Riding the Tiger

by NiteLite

When Lex casually mentions the bullying he endured as a youngster, I began wondering about the difficulties he must have faced and the man he finally turned to for help.

Summary: Tired of being bullied, Lex learns to defend himself. Written for The Spike's Lex Qua Lex Challenge.

Author's Notes: Many, many thanks to Chaeysa for the beta. After the reading the version I had posted to my LiveJournal, she shared a poignant personal story from her past that touched me greatly. This is for her.

Spoilers: Precipice

LiveJournal: http://www.livejournal.com/users/xnitelite/

Feedback: Greatly welcomed and appreciated.

First, they teased him about his red hair. After his hospital stay, they made fun of the shocking lack of it.

He retaliated with his sharp tongue and attitude, but that bought him limited respite from the remarks on his appearance. The Luthor name only went so far around the schoolyard.

The only refuge he had was in his mother's eyes.

"There's nothing wrong with you. Just ignore them," she said patiently, time and time again.

Since her opinion was the one that mattered, it was enough to sustain him for awhile. He endured the taunts and buried himself in his books and homework.

When he was eleven, the new school bully came after him.

Lex knew, with a deep sense of dread, it was only a matter of time. Ricky Durden had been making threatening noises for weeks. Before Ricky, it had been Martin Ziff. Then Allen Browning.

Not that it mattered what their names were. They were all the same. Big, mean, stupid and full of unending contempt for anyone who looked as odd as he did.

The harassment had only increased over time and promised to get worse.

Using his wits helped him to avoid most trouble, but bullies like Ricky enjoyed getting in his face. He had been mocked, pushed and tripped more times than he could count. Still, no one said a thing. No one came to his defense.

The teachers knew he was smart and encouraged his abilities, but were indifferent to the way the other students treated him.

He was praised in class but a pariah on the playground.

On the outside, he pretended it didn't bother him. Inside, he felt bruised and angry. Every insult and shove a reminder that he would never be one of them.

Then one day, Ricky cornered him.

He should have known better. There was something to be said for safety in numbers and normally, after the last class, he'd tuck himself into the rear pack of departing classmates, hurrying to the outer parking lot to wait their turn getting picked up and driven home.

Except that this time, he'd forgotten a history book back in his locker. Biting his lip, he weighed need against caution, and decided at the last second to chance it. Looking around, he saw no one menacing and hurried down the empty hall, past the cafeteria to find his locker.

So far so good. He twirled the combination and clicked the door open. Skimming over the contents he grabbed the book and slammed the locker shut. Hugging it to his chest, he didn't even bother to shove it into his backpack. Head down, he quickly retraced his steps, turned the corner toward the exit and looked up. His heart sank.

Ricky leaned casually against the wall; his trio of cohorts lounging behind him grinned like wild dogs scenting blood in the air.

"Hey, freak."

There were no other exits near him or a single teacher to be seen.

Lex swallowed and lifted his chin. He refused to show fear, especially to someone like Ricky.

One by one, the boys peeled themselves off the wall and circled around him, like little sharks. The textbook was snatched out of his hands.

"That's mine."

"Not any more." One of the boys smirked and tossed it to a pack mate.

Lex gritted his teeth. He'd had things taken from him before. Pleading to get it back only made matters worse.

"What else you got?"

He let his backpack slide off his shoulder and held on to it by the strap, keeping his eyes on the boys surrounding him. If they wanted more, they'd have to work for it.

"Hey, bald freak. I'm talking to you." Someone shoved him roughly.

Lex staggered a little before catching his balance, gripped his bag by the strap and swung it around in a wide arc, smacking his foe in the chest with it. The boy yelled in surprise as he reeled back.

Another grabbed Lex's arm, jerking him around. Lex tried to kick him, but by then Ricky had grabbed hold of his jacket and was dragging him across the floor. Yanked up by his lapels, Lex was shoved against the wall, hard. The back of his head hit the rough surface behind him and he winced.

"You're gonna pay for that, you little fucker."

A fist caught him in the stomach and he doubled over, retching.

Another blow had him curled up on floor. Lex cried out as someone kicked him in the side.

"...loser, fairy, pansy, freak..." The litany and the kicks went on and on.

"Leave him alone."

At the sound of the sharp voice, everyone froze.

Panting, Lex twisted his head to look up.

His father's chauffeur was in the hallway.

Tom Charbonneau wasn't particularly tall or muscular-looking. He had short, black hair and plain features. But there was something in his eyes and the way he stood that radiated authority.

He took another step forward and the authority turned into menace.

Ricky slowly pulled away.

"Say anything and you're dead meat," he whispered before kicking Lex's bag across the floor. He nodded at his friends. "Let's go."

Ricky and his little group laughed as they trotted away.

