Days like this, when insomnia settles its implacable weight on all of his nerve endings and every breath feels like more effort than it's worth, Lex finds himself wondering if his childhood asthma was really as bad as he remembers. An asthma attack only lasts a few minutes, after all, and the inhaler usually took care of it. Insomnia comes and goes, but when it comes, it comes with a vengeance and stays for weeks. Lex blinks at his spreadsheet and realizes that he doesn't know what any of the numbers mean anymore. He closes his eyes and sits back, waiting, but the pounding roar of the headache he expects does not arrive. There is only the constant dull grind of sleeplessness, sandpapering his nerves raw.
No migraine today, a small mercy that makes up for nothing. Lex opens his eyes to discover that the Excel window on his laptop has resolved itself into neat marching ranks of payroll figures. The clock at the top of the screen informs him that it is after 6:30 already. The butler will be here any minute to inform him that dinner is ready, but Lex's stomach suddenly wakes up and announces that this is a bad idea. Outside his window the sky is the rich dark blue of an early Kansas twilight. The first stars are just coming out. Lex picks up his jacket and walks out of the house.
The door closes behind him and Lex shivers momentarily. It's November and getting cold fast, though it hasn't snowed yet. He looks up at the sky but no clouds mar the luminous evening glow. Lex turns around and goes back inside. He remembers to turn off his laptop and leave it in a locked drawer. He remembers to lock the door of his office. Blindness has not dampened his father's enthusiasm for psychological warfare. Lex cannot afford to be careless.
Five minutes down the road the heavy bass of whatever CD he left in the Ferrari's stereo sets up a thin but distinct buzzing just behind his eyes. Lex ejects the CD but the steady purr of the engine isn't as soothing as it usually is. He clenches his teeth and starts hunting through Smallville's depressing selection of radio stations, in search of what he does not know. He settles for the tail end of some Nirvana song and looks at the clock again. It's still not 7:00pm yet. Lex sighs. Normal people are still eating dinner at this hour. Lex considers stopping at some truck stop outside of town and is relieved that his body does not instantly veto this idea. He begins to relax a little. Already his head feels clearer. Lex decides he doesn't really want greasy diner food. He's not actually hungry; insomnia suppresses his appetite to the point that he sometimes has to remind himself to eat. A road sign flashes by and Lex glances at it in his rearview mirror, a little startled. He realizes where he is going and pulls over with a sigh.
As if on cue, the radio's mindless 90's pop bursts out into something louder and anguished. "I'm sorry 'bout the attitude I need to give when I'm with you, but no one else will take this shit from me," the singer cries, and Lex snaps the radio off in shock. That line sums up his relationship with Clark just a little too succinctly. Of course he was heading for Clark's house. Clark is weird and secretive and has saved his life at least twice that Lex can think of right now. Lex suspects something profound and mysterious happened to Clark during the meteor shower and that the whole Kent family works hard to hide it. Sometimes this bothers him immensely; sometimes it doesn't. Curiosity killed the cat, and Lex is well aware that it could kill his friendship.
Tonight he doesn't care. Clark is magic. Alone among all the pills and drugs and doctors and drinks and meditations and biofeedback and all the other weird things Lex has tried, Clark somehow is the one solution that works every time. He can turn off Lex's chronic insomnia like flicking a light switch.
Wonderful, right. But Clark has his wholesome, Leave-It-To-Beaver, Father-Knows-Best, 1950's sitcom family, and it's only 6:58 and they won't be done eating yet. Lex has an idea of what they would think if he showed up while they were having dinner. He has no desire to appear that desperate.
I'm not, Lex tells himself, sitting alone in his expensive car on a country road in the gathering dark. Really I am not that desperate, for sleep or friendship or anything else. Or anyone else. Really.
Lex has a fine ear for falsehood and the words ring hollow in his mind. He is very good at lying to other people. He can't lie to himself and stay sane.
Look, would it save a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now? a cheerful voice says in the back of his mind. Lex smiles, trying to think where that line came from. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, maybe. He says it to himself again, trying to decide if the shaky British accent belongs to poor lost Arthur Dent: Look, would it save a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?
