Towards Sundown

by MartianHousecat

The lovely Caro betaed and the lovely Jenn encouraged.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

She broke her ribs once, two of them, while pushing her sleek pale Arabian through a complicated series of jumps. At thirteen, she'd been too stubborn to realize that some limits existed not at the cruel whim of distant adults, but because all things have to end eventually, and other things just can't be done at all. Old Aldea, for example, couldn't support her rider's rangy five feet and eight inches of sharply pointed elbows and knees, when she was more than ready for retirement and the day had gone straight past overcast into storming. The ground was a little too slick, the rocks a little too loose, Aldea a little too tired and worn, and Lillian too driven by half.

It had been raining for three days, not a constant downpour, though the first wave had certainly been dramatic, but an unsteady drizzle broken by intermittently violent storms. New England wasn't known for extended drought but that year it had beaten out every other area of the country for sheer dryness. It wasn't even a particularly hot kind of dry but the total lack of moisture made it feel like all of Connecticut and Rhode Island were being given over to Nevada, no matter how far away the states were.

Her brothers speculated over dinner that it was the fault of some special warp field and the desert - they were never clear on which one - was jumping across the continent to greedily swallow up pretty old trees and manors. Lillian thought they'd just been watching more Star Trek than was healthy and suggested that maybe they switch over to reading something with a little more sense in it. Asimov, maybe.

The migrant hands that did odd jobs around the estate and worked in the local orchards had their own theory, and this one involved rain gods, bluegrass, and liberally applied cheap whiskey. The common wisdom among them was that the powers that be were finally catching up with the yuppie bastards that made their homes and vacation homes in the area. Some kind of divine retribution that had no basis in logic, for those same yuppie bastards could, for the most part, jet off to one of their other homes they had scattered around the country and escape all the unpleasantness. It seemed after all that, the gods were either getting on in their years and no longer able to come up with a sufficiently creative response to human abuses, or possibly that they were finally irrelevant. Upon pointing this out to them, Lillian was graced with dumbfounded stares, which likely would have mutated into disdainful stares, had not her father dragged her away with another admonishment not to mix with 'that sort'.

There was a complex and sliding scale of association, even among the most egalitarian of the New England elite. Its Southern counterpart could be easily illustrated with a quick glance through To Kill A Mockingbird but there was no easy parallel in the North.

Regardless, the drought came and stayed for weeks, unheeding the wisdom of farm hands, elder brothers, or even the forecasters who always predicted it's abeyance, each morning, more regularly than they'd ever predicted snow in winter. Probably it was a kind of blindly wishful thinking, allowed by station owners and managers because of a bizarrely warped charitable impulse - to bring hope to the hopeless through blatantly incorrect weather reports.

Lillian rode every morning, no matter how dry it got, partly because her brothers rode every evening when it got cooler and she liked to assure everyone that no horse in her care was every in danger of heat exhaustion, and partly because it was routine. Lillian was fond of order, finding beauty in pattern and pattern in everything she could manage. Her mind, even as a child was always neatly ordered, and she demanded the same from the world. And so each morning, after brushing her thick red hair up into a tight chignon and donning the more comfortable garments of her riding suits, she would head out to the stables and invariably pick Aldea as her mount.

On the morning the drought broke, she rode just the same and too, on the second and third days of rain. It was the third day that was really problematic, in the scheme of things. After three days of storm alternated with drizzle, all that cracked and parched earth had by then turned to thick, fast moving mud. If the hills were higher, there would likely have been mudslides but since the incline was generally nonexistent or brief, it simply was. Lillian's mother later took to describing it as petulant and frustrated, just waiting to cause trouble for some foolish young girl, but it was universally recognized that Viola was a bit of a twit.

The quixotic like to say that elite riders reach a sort of gestalt of animal, man and sport where time slows and diffracts during a difficult jump. Others posit a kind of sixth sense, but these, Lillian often thought, were the kind of people who secretly wrote about fairies and forbore to attempt publishing, afraid of losing that last shred of apparent pragmatism. The truth is that elite riders would never bother with jumping if they knew what was going to happen, or if they could, in some way, become their horse. Because the thrill was in riding uncertainty straight over that obstacle, and the only gestalt was between the two sides of the rider's brain - one calculating the odds that they'd land safely and the other marveling at the hot taste of wind - making up this for once seamless being, that broke apart the moment the horse's hooves touched ground. She thought it was the same for drivers.

