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Reciprocation

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Six

 

Lights.

Motion.

Pain.

A confusing jumble of faces hovering, with urgent, serious expressions. Mouths moving with no sound, like an odd recreation of a silent movie, only in flaring color and without the subtitles.

Panic swelled, like the expanding ring of concussive fire/sound/impact and he struggled, but restraints held him flat and immobile, his neck starched stiff and straight in the grasp of a foam coated brace. Hands moved out to steady him, faces stretched into comforting masks, designed to pacify. He couldn't comprehend what they were saying. No, he couldn't hear past the muffled silence that clogged his head.

He could remember the sound of the blast though. And the soft ticking of his watch. The sound of the young valet saying something to him before he enthusiastically hurried to the limo to open the door. There were pieces of that boy on the pavement. A hand, surprisingly uncharred by flame, divided from its body, lying on the fine marble of the portico walk. The boy had a name, but he couldn't recall it. Maybe he'd never known it at all.

The explosion ate up everything again, sucking light and air out of the world and he went down again.

He dreamed of innocents torn to pieces by mindless eruptions of flame and metal. Of the Bugs skittering along the ceiling of the cave in West Virginia, alien eyes, alien minds trying to enrapture the weak. Clark catching that wall and looking at him in dread when he'd faced him afterwards. Alien eyes that you could drown in and never regret. He had a meeting, and it was important he know the time, but he couldn't focus on the face of his watch . . .

 

Lex came to again in a private ER room, off the backboard, but with the torturous neck brace still in place. He reached for it and his left wrist blared pain. A nurse caught his arm, and a doctor in green scrubs leaned in and spoke. There was ringing this time, instead of packed cotton, but he couldn't hear words. He thought the lips formed things that might have been x-rays and broken. Broken was a possibility, a probability as far as the wrist went. Breathing came with a multitude of pain, but he could move his arms and his legs, so the threat of a broken spine seemed unlikely.

Odd that he could rationally deduce that, when the rest of his thoughts were a chaotic muddle.

What was the boy's name? Had he heard it before in passing? Brown hair. Crooked teeth. A high school ring on his finger. That had survived the blast as well.

The nurse laid his arm down at his side and he let her, half tracking the movement of the other staff in the room.

A grey-haired, white-coated someone shined a light in his eyes, and spoke at him. Someone else had already done that and it annoyed him. He batted the penlight away with his good hand and growled something he couldn't hear himself say.

The car exploded and bits and pieces of a young valet littered the pavement. Dizziness drew Lex down again.

 

There was sound when he came around this time. Sound couched in the quiet of a room that wasn't in the heavy traffic flow of the ER. The ringing was still there, accompanied by the vague sense of vertigo and nausea that seemed to go hand in hand with concussion. His left wrist was encased in a cast. The rest of him felt much like a beetle placed in a jar by a malicious child and shaken until its exoskeleton fractured.

Being caught in the blast radius of an explosion tended to do that. He remembered it now for what it was, although only snatches of imagery came to him. His imagination was resourceful enough to fill in the blanks.

He needed his phone and his head of security, but neither one was in sight at the moment. He pushed himself up and incapacitating pain made him reel, stealing his breath. He froze, half propped on an elbow while it passed, forcing past the pain. It felt like every rib he had was cracked or fractured or bruised. Pain he could deal with, ignorance would kill him.

He pushed himself up, more carefully this time, swung a leg over the edge of the bed and stared down dumbly at the bare skin of his leg below the hem of a hospital gown. His focus thinned a little, like dye in water. He lifted his good hand to his head, sliding his fingers to the back of his skull and gingerly touched the edges of a lump covered by a small bandage.

A nurse noticed him perched on the side of his bed and came running in to chastise, going on about concussions and shock and bed rest. It was a relief to hear her words, even if they were accompanied by the faint ringing. He wasn't interested in the content of her warning. They had taken his watch and that bothered him more than the lack of pants. He swung his gaze around, while the nurse was trying to decide whether to lay hands on him to get him back down, looking for a clock.

8:37. Was it the same day, or a different one? The blinds were closed on the broad windows, so he couldn't see if it were night or day.

