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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter eleven

 

The shrill laughter of children woke Lex. Not a common sound in the Luthor household and it bored through the layers of sleep. He blinked into awareness, jerking upright in momentary disorientation. His hip complained, sore after lying on unforgiving floor, more strident than the dull ache in his shoulder. He found the kids, a trio of pre-teens in the shadows across the room engaged in some game or another that involved hand slapping and juvenile masochism. None of the other people sleeping in corners or against the wall seemed disturbed. They'd probably slept through more annoying things.

He shut his eyes, shuddering, overcome for a moment by harsh reality. He'd owned this city once upon a time and now he felt like a squatter taking shelter in a derelict building. Which in point of fact, was not far from the truth. He took a breath, pushing the weakness away. Adaptability wasn't a choice. It was that or die. Always a credo in the world he'd lived in, only now a more literal one.

He shifted to rub his hip and take stock of the fact that Clark was gone. Lacking a watch, he had no idea how long he'd slept, but the storm had abated, only a few stray drops still falling beyond the door. It had washed away some of the stench with its passing.

His attention was snared by the square of denim on the floor. He picked it up, always inexorably drawn to those pieces of Clark that he left in his wake. And Clark had left a lot. Careless, despite all the lies. Careless in his inability to just stand back and let something happen and protect his anonymity in the process.

Lex closed his hand around it and felt the sting of bitterness. Towards Clark? Himself? He wasn't entirely sure.

He'd learned so much these last days about Clark, uncovered things that it seemed he'd spent a lifetime pursuing. But out of all the revelations, the accusations, the back and forths between them, the one that got to him most had been a simple statement that had nothing to do with the lies and the galaxy spanning secret. 'I used to like you.' But not anymore, that silent addendum. As if he hadn't, in moments of anger, strived towards that very goal. As if it were some surprise, Clark having made it clear time and again. As if it should matter.

But it did. Because after everything that had passed between them, the discovery of Alien heritage least among them, he had never hated Clark. Had been annoyed to the point of homicide by Clark certainly, but when it came right down to it, when it got past the differences in opinion, the battles over women who didn't really matter in the greater scheme of things, the ideological dissimilarity, the petty jealousies, the lies and the secrets - - Clark still moved him.

Clark still made him want to believe, despite every backbreaking lesson life had taught him. Made him rebel against the common sense that should have had Clark in a cage years ago, no different than any other potentially dangerous mutant threat. Made him want to believe that out of all the terrible things that lurked in the dark to threaten mankind, Clark was not only not among them, but the first line of defense against them.

It was naïve and unrealistic and an idiotically romantic idea and anyone that had come to him with such a theory would have been promptly shown the door. But he'd seen first hand. Had experienced it first hand.

He let out a breath and shoved the scrap of fabric in his pocket. Consistent in his inability to give up the things connected with Clark. His knuckles grazed something else, one of those dwindling treasures he'd brought with him from the past and it occurred to him that Clark was the least of his problems here and now. There were other issues that needed addressing if he were to make a place here.

He walked outside to a sky still grim with lingering overcast. Depressing, that lack of blue. You'd think the storm would have blown away the murk, but still it clung like disease to the city, everything duller and greyer because of it. He searched for a spot of color, for Clark's red jacket among the earth tones that were predominant here, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Just as well. The last thing he needed was Clark assuming his suggestions had any influence whatsoever on the decisions Lex made. Because they damn well didn't. He walked through the shantytown towards Granny's tent. A few hostile looks passed his way, a few muttered comments that he ignored.

The old woman was outside, pinning the flaps up after they'd no doubt been battened down during the storm. She looked up at him, razor sharp eyes within their wrinkles. If she held the same animosity as the rest, she was old enough and experienced enough to hide it well.

"Jane's not here," she said, before he could ask. And whether she'd picked it up from his mind or just made a shrewd guess, he didn't know. She'd have been hell in the boardroom either way.

He nodded. He'd have rather have tried to make his amends with a woman whose opinion counted in this place here, where Granny's presence was likely to temper violent rebuttal, but he'd make due.

"She's out looking for signs of what happened out there last night," Granny informed him, nixing the notion of hunting Jane down. He wasn't prepared to go trekking through the city looking for her.

"But you know what happened, don't you?" Granny tied off the last flap and gave him that white-toothed gypsy smile of hers. "Or who happened?"

He lifted a brow, not about to give away hard earned secrets regardless what she thought she knew. "Is the boy all right?"

She shrugged, going with his change of subject. "Boys are tough as a general rule. This one no exception."

"Is he awake?"

She canted her head, studying him, then shrugged again. "He is. Not happy to be, with a pounding head and aching bones."

Lex smiled thinly. "I know the feeling. Can I speak with him a moment. I won't be long."

She waved a hand, inviting him inside, but didn't move far enough out of the way that he could avoid brushing past her when he entered. Purposeful, he thought, since she damn well knew he had an aversion to mind readers laying hands on him.

She didn't go that far, just chuckled at his passing, which grated, but he was well used to dealing with annoying things. She indicated the back of the tent, beyond the cluttered living space to a sectioned off cubby. Slick lay on a pallet, bandaged head, bruised face, the ashen complexion of someone who'd come close to death.

He gave Lex a look, when he pushed past the dangling sheet that divided the room. Not the hostility of accusation for a change; more the sullenness of casual conspirators whose plans had gone awry. There was no place to sit, but a few ratty pillows on the ground, so Lex crouched down, forearms on knees and looked the boy in the eye.

"So I guess we fucked up."

The boy snorted, then winced a little as if the action hurt. It probably did. Lex had suffered his share of concussions and knew the pains involved.

"I'm sorry," Lex said and wasn't entirely sure he didn't actually mean it.

"Told you," the boy said.

"You did," Lex agreed. "Sometimes it takes seeing to believe."

"Fucking asshole," Slick muttered, then. "Tell Jane that. She's madder'n hell."

"I will," Lex said and the boy snorted again, softer this time, then stared with wide-eyed avarice when Lex took the lighter out of his pocket. He offered it and the boy lifted his uninjured arm to snatch it. He turned it in his fingers, entranced, gleaming surface catching the light.

"Deal's a deal," Lex said and all the indignation melted from the boy's face, replaced by the wonder of a new treasure. Fourteen year olds were easily swayed by shiny things. Just as fifteen year olds who were justifiably terrified at being socially ostracized lied through their perfect white teeth. Even to their friends. Especially to their friends.

He took a breath and rose, leaving Slick to his new toy. Damn Clark anyway for having the unerring ability to hit nerves.

The old woman was squatting by a brazier just outside the tent, brewing something in a battered pot over the flame. If he kept on walking, he could avoid talking to her at all. But then her opinion mattered in this place. Her likes and dislikes would sway these people and not knowing where he stood stung like vinegar in a wound with Lex.

