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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Part 4

 

Lex's arm shook. It wasn't even the one hanging limply from his side and screaming bloody murder, but he couldn't quite seem to stop it from quivering. Trembling uncontrollably, unforgivably, from the simple act of holding up a gun. An embarrassing act of weakness that he ground his teeth and locked his elbow trying to hide, until Clark finally stormed out, eyes flashing and cheeks flushed. Beautiful. The thought came unbidden and unwelcome. But Clark always had looked good when his emotions ran high. Like a demi-god down from high, slumming in the mid-western boondocks.

And wasn't that an appropriate metaphor? Lex laughed, hysteria tinged and lowered the gun with gasp of pain. He laid it on the cold stone floor, between his knee and the low burning fire and tried to get his breathing under control.

His head hurt, but thought came easier than it had before, when he'd first woken here. Confused images and lurid recollections no longer slid in and jumbled rational thinking. He remembered everything, detail so clear it was painful.

Two days to get here, via air and ice and miserable cold. He'd never been much for the bitter cold. Never one for sweltering heat either. He liked his extremes in other areas. He'd left his expedition a mile to the south, after they'd pin-pointed the location of the fortress and traveled to uncover those final revelations alone, though. He'd had to go alone, like a man stepping into the light to connect his with own private divinity. No one else had belonged there. No one but Clark.

Clark who's eyes shone with such sanctimonious anger, who's hands shook with honest indignation - - so perfectly human - - so perfectly that self righteous boy, that good hearted boy, that endearingly virtuous boy that had drawn Lex in like a flame calling to a moth.

He recalled the fortress, dwelled purposefully on the sheer alien majesty of it, structures so exquisitely crafted that no human hand could have wrought them. He placed Clark in the center to reinforce the fact that he belonged there, that he was not human - - not the person Lex had believed him to be, because otherwise, the façade was so convincing, the act so immaculate down to the pout and the honest-seeming frustration, that part of Lex wanted to doubt. Wanted to believe very, very badly the things Clark claimed.

But Lex knew better than to believe the urgings of his heart. His heart had never yet failed to betray him and blind trust always led to betrayal and pain. Always. Just because Clark lay at the center didn't mean the circle of conspiracy and secrets that Lex had fought to unravel was any less staggering. It didn't mean the threat was any less. It simply meant it wore a familiar face. And that made it all the more dangerous, because Clark made you want to believe and want to trust, even when he was holding the bloody dagger he'd used to stab you in the back.

Thinking of stabbings, reminded him of the throbbing ache in his left shoulder. He eased the jacket off and stretched his sweater enough to bare skin. A strip of torn red cloth had been wound under his arm and across the injury, but it was relatively free of blood. He pushed it aside with his thumb and winced at the wound underneath. Too large to be a bullet hole, tender and inflamed around the edges, but crusted and dark as if it had been seared within the body of the wound. His skin was stained with dried blood. The cloth of his sweater was stiff with it. The red bandage looked suspiciously as if it might have been torn from the lining of a cheap red jacket.

Lex swallowed, trying not to think about Clark dealing with him when he'd been unconscious, trying not to think about Clark taking the time to bind a wound and the reasons why. He shuddered and recovered the injury, pulling his coat back into place. He looked about the cave, feeling the crawling edges of desperation seeping back up.

The gun was a ridiculously false comfort. He'd hit Clark - - he was almost certain he'd hit Clark and Clark hadn't flinched. Shocking to see in the flesh what he'd only ever imagined in theory.

He saw a glint of something other than dull rock or windblown debris against the wall where Clark had been sitting. He put the gun in his pocket and pushed himself up with an effort and a groan of a pain. It was a crystal shard, longer than his hand and cleanly faceted. Very much like the shards that had studded the pedestal in Clark's fortress. If Clark had saved this one out of all of them, then it undoubtedly held value to him. And if it held value to Clark, Lex wanted it.

Lex slipped it into his coat pocket and it clinked against something solid. Since the gun was in the other pocket - -

God. All the time he'd been staggering out in the snow he'd had the means to contact his team in his pocket. He'd been a fool not to remember his phone. He dug it out and flipped it open and it glowed a soft comforting blue in the dim light of the cave. It was a sat-phone and could reliably pick up a signal from anywhere in the world - - except apparently in the depths of a cave with tons of rock obscuring the signal.

He cursed softly at the dead signal and cast a wary glance at the mouth of the cave. He needed to get outside to make the call. But if Clark were out there, Clark might take issue with the calling of the cavalry. He held no illusions about his ability to keep Clark from taking his only means of communication if Clark wanted. He held no illusions at all about Clark anymore.

