by Sarah T.
"gravis in rem publicam mater, gravis domui Caesarum noverca"--Tacitus, Annales
Clark walked up to the kitchen entrance of the castle, careful to appear to be struggling with the large crate of produce. He paused outside the door and x-rayed through it. Only one person waiting, and by the height and the long-ago-broken right femur, it was Lex. Good. If it had been any two people--Lex and his dad, Lex and Clark's mom, Lex's dad and Clark's mom--it would have been awkward in some weird way he didn't totally understand. Clark was getting tired of everybody in his life being awkward around him; he just wanted things to be easy and comfortable on a Saturday morning. Lex, by himself, was still his best shot at that, so he pulled the door open.
Lex looked up from his laptop as Clark came in. "Good morning."
"Morning, Lex." He plopped the box down on one of the counters, smiling. "You didn't get kicked out of your office again, did you? Since when do you bring your laptop down here?"
Lex gestured with his cup of coffee. "Since I spent an exorbitant sum to have the castle set up for wireless. To give me...a little maneuvering room."
"That must have cost a fortune."
"I convinced my dad it would make it possible for us to install more sophisticated mobility aids around the place. He put up most of the money."
"Oh." Clark didn't really like talking about Lionel, because talking about Lionel meant thinking about Lionel, and how stupid he'd been in front of him, and whether that was ever going to come back to haunt him. Time to change the subject. "So, I heard that--"
The doors that led back into the castle swung open. "Mr. Luthor?" a servant asked.
"Tell my father I'm busy," Lex said evenly, not turning around.
"Your father doesn't have anything to do with it," the man said, half-sullen, half-challenging. "It's--"
"If you're under the impression you can't be fired because you don't report to me," Lex interrupted, "think again. This is my home, and I have no intention of letting myself be pestered in it by my father's lackeys at all hours of the day or night. Now, do you have anything to say that's worth your job?"
"No, sir." The servant hastily backed out.
Clark stared. So much for avoiding the awkwardness. Lex took two quick breaths, then seemed to realize that Clark was in the room. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "What were you saying?"
"Um..." Lex had a temper. Of course Lex had a temper. Lex had nearly run him through with a foil the second time he'd ever seen him. Clark cast around in his mind, embarrassed. "...what are you working on?"
Lex smiled wearily. "Conquering the world, of course."
He was relieved. "Really? Any luck?"
"Not today. This is just a baby step. A fertilizer deal with a company in Edge City..."
Clark didn't mean for his attention to wander as Lex talked, even if it was a bit dull, but a low hum had begun to fill the air. It grew louder and louder, so deep that it almost hurt, but Lex kept on talking, oblivious.
"...and then, of course, I'm going to have myself crowned queen of Luxembourg."
Or not so oblivious. Darn. Clark said to Lex's raised eyebrow, "Sorry, Lex, but don't you hear something?"
Lex started to frown, but then cocked his head and listened. "No."
"Are you sure?" The room seemed full of it.
"Maybe..." Lex paused. "Wait. Maybe. Yes."
"What is it?"
"I don't know. Earthquake? My dad's sound system, if he's discovered heavy metal?" Lex got up. "Or..." He hurried over to the door, pushed it open, and went outside.
Clark followed him. Lex was out on the huge expanse of grass at one side of the castle, craning his head up. There was a smudge on the horizon that quickly turned itself into a large, stubby-nosed blue plane, headed right for the castle. Clark clapped his hands over his ears as it got closer. He thought it was going to pass right by the castle--it didn't seem to be making the approach for a landing--but, to his astonishment, the plane just paused over the side lawn and settled straight down on it, not far from Lex.
Now Lex had his ears covered, too. The door on the side of the plane opened, a ramp was lowered, and a man in uniform led a woman with silver hair down it. At the bottom, she turned to him, and even though the roar of the engines was almost unbearable, Clark could've sworn he heard her say, "Thank you, that was very kind. Now run along."
Clark turned to Lex to ask what was going on, but Lex had a big grin on his face. He hardly waited until the plane had taken off again before running forward to give the woman a hug. "Grandmother!"
Clark gaped as the woman returned the hug, then kissed Lex on the cheek. She wasn't much shorter than Lex, but very thin, with sharp features. She was wearing a plain tweedy suit with a simple square pendant of some purple gem. "Lex. How are you?"
"I'm fine," he said. "How are you?"
"Old," she said bluntly, "and getting older. But still ambulatory, for now."
"You don't look any older to me."
"Don't flatter me, Lex, it's not becoming."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Grandmother," he said, his smile becoming softer, more affectionate. "The cold must agree with you. But you didn't call--we weren't expecting you."
"Of course you weren't. I wanted to see how you actually were, not one of Lionel's dog-and-pony shows."
Lex swallowed a chuckle and gave her his arm, starting to lead her towards the house. "How did you get out of Antarctica? I thought you were stuck there for the season."
"Well, it took a little doing," she glanced over her shoulder at the departing plane, "but nothing is impossible for a Luthor."
"Mother?" Lex was cut off by Lionel's voice, carrying across the lawn. Clark's mom was guiding him towards them. Clark gave serious thought to a quick exit, but he was too curious. "Mother, is that you ruining the greenery with a dramatic entrance?"
