"Honey, you gonna drink that coffee or wait for it to dry out so's you can use it to read your future?"
The words went in one ear and out the other, and Lex continued to shred little pieces of napkin to oblivion. It was a cheap, rough fiber and came apart with no effort whatsoever. A bit like his friendship with Clark.
Lex knew that wasn't technically true, but tonight it certainly felt like it. Of course, he had been invited along, but that wasn't the same as feeling included, so he was sitting in a vinyl booth killing trees, while Clark was elsewhere. Doing god only knew what. Actually, Lex probably had a better idea than God what Clark was doing, and that just made him rip faster.
He had been young once, much to the delight or disgust of most of Metropolis. It didn't seem like that now, but Lex had drug-diluted memories that begged to differ. Plus there were pictures of his youth to jog his recollection. Everyone knew about Lex's youth, but there were one or two private pieces that weren't for public consumption. Memories of his mother and the few people who had been kind to him: a teacher who believed in him, one of his father's ex-girlfriends, who typically, hadn't lasted that long. A fencing coach and a second on his polo team. Those were proper memories, good memories that Lex probably revisited more than was healthy, but they were his. That's what counted. He didn't have to share them if he didn't want to, not like some things. Or some people, like Clark.
Lex had always thought of Clark as an ongoing memory, a sort of living scrapbook of his transformation into the sort of person he mother would have wanted. Unfortunately, there hadn't been any entries in a while.
They had just grown apart.
There was no decisive rift. No great last betrayal any bigger than all the little ones in the middle. Life just got between them in the way that it often does when people live in the same city or the same house, but can't, or won't make the effort to stay in touch.
It wasn't that they, or at least Lex, didn't care anymore, just that they, or he, didn't have the capabilities to say so.
That wasn't how Luthors worked. Of course Luthors never spent hours in a diner dunking their memories in coffee either.
A hand came down on the table in front of Lex with a rush of air and a jangle of plastic, and the pieces of napkin scattered from his lap onto the floor.
"Honey, you've been sittin' here for the last two hours and ain't said boo to nobody. You keep this up and somebody's gonna take offense." Lex's glanced up as Ethel swapped his cold coffee for a fresh cup, with a side order of decisiveness and a flash of bright green gum.
Steam rose from the surface like a pot of boiled water, and Lex smiled, more to himself than anybody else. There was a time when he would spend all night at The Ends of the Earth talking baseball with Bobby, the short order cook, and listening to Ethel moan about her good-for-nothing husband, Hank. Ethel and Hank had been married for thirty-something years and despite whatever names Ethel called him, it was clear that she loved him.
Back in college Lex had been privy to a rather private moment between them, something about Ethel's mother and a nursing home, and whatever Hank's faults he'd been good enough to hold Ethel when she cried. Lex had never seen an exchange like that before. His memories of home life never included public displays of affection between his parents, even if they thought he wasn't looking.
"Ethel, I think the only people to take offense would be the guys in the corner," he said, gesturing to a group of college students talking boisterously in a corner booth. "And it looks to me as though they wouldn't care if the world was ending."
His particular choice of words was punctuated by the snap of Ethel's gum and she grinned broadly. "Well then, they came to the right place, didn't they, Sugar?"
Reaching out, Lex wrapped a hand around the warm ceramic cup, and returned Ethel's grin. Good manners always got him an extra piece of pie, on the house, and Ethel either didn't know who he was or just didn't care.
He liked to think it was the latter.
He had been coming to The Ends of the Earth since the beginning of his clubbing days, because it was the only decent all-night diner in the clubbing/college district. He realized with a wry grin that if he was calling anything related to clubbing 'a district' that he was definitely getting old.
"Honey, those kids ain't said nothing but profanity since they walked in." Ethel shook her head and readjusted the pencil behind her ear. "I tell you, kids today, don't know what the fuck is wrong with them."
The response made Lex laugh, and he reached out with his other hand and poured a liberal amount of sugar into his cup.
"You gonna want some pie with that, Shortcake?" Ethel poked at Lex's coffee with a fuchsia-tipped finger, and turned to glance at the counter that stretched the length of the diner. "We got peach, cherry, rhubarb - but between you and me that's gonna grow legs soon and go get itself a job - apple, and your all-time favorite, pumpkin."