As much as riding was the essence of power, jumping was its antithesis, and in the same way that authority often breeds masochism, holding the reigns makes that directed release of control a bone-deep thrill far better than merely jumping on one's own.

Standing at Aldea's flank, Lillian shortened her stirrups. One, then two holes. Whenever she let someone else touch her gear, they managed to change everything around in the most annoying ways imaginable. She worked in the stables as a matter of course, but she was particular about her tack.

She patted the old horse absently, earning a soft whicker. Twice more and she slipped her foot into the stirrup, took the reins in her left hand and swung up. There was ritual to this sort of thing. She shifted subtly, finding her seat. A reflexive flick at her jacket set everything in place.

Aldea was eager today. Under Lillian's legs, her muscles shifted and twitched, not rebelliously, but just enough to let her rider know that she was burning today. Aldea had long outgrown the prancing and head tossing that even the best-trained horses indulged in. She held her a moment, smiling at the picture she knew they made. Black on white, on white against a slate grey morning, elegantly turned out on even such a dreary day.

Aldea made her impatience known with a short jerk at the bridle and Lillian pushed them forward, with a slight tap of her knee. The horse hopped forward into a smooth and comfortable trot. Lillian led Aldea around in a tight half circle around to the approach for the first jump.

She shifted her seat and kicked Aldea forward. Faster. Now at a gallop Aldea, she could tell, was ready. Could taste the jump and sense memory reminded her rider too. Escape velocity in miniature and the force of muscle and flesh that was hers to direct. Air became wind and the bleak landscape blurred to something Monet would feel comfortable calling his. Lillian transferred her weight to her thighs and feet, waiting for that moment -

Leaned forward and willed Aldea up. Beneath her the horse surged, her hooves kicked mud up behind them and she jumped.

It wasn't flying. Lillian had flown in jets and gliders and this was something else. As Aldea pushed up, Lillian was thrust down into and against her and she was small, inconsequential, while Aldea negotiated with the ground the terms of their return. It was everything, until it was time to pull back.

Aldea's hooves crashed down into the mud and the jolt ran up Lillian's spine. Now with both hooves down, the horse slid a bit then caught enough purchase to move back into a gallop. Lillian breathed thin and fast. It was close, that time. The mud was slick enough to cause just that little bit more uncertainty. And this was beautiful.

She urged Aldea faster and the thundering hooves overrode even the feel of her heartbeat. Her body bounced and jolted with her mount's and the slow rain prickled her cold face, but there was no sensation that could block out the approach. She forced her fingers to loosen their grip on the reins, leaned forward and rose off the saddle again. Long muscles bunched beneath her thighs and heaved forward. This time the transition stuttered and the jump, she knew, would not win them points in competition, but they were over another obstacle and they landed - again with that quick, dangerous slide - safely and kept moving.

She turned Aldea with a firm knee, to her favourite obstacle. She'd run it with Aldea before, but recently she'd only taken it with Dart or Europa, younger mounts. Aldea pressed forward, not as eager as before but Lillian was insistent, urging her forward with knees and reins. The horse's gallop faltered in the mud, but Lillian again pressed her forward and Aldea's gait smoothed.

Aldea took the slight incline at her full gallop - she raced up to the obstacle though her hooves slid a little with each step, sure under Lillian's direction. Again, her muscles tightened and she pushed over. But it wasn't right this time. Lillian whipped her head to the side in blind panic - she knew she should keep her gaze straight forward, but she had to look, to see if the jump had been judged right. And Aldea felt it.

They came down hard, Aldea's legs buckling. The horse screamed but it didn't drown out the sharp crack of her fall. Lillian, uncertain in the saddle tumbled to the side, sliding across and down the horse's body. One hand was still tangled in the reins and she jerked to a halt, caught. The horse, screaming and wild, thrashed in the mud and Lillian clawed against the leather trapping her wrist with both hands. A shudder ran through Aldea and she tried to roll away from her hurt and Lillian, still caught was flung up and forward, to land close to the horse. The motion tore at her shoulder and she screamed.