A doctor came in, with attending sycophants on his heels, a placating, highly concerned look on his face, which was to be expected when LuthorCorp was a major contributor to Metropolis General funding. There was a wing named after his mother. She hadn't died here, but during the last year of her life, she had been here a great deal, having things done, that at the time, no one had deemed necessary to explain to him.

It bothered him being here.

The doctor was asking him formulaic questions. What was his name, the date, the president? The sorts of things a mind ought to know if it wasn't scrambled. He answered, distracted by the movement of the little hand on the wall clock. He shut down the need to look at his bare wrist, recognizing the impulse for what it was. Shock, trauma, the mind trying to compensate and he refused to fall prey to it when there were more important things to be done.

Compartmentalize the physical trauma, the horrible images of the dead Valet and focus on who he'd pissed off enough lately to plant a bomb in his car.

Outside the doorway, he saw the hovering forms of at least two of his security team on the job after all. One of them had a bandage on his forehead and gash across his cheek, but Lex didn't remember the man being in the portico when the car exploded.

He beckoned with his good hand and the one with the scraped face, Jenkins, came in. "Talk to me."

"We have very little information, Mr. Luthor. The police have the scene closed and we're having to work around them. They've been waiting to talk to you."

Fantastic. He remembered body parts on the pavement. "How many dead?"

"Two sir. Six wounded, including you. But mostly cuts and bruises. You were closest to the car when it went."

Other than the valet. And his driver. Lex knew his name. His last name at least. He only used drivers occasionally.

He wanted out of here, and the medical staff was only a hindrance. His security didn't balk at instructions simply because they thought they knew better than him. He asked for his clothes and they got them, the doctors babbling protest all the while.

He had to have help with the shirt buttons, the fingers of his left hand not particularly mobile. He negated the tie altogether and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

It was 5 hours after the explosion and walking hurt. Breathing hurt. Thinking hurt. In another 5 hours, once the aches really settled in, he was going to regret being here within easy access of a morphine drip.

There was a uniformed officer by the elevators, who looked up at his approach with surprise. "Mr. Luthor! I'm going to have to ask you to stop. There are detectives who need to take your statement."

The officer put an arm out to prevent him from stepping onto the elevator, but Jenkins stepped in the way of that, determined to do his job whether it consisted of treading over a badge or not.

"They can come to my offices." Lex suggested as the doors were closing and the officer rapidly speaking into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder.

Lex felt his phone in his pocket. His watch was there as well.

There were a dozen things he needed to do in the face of this - - questions to ask, resources to set in motion, panicky stockholders to placate - - LuthorCorp and LexCorp stock was going to take a hit from this - - very public assassination attempts of company CEO's made people nervous. The attempts on his life were generally quieter in nature or at the very least easier to cover up when they weren't in the middle of downtown Metropolis.

"Do you know the name of the valet that was killed?" Was what he asked instead on the elevator ride down.

"I can find out for you, sir." Jenkins promised. "The driver was Paul Granger."

Lex nodded and pushed himself off the elevator wall as the car glided to a stop lobby level. Another LuthorCorp security detail met them downstairs, along with Lex's personal assistant, Nancy and the head of his public relations staff. He got detoured away from the main lobby and its public entrance, towards a more secluded side exit. The sharp clacking echo of a half dozen sets of feet down an empty corridor was making his head throb. He gave instructions that his people duly noted.

There was a car waiting outside, and Lex couldn't help hesitating a beat outside the door as Jenkins went to open the door for him, images of light, heat and deafening sound stalking his memory. There was a distant flicker that made his heart flutter a beat, but it was only the flash of a camera as a small group of diligent reporters who'd had the good sense to realize that if he left, it wasn't going to be through the front, pelted across the parking lot.

He was inside the car with two security men and his assistant before they were halfway there, his PR man left behind to fend them off with smoothly prepared statements.

 

The young valet's name had been Brian Simms. He'd been a sophomore at Met U, working his way through college. Lex found that out when he reached his office and spoke with his chief of security. The bomb had been a remote device, triggered, from what the MPD bomb squad had deduced from somewhere within a 500 yard radius. Which made a senseless act that much more pointless. If someone wanted him dead, why not wait until he was in the car and a certain casualty?