His stopped, boots squelching on wet, mud spattered street.

"How often do they try your defenses?" he asked.

She canted a look up at him. "Every month or so, when they get bored or some fool provokes them. Used to be worse, back in the day - - but things have settled a bit. We stick to our side of town, they to theirs. That'll change now. They'll ruin us."

Lex lifted a brow. "Because they got their feathers ruffled?"

"Because of who done it," she said fixing him with an angry look. "Because neither one of you can exist in a place without bringing change. You by design, him by his very nature."

"You blame me for the attack last night. Fine. Don't blame me for the downfall of your society. Or him." He waved a hand. "It seems to me you could use a little change."

She showed him her teeth, irritation flitting beneath her calm, before she smothered it. "Tea?" she asked instead of a harsher comment, and poured the brew in the pot into two chipped, thrusting one to him before he could respond.

He took the cup automatically, a much-faded Metropolis Sharks mug missing its handle, a jagged chip on one lip. The tea was weak, mildly bitter. But it was warm under his hands and sparked a pang of hunger when it hit an empty stomach.

"There are sins and then there are sins," Granny said over the lip of her own badly used cup. Hers had flowers on it that looked as if a child had painted them. "Yours wasn't so bad this time - - curiosity. You've done worse."

He swallowed a draught of tea and didn't flinch from her stare. He imaged she gained much of her insight from the reactions she got from her cryptic statements and wasn't willing to give her a sliver of outward information.

"But then, we're all sinners here," she smiled at him wryly. "We all do things we ought not to survive. So sin - - sin's a relative thing."

It was very much a philosophy close to his own heart, but he just canted his head at her, a subtle conceding of a perilous point.

"Thanks for the tea," he handed the mug back to her, wary of touching her hand, wary of old women who used colloquiums to cleverly mask the path of their true intent. She was working her way towards something, of that he was sure, he just didn't know what or the specifics of how.

"Now Patricide, that's a sin frowned upon even here." Her eyes bored up and he felt a moment of panic, a moment of that utter dismay/anger/fear/guilt that fluttered up from the core of him. He pushed it back. He'd gotten so very adept at pushing it back.

"A deplorable crime," he said flatly and met her stare with a cooler one of his own, thinking very deliberately that old women who dug too deeply in the private affairs of others, did not always meet peaceful ends.

Whether she picked that up or not, he didn't know, but her mouth thinned and her hands went still upon her knees.

"There are worse sins," she said softly and if she'd been pinning him with her eyes before, it had only been superficial. The shift was so swift it made him reel, like a whisper thin sliver of something foreign sliding into his mind. An invasive presence that ventured into spaces where nothing belonged but his own darkness - - prying at things better left tightly shut.

Then it was gone. He blinked and she was in the midst of wiping out the mug with a scrap of dirty cloth and he had to wonder if he hadn't imagined the whole thing. He was not entirely unfamiliar with the occasional mental slippage.

"Where did you get the scar?" she peered up at him, and instinctively he started to raise his fingertips to the only permanent scar he had. The only one that never faded away entirely, having already been in place before the meteors had altered his body's ability to repair itself. He stopped the movement before it was completed, dropping his hand back to his side, avoiding the fist clench that so badly wanted to come.

He couldn't answer the question. Even if he'd been inclined to share with the old bat, there was no answer to be had. Another of those childhood recollections shrouded in black.

"Scars are like sins. We all have them." He threw her words back at her, a meaningless, glib cover for lack of a proper answer.

She smiled up at him sadly and there was something in her eyes akin to pity. A white-hot indignation rose like bile at the look. At whatever faulty assumptions she'd reached that made her direct it at him.

"Stay out of my head." He spun on his heel, done with this and stalked away.

"Its still there, the DeWitt building," her voice trailed after him. "And the stone beasts still look down."

A chill jolted through him and on its tail a flash of imagery. Cold stone faces, horribly gothic, perpetually scowling. He kept walking, refusing to rise to her bait. And she was baiting him, prodding him for her own satisfaction, decades long grievances apparently not as faded as she'd claimed. It was the only conclusion he could reach, for her not so subtle provocation.

But her hook had sunk deep and he couldn't shake the niggling need to know. Couldn't shake the disturbing flashes of the old penthouse garden with its gothic statuary, or the dark, mahogany passages within. No less gothic, no less heavy handed, with his father's need to pretend at old money. A sick dread flirted at the edges of his awareness, like she'd frayed something with her prying that before had been neatly sealed.

He touched the smooth ridge of scar tissue with his tongue, a compulsion he couldn't prevent, and tried to recall the childhood mishap that must have caused it. A fall. That's what he'd always claimed, on the occasions someone was forward enough to ask. Clark had been, when he'd been young and keenly interested in knowing Lex. That's what he had told Clark. The standard answer. The one his father had told him, once upon a time and never bothered to expound, as if it had been such an inconsequential thing. So he'd assumed, of course, that it had been. Inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. Inconsequential enough for him not to remember. Just as the chunks of his life in that monolithic Centennial park residence were nothing but vague recollections. If that.

A laudable lack, considering Clark could recite the moments of his childhood as if he'd only just finished living them. He resented Clark for that. Resented Clark for a family life that despite the occasional ability born accident had been pleasant enough to cling tranquilly in his memory. Lex pressed his lips, realizing the ridiculousness of that. Resenting Clark's happy childhood would be like resenting Clark's particularly potent brand of good looks. Simply petty, since it wasn't something he'd had any control over. Granted petty wasn't something he had a particular problem with, if his ire was up, but it had seldom worked out well where Clark was concerned.

He pushed Clark out of his head. Shoved childhood memories or the lack thereof away as well, and focused on the not so nauseating smell of roasting meat. He'd reached a point where he didn't particularly care what creature the food had come from, as long as it was edible.

He moved to one of the pits where a man was restoking a fire that had fizzled despite a tarp over the flames, during the storm. People were gathered, waiting for a share, but they looked at him and shifted darkly, the accusations from the day before still fresh in their minds.

"Foods not free," the man tending the grill said brusquely. "Got something to trade?"

"No," Lex said, not willing to part with any of his few remaining treasures artifacts from the past for a chunk of cockroach.

"Then go kill your own meat, stranger," the man suggested with a curl of his lips. "This is for folks here who contribute."

There was a murmur of agreement, of threatening scowls and he could either stand there and argue the point, or he could save the dignity and just turn his back on them and walk away. He didn't need their charity to survive. He had his own means, though the easy method, involving good aim and bullets was limited to the clip of remaining ammo. There were other ways. There was the remains of one of the largest cities in the world out there, the plunders of which could not have been exhausted by these pitiful few survivors over the last half-century.

