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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 10

 

The attack when it came, wasn't unexpected. The people here had predicted it, apparently having weathered the wrath of the Freaks when some overly confident scavenger from their ranks had ventured a little too deeply into the territory around the L.

Sometimes, they attacked for no reason whatsoever - - or, as Clark heard in hushed whispers - - for reasons no sane man wanted to contemplate - - and people of the clan died or disappeared - - which was the same thing really, when it came right down to it.

Lex had triggered this attack and it must have been a relief for these folk to find an easy target for blame other than an injured boy - - because Clark also heard louder, more hostile whispers about the strangers they'd allowed among them out of the goodness of their hearts that had brought calamity down. He heard nastier things, and God knew why he cared enough about Lex's well being to worry about the possibility of retaliation, but he did and it stuck in his maw the way things did sometimes that a man damned well didn't want to do, but felt obligated towards anyway.

It wasn't like Lex had been harboring healthy feelings towards him. It wasn't like Lex had been doing anything but scheming and manipulating and twisting all the rules to get what he wanted. Getting bashed in the face with the kryptonite tipped stick had been more of a painful shock than getting taken down at the Fortress of Solitude. At least then he'd been expecting something of the sort.

Here, he'd sort of figured the rules had all changed - - old issues shuffled to the background in favor of newer, more morbid ones. He should have figured Lex never surrendered the pursuit of a cause - - never gave up the bone once he had it in his teeth.

Only he had, maybe, when he'd relented and surprisingly enough the anger that had come bursting to the surface had had a lot less to do with the 'alien' issue than with - - well - - other more personal stuff. At least that was Clark's take. And it was funny, that after the initial tantrum had exhausted the rage, burned away the smug superiority for a few precious moments, that he'd seen something he recognized from better times. It had been a damned long time since he'd seen Lex question the merits of anything he'd initiated.

It had been a damned long time since they'd sat down and had a conversation that wasn't dripping with lies - - on both sides. And this one might not have been pleasant - -but Clark had come away from it nonetheless, feeling rather lighter than he'd gone in.

Lex had a goal for once that was entirely in line with Clark's. The need to discover what had happened to their world. The fear they both held that they might have somehow been at fault for this devastation was a brutally sharp driving force.

A shared fear. Strange how voicing it, and hearing Lex admit the same, softened the edges of it somewhat.

So maybe worrying about Lex wasn't so far fetched after all. Or hell, maybe it was just habit that was too deeply ingrained for Clark to shake, despite everything that happened since the day he'd dragged Lex out of the river and set them both on this course.

He brooded about this until the freaks came with the darkness. Skulking out in the ruins beyond the protective perimeter of the clan's haven. Clark heard them long before the skittish people manning the wire topped walls knew they were out there. He slipped over a wall, none the wiser and went out into the dark to clean up the mess that Lex had initiated.


The walls shook. The ground did when something out there rumbled like a ground to air missile had impacted a city block over. All you could see through the murk-shrouded darkness of this new Metropolis night were the jagged silhouettes of buildings long decimated. If one went down there was no telling it from the laughable safety of the compound.

Lex clambered up onto one of the barricade walls, along with everyone else able enough to climb up and stared out into the treacherous night. He got no second looks for it, no glares of reproach, people too immersed in the very real fear of what lurked outside to hold grudges. Later maybe, they'd remember.

There were screams out there, bone-chilling wails interspaced by what might have been shrill laughter, or the wild utterings of something far from sane. He clutched the gun in his pocket, straining his vision to see beyond the slim area outside the barricades illuminated by the lanterns the guardians held.

Something rustled out there at the edges of shadow and he thought for one moment he caught the glimmer of yellow eyes, but then it was gone and he had to allow for the possibility that it had been a trick of the eyes seeing what the brain insisted was there.

"Why ain't they attacking?" Someone whispered.

There were more mutterings, people shifting anxiously on the walls, hands tight on their weapons, the dark shrouded sounds more nerve wracking than any outright strike. A good tactic if it got these people so wound up that nerves overcame the cool headed ability to defend.