Luthor West was crawling with security, the area around the explosion cordoned off, even though curious spectators still flocked the sidewalks beyond the barricades. He'd made the evening edition of the Daily Planet, which Nancy thoughtfully provided when they'd waded through security and police and gotten up to his office. Black suits were unusually obvious on the executive level as well and Lex was assured that the building had been swept and reswept for more devices.

He glanced at the Planet, but his head hurt too much to scan the 10-point type, so he listened to the newscast from three different stations and discovered that no few number of crackpot extremist organizations had already claimed responsibility. Everyone from the Committee for the Liberation from Capitalism to the Army of God seemed to think claiming credit for an attempt on his life would boost their reputation. He could only imagine the clamor if they'd actually gotten him.

It had been a bungled job, so it was entirely possible some half-wit with a social agenda had tried to orchestrate it, but he wouldn't put money on it. It was more likely someone with a personal grudge, and though he had earned his fair share of enmity in his four years as CEO, his various pet projects were more likely to have engendered the sort of enemy that would resort to this extreme. And then he had a lifetime of his father's victims to consider, that might not be picky as to which Luthor they took out their vengeance upon.

He'd already given security his list of possible culprits when the police showed up and started in with an endless cycle of questions. They came up with a captain and two detectives, and handled his interview with care. LuthorCorp had long arms and the city knew which side its bread was buttered. He gave them an abbreviated list of people who might want him dead and promised to contact them with more, if any occurred.

Even still they were dogged in their pursuit of facts that Lex just didn't know. His diplomacy started to quiver. There was strain in his voice that he just couldn't manage to shake. He was tired, he hurt and he was starting to regret not staying at the hospital long enough to acquire a prescription for very powerful pain killers. He'd get Nancy to take care of that after the police left.

Finally they retreated and left him to the dubious peace of an office filled with the strains of CNN and networks news. Security came in and gave him updates that shed little in the way of new light.

Nancy kept the trivial stuff away from him and he sat behind his desk and tried to keep the room from spinning. Shutting his eyes made it worse.

"Sir?" Nancy had been his PA for close to eleven months now. She wasn't pretty, which was fine, because he tended to get in trouble with the pretty ones, like an addiction that he couldn't control, but she was utterly competent and had a talent for predicting his needs before he realized he had them.

He looked at her and saw an alarming after image that spoke volumes about the state of his head.

"It's late and I have people dealing with all of your requests. Capable people, sir. You should go home and get some rest. The doctor was very specific on that. I have your medication."

It wasn't a bad idea, crawling into his own bed. Just for a few hours while the wheels of the machine turned and information was procured. He'd been sitting here for hours now, dealing with the police, dealing with the problem from the Corporation side. There was a point where rational decision making could no longer compete with the demands of the body. He thought he might have reached that point some while ago, because the hands on the clock - - the clock that he still was having problems not flashing glances at in a vaguely compulsive manner - - had shifted thirty minutes forward, without him noticing it.

He consented with a condition. "Call me immediately with any new information."

He pushed himself up and had to lean on the desk to keep from falling back down. It hurt so bad, the sudden momentum of standing, after sitting so long, that he felt physically ill. When he caught his breath, he swept up the bottle of pills, and thank God the cap wasn't childproof or he'd never have gotten it open with his casted hand without having to resort to Nancy's help. He wasn't so far gone that he was willing to relinquish that much dignity. He shook out two on the desk - - then four - - his body's metabolism tended to take the kick out of the best of drugs - - and chased them down with a swig of water.

There were security waiting for him by the elevator, two fresh, unscuffed faces that Lex hardly focused on. They weren't letting him out of their sight until they reached the penthouse of Luthor East, and he couldn't summon up complaint with that at the moment.

They took the private elevator; the straight shot right to the basement and the connecting walk under all the police tape and the crowds on street level, to the Luthor East, then up to the penthouse with no one the wiser. Since they let him walk right in, he assumed it had been swept for illicit devices and passed grade.

