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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Part 6

 

Clark was gone. A whisper of wind and he simply ceased to be, leaving Lex alone on a stretch of weathered, buckled road. No matter that he'd experienced the sickening veracity of Clark's speed first hand - - it was still a freshly shocking reality.

He wasn't entirely convinced if the departure were a good thing or a bad.

Heart thudding behind his ribs, he turned back to face that other shocking truth Clark had brought him to. A city skyline rife with the jagged edges of ruin. Dark against a murky sunrise that did little to penetrate the haze that seemed to hang like smog over the city. He could smell it in the air, even a good mile from the edges of that devastated place, the scent of decay and corrosion.

The outlying areas, what might have been warehouse districts, industrial areas or suburbs were nothing but acres and acres of leveled rubble, a concentric ring of devastation that seemed to worsen the further it got from the heart of the city, as if whatever had happened here had become more destructive as it rippled outwards.

From the degree of damage he'd guess this was some war-ravaged city in the Middle East, but the sheer size of it, plus the surrounding flat plain land negated that theory. A nuclear event was also a possibility, but again, unless one counted Chernobyl, there hadn't been nuclear incident anywhere in the world for a good sixty years that might have left a city in this state. And anything recent - - say in the last few days while he'd been trekking through the arctic - - would have had enough residual radiation to melt him on the spot.

Fear made his pulse race and his stomach roll threateningly. But he'd lived with fear for most of his life, in one form or another, this lurking predator in the back of his mind that could either take him by the jugular and reduce him to weak ineptitude, or that he could control and mold to work for him instead of against.

He swallowed back bile and slammed the cage door.

Clark had brought him here so there must be a reason. Some alien design that Lex needed to figure out. That Clark and or the alien powers he represented were responsible for this sea of desolation before him was the most probable explanation. He shuddered once, uncontrollable, at the sheer magnitude of power it must have taken to do this - - to do what had been done to that other place Clark had paused at. Lex knew power intimately, courted it, pursued it, created it when it was within his capabilities- - and nothing short of a weapon of mass destruction should have been capable of this. Nothing human.

He started walking, treading upon asphalt so weathered it was grey. Weeds valiantly shot up through the cracks and he saw a shifting trail of ants that had built a truly impressive mound where a section of road had been entirely torn away. So the place wasn't completely lifeless. But then insect life was more durable than human.

When he reached the edges of the city and the ring of absolute destruction that circled it, the rubble made passage difficult. Navigating ragged concrete and rusted metal jutting from the depths was tricky business without risking a turned ankle or a gash that likely, in this place, would result in a gangrenous wound.

It took close to an hour to weed his way to the edges the city proper, where the skeletons of actual structures still remained. Granted, not much more than the crumbled facades of buildings, and nothing that stood more than a story or two above ground level, but they were recognizable at least.

The roads were littered with debris, blocked entirely in places by mountainous slides of concrete and brick and twisted metal beams. He had no choice but to scale one such obstacle to pass, and stood at the apex afterwards, staring at the rising cityscape still dozens of city blocks distant.

Skyscrapers dominated the view, blocking out the hazy glare of the ascending sun. Dull grey monuments to power and prosperity. They were jagged and raw now, seared beyond recognition. All the glossy finish eroded away, leaving behind the pitted, raw underbelly of crumbling concrete, bare rebar and the rusting bones of iron at the core.

Lex felt that flitter of fear again, of isolation and hopelessness that this deathly quiet place demanded like some looming inanimate incarnation of Charon demanding its toll. He cursed Clark for abandoning him here, for even Clark's company would have been welcome, regardless if it came with anger and accusation. He drew a hissing breath, reminding himself that Clark was likely connected to this somehow. That Clark was not human. That Clark was more dangerous than any of those multitude of meteor mutants that had plagued Smallville since his arrival so many years ago.

He pushed the fear and that instinctive need for human - - god, not human - - camaraderie aside, but it was harder this time to cordon it off. He made his way down the other side of the crumbly slope, half sliding, ungainly wreckage giving way beneath his boots and caught himself with his wounded arm. It hurt, pain shooting from the shoulder wound to concentric points across his body. He saw stars and leaned panting against the thick base of a streetlamp that had remained solidly entrenched in the sidewalk when the buildings around it had crumbled.