Something launched out of the shadowed rubble of a neighboring building down the line, up towards the top of the barricade and a man screamed, torn from his perch and dragged through the rusted razor wire topping his section of wall. People screamed, aiming ineffectual weapons, holding lights high. Lex clutched the gun in his pocket, wondering if leaning over the wall searching the night for monsters, were such a good idea after all.

A figure came staggering towards the wall, a bleeding man, limping and ashen. People gasped in shock, apparently no victim of the freak attacks ever being so lucky as to slip out of their clutches.

"Let him in. Let him in." A woman screamed, scrambling down the wall towards the gathering of men at the barricade bus.

The possibility of this man being a decoy, a reason for them to shift the armored hulk of city bus that blocked the path into the compound entered Lex's mind. Moving that bus might well open them to a more internal attack, but these people weren't thinking rationally. And at any other time it might have been their downfall, but he had the suspicion it was more than luck this man had escaped a nasty fate. More than luck that nothing had breached the barricades and only one of them had even gotten close enough to them to make the attempt.

Clark wasn't here, manning the walls with everyone else, which meant Clark was out there being proactive.

Lex searched the darkness, straining ordinary human senses for a scrap of information of what was going on out there. Searching for that hint of what Clark was doing and where and how. The discovery of the big secret had in no way diminished the need for the smaller details. What Clark was capable of? What drove Clark? What made him tick?

They inched the barricade bus aside enough to let the man slip through. Lex took out his gun and focused on the area just beyond, perfectly willing to put a bullet into anything else that ventured into that vulnerable space.

Nothing did.

Those not clinging to their posts on the wall gathered around the man, the old, the young, those too damaged one way or another to be much good in a fight. Granny came up and together with the woman who'd screamed for the barricade to be opened, helped the man away. Lex caught the outer babble of conversation as they limped into the depths of the compound.

Dragged him right off the wall, it did.

I was standing right there and I hardly saw it strike.

One of the feral ones, he says.

Had him out into the rubble when he got away.

No, it let him go.

You hear what he said? Something snatched the damn thing offa him. He didn't see what.

Lex knew - - what was fast enough and strong enough and had an unerring interest in saving human life.

Night melted into dawn and nothing else tried the barricades. The silence out there in the broken city had stretched for hours; only the chitter of rodents or less savory lower life forms breaking the quiet. People still manned the walls, not trusting the reprieve.

Clark showed up in the midst of quiet relief, dusty and tired seeming, trying to melt into the background with big hands stuffed into jean pockets, a new tear or two adding to the old ones in his shirt, the back pocket ripped off his jeans and hanging by threads. No one paid him heed, too wrapped up in their own problems, their own misplaced egotism at chasing off the things that went thump in the night.

Green eyes caught his movement as he started over, and Lex steeled himself - - as he always steeled himself for confrontations with Clark. No matter the upper hand, or if he came out on top of the little games they waged, he never went away unscathed. Never came away not feeling as if Clark had scored some telling wound, deep inside, regardless of the particular argument or clash or chance encounter. And he hated the feeling. Despised the singular weakness that Clark inspired. The irrationality of it when he knew things about Clark now that should have fortified him against any vulnerabilities save the physical ones that were beyond his control to alter.

Clark angled back against the wall, hooded eyes, posture nothing but wary as Lex walked up to him. He knew the look. The one that clearly said Clark damn well knew he'd been caught red handed at something and still contemplated denial. As if it mattered. But he supposed, in Clark's mind it was only habit to deny culpability in anything beyond the norm. Complicit denial came as easily as breathing to Clark. As easily as it came to Lex, and Lex had been born, bred and weaned on duplicity.

"How bad was it out there?" Ask the question with the absolute conviction that Clark knew the answer, but make it subtle enough that Clark could give an ambiguous answer if he so chose. Backing Clark into a corner tended to end badly.