Lex decides that this is probably not a good idea. Madness was Hamlet's solution too, and look what a fat lot of good it did him. Instead he returns his attention to the spreadsheet he'd been working on when he left the mansion. There is more room in the payroll budget than he predicted. Lex considers various solutions. He could just reduce the budget and call the surplus profit. He could cut the budget and funnel the surplus back into lab equipment and whatever else they claimed to need to study the meteors. He could hire two more people for marketing; that would make what's-her-name, the manager - Bryson? - or something, that would make her happy. He could give out larger Christmas bonuses than people are expecting. Morale does wonderful things for productivity. Speaking of morale, he could give everyone in his household who has to deal with his father another dollar an hour. Lex suspects they think one Luthor is bad enough. He's noticed the uneasy looks his staff give each other when he and his father wind up in the same room.
Loyalty wins over greed, for once: Lex was raised mainly by servants and has an idea how hard he is to work for. He does a quick head count and allocates an extra dollar per hour for the deserving. Leftover money goes to the lab. Lex is aware that he can only do this kind of mental math when he hasn't slept in a while. Under normal circumstances he needs a calculator.
Lex has another look at the clock and is appalled at how little time has passed. He thumps the display with one finger, knowing there's nothing wrong with it. Insomnia distorts his time sense. Lex closes his eyes and breathes deeply, remembering what it was like to fall asleep in his own bed every night, to have his brain shut up for a little while, to wake up feeling like a person instead of a marionette on Speed. In the stillness of the deepening twilight his nerve endings have begun to wake up again, and between the savage grind of exhaustion and his own compulsive intellect he aches, body and mind, for one night of peace. Lex starts the car again and revs the engine a few times. The throbbing roar of the Ferrari's twelve cylinders mutes his jangling nerves, at least momentarily.
Well, if his math skills are this good, perhaps it's time to see what insomnia is doing for his reflexes lately. Lex pulls onto the road again and leans on the gas pedal. As the speedometer rises, he hears Clark's voice in his mind, very clear and just faintly worried. "You can get killed doing that, you know. We have these things out here, they're called speed limits ..." Lex lets the voice trail off into nothingness, aided by the roar of the wind at sixty miles an hour. He doesn't care. He has too much adrenaline in his bloodstream all the time anyway; that's why he can't sleep. Might as well use it up.
The sound of the road changes abruptly but briefly. Lex realizes he has just passed over the bridge where he met Clark. He does a U-turn, remembering to downshift and drop his speed. The Ferrari, being lower and wider, is harder to flip than a Porsche, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Lex parks on the shoulder and walks out onto the bridge. He's fully alert now and his nerves have settled down to a high-pitched hum, like nails on a chalkboard, making him shiver. Its a little like being high, and sometimes Lex wonders if his insomnia is just a leftover from his years of Better Living Through Chemistry. Everything is clearer and sharper than usual. Everything seems to be moving just a little bit slower than natural, as though all his senses have been set on hyperdrive.
This is his gift and his curse: insomnia, which brings him this heightened level of awareness and pushes his endurance until he's ready to collapse from exhaustion. Sometimes, like now, it's almost enjoyable. Sometimes it's almost worth the price of Lex's thousand sleepless nights.
Almost, but not really. Not at all, in fact. Lex leans over the railing he once drove through and contemplates the dark water below. He has heard that some people find pain vaguely pleasurable, even erotic. He has even dated someone who felt that way. Lex thinks such people are delusional at best. Lex's pain is never pleasurable. It hurts.
The peaceful clarity of the early winter night jibes harshly with his own state of mind. Lex has never felt serene in his life. He watches the water slide by under the bridge, nearly silent and so smooth it reflects the stars. The night is still and very cold and the faint liquid sound of the stream does not make Lex think of squealing tires or the terrible burning airless pain he'd felt in his chest after Clark's amateurish CPR restarted his heart. Lex's only clear memory of the event is the delirious sensation of flight, and he is not sure now whether that is from the few seconds he was actually airborne in his car, or some weird effect of cardiac arrest.
Lex looks up and sees the lights of Smallville, far away and peaceful. All at once he is homesick, so much so that it's hard to breathe. His stomach clenches abruptly and he thinks in horror, I was going to go to a diner? Lex closes his eyes and leans hard on the railing, fighting his stupid body. What the hell is he homesick for? He never wanted to be here; he was never happy in the city. Smallville is an exile from hell. Lex breathes slowly through clenched teeth, reaching for self-control. He has no idea what he wants.
Clark could probably answer that question if Lex ever had the nerve to ask. Clark sees through his artificial calm with an ease and clarity Lex finds vaguely unnerving. Lex suspects he does not want to know most of the things Clark could tell him about himself.
