Sometimes I still heard my father's voice in my head, declaring that sentiment was something men like us couldn't afford. You couldn't let emotions keep you from making the hard decisions, my father said. Not when every day was a struggle, every choice life and death. Wishing didn't do a damn thing to help when late snow wiped out fifteen acres in one night, or when sickness took out half a herd. My family had farmed the same land for five generations, and we'd learned to pay the price. To make the hard choices.
Of course, Dad wasn't always right. The week before I married Martha, he told me it would be the biggest mistake of my life. She wouldn't last a year, he said. She was just too delicate, too pampered. Redheads were flighty and emotional to start with, and city girls' heads were full of ideas that would never work with the realities of farm life.
Martha's worst flaw, in Dad's book, was her soft heart. Even then she was taking in strays, both animals and people. She stayed awake almost three days in a row, once, bottle-feeding a calf we men didn't have time to coddle, rather than let us put it down.
The calf died anyway. That night Dad was over for Sunday dinner, and of course he couldn't let it alone. He started telling her how it had been a waste of time, energy and resources, that he could see she'd been neglecting her regular work around the farm, and he hoped she'd learned something from the experience. And I saw her shoulders start to shake, and I pulled her out onto the porch and kissed her.
"Don't you go changing on me, Martha," I said, and she knotted both her hands in the back of my shirt and sobbed against my chest. Despite what I'd just said, I wished for a minute that Martha could have grown up in Smallville, a farm girl. It wasn't that she was weak. Martha's never been that. But she hadn't had a hard life. She'd never had to make these kinds of choices. And it was hurting her now.
Maybe if I'd been less selfish in the very beginning, if I'd been smarer, I wouldn't have taken Martha away from Metropolis, from all the things she could've become. Wouldn't have asked her to be part of my life, where every day was sweat and struggle and life and death and you just plain couldn't afford to have a head filled with dreams. Or wishes.
"How long has Lex been out there?" Martha asked me, coming back into the kitchen. I glanced out the window.
"Hour or two," I answered, and she nodded and opened up the fridge, piling eggs and cheese and butter on the counter. "He said he wanted to do his part around here."
She started cracking eggs into a bowl. "You go tell the boys to wash up for breakfast."
The boys. I waited till I was outside, and shook my head.
She'd named the calf, too.
I heard the steady thump of hay-bales being tossed from the loft as I approached the barn, and I wondered if Clark had taken over the chores I'd given Lex. Sometimes he was just like his mother. But even from the house, I could see him, standing well back from the loft. "I mean, not that I don't want you here!" he was saying, head tilted back. I heard Lex laugh, though I couldn't see him. "I was just-- wondering."
"No, I understand," Lex called, then tossed down another bale with a thump. "Helen's in Metropolis for a conference. Besides, I'm not quite sure it wouldn't be an imposition."
"How do you mean?"
"We're-- not quite at that stage in our relationship yet." Lex said.
"Oh," Clark stared up at the loft. "Well, keep in mind, she's a doctor," he grinned. "Now that, you know. She could probably support you."
Lex laughed breathlessly as he heaved another bale over the railing. "Lex Luthor, kept man! I'll think about it."
"It'd probably be more fun than mucking out the stalls," Clark called up to him. He straightened his shoulders as I stepped into the barn.
"Your mother's making breakfast," I told him, then glanced up at the loft. Lex leaned over the railing, the sleeves of his sweater pushed past his elbows. He was sweating through the dirty cashmere, breathing hard, and damned if he didn't look happy.
"Leave that for now." I told him. "Come on in the house and wash up. Clark, go give your mom a hand in the kitchen."
"Sure, Dad." Clark gave me a look as he headed past, the same look Martha gave me whenever I was in the same room with Lex. I gave Clark a look right back-- okay, I didn't have the best track record with Lex, but I'd never been one to kick a man when he was down.
"Doing all right?" I asked as Lex came down the stairs, arms swinging.
"I'm doing great," he said, scrubbing the sweat from his face with the back of his hand. "Thank you."
I nodded, and we headed into the house. Lex was still smiling.
Well, it wasn't so strange, I supposed. Lex had at least one friend who didn't care if he was broke or a billionaire. And if Clark liked her, Dr. Bryce was probably a pretty good catch. All things considered, Lex really wasn't doing so badly. Guess I just hadn't expected him to see it like that.