Lillian's cold-numbed fingers tore at the leather binding her. She twisted her arm and with a pop, fell free. Collapsing away from the horse, she dropped back into the mud.

Aldea, having relieved the pressure on her legs, went still and merely whined. She shook her head slowly. It was not anything Lillian had seen a horse do before.

Lillian crawled back to Aldea and patted her gently. "It's ok. Just come on. It's ok..." she trailed off into a mumbled litany.

Her neat suit soaked through with rain and Aldea's blood, a pain-drunk Lillian had forced the old mare back to her feet and to the barn, miles away. Months before, her father had tentatively broached the subject of Aldea's retirement and the purchase of a new mount specifically for Lillian, but thinking it only her father's need for the superlative in all things, she'd resisted. She'd screamed about his vile lack of sentimentality and obligation. She'd broken things; not random antiques but treasured mementos, unaware of the contradiction with which she'd presented herself.

With the rain trickling down the inside of her black jacket, despite the thick roof far over her head, and errant pieces of hay jutting out at odd angles to sneak through her pants, Lillian sat quietly on her appointed bale, a bundle of nerves and irritants, while strong, young farmhands held down Aldea, and old Geoff sent a bullet into her brain. Long, thin legs twitched and a mouth fell open. A wound still bled out slowly and a tail lay flat along a flank. She blinked.

Geoff was patting her fallen chignon, long since disheveled past recognition, with one strong but age-gnarled hand. In the other, he clutched her cap.

"I thought I lost that."

"Simon brought it in. He says there's a lot of work to repair the course." Geoff didn't really say things with his voice. He kept it flat and his words short. It was with his hands, tanned and speckled with liver spots, smelling of lemon oil and leather, that he really spoke. His fingers caught in a snarl of pale orange curls. He tugged at it hard and smoothed it out, finally removing the pins from the sodden mass with neat, quick movements. "Budge up." He sat, arranging his limbs with the precision of someone used to disability and took one of her clammy hands. Geoff turned it palm up and forced open her fingers, then dropped the pins into it, one by one.

The two farmhands - they were new enough that Lillian didn't know their names - made up a litter and with some effort removed the body.

"Your father makes a deal of noblesse oblige. Sometimes that means giving mercy." In Geoff's mouth, the French was hard and devoid of the mystery her tutor managed to inject into it.

"I didn't understand."

"You likely still don't, girl." He closed her fingers around the pins and ran a thumb across the back of each joint.

"I only wanted to prove that I could do it." Her brothers had suggested otherwise.

"I've no doubt you can." He didn't say, Aldea couldn't, because that was evident and Geoff was never one to waste time with the obvious. He didn't say, the moment you cinched on the saddle and closed the bit and bridle on her, it became about Aldea too, because that too was evident.

"I miscalculated." He didn't say, yes and worse too, but he pressed her hand hard and told her to repair and clean the damaged tack. "You're keeping it?" she asked, her voice full of incredulity.

"Course." There was no need to waste decent leather just because sir's foolish daughter ran a horse to death in it. He patted her shoulder roughly, like he would with any of the boys, and went to deal with whatever issues a horse's death engendered for the stable master. And she was grateful - he expected no less of her because of her name or sex. She would do things properly, maybe not as well as some of the hands did, but as well as she could.

She peeled off her clinging jacket, yanking when it caught at her elbows and hung it up out of the way, picking out the appropriate tools that hung nearby. Precisely folding up her pressed sleeves, she settled back on her bale and got to work.

Horses screamed when they were hurt and they sounded a lot like people.

It wasn't until after she'd finished mending, oiling, sweeping and the rest, collected her jacket and a pat on the head from Geoff, showered and changed in her pretty yellow bathroom, that she thought to mention her own injuries. Walking with broken ribs felt like being kicked in the chest with sharp-toed boots, over and over, like she was curled up in the schoolyard being taunted by upper form girls. Breathing felt like tiny gremlins had made it into her chest for the express purpose of pinching her until she fainted out of pain, or even just annoyance.

But Lillian was strong as any of her brothers and she put it out of her mind until she noticed the blood on her tongue. Then, she politely invaded Cosette's sitting room and suggested to her governess that a trip to the hospital might be in order.