Clark's eyes darted beyond Lex, looking to see who was close enough to overhear. Lex wondered if he were ashamed of his powers or just scared to admit the full scope of them. Either way, it was entirely interesting to contemplate.

"Not so bad," Clark said, under his breath, surprising Lex with bald-faced admission. "Just - - a lot of dark places for them to hide."

Lex opened his mouth, prepared for subtle fabrication and having to shift gears to deal with quiet honesty. There were a few kids ambling closer, maybe some of the ones that flocked around Slick, ones that had reason to be curious and possibly hostile towards Clark and himself respectively. He caught Clark's arm and urged him away from the wall. Clark allowed it, slouching along next to Lex, arm hard and warm under the thin fabric of his jacket sleeve.

"How many?" Lex asked as they walked.

Clark took the time to consider. His hair was almost grey in places from dust. That and the new tears in his clothing, the dangling pocket, the smears of dirt on his exposed skin - - all hinted he'd been engaged in things more prickly than standing watch on a razor wire topped wall.

"Not that many," Clark concluded, finally. "Half dozen. None of them were the two we tangled with downtown."

Lex wouldn't think so, not with the number of bullets he'd put into them. A half dozen could mean there really weren't that many of them living in the skeletal remains of LuthorCorp, or that they'd figured they only needed a scant few of their real number to come and harass the normal folk barricaded into their little compound down by the river.

The way his luck tended to run, he rather suspected the latter.

"How strong?" That was an important question. A vital one, if these mutants had been created by something other than accidental exposure. If they were the result of some LuthorCorp experiment gone rogue, chances were they were a lot more dangerous than any chance mutation.

Clark cast an openly surreptitious glance his way, gauging and a little wary, gears turning behind big green eyes as he tried to figure out how much of himself to reveal with an answer to that question.

"I've seen stronger. They were just really determined - - and sneaky. But, you know, it's not a big perimeter to guard, so they were - - manageable."

There was a lie mixed in with the truths, Lex just wasn't sure where. He narrowed his eyes a little, as they passed the group around Granny's tent, wondering if Clark were protecting himself and the revelations of just how much power he held, or if he were hiding something else.

Lex slowed a little, catching sight of Granny and Jane conferring with a few older, tough as nails looking men. The clan bigwigs, he thought, who had to be happy at the results of the night's failed attack. Who had to be wondering why it had failed, when the Freaks had never before not taken a trophy or two for their efforts.

He looked back ahead, at Clark, and the dangling back pocket snared his attention. It was just there, this incongruous and conspicuous detail that sat his teeth on edge. Sometimes it was the tiny things that fucked up a beautiful plan and if Clark wanted to play at concealment, Lex could indulge in the pastime.

He snagged the dangling piece of denim and it barely took a tug to tear it loose from the last clinging threads. Clark faltered, shocked speechless and wide eyed by the personal invasion of space. Lex casually offered the pocket and Clark accepted it reflexively, something almost like color spotting his cheeks.

Fantastic. Lex loved keeping Clark off his balance.

"A building went down out there. That doesn't seem within the perimeters of ordinary mutants," Lex said. "Don't think simply because you put on the humble act, I'll somehow underestimate the scope of your abilities. I put nothing past you. But then, its not your abilities that are at question. Downplaying pertinent information about our enemies - - information I need to understand the situation - - because you're afraid I'll reach some miraculous insight about you, is disadvantageous to everyone who has a stake in surviving here. Not to mention selfish."

Clark narrowed his eyes, swallowing. He teetered on the verge of pissyness, jaw set stubbornly. Offended, no doubt by directness and demands of honesty. Lex felt very secure on the high ground here and it felt good.

"A couple of them were pretty damn tough," Clark stopped of a sudden, turning to stare Lex down with eyes gone hard and cold and serious.

It wasn't a look Clark had ever worn when he was a teenager. A new look the mature version had adapted.