Sometimes he worries that Clark might be psychic. Not like that kid Ryan, who could read the thoughts off the top of Lexs mind, but really psychic, able to look straight into his soul and see whats really there.
Unlike Lex, Clark is not a good liar. He hesitates when he has to say something untrue. He has trouble meeting people's eyes. Whatever physics and biology require, Lex knows he hit Clark when he drove off this bridge. Clark should have been a chunky red smear on the Porsche's wrecked front end. His self-control returns at last, and Lex strolls about the bridge slowly, considering the accident whose mystery has troubled him for the past year. The roll of barbed wire fell off the truck and when he saw it, it was right about here. Maybe. And then Clark was leaning over the railing just over here. Wasn't he? Lex places his palms on the cold metal and thinks hard, straining his dim memory until that nasty warning buzz starts up behind his eyes again and he has to let it go. He's never going to remember that day clearly.
A year ago, in another lifetime, Lex Luthor knocked a high-school boy off a bridge and was saved by a person who could only be considered human by Smallville's standards, which are considerably looser than those of the rest of the world. Lex has a scientific mind and his powers of observation have been honed to a razor edge by a lifetime of warring with his father. Clark thinks he is so careful, but Lex misses very little. Every once in a while, Clark does something that cannot be rationally accounted for. He moves faster than any human can. He doesn't get hurt when he ought to. He ripped the roof off Lex's wrecked Porsche.
Lex still does not understand why Clark did that. He would dearly love to get Clark into a laboratory and investigate how exactly the meteors affected him and find out once and for all really how different Clark is from the rest of Humanity. He has a clear image in his mind of Clark on an examining table in a bright cold cleanroom, covered with electrodes. Lex walks back to his car slowly, jingling his keys, thinking of how deeply satisfactory it would be to bring that scenario to life.
The Ferrari's powerful engine snarls into life under his hands and Lex notices the clock again. It's almost 7:30 now and he wonders uneasily how long he spent hanging over the bridge railing, hunting for whatever scraps insomnia had left of his usual unshakable self-control. This has got to stop. Lex isn't sure how much sleep he has had over the past week. Less than ten hours, certainly. He can't handle this very much longer. The Kents have got to be done with dinner by now.
"Needed to clear your head, huh?" Clark says, without even turning around. Lex stops and stands shifting his weight uneasily on the stairs up to the loft. Clark is lying across his grungy sofa, staring disinterestedly at some thick textbook.
Lex wonders again, briefly, if Clark really is psychic, but he covers his unease with a smirk and not a moment too soon. Clark turns his head finally and gives him an evil grin. "Are you about to claim that you were just driving around to get some fresh air and mysteriously wound up in my neighborhood?"
At this Lex relaxes and allows a real smile to replace his all-purpose smirk. "Do I really say that every time?" he asks. Clark nods, still grinning. Lex sighs as though he is put out. "I'll have to work on my excuses."
Clark nods again and sits up, waving expansively at the dusty, cluttered loft. "Pull up a hay bale, Lex, all the Armani-upholstered Barcaloungers seem to be taken. I suppose you're here to vent?"
Lex stops again at the top of the stairs and blinks in surprise. This isn't quite what he was expecting. After a second's thought he decides to say this out loud. "That wasn't exactly the response I was expecting from you, Clark."
"Sorry," Clark says, not sorry at all. "I had a bad day. I spent all of last week studying for this stupid history test and we got them back today and I did terribly. And my mom asked about it the minute I walked in the door after school, so we had a big fight." He sighs, tense and clearly still angry, though Lex can't tell if it's at himself or his mother.
Lex clamps down on his amusement before he can smirk at his friend's problems. Other people's fights with their parents always sound amusing to him. Lex never struggled in school. At Excelsior Prep he'd spent most of his intellectual energy on getting in trouble, and even in college he'd gotten good grades without much studying. Still, the basic problem is something he understands.
"So who started it?" he asks after a moment's thought. He glances at the bale of hay Clark gestured at, but it seems to be last years model, slowly turning to dust.
Clark looks confused. "Who cares?" Lex opts for the desk chair instead of the hay bale and sits down straddling the back of the chair, folding his arms across the back.
He has to think about how to say this diplomatically. "Well, if you don't care, maybe you should just apologize and be done with it." Saying it, he wonders if he has ever done this. Lex views hypocrisy as just one more kind of lying.
"What?" says Clark. "I'm not going to apologize! Are you joking?"