He pressed the palm of his good hand against the wound, waiting for the pain spasms to dwindle. Something skittered in the shadows of the building from which the mountain of rubble had originated. He drew breath and stared into the gutted recess of the structure. He narrowed his eyes, and saw the shifting of something among the ruins. It ventured out into the light, large and low to the ground, long brown body, twitching antennae.

In a moment of horror, he realized what it was. Cock roach. Big as a basset hound, with small dead eyes. It scuttled down the rubble towards him and other shapes shifted in its wake.

He pushed himself from the post; dread warring with the astonishment that the things were so huge. And apparently not shy about running down food. Dozens of them were flooding out of the shadows now, skittering down the landslide of concrete on the heels of the scout. They made sounds, chitinous little clicks that set his teeth on edge.

Fumbling for his gun, he backed away as fast as he dared down a street littered with treacherous debris. He took aim, mindful even in panic that he had a little more than half a clip in the gun and only one extra clip in an inner coat pocket. He fired. Hit the scout dead on and soft insect insides spattered the road. He got a bead on the next closest, but it veered off from its course at him and moved to a gelatinous chunk of its fallen fellow instead, hesitating not at all in engaging in a bit of cannibalism. The others swarmed around to get their shares. Lex didn't pause to watch the gruesome scene, backing away another half dozen paces, gun still up, before turning on his heel and jogging down the center of the street, wary now of the dark crevices that hid things dwelling within building carcasses.

Before he'd felt nothing but desolation here, now, his skin crawled with the feeling that he was being watched. That furtive eyes followed his movements, biding their time. He kept the gun out and worked his way around the overturned hulk of a city bus. There were more vehicles now, as he moved closer to the heart of the city. Rusting wreckages that marred the roads, or lay piled against each other against the sides of buildings as if they were toys, tossed there and left to decay by the hand of a careless child who'd found better entertainment. The glass in all the window fronts he passed had been shattered. The remnants of it made the streets glitter, ground so fine that it hardly crunched under his boots. A naked manikin blackened by fire or mildew lay half off the sidewalk onto the street, one graceful arm extended as if in supplication.

The caricature of humanity was chilling and Lex passed by, tightening his jaw. He stopped at an intersection and stared up at the canyon of twisted buildings that rose around him. Almost intact, if you discounted shattered windows and crumbling facades that bared the substructures beneath. The tops were obscured by that same haze that he'd seen from a distance.

The street to the left had collapsed, and a slow seepage of foul smelling water trickled from exposed sewage and tangled underground piping. Ahead, maybe four city blocks, the street was completely blocked by a building that had not been so lucky as these. He took a right. Passed the shattered ground floor showrooms devoid of stock. Streets littered with debris and cracked pavement. He wasn't entirely sure why he kept walking, when everything ached, when his head swam with exhaustion, when there was no destination to this journey he'd undertaken. It seemed unlikely that the next corner turned would miraculously reveal the answers he so desperately needed.

Stopping and sitting down, taking a moment to rest mind and body, to try and make sense of the senseless, seemed the wiser course of action.

He kept moving. The wiser course of action hadn't been part of his repertoire for quite some time. He could ignore the pain - - he'd been ignoring the pain for longer than he'd had this wound in his shoulder. If he stopped moving - - if he gave his mind the time to absorb the enormity of what he saw - - getting back up again might not be so easy.

A street sign still stood, bent at an angle in the buckled section of sidewalk it was rooted in. The type was still mostly readable. 34th Street on one plaque, the other plaque half shorn off, only the 'Tem - -' remaining.

He let his eyes drift up, to the battered facades of buildings and felt a shiver of premonition ghost across his skin. There was something familiar here - - something that sparked recognition despite the overwhelming devastation of this place.

A glint of dull metal caught his eye and past the rubble of what might have been a parking garage that had come down between two sturdier high rises, he saw the source. A globe. Huge and patently irregular amongst the hard angles of concrete and iron I beams. It rested in the midst of the garage rubble, a great chunk of its curvature broken away, but most of the graven ring that orbited it remained.