"I caught them off guard out there, which is probably why I was able to chase them off so easily. If they'd been expecting anything like me - - they might have come more prepared - - or worked together to deal with me. I dunno if I even saw everything they were capable of. Some of them - -were really far gone. I'd be hard pressed to call them human anymore, Lex. Strong. Fast. Freaky abilities. Not scared at all. Just real, real focused. I think if they come back - -its not going to be so easy to protect these people."

All right. That was information he could deal with. He wondered if they all had had LexCorp tattoos. Clark hadn't noticed during the light of day, so it was doubtful he'd spied the detail, playing commando out in the dark.

A group of older kids swaggered towards them, rag tag boys who'd no doubt held their own spots on the wall last night. They swarmed past them, and a shoulder impacted Lex hard enough make him stagger. All manner of forgotten pain points triggered in his half healed shoulder. Clark's big hand steadied him, while the stars were dancing around the edges of vision. Clark's complaint cut through the ringing in his ears, but the kid who'd done it only glared back over his shoulder venomously and muttered 'fucking outsiders', while his cohorts sniggered around him.

"You okay?" Clark asked, still standing there, hand on Lex's arm.

"Yes," Lex said, reflexive denial of the lingering pain. But then, what the hell, playing the pity card had its own advantages. "No. I had hole in my shoulder a few days ago. I don't heal as fast as you."

Clark's eyes shifted to the shoulder in question, the ragged hole in black wool. Lex had the crystal culprit in his pocket, a solid remnant of Clark's alien heritage. He declined the urge to reach in and touch it, under the weight of Clark's scrutiny.

"I'm sorry," Clark said, because shouldering blame fed Clark's own demons and always had. There were times that infallible sense of culpability had worked in Lex's favor. And other times it simply grated.

"Why?" Lex looked down at the hand on his arm. Big fingers capable of God knew what. Capable of tearing the roof off a car, certainly, but how far did the strength go? He wanted to know so badly he could feel it in his bones. He tried a different tact. "Its not your fault. If anything, I'd say I have you to thank for being alive at all. Your arrival graced me with the unique ability to survive the unsurvivable. Granted there were side effects, I could have just as well done without &endash;" he ran a and over his bare scalp. "But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages."

"For you maybe," Clark licked his lips, lashes flickering down to hide the glint of vulnerability in his eyes. "A lot of other people weren't so lucky with the things that happened to them."

Lex narrowed his eyes, grasping the ever-expanding mountain of guilt that Clark personally chose to shoulder. Every Smallville mutant, every victim of every mutant that lost their grasp on sanity, every family member who grieved - - follow the trail and they all led back to Clark's arrival or that second meteor shower that rained down a new batch of alien rock, which still lead back to Clark. Clark didn't have a Messiah complex, he had a martyr one. And didn't that explain so many things. He wondered how many times Lana or Chloe or Clark's parents had tried to salve that guilt, tried to ease that burden, and if any of them realized just how much he needed it. How much they all needed it. A super powered alien without an ingrained sense of responsibility would be a frightening thing indeed.

"You're right, Clark. So many people weren't lucky at all. Care to share the details?"

Clark blinked at him. Slowly flexed his fingers and pulled back the hand on Lex's arm, staring at it as if he weren't quite certain why he'd left it there so long. Thinking up reasons why confiding anything to Lex was a bad idea.

"I'm entitled, don't you think," Lex said softly. "To know some of those details, having been impacted by them myself. I've made a lot of assumptions based on scraps of information and the testimony of persons that may or may not have had either of our best interests at heart. Why not offer up your side of the story?"

"Would you believe me if I did? Haven't you already decided I'm the biggest threat ever to set foot on the planet?"

Lex smiled a little at the bitterness in the tone. It smacked so much of the boy Clark had been. "Maybe. Maybe not. Give it a try and see. It's not as if there's anything left to lose."

Clark took a breath, fighting a battle that was so much harder for him than the one he'd waged last night out in the ruins. And maybe the pity play had paid off after all, because Clark sighed, shoulders sagging just a bit in surrender and he nodded.