Another set of heavier footsteps approached as Lex tried to catch his breath.

"Are you hurt?"

He shook his head. The sense of humiliation was far greater than the pain in his side and stomach. Pushing himself up on shaky arms, he sat up.

"Look at me." Again, Tom's firm voice brooked no argument. Lex raised his eyes, ready to throw up at the least sign of pity on the driver's face.

To his relief, he didn't see any.

Instead, the chauffeur reached out with his hand. "Come on."

He grabbed on and let Tom pull him up.

As he leaned against the wall, Tom picked up his scattered belongings, methodically tucking them inside the backpack before slinging it over his shoulder.

"Let's go." He walked toward the exit.

Lex followed behind, limping slightly as he went.

Outside, he walked up to the sedan, slid into the rear seat and pretended to stare out the window as Tom entered the driver's side, fastened his seat belt and put his key into the ignition.

As the engine started up, Tom reached inside his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. "Here. You might want to clean your face a little." He passed it over the seat along with a small bottle of water.

Lex snapped the cap open and took a swallow. He stared at the square cloth in his hand then spilled some water onto it.

Slowly, he wiped his cheeks and forehead, then both of his hands.

"You won't say anything, will you?" he finally asked, wadding up the dirt-streaked handkerchief.

Tom glanced up at the rearview mirror. Lex watched his dark eyes. "No. Not if you don't want me to."

Lex nodded.

At home, he slipped out of the car with more calm than he felt. Here, he knew exactly how not to attract any unwarranted attention. Once inside the kitchen, he hovered by the pantry until the cook had her back to him before slipping past her into the dining room. From there, he headed for the back stairs and his room, bypassing the rest of the staff. He counted himself lucky that his father was away and his mother had some sort of party to attend that evening.

He got out of his clothes and flung them at the hamper, wincing at the pain he felt. He touched his ribs and stomach, feeling every tender spot. In the shower, he washed himself thoroughly, wishing he could just scrub away the entire incident. After drying himself, he checked the towel, making sure there were no specks of red on it. He dressed slowly. At least the bruises wouldn't show through a long-sleeved shirt.

At dinner, he shoved and scraped his food apart so that it looked as though he'd eaten more than he had, knowing that his mother wouldn't question him about his appetite. Her mind was on the evening ahead.

Once she was gone, he retreated to his bedroom and closed the door. Turning the lock, he went inside the bathroom to stare at himself in the mirror.

He leaned against the edge of the sink and ran a hand over his face and head, wondering what he'd done to deserve any of it--all the ugly names, the jeers and the constant harassment.

Nothing. He had done nothing. Worst of all, no one cared.

The twist of pain in his gut had nothing to do with the punches he'd taken.

Stomping back into his room, he grabbed his table lamp and flung it at the wall, hearing it break with a satisfying crack. With a sweep of his arm he swept the contents off the top of his desk, uncaring of the noise or mess. Most of it bounced onto the carpet below, but all he cared about was the square metal paperweight. Hefting it in his hand, he returned to the bathroom and stared at the mirror again.

Loser. Wimp. Freak.

He heaved the cube as hard as he could.

The mirror shattered.

Stepping back, he watched the shards fly off the wall, some dropping into the sink while others scattered across the tile floor.

He knelt by a jagged piece and gazed down and saw only tear-filled eyes looking back up at him.

Later, he told the maid there had been an accident. From the expression on her face he could tell she didn't believe him, but he didn't care. They had a deal. If he made a mess, she cleaned it up, no questions asked. For that, he gave her extra cash from his allowance. She merely clucked her tongue and began sweeping up the broken glass.

The next day, he went to school, pretending that nothing had happened. The same way he pretended the mirror in his bathroom had never been broken and replaced.

But the mere sound of Ricky's voice in the cafeteria sent his heart rate into the ionosphere. His stomach became unsettled, and after a few bites of lunch, he ran to the boy's bathroom and threw up, staying inside the locked stall until he heard the next class bell ring.

After school, he stood outside with the rest of the kids, waiting impatiently for their rides. Spotting the black Mercedes pulling in, Lex walked up and opened the rear passenger door.

Tom was at the wheel again.

He glanced briefly at Lex, waiting until he had fastened his seat belt before driving off.

Halfway home, Lex looked up and studied the back of Tom's head and the straight set of his shoulders. Tom was nothing like their old driver. Miguel had been talkative and often shared little jokes with him. In contrast, Tom was quiet and contained. Even the way he moved and walked was different--controlled, precise, confident.

He hadn't been with them long. His father had recently made Miguel one of his corporate drivers and hired Tom to be their personal one.

Lex wondered why.

In the evening, while everyone assumed he was doing his homework, he quietly made his way to the room his father had made into a private office.

It was normally kept locked, whenever he was away, but Lex had figured out long ago where the duplicate key was hidden: in bottom drawer of his mother's dressing table.

