As far as flying practice went, this one was going well.
A whirl through the upper atmosphere and Clark thought he might be getting the hang of turning in mid-air and knowing which way he was headed -- up or down -- something that was harder than it seemed without a visible horizon to give him that much-needed clue.
A couple of smacks into various mountainsides had been a hard, but useful, lesson back in the days he'd first taken to the skies. But that was months ago, and as Clark's confidence grew, so did his skill. He was getting rather proud of his ability to soar above the highest airplane, swing around the globe once, twice, three times and still be home in time for supper.
Feeling sanguine, Clark slowed down to a brisk float and was enjoying the feeling of frost tickling his cheeks when he heard a very odd noise ... something that sounded an awful lot like a man's laughter.
Clark shook his head. Hallucinations were possible in air this thin, but he'd never suffered from one before so ...
He heard it again.
"Ho, ho, ho, ho!" went the strange sound and Clark turned to listen closely as jingles and jangles and the loud neighing of some sturdy animal whisked through the thin air around him.
It was getting closer ... closer ...
"HO, HO, HO, HO ... WHOA!" A pair of twinkling blue eyes at twelve o'clock suddenly wide with horror. The generous mouth opened as Clark crashed head-first into something made of wood and it cracked loudly on contact.
"Uh, oh!" Clark heard as a damaged snow sled, eight reindeer and a chubby, red-suited man began to spiral toward Earth at an alarming speed.
"Oh, oh, oh, OH MY!" the man yelled as he plummeted.
Oh crap, thought Clark. He turned into a nosedive and raced after the tumbling group. With a burst of superspeed, he gathered them up in long, leather reins and tucked himself beneath the writhing mass, praying hard that he could figure out how to slow down before they hit the dirt.
He pushed up as they fell and that seemed to work, his Herculean effort acting like a brake, slowing them to the point of almost-floating.
Eventually, Clark and his charges landed on Kansas soil in a tangle of leather reins and round metal bells, more or less intact and definitely alive.
Clark loosed the reindeer, who looked no worse for their ordeal and watched, astonished, as they immediately started grazing through the thin layer of December snow covering his parents' front yard.
The old man in the red suit lay on the ground, puffing hard and staring skyward, wide-eyed with shock.
"Sir? Are you all right, sir?" Clark had no idea what to say. What do you do when you crash into another person who can fly? Exchange insurance information? "Um ... I ... "
"This is a new one," the man groaned. He struggled into a sitting a position, then instantly howled in pain, clutching at his plump shoulder. "Gravy, bells and eggnog!" he cried. "I think I pulled something."
"Dad!" Clark yelled out frantically, kneeling next to the man and supporting him by his good elbow. "Mom!"
The kitchen door opened and Jonathan Kent came flying out, followed hard on his heels by his wife, Martha. "Clark! What happened? Is everything ..."
He stopped in his tracks, as did Martha. They peered around at the milling reindeer, the cracked sled and then ...
They stared at the man.
He smiled at them.
"Santa?" Jonathan whispered.
"It's Nick to my adult friends," the man replied, with a wince and clutch to his arm. "But yes, Santa works too."
"Oh. My. God," Martha breathed, her blue eyes huge. "You're ... you're ... you're real."
A weak burst of laughter filled the cold air. "I should say so, my dear lady. Of course, someone with a flying son shouldn't look so surprised I'd think." He grinned at Clark. "Where did you learn that trick, son? It's a good one. Nearly knocked my socks off for good up there."
Clark cringed with embarrassment. He'd almost killed Santa Claus. Wasn't that just great. "It's a genetic thing, sir."
"It's just Nick, my boy." The round face contorted with pain. "And now, dear folk, if you don't mind, I could use a seat and maybe a bit of ice for this arm because I'm afraid some damage has been done."
Martha immediately went into action. "Clark, herd the reindeer up and put them in the south pen. Jonathan, help ... um ... " She giggled with uncontrollable glee. "Nick. Oh, I just can't get over this. Help me get Nick in the house and we'll look at his arm. And Clark," she called over her shoulder. "Get that sled inside the storm cellar and cover it up. You can put it next to the you-know-what."
"Got it, Mom," Clark replied, as his parents helped Nick to his feet and led him toward the house.
