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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 17

 

Clark stared out across a vast empty land and listened. Heard the wind through the grasses, the skitter of small things burrowing in the dirt, the occasional rustle of something larger moving through the undergrowth - - but not much larger. Nothing of humanity in any direction save Metropolis. It hit him hardest when he stretched his senses and came up with nothing, just how desolate the world was.

A handful of days ago he'd sat out here and cried from the enormity of the loss. Everything he'd known and loved gone. Only that wasn't true, and the silence wasn't so bad with the small sounds Lex made as he moved around the campsite.

Clark had discounted Lex, when even during the worst of times it never paid to discount Lex. Forgotten, maybe even purposefully, how it felt to like Lex. Oh, Clark could be starkly honest with himself and admit that he'd never really stopped loving Lex - - he wasn't sure how to stop loving a person deep down once you started - - but he had stopped liking him. Stopped liking the person he'd become. And Lex had propagated that feeling, pushing as hard as he could to agitate and annoy. And Clark could blame that on the both of them wanting the same woman - - it was the easy explanation of why things had gone sour - - but he suspected it was more complicated than that. He suspected it had less to do with Lana than it had to do with Lex and Clark themselves and the lies that had put them at odds.

He was pretty sure if he confronted Lex with a 'say, did you start going after Lana because you were subconsciously angry at me?' he'd get an indignant denial. Lex didn't admit his fallacies easily. Lex didn't admit his weaknesses, even though he was rife with them. He was stubborn and he never let go a bone once he had it in his jaws and he used people for his own ends and he didn't always make the right choices. But he was the only thing Clark had left. And he'd shown something of the Lex Clark used to know - - the one he'd liked - - these last few days. It was easy to fall back in like with him, despite all the bad blood. Despite everything.

And the sex - - God, the sex was fantastic. When Clark had admitted to Lex that it had been 'powerful', it had been an understatement. It was like Clark's sex drive had been dialed down to low before this, and something about Lex had kicked it up into high gear. He'd loved having sex with Lana, loved everything about her, but just laying his hands on her skin had never made him sweat. Never made him blank out and just take her - - and he was still embarrassed and a little freaked out that he'd done it to Lex. But it was like something inside him went taut strung and coiled and primal around Lex. Maybe it had been like that for a long time, making the emotions Lex had triggered in him back when they'd been fighting, so much rawer - -so much angrier, when there had been nothing but animosity to feed it. Add sex to the mix and - - God - - It had taken everything he had this morning, every iota of self-control to fight the urge not to pin Lex down and loose himself in him.

But Clark was pretty sure Lex had needed to see that self-control. That Lex had needed to exert a little of his own if this thing they were embarking upon was going to work. And it had been sort of weirdly hot, kneeling there between Lex's legs, stroking himself off while Lex watched. A brand new experience.

"You ready?" Lex moved up behind him, sunglasses shading his eyes against a cloudless, sunny day. He'd spent a little time washing out the stains Clark had made on his clothes. Picky apparently about walking around with crusted ejaculation on his sweater.

The toolbox with the crystal and Lex's extra loot was back in the root cellar, and Clark had fashioned a carry strap for the canvas bag of produce he was taking back to the city. He shrugged it up, over his shoulder and nodded.

"I am if you are."

"Why not? All this clear sky and fresh air is tedious. I miss the devastation and murk."

Clark grinned, wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him against his side. Lex lifted a brow, close enough to kiss. Clark restrained the urge and swung him up in his arms instead, felt Lex's heart beat pound a little faster once he was off his feet. Either he didn't trust Clark not to drop him, or he was as turned on as Clark by the close contact.

Clark liked to think it was the latter, but knowing Lex and Lex's trust issues, probably not.

He ran. Slowed down out beyond the makeshift gates of the shantytown, not wanting to just appear out of nowhere and freak them out more than they probably already were at the comings and goings of the strangers they'd allowed among them. They walked the block to the camp, and Clark hailed the gate watchmen, asking for entry, hoping to hell Lex hadn't created too much of a problem with them with his gun-in-the-face politics the last time they'd left.

But after a few minutes, they pulled the bus back enough for them to slip through. They got glowers - - well, Lex got glowers - - from the guards as they entered. Lex ignored them, strolling in like there was no chance of one of these guys taking issue with the sleight he'd given them and sticking a knife in his back. Or maybe he just hid it really well, because he had to know he'd made enemies.

