Lionel looked around the room and saw the watch sitting on the table. She'd wanted to give it to Lex herself. She had been able to give Clark his gift, a ring with an ancient sapphire intaglio carving of Castor and Pollux. Castor was born mortal, though his brother had inherited their father's godhood. Rather than be separated, when Castor died, Pollux chose to share that death so Castor could share his immortality.
Flashbulbs seemed to explode with light as the Luthor family left the hospital. The "money shot," it was universally agreed afterwards, was of the adopted son, moisture turning his eyelashes darker still, lips faintly parted, as if still in bewilderment at his loss. Lionel Luthor's hand, which had been touching Clark's shoulder, was carefully airbrushed out, to make him look more isolated. The perfect aspect was the eyes, which seemed to look up in a timid plea. "I can hear the world saying, `Awwwwww'," said the editor in satisfaction as he approved the final layout.
Jonathan Kent looked ruefully at the speedometer. *Going 30, and it's shaking like a leaf.* As the decrepit truck approached the bridge, he slowed even more. The figure sitting on the railing didn't even raise his head at the sound. *No wonder they call him "the ghost."* Lex Luthor gave Jonathan Kent even more of the creeps than the other Luthors. Unholy Trinity. Charming, boyish Clark, vulpinely handsome Lionel, and graceful, elegant Lex, like a statue given motion but not life. He looked back in the rear view mirror and saw the figure plunge, jacket spread behind it like a capelet, into the water.
The truck didn't take kindly to being made to turn and Jonathan ran the rest of the way to the bridge and jumped in, sputtering. Only the ripples showing where a figure had struck the water indicated that anything had landed before he had. The run-off soil disturbed by the turbulence made it too murky to see, and he felt his way across the bottom. Just before his breath gave out, his hand grasped a handful of cloth, and as the water cleared slightly, he saw the hands, which had been grasping two heavy, smooth rocks, open as the boy lost consciousness, and he fought free to the surface, dragging Lex with him.
On the bank, he forced air into the flaccid body's lungs until he felt the chest shudder underneath the hand that was monitoring the frantic pounding of the heart. Lex sat up, choking, and his clear eyes contemplated his rescuer.
He tried to rise to his knees but Jonathan grabbed his shoulder. "You aren't going anywhere."
"Perceptive, aren't you?"
"Why did you jump?"
"Because diving would be too dramatic and wading in not dramatic enough, I thought."
If I had the least excuse to think he were in shock, I could slap him. Waaay too tempting a thought. "All right, why did you want to kill yourself?"
"I want to kill myself for my own reasons. You meant well but accomplished nothing, like most do-gooders."
Jonathan contemplated the dripping, pale, sneering figure for nearly a minute. "Just finished Byron in school, huh?"
*I think that might have grown up into a grin if he hadn't smothered it at birth.* "Then at least let me have the peaceful conscience. I'll take you home, you can get dried out and at least look a bit less...disheveled for whatever you do next."
"Appearances are everything, of course." Lex rose gracefully to his feet, a tiny spark of humor giving a momentary light to his eyes.
*Shoot. Martha's home.* He'd hoped to get the Luthor boy dried up, given a good talking to about responsibility, facing things, etc., and sent on his way. But he also knew Martha Kent and her reaction to any youngster in distress.
"Come on in." The boy was still silent as he followed Jonathan into the house.
"Jonathan Kent, what have you been doing?" Martha burst out, half-laughing, half-scolding. Then she caught a glimpse of the figure behind him.
"How do you do? Lex Luthor," Lex said as suavely as if they were in a formal banquet hall rather than in the puddle that was forming from his and Jonathan's combined dripping. Martha took charge. "Jonathan, upstairs shower. Lex, come with me. I'll get you some dry clothes while you shower and throw yours in the dryer."
*At least his underwear isn't dry clean only, but everything else is. Well, it looks pretty ruined anyway, maybe just the fluff cycle, get it dry enough that he can wear it home.*
"Okay, Jonathan, who threw who in?" She cornered her husband as he went to the kitchen and retrieved a beer.
"Lex threw Lex in. Sorry, didn't mean for that to be as flip as it came out. He jumped in the river and I fished him out. He wasn't real happy about it."
"Poor kid." Her eyes softened. "Did he say why?"
"Posed a bit but avoided the question very neatly."
A quiet voice joined the conversation. "It's a core element of the Stoic philsophy that a man's life is his own to dispose of, as the ultimate freedom." Lex looked more at ease in the jeans and cotton t-shirt than she'd have guessed.
*Don't get snooty with me, youngster. Believe it or not, some books I've read don't have pictures.* "True. But I'd have thought the Epicurean approach more suited to a Luthor. And besides, Anatole France poked a few holes in that in Thais, didn't he? Showed how empty it was?"
"As well as the so-called Christian values. Including, shall I say, assuming that one knows the best path for another to take."
"On the contrary, some of the more sympathetic characters were Christians. It was Christian hypocrisy he was puncturing."
"Touche. But the point about arrogant assumptions remains."
"Wouldn't you say that refusal to be honest with oneself or others is a part of hypocrisy?" She was rather enjoying this verbal match.
"A part of it, but by itself not hypocrisy."
"Realism, Mrs. Kent. Some things are to be feared."
"What are you afraid of?" His eyes became veiled again and he seemed to retreat. "What has you afraid to live?"
"Nothing." He smirked. "Literal, absolute nothing."
*Don't let me screw this up. He's trying to drive me away.* She carefully crossed the room to stand near him, but not near enough to touch. "Where is the nothing, Lex?" *He wasn't expecting me to put it that way. Did it surprise him enough?*
"In me. I have images of things and people around me, but they're either empty or horrifying. I'm supposed to be a Luthor. I've been brought up for nothing but that. And I can't be. It's as though I'm a changeling. My adopted brother is better at being a Luthor than I am. It's the one thing in the world I'm supposed to be and I can't." *It sounds like he's said this to himself a dozen times an hour.*
"But you're the young business prodigy. Isn't that what everybody says about you?"
"Publicity, Mrs. Kent. And self-fulfilling prophecy. My father spent millions on buying that reputation for me. Now, if I make a decision, it's publicized. People are brainwashed enough into thinking that I'm brilliant that they assume that I know something they don't. So the stocks I buy go up. The companies I buy attract more capital, higher-quality staff. They create the success. My failures, on the other hand, are buried. It's all manufactured and packaged.
"My mother died three years ago. I've not felt a thing but fear and failure since then. There. Is that enough honesty for you?"
"Yes. Come here, Lex." *It's a contest of wills now. I've got to make him want to let me inside.* His eyes were wary as she looked steadily at him. Jonathan hardly dared breathe as he watched. Lex's eyes dropped first and he stepped towards her, almost drunkenly, and she wrapped him in her arms, feeling him start to shiver as though the water's chill had finally reached his senses. Holding him tighter, she pressed her lips to his scalp as he rested his head on her shoulder.
She held him for several long minutes and he finally drew back. "You're crying," he commented, looking at her with his own eyes perfectly dry. "Only my mother ever cried for me..."
"Shhhh. Hush, sweetheart."
*My wife just called Lex Luthor "sweetheart." And hearing it would make me fall in love with her all over again.*
"I'll bring these back tomorrow," Lex said, gesturing at the jeans and cotton shirt he was wearing, and looking directly at Martha Kent.
"Come for dinner." *You've got the Luthor pride, at least. That's the way you're promising that you won't try again, at least not tomorrow.*
"I'd like that. What time?"
"Six, if that works for you, dear."
She wasn't sure if he was startled by the hour or the endearment. "Six. I'll see you then." He followed Jonathan to the truck.
"Where did you say you left your car?"
"Just outside the coffee shop."
The silence between the two men was, unlike the earlier ride, relatively comfortable. Jonathan occasionally looked at the impassive profile, seeming paler still against the darkening sky, and wondered what thoughts were going on behind it. "One thing, Lex."
The head turned attentively to him.
"Martha took a liking to you. Don't disappoint her."
A brief smile. "I wouldn't dare to."
"That your car?" It hadn't taken much guessing on Jonathan's part. Pickup truck. Pickup truck. Pickup truck. Porsche. Pickup truck.
"Thanks. And this time, I guess I do mean it."
"See you tomorrow."
Lex got into his own car. *Gotta bring something tomorrow. I'd like to make it a new truck or a paid mortgage or some such. But that midwestern pride. Or as dear old dad puts it, `Don't try to feed the animals, Lex.' Eh, maybe I can give the animals something to drink.* He stopped outside the liquor store. When he came out with a bottle of single-malt scotch, a white wine, and a red, he put them in the trunk, then heard the sound of a scuffle, a girl's "Stop it!", and then a very familiar voice.
He ran around the corner. Clark had a lovely brunette pinned against the wall. "Relax, baby," he chuckled. "I don't bite that hard."
"Actually, you do. I've got some good scars," Lex commented, stepping forward quietly.
"Lex, ever hear the phrase about two being company and three a crowd?" Clark's voice was pleasant and his smile as luminous as ever but his eyes were glinting with anger. The combination never failed to chill Lex. But at least he had stepped away from the girl.
"Haven't you and Dad had the talk about the local girls?"
"She led me on."
"I didn't! I said I didn't want to be late to the game and you offered me a ride."
"Like you didn't know what that meant."
"I mean this, Clark. Let her go now."
Clark snorted. "Eventually." He ran a finger down the brunette's bare arm.
*We bring you back to the ongoing series, Clark Kicks Lex's Ass.* Lex shouted, "Run!" as he flung himself on top of his brother. The girl darted away as Clark threw Lex against the nearest lamp post. Clark had previously left such confrontations at that point, but this time he grabbed Lex by the collar. "Going native?" he sneered. "Trying to ingratiate yourself? Playing the superhero, even?" He punctuated each question by slamming Lex back into the lamp post. "I've had it up to here with you. You just keep interfering."
Lex's eyes widened in fear and he tried to struggle against the hand that effortlessly pinned him. Clark laughed quietly as Lex alternated pounding on and clawing at his arm, then firmly struck Lex's head with the side of his fist.
He woke up, stripped and wondering why it was so hard to breathe. His lungs felt as though somebody had poured lead shot into them. Blearily, he noticed that he couldn't move his arms, and as his eyes focused, he saw that he was tied, spread-eagled, about twenty feet above the ground, to the cross of a telephone post. Clark had left a note. "Call dad and tell him I've been bad."
*I'm going to die. Jonathan Kent saved my life and now I'm going to die. Shit.* He'd read enough Classical history to know in this form of execution, the victim suffocated as the body weakened and lost its ability to draw air into the lungs.
He tried to call for help but his voice just rasped. Underneath, there were voices and footsteps approaching, hurriedly.
"Come on, Whitney, he was going to kill him. The police wouldn't even listen. I said that Clark Kent had attacked me and he just hung up." The girl had come back with a blond boy.
"I don't see anyone."
Lex managed a croaking sound.
"What was that?"
Look up. Just look up. Lex tried to grunt, instead, and after what seemed an interminable wait, the boy finally raised his head as he looked around.
"I can't make it much longer," Lex tried to say, but the desperation on his face communicated the message despite his being unable to speak. The boy looked around again for a ladder or anything to help climb, and seeing nothing, started to swarm up the post. Hurry.
If he'd been slow in figuring out how to get up, the boy's actions were assured and efficient once he had reached the top. Sitting on the cross and slipping his legs under Lex's armpits to support his weight, he untied the ropes and pulled Lex to the same position, steadying him as Lex gasped for breath.
"Lana, do you have the key to the Talon?"
"Yes, but..." she called back up.
"I think it will be easier to make it to the roof and down through the skylight. I don't think I can carry him down or that he'd make it on his own." He half-dragged, half-supported Lex to the roof, just a foot away from the edge of the cross, and then helped him cross to the roof of the old theater. The girl emerged from the skylight and she helped Lex descend the ladder.
When they were all down, she grabbed the blond boy's hand in hers, shivering, then turned to Lex. "Thanks. I owe you a million, Mr. Luthor."
"I'd heard about your brother, but he just looked so nice, I was in the coffee shop with Chloe and I'd lost track of time, and when he heard me say I was scared I'd be late, he offered me a ride, said the chauffeur was out back. I thought maybe I'd been, you know, biased."
Lex sighed, "They actually keep the worst stories out of the public eye."
"I'm Lana, by the way. This is Whitney."
Lex's arms hurt too much to raise so he settled for a smile. "I'm Lex. Please don't ever add the word `Luthor' to it, okay?"
"You have to get to a doctor or something."
"There's one at the mansion. I'll be okay. You two just lie low. He usually forgets about things in a few days." I hope.
*Lie low. Right. I'm really going to lie low when Clark Luthor tries to lay a finger on Lana. The Luthors think they rule this place. "Take the peasant wench if she pleases you!"* He sat in the truck and waited for Clark to come out of the bookstore, the palm of his hand lightly curving around the handle of the tire iron.
Clark finally emerged, holding a heavy bag which he clipped to the back of his bicycle. Whitney gave him a few moments start and then followed. "Here goes, Lana," he murmured, touching the necklace that was still around his neck. He'd forgotten to give it back to her the night before and had deliberately kept it that morning.
When he saw there was nobody else on the road, he aimed the truck right at the bicycle's rear wheel. The youngster went flying and Whitney jumped out, wearing a ski mask, tire iron in his hand.
"Watch what you're doing, you son of a bitch! Do you know who I am?"
"Yeah. Clark Luthor. But Daddy's not here now." Whitney was only a foot away from Clark as he thumped the tire iron into his other hand. *He looks scared shitless. Hell, he's terrified! Luthors are just cornered rats.*
Clark stared blindly at Whitney. When Whitney hadn't immediately started groveling, he'd lost his temper and started to set the truck on fire. But nothing happened. *Why do I feel sick? Why can't I even see straight?*
Whitney drove the tire iron into Clark's gut. Clark gasped and doubled over. *This is almost too easy. He won't even stand up and fight. Not even a rat, a little stomped on worm.* He tried to crawl away as Whitney hit him again, across the buttocks.