Lex held back a smile. He'd won this round and for the first time in a very long line of conflicts, it didn't feel like a hollow victory.


Daylight had chased away the chill of night. Not that Clark was effected by cold or hot, per say, but he was aware of temperature differences. He liked the warmth of sun on his skin, even if it never burned, or the exhilaration of the season's first snow. It was humid now, the air heavy and still above the city, the sunlight barely making it through the murk that clung to the highest skeletal remains of Metropolis skyscrapers. Odd that usually unpredictable Kansas winds didn't disperse it.

If he were going to have a heart to heart with Lex - - and god, but didn't that thought send shivers up his spine for a whole truckload of muddled reasons - - he wanted to do it out of earshot of just any random passer by.

So they found a place to sit, inside one of the gutted buildings lining the compound. There was shadow and silence and the pretense of privacy. Clark wasn't sure any of those things sat well with him, nervous as he was, but spilling his deepest secrets to the world at large was a greater fear. They might know he was different - - but the rest - - he wasn't willing to take the chance of turning the only people left in the world against him.

He slid down to sit on the floor against the wall, idly turning the torn jean pocket in his hands, watching Lex shed his long wool coat and carefully fold it, like it wasn't spattered with mud and blood and unraveling in places where it had snagged on something or pierced through where things had ripped through that shouldn't have. That was Lex trying to asset control over his world in the little things, since the big ones were beyond his power to effect.

Lex had always been like that, to one degree or another, obsessive behavior waning and cresting like the tide. Only it had been sort of at permanent crest for the last few years. Back before Clark had realized he was the central focus for that obsessive determination, it had been a fascinating trait. Captivating to watch Lex fixate on a goal, stalk it and go in for the kill. Of course back then, that had more of a figurative term than a literal one.

Clark pressed his lips a little, remembering the blood-spattered steps in front of LuthorCorp towers and the pauper's grave afterwards. The final straw that had convinced him that Lex was beyond redemption.

Yet here he sat, ready to spill the things he'd spent a lifetime concealing to the one person in the world that he hated as much as he'd loved, once upon a time.

And why? Because it didn't matter anymore, in this here and this now? Because maybe Lex had a point and being a victim of Clark's arrival himself, did deserve some semblance of explanation? Because he'd gotten so used to having someone know, someone that he could share the backbreaking truth with so he wasn't so alone, that he was willing to turn to the only familiar face in this tragic world? It wasn't like Lex didn't know the gist of it anyway. And like he said, better that he got the untainted truth than the skewed one he'd been running with for so long.

And much as Clark hated to admit it, it did matter that he sit Lex straight on the subject. After all this time, it mattered what Lex thought. What his enemy thought. Having him believe the Brainaic version was intolerable. Maybe it had always mattered to some degree or another, he'd just never been in the unique position where the telling of secrets made a difference. And that was just one more tangled thing in Clark's head.

"Okay," he drew a deep breath, trying to force the tension out of his shoulders and waited until Lex settled down, cross-legged on the floor next to him. "What do you want to know?"

Lex looked up at a hole in the ceiling, running his tongue along the inside of his teeth. "Everything," he said. A simple answer that required a lifetime's worth of explanation.

"Everything's a lot," Clark said dryly. "Care to narrow it down?"

"Not really," Lex flicked his gaze down, fixing Clark with unrelenting blue eyes. "But - - you can start with the beginning. Krypton. Tell me about Krypton."

Clark took a breath, trying to organize thoughts in his own head before he started spewing them out. "Well, its not there anymore for starters. I might be able to point out round abouts, where it used to be on a really clear night - -"

"I know where it was," Lex said and Clark canted his head to meet his eyes. "Between the first meteor shower and the second, we were able to get an exact trajectory."

Figured. He shouldn't be surprised Lex had that bit of information. Lex had the best of the best on his payroll after all.