It was a little before noon and cook fires were burning, people going about their daily routines. Most the teenage kids were gone, and Clark figured they were out scavenging. Granny was sitting outside her tent, and Slick sat with her, with a bandaged head and the scowl of a boy starting to feel better enough to complain about being kept close to home.

Jane and one of her lieutenants strode up to them before they could make it that far.

"Thought you mighta been dead," she said with a look at Lex like she'd rather hoped he had.

Lex had that falsely pleasant smile on his face that anybody with a spark of sense could tell hid all sorts of unpleasant thoughts. He didn't comment. Just stuck his hands in his pockets and pretended interest in the activity of the camp.

"No," Clark said and shifted his sack of produce. "We brought back a little something for the camp."

She looked down at the bag, with its overflowing bounty, then back up at him, narrow eyed and wary. "Where you getting all this stuff? Don't nothing grow around here, 'cept for the park and ain't nobody tending crops there, what with the things prowling in the bushes."

Clark opened his mouth, not having an excuse that didn't involve traveling distances at super human speeds, prepared.

"If you bothered to leave the boundaries of the city, you might discover quite a few things out there." Lex waved a hand, indicating the world in general.

She gave Lex a glare. "Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of. Ain't nothing out there but trouble."

"When's the last time anyone took the effort to find out for themselves instead of simply believing it was true?" Lex asked. He plucked an ear of corn out of the bag and tossed it to her. "When's the last time you had something to eat that didn't involve hunting insects and rodents?"

Lex walked past her, heading into the camp while Clark stood there with a glowering Jane, people beginning to approach, realizing what it was he had. He snagged a clump of carrots as they jostled to see what was in the sack, then left them to distribute it amongst themselves and headed towards Granny's tent.

"Wondered where you'd been." Granny squinted up at him.

"You didn't know?" he asked with a smile.

She grinned back, creating all new crinkles in her face. "You think I'm physic, boy?"

He handed her the carrots and sat down on the cracked asphalt. Slick sullenly looked at the carrots granny was turning in her hands. The bruising on his face had started to turn yellow and green at the edges. He probably still had a helacious headache, if the look in his eyes were any indication. Was probably still unsteady and weak.

"Glad to see you up and about," Clark said.

The boy glowered.

Granny laughed. "Don't mind him. Slick's not much for manners even when he don't feel like death warmed over, are you, boy?"

Slick muttered something, and hunched deeper into the battered old wrought iron chair he was slouched in.

"Haven't seen a carrot since I was a girl," Granny rubbed the dirt off one, and offered it to Slick. He took it warily, like he'd never seen the like before. He probably hadn't.

"You eat it," Clark offered helpfully.

"Think I don't know that?" the boy muttered sullenly.

Granny chuckled and bit into the small end of one herself. Slick watched her as she chewed, like he expected her spit it out or start gagging.

"There's a lot more like this out there," Clark said. "And the land to grow more. Whatever happened, the stench of it is still clinging here - - but out there, things are starting to come back."

She canted her head, eyeing him. "And what, you think you're Moses, come to lead us poor stragglers of humanity to the Promised Land?"

"No! No." He shook his head. "I just - - there's a whole world out there, thriving and growing. A ready food source. Clean water. Fish you can actually eat. Animals that you don't have to worry about eating you."

"I been outside the city," Slick said. "And I ain't never seen nothing but flat land and weeds."

"You haven't been far enough," Clark said. "I could take you, Granny. Show you."

"Ain't nothing outside the city worth seeing." Jane stalked up, and the mother's scowl was very much a mirror of the son's. "He's trying to scam us, with all this talk and the food stuff he's giving away. He'll want something for it, mark me."

"I'm not," Clark defended.

"Jane, Jane," Granny chided. "Not everybody's out for themselves. Some do the right thing just 'cause. This boy brought your's back to you, didn't he?"

"After the one he came with got him banged up to begin with," Jane snarled.

"This one," Granny leaned forward and eyed Jane with a meaningful, glittering stare. "Did more for us than that."

Clark swallowed, wondering how much Granny knew about the night he'd fought off the Freaks.

Jane lifted her chin, eyes flicking to Clark, then back to Granny.