He poured himself a full glass of scotch first off, just in case the pills needed a jump-start. Closed his eyes to savor the burn, then walked down the hall to his bedroom and painfully shrugged off his clothing.

Awkwardly, he unwrapped the bandages around his ribs and got into the shower. He turned it as hot as he could stand and stood there while the water washed away the stench of hospital and smoke and blood. Standing there, immobile under the spray his mind drifted to those seconds of consciousness after the explosion. He shook himself out of that threatening loop with effort. It would haunt his sleep though, he had no doubt. The terrible things always did. He never seemed to have good dreams. Maybe the pills would help, because his head was beginning to feel less strident pain and more cloying heaviness.

He smeared fog off the mirror afterwards and stared at the bruises and the cuts. The left side of his back was a mass of discoloration. There was a gash on his shoulder that he hadn't realized he had. Not deep enough for stitches but they'd put three butterfly bandages on it. The shower had peeled them off. He had a small cut on his cheek, angling up towards his right temple. Those were what he could easily see. He didn't exert the effort it would take to twist and examine the rest of him.

The carpet in the bedroom felt achingly good under his toes, which was probably due to the effectiveness of the drugs. The bed was a beckoning field of goose feather and fine linen.

Someone was knocking on his door. Lex blinked, thinking about that, and the fact that there wasn't a front door, only an elevator that one had to have a key card and a code to access.

It was more like a tapping, actually, like someone beating an aluminum bat against the industrial strength glass of a 50-story skyscraper.

He pulled on a robe and wondered down the hall, good hand trailing the wall, because he really was starting to feel the effects of booze chased pills now. There was another half-hearted tap on the glass, and Lex, with something akin to dull surprise stared at Clark standing on the other side of the terrace doors as politely as if he were waiting on the stoop of a two-story walkup.

Surprise melted into something closer to weary satisfaction. He hadn't even had to call this time and here Clark was. He reached for the handle with his right hand and the door wouldn't budge, but he kept trying it for a few seconds stupidly until it occurred to him that there was such a thing as a lock. He was truly fucked-up.

He turned the lock, and pulled on the door and it complied this time, letting in a gust of cold air that had the curtains billowing. Clark just stood there on the other side, dark hair a mess of windblown curls, expression almost laughably somber. He was the prettiest thing Lex had seen all day. A sullen-faced spot of bright warmth in an otherwise shitty afternoon.

"You hung up on me again." Lex remarked.

Clark's eyes widened a little, disbelieving. Then he let out a breath and shook his head, giving Lex the wary sort of look people usually reserved for madmen or megalomaniacs. "I just wanted to - - I just came to see if you were all right."

"All right? You know me, Clark - - I may not be bullet proof, but I have the uncanny ability to bounce back from near death experiences. And hey, according to the flood of care calls, I'm in the hearts of half the extremist organizations in America. A few internationals as well. So I'm good. Great even."

"Lex?" Clark was frowning at him. "Are you drunk?"

Drunk? Well, it was only a matter of semantics. He laughed and it sounded odd, like it was issuing from someone else's throat.

"Shit, Lex. Your ribs." Clark was staring at his robe-covered torso intently and he wondered what he looked like, under the skin, to Clark's spy ware vision.

Lex shrugged off the concern, stepping backwards and staggering a little. Clark put a hand on his arm, shoring up unreliable balance.

"I was going to call," Clark's hand was still on his arm, solid, dependable strength. "But I don't have your number and you keep calling me on an unlisted phone."

"Phone calls are so impersonal."

"Lex . . .?"

"I'm tired." There. He'd said it out loud and sky hadn't come crashing down. He ventured a little bit more, because Clark was safe and Clark understood things that you'd never think him capable of comprehending. "It's been a long day. I have to keep looking at the time to remind myself it's still Monday."

"For a while yet, anyway," Clark said slowly, warily. "Do you know who was responsible?"

There was something in Clark's expression that penetrated the fog in Lex's brain. That self-deprecating sense of culpability that Clark had always worn when someone he knew would end up hurt, as if he were responsible for all the bad luck in the world.