"I don't remember it," Clark said. "I was a baby when my parents sent me off. I can't tell you much about it except that maybe a lot of it looked like what the fortress does - - did. That it was cold and beautiful, and I'm not sure I'd have wanted to live there. Kara could tell you more. She was already grown when she escaped."

"Why were you sent here?" Lex stared at him steadily, too steadily with that gimlet gaze and Clark thought that was the big question. The really important one for all parties concerned.

"To save me," Clark responded automatically, but that wasn't the whole truth and now that he was on the path, he couldn't veer off it. "But it wasn't that simple,"

"It never is," Lex agreed wryly, a smooth insertion that didn't break Clark's stride, didn't throw him off track.

"To this day, I swear to God, I'm not entirely certain of Jor'el's - - my father's - - real motives. Maybe he did have hopes of me coming here and assuming power. I think he thought we - - you - -humans were pretty messed up when it came to handling your own affairs and maybe thought a Kryptonian rule would be a good thing. Maybe he just wanted what was best for me - - wanted to make sure I carried on the El dynasty - - and figured ruling the world would fit the bill. Then I hear this spiel about me purposefully ending up with mom and dad - - the Kents - - because my real mother wanted me to know the meaning of humility and take responsibility for protecting this world instead of ruling it, which wasn't exactly the take I got from Jor'el, but I'm guessing they didn't always agree 100 percent. But then there's all these messages that got sent from Krypton here and freaky time travel and prophesies and the damned thing you got your hands on that everybody was hiding. I mean why would my father after all the other stuff, have sent a weapon to use against me? It makes no sense. Trying to figure out what a dead man was thinking from talking with an AI is damned confusing."

Clark took a breath, realizing the last hundred words or so had come out really fast and really agitated. But then trying to figure out what the hell his birth father had been thinking tended to set his teeth on edge.

"Maybe it wasn't a weapon designed to use against you at all," Lex said, thoughtfully, more like he was talking to himself rather than Clark. "Maybe, it was a fail-safe. A very clever safety measure designed not to control you, but protect you and your secrets against anyone who got close enough to be a real threat."

Clark blinked, turning that notion over in his head. There was a certain logic to the theory. Convoluted, screwed up logic, granted, since really, if his father had wanted to protect him so badly, why go back and leave clues and cryptic prophesies that ambitious human men would latch onto and move heaven and earth to unravel? Of course maybe it hadn't all been Jor'el. There were a lot of other Kryptonians who liked their schemes and their power plays.

"That would be really fucked up," he said slowly.

Lex laughed, but it sounded bitter. "And aren't the machinations of all great families so?"

It sounded like he was quoting something, but Clark had no idea what. But he figured Lex knew his way around family intrigues.

"Lex," Clark said earnestly and he'd said this before, in that cave up in the cold north when Lex had been a lot less calm and rational than he was now, and he wanted to make sure it got through. "No matter what my father wanted - - no matter what something written on a cave wall says - - or what some crazy cult thinks ought to happen - - or what men like your father or Dr. Swan thought I should be - - I follow my own path. If you believe nothing else I ever say to you, believe that. I can barely manage my own life - - I don't want to manage anybody else's. I'd have died to stop whatever it was that happened here. "

Lex sat there and Clark had no earthly notion what he believed and what he didn't from the schooled expression he wore. Only Clark thought that maybe Lex would have too. Died. Died to save the world from the calamity he'd been so sure Clark had been the harbinger of. Clark had seen it in his eyes when the fortress had been coming down on their heads. Calm acceptance, unwavering belief that he'd been doing the right thing.

The right thing? Lex's idea and Clark's idea of what that meant weren't exactly the same thing, but he had to admit that Lex had more conviction than anyone he'd ever met. And that despite certain AI generated scenarios designed to make him see the error of his ways, Lex wasn't out to destroy the world any more than Clark himself was. Their methodology just sat on opposite ends of the spectrum.