There would be buildings other than Luthorcorp with protected basements and subbasements that would have survived with contents intact. Not foodstuff, but tradable things. Useful things. And the closer you got to the epicenter, the less structural damage had been done.

He found a shadowy wall to lean against, where he could watch these people without enduring their scrutiny. He'd been despised by better people than them. People he'd held a modicum of respect for. People he'd loved. He drew a breath, another flash of memory assaulting him. Bags at the end of a long corridor, the silhouettes of his parents at the foyer, soft argument an unintelligible murmur that he couldn't quite make out. They only rarely raised their voices. Her anger had always been silent and cold and distant and she utilized it best with distance. She'd stood in that foyer a lot with packed bags, finding places to be other than in the presence of her husband and by extension - - her son.

He'd crouched beyond one of those massive pieces of furniture his father liked to decorate his households with and watched, wretched dismay at another of her long absences. Heard his father's voice rise, at the peak of a temper that had been building all week. Hating her a little bit for leaving him here to bear the brunt of it, for censure would come swift and often to the only remaining target for his father's ire. Hating himself a little, because he didn't know quite what it was he'd done that she'd never took him with her, when she left.

Lex drew breath, shaking his head to clear away the shroud of unbidden recollection. This one left a bitter taste in his mouth and he ground his teeth and wished the old woman had never told him that particular building had been spared calamity. He wished it rubble and dust. He wished those dismal recollections buried with it.

Only he didn't. Because the unknown was all fine and dandy when he was unaware of its existence, but once he knew there were layers to uncover, the better part of himself - -or the worse - - couldn't resist picking at the edges. Couldn't resist the need to just know. The old woman knew something he didn't and he could stalk back to her tent and put the gun to her head and threaten the truth out of her or he could uncover it himself and damn the consequences.

It wasn't as if that latter path was an untrodden one.

The DeWitt building was on the west side of Centennial Park. The old money side. Close enough to LuthorCorp at eight blocks to have escaped the brunt of the devastation, but far enough that the things that lived within the L wouldn't have territories infringed. It was early enough that he could make that trek and be back before dark, he thought. And if he couldn't - - then he had the gun and he could find a place to hole up. Not the most sensible of moves, considering yesterday's blunder, but the need to stand in the place that seemed so intertwined with those annoying scraps of memory was overwhelming.

He was walking towards the gate before he'd finished thinking it through. Ignoring the growl of his stomach, and the occasional looks from the people scurrying by in the fine mist.

The only thing he couldn't ignore, no matter how much he might wish otherwise, separated itself from a small gathering of people, having done God knew what to garner the crowd.

Peripheral vision caught the flash of red as Clark moved to intersect him. He kept walking.

"Where are you going?" Clark asked, falling into step, hair clinging to his forehead and temples in damp waves.

He didn't know where Clark had been, but he smelled of storm and clean earth and crops and Lex's step faltered just a step as that brought back a whole separate slew of memories that he'd categorized into a place where he kept treasured things that had the ability to wound to the core. And Clark coming to the mansion fresh from chores, smelling of corn and grass and farm things, hanging around and distracting Lex from legitimate work was one of those painfully perilous memories.

"Not your business," he shook it off, the gate within his line of vision now and a decent enough distraction from Clark and Clark-related sensory distractions.

Clark opened his mouth, preparatory for a peevish response, then reconsidered, snapping his jaw shut and putting the answer together in his head as he realized where Lex was headed.

"You're going outside." It was more an accusation than a question, so Lex didn't bother to respond. "Not back to LuthorCorp?" Clark whispered this last a lot lower, surprisingly cognizant that the suggestion wouldn't be popular with these people, considering recent events.

"I told you I'd go with you," Clark was still dogging his heels, a large persistent shadow, that he'd just as well shed for this venture.

"Open the gate," Lex requested of the men guarding it.

One swaggered up, bristling with homemade weapons. "What, so you can go cause us more trouble? Only those who have business go out today."

Lex didn't miss beat, just pulled out the gun and leveled the barrel dead center between the man's eyes. "I have business."

"God." Clark moaned behind him, aghast no doubt at the threatening of innocent lives.

They might not have guns or at least viable ammunition here, but they knew what they were. The man's eyes widened and Lex heard the shifting of other men, the movement of bladed and spiked weapons. Felt Clark tensing behind him, ready to disarm him or them or all concerned if violence ensued.

The gatekeeper looked past the muzzle of the gun to Lex. Must have seen something dead earnest there, because he swallowed and nodded and motioned for the bus to be edged aside just wide enough for a man to slip past.

Lex lowered the weapon and walked through, cursing himself even as he did. He could have talked himself out of that gate if his nerves hadn't been so on edge that rash action seemed more appropriate than reason. A gun to the head had gotten him out, it would take a lot more than that to get back in.

"Stop following me," he didn't look back at Clark.

"Lex, its dangerous in the city,"

Lex snorted, having heard that one long before giant mutated cockroaches and roving bands of mutants threatened life and limb. No wait, that latter one actually had been an issue before he'd ended up stranded in a desolate future.

"I'm not going to LuthorCorp." If he wanted Clark off his back, he needed to assuage the worst of Clark's fears.

"Where then?" Clark threw out his hands, picking up his pace enough to cut Lex off. "What the hell was that back there, Lex? These people are the only allies we have and you're sticking guns in their faces?"

Lex hated altering his path to move around unexpected obstacles and Clark was a damned big one.

"Move."

"Or what, you're gonna stick a gun in my face, too?"

"Oh, come on, you know I only level threats that I can carry through and we both know I'd be wasting bullets. Now get the fuck out of my way, Clark."

Clark made an annoyed sound and shifted aside. Lex wasn't entirely sure, but he thought he caught a glimpse of what might have been an unshucked ear of corn sticking out of Clark's jacket pocket.

"So where are you going then?" Clark called after him when Lex stalked past.

"Did I mention, not your concern?" Lex picked his way through rubble that hadn't been here the last time he'd traveled through. Debris from Clark's discouragement of the Freak's attack last night.

"Damnit, Lex . . ."

Clark was close to whining and it struck a tiny chord of satisfaction. Enough that Lex relented a fraction and added. "Personal business."

Clark huffed behind him, annoyed. "Personal business? What does that mean?"

It was hard to give answers, even if he'd been so inclined, to questions he wasn't sure the meaning of himself. So he ignored Clark and headed towards Centennial Park.


Lex's personal business had already caused a whole slew of trouble, so it was hardly reassuring to hear that Lex was heading out to deal with more of it. It was hardly reassuring, after the things Clark had seen out there last night to think of anyone going out there and running into trouble that was beyond the ability of normal human beings to handle. The fact that it was Lex didn't make any difference - - Clark would have worried about anyone walking into that.