Switching on the small flashlight in his hand, he looked around the office. His father's large oak desk sat in the corner. Next to the desk was small filing cabinet. He knew where the key to that one was kept as well.

Opening the top drawer, he shuffled through the manila folders until he found one marked "Employment Applications." Picking up the thick folder, he carefully opened it and began sorting through the sheets.

Finally, he found the one he was looking for. Sliding the folder back, he opened the bottom drawer and looked through the neatly tagged files. There were dozens and dozens of names, and he went through them methodically until he found the correct one. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he read it carefully.

On Saturday, Lex went looking for Tom.

Or more precisely, he went to see Tom's room.

Most of the staff lived on the premises. The housekeeper and cook had their own rooms on the first floor. Tom had one as well, near the rear of the mansion.

While he knew Tom was out, taking his mother shopping, he tapped on the door to be on the safe side. It was unlocked. Taking a quick glance up and down the hall, he opened it and slipped inside.

Tom's room was spare, but tidy. His bed was made, the pillows and cushions arranged precisely at the headboard. His clothes all hung neatly in the closet. A small television sat on his bureau.

Lex looked at the writing desk against the wall. Aside from a Walkman, a few paperback books and a small photo in a round frame, there was little in the way of personal items. Looking over the titles, he brushed his fingers against Tom's copy of The Art of War .

Quietly closing the door behind him, he went back to his room.

The next day, after attending church with his mother, he went upstairs to change. He pretty much had the rest of the afternoon to himself, and he went to look for Tom again.

By the garage was a storage room that housed discarded furniture and tools. Among them was an old weight bench. Peering into the open door, he watched Tom as he sat on the bench, curling a weight with his left arm. He wore a faded tee shirt over a pair of gray sweatpants. Sweat marks stained the front. Unshaven, he looked rougher than he normally did. Under the edge of one sleeve, Lex spotted the dark, curved lines of a tattoo.

Tom leaned forward, staring intently at the ground. "You can come in."

Lex hesitated then entered. For several moments he stood and watched Tom raise and lower the weight in his hand.

"I wanted to thank you for not saying anything to my mother, the other day."

Tom nodded. "Sure."

Lex fidgeted as the repetitions continued, but refused to leave.

"Is there something else?"

Yes, there was. He dreaded asking, but finally forced the words out. "Do you think I'm weak? A coward?"

Tom turned his head to face Lex. He exhaled slowly before answering. "No, I don't."

"Why not?"

"I imagine it's not exactly easy, being someone like you. Besides, four against one is hardly what you'd call fair odds now is it?"

Lex's stomach tightened at the memory. He had no intention of having that happen again. He took a deep breath. "I want you to teach me to fight."

Tom raised and lowered the weight once then paused. "What makes you think I'd do that?"

"Because of your training. You're a Navy Seal."

Tom stilled. Lex hoped the next words he heard wouldn't be angry ones.

Instead, the driver's mouth quirked upward. "That's ex-Navy Seal. And how'd you know?"

Lex shrugged. "Is that why my father hired you?"

Tom huffed and looked at the weight in his hand. "I was hired to be a chauffeur. And I'm not sure that teaching you to fight is such a good idea."

Lex moved closer to the chauffeur. "Were you ever picked on when you were a kid?"

Tom switched the weight to his right arm, without answering.

Recalling the photo in Tom's room, he continued, undeterred. "You have family don't you?"

Tom nodded a little warily. "Yes. Why?"

"How would you feel if you saw one of them being pushed around?"

Rubbing the sweat on his forehead with the back of his arm, Tom gave him a long, considering gaze. Then he looked away.

"I'm serious!" Lex stepped directly in front of him and folded his arms. "I'm not leaving until you give me an answer."

He narrowed his eyes as Tom suddenly laughed. The sound was startling in the small, dusty room.

"I'll say one thing for you. You've got chutzpah."

Lex didn't know exactly what that meant, but he assumed it wasn't bad. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. And for the record, I know what's it like to get picked on."

Relieved, Lex unfolded his arms. "What did you do about it?"

Tom's smile widened. "I made someone teach me how to defend myself."

At first, Lex wasn't sure he'd made the right decision.

Tom didn't coddle, nor did he talk down to Lex. Everyday, after school, he made him sweat, strain and work until his muscles ached and he could barely lift his arms. Lex went to bed, exhausted and sore.

Gradually, his body adjusted.

"Getting the upper hand isn't about size. It's about decisiveness and speed. You have to commit."

Setting up a heavy punching bag, Tom showed him how to jab, punch, strike and kick. The difference between a hook, an uppercut and a cross. How to block, bob and weave. Why he should exhale whenever he threw a punch. Standing to the side, he watched Lex circle and strike the bag.

