High above Metropolis, Clark made his final rounds for the night, his normally unshakeable concentration wandering. It was the quiet part of the night, suffused with the calm that only the approach of the dawn could bring, but still Clark's body hummed with tension. He made a few last loops around, scouring the streets with his vision until he was content that his city was at rest, if only for a while.
He landed a few blocks from the apartment, touching down and changing in the same hair's breadth of time. Couldn't fly right to his building; his "other self" was still a secret. It was done surreptitiously, but it was done; he flew every night, crossing the skies, pushing himself to save everyone he could.
It would never make up for the ones he hadn't.
The door closed heavily behind him, shutting out the rest of the world. Clark crossed the small, dank living room, stripping off his shirt as he walked.
Long ago - had it been fifteen years already? - he'd stood in front of a wall that no longer existed and uttered the words that had become his mantra, thrumming through his brain like a pulse. "My fault. It's all my fault."
It was, of course, and the list of his victims had only grown over the months and years that followed. Hardly an exclusive list, and not limited to individuals; entire families had suffered because of him.
He could begin by thinking of the suffering he'd inflicted on his own family. In a chronological sense, of course, he'd decimated Lana's family before he even encountered the Kents, but the devastation he'd wrought on his adoptive parents was etched at the forefront of his mind. His mother's relationship with her own father. His father's failing heart, exacerbated by the stress of telling lies every day for over thirteen years. Crushing debt brought on by having to replace or repair countless items, things that could never be filed on insurance forms.
The list of lives he'd ruined was so lengthy now that, even with his superior memory, many of the faces began to run together. But enough of them remained individuals, their faces painted across his mind. Unbidden images accompanied the steady buzz of guilt that inhabited his being.
Tina. Sean. Eric. Whitney. Greg. Wade. Jeff - Jeff's family. Justin. So many others.
He sat on the secondhand sofa to kick off his shoes, tossing the discarded shirt on top of them. Took a second to breathe, feeling the air pressing into his lungs, no longer even attempting to stop the macabre parade through his mind.
Chloe. He'd been so concerned with keeping her at a safe distance from his secret - can't let her know, can't tell her, can't have her find out - that he'd completely missed the things he should've been watching out for. Meetings in parking garages and alleys, ignoring the thinly veiled threats, certain she'd been on the trail of something significant. It might even have broken her heart to know all her suspicions had been completely wrong - she'd been so sure Clark and his secret were somehow linked to that underground lab of Lex's.
He shuddered as he remembered her body, almost completely covered in blood. Arms, legs, neck, all bent in unnatural positions. She'd been a good friend, a true friend, but he hadn't trusted her, and it had gotten her killed. Maybe not directly -- but if she'd known, if she'd known, she wouldn't have gambled with her life, hoping to force the truth out of him. He flashed on the feeling of his mother's arms around him at Chloe's funeral, the breath of her words near his ear, trying to be consoling: "It wasn't your fault, Clark. Even you can't be everywhere."
Clark rose from the sofa, making his way to the small row of shelves lining the rear wall. Fought - against himself, or against the fear? - as he reached out for the box. The images were coming more slowly, bringing them into sharper and more terrible focus.
Lex. Lex, who'd done so much for him. Taught him pool, gave him advice, showed him how to drive a manual transmission vehicle that wasn't made by John Deere. But no matter how close they'd gotten to one another, there had always been something hanging there between them, keeping them apart. Just a tiny sliver at first, like a crack in a china teacup; but, like any damage left untended, it had grown and spread until one day, Clark could no longer look Lex in the eyes. Couldn't stand the lying but didn't know how to do anything else. All the years of friendship hadn't been enough; Lex had said as much that last day.
He'd taken off to Metropolis, hired Hope and Mercy, and set out to put LexCorp at the very top, damn the consequences. He never returned to the mansion or to Smallville. Left that part of his life behind along with a part of himself. The Alexander who loved his mother, hung out at lousy coffee shops, aspired to be someone better, who could trust a friend and share his innermost self had been obliterated.
The man who'd risen like a phoenix from the ashes of their ruined friendship: that was truly Clark's creation. The bitter irony of the whole damned situation wasn't lost on Clark.
Without trying, without really knowing what he was doing, Clark had made Lex into a man Lionel himself should have feared. Unfeeling. Manipulative. Ruthless. Soulless, some had said - the cancer eating away at his hand not one tenth as efficient as the betrayal that had consumed his heart.
Lionel. Lionel, who had discovered too late exactly what sort of thing his son was capable of. Superman occasionally flew over the asylum, looking through the roof and the walls to see the comatose man who had once been the most feared businessman in Metropolis. He'd never know he had Clark to thank.
Clark sank to his knees, tears steadily streaming down his face. The need took on a voice of its own, demanding: Now. Now. Now. It could all make sense, if only for a while.
He raised his hand and opened the lid of the lead-lined box. Exhaled in a marriage of contentment and revulsion as the familiar symptoms began.
The clammy sweat broke out immediately. Trembling, starting in his fingers, raging up his arms, overtaking his torso and claiming his entire body. Stomach violently contracting, trying to regurgitate the contents of an empty gut. Vision unfocused and watery, becoming more so as the stinging drops of sweat migrated into his eyes. Limbs shaky and weak, almost unresponsive to voluntary control. Most of all, best of all, the blood pounded in his head, loud enough to drown out the relentless echoes of "all my fault."
It would take only a few moments for him to be completely overtaken. He would collapse, and the distance he'd fall would be enough to allow him to regain consciousness. And if, one day, he fell in the wrong direction, then - so be it.
But until then, oh, until then -
The physical pain was finally equal to his internal anguish.
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