He confirmed this fact to himself - - repeatedly - - as he glared through the layers of antique bus at Lex's retreating back on the other side. Clark paced a little, clenching and unclenching his fists, peripherally aware that the gate guards were staring at him warily, all of them set on edge by Lex's monumental lack of usually sharp skills of negotiation. Guns in people's faces did not make for the building of solid alliances. But then Lex tended to go off the reservation of reasonable action at unexpected and inopportune times. Hell, it wasn't as if Lex had been renowned for his rationality of late - - because people that were all there just didn't do some of the things Clark suspected Lex of doing - - but he usually hid the symptoms better behind that seamlessly smooth front. Usually he didn't have that look at the edges of his eyes that hinted he was teetering on the edge of cracking.

Of course usually, he wasn't stranded fifty years in a future right out of Mad Max, devoid of all his unlimited resources. Clark was feeling a little strained around the seams, too. But Clark was pretty sure he'd had his feet planted firmly on the rational side of the mental stability fence before all this had happened and it would be remiss of him - - downright criminal - - to let a crazy person wander around out there on his own.

And thus convinced that he had a perfectly understandable excuse to feel concern, he nodded to the scowling men at the barricade and casually ambled off, just far enough away to let the shadows camouflage the sudden burst of speed and the bound that took him up over the jagged top of the wall and out into the city.

It wouldn't do to zip right up to Lex when Lex had made it crystal clear he wasn't in the mood to practice social graces. Clark was nowhere near thick skinned enough to endure getting sliced to pieces by Lex in a snit without striking back himself. And the last thing he was looking for at the moment was a confrontation when the curiosity of what Lex was so riled up about was growing by the minute. And Since Lex didn't willingly share personal problems at the best of times unless it benefited him to do so, it meant skulking in the shadows behind him as he picked his way through the dilapidated city streets.

Things scuttled in the darkness's of broken buildings and shadowed nooks that Clark could hear clear as day. And if he focused his vision he could see the multitudes of writhing chitinous bodies down under layers of concrete and steel, waiting for the fall of true night to come out and feed. The day light, weak as it was in the perpetual murk of Metropolis kept all but the most adventuresome at bay. Which was a good thing for Lex, because Clark had seen enough of them out last night when he'd been prowling the ruins after he'd chased off the Freaks, to well and truly freak him out. He'd never really had an aversion to spiders and bugs, but these giant things icked even a farm-raised boy out.

But Lex was careful to avoid the shadowy places, picking his way steadily westward, stopping now and then as something crumbled or creaked that even human hearing could detect. Once it actually was something, a ragged human scavenger that furtively crouched in the shadows of tumbled blocks of car sized rubble. But apparently human prey wasn't on his agenda for he retreated and Lex never saw the man, only paused as the trailing sounds of the debris that shifted in the wake of his withdrawal echoed down to the street.

To Clark's immense relief, Lex was true to his word, and headed not towards LuthorCorp, but instead veered towards the geographical center of the city and what used to be the neatly manicured triangle of Centennial Park.

There was nothing neat about it now. It sprawled over the original boundaries of the park, fifty odd years of unmanaged growth possibly spurred along by the same conditions that had mutated the growth of the cities intimidating insect population. Clark hesitated to call the growth lush, for it was anything but, lacking the healthy sunlight that encouraged green foliage, but it was dense and vivacious in its own right.

He circled the park the long way, while Lex picked his way cautiously around the southwesterly side, peering into the depths for signs of life. Found it in abundance. The chitter of insects, the rustle of tiny feet. Things moving and feeding and thriving. The heartbeats of larger, sleeping things, safe in gnarled nests. He squinted, focusing in on skeletons that he hesitated to call canine without closer examination. He thought about what the after effects of the destruction had done to alter the cock roaches and shivered considering what might have happened to the surviving four legged animals left to fend for their own.

All it would take was an untoward noise and whatever lived within the depths of the park would rouse and Clark doubted they hesitated in stalking human prey. Whatever it was Lex was after here, he was taking his life in his hands seeking it. But then again, Lex wouldn't know the nature of all the dangers, only having limited experience to rely on. He could only guess, based on the things he had encountered, based on the whispers of the people who lived here and Lex very seldom let warnings or pessimism stray his path. Lex plowed ahead on instinct and desire, just like he always did, and damn the consequences and the mess he made in the process.

To his credit though, Lex was precise and quiet in his movements, as a man might be in a hostile place he was uncertain of. And Lex apparently had a destination, one of the grand old turn of the century stone masterpieces that lined the park's west side. One of the ones that, fifty years past, would have demanded a small fortune to own the smallest apartment within.

The street and sidewalk were buckled, clogged with mangled debris interwoven with trailing bramble leeched out from the park. Vines had snaked out, a weird web work of natural circuitry that engraved its way up the building façade, loosening stonework and filigree, crumbling early deco ornamentation.

Clark hung back, wary and curious and starting to feel very much the stalker. He never had been comfortable spying on Lex. He'd always felt vaguely indignant when other people did it, shredding Lex's privacy like it was a god given right, even when it was warranted. More than warranted in some instances. But it was one thing to look under the surfaces of Lex's projects and another to look under the surface of Lex himself because a lot of the things Lex hid under there were fragile and not nearly as impervious as he'd like you to think from the coolly collected public face he presented. And try and he might, Clark never had been able to entirely shed the instinct to shield Lex from the sort of harm that would deepen the damage. Even if it was from friends. Even if Lex was the enemy. Though he wasn't sure that latter really meant anything anymore, here and now.

Clark took a breath, in the shadow of a snarled outcropping of bramble that had grown up through the buckled wreck of what used to be sidewalk a block down from the building Lex had stopped in front of. He'd been skulking for the almost two hours it had taken Lex to work his way here and he was tired of it.

He stepped out onto the street and started walked, normal speed towards Lex. Even so, Lex didn't notice him right away, concentration fixed on getting a door open that seemed permanently rusted into place.

"Need a hand?" Clark asked, figuring that announcing his presence somewhere further away than at Lex's back would be the prudent course of action. Lex still started, the ghost of a curse on his tongue before he gathered his calm and gave Clark the sort of look that could have melted paint from the walls.

"No," Lex put his weight into opening the door and hinges heavily crusted with rust squealed and protested and marginally gave way.

"Obviously comprehending simple English is a problem for you. Go away, Clark," he said, not turning, just a little short of breath.

The door's leaded glass had long shattered and dirt and seedlings had worked their way inside through the gaps. Lex edged his way in, undeterred and Clark felt a flicker of disquiet wondering what might be living inside. Easier to ignore Lex's preferences than the niggling little voices of unease in his head. It was a tighter squeeze for him, so he forced the door open a few more inches, wincing at the noisy complaint of protesting hinges.