He looked up and found Lex's eyes on him, blue almost gone to black in the shadows inside the building husk. He didn't say a thing, didn't acknowledge if he believed Clark's claim or not. Just sat there, waiting and the silence made Clark uneasy. Made him move to fill it with another part of the story Lex didn't know.

"Anyway, I don't really know all that much about Krypton, but I can tell you about what happened once I got here. I don't remember a lot those first few years, other than what mom and dad told me. Supposedly I was a handful . . ."

It was a relief to talk about his early years on earth as opposed to the convoluted, barely-understood details of his ancestry. Talking about the good times made him nostalgic. His dad's death was a distant, familiar loss, but his mom - - talking about her ignited fresh pain.

"The first time it sank in that I was different, really different, I think I was around six and dad was playing with me, sort of play wrestling one morning when I'd jumped into bed with them one morning - - and it was great - - we were laughing and mom was laughing and then something cracked and it was my dad's arm and I'd done it. They were so calm about it, getting dressed and riding to the emergency room. They kept telling me it was okay and it wasn't my fault, but I knew it was and I was so ashamed and so scared."

He paused, forgetting Lex was there at all for a moment, remembering the foggy details of that day - - the first time he'd truly been frightened in his life. The first time he'd understood that something he could do could hurt the people he loved. Traumatizing for a six year old, that utterly grounding realization. It was his first clear memory, that morning in his parent's room.

"I would say," Lex said slowly, in the midst of Clark's silence. "That they weren't equipped to deal with what had landed in their laps - - but apparently, that wasn't the case. I don't recall reading reports of damaged persons or property near the Kent farm that involved you and I doubt your parents had the monetary resources to buy silences if anything - - unfortunate - - had happened."

Clark swallowed and gave him a look. "And of course you'd investigated."

Lex shrugged, not denying it. But then Lex's investigation of Clark was water under the bridge or over it, or washing it completely away in the current. An old hurt, his discovery of those investigations, that had been the death knell of something that had been precious to him.

"They kept me pretty close to home after that," Clark sighed and went on. "Home schooled until I started to get a hang of controlling my strength. I didn't get to play with other kids until I was 8 or so and that's only because Pete wondered onto our property and we met down by the creek and were fast friends before mom and dad even realized I was out of the yard. There was no keeping him away then, and they had to deal with it. And I was really, really careful, because I was so afraid that if he found out how different I was he would go away and not come back, because people didn't understand things that were different from what they knew. That's what mom and dad told me, and I guess it was an easier thing for a kid to comprehend than the harder truths. They told me those later, when I started going to school, about how if people knew, they might come and take me away and that's before I even knew about the alien stuff. Fear tactics, I guess, but they weren't really wrong, were they?"

"No," Lex agreed, with the sort of detached tone one might use to respond to a comment about the current weather. "Not in the least."

Clark swallowed, thinking all the bucolic details of his early life weren't what Lex wanted to hear. Thinking nothing he could really say would be what Lex wanted, because Lex wanted justification and anything short of Clark admitting to being the central pivot of some far reaching alien invasion plot was going to do. It hurt talking about these things now that everything was gone and Lex sitting there like a sphinx withholding judgment grated on Clark's nerves.

"Were you expecting something more sinister? Me plotting the fall of mankind out in the barn before I hit grade school?"

Lex arched a brow, the faintest flaring of nostrils giving away irritation. "Don't take this the wrong way, Clark, but honestly, the fall of mankind would require a degree of cleverness I just don't think you have. If such a thing had been in the works, you would have been following the plans of the people who sent you here."

Clark snorted, crumpling the scrap of denim in his fist. "There's a right way to take that? I'm stupid and I'm somebody's tool. Thanks for the flattery."

"I didn't say you were stupid. Simply that your brand of ingenuity tends towards - - bluntness. Your machinations are spur of the moment and not particularly well executed."

"Yeah, well, I never really enjoyed having to come up with cover stories - - but sometimes things couldn't be helped. You know, like being run off bridges by cars and stuff."