"The greenery? The withered grass of a Kansas winter, you mean. Do you want me to pay you the ten dollars it's worth?" Lionel didn't answer as he came to stand before her. She took his shoulders and looked him over. "You look remarkably well, considering."
Lionel frowned. "No doubt I would say the same, if it were possible."
Lex's grandmother looked over her shoulder at Lex. "Tell me, Lex, which does he quote more? Oedipus Rex or King Lear?"
"I think he prefers Samson Agonistes. The hair, you know."
"Very droll, Lex," Lionel pronounced. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a witty child. What brings you here, Mother?"
"I came to see how my only son and the CEO of the family corporation was bearing up under his affliction."
He frowned. "Oh, so it has nothing to do with those patent assignments?"
"I see your brain damage was limited in scope after all," she said dryly, and turned back to Lex. "Who is your friend, Lex?"
"My--" Lex looked at Clark as if he'd just remembered that he was there, which stung a little. "Oh, right. May I present a very close friend of mine, Clark Kent? Clark, this is my grandmother, Mrs. Lincoln Luthor."
Clark came forward to shake her hand, still dazed. "Mrs. Luthor."
"Kent," she said, giving him a penetrating look. Her grip was strong, and her face was even more angular than Lionel's. "I don't believe I know that name. What extraordinary traits qualify a teenage boy to be a friend of my grandson?"
This was the first time he'd been asked for a resume to be someone's friend, and Mrs. Luthor was looking at him as if she had every right to demand it. He opened his mouth and closed it again, swallowing uncomfortably.
"It's not loquaciousness, at least," she observed.
"He saved my life, Grandmother," Lex cut in. "Twice, possibly more. I've lost count. I'd say that's good enough."
"Good enough to earn him a place on your security team, perhaps. To make him your bosom companion?"
Lex put his hand on her arm. "Why don't you get to know him a little, and you can decide for yourself?"
"Hrmph," she said. "And who is this?"
Clark tried not to sigh with relief as Mrs. Luthor shifted her attention. Mom was wearing her serious, business face. "Martha Kent. I'm Lionel's assistant, and Clark's mother. My father is Charles Clark, I believe he's done some business with you."
"I see." Mrs. Luthor shook Mom's hand more gently, now looking inscrutable. "Lionel? Why don't we go inside? We have a great deal of business to discuss, and this greenery of yours isn't the most comfortable setting for it."
"You owe me big for this one, Clark," Chloe said, putting her coffee and a folder on one of the front tables of the Talon. "There's an exciting missing-persons report I should be following up right now."
"Who's missing?" Clark asked half-heartedly.
"The lawyer? The guy who tried to sue NASA after the meteor shower? And the Beanery for getting the town addicted to caffeine?"
"Yep. Smallville's very own ambulance-chaser. No one's seen him in three days. The rumor is that he was getting ready to start a class-action suit against LuthorCorp for polluting the environment around here."
"But no one's ever proven that LuthorCorp has done any dumping or anything. Believe me, my dad would be all over that."
"Mr. Dorr has never really found the lack of hard evidence to be a serious problem," Chloe said. "He's sort of an inspiration to me. Of course, he could be off on a bender. That's the other rumor about him. But still. If a threat to LuthorCorp goes missing..."
"He could have been kidnapped. Or paid off. Or something."
"Exactly. But instead of running down that story, I look up little old ladies for my friend Clark Kent, who if he's actually planning on being a journalist should be figuring out how to do research for himself."
Clark winced. "I got the impression she was more than a just little old lady."
"Livia Petersen Luthor," Chloe read from her folder. "Born in 1925, in Mead, Nebraska. Graduated from the University of Nebraska summa cum laude, then got her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1950. Biology. Married one Lincoln Luthor, a local businessman, a year later. They founded LuthorCorp together, and the company's licensed some of the basic patents in the field from her for years."
"So, she's a scientist." Clark sipped his coffee. "She didn't act like a scientist."
"Oh, yeah? What did she act like?"
"I don't know. A general, maybe." Or a prison warden, he didn't say. "Chloe, does the cappuccino machine sound really loud to you?"
She turned her head. "No. I can't hear it at all. Why, can you?"
"I--no. I guess not. Tell me more about Mrs. Luthor."
Chloe grinned. "Well, I don't see anything here about a military career. She retired in 1980. Since then, there's not much on her. But I do have an article that says she was spending this year at the U.S. station in Antarctica."
"That's an impressive bit of background research," Lex said, suddenly materializing at their table. "Are you planning on trying to get an interview? I should warn you, my grandmother eats cub reporters for breakfast. Once, she made Dan Rather cry."
"Lex!" Chloe flipped her folder closed. "Just getting some information for Clark here."
"Oh, really? Why the sudden interest, Clark?"
"How come you never told me you had a grandmother?" Clark asked. It bothered him, for reasons he couldn't quite put his finger on. After all, he'd never talked to Lex about his grandfather.
"Everyone has a grandmother, Clark. Two of them, to be precise. I didn't really think you needed to be notified."
"You know what I mean."
Lex shrugged and dropped into a chair. "I don't see her very much. She's always wandering the globe, researching something or other. The past couple of years, it's been algae. She said contemplating my father's brain gave her the idea."
Clark tried not to smile. "But you like her."