Vines grew and a stringy sort of ivy that kept to the patches of light that came in through the gaps where windows used to be. Something stirred in the darkness that might have been a bat - - or a really big moth and Lex stopped dead, pulling out his penlight and searching the interior shadows for crawly things big enough to be a threat. The light passed over dust covered marble and brass fixtures turned green with age and exposure. A very exclusive place, once upon a time.

"What was this place?" Clark asked.

Lex didn't answer at first, chewing on his irritation. But Lex and prolonged silences never had gone together particularly well, and he swung the penlight in Clark's direction, flashing it in his face intentionally.

"Why are you here?"

Clark blinked once, eyes adjusting automatically to the sudden light.

"There are some bad things out there. Its not safe."

"I thought I was one of the bad things," Lex said, dry amusement in his tone. Very much false amusement. Clark knew the difference. Frightening how well he knew the nuances of Lex's mood swings.

"You're not that bad," Clark said.

"Either I'm the anti-Christ or not, pick a position, Clark."

"I thought I was supposed to be the anti-Christ?" Clark said wryly. It was so easy for them to stab at each other. Accusations and the innuendo of accusation came so naturally. The thought came unbidden that it was better to clash and draw the occasional blood than not associate at all.

Lex lifted a brow and shifted the light marginally away from Clark's eyes. "This is personal. Go away, Clark."

Clark stood there stubbornly, looking past the narrow beam of light. The elevators were long dead and there was a crumbling mess at the bottom of the stairwell like so many piled building blocks.

"How far up do you need to go? The stairwell's collapsed."

Lex gave him a narrow glare, unappreciative, and stalked that way. Reached the edge of the rubble and stared up at several floors worth of ragged, missing stairs. He was breathing hard. Upset. Angry. Stymied.

"What's up there?" Clark asked, stepping up beside him, toeing a piece of shattered marble.

"The past," Lex said, softly.

Clark hadn't expected anything but hostility, so he canted his head and offered. "I can get you up there. If you want."

Lex swallowed, not looking at him, choking a little on pride maybe, or the bitter draught of accepting Clark's help when he'd convinced himself that Clark was nothing but harm.

"In exchange for what?"

Almost, Clark laughed. Leave it to Lex to figure everything had some ulterior motive, when really the offer had simply struck Clark as the right thing to do. "Nothing. I'm not out to make a profit here, Lex. I just figured - - It's no big deal. You don't even have to tell me what you're looking for."

Lex tightened his mouth instinctively distrusting the appearance of altruism. Which suddenly made Clark want to offer it all the more. He held up his hands, galactic peace sign and said. "It's only six, seven stories before the stairs pick up again. I can jump that easy. Then you can go from there on your own."

Lex canted a look at him, gauging. Interested in spite of himself.

"You say that like its no big thing."

"Well - - its sorta not. I've jumped higher."

"No. I mean the admission. I never thought I'd hear the words so easily leave your mouth."

Clark drew a breath. "Oh. That. Well - - I guess I don't have anything to lose anymore."

Lex turned that over, then nodded, looking Clark steadily in the eye. "Okay."

It was permission. Permission for Clark to put his hands on Lex and perform acts of the superhuman variety. A big leap of trust, because Lex had spent half his life fearing the thing Clark represented - - the alien among us - - and the last few weeks fearing Clark personally.

Clark swallowed, dry mouthed of a sudden, and uncertain how to go about it - - whether to swing Lex up in his arms like he might have Lana, or wrap an arm around his waist. Either way meant intimate contact. Either way meant stepping forward and acting a little like a bumbling idiot trying to decide the best course of action, while Lex quirked a brow, intrigued by Clark's indecision.

He settled for the arm around the waist, curled it tight and pulled Lex against him, felt the faint hitch of Lex's breath, the increase of his pulse, then bunched his legs and jumped.

He landed easily, six stories up, on the jagged edge where the stairwell took up again. There was a hole in the wall beneath them, where something had come through, probably during the initial event, and taken out the stairwell below.

For a moment, he stood there, breathing inexplicably ragged, mind just a little blanker than it ought to have been, because all he could register was Lex's smooth temple against the side of his face and Lex's fingers wound tight in the material of his shirt. The memory of Lex bleeding in the snow flashed through his head, of how fragile and insubstantial he'd been compared to how solid he felt now. Bizarre how much difference warmth and consciousness made.

"Clark?"

Clark blinked into Lex's eyes, close enough to feel the tickle of his breath and hastily loosened his arm, almost stepping back over the edge in his effort to put a respectable distance between them. He teetered and Lex caught his sleeve with another one of those wary, quizzical looks.

"How far up do you need to go?" Clark asked to cover the six shades of embarrassment he was feeling.

"Penthouse," Lex answered.

"I'll hang around down here," Clark offered. There were rooms enough on the lower floors to explore that he could fight off boredom while Lex did whatever it was he'd been driven here to do.

"No," Lex said. "You can come. Its just a collection of rooms."

Clark watched him climb the stairs, fingers making trails in the dust of a fine black marble banister. Whatever was up there was more than that - - at least to Lex. Almost Clark did hang back, finally conscious, now that it wasn't a battle of wills, that whatever it was Lex sought was personal and private and that if this place represented the past, maybe it had been a happy one - - like the farm in Smallville was to Clark. And maybe like Clark, Lex needed to seek out the remnants of what had once been to make sense of the future/present he found himself in.

He should have stayed back, it would have been the courteous thing to do, but something had shifted down there at the bottom of the broken stairwell - - something had bridged a gap and Lex had offered.

Clark started climbing the steps in his wake.

 

*

 

There was glass on the steps, glass on the landings between floors. Glass everywhere in this city where windowpanes had lacked the durability of stone and metal when the calamity had occurred. It crunched under Lex's boots as he climbed, closer and closer to the penthouse floor. Softer under Clark's boots behind him, as if Clark were trying hard to be unobtrusive and quiet, when both those things were so foreign to Clark's very nature. Lex was never unaware of Clark, even when Clark was half a state away, or half a world.

He ought to be annoyed at the intrusion, at the blatant disregard for his demands for privacy, but annoyance was oddly weak, watered down to a wane sort of acceptance of Clark's presence. He wasn't entirely sure there wasn't some needy part of him grateful for the concern. For Clark's concern and Clark's company and Clark's good will. Things to be savored now that the supply lines had been cut and he only had memory to serve. Ridiculous really, that Lex Luthor couldn't quite shake the clinging regard for a common Kansas farm boy - - even if he wasn't common and hailed as far from Kansas as it was possible to get. Which made it even worse, that little warm tingle of satisfaction that came with Clark's concern, because it damn well fucked with Lex's whole worldview on the inherent dangers of Alien invasion.