It was the sort of dark outside that only occurred in the dead of snow covered winter, or out in the arctic where the overpowering white of the snow and ice covered land reflected the minimal light of stars and moon and cast everything in a sort of twilight.

It had stopped snowing but the wind up here was still frigid and brittle. Lex shivered, hunching his shoulders in a futile effort to stave off the cold. He crept outside the mouth of the cave, boots crunching in soft snow. It took him a few moments to locate Clark, a dark silhouette standing on an outcropping, motionless and silent, thinking god knew what, if the face of the loss of his fortress.

Lex flipped the phone open again, waiting for a signal to come up. And there was nothing. Just dead air and the faint hum of static. Chilling in a way that the arctic air wasn't, because this phone damn well should have been operational, now that there was nothing between it and a comprehensive orbiting satellite system, but thin air.

He leaned against the frozen rock outside the cave, barely able to keep hold of the phone his hands trembled so badly. He had a team out there somewhere, waiting for word from him. Maybe already looking for him, since he'd been gone - - how long? He had no idea. How long would they search before the harshness of the artic environment forced them to give up? Even if they found him - -he'd held the only weapon of use against Clark - - even if it had apparently only had a temporary effect - - and that was gone, swallowed by the fortress when it had come down.

He swallowed again, dry mouthed and dreadfully thirsty. Cast one more hopeful glance at a phone that refused to pick up a signal before shoving it back into his pocket. He might slip away, while Clark stood, staring at endless moonlit snow, but Clark had been dead right in at least one thing; he'd die out there, without the means to protect himself from the elements and everything he knew would die with him.

It had been a miscalculation to follow in the footsteps of his father and his father's contemporaries in Veritos and hoard the information he'd uncovered. But it was as if the true mysteries surrounding Clark incited secrecy. He'd been on the outside of this enigma for years and had been driven to protect it from public knowledge since almost day one. Why? Because he'd sensed it had to with Clark and instinctually moved to protect that innocent eyed boy? Had Clark counted on that from the beginning? Never truly the innocent? Always the manipulator, lying in wait?

Little wonder he'd gotten along so well with Lionel these last few years.

Lex pressed his lips and slipped back inside the cave. He staggered over the outside edges of a stack of wood, just inside the mouth. Caught his balance with a hand against the wall and stared down, momentarily baffled by the simple presence of stacked firewood.

The fire. The wood laid out to fuel it and keep this small space warm enough to protect against the bitter cold outside. Clearly Clark didn't require protection against the elements, which meant he'd gone to the trouble of gathering it for Lex's benefit. Had taken the time and effort to bind Lex's wound, to bring him here not once, but twice.

Two days ago when Clark still had a reason to keep up pretenses, Lex could have understood - - would have thought it odd for Clark not to go out of his way to help even a bitter enemy if life and limb were on the line - - but now? What reason, when Clark's purposes would most surely be better served it Lex were dead? It made his head swim trying to comprehend, but then maybe that was the edges of hypothermia mixed with diminishing fever muddling his thoughts.

He picked up a chunk of wood, and took it with him back to the fire, laying it atop the dwindling flames as he eased himself down. He shucked off the glove on his right hand with the help of his teeth, and held his naked palm out to the warmth of the fire.

Milton Fine, Clark had claimed. Lex didn't believe it. Clark simply knew which of his buttons to push to tweak the most emotion. Milton Fine, whatever he'd truly been, alien or alien construct, was a sore point with Lex. The idea that he'd be gullible enough to let himself be used by the creature twice was ludicrous. That he'd been used at all - - vulnerable, naïve, powerless , manipulated by the hands of people he should have been able to trust - - made him shudder and shy away from the more inward path his mind tried to follow.

He clenched his fist and stared into the fire until it swam in his vision. Shut his eyes and the world still swayed.

Dehydration. He was familiar with the feeling. He'd had a pack with supplies when he'd trekked across the icy landscape between base camp and the alien spires of the Fortress, but he'd shed it, along with his winter gear when he'd entered the structure and found the temperatures oddly mild compared with the 30 below environment outside it.

He pulled on the glove and pushed himself to his feet again. Harder this time, limbs stiff from cold and the wound in his shoulder making the whole of his body ache. There was snow outside, though, that he could use to quench his thirst.

He needed to think straight to deal with this. To clear the haze in his head caused by injury and weakness. He'd come here with a clear purpose, unfaltering trajectory towards a destiny that had been building before he'd been born. But he'd lost his upper hand and until he found a way to regain it - - and he would, if he could only get back to civilization - - he'd need his wits to deal with Clark. If he could just keep his head, he could manage this situation - - manage Clark. He'd used to be able to do that - - talk his way out of Clark's bad graces - - harder nowadays with Clark so set against him - - with Clark so poisoned by Lana's hatred and Lionel's manipulations - - Clark used to be so much more willing to believe - - in Lex. In the validity of Lex's motives. Clark used to have faith in him and the betrayal still loomed, raw and ugly.