Cosette, capable woman that she was, had merely looked her up and down, taken in her state, and bustled her downstairs to wait for an ambulance. Lillian was never certain exactly when it was called for. It was funny how some parts of a memory remained so visceral and others, which seem more important, fled entirely.

They sat together in the front parlor. Lillian on a bright, apple green couch that her paternal grandmother had picked up in China. There were tiny fighting soldiers, embroidered all along it, in long winding lines. She couldn't identify it as any particular battle and had long since decided it was the random imagining of some artist. It was all like something utterly fanciful and devoid of sense - no general would position his troops thusly and no captain would direct his unit to do that. The whorls of smoke that obscured portions of the battle always set her curiosity burning. And even then, with her breath coming in tight, moist gasps, her shoulder twinging with every shift of her body, and her vision blurring sporadically - making the room a black and white film, all sped up and jerking - she was fascinated. And annoyed.

If she was in charge, she thought, she wouldn't position her canon on their right flank, but plant them there and there. She drew her fingers along the embroidery, absently drawing out her victory.

Cosette, used to this, folded her long fingers around her charge's, but said nothing.

"Where's mother?" She turned to her governess but her eyes kept flicking back to the embroidery.

"Upstairs. She's not up to this." Cosette smirked, the only insubordination she allowed herself and that only because Lillian was sure to always return it. Even then.

"Is she asleep?" Lillian asked, her tone asking a different question entirely.

"Oh," Cosette ventured, somehow mixing mischief and rebuke equally. "More or less. Janice will make her aware of the situation when she's able."

"Ah." Janice, her mother's maid and confidante. And other things such polite terms didn't cover, though nothing, she noted archly to herself, sexual. Her mother was anything but sexual. Viola was more attuned to the taste of fine wines and musical lyricism, than to husbands, daughters or horses. Janice procured things and ensured Viola's rest was not disturbed. Viola was beyond guilt.

"Father?" The underlying green of the couch, always too garish for the subject, was spilling over the scene, though the occasional thread was managing to escape, whipping around, bright and slick, a sudden flash of black or yellow. Lillian blinked.

"He and your brothers went into the city." Cosette steadied her, though Lillian had been unaware of her gradual list towards the embroidery. "The ambulance should be here soon."

"I didn't know-"

"You did, dear." And this was shock, both physical and psychological. Lillian's breath came soft and ragged and Cosette was right. She may not have understood, but she knew something, as surely as her father's eyes dilated in a near-pavlovian response to the words 'I can't'.

The paramedics came and moved with the orderly assurance of professionals. In their care she allowed herself to drift, reminiscing about the smell of grass on spring mornings and afternoons, telling the couch how wrong it all was. Later she would realise how very high she'd been and relate the story as an anecdote at cocktail parties. Heirloom furniture, English governesses, paramedics and very good drugs. It never failed to go over well.

When her father fired Geoff for not looking after his only daughter properly, she thought that maybe she understood what the stable master had been talking about.

She wasn't sure though, until a few years later, when she developed her condition, as the family insisted on calling it. Lillian liked to call it precisely what it was and not couch it in safer terms, but after the sixth time her mother broke down in tears, she allowed that it might be an idea to yield to their now so obvious sentimentality. Her condition, which actually made her feel a lot worse than broken ribs, when she didn't take care of herself, reminded her of Geoff and Aldea. The first time her breath came short and her heart just paused, Lillian smelled wet wool, blood and manure.

But it wasn't the same and Lillian was sure she didn't understand. Certainly she didn't want to find her death at the end of a rifle. Sprawled on the floor, her vision quickly fading, she'd thought, maybe if I'd loved her enough and told her how much I needed her to get better, pushed her back up to her feet again, she'd have been able to keep walking even longer.

Lillian still didn't understand limits, not really. A decade of formal training in physics had only trained her to look for more.

When she was twenty-nine, the sky fell on her son.

She was with Eric, her physician of six years. Eric had old hands, like Geoff's and he operated complicated medical instruments with the same lazy-seeming facility as the stable master. An examination was less an intersection of the professional with biological principles, than a familiar art. He took her temperature like he was sketching a quick profile, or brushing down a panting mare.