He ground his teeth a little, having managed during the climb to agitate himself to the point of rescinding his offer in as scathing a manner as possible - - but honestly, his heart wasn't in it and his focus was splintered to boot. It was difficult to properly hold on to a Clark inspired rant when the Dewitt building loomed around him and the penthouse home of his childhood, that he had studiously avoided in his adult years, was only half a floor away.

The building had been Luthor owned, one of his father's early real estate investments. Lionel Luthor had always been attracted to grand things and the Dewitt building had been one of the city's gems. Even the service stair had been imposing, marble and granite and dripping with the sort of majesty those that could afford to live on the choice side of the Centennial Park demanded.

The staff entrance was faced with a thick oak door, which still stood resolute after all this time. As far as he knew, the penthouse had been unoccupied for years, still a valuable property, prime location that it had been, but not one Lionel Luthor had chosen to inhabit. God knew Lex hadn't been back a decade and a half. Or a decade and a half plus fifty.

He stood before the servant's door and tried to recall the last time he'd been back - - some school holiday or another when plans had fallen through to join his father at this vacation home or that because of LuthorCorp business. He'd stayed the night, with only the quiet footsteps of staff for company, before he'd taken all he could of the place and its ghosts and taken fight to the Metropolis Grand, fourteen years old with unlimited credit and two weeks to kill alone in the city. It had been an intensely educational two weeks.

He stood at the door and considered kicking it in, but attempting to do so and failing, might be embarrassing. Easier to take advantage of Clark and Clark's newfound willingness to share heretofore tightly guarded secrets.

He didn't even have to ask, just stepped aside and gave Clark a look, and Clark shuffled up and put a hand on the tarnished brass door handle and it swung open like it hadn't been locked at all, save for the splintered wood around the lock and Clark's marginally guilty expression. Amazing. Intriguing. And he might have devoted more time to Clark related wonders, if the dark interior of the penthouse hadn't beckoned.

Clark let him enter first, shifting from foot to foot in the threshold afterwards like he had no business being here. Frankly, Lex didn't care, one way or another, drawn forward as if by some intangible string into the musty depths of the place. A chef's dream of a kitchen gone the way of time and disuse, dust covered counters, chairs and cabinets strewn across the floor along with the ever present dull glitter of broken glass and pottery and scattered cookware. He remembered this place the way he might recall the details of a favorite movie. He halfway recalled Cook and the Cook after Cook, who ran the kitchen like an infantry battalion.

The kitchen held no particularly devastating memories, only the mundane ones of a child of privilege venturing forth into territory strictly ruled by the serving class.

The dining hall was worse, both condition wise and in the memories it held. There was a gaping hole where the great windows had been and time and the elements had worn the once elegant furniture down to rotting remnants. Debris from the park blown in by ruthless Kansas winds had gathered in corners, as well as rubble and moldering piles of what might have been drapery, upholstery or carpet.

There had been dreadfully silent family dinners here, stilted conversation between his mother and his father - - if they spoke at all. The echoes of the servant's footfalls as they delivered course after course from the kitchen. Worse yet if it had only been himself and his father, for there had been nothing quite so terrifying as sitting fidget free under Lionel Luthor's undistracted scrutiny, before he'd had the autonomy to simply get up and distance himself from it.

The dining room bled out into the music room, but the piano that was so often in his remembrances of his mother wasn't there anymore - - moved long ago to the castle in Smallville at his own behest. Gone to dust and ash now, if what Clark said about the total devastation there was true. His father's office would be off to the left and the library to the right. And other than a vague hesitation to enter either of those spaces so private to his father, he held little recollection of them. But then again, there were no truly clear memories of anything here, only murky, indistinct flashes of things that might just as well have happened to someone else. Funny when the memories he'd gathered in boarding school were crystal clear.

The most obvious reminiscence of this place that he'd had in years had been the one triggered by the old woman. And that had come sharp and painful like the tip of a long buried thorn working its way back up to the surface. And yet still, he was here looking to dredge up more. He'd never been quite so self-delusional that he couldn't admit to certain masochistic tendencies.

He glanced back at Clark, who stood at the ragged, empty frame where the hall window used to be, staring down through the murk towards the park. The breeze ruffled his hair, and his jacket, brisk enough to have a bite, twenty stories up, but Clark didn't blink. Clark was immune to the kiss of cold, as he'd proven in the arctic. Immune maybe to the sear of heat as well. Idly, Lex thought he'd inquire as to the lengths of those immunities later, one of so many questions he had yet to ask, and thrill to the new experience of getting honest answers.

But for now Clark was a blip at the edge of his radar, eclipsed by the silent passing of ghosts skulking in the hallways of a place too gothic for its own good. Lex frowned and stepped over a jumble of debris at the door to the great room. There had been a wall of French windows here, looking out onto the balcony, all gone now. Sunken marble floor, the remnants of heavy furniture, a painting of Lillian Luthor, one of several his father had commissioned, hanging in tatters on the wall over the great hearth.

He tightened his fists, staring at a strip of dingy canvas with a portion of her face. Her storm blue eyes staring off at some point beyond the viewer dreamily, as if she held little interest for this world.

A flash of memory hit him - - the click of her heels as she walked past him, a maid following quietly with packed bags. She was unaware of him, a miserable observer to her retreat, until the maid clucked her tongue at him in sympathy. There, there master Alexander, your mum will be back in no time. Or some such empty comfort, but it had snagged his mother's attention or triggered her guilt and she'd taken note of him, and knelt to embrace him, thin and warm, offering affection in the face of her desertion.

She'd said perfunctory things. I won't be gone long. Be good. I love you. And he'd believed her then. Believed that she could love him and leave him all in the same breath. He knew better now.

The memory dwindled, just like she'd dwindled, finding any means necessary to flee. How ecstatic she must have been in the end to find a method of escape that even Lionel Luthor couldn't force her back from.

He hit something small with the toe of his boot and it skittered across the floor. A tiny little soldier, paint chipped, one arm missing and most definitely behind enemy lines, for the trappings of a child were strictly forbidden in the formal great room, where unsuspecting adults might trod on them, or God forbid, visitors to the inner sanctum of the Luthor domain might spy them and assume the child of Lionel Luthor wasted his time with flights of fancy.

He took a shuddery breath and stooped to pick it up. He turned the battered body in his fingers, attention raptly held by the faded blue chips of paint on the uniform, the last flake of gold in the tiny braids. Painted by his hand. Memory more like the fleeting scent of deja vu than something that had actually happened, passed over him.

How did you get the scar? The question echoed in his head the way his footsteps echoed in this hollow place. He took a step towards the broken doors that led to the terrace, soldier clutched in his hand and saw the shadow of the gargoyle on the stone baluster.