Clark grabbed the bit of one of the reindeer and it reared up with an annoyed whinny. "Hey now. That's enough of that," he ordered, firmly tugging the animal down.
Big brown eyes stared angrily into Clark's before shockingly, the reindeer's nose lit up like a flare, stunning Clark with a bright, brilliant red beam of light.
"Holy cow!" Clark yelped and dropped the reins in surprise.
The reindeer continued to glow at him. Smugly.
"Rudolph! Behave yourself!" Nick called sternly from the farmhouse steps. He turned to Martha apologetically. "He's a little on the temperamental side, that one. Hard upbringing, bad relationships with the other deer, differently-abled and all that ..."
"Jeez," Clark breathed. He backed away from the glowing reindeer who gave him a disdainful once over, snorted, then went back to nibbling on whatever grass it could find beneath the snow.
This had been, Clark thought miserably, the worst flying practice ever.
It took well over an hour, but the reindeer were finally herded up and put into the south pen, much to the chagrin of the Kent cows, if their plaintive mooing was any indication.
Not surprisingly, one angry burst of red glare from Rudolph silenced them into submission.
"Mom?" Clark stomped the snow from his boots when he entered the house. He watched as his mother bustled through the kitchen, corn muffins baking and hot cocoa pot bubbling. "How's Nick?"
"His shoulder was dislocated, but your father popped it back into place. Your dad's looking at the sled now to see if he can repair it."
"Huh." Clark peered into the cocoa pot, only to be shooed away by Martha's fluttering hands.
"That's for Nick," his mother said firmly. "Go help your father with the sled."
"Less talking, more helping. Now go, Clark. Hurry up."
"Mom ... you're acting like this is an everyday occurance. I mean, wasn't Santa Claus supposed to be ... you know ... a fairy tale?" Clark asked curiously.
Martha smiled. A tiny, secret, happy smile. "He's supposed to be, but ..." Suddenly there was a huge, glorious grin on her face. "Fairy tales seem to come true an awful lot around here."
She reached up on tip-toe and kissed her son's cheek. "Now run and see if you can help your Dad fix Santa's sled. Remember, it's only a week until Christmas so we have to be quick."
"Yeah." Clark snuck a piece hot muffin and tucked it quickly into his mouth. "Speaking of it not being Christmas, did he say what he was doing up there so early?"
Martha nodded. "Flying practice. Seems like he gets rusty with eleven months off a year."
Ah. Well, that just figured. "Right," Clark sighed. "Okay, I'll be in the cellar with Dad."
"And be good while you're at it. Remember who's watching," she giggled.
Later that afternoon, Jonathan Kent peeked into the master bedroom where Nick rested, propped up against pillows and drinking hot chocolate from Martha's favorite Christmas mug, the one that was forbidden to be used by anyone but herself. Ever.
Guess there's an exception for every rule, Jonathan thought, smiling. The television was on and he knocked politely before entering.
"Hello, Jonathan. Come on in," said Nick cheerfully.
"I just came by to tell you I think your sled is fixed, but you'll have to inspect it yourself to make sure."
"That's wonderful!" he boomed gratefully. "I can't thank you enough."
"It's the least we could do after, you know, Clark ... he ..." Jonathan paused as a white, bushy eyebrow was raised in his direction. A change of subject was needed right about now, he thought.
"Football fan?" Jonathan asked, nodding at the screen, where, as always, the Sharks were getting their collective fins kicked.
Nick snorted. "Are you kidding?" He puffed out his chest. "Old Notre Dame man, myself." Nodded toward the armchair. "Sit down and watch the game with me."
"Sure!" Delighted at first, but delight soon turned to distress as two turnovers later the Sharks missed an easy field goal before the defense crumbled as later, their hapless quarterback was sacked once again.
"Hell and damnation!" Jonathan cried, pounding the arm of his chair. "Those stupid, stupid sons of ..."
Nick coughed lightly.
"Oh, sorry," he winced. Anger turned to thoughtfulness of the rather desperate kind. "Say Nick, I don't suppose you could, um, you know ..."
"Make it so the Sharks win this year?" A rumbling laugh. "I may be a saint, Jon," said Nick, shaking his head sadly as the quarterback took another hard hit at his own twenty. "But I'm not God."