Couple of nights later, I was sitting at the table nursing a headache and flipping through the Ledger. Martha had been baking all day, ever since she'd gotten back from town with a copy of the Planet under her arm. I hated to see her worry, but there wasn't anything either one of us could do about it. Not now.
In hindsight, of course, we could've put a stop to all this before it even started. I could've laid down the law, told Clark he wasn't to see that Luthor boy, told him not to spend time with him or borrow his cars or go on trips to Metropolis with him. After the trouble Lionel Luthor had caused us, it would've been smart to keep from getting mixed up with the Luthors any further.
If we had made the smart choice, I wondered, would everything have happened the same way? Would Lionel Luthor still have a safe full of meteor rock in his office, and a confidential file on Clark, and a piece of his spaceship-- well, there was no way to know for sure.
And if I'd spent my life making smart choices-- I wouldn't have married a Metropolis socialite. I wouldn't be running the only major organic produce farm in Lowell County. And Clark would've been raised in a lab, not in Smallville. So I supposed we'd just have to go on as we'd begun, and hope for the best. Over the years, we'd all paid dearly for the choices we'd made, but so far, everything had worked out well enough, hadn't it?
Martha was scrubbing out the spatulas and bowls in the sink, the cooking utensils clattering as she ran the water at full blast. "Come on, sweetheart," I finally said. "Sit down, you're making me tired."
She looked up at me, sighed, and sat down at the table. I got up and put two muffins on plates for us, but Martha didn't eat, just crumbled the edges of her muffin with the tips of her fingers while she re-read that damn article in the Planet again. Something about it was bothering her, but I couldn't see what. It didn't go into the details of the experimental therapy Lionel had been undergoing, except to say that he had most of his sight back and was expected to recover fully. It didn't mention Lucas Luthor, either, but by now, Lionel playing things close to the vest was only to be expected.
Finally I reached across the table for her hand, and Martha smiled without looking up as I kissed her knuckles. It hadn't been so bad, having Lex as a guest. But the spare room was a little too close to the master bedroom for my tastes, and it had been three days.
I nibbled at her fingertips. They tasted good. Better was the way she laughed, like a girl. I loved that I could still make her laugh like that. "Jonathan!"
"What?" I said, and my head hardly hurt at all.
Martha pulled her hand back and stood up, smiling. "Lex said he'd be coming over tonight to get the rest of his things."
"Kind of late, isn't he?" I tipped my head to the side and watched as she stretched up to reach the cabinet over the stove.
There was a knowing tilt to her mouth as she came back over to the table with one of the big Tupperwares and started stacking muffins in it. "I'm sure he's had a busy day."
"He order those?" I asked. Martha shook her head. The purr of a well-tuned engine cut through the quiet, and we both looked out the kitchen window as headlights flashed across the yard. I winced as I turned my head a little too sharply.
"Are you all right?" Martha crossed around behind my chair and rested one hand on my shoulder, trailing her fingers through my hair. I winced, and I knew the expression on her face, even though I couldn't see her. "I still think we should have taken you in last night."
I hate going to the doctor. Besides, most of the swelling from the bump had already gone down. Just my neck hurt, was all. "Martha, I've had ten x-rays since breakfast. I'm fine."
"Clark is not a doctor," Martha said sternly. She sighed, picked up the business section of the Planet, folded it shut and dropped it into the recycling bin by the sink. "How do you think he'd feel if he missed something the doctors might've seen?"
Well. Knowing Clark, I couldn't argue with that. Instead I pushed my chair back and headed over to look out the screen door. The boys were sitting out on the tailgate of the truck, talking. Voices carried in the country night; I could hear Clark's calm tones, and Lex's voice lower than that. If I cracked the door, I'd probably be able to hear what they were talking about.
I sat back down at the table instead. Martha finished up packing the muffins. By the time she was done, Clark was clomping up to the house, Lex following after.
"Hang on," Clark said as he pushed open the screen door, "I'll go get your book." He headed past me, up the stairs. Lex shifted, looking uncomfortable.
"Mrs. Kent, Mr. Kent."
"You're letting the cold air in," I told him, and he moved away from the doorway and came inside.
"Let me just get those shirts for you," Martha said, touching Lex's arm before she followed Clark upstairs. Lex stood still, eyes flickering over the kitchen, not resting anywhere.
"Sit down and stay a while," I told him.