Looming, snarling things, hunched and coiled and unwelcoming. A wing gone here, a horn there, but they'd survived the wave of destruction. Plant life thrived, weeds seeping up through the dirt filled cracks in the tiles, tangling amongst themselves in the planters. He had a timorous memory of toy soldiers trekking through manicured gardens engaging in jungle warfare. A quiet pastime in the sheltered corner of the terrace out of the way of busy servants or perpetually disdainful fathers.

A gust of wind brought the faint kiss of rain with it, cool, moist air seeping through the chinks in his armor and he could see the terrace the way it used to be. Orderly and cultivated and swept clean of debris. He stepped outside, odd silence when there ought to have been the whisper of wind. The gargoyles at their posts stared down with sightless black pits where their eyes ought to be. There was a miniature battleground laid out on a square of green cloth, hand painted soldiers fighting for the high ground of a low stone planter.

He canted his head, curious, and moved forward, past the ordered field of battle to a glass topped table, a mostly empty decanter of aged whiskey playing paperweight to a thin stack of documents. There was a glass at the edge of the table, with the dregs of amber liquid at the bottom.

He reached for it, intrigued by the smell - - familiar rich scent that reminded him of his father. He wonders what it tastes like, wonders what it is that his father finds so appealing, because of late, Lionel Luthor is hardly ever without a glass of the stuff within easy reach. Puts it to his lips and swallows.

And chokes on the heat of it, breath stolen away. The glass falls from his fingers even as his father's angry bark echoes in his ears. The instinct to curl up and cower comes first, but a man's supposed to stand his ground and face up to his mistakes, he's heard that enough times for him to hesitate, frozen in place. But there is shattered glass at his feet and something in his father's face as he stalks towards him that is far removed from sober irritation.

So survival instinct kicks in and he backs away, to the edge of the terrace under the shadow of the crouching gargoyle at the south corner.

"Goddamnit, Lex, I've told you not to touch what doesn't belong to you. Can't you comprehend simple English?"

His father is red-faced, red-eyed and the blow catches him across the mouth, the back of his father's ring grinding his lip against his teeth, splitting skin, even as the back of his head cracks against the feet of the gargoyle behind him. He sees red. Tastes red. It fills his mouth and the spaces behind his eyes, crowded around the edges by black.

The black jolts, a grainy hiss of grey, like a glitch in the film of a movie reel, and he's in the soft comfort of his bed. One of the housekeepers has a red stained cloth and a basin of pink water but she backs off, soundless and awkwardly fast, head bowed as his father moves forward. He'll never see her again after this, she'll disappear like so many others, shifting in and out of his father's employ. Lionel sits on the edge of the bed and Lex wants to curl in upon himself when he reaches out and lays a hand on his hair.

"There are some things your mother need never know, son. Things she wouldn't understand." He's heard that before and wants to believe it, because he wants to believe in his father. A thumb traces the swelling around the split in his lip and he feels the old, softened calluses of a man who has known hard work once upon a time.

"Things that should be kept among men, do you understand, Lex? You wan to be a man, don't you?"

He nods, terrified, desperate not to loose that offered gift of approval. The fingers stroke his cheek, an idle movement, the focus in his father's eyes someplace else. That same alluring whiskey smell is on his father's breath, permeating his skin.

"She's not here enough to understand the pressures we're under - -she doesn't want to be here - - with us. She's troubled, your mother. Very troubled. You have her eyes. And her hair - - the first time I saw her, her hair was like fire in the sun. . ." He trailed off, fingers stroking Lex's hair, a glint of something foreign in his eyes and disturbing.

And Lex found he didn't wish to be the focus of it. God, god don't even think about the being the focus of it . . .

Glass crunched under his heel and he took a step back in panic half expecting the pieces of a shattered crystal decanter. But it wasn't. It was just old, hazed pieces of wreckage, the terrace was covered with them and the only scent in the wind was that of mold and algae.

Lex took a breath, thoughts still reeling, still half in that old, dark place filled with desperate gaps. Anger welled up, the indiscriminate, red around the edges type that needed an outlet of some sort before it ate him up from the inside out.

Taken a fall, his ass. He should have known nothing was ever so accidental in the Luthor household. Should have known all the black spaces in his childhood were there for a purpose - - the delusions of a child who'd wished for happier things. She'd left him - - over and over, not out of malice, but she'd abandoned him all the same - -and he'd been damned and determined not to remember the times when she'd hardly realized he was alive - - save when it benefited her. At least his father had been there - - lying, abusive bastard that he was.

He felt the ghost of soft callused fingers on his skin and hissed in fury, not wanting to go there, not wanting anything to do with the dark paths those memories might take. Blasphemy of blasphemies, perhaps some things were better off in the dark. Better off beaten back into obscurity for the sake of sanity.

He flung the toy soldier, turning with a snarl even before it sailed out of view beyond the balcony.

He grabbed a twisted length of metal, rebar maybe or the twisted leg of a mangled wrought-iron table, and stalked into the shadows of the penthouse, vision tunnel narrow. Rage lent him adrenalin to shatter the latch on the door to his father's study when he kicked it. Maybe it had never been locked - - he hardly cared, too consumed by the need to destroy the remnants of the man that had dwelt here. As surely as he'd destroyed the flesh and blood reality.

Never even a fucking apology back when it would have mattered. Only later when the damage had been too far done for it ever to be accepted or believed and then only because an old man had been looking to lighten the stains on his soul, as old men tended to do. Fuck him.

He slammed the rebar against an overturned curio, against the bookshelves, sweeping the few remaining books into the floor amidst the rest of the debris.

"Lex! What are you doing?"

For a fraction of a second, the ghost of his father's voice echoed in his head, before he realized there was nothing of stern disapproval in the tone, only worried skepticism. He turned, breathing hard, glaring at Clark who hovered in the doorway like a man uncertain whether to take flight or plunge right into the deep end.

Clark took a breath, made a decision and took the plunge. He stepped into the study. Only the barest fraction of the destruction had been wrought by Lex's hand.

"Redecorating," Lex said, gaining control of his breathing, even though the anger still pulsed behind his eyes.

"What?" Clark blinked, slow to recognize irony unless it slapped him in the face. It was one of those traits Lex had always found endearing. The most honest, straightforward lair he'd ever met.

Clark's eyes drifted down to the rebar and Lex lifted it up, waved it about the room. "My father's study. Forbidden territory when I was a child. Trespassing punishable by - - well, I'm sure the back of his hand was the least of his chastisements - - but that's only a theory. My memories of those years are a little fuzzy."