The cold rationality he'd maintained through this journey through hell trembled, threatened by dawning comprehension.

He knew that globe. He'd looked down upon that globe a thousand times from his office window in LuthorCorp when it had glinted, proudly polished bronze under the Metropolis sun. He lifted his gaze to the battered building beyond - - weathered grey stone, the top few stories seemingly collapsed in under their own weight. If he looked at it just right, filling in the blanks that catastrophe had chiseled out, it melded into something he could put a name to. And beyond it, towering over like some decrepit giant in the murk, glass facing blasted away baring the dark interior like hundreds of gaping wounds - - stood LuthorCorp.

He whispered something - - meaningless sound of amazement/despair/incomprehension and staggered back a step, one knee going out from under him. He sat down hard on an overturned block of metal and felt the first dizzy rush of breathlessness. Familiar battle for air, when panic closed off his airways, and one he hadn't fought in years. Not since the advent of Clark.

He leaned over, head between his knees and forced calm. Stared at the cracks in the pavement and blanked his mind for the precious few moments it took to regain control.

Metropolis. It was impossible. Patently beyond belief that this could have happened in that time. It couldn't be - -and yet, here he sat, in the ruins of his city. A week ago he'd traveled this very street, setting things to order before his trek to the Arctic and his collision with destiny. He'd considered the possibility that he might not make it back - -had resigned himself to that probability - - and made arrangements. Made sure LuthorCorp would never give up the fight even if he weren't there to direct it.

God. How could he have known that he'd outlast this city? He'd expected conflict in his confrontation with the Traveler - - with Clark - - but not this. Clark had triggered something, some defense mechanism - - some dormant weapon of unbelievable magnitude and it had lashed out at the world. He must have. And how many dead because of it? How far had the destruction spread? Millions in Metropolis alone.

He stared up at the Daily Planet globe. At layers and layers of blue/green corrosion hiding the shimmer of bronze. He let his gaze travel to moss and mildew and struggling scraps of weeds grasping for life in crevices thick with windblown dirt.

This hadn't happened overnight. Or in a week, or a month. A building might crumble in a matter of seconds, but bronze didn't tarnish to the degree the globe had in anything short of years.

It was easier to comprehend Clark's alien technology raining ruin down upon the earth, than it was the apparent slippage of time.

He pushed himself up, felt whatever he'd been sitting on give a little under his weight and looked down at a battered newspaper box, face down on the street.

A heel to the edge flipped the thing over. The glass was splintered with spider web cracks, but surprisingly intact. Yellowed newsprint stared up at him from beneath it. Two quarters would have bought him a paper, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd carried actual change. He peered through the glass at the headline: City council passes Transit renovation proposal. In smaller print in the top right corner was the date. June 24th, 2012.

He stared for a moment, scrutinizing, letting it sink it and get a good hold. Four years. Unless this were some elaborate hoax, or some sick delusion he'd created inside his own head, this hadn't happened simultaneously with the fall of Clark's fortress of ice, but four years later. And by the blatantly boring headline on the front page of the Daily Planet, they'd been more concerned with the state of the subway system than the deconstruction of human civilization. No one had seen it coming.

He squatted next to the box, gun hand braced on the edge, mind whirling with possibilities. Time travel was not that far fetched a theory. Speculation in the field of quantum mechanics was widespread nowadays and inventive. The theory of special relativity, quantum teleportation, the application of wormholes and dozens of other hypothesis offered forth by legitimate researchers down to crackpot theorists.

Lex had indulged from time to time, in reading a thesis or two on the subject. A man that had concrete knowledge of the active existence of alien life on earth had no business turning his nose up at any extreme supposition.

The skin on the back of his neck tingled, a ghost of intuition making him look up, towards the looming slide of rubble at the foot of which rested the Planet globe. He thought he saw the shifting of movement in the shadow and visions of oversized insects flashed through his head. He started to rise, to get a better look, when something hit him, entirely unexpected from the other direction.

His feet left the ground and his back hit it, several yards distance, borne there by the not insubstantial weight of an enraged Clark Kent. The only thing that kept him from screaming was the air forcibly driven from his lungs.