"I wish I could," Lex said distractedly. He glanced towards the stairs, then met my eyes and spoke quickly. "Mr. Kent, I want to apologize for my brother."
"Lex." I said. "You're not the one--"
We fell silent as Clark thundered down the stairs, an expensive-looking volume clutched in one hand. It was big as a family Bible, probably a first edition by the looks of it. He handed it to Lex, who cracked it open and grinned. From where I was sitting, I could see that it was fake, just a shell with a hollow inside. Now what could've been so important that Lex had felt like he had to smuggle it out of the castle-- confidential papers, computer disks? I wasn't so sure I liked the idea of Clark helping Lex with that kind of thing.
I stood up, glancing over Lex's shoulder. Inside the book was a stack of comics in plastic sleeves, the way collectors kept them. Lex shut the book again, giving Clark a searching look. "They're all here, right?"
"Yes, they're all there," Clark said, and if he didn't add 'you dork' it was pretty clear in his tone.
I clapped Clark on the shoulder, relieved. "All right, I know it's been kind of a vacation for you around here lately, son, but you've got chores in the morning."
"Aw, Dad," he said, but it was just a little grumble. That was another thing about having Lex around the house. Clark tended to act more grown-up, like a little kid trying to mimic his big brother. A month ago that thought would've bothered me a hell of a lot more than it did now; I'd never expected to think of a Luthor as a positive influence on Clark, but I couldn't argue with what I saw.
"See you later, Lex," he said.
"I'll have my people call your people." Lex told him, his mouth quirked mischeviously.
Clark stopped at the bottom of the stairs to let Martha by, a stack of folded sweaters in her arms.
"Don't bother," he said, and smiled at Lex before he headed upstairs.
"Lex," I said. "You sure you can't stay?"
Lex accepted the pile of sweaters from Martha. "I wish I could," he said with a swift smile of thanks. "But I have some important meetings early tomorrow." He smiled a little wider. "My father's transferring a majority of the LexCorp voting shares back to me. As of Monday morning, I'm back in control."
"Really," I said.
"Oh, Lex, that's wonderful!" Martha hugged him clumsily, Lex still holding his book and the sweaters. He looked surprised, then patted her on the shoulder.
"It'll be a lot of work to get things back on track, but... yes." he said. "It is." He glanced at us both. "Again, Mr. and Mrs. Kent, I can't thank you enough for your hospitality and your support..."
"It was our pleasure," Martha said, smiling, but Lex wasn't done.
"I also can't apologize enough for my brother's actions, Mr. Kent."
Martha glanced at me quickly. I just picked up the Tupperware of muffins, and held the screen door open for Lex. "Come on. I'll walk you out."
Lately the nights had been getting colder and colder. I breathed in, tasting the air, knowing we'd get rain, maybe frost, in the next day or so. Well, we'd just have to be ready for it, that was all. Rain was the price of sunshine, a hard winter the price of a good summer.
What they say about death and taxes is a cliche, but it's true. There's nothing sure in this life but that someday you'll have to pay the price. There was no point in complaining when life knocked you down, as it was bound to do, and there was no shame in getting knocked down. Only in staying down.
Lex knew that. I'd seen it in him over the past few days. He'd lost everything he'd ever had in the blink of an eye, but he didn't let it break him, didn't let it stop him.
That was why I'd told him he'd make a good farmer.
"Tell me something," I said as we approached the silver convertible parked in the yard. "What exactly did your father want in exchange for those LexCorp shares?" I knew Lionel Luthor well enough to know it was a valid question.
For his part, Lex sounded as though he'd been expecting me to ask. "I promised to keep my mouth shut," he said casually. "About Lucas."
I nodded, my neck twinging.
Lex held his sweaters and his book loosely against his chest, leaned back against his car and stared at the sky. "As this last week's events proved quite well, after twenty-two years I'm still not immune to my father's machinations. Believe me, I'm not trying to make excuses, but Lucas... My father and I were both trying to force his hand. He just got caught in the middle."
"I meant what I said," I told him. "What happened wasn't your fault." If you looked at it the right way, it was just as much my fault as it was Lex's. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't decided to take Lex in. But you couldn't live your life thinking like that.
"He's my brother," Lex said. "And I..." He frowned and fell silent.