"What's going on?" he moaned as Whitney turned him over with his foot.
"You're getting what's coming to you, Luthor boy. Rich boy." He punctuated each sentence with another blow from the tire iron. "You think you own this town and everybody in it. You're wrong."
"Please...stop hurting me..."
"Just a little crybaby, aren't you, Luthor?"
Whitney didn't have the stomach to continue the beating. He swung himself back into the truck and drove off.
Clark lay struggling to breathe. His body felt so strange. Nothing had ever hurt like that before. Nothing had ever hurt, period, before. He fumbled for his cell phone and hit the first button.
"The Luthor residence."
"Somebody get me. I'm on the Sawmill Road."
"Just send somebody. Now!"
Clark felt his strength returning and the pain of his injuries was subsiding. A few minutes later, a car pulled up.
"Master Clark!" One of the security staff rushed over to Clark. "What happened?"
"Somebody hit me with a truck, then beat me up."
"I don't know. I didn't recognize him. He was wearing a ski mask. Take me home. Now."
Lionel Luthor dropped his pen as Clark came into his study. He'd been annoyed that Clark hadn't been present to greet him after he made arrangements to spend the weekend there but put it down to adolescent rebellion. He stared at the marks that the gravel of the road had left on Clark's face.
Clark was sick of that question. "Somebody hit me with a truck and beat me up."
"It happened, Dad."
Lionel turned the desk light onto Clark's face and the boy blinked as Lionel felt the scratches. *That's impossible. It's just plain impossible.* Another voice seemed to answer him. *No, what he was before is impossible. Maybe he's changing. Maybe he's turning ordinary.* "Follow me, son."
Clark obediently trailed after Lionel. This is too scary. Am I turning ordinary? Am I losing my powers? What would I do then? Lionel rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a small scriber, then lightly dragged it across his own thumbnail to test that the industrial diamond was still sharp. "Hold out your hand."
Lionel firmly took his son's hand in his own, then pulled the scriber lightly across the skin. No mark, and he repeated the motion more firmly, then with all his strength. "Well, whatever it is, you're back to normal now," he shrugged.
"But Dad, what happened? How could somebody do this?"
"I really have no way of telling," Lionel snapped, to conceal his own bewilderment, and Clark almost ran out of the study.
Ah, sounds like there was a lecture. The familiar sound of a door slamming--right through the wall--made Lex raise his head for a moment. Dinner is going to be a real barrel of laughs tonight. Sometimes, Lionel could be a fascinating conversationalist, particularly when talking about his travels with Lillian. Other times, and these were now more and more frequent, the silences were so deep and awkward that Lex contemplated some juvenile rudeness just to be told to leave. Once or twice, he'd met Clark's eyes and wondered if the same thought was going on in his younger brother's mind, but he'd never been sure enough to suggest simultaneous action. The epxression on Lionel's face would be worth an entire lecture series, though. Hell, Dad, treat us like infants, what do you expect?
He wondered what dinner at the Kents the next night would be like. He wished he'd gotten some clue about what he was supposed to wear. He couldn't quite imagine dinner dress. But then, he didn't have a wide variety in his wardrobe; the last time he'd worn jeans of his own was in grade school. Lionel had been insistent upon that: "You are different, you are a Luthor, and what you wear will reflect that. Dress as though you rule the lives of those around you and you will."
Lionel was more worried than he cared to admit. Not for an instant had he regretted adopting Clark--aside from the possibility of somebody else having found him, he loved the boy's potential and spirit--but he was so often out of his depth. Lillian had been able to control him more than she thought; he'd seen Clark's guilty look when he saw that something he had done had saddened her, but he himself had only been able to reason with the boy, arguing from logic or self-interest. *And why did you think that reason would work with a teenager? If you didn't learn from your own experiences, why not from Lex's?*
He was grimly aware of his failures after Lillian's death. He'd been too wrapped up in business. LuthorCorp's rivals had swooped in like vultures, hoping that his insistence on managing details by himself would become his downfall while he was distracted by grief. He'd shoved everything else aside to fight them off, sometimes, in his imagination, picturing himself as defending a beseiged castle holding everything left in the world to him. But while he'd been doing that, his treasures had changed. His memories of Lillian, fading. His son Lex, now an utter stranger, isolated on an ocean of emotions that his father could only sense, not see, until they turned into situations from which he had to be extricated. His son Clark, gone from an impulsive but essentially generous-spirited creature to being desperately lost in a whirlpool of wishes and hungers and loneliness that were spinning him out of control. When Lionel had returned to his castle, the battle won, the beseigers routed, he had lost the greater part of what he'd fought for.
He was aware of Clark's reputation. He'd hoped that in this place where they probably still communicated in grunts and gestures, things would calm down. Clark so rarely intended anything beyond a moment's impulse to get even for a slight or make somebody do what he wanted. He'd learned too early, before he had learned empathy or even caution, that he could do just that. As often as not, he was even sorry for what he'd done, but the Luthor pride kept him from admitting it.
But this place was even worse than Metropolis. There weren't gossip columns or spying business rivals. There was the grapevine of gossip and connections and confidences over coffee, stories told over a beer. Just two days after he had brought his sons here, Clark had been passing near the schoolyard and some of the kids, not knowing him, had shouted to him to come play basketball with them. Lionel had agreed and sat down to watch, enjoying Clark's glow. When he'd been inadvertantly fouled the first time, he'd broken the other player's arm. How could Lionel explain that for Clark, that was pulling his punch? He'd forbidden any other contact with students, but it had been futile. Despite his making Clark apologize and his own paying over probably the equivalent of the family's annual income, the story had spread through town by morning, making his edict moot; no more careless invitations were forthcoming.
"Master Clark says that he is unwell and asks you to excuse him." Lionel had impatiently sent a message for Clark not to keep them waiting for him to join them.
"Excuse me, Lex. Go ahead." He rose from his chair and strode upstairs. *I'll get to the bottom of this. Whatever it is that's wrong with him.* He'd not spent that much time nurturing his son's unique gifts to see them lost before they came to fruition. The most he'd been able to do so far was use the boy's ability to see through solid objects, but that alone had been worth millions.
"What it is?" Clark looked up wretchedly from where he sat in his room near the window.
"What's wrong with you?"
"I said I don't feel good. Can't you leave me alone?"
"Nonsense. You're never sick. Now act your age. Whatever it was that happened, we'll figure it out and make sure it can't happen again. Now get up and come down to dinner."
It was a battle of wills which Lionel easily won, alarming him even while Clark reluctantly rose. *He's shaken. Fine. I won't let him see that I am, too.*
Well, this proves that I was right and that all the advice was wrong. Cramming the night before is the only way to go. Lex had carefully spent what free time he had over the past days reading about organic farming, in the hopes of being able to have an intelligent conversation with the Kents. However, that careful preparation had slipped out a back door of his brain.
He suspected that Martha was covertly and not unkindly amused at his tongue-tiedness. Her mouth has an amused and rueful pinch as she looked at him. Clearly she was waiting for him to get out of this. He scanned the living room again. "Uh, big family?" he asked, looking at the collection of photographs of various children and teens, most with their arms around one or both Kents.
"Yes and no," Jonathan answered. "We never had any of our own, so Martha went into counseling at the high school part-time and I coach at the community center. Those are some of the survivors."
"What did you coach?"
"Everything but roller hockey."
"Jonathan tried that once. He decided it had to be just like roller-skating so the first time he put roller blades on was at the community center, in front of the kids. And the parents who were dropping their kids off." Martha snickered mercilessly though she patted her husband's arm affectionately.
"They're good kids--they tried not to laugh. Bob Ross, one of the so-called mature grownups, though, he still calls me Rocking Roller."
Lex shot a glance at his host. He was publically humiliated and is laughing it off? What is with this man? Dad would have silenced every witness. But then, Dad coaching roller hockey...this would have to be some alternate universe.
"I made him promise not to try coaching it this upcoming season. We need him whole for harvest."
"Next season is still open for negotiation. When you've fallen, you get up again."
*I think that's as subtle as he gets.* Lex didn't miss Jonathan's piercing glance with that remark.
"So, uh, what kind of stock do you have?"
"Mostly Herefords, 60 head, those we raise for meat, and then 30 Jerseys, those are for milk, and we've also got about a dozen goats for milk and cheese." Martha's eyes shone with enthusiasm. "The Jerseys are my favorites, Jonathan likes the Herefords best."
"They're all good animals, though. Sound stock."
Lex flushed, though this time the remark wasn't a thinly veiled commentary on all things Luthor. "Starting with a good bloodline is important, I suppose."
"You can predict just about everything. If the sire and dam, uh, father and mother have a good weight ratio, milk production, whatever you're aiming for, then you're surprised if the offspring don't. Different with people, of course," Jonathan added hastily. *One of these days, Marth's really going to keep her promise to bang some tact into me with a two by four. But then, dammit, can a rotten bloodline produce anything good? Or healthy?* He looked uneasily at the pallid figure sitting across from them, hands deliberately relaxed on thin legs.
Lex smiled. "Ah, nature versus nurture."
"To coin a phrase," Martha added, dryly.
"Agreed. It's a cliche but a handy one. And I can imagine that you don't completely disapprove of them." He straightened up.
"An over-simplification, though. I'd have thought that you disapproved of simplification in deference to complexity," Martha leaned forward and Jonathan raised his scotch glass to his mouth to hide an impending snicker. Go, debate team, go!
"I don't think there is anything simple, because there's nothing that exists in isolation. Even the most basic element is made infinitely complex by its surrounding elements. H2O, H2O, fine, two water molecules, made up of two elements, but then you've got the sea, eventually."
"But the explanations of these elements and their interactions can be made simple."
Lex raised an eyebrow.
"Of course, they can! The only reason that physics books are so long and complicated is that we're only guessing about most of what's going on when we talk about physics. It took Einstein to come up with E=MC2. Took ages to come up with the Pythagorean theorem, whether you think the Greeks or the Chinese invented it. Look at the heliocentric approach. Everything else discovered about the nature of the solar system and earth's relation to the sun and other planets made things more confusing and complicated, not less, until somebody said `If the evidence fits better with the idea that the earth rotates around the sun, then it must.'"
"Occam's razor, I see." Lex smiled
"Just because it has a name doesn't mean that it's invalid, young man," Martha laughed. "Besides, you just supported my point by simplifying an argument into a definition."
"So to get back to the original question, how do you simplify nature versus nurture?"
"A series of simple questions and events, multiplied but not complicated by their interactions. There are large systems, but that doesn't mean they're complex ones."
"So any situation that appears complex can be unraveled into simple ones?"
"Given enough...wisdom, yes."
"Not `enough information' or `enough knowledge'?"
"Definitely not. Wisdom." A bell tinged from the kitchen, and as Martha got up, she gestured for Lex to follow her. "About five minutes, Jonathan." He swung from his chair to set the table, and as he did so, he heard Martha exclaim, "Chaos theory! It's just putting a name to ignorance instead of calling it something like `we dunno yet.'" *If they start talking about fractals, I'm calling the police.*
At the table, Martha looked directly at her guest during a lull. "How's the new equipment at the plant working out?" Jonathan's head jerked slightly.
"It's going very well. Production is much faster now and it needs fewer people on the lines. We have the systems running redundantly now but I'll soon be able to pull the plug on the old system."
"I've heard rumors of layoffs. Lex, you've got to understand the impact something like that has in a small town."
"I do. Or at least I guessed." He smiled. "I've made sure that every person displaced from those positions will have an equivalent or better in a new area I'm experimenting with." His smile widened and his eyes glinted. "There. Did I pass the test?"
"It wasn't a test. I wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing."
"There's a distinction?"
"If you'd like to call it a test, consider it a test of knowledge rather than of character." *I've got steel wool in the kitchen, don't make me use it on that supercilious smirk.* She touched his arm lightly. "I know you want to do the right thing. I wanted to make sure that you knew everything you'd need to." *Was I pushing too much too soon? The Mona Lisa has nothing on this one.*
Conversation turned back into general channels and at nine, Lex rose from the sofa. "I'm sure you keep farmer's hours. Thank you so much for your invitation."
"Shall we make it a standing one?"
Lex blinked several times as if trying to translate Martha's words into a language where they made sense. The leader stumbles! Mona Lisa comes from behind and wins the enigmatic race.
"We'd love to have you. After all, once Martha gets going, I usually have to hide behind the solid logic of `Oh, yeah?' Leaves her speechless, though."
"I'll have to try that." He paused. "Thanks again. I...it was a great dinner. And debate. So, next Sunday?"
"If we don't see one another before then." Martha and Jonathan walked Lex to the door. "Drive carefully."
"Takes all the fun out of it."
She kissed his cheek, noting with satisfaction that his smirk disappeared. Jonathan turned to her as the car sped off.
"Kissing younger men right in front of me, eh?"
"You're the one who picked him up in the first place."
"You win, babe. C'mon, gorgeous."
"Don't you know it." Her chuckle was as delightedly wicked as the first time they had found that love-making on the kitchen floor was a perfect end to an evening.
Clark would rather have swallowd wet cement than admit it, but he enjoyed the assignments that Lionel emailed him each day. Deciding what to do in various business scenarios, from acquisitions to product line development to predicting a competitor's moves, it was an exciting game. He'd gotten quite adept at predicting the answers that Lionel expected, which for him was the real object of the game. Some of them, he suspected, were scenarios from Lionel's own past business dealings rather than hypothetical situations, and guessing which was fun, too.
Anything that made his life seem more real was good. Always analyzing hypothetical business situations, testing himself in the labs, he wondered when real things would begin. Lionel had him reading philosophy, especially Nietzsche, and was telling him that he was the ubermensch, the pinnacle, but it felt about as real as that whole thing about people crouching in a cave and just seeing shadows of things. He wasn't quite sure that he believed it but it was weird in a good way to think about. Because if everything that people see are shadows, then there are real things making those shadows.
He emailed back his answers and then went back to the book on Roman history that Lionel had told him to read. Again, he'd rather have swallowed wet cement than admit it, but it was pretty interesting. When he talked about history, Lionel could make it seem as though it had happened in front of him. He talked about the emperors as though he'd known them, and when Clark had said so, he laughed.