"Of course. She's a truly remarkable woman. I wish I had her on the LexCorp team. Though being around her can be...strenuous."
"She doesn't like me," Clark said, knowing he sounded sulky but unable to prevent it.
"She doesn't know you, Clark. You'll just have to spend some time with her while she's here."
"That sounds a lot like a...strenuous homework assignment."
Lex laughed. "Don't feel bad. She's not very happy with me right now, either."
"Why?" Chloe asked.
"Off the record, Chloe? She isn't pleased that I've broken away from LuthorCorp. She's not really interested in the business side of things, but she thinks founding LexCorp shows a lack of family loyalty."
"Uh-oh," Clark said. "What are you going to do?"
"Well, I think the last time she changed her mind about anything was in 1974, so...I'm just going to have to put up with the pointed remarks. And the pointed elbow. She wouldn't make so much of a fuss if she didn't care." Lex smiled, the same soft smile from before. "She's only here for a little while, anyway. You should come over and talk to her while you can, Clark. I'd like you to get to know her."
"All right," he sighed. "When?"
"My father's having a big business dinner the day after tomorrow. I think he's trying to close a deal early just to impress her. You'd find that extremely dull, but you could come by afterwards."
"Good." Lex got up. "Bring the first aid kit for your ego."
"Lex?" Chloe touched his arm. "Could I get an interview? I'm a lot tougher than Dan Rather."
"And what do I get in return, Chloe?"
"I won't print that remark about algae."
"Chloe!" Clark exclaimed. Lex's eyes flashed, and he was suddenly worried.
"Hey." She raised her eyebrows. "I'm a reporter, not your personal librarian. If you get me involved in a story, I'm going to tell it."
"Don't worry, Clark." Lex's smile was determinedly tolerant. "In this case, I think I think Chloe is arranging her own punishment. Chloe, I'll do my best. Now, I have to go. It's been a full day since my grandmother arrived, which means it's exactly time for the traditional fight over why my father hasn't remarried. I need to break that one up."
"Why?" Clark asked.
Lex shot him a look. "I don't want her getting started on a list of local candidates."
Three hours later, Clark went in the front entrance of the castle. "I'll tell your mother you're here," one of Lionel's servants said to him, and whisked away. Clark frowned. He didn't like Lionel's employees; they just seemed sneakier than Lex's. It was much harder to relax on a visit when he always felt like there could be someone watching him.
It was ten minutes or more before Mom appeared, still tucking papers into a briefcase. "I'm sorry you had to wait, Clark," she said, "but Lionel's decided to accelerate the schedule on a deal, and there was a lot of paperwork to get through."
"Yeah, Lex mentioned something about that. A big dinner tomorrow?"
"Yes. To finalize some arrangements with the Lucard Industries representative. I think it's premature, but Lionel..."
"...wants to impress his mom."
Mom pursed her lips and gave him a warning glance. "Let's not discuss Mrs. Luthor here."
"Okay." Really, Clark was happy not to make conversation about Lex's crazy relatives. "Ready to go?"
"Sure." She put her hands in her pockets, then looked around. "Oh, no. I left my gloves in the garden. I'm sorry, honey, could you wait just a minute more?"
He shrugged. "No problem."
Clark sat down after his mom had disappeared. The castle seemed...creakier than before. He could hear someone pacing around in the room above. A door opened and closed. The phone rang. Then, to his astonishment, he could hear a voice, clear as a bell. Lionel Luthor.
"I've told you, if you call me once more, I'll have you arrested for harassment."
Clark turned his head, but Lionel was nowhere to be seen. He got up and peered through the archway that led into the first receiving room. No one. But the voice continued, "I don't care what you think you found. LuthorCorp is not responsible."
"Now you're talking nonsense. Changed?"
A longer pause.
"It's always been my policy to ignore threats. Good day."
Clark could hear him hang up; the click rang in his ears. The only thing that kept him from bolting for the door was the sudden appearance of Mrs. Luthor.
"Clark Kent, is it?" she said, looking him over from head to foot while Clark silently groaned over her timing. He was hearing Lionel through God knew how many walls and floors and he couldn't catch a single little old lady sneaking up on him?
"Yes, ma'am." He gave her his most winning smile.
"Since this is Kansas, you quite possibly were born in a barn, but you still ought to know better than to wear those boots on this floor."
Clark's smile faded, and he looked down at his workboots. "I was doing my chores when my mom called me to come pick her up."
"Nonetheless. You're marring the evidence of the pedigree my son has invented for himself."
"Isn't this really the Luthor family castle?" Clark blurted.
She narrowed her eyes. "Lex tells me you're a bright young man. I'm going to be very disappointed in my grandson if he's started keeping dull company just to make himself feel clever."
With that, Mrs. Luthor turned on her heel and marched away. Mom came back out just a minute later with her gloves.
"Clark? Are you okay, honey?"
"I'm feeling a little sick. Can we go home now, please?"
As soon as they were in the truck, he turned to her. "Mom. I just heard Lionel Luthor making a phone call."
She frowned, confused. "You mean you picked up the phone and overheard him?"
"No. I mean I just heard him."
"But I left Lionel upstairs in his study. There's no way you could have."
"That's right," Clark said grimly. "There's no way. No way an ordinary person could have."
She gasped. "You think...this is some new gift?"