He swayed against the wall, a spell of dizziness stealing balance, thoughts reeling, cold hard fact slipping sideways in the face of unwieldy emotion. What Clark used to be had no bearing if it had all been lies.

Lex took a breath, pushing himself off the wall with a grimace of determination , willing balance and clear headedness. He didn't need to go far, there was snow and ice everywhere. The top layer was probably more pure than anything he'd ever consumed out of a bottle.

He meant to crouch, but his knees hit snow and the cold ate through the material of his pants. He ignored it, the new primal goal of quenching his thirst driving him past surface discomforts.

The snow was so cold it made his teeth ache, and it melted in his mouth too slow for true satisfaction, but it eased the need.

Clark loomed over him in the darkness, sudden, shocking presence that made Lex's heart flutter in panic. He felt like some feral child at Clark's feet, crouched in an alley, digging for scraps. He hated the feeling, the anxiety that spurred him when Clark stood there above him, unflinching and impervious in a cold that Lex felt to his bones and couldn't stop shaking from. It was intolerable - - this wasn't how it was supposed to end. He felt a sting at the back of his eyes, reaction to the cold, because it damned sure wasn't anything else.

I'll get you something to melt it in inside, " Clark said, flat voiced, flat eyed in the darkness.

"You don't need to get me anything. There are supplies with my expedition. You can take me there." His own voice cracked, wavered a little at the end in desperation and he despised himself for it.

Clark swallowed, eyes shifting with that uncomfortable look he usually wore when he was contemplating a lie. What was the point of pretense now? What was the point in the façade of humanity at all - - but Clark hadn't let it slip since the confrontation.

"They're not out there," Clark said, setting his jaw like he'd come to some unhappy decision that he was bound and determined to see though.

"What did you do?" Lex felt a chill colder than the arctic air pass over him. He fought for his feet, needing the advantage of not being on his knees at the feet of his enemy. It was a struggle, everything cold and stiff and aching.

"I didn't do anything." Clark said angrily. Slices of smooth, golden skin showed through the tears in his t-shirt. Two rips and one hole singed around the edges where a bullet had ripped through. "If you had somebody out there waiting for you - - they're not there anymore."

"There's no way in hell they would have left," Lex snarled at him, scenarios dancing through his head of Clark cleaning up witnesses to the location of the fortress. Of Clark systemically obliterating everyone who had a clue about the truth of his origins.

"Why am I still alive?" he asked, beating the tremor out of his voice. He wouldn't go out with a fucking whimper.

Clark threw out his arms, practically growling in irritation. Lex flinched minutely at the sudden, violent movement, but he didn't think Clark noticed.

"Because unlike you, I'm not a murderer," Clark spat venomously. "And I didn't do anything to your Goddamned expedition. They're just not there - - nothing's there that should be - - for a long way - -" Clark trailed off, looking spooked. He paced out into the snow, shoulders hunched, fists clenched, staring out into the twilit darkness.

"I can't hear anything," Clark said softly, but Lex doubted he was speaking to him. "I should be able to hear - -"

"How?" Lex had to ask. He couldn't stop himself.

Clark half turned, gave him a look, but didn't answer.

"How can you not be cold?" Lex had to ask that one too, freezing as he was. He couldn't feel his ears or his nose. His feet, even though winter insulated boots and thermal socks were going numb.

Clark turned back to look out at the distant silhouettes of mountains. Lex thought he was going to ignore that question as well, but eventually he spoke.

"I think - - the planet I came from was really cold."

Lex drew a breath, stomach fluttering at the fantastic simplicity of that quiet admission.

"But I don't know for sure," Clark murmured. There was something hazy, almost dazed in his voice. "I never - - it never occurred to me to ask. Kara would have known. Kara - -" he trailed off, the haze melting into something more akin to grief. He curled his arms around his mid-section, hunching further over like a man hit in the gut. Trembling. Lex could see it now. Trembling like the cold was affecting him after all.

It struck Lex, a wavering moment of weakness, drawn to the surface by Clark's pain. It was the rare occasion that he relished Clark's suffering and only then when he was the author of it and even then, satisfaction had always been tempered by underlying regret. Victory over Clark had never meant the same thing as victory over the rest of the world. Even now - -

Clark straightened, hands dropping to his sides, fingers flexing. He turned, face set and stalked towards Lex, and Lex had the sudden fear that he'd given up the pretense of meaning no harm and decided to finish off the last threat to his anonymity. But all Clark did was brush past, into the cave. Came back out a moment later shrugging into his red jacket, before Lex had convinced his body to move, one way or another. Clark narrowed his eyes and focused his gaze around the area of Lex's pockets, then looked back up at Lex narrowly, as if he knew damned well Lex had taken the crystal. Lex lifted his head, wanting to hear confirmation of that ability as well.