"All I'm asking," Clark broke into that silent communication. "Is that you let me take you out and show you what's possible."

"I'll go," Slick offered.

"You won't do Jack," Jane snapped at him. "You move your ass out of this compound and I'll beat it worse than those freaks that split your skull."

Slick muttered curses Clark didn't even recognize under his breath, but dropped his glare from Jane's.

Jane finally squared her shoulders and said. "Old Maggie needs a recipe for stew. Asked if you'd come over."

Granny's face split into a grin. "Bring potatoes with that corn, boy?"

"Turnips," Clark said with an apologetic shrug. "More carrots."

"It'll do. Looks like we're having a chowder feast tonight."

 


"A handsome woman like you deserves something pretty." Lex held up a glittering diamond bracelet. Four strands of gems, laced together with gold. "This would suit you better than a watch with a leather band."

The old woman with her pile of accumulated junk narrowed her gaze, but her eyes never left the dangling bracelet. Unless this life had aged her prematurely, which was a distinct possibility, she'd be old enough to remember the worth of diamonds and gold. Old enough and female enough to covet them. She wore his watch around her boney wrist.

"Jewelry won't do me no good." She said, a shrewd bargainer. "Telling time's more valuable."

"Right," he said with a cant of a brow. "Because you have so many appointments to keep track of?"

She snorted. "You go from flattery to insult, right quick. Where's my stick? You said you'd bring back the stick."

He shrugged. "I said I'd bring it back when I was finished with it. I'm not." He laid the bracelet over his fingers, letting the dull light catch at the hundreds of facets. The thing had been worth a fortune in a different time. He was willing to trade it for the watch. He liked the watch. Time still meant something to him, though he imagined after a few years here, it would cease to make that much difference.

"Of course," he said with a shrug. "It might look just as good on the woman down the street. The redhead with the tattoos offered up a soft place to sleep for the chance to have something pretty on her wrist."

"That whore? You'll catch the rot."

"Hmmm. It'd probably be worth it, not to sleep on concrete."

The woman hissed, and tore at the buckle of the watch. It was a Jaquet Droz Grande, very high end, with a battery life of close to forever and impact resistance that probably could have withstood the end of civilization, if he'd actually been there to see it. She held out her hand, wanting his trade first, and he obliged, laying the bracelet in her dirty palm, before taking the watch back.

He rose, wiping the inside of the band against his sleeve, before slipping it around his wrist. He walked away from her, while she was admiring her new adornment. She'd get the staff back when hell froze over. Whether or not he ever chose to use it against Clark again, he'd not have it floating around for just anyone to accidentally discover its true worth. No one needed an advantage over Clark other than him.

He strolled around the camp for a while, picking up bits of conversation and gossip here and there, getting a better lay of the place and the hierarchy of the people. Everyone respected Granny as the clan wise woman, but there were little power struggles between the community's war leaders. Jane was the recognized authority on the east side of the compound, but on the other side, in the portion of the camp that lay through the hollowed out buildings to the west, there was a rival a war leader. Well, not quite rival, they worked fine together in crisis and when push came to shove, like the last time there'd been a big clan war between these people and a truly rival group living on the city's north side, everyone had come together as a whole. But in peacetime, differences flared and power in any form was attractive. Jane was all for staying put and holding their territory, not going out and looking for trouble. Her opposition - - a man - - was pushing for initiating attack on the rival clan, making raids and taking their stores.

Figured. Four hundred strong and they already had opposing political parties. Human kind was nothing if not predictable. None of them had any interest in venturing into Freak territory though, no matter the spoils. Slick claimed he'd been close to the L - -to LuthorCorp, but his young friends confirmed that neither he, nor anyone else there had ever been inside the building. That no one who'd ever tried had ever come back. At least not the same as they'd been. There were stories, told in whispered voices, of people being changed. Of the Freaks taking a body and altering it, until it wasn't human anymore. Making it one of them.

Lex doubted they had the capacity - - but then, he dismissed nothing as impossible. Not after the things he'd seen. Enough of the right kind of radiation and things could happen and quickly.