"For the past couple days, things have seemed really loud. I was thinking maybe I was just going crazy, but..."
"Now you think you have special hearing to go along with your x-ray vision?"
Clark nodded miserably. "Yeah."
"Oh, Clark." She touched his hand.
"It's just not fair!" He hit the steering wheel. "Every time I think I'm getting a grip on things so they can get back to normal, something else comes along!"
"You'll get a grip on this, too, Clark. Is it...is it hurting you?"
"No. And right now it's only in flashes, like when the vision started. But, Mom, when is it all going to stop?"
"I'm not going to lie to you, honey. I don't know. But look on the bright side," she tried to smile, "at least this ability isn't going to have you evacuating the school."
"Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better."
"We just have to ride this out. I know it's not easy on you, but we've managed before and we'll manage again."
"I hope so," he muttered. But they couldn't be sure, could they?
"I know we will." She patted his hand. "So, I heard you were invited to the castle tomorrow evening to get to know Mrs. Luthor."
"Did you see the way she looked at me? Like I wasn't worthy of being Lex's friend."
"Honey, it's obvious she makes very quick judgments."
Clark turned the truck into their driveway. "Why do you say that?"
Mom actually blushed. "Never mind, honey." She looked out the window. "She's raising a real ruckus within the family."
"Apparently, some of the patents resulting from her research have been assigned to LuthorCorp for years, but the agreement is expiring. I get the impression that she's using that as a bludgeon on Lionel."
"Wow, and I thought that my grandparent situation was bad. No wonder Lex seemed kind of stressed today." Clark opened his door, but Mom didn't touch hers. "Mom?"
"Clark, does it ever seem to you like Lex is stressed a lot lately?"
Clark thought about it. "No. I mean, except for the meter-maid thing." And the servant thing, but he didn't really want to tell Mom about that. It didn't seem fair, to dig up every time Lex might lose his temper and then gossip about it. "Why?"
She shook her head. "Never mind."
Clark would've asked more, but suddenly he could hear his dad singing along to an old Tammy Wynette record in his room, and the horror of hearing him belt out "Stand By Your Man" put the question right out of his head.
Dad wasn't exactly thrilled about the new ability, though he did his best to hide it. Clark was getting better at spotting it when Dad was putting a good face on things he didn't like, he realized. The thought only made him feel worse.
He skipped dinner and retreated to his room to practice all night. It was like tuning a radio with a broken knob. Most of the time, nothing; then suddenly crickets, way too loud, or a car passing on the road. Or himself, much weirder and more interesting than the Torkelsons arguing over feed prices: the steady percussion of his heart thudding in his chest, the soft whoosh of his breathing, the strange crickling of the blood in his veins. It was a long while before the jump in volume stopped startling him.
He was strongly tempted to see if his range reached to the castle. It was dawning on him that, even though his family knew secrets about the Luthors that no one else did, there was still a whole lot he *didn't* know about them. Like that they had crazy relatives who still made their grandchildren smile in ways Clark had never seen them smile before. Clark hadn't really thought about it, but Lex had more or less shut up about his family once Mr. Luthor had moved into the castle. It wasn't like he and Lex were girls, always talking about their feelings, so it had been easy to miss that Lex had gotten a lot quieter about things lately, that there must be all kinds of things going on at the castle that Clark wasn't aware of. It didn't seem fair that he could walk into Lex's life at any minute with his problems--except the alien ones, anyway--when Lex felt he had to keep things to himself. Unfortunately, it didn't take a genius to work out that snooping wasn't the answer. Especially not when he was as likely to pick up on Mrs. Luthor taking a shower as anything that would explain Lex's behavior.
It was past his bedtime when, concentrating hard on the cows, he picked up Mom and Dad instead.
"--perfectly understandable assumption, I guess," Mom was saying, with a strange tinge of bitterness in her voice. "I just wonder how many other people are making it."
"Honey. You know anyone who would think that isn't a friend of ours."
"You know the funny thing? I don't think she minded. In fact, I think she's hoping for something more."
Dad's laugh sounded pained. "Well, unless she's planning to have me done away with."
"Which I wouldn't put past her. You should see her, Jonathan. She's really something."
"Well, I'll be extra careful feeding the cows, then. I've never completely trusted the new ones. A couple of them seem like real shifty characters."
He could almost hear her smile. "I just hope she can help Lex. She does seem to like him, and--"
Clark wrenched his hearing away before his mom could say more.
When he fell asleep, he dreamed of Lex leaning over the parapet of the castle, shouting into the wind.
Lex looked Clark over from head to foot as they stood outside the door to one of the drawing rooms. "Here, your tie is crooked. Let me get it."
Clark stood nervously as Lex fiddled at his throat. "Does your grandmother really care so much about this kind of thing?"
"Normally, no. But she seems to be taking any excuse not to like you." Lex patted his chest twice, quickly. "Don't worry too much, Clark. She grew up on a farm, too, you know."
It was surprisingly easy to imagine her telling off the chickens. "How was dinner?"
"Excruciating. But my father seems to have made his deal. He and your mom are off with the Lucard Industries guy now, signing the papers. Ready?"