It fucking hurt. Impact against buckled concrete sent pain racing through every nerve ending in his body. From shoulder, from the back of his skull, from a half dozen other parts of the human body reacting badly from sudden, forcible connection with the ground.

"You son of a bitch," Clark screamed down at him, face red splotched with emotion, streaks in the fine film of dirt coating his face from tears still leaking from glittering green eyes. Clark's fingers dug into his arms, bone bruising pressure. Clark's weight ground his body down into rubble.

"They're gone. Everyone's gone - - everything - - and it's your fault." Clark railed, jerking Lex up and slamming him back down for emphasis.

"Me? You delusional bastard. Are your lies so ingrained that even you buy them?" Lex yelled. It was an infuriatingly hypocritical claim and Lex rallied under the accusation, jamming the gun he'd miraculously retained a hold on, up under Clark's jaw. God, if he blew the lying prick's head off it might not solve the dilemma of a world destroyed, but it would go a long way to easing his own personal agitation.

"I wouldn't," Clark growled, not attempting to shift away from the press of the barrel. "Ricochet can be a bitch."

Lex snarled, grinding the gun up into the soft flesh under Clark's jaw. Clark had a valid point. It would be a goddamned waste of a good bullet and intolerable if the rebound took him out in the process.

"You couldn't just leave well enough alone," Clark cried. "And its gone - - Smallville, mom, Lana, Chloe - - they're all dead, all because you were a zealot on a fucking mission . . ."

Spittle frothed at the corner of Clark's mouth, his nose ran with it, raw emotion, raw pain, raw anger.

"The zealots were working for you! Hoarding your secrets, hiding your ulterior motives. Killing in your name. This isn't my fault. This wasn't done by any power that belonged to me."

Clark's face screwed up, warped in pain, in denial maybe. The grip tightened and Clark cried out, a hoarse animal cry, even as he flung Lex away from him.

Lex hit the rounded curve of the Planet globe, slid down, a collection of aching bones and bruised flesh, head spinning, the taste of blood salting his mouth.

"I never - -" Clark started towards him, hands fisted, eyes anything but sane. "What they did - - I never knew - - I never wanted - - You triggered this when you brought that device - - everything was fine before that - - everyone was - -"

"I didn't," Lex gasped. It was likely he'd bruised a rib or two. God help him if there were broken bones. But it was pain that had to be ignored if he wanted to avoid worse. Flinging accusations at Clark when Clark had lost his hold on calm, no matter how logical they might seem, was probably not the smartest move, all things considered. And whatever else Lex might believe, he had to admit that the chances of Clark faking this bout of grief fueled rage, were slim. Clark had never been that good an actor. Which meant Clark didn't know.

"Look at the paper," Lex jabbed his good arm towards the newspaper box behind Clark. "If the device triggered this - - it waited a good long time."

Not even a flicker of understanding crossed Clark's features.

"Look at the fucking newspaper, Clark. Look at the date."

Clark's head turned and he looked down, despite himself. Hesitated and looked closer, eyes widening blankly. He shook his head, like a quizzical dog, and tore the door off the front of the box, flung it like a missile launched Frisbee across the street where it lodged in the already abused stone facing of the old Daily Planet Building. He pulled out a copy and the paper, yellow and brittle crumbled around the edges under his big fingers.

"2012." he murmured. "Is this - - ? How - -?" He beetled his brows, cast a wary glance at Lex as if he'd engineered the whole thing. But then, the thought that Clark and Clark's alien tech had done the same had crossed Lex's mind.

"You tell me. It was your tech that did it."

Clark narrowed his eyes, paper fluttering out of his hands with a dry crinkle, half disintegrating as it hit ground. Clark was breathing hard, looking up at the shattered buildings as if he were trying to sort it all out in his head.

"This - - this happened four years in the future?"

"The initial event," Lex agreed on that point, grunting in pain as he untangled himself from the debris at the foot of the Planet globe. He shoved the gun, useless against steel skinned aliens, in his coat pocket. Until he could find a weapon that did have an effect, dialogue was his only effective defense.