It felt good saying that to Clark. Tarnishing Clark's inflated estimation of the man Lionel Luthor had become. Clark's brow wrinkled predictably. Lex tossed the bar away bitterly and it clattered to rest in a corner. Clark's gaze didn't follow it, remaining fixed on him.

"Why did you want to come here?" As if he suspected some malignant motive now that a touch of insanity had been introduced into the mix.

Conversational flirtation wasn't Clark's forte. He was more a straight to the heart of the matter sort of guy. Refreshing, when it didn't prick at Lex's wounds or pry at the edges of things Lex might rather Clark stay ignorant of.

"Glutton for punishment?"

"Lex." Brows drawn. Even if irony hadn't been his strong suit, there had been a time when Clark had possessed a sense of humor.

He gave Clark a look, this broad shouldered, looming silhouette in the doorway that had been thinking the worst of him for years - - so what the fuck.

"That cryptic old bitch reminded me it was here and for a long time, I'd chosen to forget." He turned a circle, in the midst of scattered, moldy books and bits and pieces of the things his father had collected and held personal, once upon a time. Ghosts of times long past flittered at the edge of his awareness.

He took a cleansing breath and brushed past Clark to find a place not so much in shadow. The great room was filled with grey light, brighter it seemed, than when he'd first come in.

He'd lived as a shadow in this place, a powerless pawn caught between his parent's cold war. Both of them so caught up in themselves that they neither noted or cared of the wounds inflicted. Scars. So damned many scars.

He repressed an involuntary shudder and slid down the wall, feeling sullen and ill-used. The gaping hole where the terrace doors had been lay across from him. Clark crunched up beside him, uncertain. Wary. Uninvited.

"Did you find it? Whatever you were looking for here?"

Lex scowled. "Some things aren't found - - they find you."

"Who's cryptic?" Clark lifted a brow and lowered himself to the floor next to Lex. Lex shut his eyes a heartbeat, hating that feeling in the pit of his stomach, that gut reaction of longing that hit him whenever Clark made an overture. He hated being that person. That person who needed - - because once you needed something or someone, you were weak to them. His parents had proven the point. Various wives had. God knew Clark was his Achilles heel. He pinched the bridge of his nose, willing away the onrushing ache behind his eyes.

"You hungry?"

He glanced at Clark, off guard by the abrupt change in subject.

Clark pulled out an ear of corn still wrapped in its husk. He managed to look sheepish about it, as if he were embarrassed to be offering it. As if it weren't more valuable to Lex than gold, when the alternative was eating the skittering things that lived in the dark.

He hesitated regardless, wary of gifts without strings attached. Looking for the resentment he expected from Clark, the accusation - - and just not finding it.

"Where did you get that?"

Clark grinned a little, white teeth distracting Lex momentarily from inborn suspicion.

"Back home. You want it cooked?"

Lex lifted a brow, inquiring and Clark hunched his shoulders a little, embarrassed teenaged boy in the body of a man, and gestured in the general area of his face. "I can sort of - - heat things up - - with my eyes."

Lex had suspected. He inclined his head, any reluctance to consume alien eye ray bombarded food overcome by curiosity. Clark peeled the husks back without tearing them off, skimmed off the clinging strands of silk with the efficiency of a man who'd done it a thousand times over, then folded the husks back up. He held the ear in his big hand and stared at it. Lex could just see a wavery shimmer of heated air between Clark's eyes and the husk, and then a little curl of steam was rising and Clark was warning him it was hot.

And it was. Amazingly so. He'd steamed the thing in its wrappings with a half second burst of concentrated vision and Lex got the feeling it was just as common place for him as breathing.

"There's a lot of volunteer corn out there. Wheat too, and other stuff that's winter hearty. I can't understand why these people stay here in the city with no access to real food when they could go out there and start their lives over."

Clark was past the miraculous cooking of the corn, and Lex had to force himself to play catch up, running over Clark's last few sentences in his head. He was talking about crops. Food sources outside the city - - that had survived the devastation that leveled buildings and come back to thrive.

"Chances are, the majority of the people here have never been outside the city. As far as they know, there's nothing out there but devastation and the possibility of worse things than the surviving animal population here. People stick to what they know and right now, they've got shelter and a food source and familiarity. It takes a brave man to venture into the unknown."

"Well, its not unknown, if we tell them it's out there," Clark said, jaw set in determination, eyes glimmering as the slow formation of a cause took life.

Lex was not unaware of the inclusive 'we' in the spreading of that information. It had been a very long time since Clark had thought of them as a collective in any respect. But, flattering as the feeling was, he didn't see these people picking up and leaving the false security they enjoyed here, to trek a hundred and fifty miles out into the wasteland in the hopes of learning the farming trade. People for the most part - - especially ones who fought tooth and nail to retain the relatively comfortable niche they'd carved - - were resistant to that sort of change.

But Clark was an idealist and practical ramifications didn't always make it onto his radar. Then again, Clark had brought him an ear of corn all the way from Smallville - - and cooked it for him and was sitting there rambling on about teaching these people how to become post-apocalyptic farmers and Lex couldn't find it in himself to start pointing out the problems inherent in setting that plan in motion.

It would be nice to have the best of both worlds. A base in the city where building materials were everywhere for the taking, as well as a renewable food source cultivated from the land itself. Considering the only mode of faster than walking transportation was Clark himself there basic problems involved.

Lex mulled that over, while he ate the corn, the long term planning part of his brain giving way to the more immediate short term needs part. He needed bargaining power with these people. Even the ones that he could count as possible allies were damned reluctant to play nice without some viable gain. He needed something to barter that the scavengers among them hadn't already picked the city clean of. Not much of value had survived and what had probably been heavily sheltered. He really did need to get into LuthorCorp and see what remained within its guts.

But barring that - - Clark was talking about the possibility of seeds and seed related things having survived the destruction, safe underground in various grain cellars. It occurred to Lex that in a city as wealthy as Metropolis the number of highly secure vaults would be prodigious. Hell, there was a room sized vault in this very penthouse, safekeeping God knew what. He hadn't had the inclination or the need to rush in and have it cracked after his Father's death. There'd been other priorities at the time to occupy him.

He rose and headed back to the study. The vault door, if he recalled correctly, was behind the bookshelf to the right of the desk. There had been a lever, but it was long inoperable.

"There's a safe behind this wall," he said to Clark when Clark followed him to the doorway. "Can you get it open?"

"Yes," Clark said warily, but didn't make an immediate move to do so.

Lex sighed, not even wanting to speculate on the direction Clark's thoughts. "It's my father's safe. I haven't seen the interior since I was five. Use some of that strength you've gone out of your way to hide all these years and open it to let me see if there's anything useful inside."

Clark snorted softly.

"I was going to," he said, just a touch of indignity in his voice. Then he moved forward to do just that.

 

 

 

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