Clark had never been into that particular room before; he didn't think Lex even used it when he was alone in the castle. The furnishings were thick and soft and mostly yellow, which combined with the gray stone walls to make the room seem both light and curiously dreamy. Mrs. Luthor was seated on a couch, talking to a familiar-looking, pretty younger woman who wore her dark, curly hair pinned up. Lex led Clark over to them.
"Grandmother, you remember Clark," he said. "Helen, this is my friend Clark. Clark, this is Dr. Helen Bryce, also a friend."
And his date, Clark realized with some mortification as Helen stood up and shook his hand with an easy pressure. The second girl in a row Lex had just--sprung--on him, though he supposed he should be glad she wasn't wearing an engagement ring yet. "Pleased to meet you, Clark. I've heard a lot about you."
"Nice to meet you, too," he said, inspecting her closely for signs of evil but seeing only prettiness. "Though I can't exactly say the same."
"Lex must be ashamed of me," she smiled. "I don't own even one sportscar."
"Come on, Helen," Lex said, letting his hand rest lightly on her shoulder-blade, "I just wanted to introduce you in person."
"Actually," Clark realized, "we have met. She treated my dad when he hurt his leg."
"Oh, Mr. Kent, of course. I should have remembered."
"Now, how could I be ashamed of someone who helped out the Kents?"
"He ought be proud of you," Mrs. Luthor said from the couch. "You don't have a single criminal conviction on your record. That makes you a big step up from his last sweetheart."
Lex laughed uncomfortably, and Helen's smile went a little tighter. "What would you like to do now, Grandmother?" he asked. "Poker?"
"Not with ladies and children present. Euchre. Do you know how to play euchre, Clark?"
If knowing how to lose to Chloe daily in the Torch's office counted. "Sure."
"Lex can play with you, then, and Helen will be my partner."
Clark made himself smile as he sat down.
Forty-five minutes later, he wasn't smiling. Mrs. Luthor made Chloe look like a rookie, and Helen was nearly as good. Lex was better than her, maybe, but Clark was obviously dragging him down, and with every hand they lost, Mrs. Luthor made a "mm-hm" sound that made it clear that her opinion of him was being confirmed. Clark was on the verge of challenging her to a tractor pull when he heard a strange, high-pitched sound. His hand froze mid-play as he tried to push his hearing outwards again.
"It's your turn, Clark," Helen said to him after a minute.
He started to put the card down, but then it came again. This time he was sure: it was his mom's scream. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what, Clark?" Lex asked.
"It sounded like my mom, yelling for help."
Lex and Helen looked at him, puzzled. "I don't hear anything."
"I did." He laid down his hand. "Look, I'm going to go check it out--just in case."
"Is this how your friend gets out of losing, Lex?" Mrs. Luthor asked disdainfully.
To answer her would have taken forever, so Clark just ran out of the room.
As soon as he was out of sight, he sped up, so that it only took him a few seconds to reach the hallway in the other wing where his mom and Mr. Luthor were. They were being backed up against the wall by some guy in a cheap suit with a gun.
"I told you, Luthor," he was saying, "I told you--"
"Hey!" Clark yelled. "What are you doing?"
"Back off, kid." The guy didn't even look at him. "Time to make a settlement, Luthor."
Clark heard the click of the safety and didn't wait any longer. He tackled the guy around the waist, sending him flying a dozen feet. The gun clattered to the floor. The guy squirmed around and kicked him square in the chest, knocking him back much further than he should have been able to.
"Mom, get Mr. Luthor out of here! Go to the others!"
Mom nodded, grabbed Mr. Luthor's arm, and started down the hall. Clark turned back to the stranger, and his jaw fell.
The guy was melting into the floor like a lit candle, running into a dirty grey puddle that flowed towards a crack in the floor. Clark crawled forward, but all he could do was stare as the puddle disappeared.
Things were never dull at this place.
Clark was only about a third of the way back to the drawing room when he turned a corner and nearly ran right into Lex.
"Clark!" he exclaimed, as he put his hand out to catch himself. "What's going on? Your mom said someone attacked them!"
"Yeah, some guy I didn't recognize." Clark handed Lex the gun. "With this. I knocked him down, but he got away."
"Do you think he's still in the castle?"
"I don't know, Lex. He could be. We should get everybody somewhere safe."
Clark could hear the clamor of excited voices long before they actually got back to the drawing room. As he burst in the door, Mrs. Luthor nearly brained him with the poker from the fireplace.
"Hey!" he yelled, only just catching it in time.
"Don't you know how to knock, young man?" she demanded.
"We don't have time for this," Clark said angrily. "Mom, are you two okay?"
She was kneeling next to Mr. Luthor, and Helen was stooping over them both. "Yes, honey, we're fine."
"Weren't you signing papers with someone?"
"He left ahead of us. He should be gone...if that man didn't get him on the way out."
"Was that...that lawyer guy?"
"Mr. Dorr? I haven't seen him in ages, but that was him."
"What did he want with Mr. Luthor?"
"I don't know," Mr. Luthor interjected. "Dorr, you said? I've never had any dealings with the man."
"Well, he sure seems to want to kill you now. Mom, we need to get everybody out of here. Somewhere safer."
She got up. "Where?"
"This door does lock, Clark," Lex said, testing it. "And it's pretty sturdy."
Clark looked at the big crack between the door and the floor. "No, that won't work. We need somewhere...somewhere...that's at the top of some stairs. And locked."