"And stuff," Lex smiled thinly. "About that - -"

"Yes. You hit me dead on," Clark said testily. "Yes. I peeled the roof off the car and got you out. You're lucky we'd learned CPR the week before in school, or it wouldn't have mattered."

Lex chewed that over while Clark stewed.

"How many times was it you?" Lex finally asked and Clark blinked at him, not understanding the question.

Lex clarified. "How many of those times that my life was miraculously saved were you the one responsible?"

That wasn't the type of accusation Clark had expected and he swallowed, inexplicably nervous at the admission. "A lot."

An awful lot. To this day, he couldn't shake the habit.

"Why?" Lex asked and it was a terrible question. A baffling, treacherous one.

"What? You'd rather I hadn't? You'd have preferred drowning, or getting blown up, getting shot, or burned up or chopped into little - -"

"I'm familiar with the incidents," Lex said dryly. "My question was, why me? You spent an awful lot of time and effort safeguarding me? Why?"

"You spent an awful lot of time and effort getting into trouble," Clark muttered. "And I used to like you."

Lex snapped his mouth shut at that, looking at the murky square of light outside the ragged doorway. The dome of his head was a smooth oval in silhouette. Thunder cracked outside, close enough to make the ground shake, and Lex flinched, badly, the sort of utterly human reaction you didn't expect from the uber smooth corporate magnate Lex had become. But then Lex's nerves were probably pretty frayed at this point, those layers of icy polish chipping away.

Rain began to fall, the reverberating boom of thunder having split the sky. People began moving into the shelter of the building to escape the sudden downpour and the semblance of privacy was shot. They both shut up, the things they needed/ wanted to say too private for the ears of strangers. And hadn't it always been that way?

Clark crossed his arms and slouched further down the wall, listening to the million points of liquid impact in the city outside. Lex sat for a while, but eventually shifted, stretching out on his side on the floor, pillowing his head on an arm and his folded coat, back to Clark. A lot of the other people who had come in out of the rain were doing the same, taking the opportunity to rest while they could after a sleepless night.

Clark sat there a long while, not physically needing to sleep, but boredom and the quiet patter of rain making him crave it mentally. But hunger trumped the desire to indulge in a little shuteye, and eventually, he rose and crept around Lex to stand at the gaping doorway. Everything was dark and wet, the few people still moving about, drenched. Canvas had been erected over a few of the cook fires, but he wasn't in the mood for roasted cockroach or rat. This was Kansas - - even with the farming towns leveled the further you got out from Metropolis, there still had to be the remnants of the crops that this land had supported for centuries.

He stepped out into the rain, looked to see if anyone were looking his way, then ran.

Back the familiar route that led home. Where home used to be. The storm hadn't gotten this far, though the dark front of clouds that loitered to the west suggested it might make its way here. He paused by his monument a respectful moment, then headed out to the fields. Volunteer wheat swayed in the gentle breeze, but eating oats raw off the stalk didn't do much to appease appetite. The stalks of corn amidst it were more promising. He picked an ear and pulled back green husk to reveal small white kernels beneath. He took a bite of it raw and it tasted just like home.

He shut his eyes, savoring it, then wrapped the husks back around the ear and went to gather more.

A half dozen and he started a little fire and roasted them in their husks, and sat down out where the house used to be and filled his need. He sat for a while after, staring at the land with its bounty of plant life - - even after devastation that leveled stone and iron, the plants came back. Why didn't those people struggling in the harsh remnants of the city migrate out here, where there was the option of rebuilding, of growing their own food rather than living off the vermin that crawled in the shadows?

When the first raindrops began to fall, sizzling in his little fire, he rose and stomped out the embers. He gathered more corn, bundling as much as he could in his jacket to take back. There might be more edible things to be found that had survived the initial destruction and would have wintered over to multiply and thrive undisturbed. He'd come back and search later, but for now, as the winds picked up and the rain began to fall in earnest over Smallville, he headed back to the city, offerings in hand.

 

 

 

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