"I do." He laughed more at Clark's expression. "Clark, these are the people you encounter each day. They make the same decisions, the same mistakes. I'm teaching you how to strip all these problems to the essentials, whether the protagonists are wearing togas, doublets and hose, or business suits. It's just like magic, son. Watch what the magician is doing, not what he wants you to think he's doing, and whatever happens, don't look where he's pointing."
Clark had gotten to Spartacus' slave revolt and was thinking about what went wrong; why the slaves were able to rebel and why they did, and why they lost. The one book didn't have enough on Spartacus himself so he went to the library to see if there was more. He felt uneasy when he read about Spartacus' death, his being crucified. He wished that he hadn't gone that far with Lex, even if Lex was being all righteous and whiny about it. *Lex has this Messiah complex, no wonder he'd say that he was crucified.*
"Oh, crap," he muttered. Lex was right after all. One of those footnotes that covers most of the page described the process in detail. "Well, how was I supposed to know?"
"What's that?" Shit, he was in here! Lex came from around the corner, a finger holding his place in some book about water testing.
"Nothing." After a moment, a habit engrained by Lillian Luthor that Lionel hadn't yet unrooted made him uncomfortable. "Well, actually..."
"Yes?" Lex sounded absent, so now would be a good time to get it over with."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to nearly kill you...you were right, I could have." He waved the book in his brother's direction.
Lex noticed the title. Hmmm, looks like he went to the source. He paused, not certain what to say.
"I didn't mean to!" Clark repeated.
*Oh, this is just great, I'm wondering what Martha Kent would do!* Lex put down the testing guide. "Clark, you keep not meaning to do things, but they keep happening. Somebody could get seriously hurt one of these days." He tried to talk gently, not accusingly.
"You sound like Mom," Clark muttered, looking away.
"Sorry if that's bad!" Lex snapped and picked up his book again.
"No, I mean...I wish she were still around." Clark had never yet been able to use any form of the word "dead" to talk about Lillian, and despite himself, Lex found it moved him.
"So do I."
"She and Dad are so different..."
"Dad wants me to be just like him, only even more, if you know what I mean. But I'm also part hers...and I'm me, too. Sometimes I don't think Dad really looks at me as me, the way that Mom always did." Clark looked at his brother. "Sometimes I'm jealous, you had her for longer than I did."
"She never told me what to do, she just told me what she wanted me to do, and because she wanted me to, I did it." He paused. "Well, most of the time."
Lex smiled despite himself. "I think she's still my conscience."
"Dad says that the conscience is a form of-of-what's that thing he says?"
"External forces internalizing guilt into behavior constraints?" The words came so glibly that Clark half-laughed.
"Well, there's one thing you've got to know about Dad and ethics," Lex said gravely.
"Nietszche abhors a vacuum."
Lex wiped his streaming nose and eyes and sneezed explosively. One of the horses whickered at the noise and Lex glared at it. "I wasn't talking to you," he muttered, before continuing.
"He does want to apologize."
"I bet it wasn't his idea."
"Well, no, but he agreed instead of throwing anything so it would be a favor to me if you'd let him." He smiled persuasively, knowing that he'd played a strong card.
"Okay." Lex stepped out of the stable and waved to Clark, who was standing near the car, and walked towards them. Even though Lana didn't appear to be nervous, Lex positioned himself to be closer to her than to Clark.
"I'm really sorry," Clark muttered, keeping well back from her and looking at the ground. "I shouldn't have."
"It's good that you see that it's wrong, Clark." Lana tried to sound kind but distant.
"Yeah." *God, I must be in love. I feel so weird, like I'm going to fall over or something. Is that why they call it falling in love?* Clark prodded his foot back and forth, staring at the ground.
Lex punctuated the silence with another series of sneezes. Lana dug into her pockets and finding another tissue, stepped forward to hand to him. Clark felt his guts seem to twist as she passed near him, his head pounding as his vision blurred. *Wait, this feels more like when that guy...what's going on?* When Lana moved back, he was able to talk again. "Lex, we'd better go," he said, hastily, adding with a tiny smile, "before you shake the place down." Lex nodded, amidst another barrage of sneezes, and Clark turned back to Lana. "I'm really sorry, I mean it."
"Goodbye, Lex, Clark."
In the car, Clark moodily drummed his fingers on the doorhandle. *I wish I could ask Dad about why I get weak sometimes but he doesn't want to listen. If it keeps happening...sometimes I think that for him I'm just my abilities. If I didn't have those, he wouldn't even have adopted me...I might have been somebody else's kid...that'd be so weird...or what if it's because of her..does that mean I can't ever have a girlfriend? I don't want to be a freak like that, too!*
Lex noticed that Clark was covertly watching him. Channeling Martha Kent, channeling Martha Kent. Try to look approachable.
What about that, it worked! "Uhm-hum?"
"What's it like, to be in love?"
*Mom gave him The Talk, didn't she?* "I wouldn't know, I've not been in love," he prevaricated.
"Oh, come on, you've even...well, you know...I mean, you've brought lots of girls home and..." Clark blushed.
"That wasn't being in love, that was-" Lex tried to search for euphemisms but the suggestions that came to mind weren't helpful. He cleared his throat. "It wasn't being in love, for them or for me. It was just, well, sex. Having a good time together."
Clark frowned. "Then how come you and Diana were always hitting one another? It didn't look like it was a good time..."
Lex remembered very few times when his jaw had dropped, but of them, this had to be the worst revelation and the worst timing. "Care to tell me how you know?"
"I watched. It was through the walls!" Clark added the last defensively, as if that made it not really watching.
*Just as well I *didn't* know about that particular ability or I sure wouldn't have been `having a good time.' I was never much for an audience.* Another thought struck him. Even if Mom had The Talk with him, I doubt that they discussed the finer points of rough play. "That was...sometimes sex is more exciting if you and the person you're with pretend that you're fighting one another."
"Oh. I just thought it was gross."
*It wasn't for your benefit. I just hope I never find out what else he saw.* "I didn't know you could see through walls," Lex continued, cautiously.
Clark remembered that Lionel had ordered him never to tell Lex about this particular ability. Well, what if it goes along with everything else? "Yeah. It kind of happened a while ago. Uh, Lex, Dad did tell me not to tell you, so could you, like, not tell him I did?"
Lex nodded grimly. "It'll be our secret." Luthors are good with secrets, anybody would have to give us that.
Clark loaded what he called his batting cage, a series of high-caliber rifles, and set the timers to start off slow, then speed up. He gave himself one point for every bullet he dodged, two for every one he caught mid-air, and minus fifty for each one that hit him. Over the last months, he'd increased the penalties a dozen times, but still scored in the high hundreds each time he played for more than an hour.
Lex used to call it the Phallic Emission Olympics but subsided when Clark finally realized the effectiveness of accusing him of jealousy and smiling with a copy of Lex's own smirk.
He learned quite a lot from chat rooms, where he could pretend to be anybody other than Clark Luthor, teenage freak and misfit. He suspected that Lionel would kill him if he knew that Clark spent any time in chat rooms, except under his direct supervision. *Oh, that would be so gross! Well, it'd be okay if I were chatting with the guys in the sports channels, but not when I go into the channels where there are girls. Oh, that would be gross beyond grossness.*
Now all the girls online had glossy dark hair, glowing eyes, shining lips, and skin as rich and smooth as a fresh flower's petal, in his mind's eye. As he jumped over a low bullet, he imagined himself scooping her out of danger, carrying her to safety in his arms as he ran so fast it was like flying. She'd hang on tight, her eyes closed, and then tell him how strong he is, how wonderful he is to rescue her, and ask if she could kiss him. The next bullet came high and he lept to catch it, then dove through the air for the next. As he imagined the feel of her lips against his, he found himself hovering in the air instead of drawing his feet back under himself and landing.
"Wow!" *Hey, this is just like when Mom took us to see Peter Pan! This is so cool, I'm actually flying!* He tentatively moved his arms and legs as if he were swimming, which moved him forward a bit, but not quite as fast or as strongly as he wanted. Now what? Okay, how does a plane move? Maybe if I displace air with my breath, too? He propelled himself over to the other end of the room and turned off the rifles, which were distracting him. Oh, man, Dad will freak if next time he flies the helicopter in, I fly up to buzz him! I have so got to do it!
Clark glared and kicked a tree stump, which disintegrated. Dammit, I want to fly again! He'd tried just about everything, even Douglas Adams' maxim that the art of flying is throwing yourself to the ground and missing. He wasn't bruised anywhere except his dignity, but that was smarting. Lionel had, in repeated lectures, told him that any time he was outside his own home, he always had to act as though there were a reporter somewhere nearby, and he could just imagine his father's face if he saw a videotape of his younger son standing on the grounds of the mansion, throwing himself to the ground, jumping into the air and landing in a belly flop, or in a lst-ditch desperate manoeuver, wriggling his butt like a cat about to pounce. It hadn't worked and Clark was frustrated.
At least the tree stump showed that he hadn't lost his powers again. He heard Lionel's voice repeating, "You are your abilities, Clark. They're the reason I chose you to be a Luthor the moment I saw you. That's why you have to strengthen them."
He found a convenient boulder and hurled it into the ground, then looked down to see how deep a hole he'd made. He estimated this one at about twenty feet, which was pretty good, though he'd done better. He saw a long shadow move behind him and turned around.
"Shit, Lex! You startled me!" Clark glowered. "How long were you watching, anyway?"
"About two minutes. Some kind of performance art?"
*I hate it when he's so slick.* "No."
Lex raised an eyebrow. "The right music would do wonders for your routine."
"I was trying to fly, okay?"
"That's ambitious." Lex smirked and then looked throughtful. "I flew once."
"Yeah, in Dad's helicopter, right, so have I, dozens of times."
"No. During the meteor shower. A moment of perfect freedom."
"Well, I just flew while I was in the gun room and now I can't do it again."
"Yeah. But I can't do it again."
"What was it like?"
"What you said. Perfect freedom. But now I can't."
"Is that all you've got to say?"
Lex shrugged with one shoulder and turned away. "Try replicating the original conditions and then see what happens."
"I want to do it outside, not just in the stupid gun room." After another moment's glowring, Clark grinned. "I want to fly up next time Dad comes in the helicopter. Can't you just see his face?"
"All too vividly." Lex smiled. "I can also hear what he'd say."
"Yeah. `Lex grew out of showing off, when will you, Clark? You aren't supposed do use your abilities for your entertainment but for serious accomplishments.'"
"Hardly. More along the lines of `Very useful. Well done. Work on your style, though.'"
"In your dreams." Clark kicked another stump. "Or maybe in mine." He spoke under his breath.
"Nothing. I'm going inside." When the castle door closed behind him, he hesitated and then reluctantly when back downstairs to the gun room.
*I don't think stupid Lex even believed me! And now I can't do it again.* Clark stopped the guns and sat on the floor. *It's not fair, to get to fly once, and then, boom, not any more. I've got to get to do it again, there's got to be some way. Oh, hell, I'll go running, see if I can run fast enough to fly. If my body can fly, then how I take off might not make that much of a difference.*
Most of the time, Clark didn't like being alone, but when he was running, it felt right, somehow. He stopped and looked at the disused quarry. *I bet if I tried running and then threw myself, there'd be enough time that I'd fly.* He grinned. *It's not like I'd hurt myself if I fell.* He ran back almost a mile, then tore at his fastest speed. As he fell, he felt himself start to swoop out of the plunge, and laughed out loud in relief and exhilaration. I can still do it!
He turned on his back and floated. *It's like water, but even lighter. Hey, I bet I could dive!* He was finding the subtle muscle controls that let him change direction and speed, and after a few moments, was able to climb almost perfectly horizontally. Ladies and gentlemen, in the hundred yard air dive, world champion Clark Kent! After each Olympics, he asked Lionel again if he could join a team, but Lionel told him each time that the athletes had to pass a physical exam. When Clark protested that there had to be a way out of it, he told Clark with a fixed stare, he couldn't be sure that Clark would have enough self-control to perform just well enough to beat everybody and not go beyond what would be safe. "Clark, my boy, your greatest threat is always going to be from yourself. That's what I'm protecting you from." *No, I'm an alien, so I'm universe champion!*
Since universe champions don't typically hit the bottom of quarries, Clark was careful not to dive so deeply that he wasn't sure about being able to turn around and fly back up. As he practiced turns and spirals, he became more daring about how deep he let himself go. Once he'd decided he perfected a rollover turn, he decided to go within ten feet of the bottom.
Chloe was never quite sure when Pete was teasing her about various mysterious things he'd seen. Once he'd convinced her that he'd seen an amazing shiny insect that looked like it was made of some kind of metal, but all different kinds of colors, including something a bit like meteor green. She'd gotten all excited and gone to get a camera and a tape recorder. Then he'd pulled her butterfly pin from her hair with an innocent expression.
This time, she made him come with her when he called and said that he'd seen something really weird near the old quarry. Something kept zipping up into the air and back down.
"Pete, that's the quarry with all the meteor rocks at the bottom!"
"Pete, if you're lying, I'm going to tell the world that in ninth grade, you actually wore the smurf boxer shorts I gave you."
"A gentleman always wears a lady's present."
Chloe's theory about walking was that humans really evolved to use the gas and the brake and walking was an intermediate step until technology caught up with evolution so she wasn't precisely happy when they had to stop the car and walk.
"I don't see it any more," Pete muttered.
"If you were having me on and making me walk, you are such a dead man."
"Honest, Chloe, I wasn't. I don't take advantage of your gullibility any more."
"It's open mindedness and don't you forget it. We're almost there anyway, and since I'm going to push you in if you were lying, we might as well finish this."
"Hey, what's that at the bottom?"
"There's somebody down there." Pete started to scramble down and Chloe followed. "Whoa, he looks way bad," he almost whispered as he and Chloe bent over the bloodied figure.
"Who is he?"
"Wait, is he the other Luthor kid? Not the bald one, the younger one."