Lex stared at him, puzzled. "The north turret has just a trapdoor for access, Clark, but--"
"That's perfect. Come on, let's go."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Mrs. Luthor, still gripping the poker. "Not until someone explains to me what's going on. I won't be herded around like cattle!"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Luthor," he said, and in one quick motion scooped her up over his shoulder. "Lex, Mom, get Mr. Luthor."
Mrs. Luthor squawked and started to struggle, beating at the backs of his legs with the poker, but Clark held her firmly.
Lionel, however, was not cooperating. "This is your idea of security, I suppose, Lex?" he snapped. "Letting strangers into the castle and then handing over control of the situation to sixteen-year-olds?"
Lex swallowed hard. "Mrs. Kent, do you think you could help me here?"
"Kents saving Luthors. I see this has become a habit of yours. Maybe we should go work for them. Raising pigs, per--"
"Christ, dad!" Lex snapped. "Save the theatrics for later! This is actual danger, not just a prime opportunity for you to be a fucking drama queen!"
Everyone stared at Lex.
"Mr. Luthor," Mom implored, breaking the brief silence, "please. We can discuss this later."
"Help me up," he said to her.
But it was Lex who helped his dad to his feet and took his arm, leading the parade out of the room.
The turret was cold and windy beneath a grey night sky. The adults huddled together under the shelter of the wall. Lex said something quietly to Helen, handing her the poker Mrs. Luthor had finally dropped, and she nodded. Clark shrugged off his jacket for his mom; Lex offered his to Mrs. Luthor, but she refused to even acknowledge him, so he put it around his dad's shoulders instead. While he was doing that, Clark climbed down through the trapdoor. He reached up to push it closed, but Lex was coming down behind him.
"Lex, why don't you stay with your grandma?" he suggested lamely.
"Clark, this man has invaded my house and attacked my family. If anyone's going to deal with him, it should be me." He took Dorr's gun from his waistband. "Whatever's really going on around here."
"You think something...strange is going on?"
Lex narrowed his eyes at him, and Clark shut up.
They crept back down to the hallway where Clark had first seen Dorr. "Which way did he go?" Lex asked.
"I...didn't see." Clark was trying to pick up either the sound of footsteps or of liquid running. The servants seemed to be all in their quarters, but the castle did have running water, after all, and all the movement through the pipes was distracting. "Can we shut the water off?"
"The water to the whole house?"
Lex stared. "Why?"
"Just trust me, okay?"
The look Lex gave him said plainly that it was not okay, but he nodded. "The main's in the cellars. Come on."
The castle didn't actually have dungeons, but the cellars, a series of broader rooms connected by narrower corridors that branched in several directions, were grim enough. Lex had picked up a flashlight upstairs, but it was still easy to trip. At least the floor didn't creak underfoot, which made it easier for Clark to keep an ear out. The main was in a small room not too far from the staircase with the electric meters and the boiler. It took them both to turn the water off. Clark studied the silence around them. "Let's start searching, then."
"Well, bottom to top is traditional."
It was hard to search the wine cellars, since Dorr could be hiding behind any of the racks that formed cramped aisles in the damp rooms, seeming to go on forever. But Clark couldn't very well tell Lex that he could hear that Dorr wasn't there, so they had to peer behind every rack.
"That was the second time I've seen you lose your temper at someone in a couple of days," Clark said quietly, tuning his hearing in on Lex.
"I guess the anger management classes aren't taking."
Lex obviously just wanted to laugh it off, but Clark persisted. "Is it...stressful having your dad here all the time?"
"Everyone's life has stress, Clark."
"You don't really talk about him anymore."
"There hasn't been very much to say."
He could hear the way Lex's heart sped up in his chest as he spoke. Not that he had had much practice yet, but he was fairly sure that that meant a lie. "C'mon, Lex. There's more to it. I know there is. I mean, he was going to let that crazy Mrs. Dunleavy kill you. That didn't bother you at all?"
Lex hesitated. "Clark," he said, "you're sixteen years old. I can't expect you to deal with my family problems."
"I've had my share of fights with my dad. I think I'd understand."
"The way you understood when I told you about what happened during the storm?"
It came out fast, Lex's voice gone tight over it, and Clark winced. So many things had happened since then, he'd almost forgotten about that fight. But not totally. The memory of making that crack had lurked in the back of his head, tinged with guilt.
"I'm not angry at you, Clark, but it...reminded me."
"You are angry," Clark blurted, hearing the microscopic catch in Lex's voice. "And you're right to be."
Another awkward pause. "Even if I was angry. You're still--young. I should have known--"
"Hey, you're only six years older than me. And it seems to me like the more you *don't* talk about what you're feeling, the more you have to apologize for what those feelings end up making you do." He paused. "Which is kind of dumb."
Lex laughed quietly. "Well, I wouldn't want to be dumb. Especially not 'kind of' dumb. My grandmother would never forgive me. I'm supposed to achieve the superlative in all things."
"Good. So, tell me--"
It was then that Clark heard it. Drip, drip, drip, slow but constant. Above them, and sinking down. He stopped. "Lex? I think I hear something."
Lex nodded and raised his gun, but he still obviously wasn't ready when Dorr showered down on them from above.