Lex stares at his hands for a minute and speaks slowly, trying to get all the words right on the first try. "Clark, sometimes ... I can tell you from bitter experience, sometimes it's more important .. well, that somebody just act sorry, or at least say it even if you don't mean it, just to ... I don't know, announce that the argument is over, that you don't want to go on fighting about the same stupid thing. To give both of you an opportunity to back down and forgive each other."
Clark gives him a deeply skeptical look. "Have you ever done that?" he asks.
"I don't know, Clark, do you want to have the same kind of relationship with your parents that I do?" It comes out a lot sharper than Lex intended and he sighs.
Clark is smiling, though. "Lex, you and your dad have the exact same relationship the Israelis and the Palestinians have. Both sides want peace, but they're never going to get it because they both think the other guys are a pack of bloodthirsty savages."
This is a little too close to home, and Lex manages not to wince only with an effort. "I have no idea what my father thinks of me," he says. The heightened awareness that kept him alert on the road has faded in the dimly lit loft, and Lex is swept suddenly by a deep sense of weariness. He clenches his hands on the back of the chair and drops his head, feeling dizzy. He should leave before he says something regrettable.
"Are you okay?" Clark asks. Lex looks up and nods at him, but Clark is not fooled for a second. "Insomnia acting up again, huh?"
Lex has never mentioned his insomnia to Clark. "Are you psychic?" he asks finally.
"Yes," says Clark. Lex's blood goes cold. "Also, I have X-ray vision, and I can set things on fire by staring at them. I'm really an alien from outer space, I've been meaning to tell you."
Lex is so tired it takes him a minute to realize he's been had. Then he bursts out laughing. "Wow, Clark, you really had me going. I completely believed you for a second there." He has to catch his breath. Clark is the only person who can make him laugh like this, unintentionally and without worrying about how anyone else will react. Exhaustion is washing over him in waves; he feels lightheaded, almost free. "See, he says, this is why I always wind up here. I havent been here for five minutes yet and I feel better already."
Shaking his head in disapproval, Clark complains, "I tell you my deep dark secrets and you laugh in my face. I'll have you know, my dad is going to kick my ass for this. He thinks -" He breaks off suddenly and goes to lean over the loft's railing. "Somebody down there?" he calls.
Jonathan Kent's voice floats up to them. Lex sobers instantly. "Clark, can I have a word with you?" Kent says.
Lex collects himself and gets to his feet. "I should go," he tells Clark in a low tone. To his immense surprise, Clark puts a hand on his shoulder and Lex abruptly finds himself sitting on the couch. "Have a seat," Clark says. "I'm going to take your advice and see if my family is as dysfunctional as yours. You have to be here to take the blame if it doesn't work." He clatters down the stairs and Lex puts his head back against the worn cushions.
Clark's loft is dusty and poorly heated and smells like a farm: hay and dirt and sweat and motor oil and cows. Everything in here has been broken at least twice, with the possible exceptions of the telescope and Clark's aging CD player, which looks to be vintage 1997 and probably came from somebody's garage sale. Clark is about as dedicated to cleanliness as the average teenage boy, so it is unlikely that anyone has cleaned up the place since Clark took it over. Lex is compulsively neat and has people to pick up for him besides. Clark's messiness irritates him. He looks away from the floor and focuses on the rafters before his overworked nervous system can get upset again.
After a second he understands that it's not going to happen. No matter how irritating the dirt and the smell and everything else becomes, this place feels like a sanctuary. Lex wonders why this is. Talking to Clark doesn't make his problems go away or his responsibilities feel lighter. It doesn't make him feel better about his own life by comparison; Lex knows that Clark's life is no harder than his own, though the reasons are different.
Below him, Clark is still talking to his father. Gradually Lex realizes they are talking about him. He sighs deeply, knowing he should leave before he gets his friend in more trouble. From Clark's tone he can tell this is an argument they have had many times before, but Clark keeps his voice down and Lex can't actually hear his words. Clark stops talking suddenly and his father doesn't answer immediately.
"Well, what?" says Clark, after a few seconds' silence. Lex sits still and listens.
Kent says tiredly, "Son, I know he's your friend, and I'm starting to think maybe that's not a completely bad thing. At least he seems to make you think about things that I'm not smart enough to explain, even if I don't like the way it happens. Please believe that I'm not just saying this because I don't like him. Lex is a very brilliant young man and he's a sharp observer. You have to be very careful."