"Problem?" Lex asked, as calmly and coolly as a man might whose teeth were chattering unrepentantly.

Clark bared his teeth a little, upset - - oh, damned upset.

"It's going to be cold," Clark said abruptly.

"What - -?"

Clark reached for him, faster than Lex could convince his body to dodge. Implacable fingers gripped his good arm and he growled, baring his own teeth and trying to twist away. "Get your hands off - -"

Clark shook him hard enough to rattle teeth, yanked him close, clutching both arms with that punishing grip and said. "You don't know how bad I just want to leave you here. But I can't do that, because it would be plain murder and I'd have to live with myself after."

"Son of a - -" Lex started, breathlessly, in no mood for Clark's claims of moral high ground when he knew it was all fabrication.

"Fine," Clark snapped and let him go. For all of a heartbeat - - half a heartbeat until the world upended with a solid impact to Lex's gut and he had a split second to realize he was staring down at snowy earth and the back of Clark's legs, Clark's big hand tight across the back of his, before everything went blurry with the sudden sensation of movement.

Not just any movement - - but sudden, sickening acceleration, worse than the stomach lurching feeling of plummeting out of the air in a nose diving jet, or the surreal haze of sailing off solid earth and out over murky brown water.

He couldn't breath, he couldn't think, couldn't see past the rush of wind. His stomach rebelled. His head did, beaten down by velocity so terrible it sapped consciousness.

He came back, clutching for awareness, clutching at the solidity that was the only thing keeping the world from reeling out from under him. He pressed his face into warmth, precious, addictive warmth and tried to breath. Smelled the too familiar scent of a boy/man he'd never been able to shed from his mind and reason flooded back.

Clark had stopped, eased Lex down from across his shoulder and stood, absently allowing himself to used as a prop at the edge of something vaster than the arctic snow.

Lex pushed himself away, needing to separate himself from that comforting scent, needing to stand on his own two feet and gain control back of his own body. His face was numb, his head was, his vision glassy as if ice had formed over his eyes. He blinked rapidly, not sure that hadn't happened, and clotting wetness spiked his lashes.

"There was a town here - - a harbor with fishing boats." Clark said staring out over choppy, dark water. There were bits of flotsam - - ice - - marring the surface here and there and further out, obscured by fog, what might have been a distant isle or looming iceberg. God. Where were they?

"Greenland," Clark said dully, as if Lex had voiced the question out loud. "That's Baffin Bay. There should be - - something along this coast - - but there's not. I looked. Further south than this - - and still - - I don't understand what's happened."

Lex didn't understand quite a lot, not least among the clamoring lot of confusion, how they'd gotten from deep in the northern reaches of this frozen continent to the southern coast. It had seemed like forever, yet he knew it hadn't been nearly so long.

Clark was fucking with his head, using unknown alien powers to warp his perceptions. Maybe he'd been doing it for years. But he could play along. Playing along seemed vital to his survival. To the survival of the very world perhaps.

"It's a huge coastline - - maybe you're mistaken."

Clark wasn't listening to him. God knew what Clark was hearing, head cocked again, familiar expression of concentration on his face. Clark thinned his lips, turned his attention back to Lex.

"I have to go really fast over water. You can go over the shoulder again, or I can carry you in my arms. It'd probably be easier on you that way."

"You're giving me a choice?"

Clark shrugged, taut shoulders under red cotton, face straining after impassiveness and failing. The worry got though, the anger did. And fear. God, he was so damned convincing.

"You can run over water? Fly?" She'd been able to fly. Kara.

Clark swallowed, a moment of what might have been embarrassment flashing through his eyes. "Run."

So he wasn't capable of what his cousin was. Was it a male female difference in powers or was she simply more advanced than Clark? And claims of the device being designed solely for human use aside, if she'd had those advantages, why the fuck hadn't she even made the effort to lift a hand and deal with Clark herself? What had Clark done to make her change her tune so completely? If it hadn't been Kara at all - - but no, he refused to allow doubt to cloud his judgment.

He nodded, aware of Clark's impatience, aware that choice of position was the only choice he had at the moment. Clark stepped forward, hesitated for one awkward moment, then swept Lex up with no more effort than Lex might have used to pick up a set of keys.

Clark took a breath and then he was moving, faster than coherent thought could follow and the only thing that kept Lex's neck from snapping from the rapid motion was Clark's big hand, pressing his face hard against Clark's shoulder.

 

 

 

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