Lex opened his mouth to insist that pumpkin wasn't his favorite, but was cut off by Ethel blowing an enormous bubble of gum and snapping it like a rubber band. "I'll get you a slice of apple, that's real good today. Plus, I'll put some ice cream on it; you look like you could use the calories. I swear if a strong wind came along, it'd knock you clean over, Alexander."
"Whatever you suggest works for me." Lex's good nature always seemed to come to the fore when he was at the diner, and he watched at Ethel sauntered off to get the pie.
There had been a time, albeit a short one, where he had practically lived on diner food: pie, omelets, hamburgers, fries and the like. However, that time had come to abrupt end with his experiment in the Chem lab with the blue Kool-Aid. He hadn't intentionally set the place on fire, but there might have been a subconscious desire on his part to get out of Metropolis. It was hard to have warm feelings for a city with so many bad memories, and yet, the diner stood out as a haven of sorts.
He had come there the night before he left for Smallville, and Ethel had loaded him up on chocolate cake that stuck to his ribs for three days. It probably hadn't helped his buoyancy when he went into that river though.
Lex had come there the morning after the Zero incident, and Ethel hadn't even said one word about his appearance. She'd just stuck him in the back booth, plied him with eggs and bacon, and then called a cab to take him wherever he wanted to go. For all intents and purposes, she was as close to a real family as he had gotten for a long time. The Kents were good people, but he always knew they'd have reservations about him, no matter how close he'd gotten to Clark or how much time he spent playing with Hannah on his rare visits back to Smallville.
Slipping deeper into maudlin mode, Lex sipped at his coffee and stared out the window, a neon globe obscuring part of his view. The booth vibrated as cars passed by with booming stereo systems, and Lex wondered idly if one of them held Clark. He'd said something about partying with his friends on his last night of college. He'd even asked Lex along, but Lex had no place there now, and he'd declined as politely as possible. His mother would have been both proud and dismayed, but Lex didn't want to infringe on Clark's college experience and that had cost him a lot.
Sometimes he thought it might have been too much.
"Why the long face, Cupcake?" The plate slid to a stop right in front of Lex, and he replaced the cup of coffee in its saucer, surprised to note that it was almost gone. He automatically unfolded another napkin, wiping the last of the shredded pieces off his pants, and laid it in his lap. Picking up his fork, he used it to break off a piece of pie.
He chewed slowly, watching as Ethel squeezed into the booth opposite him. "Good, innit?" she said, wriggling around, trying to fit her sturdy frame into the tiny space.
"Mmm." Lex took his time, breaking up the pie and mixing in the melting ice cream. He'd never been a great fan of vanilla ice cream, but the combination reminded him of summer days and Farmer's Markets.
"You still ain't answered my question, baby." Ethel's bracelets clattered as she rested her arms on the tabletop, and Lex gave her a wan smile around a mouth full of pie. "How come you never bring anybody by to see me? You ashamed of us or somethin'?"
Lex replaced his fork on the small plate, and took the last sip of his coffee.
"There, you're all out of coffee and I ain't getting you no more until you tell me what a handsome guy like you is doin' hanging round here all on your lonesome." Ethel reached out and plucked the empty cup out of Lex's hand, replacing it on the saucer with an audible clunk like a final word.
"Ethel, when have you ever known me to have friends? Besides, it's nothing personal. I assure you." A prickly sensation ran across Lex's scalp, and he rubbed his head absently. Probably his father's influence reaching out from Toyko and smacking him in the head for his self-deprecation. "I'm not suffering for lack of attention if that's what you're worried about."
"Quantity don't mean quality, sugar, especially with these fast little girls with their tight, shiny clothes and blue hair." The crackle of Ethel's gum grated Lex's nerves like dry skin against unsanded wood, and he fought hard not to wince. He should have been used to it by now. "They go and get all excited about these here Dime Pieces and Barroom Boys and can't even see a good thing when it's right in front of them."