"You're quick, but you're not putting everything into it. Use your anger. Channel it."

Raising his arms again, Lex stared at the bag, picturing Ricky's smug face on it. Turning his shoulder, he lashed out hard, with his left arm. Whump. The bag creaked loudly and the chain above it jangled slightly.

Tom grunted in approval. "Better. Again."

Once, while taking a breather, he turned to Tom and asked, "Have you ever lost a fight?"

Tom laughed. "A few times, yes." Then he sobered. "But not when it really mattered." He squeezed Lex's shoulder. "Remember, no matter what they say, there's no shame in walking away from a fight. But if you're ever in a position where you can't, don't hesitate. Make it count."

As Lex's muscles and body grew stronger so did his confidence.

Little by little, that confidence spread to other areas, and he began to feel more at ease at school. The taunts that had bothered him for so long he now ignored completely. Those that jeered him the loudest, he repeatedly stared back in the eye until they grudgingly backed down. Eventually, the teasing subsided.

He was still aware of Ricky and his pals lurking in the background, but their presence no longer rattled him.

One afternoon, he ran into Ricky again, this time by the corner of the ball field.

Grinning, Ricky and his pals cut off his path.

Knowing the bully expected him to cower, Lex stood defiantly and looked Ricky in the eye.

Ricky smirked back. "Think you can take me, freak?"

"Try it."

"Ohhh, he thinks he can fight now." Ricky sneered as a group of kids began to gather around them.

Lex ignored the excited whispers. He was nervous, but not scared. He watched Ricky's followers step aside as Ricky shed his jacket and swaggered up to him.

Spreading his legs a little, Lex centered himself and waited.

Ricky was taller, heavier and stronger. Lex knew he was quicker.

Circling around him, Ricky made more trash talk. Lex ignored it.

When Ricky suddenly turned and lashed out at him for real, Lex was ready.

Slipping past Ricky's fist, he moved in, like a missile locked on a target. His first jab caught Ricky in the stomach. As the taller boy gasped and dropped his arms, Lex jabbed again, forcing Ricky's head back. He would never forget the look of astonishment on the bully's face when his fist connected solidly with Ricky's mouth. He 'd thrown it with all the power and speed he could muster, the force of it jarring him to the shoulder.

Stepping back, he cocked his fists again. But Ricky was already on the ground, rolling and wailing loudly as his pack mates looked on in dismay. The kids watching snickered; a few stared at Lex with a newfound mixture of surprise and respect.

In the distance, he heard a whistle blow. Soon, the teachers would be out in force and the admonishments would begin. Starting with a lecture from the principal and a phone call to his parents.

Lex didn't care.

It was the most satisfying moment of his life.

After that, once word got around, no one at the prep school bothered him again.

Then, one day, Tom Charbonneau was gone.

"A family emergency," was all his father would say about Tom's abrupt departure, but Lex knew instinctively there had to be more to it than that.

He immediately checked Tom's room, but all of his belongings and clothes were gone. The room had been tidied. It was as though the man had never been there at all.

Feeling forlorn, Lex sneaked into his father's office and looked for Tom's folder. It, too, had disappeared.

He moped through dinner, barely touching his food. In his room, later, he found a small, folded note addressed to him lying on his desk.

Sucking in his breath, he opened it. It said:


I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to say good bye. You're a good student. Keep up the training.

One last thing. Your mother's the one that hired me. Not your father.

Best of luck to you.

--Tom C.

Carefully folding the note, he tucked it away in his bureau.

Over the years, Lex followed Tom's advice and continued to train.

People still mocked and made fun of him, but he had learned to develop control, even though his temper still needed work.

In time, he'd learned to become a frighteningly good judge of character. It was handy, being able to size up people and situations in a glance. Some fights were best avoided. As for those who wouldn't leave him alone--well, more often than not, the loser ended up needing dental work.

When he heard about Lana's ugly encounter with some unruly frat boys, he made a point to stop by the Talon after work.

He was relieved at first, when he stepped behind the counter and saw her kneeling, putting away some plates. Physically, she looked fine. Yet, when he called out her name, she didn't respond. Leaning over, he touched her shoulder and felt her shy away, like a startled animal. Flinching, she dropped the plate in her hand.

And he knew.

He knew in a heartbeat, exactly how she felt. She'd been frightened and humiliated, here, in her safe haven.

As he watched her pick up the broken pieces, he was reminded of the shattered mirror in his old bathroom and how much he had loathed himself that night. How a bully had once wreaked havoc with his confidence and self-esteem.

No one deserved to feel that vulnerable or miserable.

Maybe he could make a difference for Lana, the way Tom had for him.

It was worth a try.

His mother would have approved.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to NiteLite

Also, why not join Level Three, the Smallville all-fic list?


Level Three Records Room