He found a place on the wall on the west side where the lookouts had no reason to take issue with him, and leaned there, staring at the murky skyline of downtown past the ragged building tops. There was no way he could easily see, that he was getting into LuthorCorp without Clark's help. Even if they didn't have some sort of watch on the tunnels leading it, he'd need Clark's strength to get him past the cave ins and security doors with their dead electric locks. Then there was the other option of having Clark simply bull doze his way in through the front door, letting the Freaks know once and for all, that there was a new, more powerful force in town. Which might serve double duty, if it made them wary of attacking the human survivors. Or might backfire miserably, and send them into a murderous rage, lashing out faster than Clark could stop them. Or worse case scenario, they might in masse, be able to take Clark.

Lex didn't like that last one. He hadn't liked the way they'd circled them outside the L, or the way the one had laid hands on Clark and looked at him like he was something he'd like to play with. Clark was not invulnerable. That chunk of rock on the end of a stick Lex had stashed in a nook was evidence enough of that.

So maybe using Clark as a weapon was not as attractive a plan as he'd initially thought. He frowned, annoyed at his lack of viable options. Glanced down when his name was called from below.

Clark was on the ground, thumbs in pockets, looking up at him. "There you are."

"Here I am," Lex agreed. He started down the rickety ladder leading from catwalk to ground.

"What have you been doing all afternoon?" Clark was minus his jacket. There was a little bit of soot on his cheek.

Lex shrugged. "Learning a little local politics. Catching up on the resident gossip. You?"

"There was a wall they were trying to shore up over on the other side - - I did a little heavy lifting."

"Obvious heavy lifting?"

"Not really. I don't see that it really matters much anymore. Sooner or later they'll figure it out."

"You think? You managed to keep it a secret before - - for the most part. And they've already proven they've got issues with 'freaks'."

"Yeah, but there were like four billion people in the world then. There's like four hundred now. A lot harder to keep a secret when everybody knows your name."

"Right. That would entail lying to their faces," Lex agreed dryly.

Clark twitched a little and gave him a look from under dark lashes. "Yeah. Anyway, I also went out and looked around a little. Scoped out some stuff uptown that might be useful out in the country. Found a door for the house. There's not a whole lot of glass that isn't shattered though."

So Clark had been busy.

"You hungry?" Clark asked.

The day had passed and he was. He shrugged. "What are the chances of any of those vegetables being left?"

"Pretty good, actually," Clark said. "They made chowder, and I snagged some before it was all gone.

Since Clark wasn't presently carrying containers of it, Lex looked at him questioningly. Clark flashed him a smile and jerked his chin, indicating Lex should follow him into the shadow of what had once been a brownstone storefront.

As soon as they were out of easy view, Clark latched an arm around his waist, and leapt upwards. Even expected, rocketing up that fast tended to make the stomach lurch. Clark had barely touched down on the edge of one roof before he made a sailing bound across to the neighboring one, the roof top of one of the buildings bordering the compound, one of the taller ones, maybe six stories, that allowed a decent view of the ragged horizon. There were a couple of battered pieces of wrought iron deck furniture sitting near the edge. Two chairs with a circular table between them. There was a dented, thermos on the table, and a dusty bottle of what might have been some sort of spirits.

It turned out to be a relatively cheap label bottle of wine, but still, a fifty-year-old cheap label wine. Beggars couldn't be choosers, and Lex had despaired that the catch from the ruins of the mansion might have been it. The thermos was silver plated, and engraved with tarnished initials. It was full of a watery stew with bits of corn and translucent chunks that might have been the turnips Clark had found. It smelled less than appetizing.

"I could always go snag you some roach. I smell it roasting down there," Clark offered with a smirk.

"You are the humanitarian, aren't you?"

It wasn't a bad vantage. The chairs were solid and not uncomfortable. The wine had a smoky, aged flavor that was more palatable than the chowder. It was peaceful, far enough above the camp that only the murmur of voices drifted up from below.

"So where'd you find this stuff?" After the bottle was half empty, passed between Clark and himself.

"High up," Clark said. "There's nothing left low enough for people to have gotten to it. Only places left with things worth taking are buildings like your dad's, where access to the upper floors is restricted. "

"Makes sense. Fifty years of people looting and scavenging for whatever they could find to survive."

"I talked to Granny about going out and checking out the farm - -where the farm used to be."

"And?"

Clark shrugged. "She wasn't exactly against the idea. Jane was."

"From what I understand, Jane's a bit of a homebody. Doesn't like her people straying. Doesn't like change. There are other people here that might be more easily convinced."