"Damn!" Lex had dropped the gun, and Dorr swirled and coalesced around it until he was holding it on them.
"Your father should've listened to me, Lex," he said through his teeth.
"Mr. Dorr," Clark interjected, "what's going on? Why are you doing this?"
"Lionel Luthor," Dorr sneered. "I got a tip that he was dumping toxic waste in Finn Field. Weird green waste. I went to check it out, and I fell into the waste. And I...dissolved."
"Why didn't you just sue?"
Dorr rolled his eyes, and Clark flushed. Right. Sue for being turned into a meteor mutant. Even a guy who'd sued Weatherman Bill for emotional distress when he'd been wrong about a white Christmas last year probably wouldn't try to get away with that.
"What do you want, Dorr?"
"I just wanted a little money for myself. For being turned into a freak. So that I could quit taking jobs from every slack-jawed gawker in this town. A little private settlement. But your father wouldn't listen. Fine. I'll take it out in blood. Starting with yours."
He tightened his finger on the trigger, and Clark hastily narrowed his eyes to heat up the gun. But Dorr didn't drop it, even when it should've been hot enough that a normal person couldn't hold it. Clark desperately tried to throw more heat at it, and Dorr's hand jerked in pain just as he fired, sending the bullet wide.
Dorr dropped the gun with a clatter and stared at him. Then he splashed down against the hallway floor and started pouring away from them, down towards the room at the end of the corridor. Clark thought about using the heat vision on the liquid, but he just didn't know how much was safe. What if he evaporated him or boiled his brains and killed him?
"Lex, are you okay?"
Lex grabbed the gun, then dropped it in surprised pain. He wrapped his hand in a fold of his jacket to pick it up again. "Fine, but how--?"
"I don't know. We can't hold him, I don't think you can shoot him--he's going to get away!"
Lex looked up the hallway as Dorr streamed into the far room. "Maybe not. Come on!"
"What's down there?"
"The laundry room."
The laundry room was cavernous and particularly grim and gloomy, even for the castle. A row of industrial-sized washing machines and dryers stood under sad yellowish light next to huge freestanding sinks that were probably used for hand-washing. There was rack after rack of sweaters and such spread to dry. A large shelving unit held what looked like every form of cleaning supply known to man. The floor sloped a little towards a drain set in the floor at the far end of the room. Dorr-the-puddle was heading straight for it.
"Slow him down, Clark!" Lex said, running to the shelves.
"I don't know." He was ransacking the supplies. "Threaten him with a paper towel or something! Just keep him in here!"
Clark couldn't figure out why Lex was looking for--he didn't think fabric softener would be helpful in this situation--but Dorr was getting away and there was no time to think about it. There was one thing he could try that might not tip Lex off. He narrowed his eyes and heated the floor just ahead of Dorr. As he'd hoped, Dorr came to a quick stop when he reached the hot strip of floor. After a minute or so, he changed direction, trying to get around it. Clark frowned. It took time to make the floor that hot, and he wasn't sure he could constantly block him off from the drain...
But Lex had found what he was looking for. Clutching a white bottle, he ran to the end of the room. For an agonizing minute, he struggled to get the cap off. Then it flew into the air, and he upended the bottle onto Dorr.
It looked like plain old laundry detergent, but the effect was extraordinary. Dorr suddenly just broke apart into dozens of smaller puddles that rolled around like balls of mercury. His color had gone from grey to milky white, and it was almost as if he were writhing in pain.
"Give it up, Dorr," Lex said, holding the bottle out threateningly. "There's more where that came from!"
"What is that, Lex?" Clark gasped.
"New LuthorCorp product. Incredibly strong detergent. I'll bet you didn't know that detergent cleans by destroying the surface tension of liquids."
"Fortunately, some of us have had physics class. It already seemed like his was low, so...Dorr. It's over!"
Lex skipped back a couple of steps as a mini-Dorr rolled towards his foot. It looked like Dorr didn't agree. The worst Clark could do now was burn off a thumb or something, right? So Clark trained his vision right on the puddle menacing Lex. "We've got you, Mr. Dorr! Just surrender before anyone else gets hurt!"
The puddle started to boil, and either there was the thin squeak of steam, or Dorr was yelling in pain. A minute later, and he had swirled back into himself, clapping a hand to his ear.
"Hands up," Lex said, pointing the gun at him.
Dorr complied, clambering slowly to his feet, and Clark could see that a notch had been taken out of his earlobe.
"Give me your phone and I'll call the cops," he said.
Thirty minutes later, the cops had taken Dorr away, but Clark and Lex were still having to deal with what Clark privately thought was a much greater menace: a highly annoyed Mrs. Luthor.
"--might as well have stayed in Antarctica," she was saying. "At least there we were prepared for the cold."
"It's all over now, Grandmother," Lex said gently. "You can come down and get warm. I'll have the servants bring you some hot brandy."
"You're lucky your grandmother is so resilient," Lionel rumbled, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Many people her age would suffer far more from an...expedition of this kind."
"A totally unnecessary one, at that," she said. "I'm tremendously disappointed in you, Lex. Don't you have any security in this place? Or is it one of those odd thrill-seeking behaviors of yours to allow people with known vendettas against your family to wander the halls?"