"Ew, his skin's all green and weird."
Pete sighed. *Damn, sometimes I wish I'd never joined the Boy Scouts, even if Mom let me quit over the whole gay thing.* "Chloe, you wanna drive back and get help? I'll see if there's anything I can do for this guy, even if first aid didn't say what to do when somebody goes all green."
Chloe hesitated for a second and then darted to give him an impulsive hug. "Yeah." She knew that helping a Luthor didn't sit easily with Pete.
When she had climbed back up, Pete looked at the figure. The young man occasionally moaned. "Okay, Luthor boy, it's you and me."
After a few minutes, he leaned back on his heels. Pulse: So fast he could barely feel it. Airways: Swollen. Blood loss: None of the wounds were bleeding heavily but even the tiniest hadn't started to clot shut. Skin: Still green and starting to look old and arthritic.
He heard voices coming closer and sighed with relief. This was too creepy.
Pete was able to recognize Chloe's voice but the other one he wasn't even familiar. As two figures started to scramble down the quarry again, though, he recognized the other as Lex. *This situation doesn't really need more Luthors but guess what we got here.*
"I still think you should go for an ambulance," Chloe laid down the law.
"I have my cell phone here. If he's badly hurt, we'll do just that." Lex's voice relaxed slightly. "Clark has a terrible phobia of hospitals, they'd probably have to give him a concussion to get him inside one and that would be counter-productive."
"He's looking bad and I can't get the bleeding to stop," Pete said, standing up. "Better call that ambulance."
Lex knew just what he'd face if he let Clark get taken to a hospital. "The green? Some kind of allergic reaction to plants. He's got pills at home."
"That's some allergic reaction." *And that's some reaction you've got to your brother looking like that.*
"If we get him out of here and into my car, he'll recover faster. It's a good thing you flagged me down, Miss?"
"Sullivan. Chloe Sullivan."
"Not Gabe's daughter?"
Chloe nodded, not sure if this was good or bad. At Lex's, "He must be proud of you," she decided it was good.
"This is Pete Ross."
"It's a pleasure to meet you."
Pete reluctantly shook the hand Lex extended.
"Will you two help me get Clark into the car? If you could take his feet and push, I'll pull him up."
"You really want to pull somebody who might have concussion? That's not a good idea."
Chloe fiercely nudged him in the ribs as Lex bent over Clark. "The guy who could fire my dad without a second thought?" she whispered fiercely. "Try not to make him mad, okay?" She uneasily wondered if Lex heard as he looked back at them. *Well, if he heard me, he'd know that I know that he can fire my dad, so I guess it's okay.*
"I'm fairly certain there's no concussion or back or neck injury. I'll be the one responsible if there is. Now, will you help me? Chloe? Pete?" Both nodded reluctantly.
As they hauled Clark up the path, Pete winced at each moan or gasp. *I wonder if this Lex pushed his brother and figures he'll finish him off. Damn, I got to stop listening to Mom talk about her cases.* At the top, he noticed that the younger Luthor's breathing was easier. Huh. Maybe he was telling the truth about those allergies.
"Clark? Join the living, Clark?" Lex firmly tapped his brother's cheek. "Hmm. Still not with us. If you'll take his feet, let's get him in the car." Pete noticed that Lex had treated his car with the callousness that only someone who knows there are more where that came from can display, risking the finish to bring it almost to the mouth of the quarry. They manoeuvered Clark into the back seat and Lex straightened up.
"Thank you both very much. He'll be quite fine once I get him home and get him his medication."
"Yeah." Pete still wasn't happy about the situation but he figured he owed more to Chloe than to any Luthor, even a sick one.
"I hope he's okay," Chloe answered and Lex smiled at her.
"If he is, it will be thanks to you two. I'm grateful."
They watched him drive off and then looked at one another.
"That was weird."
"Do you think he pushed him?"
"Do you think Lex Luthor pushed him? He was right there on the spot and didn't want an ambulance or anything like that." *How would we get the cops to believe it? Or if they did, what could they do? I'd have to do something, but what?*
"I dunno. Lana and Whitney both said that Lex is actually a good guy. Clark is a menace but Lex just looks scary. They didn't say how they know, just that he's a decent enough guy."
Relief made him giddy. "Hey, maybe that's why he pushed him! You know, ridding the world of evil, like some caped superhero."
"Pete, do you ever voluntarily read anything but comic books?"
"Hey, that way you get literature and art at the same time. It's efficient."
"And you get your role models." She teased Pete incessantly about his need to save anybody and anything that crossed his path, from a misfit getting picked on at school to victims of some of the weirder things in Smallville, but it was also part of why she loved him so dearly, especially since it so often ended with him pounded into jelly. She suspected he set himself up to be the Scarecrow that year, to make sure that the team wouldn't pick somebody who genuinely couldn't take it. *Anybody with superpowers can save people and it's still pretty ordinary unless they've got something to lose. But when somebody who's perfectly ordinary tries to save the world, that's pretty amazing.*
Clark's color had improved slightly but his breathing was still labored and he remained either unconscious or unresponsive. Occasionally he shivered and Lex turned the heat up in the car.
Better face the ordeal now.
"Dad, this is Lex. It's Clark. He's very sick."
"What's wrong with him?"
"A list of what isn't would be shorter. I think he might be dying."
"Dying?" Lex could just see the look of surprise and indignation on his father's face. Clark did not have permission to die.
"He can barely breathe, his skin is discolored, and he seems to be in a coma."
"Take him to the Metropolis plant."
"That's almost three hours drive. I'm not sure he'll make it."
"Then go back to the castle. I'll send a helicopter."
Lex was surprised to see Lionel himself leave the helicopter. He probably came to assess and then tell me precisely how I screwed up the situation.
"Two kids found him in a quarry."
"What was he doing there?"
"I have no idea."
Lionel grunted impatiently and looked at Clark. "Has his condition changed?"
"Not since we got him out of the quarry."
*Just as well I hadn't made a decision yet. As little as I like fate making the decisions for me, the Rubicon has been crossed.* "We'll take him to the lab and see what is happening. Afterwards, Lex, you and I will have a talk." He appreciated the discipline that kept his elder son's face impassive. That will serve you well.
*He's going to ream me so many new ones I'll have one for each day of the week. I can hear it now: How did you let this happen, how do you explain it, and what are you going to do about it? No good answers to any of those and I've never managed a cute shrug like Clark's.*
"Help me get him in." Lionel looked up impatiently. Inside the helicopter, noise prohibited much conversation. Both riders occasionally looked back at Clark, who occasionally whimpered or gasped.
A gurney was waiting at the landing pad and Clark was loaded on it and strapped down. Lionel and Lex followed.
"Have you formulated any theories about what happened?" Lionel asked with a piercing glare as they reached a laboratory.
"The only thing I could come up with is that he's reached the end of his natural life span."
"He's never had episodes of weakness like this before but now they're increasing in frequency and severity. What if what we considered was the beginning of adolescence--the way he kept approaching women, the moodiness--was in fact the equivalent of an end-of-life drive? His skin and joints, in particular, look like a very old man's now. Maybe this is the natural life span or alternatively, something is shortening his life here, away from his natural environment."
"It seems an unusually short life span for a creature with such otherwise human features. The reproductive and maturation cycle hardly fits."
*The one thing that didn't make sense. Took me nearly the whole ride to see it and he sees it in two minutes.* Lex took up the challenge. "I thought of a few possibilities. First, he was rejected as an imperfect specimen that would die early. Sending him here was the equivalent of leaving a child by the roadside to be adopted or not. Second, even if he is healthy, for his species, it's possible that there's some kind of illness that we can't diagnose. There are meteor showers all the time. Perhaps one brought a pathogen that affects him in a way that terrestrial ones don't. Third, it's possible that his species has different roles for the genders, that males mate and die early and females raise the young without the fathers present."
"I'm inclined to go with your hypothesis. Even if it's inaccurate, it doesn't change the course of action I've decided upon."
"Course of action."
"Each of us makes some kind of sacrifice for the greater good of the family, the lineage. In most cases, this means involving shouldering a burden. In Clark's case, it means..."
*I think I know what he's going to say. But by God I'm going to make him say it out loud.* "Means what?"
"Means self-sacrifice to advancing our knowledge. A passive sacrifice but none the less real for that. There are possibly inestimable benefits from studying him."
"Why do I feel as though we should have stone knives and do it on an altar?"
"The ancients understood the reality of the world we live in far better than we do today, Lex. Taking up the burden of advancing our knowledge is the sacrifice that you'll make."
"That I'll make."
*He actually thinks that I'm going to start slicing and dicing.*
"Think about it rationally, Lex. He's dying. The chance to study him while he's alive is slipping away. If you want to be emotional and wait until he's dead, think of what would be lost. I know your ambitions for knowledge, Lex. Are you turning away from the one chance you have to understand more of life's functions, of the universe's functions, than any other human has? You're a Faust at heart, Lex. Think of the knowledge, beyond belief. How can you imagine letting that go?" The rasping voice was almost hypnotic, as much as the intent eyes. "What is the price after all? He's in a coma, Lex. He won't know what's happening."
A smile crossed his face as Lex turned away. *I've crossed the Rubicon. He's following me. We're marching on Rome together.* "If it's an additional incentive..." He crossed the room and opened the door. Two men, carrying fully-equipped Micro Uzis, entered. "I'm not going to accept a refusal. There's a tape recorder so you can take notes."
Lex laughed aloud, recklessly, turned the machine on, and with a scalpel, sliced away Clark's torn, bloodied shirt. Lionel stationed himself on the other side of the gurney.
Lex dicated in a calm voice. "The subject has many bleeding injuries, some of which appear to have coagulated in a normal manner, others have not. There is a good deal of debris in the ones which have not coagulated, suggesting that some substance is interfering with the process. To test this, I'm cleaning half the injuries, leaving the others in the same condition." He scraped away leaf mould, dirt, and sand which contained tiny, glowing crystals. As he progressed, Clark whimpered faintly. Lex felt Lionel's eyes on him, judging and assessing.
*I don't think I have a conscience any more. Maybe I never did. But I know that I couldn't ever look Mom in the face again. Or even the Kents. She is kindness itself. He's integrity. And Mom? Mom was...is...my mother is goodness. Mom? Be here now with me. Let me feel you here.* He raised one of Clark's eyelids and looked at it. "The pupil is severely dilated." Leaning over, he raised the other. "The dilation is uneven, suggesting concussion of some kind." Before the lids shut, he tried to make eye contact, turning his head so Lionel couldn't see. Clark's eyes seemed to track his motion, though whether it was reflex or awareness, he couldn't tell. I hope he can understand this. Slowly, he closed one eye in a wink, the only communication he could think of that would pass unnoticed by the others.
"Cleaning the injuries seems to have accelerated the coagulation process. On this basis, to prolong life, I'm cleaning the rest." *It seems to be making him more alert. I can't tell if it's stopping the blood loss or the feel of the water.* "His pulse is slowing and the perspiration is less profuse. As the blood coagulates, it appears to draw the tissues together and promote healing. Some of the minor, shallow injuries are almost healed and the green tinge of the skin is fading. Under 300x magnification, the cells appear to be reproducing at the rate of approximately one second each. What are presumably dead cells take on a green tinge. This possibly explains the pulse rate as the body needs to carry nutrients to the new cells and carry away the dead ones at an accelerated rate."
"It's an interesting anamoly that his breathing does not appear to have increased noticably; perhaps this is a structural weakness that prevents an almost instantaneous healing." Lex jumped at the sound of Lionel's voice adding an observation.
*I'm treading water here, come on, somebody, help me think. Get them out of here. I could take on Dad myself, I think, maybe, well, I've got the scalpel, but Uzi beats scalpel. Hostage? I'm not sure I could, not manage him and get Clark out. Come on, there's got to be something. Think.*
Lionel took a scalpel himself and sliced the rest of Clark's clothing, then palpitated the kneecap. "At least one joint is dislocated, there is extensive localized swelling, redness, and heat. Lex, clean up the cuts on the rest of him, starting with the ones nearest the knee, and collect the debris." He cut slantwise along the skin, exposing bone.
"Lex, do as I tell you." Impatiently, he lined the edges of the incision with the debris and moved the microscope into place. "The same process is happening in the joint, though far more slowly. With the foreign materials removed, the process occurs at the speed observed earlier."
As Lex continued to clean the wounds, Clark's skin returned to its normal tone, and his face started to move. Finally, his mouth opened, and he whispered, "Please...hurts...hurts so much...Kal-El...hurts...mommy..."
Lionel continued, "The subject has regained consciousness, though not lucidity."
"Dad, he's recovering. Can't we..." Maybe this is the answer.
"Lex. Reflect a moment. He was barely controllable before, do you think that he'll not bear a grudge? This makes continuing more, not less, vital."
"Some kind of anesthetic, then?" Think. Think. "It would prevent him moving or struggling."
"You're right. Hmm." He called to the guards. "One of you. Go to the supply room. Get any anesthetics there are in stock."
Lionel shook his head in dry amusement. "True, I didn't hire you for pharmaceutical skills. Lex, go with him."
So close. "Just one little bit of help," Lex thought to whatever might be listening. As he pulled off his gloves, Clark whimpered again.
"Daddy...where...please...daddy..." Lionel's face froze for an instant, and then he said, "No, I'll go."
Lex continued, "His eyes are still dilated," as Lionel left. When the door was closed, he bent and whispered in Clark's ear. "Can you hear me at all? If you can, move your hand." He held his breath as there was a tiny response, a contraction of two fingers. "There is seepage of a clear fluid from one ear," he said aloud, then whispered, "You seem to be getting stronger. Pretend to be weaker. If you feel as though you could stand or sit up, say that you're thirsty. If you feel as though your strength has come back, really come back, say that you're sleepy. Okay? If you understood me, move your hand again." This time, three fingers contracted.
*Of course, if the anesthetic actually works, I've just undone my own plan. Crap.*
When Lionel and the guard came back, Lex looked up from a piece of paper. "I think he's lost too much blood. Enough to knock him out, even assuming it would, would be too close to a threshold dose."