"Ah. Right." Jonathan slumped down in the chair, then tried to perk up a little. "They might win on their own. You never know."
A warm hand reached out to pat his arm. "That's the spirit. It's what faith is all about, my friend."
"I guess so. If you think about it, what else do I have?" Another sack, and Jonathan groaned. Loudly. "Oh, for the love of Saint Nick!"
"So, when did Kent Farms start raising reindeer?"
It was Lex, standing by the southern pen, practically nose to nose with Donner and Blitzen who seemed as interested in Lex as he was in them.
Clark hurried over, trying to think of how to answer that question in a way that might make an ounce of sense. He gave up and told the truth instead. "A friend asked us to watch them while he recuperated from an injury. They're his, uh, pets."
"A entire herd of reindeer as pets?" Lex thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Not the most eccentric thing I've ever heard, but ..." His eyes widened in alarm at the sight of Rudolph. "Clark, I think this one's injured. Look at his nose. It's all red."
"Yeah." Don't light up, oh, please don't light up, Clark silently begged. "We have the vet coming over to check that out. Don't worry. He's okay."
Lex scratched between the velveted antlers and Rudolph stretched into his touch with a pleased noise. "One winter when I was a kid, I begged my dad to get me a reindeer for Christmas." His mouth tightened into a hard line. "He told me I was insane."
"Really? What were you going to do with a reindeer?"
Gray eyes took on a wistful look. "Hook him up to my sled and pretend I was Santa Claus. Fly through the midnight sky and rain down presents on all the poor boys and girls of the world -- all of them bought with LuthorCorp money, of course. Maybe that's why Dad thought I was nuts. His stance on anonymous philanthropy was pretty well known, even by then."
The cold air stung at Clark's eyes, that must have been why they were tearing. "Lex, I ..." he stammered.
"Never mind, Clark." The light, wry tone returned. "I didn't come here to whine. I came to ask if you wanted to go to town and keep me company while I go over the inventory list for the Talon's next year's first quarter. You can advise me on what items you think the customers might be interested in. I hear chocolate-covered espresso beans are very 'in' now."
"Sure. Sounds good." With that, Clark followed Lex to his car, when suddenly his friend turned around to take one last, plaintive look at the reindeer.
"Your friend has eight of them," Lex said quietly. "Even one with a red nose." A sudden, bitter laugh. "God, what a world this is, feeding little kids lies from the day they're born and calling them 'fairytales'."
He sounded so weary and all too grown up and it hurt more than Clark could truly understand. "You never know, Lex," he said quietly. "It might not all be lies. There might be things worth believing in, for however long we can."
"I'm afraid experience has taught me otherwise," Lex replied, crisply. He put his sunglasses on and they hid his eyes behind dark lenses, opaque and black. "Let's get going. I have a meeting with my father at six."
"Okay," said Clark and he got into the car, sadly watching the reindeer fade in the distance as they sped away.
Clark arrived back at the farm a little before dinner and took a minute to visit with Nick in his room, where he sat reading a copy of the Smallville Torch, chuckling at every article.
Clark felt shy and still a little embarrassed. It wasn't every day he almost destroyed a time honored tradition single-handedly. "How are you feeling, sir?"
Nick stretched with a yawn, then patted the homemade sling covering his arm. "Spoiled rotten, if truth be told. Your mother is making me feel like a rock star."
"She's a big fan." It was true too. Santa depictions were the main staple of every Kent Christmas decorative theme for as long as Clark could remember.
"And I'm a big fan of hers. She's always made the good list, I'm proud to say."
"Do you really keep those lists?" Clark asked curiously. "You know, the nice and the naughty?"
"Actually, there are three lists I keep. One is for the good. The other is for the naughty. Then, there's a third one for those who need a serious kick in the behind and are going to get one from me someday." Determined. "Oh, someday."
"I know somebody who should go on your naughty list," Clark said. "Do you know Lionel Luthor?"
"Do I!" A scowl. "Take a guess which list he's on."
"The third one?"
"I almost made a fourth list, just for him, but I won't bother you with the details of that."
"Do you know his son? Lex?"