"I'm sure they have their reasons." Lex pushed his fork around the plate, watching as the ice cream slid through the tines. When he was little Lex used to play with his food when he didn't want to go to his room after dinner and practice his Latin. This wasn't like that at all.
"Alexander." Ethel's hand came down over Lex's and for the first time he saw the liver spots that dotted Ethel's year-round tan. Her wedding ring was a simple band, and her plastic bangles were acidic colors. Glancing back up, he took in the brightly dyed red-hair and the lipstick that bled outside the lines of Ethel's lips. In another lifetime he could have been her son. It would have been a good life.
"You're gonna find the right one, one day, Sweetpea, and when you do, don't forget to bring her by." There was a pause, and the bell on the door tinkled to signal a new customer. "Whoever is lucky enough to get you to settle down is gonna be a lucky girl. Or guy," Ethel said sotto voce, releasing Lex's hand and sliding back out the booth with a lot more grace than she had entered it.
Lex blinked. Looking back down at the plate, he let the fork sink into the remains of the pie. Balling up the napkin on his lap, Lex brushed the errant crumbs off his trousers and pushed the plate away so he could rest his arms on the tabletop.
Whomever he ended up with. If he ended up with anybody at all. It was certainly a thought. Outside the window, brake lights lit up the street like a landing strip, and Lex contemplated getting a taxi to the airport. He could be somewhere else in a few hours. The flat in Montmartre. The stuccoed, whitewashed house in Portafino. Someplace with sun and pretty girls and pretty boys.
Clark would understand. After all Lex was the head of a Fortune 500 company, he couldn't always be everywhere, no matter how much he may have wanted to be. Tomorrow, Clark would be graduating and starting a new life as a cub reporter for the Daily Planet. Technically, Lex was already well into the throes of his 'new life' even if he kept coming back to old haunts.
Something had to change, and if he was really going to go through with this he was going to need his passport, and more coffee.
"Ethel?" Lex started to call out, but the word dropped off when he turned his head and came eye to eye with the waistband of someone's jeans.
"Is this seat taken?"
"I don't know; you'll have to ask it." Clark wasn't dressed like someone who was planning to club all night long, and it caught Lex off guard. The words were out before he even thought to check them.
"I thought you had a date," Clark said, sliding into the booth with more ease than its prior occupant.
"I thought you were going clubbing," Lex shot back, hackles immediately raised. At some point he had slouched into the back of the booth, but he sat up sharply now, senses alert. He lowered his arms into his lap and eyed Clark warily, not sure why he felt so defensive. It was just another lie anyway.
It shouldn't have mattered at all.
"I changed my mind." Clark rested his arms on the tabletop, hands clasped together and pointing toward Lex. They were silent for several seconds, Clark watching Lex who suddenly became rather enamored of the traffic outside his window. An Acura passed by, as did a Corvette and something Lex couldn't make out. He could identify cars by their brake lights, but this one was different. Probably domestic.
"Cupcake!" Lex did wince this time, and he turned back to Clark and the jangling of Ethel's bracelets.
"Ethel, I thought I asked you not to call me that," he said, jaw slightly clenched. He was a bit taken aback when he realized that she wasn't talking to him. Not only that, but she was pinching Clark's cheek with a grip that looked seriously painful. Good.
Lex looked on as Ethel did the Mother Inquisition on Clark, whose ability to answer was severely hindered by her grip on his face. After several seconds Ethel let go and Clark grinned, quite possibly more from pain than anything else.
"How d'you know my Alexander anyway, sweetie?" she inquired, glancing from Lex to Clark expectantly. Her gaze finally rested on Lex, and so she missed Clark mouthing 'Alexander' with something close to amusement.
"We used to live in the same town," Lex explained at the same time that Clark said something about being friends. Ethel chuckled and managed to ruffle Clark's hair without removing her gaze from Lex's face.
At long last, her eyes swung back to Clark, and she took out her order tab, but didn't bother with a writing instrument. "You want some pie, sweetheart? Of course you do, a growing boy like you." Ethel glanced at the table and then back at Lex. "You'll be wantin' some coffee too, I expect. You two be careful now, all that coffee can mess with your performance, and I should know. My Hank, that rat bastard, been drinking five cups a day since I met him."