Lionel nodded to himself. Faust.
"The environment is not sterile but when an injury site is cleared of debris, pathogens appear to die upon contact. The process' mechanism is not apparent at 300x." Lex continued to swab at each cut. This seemed to do the most to bring back Clark's strength. Finally, another whimper.
Lex looked for permission and Lionel nodded. He supported Clark's head in one hand, holding a cup of water to his mouth, extending the process as long as he could, since Lionel had momentarily stopped examining the various types of connective tissues. Clark gulped at the water, then moaned and closed his eyes.
"Dad, let's give him just a few moments. He's getting weaker but his vitals are stable. My back could use a break, too."
Lionel's eyes searched Lex's, and he fought to keep them impassive, with just a hint of unease underneath. He nodded. "Very well."
Lex moved as far away from Clark as he could, walking slowly.
Lionel stood behind him. "Consider it a test. A test of your resolve."
"It is. Particularly under the circumstances. But remember what I said about sacrifices."
Lex started to stretch. Aside from helping to gain time, it would help him be ready to move. If the chance ever came.
"I know what you're trying to do." Lionel stared into Lex's eyes. "Delay won't make it easier, Lex."
Lex nodded quietly in response and walked slowly back to the gurney.
He could barely hear the whisper. "Please...tired...let me sleep..."
"I'd like to look at his spine," Lex responded calmly, and undid the straps.
Lex was expecting Clark to take off immediately and was ready to pretend to be knocked off balance, if possible stumbling into Lionel. He wasn't expecting to be unceremoniously grabbed and whisked out of the room. He wondered if it was machine gun fire that he heard behind them, but had only an instant to notice the sound, let alone identify it.
When Clark stopped, it was in the middle of a field. *This is Kansas, or at least the midwest, that doesn't help much.*
"Where are we?" Clark looked around as though there would be a sign.
"Oh. Next time, tell me that you're driving and I'm navigating." He was shaking.
"What do we do now?" Clark asked, frowning.
Good question. Very good question. Trust you, Clark, to make things more complicated. To screw up exactly what I was planning. Improvise time. "We'll need money. And clothes for you. Can you get us back to the castle?"
"If I knew where we are..." Clark's face brightened and he crouched, then jumped straight up. "Metropolis is that way, and the sun is that way, and it's afternoon, so we can just go this way." He hoisted Lex up again and ran.
*Damn. I'm getting windburn. Dignity factor is going way down, too.*
Clark stopped outside the door and stared at it. "There's somebody in there with a gun waiting for us."
"Can you take him out?"
"Duh, Lex, of course I can take him out! Sheesh. I just wanted to tell you so you'll keep behind me."
Clark opened the door and grabbed the gun, squeezing the barrel shut, then grabbing Lex again to his own room, where he scooped up clothing and a backpack, then to the strongroom. They stuffed cash and gems into the backpack and when it was full, looked uncertainly at one another.
"Anything else we should get while we're here?" Clark looked around, then shoved more money in his pockets.
"No. Nothing I want here. You?" Lex answered, doing the same. "This should give us about eight million."
"If it's not enough, I'd make a great bank robber." Lex was ready to give the elder brother lecture when Clark broke his deadpan expression and snickered. "Joking, joking."
"We'd better get out. Diana's got a condo in Santa Fe. We can stay there for a few days while we figure out what to do."
"This is the Diana you...ewww."
"Don't let her know you were watching. We aren't going to do anything." Unless she wants to. "Besides, we'll have to find someplace else soon."
"Costa Rica would be cool. Or Sicily. I liked Sicily."
"I was thinking more like Vancouver."
"Vancouver? I can't see us fitting in in Vancouver."
"Whatever. We'll need new names."
Lex smiled, wishing they could make one stop before leaving. "Kent sounds good to me."
"Hmmm. Clark Kent. Sounds okay to me."
*Here goes. I always suspected my famous last words would be "aaargh."* Lex looked up from the newspaper he'd been staring at and waited until Clark had finished another piece of toast.
"I've thought about what the next best move is and decided that it might be most practical to retrun to Metropolis."
"What? Dad would find us there-"
"I mean for me to return there. That way, I can alert you if Dad starts looking for you or getting closer, and I can get you money if you need it. Also, with us together, if somebody recognizes just one of us, the chance of being found is higher." Clark was silent and Lex went on. "I can tell Dad that you were holding me as a potential hostage but that you decided that as long as he leaves you alone, you'll leave him alone." Clark stared down at the table and Lex waited for a response.
His brother cleared his throat and answered, quietly, almost meekly, "Okay. When are you leaving?"
Lex blinked at the sudden acquiscence and at Clark's subdued voice. "Not right away, of course. Remember? The documents for your new identity won't be delivered until today, and then there's still figuring out where you want to live."
*This is seriously spooky. I wish I were as sure I'm doing the right thing as I was when I was thinking it through. Oh, well, he's probably just as glad to be rid of me.*
Clark automatically finished breakfast and went into his bedroom with a book. He averted his eyes from the new dents in the metal headboard. *I don't know why I thought anything like this would last. I still hate thinking about what happened but this part was even kind of fun. No assignments, nothing like that, and figuring that we might go someplace neat after this. Like when people play hooky on tv. But now it's a bit scary again. What Lex says makes sense, but I've never been really on my own before. I know I can take care of myself, I'm almost sixteen, and I've still got my abilities, but I've never really been all alone before. Maybe it'll all work out. Or at least it will for Lex. He's probably just as glad to be rid of me.*
"Here you go." Lex handed Clark a sheaf of papers. "Birth certificate, passport, Social Security info, driver's license, high school transcript, everything." The documents had cost almost two million but Lex knew they'd be water-tight. Dozens of systems had been hacked but no trail of bribes had been left behind.
"They thought it would be best for you to be eighteen, just out of high school, you're trying to see if you can make it as a freelance photographer. You were pretty good at it before, you could be convincing, and it will let you move around if you want to."
Clark was leafing quietly through the papers and cards. "It feels kind of weird. You know? Suddenly, I'm not me, I'm him. I'm not the same anything, on paper."
"So where do you want to live?"
"Dunno. City, somewhere."
"Not too big or too small would be good. Minneapolis? San Antonio? Indianapolis? San Diego? Philadelphia?"
"San Diego sounds okay."
Clark's glumness was beginning to disturb Lex. He'd expected outbursts and this stolidness seemed more and more unnatural. He sat down and looked Clark in the eye. *I'm not sure this is a good idea but...*
"Clark, what's wrong?"
"That's a pretty dumb question!"
Oh, now this is the Clark I recognize. Clark continued. "Nothing's wrong, except knowing exactly how much I really meant to Dad, and having to run away, and knowing that nothing's going to be the same, and not knowing what will happen, and now you're going, too, and I don't have any friends or anybody who really cares if I...it just sucks," he concluded, kicking at a table leg, which splintered, sending the table askew and the contents to the floor.
"Clark, you know that's not true."
"That it doesn't suck?"
Lex rolled his eyes. "No, that there's nobody who really cares."
"Like who? You're only here because I pretty much made you come, and when you thought of a way to get out of here, you didn't lose a minute, did you?"
"I think it's going to be safer for both of us this way," Lex said firmly. *As if that was my prime consideration. Why do I feel as though what I'm doing isn't quite as rational as it seemed? Or rather, that it's rational, but wrong? Dammit, I can hardly say that I feel protective of an invulnerable space alien who can and has whipped my ass on countless occasions?*
"I could take care of us," Clark answered, sullenly.
"But you can take care of yourself a lot better than you can of both of us."
"Oh, you just want to leave, and you will leave, but don't think I'll believe you're doing it for my sake."
"I'm not pretending that I'm being selfless here, just reasonable."
"Like I'm not."
"That's right, you're not." Lex braced for a blow as Clark tensed, but instead Clark shoved past him into the bedroom. The door slammed and he heard Clark curse as the doorknob came off in his hand.
Clark turned over suddenly and looked Lex. "I don't want you to go." *He's not looking at me.* "Come on, Lex, it'd be fun. It'd be like one of those buddy movies, you know, I'd be the wild one, you'd be the uptight one, and-"
"I'm not uptight!" Lex got up and looked out the window, then reluctantly walked back.
"You are so uptight. And we could go all over the place, you know, and we've got money, so-"
"Clark. Life isn't movies, it's not even based on movies."
*Next thing, he's going into one of Dad's own lectures, about how I need to be disciplined, I need to control my wants and emotions.* Clark glared up at his brother. "Yeah, you so want to go back to Smallville, to work on the crap factory." *But I can't let you. I'd have to stop you. And if I can't convince you, I'd have to do it by force.* "You want to be Dad's perfect son again."
"I was hardly ever that."
"Sure, it was only `Lex does better than you at this' and `Lex understood this the first time I explained it to him, why don't you?' all the time."
Lex stopped returning the glare to laugh. "Try to base your stories on facts sometimes. Dad did enough to mess us both up that you've got material to work with without creating new."
"Like hell you weren't the perfect son. Every time I thought I'd done something right for him, anything that wasn't about my abilities, it was all `Lex did that smarter or faster or just better.'"
"Same Lionel Luthor? The hair, flapping clothing, on the craggy side? Because all he ever said to me about `better' was that you were. `I don't expect superhuman strength from you, Lex, but ordinary human intelligence would make a nice change.' Each term in college, getting a note reminding me he pays to have my tests `given special treatment'? I really can't imagine his comparing me favorably with anything other than possibly road kill. Old roadkill, at that."
"If that's true, he really really thinks road kill rocks."
Lex groaned and buried his face in his hand for a moment. "We really should have compared notes sooner, Clark. He was playing each of us against the other. What he calls building healthy competition. He even talked about it all the time, just never mentioned he was applying it to us."
Clark rolled his eyes. "See? You don't want to go back to that, do you?"
"Not really. But-"
"You don't want to be around me."
"It's not that, Clark!"
"Then what? Money? I can get us money, when we need it. Or you could."
"I'm not sure that it's the wisest thing to do."
"God, you talk just like an old man. You always did. You always will, just like an older and older man." Clark got up, shoved past Lex, and went into the living room, where he turned on the television, loudly. Lex rolled his eyes and went into his own room.
I do not talk like an old man.
"Lex? Lex, come here a minute."
Clark was staring at the television set, which was showing a fast food commercial. "Just a sec, they said they'd be coming back to it in a second. It's about us, I bet, there was a photo of you just before."
Lex wandered around the room while commercial succeeded commercial. I really miss the pool table.
"We're returning to the latest tragedy to strike the Luthor family after these messages."
Tragic on the Greek scale, yeah.
"We're at the scene of the helicopter crash which claimed the lives of Lionel Luthor and his adopted son Clark Luthor. Phil, is there any more news on what caused the crash?"
"Well, Marla, the official investigation is continuing, but they have said that no causes, including sabotage, have been ruled out."
"What's this supposed to hold for LuthorCorp?"
"A lot of uncertainty. Lex Luthor returned to Metropolis and gave a brief press conference this morning after he officially assumed his father's role as CEO, but didn't talk about his plans other than building on what his father and grandfather had built."
Clark and Lex looked at one another, then back at the television as the news broadcast played a tape. "That's...that's not really...it's not you, but..."
"Look at the eyes, Clark. Recognize them?"
"Dad's?" Both of them were whispering, as if afraid the figure on the tape could hear them.
"How did he..."
"I don't know. I'm guessing, though, he used something from you, your cells, or maybe the process, to regenerate himself. It would look suspicious if he just suddenly looked younger...and since we'd disappeared..."
"But isn't that risky?"
"He likes risks, remember?"
"Yeah." Clark looked up at Lex, a look of mingled anxiety and triumph on his face. "I guess you can't go back after all. Too many Lex Luthors."
*That's what a lot of people think about just one.*
Or rather, there was only one stronger. The urge for immortality. What could send a parent into a burning building to rescue his child. All those urges had to be satisfied vicariously, through offspring and their heritage. Until now. Until his opportunity.
He'd make his last appearance in Smallville, hand over the plant's operations to Sullivan, and see if there was anything else that had to be wrapped up.
He raised his eyebrows in amusement. Looks like Lex had been doing some unwrapping. He couldn't fault the boy's taste. The girl waving at him was a real beauty. He pulled the car to the side of the road and she came running up. Graceful as well as lovely. He'd see where this led. After all, heartless to go without a final kiss...or whatever else was on offer.
"Lex, hi." The rich brown eyes were warm with sympathy. "I'm so sorry...you lost your whole family. I can't imagine what that's like. At least I have Aunt Nell."
He gave her the appropriate half-smile and sad nod. "It was quite a shock."
"It must have been."
To his disappointment, it looked as though Lex hadn't taken advantage of this particular opportunity after all. She was tempting, but not quite enough to make him step into a situation where he wasn't sure what her role was. "Thanks."
She smiled sadly. "It's strange. Losing people like that. Your mind just doesn't want to let go, or maybe it's habit. You look around, and think you see them, disappearing around a corner."
He carefully kept his face in a polite smile. Was she hinting something? "What do you mean?"
"Maybe it was just me. When my parents died, it was strange, I'd find a resemblance in just about anybody. Even thought I saw them a few times. Aunt Nell got pretty sick of me running after strangers." She shook her head.
That's why the face was familiar. Nell Potter's niece. The aunt had all her pencils sharp, but the girl had struck him as being the perfect Pollyanna. The type who would hang over cars giving consolation rather than laying the preliminary steps of blackmail.
Then the girl went on. "I could have sworn that once or twice I saw Clark."
So was she one of Clark's old flames? He'd insisted that Clark not get anywhere near girls, not knowing what would happen, but apparently Clark hadn't been obedient. But her voice was closer to indifference than when she'd expressed her sugary sympathy.
Which, assuming she wasn't blackmailing him, and wasn't delusional, meant...possible trouble.
"I'd better go now. Got to finish things up at the plant." His smile widened. "Thanks--for everything."