Lex opened his mouth, glanced at Lionel, who was himself shivering beneath Lex's coat, and closed it, bright spots coming out on his cheeks. He knelt down next to the trapdoor and opened it. "Let's just get you inside."
Clark kindled with indignation. "He does have security, Mrs. Luthor. But it's pretty hard to guard against a threat when you don't even know it exists!"
Mrs. Luthor gave him a sharp look. "What are you talking about?"
"Mr. Luthor never warned Lex that Mr. Dorr had threatened him. He didn't know!"
"Threatened me?" Lionel said. "He never threatened me."
"He told us he did. He asked you for money, you turned him down, and then he said he'd get you."
"You believed someone holding a gun on you? The man's obviously insane."
"He may be crazy, but I..." Clark took a deep breath. If he stopped to think, he might not have the nerve. "I heard you! On the phone with him, just the other day! I picked up an extension by mistake!" He turned his head. Lex was staring at him as if he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing, but the corners of his mouth were twitching upwards. "Mom, didn't I tell you?"
"Yes. Yes, he did," his mom said firmly.
"And you didn't say anything?" Mrs. Luthor cried.
"We wouldn't dream of interfering in your family business, Mrs. Luthor." Mom said this pointedly, like there was something else she was trying to get across.
Mrs. Luthor frowned, then turned to Lionel. "Lionel, is this true?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, it's much too cold for shilly-shallying. Is it true?"
"From a certain point of view, I suppose."
"And you were going to let Lex take the blame for it? You are your father's son, Lionel. Why not just crawl on your belly and be done with it?" She pulled away from Lionel's hand and came over to Lex, who was now clearly struggling not to grin. "My apologies, Lex. For my remarks here, and also for my comments earlier about your family loyalty. Clearly you--and your friend here"--she nodded at Clark--"are much more loyal to the Luthors than other rapscallions I could name."
"Thank you, grandmother. I try."
"Making your own son the scapegoat. Ridiculous." She put out her hand, and Lex took it. Clark noticed Helen hiding a grin behind them. "Help me down, before the number of sane Luthors is reduced by one. There seems to be a shortage, and I wouldn't want to worsen it."
Lex put the extra mug down on the table, and Clark raised an eyebrow at him. "I didn't think you liked hot chocolate, Lex."
"I don't," Lex said, sliding back into his seat. "It's for Chloe. I think she's going to need reviving after the interview."
Clark looked at his watch. She was supposed to be back in about five minutes. "Good call."
"Actually, I'm surprised she's not already here. I can't believe she's lasted this long."
"She's tougher than she looks, Lex."
"Well, she and my grandmother have that in common, at least."
"I can't believe you were going to let your dad blame you in front of her for Mr. Dorr."
Lex looked into the depths of his coffee. "The longer my dad lives here, Clark, the more obvious it becomes that if I try to imitate him in order to beat him, I'll just end up with the same kind of miserable life he has."
Miserable life? "Do you feel sorry for him?"
He shrugged. "My dad never thought he'd need anyone to actually care about him, and now he has to spend every minute pretending that they do. Even Grandmother doesn't like him very much. I don't want to end up like that."
"I don't think you have to worry, Lex."
Lex looked like he was going to disagree, but Clark kept his gaze until he just shook his head and smiled. Then Clark heard familiar energetic footsteps and looked up.
"Hey, guys!" Chloe bounced into the Talon, her cheeks glowing, and did a little pirouette. "Say hello to Chloe Sullivan, ace reporter!"
"The interview went well, I take it?" Lex asked, a little skeptically.
"Of course it did." Seeing her pleased look, Clark made a grab for the hot chocolate. "She was a bit tough at the beginning, but once I told her I was a friend of Clark's, it was all smooth sailing."
"Of course. Clark Kent, you have amazing powers over the Luthor imagination."
Clark, mid-swallow, grinned at him.
"She said you were brave and resourceful and could outmanuever fierce old ladies." Chloe shrugged. "Don't ask me where she got that from."
"But did she say anything interesting? That didn't have to do with how great I am, that is."
"Did she!" Chloe pulled a chair up and lowered her voice. "She's going to be reassigning her patents to LexCorp!"
Lex spat out a mouthful of coffee and started choking. Clark helpfully pounded him on the back. He wiped his eyes and said, "What?"
"Yep. She said she wanted to give them to a 'more worthy Luthor than the present disgrace of a LuthorCorp president.'" She looked at her notebook. "The deal should be worth--"
"Several million dollars, at least. And that's just to start," Lex said, almost reverently. "Excuse me, guys, I need to go."
They watched Lex disappear in the direction of his Porsche, then Chloe snagged the hot chocolate and took a sip.
"Wow," Clark said. "It looks like she likes Lex again."
"Lex and you."
"What does that mean?"
"Well..." Chloe's cheeks got even brighter. "She asked me if I was your friend, or your friend."
"Oh, no," Clark groaned.
"She said you had...some remarkable assets."
"She said she discovered them when you saved her against her own will. Or something like that."
When he saved her...when he had her over his shoulder...assets...oh, man. Livia Luthor had definitely grown up on a farm.
"So, what did she mean, exactly, Clark?" Chloe was watching him closely.
He grabbed the hot chocolate back. "I have no idea," he said, grinning. "Luthors are a mystery to me."
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