The part of Lillian that adored quantum mechanics and the way Lionel looked with an epee was satisfied with his competence and professional ethics - he'd never sell her charts to the Inquisitor or the Daily Planet. The Lillian that rode horses too hard because she loved them and later petted them until they loved her too, looked up Geoff Collingswood and asked him what he thought about Eric Dorsey. He patted her head and told her that he seemed like a solid fellow.

She'd had only one shoe on and her cuffs were still hanging open, when Eric burst back into the room, telling her to switch on the television. A meteor shower in Smallville, Kansas! Spectacular!

The seven hundred dollar Manolo Blahnik pump fell from fingers gone numb and she disregarded Eric's orders against getting too excited. He hadn't known that Lionel and Lex had flown out there that morning, on her suggestion.

If given the choice, she wouldn't have allowed her herself unconsciousness then, but her body, like her mind, rebelled.

She woke to the taste of antiseptic in the air and cool air brushing her bare forehead. Taking stock of her situation quickly, a trick she'd picked up in college and refined in Lionel's bed, she decided that she'd fainted and that Eric must have maneuvered her back onto the exam table. He did that more than most doctors, really. He was very much worth the rather large checks she made out each month.

She tested her sight, slitting her eyes enough to realise that all was well enough. Her lashes fluttered suddenly and involuntarily and she wondered at that.

That it was Eric's exam room didn't change it substantially from all the others she'd spent time in over the years. Her brothers might theorize that there was some definable essence of medical examination rooms that all others were less than pure copies of. If they'd been still alive, she would have said that they were reading too much Plato and suggested some Nietzsche as a change.

Pastel walls, a colour so bland it wasn't worth defining a place for it on the spectrum. Instrumentation that she could identify flying on percocet, a fact made all the more amusing in light of her disdain for biology and the practical applications thereof. Tiles, more expensive than many of their cousins, but just as inoffensive and cold.

But that it was Eric's exam room made it, not warm, or safe, because above all Lillian despised safety, but special in that same way that Geoff's stable smelled differently than all the others she'd been in, and differently than when that particular stable ceased to be his.

The door opened with a soft click and Eric slipped in. "Lillian," he said. Eric's first words always sounded like there had been several before them, as if he started talking somewhere down the hall, sure that she could hear him anywhere. "Lex was hurt in the meteor shower. They air-lifted him to Metropolis General."

"I surmised as much, Eric."

"Yes well, your episode was stress related. You're clear for now, though you need-"

"To avoid exposing myself to such high levels of stress. Yes, Eric, I know but it seems to find me just fine, without my seeking it out. Now," she forced herself upright, ignoring the momentary dizziness. "Would you hand me my shoes? I really to need to get to the hospital."

"It's not your fault Lillian. I mean - that you sent them there... before, I didn't think..."

"Sometimes fault is irrelevant Eric, but responsibility never is." He knelt on his beige designer tiles and slipped her shoes on for her. He patted her ankle absently, like it alone of the rest of her, could possibly be a pet. "Thank you."

"Now Lillian, don't push yourself too hard, or I'll have to speak with Lionel about this," he said, as he showed her out of the room and into the hall. She just stared at him for a moment. He handed her a folder, embossed with a spare L.L. She stalked out of the office and into the elegant elevator Eric shared with one other practitioner, flipped open the folder, and paged through the early projections on the Smallville crash site. It really was amazing what money could accomplish. Her breath hitched and came slowly.

Could she now add antiseptic and expensive leather to wet wool, blood and manure?

Impact velocity and area of object of impact. Lillian was already calculating and another part of her was just screaming. She had to know.

In Smallville, her son had nearly died, and in Metropolis, he languished in a bed for months. The sky had cracked open and shed meteors like the unsubtle tantrum of some Greek deity, denouncing Luthor hubris. And Lex had fallen. Certainly Lionel knew how to push him back to his feet, but Lillian knew how to make him want to stand again. So she would take him back there, walk him through the new rows of corn and hold him while he hurt, until he was ready to stand without her.

She would love her son with everything that she was, tell him with every breath how much she needed him to get better, and push him farther than he'd every gone before. And while Lillian knew that there were limits, that she died a little each day, she also knew that life wasn't about giving quarter of any kind, but having hope and loving your charges enough to see them through to the end.

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