Lionel pulled to the side of the road to think. He'd known, naturally, that Clark and Lex were still at large. Fortunately, they hadn't made any contact with him, direct or indirect. He never thought that his careful pitting of the two boys against one another would have quite this benefit; he was certain that they were fighting one another or separated. He'd only thought at the time that it would breed competition, make them both stronger. Now it appeared that it might have well saved his own skin or empire. One was much the same as the other, of course.
Clark, it appeared, was still haunting Smallville, and specifically, that decidedly attractive girl. Again, just as well that he was so easily distracted. But then, Clark on the loose was the definition of a variable. A variable that could cause great trouble.
His subsequent experiments had uncovered an interesting fact, quite inadvertantly. The green pieces in the debris from Clark's injuries created utter chaos in the cell structures. It turned out that the pieces were parts of the meteors that had accompanied Clark. Presumably, then, the meteors would be the only defense against his invulnerable son.
He wished, not for the first time, that he had been gentler with Clark while investigating him. If only for the sake of consistency--he'd constantly told both his boys not to let emotions rule their thoughts or actions, but he himself had been in a state of panic at the thought that the opportunity to learn from Clark might be lost. But he was also troubled by the memory of Clark's gasps and whimpers, the expression on his face, the memory, even, of his own hands as they guided the scalpel into the boy's finally penetrable skin and flesh. Of course, the blood and skin had given him this near-immortality; he just wished he could enjoy it without the occasional troubled thought.
He also knew that one lesson he'd taught Clark had stayed well--when injured, avenge yourself implacably, if you are ever in a position to do so.
At least Clark didn't have Lex on his side. Clark alone had the equivalent of his power, but not his brains. Lex had the brains but not the power. That would be an alarming combination. Together, they could equal, and quite likely overpower him.
He wondered if that was something he'd realized long ago, why he had fostered the boys' rivalry, why he kept throwing the apple of discord to them. Philip of Macedonia would have approved.
And counseled action.
Clark liked libraries. It was fun to watch people read and see if their books matched what he'd guess they'd be interested in from their clothes or the way they looked. It was also great to wander around, knowing there were books on everything, not just business or history or economics or that sort of thing. If he wanted to read a book about, oh, taking care of parrots or about wood carving, he could. Librarians were usually nice, too. When he asked for something, they took him seriously, didn't look at him like they were adding or subtracting points to their opinion of him either because he was interested in something or didn't know something, and they didn't quiz him about anything.
The one in Santa Fe was a pretty good one, it looked like. The librarian at the reference desk looked really nice, so he figured he'd ask her rather than try the catalog.
"Where can I find books about being in love? I mean, relationships and things like that?"
"Academic, or more for reading?"
"That's over here. Relationships and self-help." She led him to a bookshelf. "Does this look like the kind of book you need, or something else?"
"Uh, these look fine." There were so many, though. Well, it's not like he had anything better to do. The first title he saw on the shelf was Be Yourself in Love and Life.
*I wish that were an option. "Hi, I'm an alien, I'm using what's probably my third name now, I have no idea who I am or where I'm from, my dad is impersonating my brother, and so we're both hiding from him after he tried to cut me up, neither of them really likes me anyway, do you want to see if we can do some inter-species mating?"*
He picked some books at random, though leaving Be Yourself on the shelf, took them to a table, and started reading. Three hours and five books later, he wasn't any more enlightened. Not that he'd really expected a step-by-step personalized guide for his situation, but it was still disappointing.
He tried to decide whether he could give Lana some jewelry. There was a lot of nice jewelry for sale, and he thought she'd like maybe a huge lapis and turquoise and silver necklace, with the stones cut in tiny teardrops and set in the shape of a flower, that he paused to finger. At any rate, he liked the thought of how it would look on her. But while he thought it was okay to give her flowers, he wasn't sure about jewelry. That was kind of, well, boyfriendy. But then the necklace would look so good on her. "Just a second."
The librarian didn't look that old, she was maybe thirty or something. She probably knew whether or not it would be okay. "Uhm, I've got a really weird question."
"I've heard that before. Give it your best shot." She looked like she was laughing, inside, and even though it felt like she was expecting him to laugh, and he tried to grin, he felt like he'd burn up from the inside if he actually asked her if it was okay to give a girl jewelry if she wasn't your girlfriend.
"Uhm, maybe not. Forget it."
He most certainly did not rush out of the library, he was just walking quickly.
Damn. I just feel so stupid. He felt almost chilled as he wondered if she even liked the flowers. No, of course, girls like flowers, and secret admirers, and all that. Don't they? Maybe if he got her the necklace and said he was sorry for the flowers? No, that'd be really dumb.
He walked past the table where the man was selling the necklaces, and stopped. What if she would like it? Maybe he could give it to her boyfriend to give to her? No, that'd be really weird.
He tried to think what his mother would have said. He couldn't--the only thing he could summon to his mind was one of dad's lectures. "Every gift creates obligations, Clark. That's why you have to be strategic in your giving, and even more strategic in what you accept. Luthor's don't allow obligations they can't get rid of easily."
He guessed he'd better not.
Lana hoped that Nell would stop asking questions, or at least stop giving her good advice. The simple fact was that she had no idea who was leaving the flowers and notes. It wasn't Whitney, and everybody at school knew that she and Whitney were an item. Besides, none of the guys she might have suspected had that sheepish, half-hopeful, half-guilty expression that said they were hoping she'd guess.
The flowers were pretty, wildflowers but picked with an eye for blending the colors, and the notes were, well, sweet, and even a bit sad. "I wish we were friends," was the first one. "I hope this makes you smile," the second, and the third said, "You're beautiful." Nell had muttered something about stalkers but she didn't get that vibe from them. On the other hand, her instincts weren't perfect. But since she didn't know who it was, she couldn't exactly tell him to stop. Somehow leaving a note on the doorstep seemed cruel. And if he was a stalker, wouldn't that just make him mad?
This new bouquet was a mix of daisies and a little, blue flower she wasn't sure of, but that grew along the highways. The note said, "Happy spring." She smiled and carried them inside.
The latest video was slightly grainy but clear enough to make out the movements and expressions. A blur as Clark stopped, pulled a bouquet from underneath his jacket, and bent to put it on the doorstep. He stared for a moment at the dusty-pink envelope with his name on it, then put his flowers down and picked it up.
An almost imbecilic grin spread over his face as he read the note inside and looked at the contents, a cheap sterling friendship ring. Still grinning, he put it on his ring finger, then carefully tucked the note inside his shirt.
Lionel sent a terse email. "Start tracking the signal." It could take several more days--the ring wasn't large enough to hide the most sophisticated tracking devices and given Clark's speed, he could be coming from anywhere. Setting up the video cameras around Nell Potter's home had been a long shot, but it had paid off. Clark was indeed still hanging around Smallville, pining for glimpses of the girl and leaving her bouquets. He'd swallowed the sentimental bait so readily.
Lionel nodded in satisfaction. He'd always assumed that the Trojan Horse was a mare.
Clark was still grinning as he reached the condo.
"Hey, Lex, what's up?" Lex was clearly doing something boring with papers.
"Estimates for repairing all the damage here," his brother replied sourly.
"Yeah, geez, I'm sorry, you know. Maybe when we get our own place, we can have extra-strong walls or something."
"Or padded walls."
Clark laughed. Pissy Lex was funny. "Oh, come on, it'll be fun. San Diego will be great. Hey, world, look out, it's the Luthor brothers!"
"Sorry, sorry, Kent." Lex wasn't loosening up. The sun still rises in the east, too. It was his job as Lex's brother to make him loosen up. "Are you still ticklish?" He dove for Lex's ribs and Lex quickly moved out of the way.
"Who put amphetamines in your coffee this morning?"
"It's just a great day! I went all the way down the checklist, sun shining, birds singing, breezes blowing-"
"Oooh, who put depressants in your coffee this morning? Or did you watch Teletubbies or something?"
"Clark, what has gotten into you?"
"Just in a good mood." He felt kind of bad about not telling Lex what was up, but Lex was in such a pissy mood that he'd probably just go off on how Clark had to be careful, couldn't keep ties with Smallville, and so on. Booooring.
He went into his bedroom, looked briefly at the holes in the walls and wondered for a moment how people fixed them, then flopped down on the bed.
Having Lana's note right next to his heart just felt so, so romantic. Like being in a movie or something. Even if all she said was, "Dear Clark, I'm glad we're friends. Will you wear this for me? It's a friendship ring. Lana."
He'd never take it off. Ever.
It had taken two days to track the signal to the southwest, another day to narrow it down to New Mexico, but after that, only half a day to find the city, building, and unit. They'd nearly been ready to move in when the man keeping observation on the building reported urgently that Lex Luthor, not just Clark, was living there.
Lionel had immediately called for them to regroup. This was unexpected and unwelcome. Of course, Lex was hardly the same type of problem as Clark, but he was a complication. What was the best solution? Offer him payment for continued silence and staying out of things? Or best to take him with them as well? Or the solution which, each time he rejected it, seemed to whisper more strongly, withdraw entirely, leave them alone unless they seemed as though they were going to cause problems?
He drove that thought to the back of his mind, telling himself it was the weak and lazy response. A man couldn't react to circumstances, he had to create them.
By the time he'd made up his mind to take Lex with them, it was already nighttime. Better to fetch them during daylight. Even though the element of surprise would be stronger during the night, there would be more people in the building, more likelihood of somebody hearing if either boy kicked up a fuss. True, he didn't expect that anybody would interfere or even call the police, but better that way. Also, the boys would be far less likely to panic during the daytime; coming for them at night would only seem menacing.
He explained the new situation and left two more people on watch. The whole situation was in many ways deplorable. *I panicked myself then, when I thought Clark was dying. But if he'd been reasonable from the beginning about being examined, then I wouldn't have thought that was my last chance.* No, rationalizing wasn't going to do a thing. He'd be able to take things more slowly now, ask for cooperation, though admittedly he'd be asking from a position of far greater and more overt strength. But despite all their flaws, and his own mistakes, they were his family. He only hoped that they understood.
The sound of a fist hitting the wall, followed by muffled, incoherent shouts, woke Lex up. Another nightmare. The noise continued. Bad one. Another thud as Clark's thrashing struck the wall, and then the sound of wide-awake swearing.
Clark appeared in the doorway. "Lex? You awake?"
"I am now."
Clark turned on the light and as Lex blinked, came closer, cradling something in his hand. "This was in the ring. What is it?" His voice was wounded and subdued. Lex held out his own hand and Clark put what looked like the fragments of a cheap sterling claddagh ring and an intact, tiny piece of circuitry.
"I don't know. Where did it come from?"
Clark wasn't blinking back tears, was he? "Her ring. The ring she gave me."
"Lana," Clark whispered.
"She gave you a ring?" He didn't think that even with coffee, this would make any sense.
"Yeah. But...there was this in it...do you think..."
"I can't tell what it is. But I don't like the look of it. Why would she give you a ring?"
Clark took the piece of battered silver back, turning it over in his hands. "I...I was leaving her flowers. I wasn't doing anything wrong, just leaving flowers, it's not like I was you know, stalking her, I just left notes saying things like how pretty she is, and that I wished we were friends, and all that, I didn't even sign them, since, well, she'd think that I was dead and that would be pretty creepy, you know? But she must have guessed or something, because last Tuesday, she left a note for me, and a ring...but I can't believe she'd do anything like..."
Lex couldn't believe it himself. He thought for a moment. "So she didn't actually give it to you in person."
Clark shook his head.
"And the note was addressed to you, by name, right?"
"So whoever left it had to know you weren't dead."
"Yeah, I guess so." Lex looked meaningfully at him for a moment until he saw that Clark was realizing the most likely explanation.
"You think it was Dad?"
"Who else?" Clark nodded, slowly. "What made you think to look inside it?"
"I, uh, didn't. I was having another one of...those dreams again, and I guess I tried to hit out. Broke the ring. That woke me up, and I was trying to see if it could be fixed, and then saw..." Lex wished that Clark would stop turning the ring over and over in his fingers, as though it were still something he treasured.
"Did it make you feel any different? The ring, when you put it on?"
"Just happy." Clark swallowed hard.
Keep thinking. "Then it's probably some kind of transmitter. I think Dad's trying to locate us. This was Tuesday, you said?"
Lex smiled slowly. "Which means we don't have much time--but we can think of some place interesting to leave it."
"This is gorgeous," Clark breathed, looking at the vast expanse stretching around them. Already, a blowing wind was effacing their tracks, as if nature was reminding them of just how insignificant she considered them.
"It's cold," Lex grumbled.
"But just look at it...it was never like this when we went skiing, all those people around, you never saw the mountains, or the snow all clean, you just saw people and buildings...Man, it'd be great to live some place like this."
"Are you sure you don't want to try Antarctica? There's even more snow there, and if you're lucky, it might be even colder."
"C'mon, Lex, stop grumbling."
"It's the only thing that's keeping my lips from turning blue." Clark absently took his sweatshirt off and draped it over Lex's shoulders, still looking around.
"I never thought there could be so many shades of white." Clark decided that he was coming back, here, or someplace like it, and soon. The cold wasn't bothering him at all, he was aware of it, but the rush of blood to warm his skin was a tingle, as though he were being lightly massaged from the inside of his skin to the outside. Okay, they'd better get going.
They'd argued for a while about driving or using Clark's speed to run, finally agreeing drive partway so they could keep the car, and then run. They'd also tried to figure out directions, but since it was so hard to judge distance, and even Clark's sight couldn't keep up with landmarks on the way, the final decision had been, "When we reach the Rockies, then head up until we're near the top."
Clark fished the ring out of his pocket. He felt some undefined regret as he put it on the ground at their feet, in the middle of the ledge. It had just been a lie, but it was a lie he could have been happy with. And now it was going to be part of another lie. He grimaced and got up again.
Lex nodded. Clark picked him up again and ran to the point halfway between them and an abandoned fire-watcher's station. The snow was soft, but he moved so quickly that his footsteps sank only a few inches into the ground, and the wind quickly swirled around those. As Lex watched, in a few flashes of motion, Clark pushed a huge mass of snow downwards, starting just the avalanche they'd planned. With luck, it would look as though they'd found out they were being followed and run, trying to find a secure place to hide. With still more luck, Lionel wouldn't think it worthwhile moving tons of snow to make sure that there were two bodies with the transmitter. Even if he did, it would buy them time. And Clark promised himself that he'd never be caught again.