I watched him for a moment. I'd seen a whole new side of Lex, these past few days. When he'd asked me to put him to work, I'd told him that farming wasn't a hobby. He'd said he knew that. "I'm aware of your feelings when it comes to charity, Mr. Kent, so I hope you can understand my feelings in this situation," he'd said, standing in the kitchen, shoulders braced. "Please let me do this."
Well, when Lex put it like that, I couldn't say no. You had to respect a man's need to stand on his own two feet. So I'd put him to work, but frankly, I hadn't expected him to contribute all that much. A good farmer had to give a hundred percent, all the time. Had to put his back and his brain and his heart into the work. I honestly hadn't thought Lex would really give a good goddamn, but he'd surprised me. And now he was surprising me again.
"I can't turn my back on him now." Lex finally said. "Not every kid is as lucky as Clark when it comes to family. I have to believe there's something in him I can still reach."
I put my hand on Lex's shoulder and squeezed, hard. He started, glancing up, and I loosened my grip a little-- I was used to doing this for Clark, after all. At the moment, Lex felt almost as unyielding as Clark did, his muscles wound up tight and tense.
"I don't think I need to tell you to watch out for yourself, Lex."
"No, you don't," he said.
"Well, I'm telling you anyway," I gave his shoulder a little shake, and he smiled.
"Tell Clark to call me if he's still having trouble with that English paper when he gets the rough draft back," he said, and I pulled my hand away. He turned, placing his book and his sweaters in the passenger seat of the car, and I handed him the Tupperware of muffins. "I didn't thank Mrs. Kent for these." He brushed a thumb over the blue lid.
"You don't need to." Martha baked when she was worried, and that article in the Planet had rattled her. But I didn't think she was going to be quite so worried now that Lex was back in charge of the plant. At least I hoped not.
He nodded once more, then walked around the car and got in. I headed back towards the house, pausing at the doorway to watch as Lex turned from the driveway onto the road and drove off.
There's no such thing as a sure thing.
That was something else my father had always said. What he never understood was that it didn't matter. You couldn't let it. I'd never been sure that I could give Martha the kind of life she deserved, but my life would have been a hell of a lot poorer if I hadn't lived it at her side. And without Martha, maybe I wouldn't have ever had the guts to make Kent Farms an organic operation. It was a hell of a risk, but I'd looked at my wife and figured that maybe dreams could really come true, sometimes. And as far as risk-- God knows neither one of us had any idea what the hell we were getting into when we decided to adopt Clark.
My wife, our son, the farm... all three were about as far from sure things as you could possibly get.
But they were the best things in my life.
I looked at the stars for a while longer, and then I went inside. Martha and Clark were both upstairs, so I turned off the lights in the kitchen and went around the living room turning off the lamps and checking the windows.
The bedroom was already dark. When I crawled under the covers next to Martha, she smelled like the kitchen downstairs, fresh-baked oatmeal muffins and cinnamon. She put her hand on my face, and I leaned in to kiss her, silently asking her to tell me things were all right, or at least make me feel like they could be.
"He told me he couldn't turn his back on his brother." I said, long minutes later. "Like it was some dirty little secret, and I was supposed to hate him for it." I couldn't get over that. It was the way I might look, I thought, if I could ever tell Bill Ross the truth. If I could ever explain exactly why I'd tried so hard to convince him to go through with his deal with Lionel Luthor, knowing what a bastard the man truly was, a snake with a mouthful of lies.
Martha sighed slowly, her warm breath tickling my chest through my thin white T-shirt. "I really think he's got a good heart, Jonathan."
"I know you do," I said, because I knew she thought the same thing about me.
I'd compromised for my son. Martha didn't blame me. She said I hadn't had any other choice. I did... just no other choice I could stand to make. So I'd paid the price Lionel had asked, of my own free will.
My wife had taught me a lot over the years. But maybe the most important thing she ever showed me was that it took a lot more strength to live her way than it did mine. It had to. My father had been right about that, too. Wishes didn't come for free. You always had to pay.
I sighed, and held her in my arms, and thought of Lex, driving back to the castle. I wondered how many compromises he'd made over the years. How many times Lionel had given him the kind of choices he'd given me.
It was going to be a risk, reaching out to that boy, I knew that. All I had to do now was decide whether or not I was going to go on as I'd started.
Thanks to Jenn and Pearl-o for audiencing, and LaT and jessica and val for betas of various rough drafts & versions of this story. Title and summary are from "Better Things" by Dar Williams.
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