"This," he touched gloved fingertips to the corroded green of the globe. "Didn't happen overnight. Look around. This is more than destruction. It's decay. If we've shifted through time, we've gone more than four years."

Clark's face twisted again, the expression of a boy fighting back emotion, before he grimaced and composed himself, a man gaining a handle on grief. The look he turned on Lex was not pleasant, but neither was it poised on the edge of homicidal. There were things going on behind those oh so expressive eyes that Lex dearly would have loved to know.

"I didn't do this," Clark finally stated, grim declaration.

"You think I did?"

"You set it in motion - -"

"I followed the clues left by your own fucking people."

"If I'd have been here - - I could have stopped this."

"God complex?" Lex canted his head and thought, that in another time, another place, he might have gotten some enjoyment out of this little exchange.

"Everyone's - -gone." Some of the boy crept back into that dull statement, some of the pain edged it way back to the forefront of Clark's eyes.

That bit of movement that had snagged at the corner of Lex's vision before Clark had hit him like a runaway train, caught his attention again. He caught his breath, hand edging back into his pocket to find the comforting grip of the gun.

"Not quite," Lex said softly, carefully backing away from the edge of the rubble and into the center of the street. Clark gaped, following his gaze to the figures creeping out of the shadows.

No insects these, but human figures. Apparently the human race hadn't been obliterated after all.


They crept out of the shadows, crouched low and wary, like hunters stalking dangerous prey. There was so much murk here now, in a city that used to shimmer in the sunlight, that it was hard for even Clark to see all the things that shifted in the shadows. But he thought there were a few more, lingering in the recesses of the building bordering the rubble. He could hear their heartbeats, rapid like the fluttering pulse of animals. Faster than Lex's speeding pulse. He didn't glance that way. Didn't want to look at Lex right now, with anger so fresh.

Clark flexed his hands, shaking off the fog the sight of that newspaper had left in his head, shaking off Lex-fueled resentment. He moved past Lex, past the Daily Planet Globe - - he hadn't really noticed it for what it was before, so intent on focusing his frustrations on Lex - - and looked up at the figures at the top of the heap.

Four of them that had ventured out of the shadows. Raggedly dressed and young, from what he could tell under a veneer of dirt smeared skin. They held weapons, spears that might once have been flagpoles filed sharp and deadly at the ends, jagged strips of metal lashed onto hatchet like grips, more sharp things hidden under clothing, strapped to limbs.

"Hey," Clark said and it wasn't hard to put hopeful earnestness in his voice, not when he'd feared all the world was dead save him and Lex. He spread his arms a little, a universal sign that he meant no harm, that he was unarmed.

They stared down, gaunt, grim faces. The boy in the front couldn't have been more than fourteen now that Clark got a good look, and some of the ones behind maybe even younger than that.

"This ain't a good place to be, less'n you're a 'venger with a death wish." The boy said, eyes too dark and cold for a kid his age.

"Why's that?" Lex asked, all smooth calm behind him.

The kids laughed a little in malicious amusement and the boy in front jerked his narrow chin in the direction of a looming skyscraper beyond the buildings on this street. "Don't you know nothing? They mostly sleep in the mornings, but you never know when one of them will get a bug and come out anyways. And they don't take kindly to folks sniffing 'round the L."

Lex's eyes drifted up the haze obscured bulk of the skyscraper in question and Clark's followed it. Things were so very different than they had been, it was hard to pinpoint where it was he stood. He'd found his way to Lex by zeroing in on his heartbeat, the distinctive rhythm of his life. He listened now, casting feelers towards that not so distant behemoth and heard the steady rhythm of bodies at rest. Expanded more and discovered that the city wasn't a mausoleum after all. They were few and far between, but there were the indications of life.

"Who are they?" Lex inquired.

"You guys live around here?" Clark asked almost simultaneously and exchanged a dark glare with Lex.

The kids laughed, the wariness evaporating somewhat under universal teenaged cheek. "What, you got the mind rot? I just told you nobody lives 'round here but the laughing man and the freaky deaks."

"Then why are you here?" Lex asked, picking his way through debris and to stand a few feet away from Clark.