The avalanche's roar was painful to hear, even from above. Clark wondered what it would be like for somebody to be caught in that, to hear and see it coming. Ugh. Of course, he'd be able to withstand it and climb out, but just an ordinary person...supersize that "ugh." Damn it all. Sometimes people just seemed so, well, breakable. The world was just full of things that hurt and killed them physically, the same way that sometimes it seemed like everything around him was able to hurt him emotionally. Wow. That'd be bad, to go around life with both sets of vulnerabilities.
"Let's go," he said, very quietly, to Lex.
The irony was as insistent and irritating and impossible to ignore as a child's mocking sing-song. He'd delayed so that they wouldn't burst in on the boys during the middle of the night and one reason had been to keep them from the rush of panic that would have accompanied a middle-of-the-night invasion, with all of its Gestapo and other secret police associations. But somehow, they'd realized how close he was, and doubtless panicked.
And they'd paid for that with their lives.
Lionel Luthor looked grimly at the snow that seemed so undisturbed. A section of his mind idly tried to gauge just how much was weighing on the corpses somewhere below. If one square centimeter of ice weighs...he forced himself to stop calculating.
He'd ordered ground-penetrating radar equipment brought in. Seven machines were set up, each sending its patient 500 MHz into the snow, sending signals to their attached screens. There was no hope that Lex had survived. If he had been there. But it was possible that he hadn't been with Clark. And it was also possible that Clark might have survived, was still underneath, injured but alive.
In any case, he'd recover the bodies. They were his sons. They would be buried where they belonged. The part of his mind that had been calculating just how much snow and ice had crushed their lives out now amused itself by speculating how future anthropologists might have reacted to the discovery of a frozen alien corpse dressed in early 21st century clothing on a deserted mountain in Colorado. He was robbing the future of several hundred doctoral theses with each beep of the radar detecting any buried objects more massive than ice, less massive than rock, in the vicinity of the ring.
So far, several objects had appeared on the monitor, but all turned out to be false alarms as their dimensions and mass became clearer. The part of his mind that seemed obsessed with taunting him derived all kinds of amusement from speculating, during the moments between something was detected and when the image was formed on the screen, on exactly how each object could once have been part of one of his sons. The taunting thoughts had a grand time with what turned out to be an animal bone.
If he were alone, he might have sat down while he waited for the next object to be discovered and dismissed. But he kept standing, watching with eyes that wouldn't give anything away except impatience.
"Mr. Luthor, there is nothing there. Nothing within three hundred meters of the tracer, in any direction."
"Then go to four hundred."
He was determined to find them.
"Not really hungry. You go. I'll watch some tv or something."
Or keep staring out the window. Lex eyed Clark cautiously. When he'd gotten too tired to drive safely, they'd found a motel. When Lex had suggested finding something to eat, he knew something was wrong when Clark refused.
Part of the problem was that Clark hadn't sulked or snapped. He just kept looking out the window, or at his hands, or at the floor.
Communicating is a real bitch. "Okay. I'll bring something back, in case."
Another long pause, as if Clark were coming back from a long distance. "Uh. Sure. Thanks."
A real bitch.
Clark flopped down on the bed and propped his head on his fists.
*I wish I knew what I'm supposed to be doing. It was always, well, easier before. Even if I didn't want to, I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and why, and everything. Learn to be a Luthor, then get better at it. But now, I'm just running, and not to anyplace, just from.
*I guess life isn't simple. It just gets complicated in different ways. In a way, running away is kind of simple. I don't have to think any more about LuthorCorp or business or anything. I don't even have to care about the stock market or anything stupid like that. But then it's so not simple. I keep wondering what Dad is doing. Does he even miss me? Not in the hunting us down way but in the real way. I really wish I knew what he was feeling. But he'd not admit he was feeling anything, unless it was annoyed or disappointed or anything. Even when he said that he was proud of me, I just knew that he was gearing up for the next thing. He wouldn't stop for a minute. He kept saying it was to make me ready for being great, but he wouldn't let me stop at "pretty good," not even for a minute.*
*Lex says he's sure that she didn't know about the ring. I hope he's right. I hope she's okay. I wish I could go back and make sure. I bet she could tell me what it feels like to be, well, normal. Human. Breakable. Lex just keeps wandering off onto weird topics or thinks that because he can name a question or say that somebody else asked it a long time ago, he's answered it. It's not the same. I don't care whether everybody else has wondered what they're supposed to do with their lives, I want to know what I'm supposed to do with mine! I bet he doesn't know either. I wish he'd just admit it.*
*I wish I could just ask people questions. Not just her, but people. Maybe not even about big things, just about what they do all day, what they think about it, what they feel about stuff. Write it all down and see if it made sense. It's been weird, driving around, and just looking at everybody and wondering if they really think about being human. About belonging here. Or if it's something they don't even really think about because they've never had to wonder about it.*
*God, I wish Mom were here. Or somebody I could really talk to. Or just be with. I remember how she'd just come in my room and sit down and even if we didn't talk about anything, it was like that was just fine with her because she liked being with me. Now I'm not Clark Luthor any more. I've got to figure out who Clark Kent is supposed to be. I don't know who he is but I'm supposed to be him.*
*It was weird, driving here and looking at all the people and thinking that wham, if a car hit them, they'd be dead. But I wouldn't be. I don't even know if it's not fair to me or not fair to them.*
*Eh, screw it, maybe there's something on tv.* He reached for the remote to watch somebody else's unreal life for a few minutes.
One week, three cities, and another sleepless night. It sounded like a depressing country song. Lex turned over again. He didn't like uncertainty, but it seemed as though that was all he was going to get for a long time. Uncertainty about whether the faked deaths had fooled Lionel. About whether Lionel had found out about the new Kent name. About the next place to hide. About what the hell was keeping Clark so subdued and what to do about that. If anything.
*Dammit, Jim, I'm a runaway, not a xenopsychologist!*
They'd started making their way towards the East Coast. Lex had changed his mind about Gotham City. A city that was going so crazy that it invented its own legend of a half-man, half-bat might be just the place to hide an alien. And even if there was crime there, there wasn't much Luthor influence, thanks to the Wayne family, or its remnant. Bruce Wayne. Now there was a weirdo for you. *Says the man with the alien foster brother. The alien foster brother with powers of super-brooding now. Maybe I'm not in the best stone-throwing position here.*
One more day would bring them there. He'd made arrangements to rent an apartment month-by-month while they looked for something more permanent. He wasn't sure that staying together was such a great idea, but Clark's assumption that of course they were was something he didn't quite have the heart--or guts--to contradict.
Clark gritted his teeth. It could be worse. Lex could snore. Or he could talk in his sleep. Or he could stop rolling around like he's sleeping on Mexican jumping beans, Clark concluded, getting sick of thinking of ways it could be worse.
Part of the problem was that he himself was wide awake. He didn't feel like reading or watching tv, even if he thought he could do it without waking Lex up. He was slowly getting used to sharing a room with somebody, even if the hotel rooms they usually stayed in were smaller than most closets back home.
Home. Right. Now that's a concept not to think about.
The covers felt like they weighed eighty pounds or so. Which, considering his alien strength and all that, meant that they must be way heavy. Or maybe he just needed to get out.
He pulled his jeans on, grabbed some paper and the pen from the bedside table, and slipped out the door. He wrote a note and shoved it under the door in case Lex woke up. Lex had really gone all hissy-fit one time when he'd gone for a run and not said anything about it until he came back, a few hours later.
He kind of liked Chicago. Nice big lake. Maybe he'd go swimming. He looked longingly at the big Ferris wheel on the pier. What he really wanted was to go on it with a girl, but he'd have settled for his brother. It would be too dorky to go alone. No, they had to leave in the morning, anyway.
As he turned the corner, he saw a girl in a waitress uniform wave goodbye to another one and inch across the street. It had been warm enough during the day to melt some of the ice and snow, but during the night, the temperature went back below freezing. He watched, hoping she wouldn't notice him.
Something didn't feel quite right. She looked uneasy. Maybe she had noticed him and thought he was a stalker or purse-snatcher or something. He was just about to turn around--maybe go enroll in charm school or something--and go back to the hotel, when a man stepped from a car and confronted her.
"Yeah." He sounded nasty, like he was grinning and snarling at the same time. Clark gulped. He'd...cornered Lana like that.
"Go away. I have the restraining order." Her voice was shaking.
"And I have a gun. Get in the car, bitch."
"Leave her alone!" Clark was right between them.
"Ooooh, this your new boyfriend? She's not worth taking a bullet for, toy boy. Move!"
Clark obeyed the words if not the intent, tackling him, and he hit the sidewalk with a thud. "Uh, I think he's unconscious." Clark looked up and felt awkward, especially the way she was looking at him, eyes all lowered and a tiny, tremulous smile. The other girl had turned around at the noise and was carefully running towards them, trying to avoid the ice.
"Are you hurt?"
"Me? No way." He got to his feet.
"That was brave." She smiled, hesitantly, at him. "But...kind of stupid."
"I guess I'm just kind of stupid that way." Hey, world, look at him! He'd actually said something smooth. Not very smooth, but on the smooth side. Some element of smoothness was definitely present. He tried to lean in a smooth way against the lamppost. "You want to call the police?"
"Yeah." The other girl came to them, hugged the first one, and then stood about a foot away, looking up at him as the first girl pulled out a cell phone. He was really liking this. Maybe there was something else manly he could do. Probably kicking the guy wouldn't be good, though. He was still trying to think of something else manly when she finished talking on the phone. "There's a police car two blocks away. They'll pick him up."
Oh. Police car. Police reports. They could be bad things. "Uh, listen, I, uh-"
"Don't want to get involved with the cops? Got it. Thanks again." She stood on tiptoes and actually kissed him. On the cheek, but still, it was a Kiss. From a Girl. "Good luck." The other one did the exact same thing, but on the other cheek. "Thanks. Not many people stop and help a stranger."
Wow. Rescuing a girl got him kissed. Twice. Two girls. He wasn't as good at math as Lex but even he could figure out that if there had been three girls, he might have gotten three kisses. And without any cheeks left unkissed, another one might have kissed him on the mouth.
He'd have to remember that, he decided, as he turned the corner and began running, using his speed. By the time he got back to the hotel, he'd imagined what would have happened if there had been thirty-seven girls.
Clark was happily adding dashboard drums to the songs playing on the radio. It was going to be a great day, he decided. The car roof was down, the sun was shining, they were going at a speed that Lex had characterized as somewhere between illegal and insane, and heading to Gotham City. He'd only been there once or twice, but he'd seen a lot more of it in the movies and on television.
"Hey, Lex," he shouted, to be heard over the radio and the wind rushing past. "D'you think we'll actually see the bat dude?"
"Only if we drink enough!" Lex smirked.
"Oh, come on, I think it would be neat if he were real. You know, swooping out of the dark-"
"Accompanied in his solitary crusade only by the elusive, mysterious aroma of guano," Lex interrupted.
"Saving the day, fighting crime."
"Whatever, Clark. Sounds like an urban legend to me. You know, a bit of mythology invented to assuage society's unconscious needs and fears." Lex sounded tolerant rather than pissy lecture guy, at least. Maybe he was even relaxing a bit.
Clark looked at him for a while until Lex shot him a dubious glance.
"Are you having fun? I mean, is this...pretty good?" Clark hoped the answer would be yes and that Lex wouldn't laugh at him for asking.
Lex frowned slightly. "Hadn't thought of it." He looked sidelong at Clark again. "But yes, this part, at least, it's fun."
"Cool." Clark grinned at him and went back to playing the drums. He was starting to get some ideas. Some good ideas.
"I'm just running out for a bit, be back." Clark was kind of hoping Lex would ask why, kind of hoping that he wouldn't. Instead, Lex looked up from his laptop and nodded vaguely. He should have known that it would take something like "I'm just running out to tell the world my secret on Jerry Springer" to get Lex's attention when he was thinking about money. Lex had said something about how even in Gotham, he wanted to use cash as much as possible, just in case Lionel had found out about their new identities, and was wondering if he'd made a mistake by putting so much of their cash into accounts under their new names. The market wasn't great for converting gems to cash, but perhaps if he started with some of the lower-value ones, it would be enough to hold them until they were more certain. Then he'd started muttering about how many lots and which sizes and which auction houses, and Clark hadn't even cared much when Lex had begun calculating.
When Lex hadn't been paying attention--and that was most of the time--he'd started writing a journal of what he'd have liked their trip to be. He'd changed himself and Lex to college roommates, changing their names again, and had added a lot more good excitement, and maybe kind of exaggerated Lex being uptight, but he still liked the results. He hoped one of the newspapers or magazines would like it. He'd submitted electronic queries to a few, and gotten a potential bite from the Gotham Tablet. They wanted a print copy to review. It was a minor paper but a major sign of interest, or at least he hoped so.
As he printed the file out--when he and Lex settled down, they'd get a printer, he silently promised himself--he leafed through the Gotham Post. Tours every other Friday. He'd kind of like to see that. If a newspaper was maybe, and he repeated the maybe to himself very loudly, going to print his story, then he'd like to see what it was like.
On the way back to the rented-by-the-week apartment, Clark stopped and bought a paper, mostly because it had an "artist's depiction" of the bat on the cover. He wondered if the guy really wore a cape like that. Or was it a cloak? Idly trying to remember the difference, he kept at the back of his mind the question of whether he'd look good in a cloak. Or cape. Black was more Lex's color, though. Green? Naah. Not that he was thinking about it. Just the thought that red or blue would be good colors popped into his mind automatically. He ran up the stairs, imagining something like that billowing behind him.
"Dear Clark Kent,
"It gives me great pleasure to inform you that we would like to include "Pretty wild and a bit crazy" in an upcoming issue of The Gotham Tablet. Please fill out and return the enclosed forms confirming your acceptance of the rate ($.02/word, payable upon publication) and authorizing publication.