Nick sighed. "Alexander Luthor. I remember him very well. Haven't seen him in years and Lord knows I don't think he could see me if he tried. I'm afraid he's given up on everything he can't prove with the power of his senses -- or of his wallet." He shook his head sadly. "Lex has lost his faith along with his childhood. Poor soul."
"I know," Clark said quietly. He took a deep breath. "Sir ..."
"It's Nick, my boy."
"Nick, can't we ... or, I mean ... can't you do something to help Lex? Isn't there any way we can make him trust again, accept things on faith and maybe ... I dunno ..."
Nick smiled. A tiny, secret, happy smile. "Love again?"
Clark put his head down and blushed. Deeply. "I want Lex to be happy. Even if it's only for one Christmas." He raised his eyes, as damp as they were, to meet Nick's. "Please, sir ... Nick. Please do something for Lex, if you can. Anything. Just show him the world isn't his enemy. That Fate isn't his enemy. That I'd never be ..." His voice trailed off.
To Clark's vast surprise, Nick's eyes were wet as well and tears were slipping down the round, ruddy cheeks. "My dearest child. I can't bring forth anything that isn't already living in someone's heart. That's my blessing ... and my curse. It's the reason children know me so very well and why most adults deny my existence. Just as I can't make anyone believe in me -- I can't make them believe in anything they don't already, in some small part of their soul."
"But Lex wants to believe in goodness. He wants to be good," Clark insisted. "I know he does."
Nick regarded him closely. "Your faith is very great."
"He wants to believe," Clark repeated. He wasn't sure who he was trying to convince -- himself or Nick -- but he'd say it again and again until the end of time, if that would make the difference. It *had *to make a difference. "I know Lex wants to believe."
A deep sigh. "We'll see, I suppose. What about you? Does he know that you exist?"
"What do you mean?" Baffled.
"As great a friendship as you have, have you shown him your faith? As in telling him about the truth about the ..." He made a little whirling motion through the air with his finger. "Flying and such?"
"Oh." Clark bit his lip and looked down at his knees. "No, not yet. I haven't told him."
A long moment of silence followed.
"See, it's different for me," Clark insisted weakly. "Because ..."
Nick gazed at him patiently. "Because?" he prompted.
Clark looked down again, knowing there was no answer to that question that was quite good enough. "I'll think about it."
"That's my boy," Nick said kindly. He stretched, then swung his stout legs over the side of the bed. "Time for me to go, for I do believe I've abused your parents' hospitality for long enough."
"Are you kidding?" Clark chuckled, as he helped the old man to his feet. "Mom would keep you here forever if she could."
"As lovely as that sounds, I think she has her hands full with the two of you," Nick replied. "Now, let's gather up my coat and my sled and my team. Got to get home before the wife thinks I'm cheating on her with an Eskimo princess."
"By the way, what's the North Pole like?" Clark asked, as they made their way toward the kitchen.
"Cold. Beautiful. Quiet. Perfect place to get away from it all," replied Nick. "I think you'd like it. Fly up sometime and visit.
"I think I might," said Clark, brushing down the ermine trim of the red coat before helping Nick into it. He stood back and looked on in admiration. "That's a great jacket. Red's my favorite color."
"Mine too. I want to put a bit of blue into the ensemble, but the wife ... she says they clash." Nick shrugged. "So, it's all red for me."
"Red and blue. Yeah, I like that too." Clark beamed at him. "We have a lot in common."
"So we do, except maybe I'm in a bit better shape." He patted his belly and began to laugh. "How about we go visit the herd and get them ready?"
"Sure, but you have to handle the glow-in-the-dark one. He doesn't like me at all."
"Rudolph? To tell you the truth, he doesn't like anyone very much, but that's half his charm," Nick whispered. "Sort of like your friend Lex."
Clark opened the door and they both stepped out into the December cold. "Someday I might tell him you said that."
"Yes," said Saint Nicholas of Myra, smiling as he stood crimson bright against the snowy landscape. "I think you should."
Christmas morning and dawn was rising over the Luthor mansion, slivers of pink reaching through the dark horizon. Lex stood on the snow-covered lawn, watching his father leave for Metropolis in his helicopter, the blades spinning like demon wings, taking off with the departing night.