"I know that Dad," Clark says impatiently. Ah, the great Kent family mystery. Lex thinks again of all the cool things a really well-funded research facility could find out about Clark Kent.
"Are you going to apologize to your mother?"
"Yes," Clark says smugly. "Lex told me to." Oh don't, Lex thinks at him sleepily. Don't start another fight, especially about me. Then he thinks in faint pleased surprise, hey, I'm sleepy. For the first time in a week. Then he thinks, I'd better get up off this couch.
But he doesnt. Below him, in the barn doorway, Jonathan Kent says in a clear calm voice, "Clark, the problem with Lex is that he could wreck our lives with very little effort or forethought, and like most young people he doesn't always think about the consequences of his actions. He's dangerous, Son, even if he doesn't mean to be."
Lex understands that this comment was meant for his ears. Kent is totally aware that Lex can hear him. He thinks again of his bright dream of Clark in a biosecure lab in Metropolis. That would wreck their lives, all right. He wants it, though, and Lex Luthor has never denied himself or been denied anything he ever really wanted. He wonders if he can let it go.
Lex closes his eyes and sits still on Clark's dusty couch, feeling his tired body sink into the threadbare cushions. Is that what they want from him, in exchange for his life? Lex has never understood why Clark pulled him out of his wrecked car, but confusion does not diminish his gratitude. Is this the full measure of thanks he will be allowed to express? Just to leave them alone?
A life for a life, Lex thinks. He breathes slowly and feels his heart beating in his chest, slow and steady. In exchange for my beating heart, he thinks, I agree to never know the answer. It doesnt sound like enough. It sounds like such a little thing.
If he stays here one more minute he will be asleep. Lex opens his eyes and sits up and is pushed back by a heavy hand on his chest. He blinks in shock. There is entirely too much light in the loft.
"What -" he begins, and then stops, startled out of his usual composure, too surprised to think. The sky outside the loft's window is streaked with the faint beginnings of dawn. There is a heavy quilt flung over his body, and Jonathan Kent is standing over him with his hand on Lex's chest, preventing him from rising.
"Are you okay?" Kent asks. "We couldn't wake you up."
Lex takes a deep breath. Is it possible that he has slept the whole night here? There is no gap in his memory. Between one thought and the next the hours have slid by without his notice.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep," he tells Kent.
Kent gives him a half-smile. "Guess not," he says laconically. "Clark talked us out of calling a doctor; he said we should just let you alone." He takes his hand off Lex's chest and sits carefully on the wobbly coffee table next to the couch.
Lex sits up and pulls the quilt off himself. "I'm grateful," he says, trying to sound more sincere and less arrogant than usual. "I haven't been sleeping well lately. I guess I didn't realize how tired I was."
This gets him another half-smile. Lex doesn't quite know what to make of this. He's not used to Kent being this nice to him. "Well, it's a little after 6:30 right now," Kent tells him, without the suspicious edge to his tone that Lex is accustomed to. "Do you think you're okay to drive home? You're welcome to stay here if you don't feel up to it."
"Welcome" is not a word Lex has ever expected Kent to address to him. He covers his shock by standing up to fold the quilt.
"I think I'm all right," he says, and is relieved that his voice comes out evenly. "For sleeping in my clothes all night on Clark's broken couch I actually feel pretty good." Saying it, he realizes that it's true. Much of the misery of insomnia is despair that it will never end, and fear that he will simply die from lack of sleep. He is still tired, but insomnia's onerous chokehold has been broken. It won't trouble him again for a while.
Kent nods at him, accepting Lex's statement without comment, and goes down the stairs to get on with the work of the day. Lex shakes out his clothes as best he can - the jacket covers the worst of the wrinkles - and then walks out to his car, thoughtful and confused. He does not expect kindness from Jonathan Kent. In any other circumstances he'd be deeply suspicious of the man's motives, but he is still under the enchantment of Clark's loft and the sweet solace of a peaceful night.
Five minutes down the road the Ferrari's throaty growl has reclaimed its power to clear his mind, and he understands, finally, why the truck he'd sent after Clark saved his life was rejected. Lex looks up at the lightening sky and promises himself that Clark will never see the inside of a laboratory. He isn't sure how long he can keep that promise, but he is willing to try.
It's not as hard as he thought it would be, to let that bright dream fade. Your life for mine, Clark, Lex thinks at his friend. Such a little thing.