We hope that you will continue to consider The Gotham Tablet for further submissions.
In a way, Clark liked the fact that the tour was so full of teenagers, in another way, he felt more awkward than usual; he'd almost never had interactions with people his own age and these teens were obviously from some school or group, since they all seemed to know one another.
He edged towards the back of the group, and ended up next to a petite blonde whe stared at him. He smiled uneasily, wondering if she was playing with his mind or if she...things seemed to lurch when she grinned widely at him. Her grin seemed to sparkle, like a toothpaste ad. He wondered if he was a weirdo or if gums like that were sexy to everybody. He found himself smiling back at her, for real this time.
"Sorry for staring. You just, well, you look almost exactly like somebody I...somebody who lived in my home town."
"Somebody nice, I hope?"
"Uhm, I didn't know him that well." He wondered if he'd said something wrong and breathed a sigh of relief when she grinned again and tilted her head up to look at him. "But you know, except for the hair, you look almost exactly like him."
"Uh." Oh, great going, Clark, just exactly what would impress her.
"I'm Chloe Sullivan. Which paper do you intern with?"
"I don't." Well, he'd managed two syllables. Not all in one word, but, still, two syllables. Which, considering the way she crinkled her eyes at him, was pretty impressive, he thought, defensively. He hoped his voice wouldn't crack if he went on. "I'm just here, you know, to see what it's like."
"Oh. I'm here with the big intern tour. You know, all the NewsCorp papers, they don't pay us lowly intern forms of life, but they do send us on a big tour at the end of the summer. I'm with the Daily Planet, from Metropolis."
She tilted her head again and he realized she was waiting for something. "Oh. Yeah. Clark, uh, Kent." Whew. At least he'd managed his new name. He'd have to start thinking of it as his real name.
"Clark? Now that's weird. The guy I was thinking of was Clark Luthor. You know, Lionel Luthor's son, the one who died in the crash, the one who was kind of a recluse?"
Oh, God. Something must have shown on his face, because she rushed into speech again. "Oh, I guess you've heard of him. So you see why I was noncommital on the `nice' bit." She opened her eyes in exaggerated alarm as the tour guide, who had been waiting for them to stop talking, cleared his throat very loudly.
"Sorry. Gotta go," Clark whispered. He turned back one time, whispered, "It was great to meet you, Chloe," and was rewarded with another smile, though a bit puzzled.
Lionel Luthor hoped that the Daily Planet's editors often asked themselves how he could know what stories they were planning even before they thought of taking them to press. They'd been very thorough in investigating their editorial team for possible leaks, but had never thought of asking their lowest-level server administrator. Who, of course, would have lied.
As it was, any email which contained the name "Luthor" was very discreetly copied to a hidden FTP folder, and each night a line of code documented as part of the server backup delivered it to another site, which itself was retrieved by another process, the files eventually reaching Dominic, who went through them and delivered the relevant ones to him.
Dominic had known better than even to ask why the man he still believed to be Lex Luthor told him that anything refering to Clark Luthor, no matter how trivial, was to go to him. So when the email from "firstname.lastname@example.org," sent to "email@example.com," included the words "Clark Luthor," even though the sentence only mentioned the name.
"There was one guy on the tour of the Gotham newspapers who would have fit in just fine with the weirdness that is Smallville. He looked just like Clark Luthor, but with brown hair--and CUTE! Well, that's weird enough, but the moment I said so, he looked like I'd started introducing him to my invisible friends or something. The weird, wild, and wacky coincidence? His name was also Clark! (Clark Kent.) If he hadn't practically run away, I'd have asked if he's met any green rocks lately. Anyway, why is it that the cute (and nice)ones are always taken, gay, or weird?"
Lionel Luthor drummed his fingers. He'd wondered for a while if his suspicions about the Colorado mountain were wishful thinking, even though Clark and Lex on the loose were not part of his fond wishes. But now it looked as though there was a reason they hadn't found the bodies--Clark and Lex were still using them.
He called his best researcher. Two hours later, she handed him a file of records.
A bank account in the name Clark Kent. The next account number was for an Alex Kent. One of the regular withdrawals from Alex Kent account was to a property company. For rent for a two bedroom apartment. Not only did Carla provide him with the address, but she had a floor plan, the doorman's name and usual lunch and dinner hours, his family information, profiles of the people in the adjoining apartment, and the name of the building's security company, with a note that she could get copies of security videotapes if he wanted them.
The next morning, he had a file of photographs, stills from the videotapes. Unmistakably Clark, despite dyed hair, and Lex, despite a windbreaker hood around his head.
He put through a substantial bonus for her and sent out further instructions to members of his operations group. They'd make sure that the boys didn't run away before he got there, though he hoped to avoid that. But since he wouldn't be there immediately, he included a repetition of his earlier warning. "Make sure your men know that if either of my sons has any justified complaint of unnecessary force or of any incivility, I will take it most seriously."
Clark carefully pushed the steel bars back into place, then spent a few extra minutes trying to smooth them down so they looked untouched. It would be kind of funny, but not really, if they fingerprinted it and found his fingerprints not on but in the metal.
The jewels seemed to be winking at him, almost conspiratorially, and he swallowed back the last bit of troubled conscience. The breastplate was just on loan to the museum anyway. And he'd think of a way to give them something in return, too.
He put the lettered sign in front of the case. "Down with all symbols of violence! This piece of antiquated imperialism has been liberated for peaceful purposes by Nonviolent Chaos." He'd not wanted any employees to get blamed for the theft, especially since he was trying to make sure that nobody would suspect superhuman strength, so he'd made up a name of a group. He carefully attached a sticker of a ring-tailed lemur to the sign, just like the ones he'd put on the security camera lenses, adding a bit more misdirection.
Let's see. Breastplate. Case closed again. Cameras taken care of. Sign. All done. He grinned, grabbed the prize, and ran back outside.
He'd found that spandex worked best when he was flying, cutting down on things like leaves and insects and on one memorable occasion, a bird, getting caught in his clothing. The sky was just too full, what with birds and planes and such. But he felt that something was missing, and now he'd finally made up his mind.
Now he'd show Lex why he was in such a good mood and occasionally snickering to himself. And he'd done it even earlier than he expected.
"Look, no hands," Susan murmured huskily as Lex undid her front-closure bra with his mouth. He brought his hands back to stroke her breasts as he pulled it free. Oh, he was more than ready for-
"Hey, Lex! Look at this!"
He whisked around. Clark--who had said that he planned to be gone all evening--was standing in the doorway. In spandex. Very revealing spandex. And carrying the Alexander the Great breastplate.
"Oh. Uh," Clark dropped the breastplate, groaned, buried his face in his hands, and ran into his room.
Susan had instinctively retrieved her bra. "Oh, my God, you're a fagg-"
"He's my brother!"
She frowned, obviously not buying it. Dammit, why did the truth have to be so implausible? "He doesn't look like you," she snapped, and dammit redoing the hooks he'd just unhooked.
"Adopted," Lex answered, feebly.
"Riiiiight." The blouse went back on, too.
"Look, really, he..." Lex's voice trailed off as he remembered that Clark could see through walls. And was probably doing just that. Now that wasn't an erotic thought.
The woman pointed to the evidence that he'd lost most of the mood. "He lives here, models skintight spandex for you, goes all miserable when he sees us, seeing him makes you all shrinky, and the best you can make up is that he's your brother?" She stalked out, but pausing in the doorway. "I should have known from your clothing, anyway. Real men can actually wear primary colors."
Lex closed his eyes and heard the door click shut with a certain definitiveness. When Clark returned to the doorway, muttering, "Uh, Lex, uh, sorry about that," Lex didn't even want to think about what had just happened and instead just shook his head.
"But, uh, what do you think about the-?" Clark looked a lot more subdued as he held up the breastplate. "I decided that if the bat guy dresses up, I should, too. You know, a disguise. Just like in the comic books." Clark's voice was just plaintive enough to make Lex resolve his dilemma, so instead of throwing something heavy at Clark, he looked over the expanse of spandex.
"It's...unforgettable." Clark grinned, apparently missing or ignoring a certain acerbity in Lex's tone.
Gotham City wasn't noted for people who noticed things. Particularly not things that it would be generally safer to ignore. Lionel Luthor intended to take advantage of that fact.
"Yeah, well, if ordering online is so great, how come you got as many as I did? Or maybe more?" Clark's voice was raised in a challenge, but the tone was almost teasing.
"I also like to support small independent businesses," Lex answered with an attempt at hauteur.
"No, you just know that you lose control once you get in there and start fondling the-"
"Checking the condition, if you don't mind."
Judging from the credit card records, his sons made this trip weekly, every Thursday night, and Lionel was ready to bet that the mock-argument was just as regular. Something about comic books brought out the considerable levels of immaturity in both of them. Even if now they were supposed to be called graphic novels or something ridiculous like that.
He was five steps behind them, a sweatjacket hood hiding much of his face as he admired the intricacy of the moves that slowly surrounded the two boys with his hired men, under Philip's competent direction. It was completely unobtrusive, looking just like the ordinary flow of people on the sidewalk.
By the time they reached the spot where the appointed alley intersected the sidewalk, the two of them were completely surrounded, and as some of them opened lead boxes, revealing pieces of meteor, others shoved them into the alley, where the car waited.
"What the-" Lex was ready to struggle and shout, but quieted as the man standing next to him put a gun to his temple. "Clark?" He looked anxiously at his brother, who had twisted and fallen, his face covered with perspiration.
Lionel stepped forward. "You're both going to be all right. I promise it." Knowing that a gesture would be still more effective than his words, he crouched next to Clark and helped him up, supporting him against the wall. It annoyed--and upset--him that Clark looked so terrified. With his free hand, he reached out and closed the box closest to Clark, and saw that it seemed to ease his pain and weakness.
"All right? As in cut up?" Clark sounded almost close to tears. "Still alive?"
"No. I'm taking you to a place I've gotten ready for you. You'll have every luxury there, anything you can ask for."
"A beautifully gilded cage?" Lex smirked at him.
Lionel stopped to laugh shortly. "Every imaginable comfort, everything provided for you, most people dream of that kind of life."
"But Luthors aren't most people."
He realized Lex was trying to stall things. "True. Now get in." He could see the way Lex's mind was working, how he was trying to think of all the possible options, even while the men were guiding him to the car, keeping their guns pointed at him. Another joined Lionel in supporting Clark to the car, and he raised an eyebrow in surprise as Lex reached to touch Clark reassuringly on the shoulder, and Clark forced a smile at his brother.
There was a flurry of motion behind them and he turned around. Some thing, no, a man in a fantastical costume, was standing behind them, then quickly kicking and fighting its, no, his, it was a man, not some kind of mythical creature, way towards the car, seemingly invulnerable to the bullets being fired at it. He shoved them into the car and just as quickly, Lex was trying to drag Clark out the other door, then realizing that it was sealed, managed to push himself and Clark past the stunned Lionel.
Lionel grabbed onto Clark's arm. The boy was too weakened by the meteors in the car to put up a serious struggle, and for a while, Lex and Lionel played tug-of-war with Clark as the rope. Lex suddenly cried out in pain and let go, slumping to the ground.
"Lex," Clark whispered, and Lionel released him, pushing past him to see if Lex was seriously injured, Clark scrambling after him.
He was. Even though the bullets were low-caliber, intended to disable rather than kill, the one that had struck Lex's leg must have opened the femoral vein. Lionel pushed hard on the wound, trying to apply enough pressure to slow the blood flow, and barking to anyone who would listen, "Call an ambulance."
Clark, through some unimaginable force of effort, knelt next to Lex, cradling him. Seeing that things had failed, the men stopped shooting at the figure, who strode over to Lex.
"It's no use," the black-clad man said, almost coldly. "He'll bleed to death before an ambulance gets here." Nonetheless, he crouched and pulled out some kind of rope, looping it around Lex's leg as a tourniquet.
"Dad," Clark whispered. "Please. Just have them close the boxes. I can save him, Dad."
Lionel realized what the decision was. Lex's life or his own victory. He had to decide in an instant, or the decision would be made for him. He wouldn't let that happen. "Close the meteor boxes."
Clark brushed away the stranger's hands on Lex's leg and stared. A faint light appeared on Lex's thigh where the laser touched it, cauterizing the wound, sealing it shut. Clark scooped him up and looked at the stranger. "Is it enough to stop the bleeding, or do I need to get him to a hospital?"
"He needs treatment. Come with me. There's enough time." The man's voice was absolutely expressionless. Until he asked, "How did you do that?" as he led them to a low-slung armored car, and then his voice was full of overt envy.
"Urban myth that," Clark taunted as Lex took his first uneasy steps the next day. The man, who had made it very clear that he prefered "Bat," or "Batman" over "Bat guy" or "Bat dude," seemed to have a hospital's worth of equipment and supplies, including more than enough blood for transfusions, as well as a certain expertise.
Lex just looked at him.
"Anyway, he said that I have an incredible talent and he asked me to join something he calls the Justice League."
"Do you get a secret handshake?" Lex smirked.
"Decoder rings." Lex almost looked for an instant as though he believed it. "But he did give me a kind of code name." Clark squirmed in a mixture of embarassment and delight, but he was going to make Lex ask.
"Out with it."
Lex snorted and swayed a little, and Clark caught him under the shoulders. "Superman?"
"Oh, get back in bed!" He carefully helped Lex back. "He was...pretty cool, actually. Gave me a lot to, well, to think about."
"What about Dad? What are you going to do?" Lex wasn't sure what he himself thought or wanted.
"Well...he did let me save your life, when he could have...let you die and taken me back. So I guess I can't hate him." Clark had slowly come to realize this, sorting through his own feelings under the Bat's probing questions. "But I think I'm going to end up spending a lot of time fighting him." He picked at the fabric of his jeans. "It's kind of weird. The world is going to think that I hate Lex Luthor. But...instead...I...I kind of got used to him. The real one."
"Pesky kid brother," Lex muttered. "I kind of got used to you, too."
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