Clark gave him a stern look. "I want to help them, not create rifts."

"Sometimes change doesn't come without them."

Clark pursed his lips, not liking that answer, stared out at the purple glow of the sun setting through the ever-present murk.

Lex took another swig of wine and watched it with him. Silence had never been a problem with him and Clark. It sat easy between them. Words got them into more trouble. It was comfortable sitting up above the stench of the camp while the day melted into darkness.

Finally Clark reached down, shuffling through his box of finds, and pulled out another glass bottle. He handed it over and Lex took it, squinted at the peeling, faded label in the darkness and laughed.

"You told me to track one down," Clark offered, sounding just a little embarrassed.

"And you wasted no time." He laughed again, amused, on the cusp of drunk, having consumed more than his fair share of a bottle of very old, cheap wine. A little turned on that Clark had taken the time to rummage through high-rise kitchens in search of a little makeshift lubrication. And he had asked. This morning after Clark's exemplary performance, the idea of a bit of down and dirty fucking had seemed a very good idea. It still had its merits.

"So were you planning on doing it here? On the rooftop?" Lex had no idea where the urge always came from to prod Clark.

"No," Clark said, sounding a little scandalized. It was good to know he still had that ability. Lex enjoyed making him blush.

"Really? Surely you had something in mind when you went looking for this. Tell me little fantasy scenarios didn't pass through your mind when you found it. Where were you planning on fucking me?"

"God, Lex." Clark snatched the bottle out of his hands and dropped it back into the box. "You do that on purpose."

Lex shrugged. "It's entirely possible. But I'm right." How could he not be right? Images had flashed through his head. They still were.

"So any of those high-rise apartment still have beds with halfway decent mattresses?" If he was going to get fucked, it might as well be on a bed.

Clark licked his lips, eyes wide, expression hard to read in the falling darkness. Hungry maybe. Good. Lex was too.

Something clapped, loud and sharp off to the east, then with a deeper moan there was the reverberating boom of crumbling masonry. Hard to see, but it looked like a building was going down out past the perimeter of the east camp. There were the sound of screams, shouts of alarm. Fire blossomed in the sky, a liquid trail of it sailing over the wall and into the compound.

"Fuck," Lex breathed, staring at it stupidly.

"Stay here," Clark said, no nonsense, and was simply gone. Lex blinked at the empty chair, reflexes just a little slow from the wine, then flinched as a beam of something no less intense than the falling ball of lava impacted it, exploding it outwards.

There were shouts coming from the western wall, and Lex dared the edge of the building, peering down to see men scrambling with torches and lanterns to man the wall. Non-combatants were running for the shelter of solid buildings. Someone down on the wall screamed, yanked right through razor wire by something too fast to get a good look at.

The Freaks were attacking. He could hear the laughter, the chilling wails from outside the camp. Goddamned Clark for leaving him up here with no easy way down. He headed for the gun in his coat draped across the back of his chair regardless.

Paused at the sound of crumbling stone, and turned, just as something clamored over the edge of the roof. Long limbed, weirdly jointed silhouette. It hissed at him and he drew a breath, turned to make a rush for the gun and another smaller figure crouched in his path. Yellow, cat like eyes gleamed in the darkness.

"Long time no see, baby," half familiar female voice purred at him, just before she pounced. She hit him, dead on, bowling him backwards, solid and sinewy and a hell of a lot stronger than her size suggested. His back hit the roof top, his head did, and he gasped for air, head spinning, instinctively trying to grasp her wrists and keep her claws from ripping his throat out. She had leverage on him, and the other figure, the malformed one, had scrambled over, joining her, tangling long fingers in his shirt and bearing down.

"Been looking for you," she leaned down and purred against his ear, claws of the hand he didn't have a death grip on biting into his shoulder.

"Yeah?" He ground out, trying to buck them off, but the combined weight and strength of the two of them were beyond him.

She grinned, and he could see the points of sharpened fangs gleaming in the dark. "Laughing Man wants to have a talk. Bad luck for you. Good for us. We needed a little fresh meat."

She jerked her chin and the disjointed, dusky skinned one hissed something that might have been laughter and slammed a big knuckled fist into the side of Lex's head.

It was a solid hit and it brought pain and spiraling darkness with it.

 

 

 

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