Suddenly everything was cold and lonely and Lex didn't give a damn anymore. Didn't feel the old nostalgia; didn't feel the yearning ache of loss. Instead, he felt for the first time in his life ... nothing. Nothing at all.
Lex didn't know if he liked the feeling, but he knew for certain he could get used to it.
These days, the familiar buzz of scheming, furious thoughts rushing through Lex's mind comforted him in ways no drink or affection could. His rage had finally boiled down to a slow steady burn, creating a dark pocket of security deep in his heart -- filling it with the one emotion that would never let him down.
If he despised ... if he hated, he was safe.
It was only love and trust that hurt. Hatred could never know betrayal.
The snow slowly seeped into his dress shoes, making his lip curl with annoyance and Lex turned to head back into the house when he heard a noise coming in from behind.
No, make that above.
Lex turned and looked up, squinting into the dim sky, stumbling back in surprise at the sight of an ornate sled painted in bright colors: red and gold and green, covered with ancient carvings and flying toward him.
Flying toward him.
A sled drawn by a team of eight reindeer and Lex shook his head as they landed on the lawn, the sled's lone passenger disembarking in a single leap, standing in front of Lex, looking as magical as any childhood dream ever dared to.
It was a jolly old man, smelling of cranberries and vanilla, warmth and coming snow, holly in his hat and he leaned in close to Lex's ear, white whiskers tickling the cold skin of Lex's cheek.
"Believe," he whispered, and shaking the air with his laughter, he was gone again, taking off into the sky.
The sled then swung around and headed straight for Lex, the rushing wind of it knocking him over backwards as it flew toward the sunrise, disappearing within the first full burst of morning light.
For a long time afterward, Lex lay face-up in the snow, mouth hanging open, arms flung out at his sides, the heat of his shock melting away even the thought of cold.
Finally, he sat up and rose unsteadily to his feet. Stumbled off to find his car so he could drive to Clark's house as fast as he could, knowing he'd be laughing all the way...
Leaving behind an imprint of a Lex-shaped angel in the snow.
Early Christmas morning in the Kent house and Jonathan stared at the two season tickets to the Sharks home games in his hand with a mixed look of astonishment and unholy glee. The same look went for Martha Kent as she ran her hands over the KitchenAid mixer she'd yearned for as long as Clark could remember and while there was nothing extraordinary in his pile of presents, he was content anyway.
He was safe, he was loved and for now, that was enough to give him peace of mind.
Until he heard a yell from the yard, loud enough to almost make him drop his cocoa. "CLARK!"
"What's that?" Jonathan asked, startled.
Clark peered out the kitchen window. "It's Lex, I think." He slipped on his winter jacket. "Don't get up. I'll see what it is."
He strode outside, shocked to see Lex running like a maniac toward the house, galloping through the snow, his normally pristine appearance forsaken for a wet coat that flapped at his waist, and white-streaked shoes, ruined by snow and salt.
"CLARK!" he cried as he ran. "Jesus Christ ... CLARK!"
"Lex!" Clark was running then too, through the snow and toward his friend. "Lex, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Lex gasped, struggling for breath. "Nothing at all." Looking dazed, he whirled in a circle and nearly slipped in the snow, laughing when Clark caught him in his arms. "Oh God, Clark."
He was laughing and crying and for a second Clark wondered if Lex had lost his mind, but then remembered Nick's promise and smiled. Maybe ...
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Clark said carefully.
"No, Clark, not a ghost." Lex rubbed his face, trying to catch his breath. "You're never going to believe this, but I saw ... I saw ... " He started laughing again. "Oh, God. It's the most amazing thing in the whole world."
"Then come inside and tell me all about it." Clark said, taking Lex's hand which was trembling and ice cold. "Come on, Mom has hot cocoa and breakfast waiting."
"I swear to you, Clark, you're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you," Lex said, letting Clark tug him toward the farmhouse. "You won't believe it in a million years."
"That's okay," Clark said, smiling as he opened the door to usher a giddy Lex inside. "I have a story for you too, one you might never believe." A gentle touch to the cold, wet back that would soon be warm and dry and never without someone to guard it. "Not in a million years."
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