It pissed Lex off. It had always pissed him off even before he'd known the honest roots of Clark's hero complex. To get looked at by Clark, like he thought Lex needed saving, when if he couldn't save himself, he didn't deserve to be in the game in the first place. Lionel had taught him that. One of those hard lessons that had starting coming after his mother had died and there had been no one to deflect his father's ideas on the rites of manhood.

He pulled his arm out of Clark's grip and Clark looked at him oddly, waiting. Lex gathered his wits and tried to recall the last question. Ah, responsibility.

"The MPD is working on it, but my people are better."

He started towards the bar. Something besides Clark to lean against would be nice. And there was the scotch.

Clark hesitated a beat, then slid the doors closed and followed. He circled around the back of the bar where Lex stood, instead of leaning across it from him. Big fingers touched the cast of the hand Lex was using to steady the glass, grazing it lightly, like casts and broken bones were such a wonder to him. They probably were.

"Lex . . ."

Lex wanted him to shut up. To back away and stop threatening his defenses, because it was hard enough to deal with Clark when he was in control and coherent, when he could properly recall all the excellent reasons he had to tread very carefully. This close, Lex could smell him, the unique Clark scent that brought back vivid memories of the night on Lex's bed, the smell of some citrus shampoo and it made Lex's head swim.

His good hand was shaking. Badly. More liquor sloshed on the bar than in the glass. Clark took the decanter away from him, put the stopper in and dipped his head to look Lex in the eye.

"What are you doing, Lex?"

"Trying to get a drink." He tossed down the quarter inch of scotch he'd managed to get in the glass.

"You're not okay."

"No." he agreed a heartbeat before he realized that was the wrong answer.

"Tell me what happened, Lex."

He blinked at Clark, heart thudding, purpose scattering. Eyes you could drown in. Fuck Lionel and his life lessons anyway. Fuck Luthor pride when all it ever got you was animosity and alone.

So he recounted the stark facts of the incident, much as he'd done for the police and Clark kept watching him afterwards, waiting like this was the first act of a play and Lex had more lines to share. And it was so hard to deny him, when he was staring like it mattered.

"I've gotten complacent, I guess," Lex leaned both elbows on the bar top, pressing his forehead into the palm of his good hand. "After going so long in Metropolis without anyone actively trying to kill me, I wasn't expecting it. I was distracted because - -" he had think a moment to remember why. "Today was supposed to be a light day and I wanted to get the tour over with and I was running behind. I walked right past him at the door and he said something - - but they always say the same thing, so I stop listening sometimes. I was worried about the time, as if ten minutes would make a difference in the scheme of things and then - - I don't know what happened. I didn't see it, Clark. I couldn't hear what they were saying."

The beat of his heart became painful, his chest constricting in panic as his mind constructed an awful, silent parody of life and death. He shut his eyes and it was still there, and the lack of vision only made the dizziness worse. God, he was tired.

"There was a hand. It was just lying there on the ground. I don't know where the rest of him is."

"Who was he?" The calm of the question brought Lex back from the edge of abyss. And Clark wasn't asking about the job, but about the boy that had done it. The sort of thing that Clark would want to know, the sort of thing that Clark would have known, if he'd met the kid more than once. And maybe that's what bothered Lex. That he'd never cared and he hated himself for being so callous, that he could see a man almost everyday for a year and not even know a name. That it took research from his assistants to find out the basic facts about a boy that had gotten blown to bits in front of him trying to open a fucking car door.

The name he recalled with biting clarity, the rest he had to search out through the stupor that was trying to suffocate his thoughts.

"His name was Brian Simms . . . He was 20. He went to Met U. That doesn't say very much about him, does it? But it's what personnel supplied. We don't run in-depth background checks on part time valets."

"Its not your fault."

It was ironic to hear Clark say that, after spending the last few years actively blaming Lex for everything. And this time Lex actually did feel guilt.

"I've seen a lot of death, Clark. People die every day. Every second of every day. It's just the way things are. The world is a terrible place with no compassion for the innocent. I don't know why I can't get this kid out of my head.

"I don't know, Lex. Maybe you're just human."

 

 

 

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