Lex shut his mouth rather abruptly, and glanced down at the table rather than at Clark who he felt sure was a bit too close to laughing.
Ethel left the booth in the same whirling dervish of bangles and clinking that she normally arrived and departed everywhere. Lex wondered briefly how he'd missed her coming to the booth earlier.
"I didn't know you came here," Clark spoke to fill the void.
"I went to Met U once, too, Clark," Lex replied. Offering no further explanation.
The immediate silence was punctuated by the sound of chairs scraping and sneakers slip-slapping across the floor. Clark's back was to the door, so he couldn't see the students who filed out into the night, but Lex caught one gawping at him and something that sounded like elegant slumming and rich boy playthings.
Once upon a time he would have defended Clark's honor, but now he just shrugged it off. Clark's honor wasn't his to defend. Pretty soon he wagered he wouldn't even be a part of Clark's life. College had put enough distance and girls between them that Lex sometimes wondered why Clark still called.
"Why didn't you just tell me you didn't want to come out with us tonight?" Clark's voice cut through Lex's one-man pity party, and he snapped to attention, somewhat ashamed of his thoughts. There was a time when he would have fought hard to keep Clark in his life, and somewhere along the line he had lost sight of that. Too many lies, too many new friends, keggers and IPOs were strewn across Clark's formative years.
They weren't anyone's fault. Just part of growing up and growing apart.
"You wanted to spend your last night with your friends. I didn't want to infringe on that."
"*You're* my friend, Lex." Clark's tone was solemn, and it made Lex want to laugh. Loudly. The conversation was just too... something. It was Clark's last night of college and they sounded as though they were at a wake. Rest in Peace Friendship of Legends. "You don't even call me anymore."
"You're never around to call." The words left Lex's mouth in strange sort of slow motion, and he very much wanted to reach out and catch them. Luthors never admitted to needing anyone.
"Have you even tried?" Clark shifted in his seat, and leaned forward across the tabletop. It wasn't Lex's imagination that Clark was infringing on his personal space. Lex never understood why he let him; it just seemed to be something he allowed because it was Clark. "I've missed you, you know. Nobody lectures me about Greek history the way you do."
Lex opened his mouth to speak and the strangest thing came out. "I didn't even think you'd notice that I wasn't around." He put it down to being at the diner. The place had a rather odd effect on him. He tended to find himself saying things that weren't supposed to come out, as though it was his last chance to say them.
The diner tended to live up to its name.
Clark smiled at him across the table, and then pulled back suddenly as three platters came crashing down on the ceramic.
"Here's your coffee, boys." The cups rattled and the pie wobbled in its saucer as Ethel delivered her goods. On top of the pie were two liberal dollops of ice cream. "And you, Smiley, don't hog all the pie. This needs to eat more, and I don't want you takin' food out his mouth," Ethel said. She shot Lex a dirty look as he attempted to reach for his wallet, and he was a bit startled when she suddenly dropped her order booklet on the floor by his feet.
In thirteen years, he'd never known Ethel to drop anything, but everyone around Lex was getting older and they bent down to pick it up at the same time.
"I like this one," Ethel whispered conspiratorially, if not a bit loudly.
Lex grinned into blue-kohled eyes. "I know," he said handing her the paper tablet. "So do I."
Sitting back up, Lex watched as Ethel straightened up and winked at him before walking off.
Clark was already a third of the way through the pie as Lex unfolded a new napkin on his lap. He blushed a bit and swallowed as Lex picked up his fork. "I'm glad I found you. It felt wrong not to be with you on my last night in college."
"I'm glad you found me too," Lex admitted as he speared a small bit of pie.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Ethel banter over the counter with Bobby, and once again he was glad that he had anonymously bankrolled that retirement home. Some things were their own reward. Not all of his teen years had been a fuck-up. He had some good memories, and when he glanced across the table at Clark, who had ice cream on his nose, he decided that maybe this was one of those memories that didn't have to be closed off either.
Graduation didn't have to necessarily mean the end.
Notes: Written to the tune of Open All Night' by Counting Crows, with special guest muses from 'Queer as Folk.'
Thanks to the letters J and K for beta duty.
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