The boy snorted, and started down the uneven slope, the other kids following in his wake. A girl and two boys. Bangles decorated their clothes and were woven in to their hair. Old, warped coins, pieces of colored glass. The boy in the lead wore a pair of ragged, much patched jeans that looked as though they might be older than Clark by a good span.

The others began to emerge from the shadows, a few of them laden with arms full of junk. "Because we ain't no fools," the boy declared, all youthful bravado. "They don't call me Slick for nothing. There ain't a freaky deak spawned that can catch me."

"That's good to know," Clark said slowly. The kid's head barely topped his shoulder and he was thin as a reed. They all were. "Its good to know you can take care of yourselves. How long have you been here?"

"What'd you mean?" the boy, Slick, wrinkled his brows in confusion.

"Has the city been this way since you were born?" Lex clarified. Lex always knew the right questions, even if he didn't always get the answers he was looking for.

"Sure," the kid nodded, back to cocky self-assurance. "Before most everybody was born, but I knows it better than most."

"Where's your family?" Clark asked.

"This is my family," the boy waved an arm at the mulling kids and they nodded in agreement.

"I mean your mom and dad."

Slick's eyes narrowed, his face turning mean. "What business is it of yours?'

Clark held up his hands again and floundered for an answer that wouldn't make these wary kids think he was stark raving mad. "I don't mean to pry. I just - - I'm not - - we're not from around here. I'm just trying to get my bearings and understand what happened."

Lex was uncharacteristically quiet, still staring up at the towering grey hulk of the looming skyscraper. It occurred to Clark that if the stone building across the street was the Daily Planet then the taller one beyond must be LuthorCorp. Stripped down to bare bones, but still the tallest structure left in the city.

"You nomads?" the boy asked. "Come in from the scrubs?"

Clark figured that was a better answer than the truth. At least one that was believable. The kids murmured in excitement, as if people existing outside of Metropolis were a novel idea.

"Do you know what happened to the city?" Lex asked.

"Boom, is what happened." Slick said airily, looking as if his patience with their questions had about run its course. They were strangers after all and there was no reason for these ragged kids to trust either of them.

"How long ago?" Lex pressed, blue eyes intent.

Slick shrugged, maybe not knowing. The girl behind him shifted a little nervously and looked from Lex to Clark from under ragged brown bangs. "Long time. Granny was here when it happened. She remembers. She tells tales of how it used to be."

"Can we talk to Granny?" Lex asked smiling at the girl, so much charm in his voice that she blinked and colored a little under the dirt. Clark ground his teeth.

She looked at Slick, who scowled a little, rightfully unsure of strange men asking large favors. But he cocked his head and relented.

"You're not freakers, so what do I care? Granny likes meeting new folks. But," A sly smile crossed his face. "If you're lookin' to take what's ours, or spyin' for the East Enders - - she'll know - - and your asses'll end up in the river with the rest of the bloat."

Slick started walking, using his homemade flag-pole spear as a walking stick as he picked his way down what had to be Temple Ave if they were on the Planet's east side. Clark had traveled up this street enough, mostly to see Chloe at the Planet, but sometimes up to LuthorCorp to confront Lex about something or talk to Lionel.

When Lionel had been alive - -

He cast another dark look Lex's way, but Lex wasn't paying him any heed, walking next to the girl, asking her soft questions. Drawing another innocent in, because he was so damned smooth and alluring to those that didn't know better.

Impossible to ignore the irritation, but easy to get it out of his immediate range of vision by speeding up his pace and moving to walk beside Slick. "So what are you guys doing around here, if it's so dangerous?"

Slick canted a look at him, gauging, then pulled out a pair of rusted scissors from a pouch at his hip. There were also a few tarnished pen casings and a corroded med-alert bracelet. Two of the boys trailing behind them carried what seemed to be a battered computer tower and a rusty file cabinet drawer overflowing with scavenged wire and chords, the rollers off chairs, and various other junk that no one in Clark's world would have done more than toss in the trash.

"Best stuff is here. A 'venger that knows where to look and ain't afraid to come up here during the day can find stuff that's mostly whole."

"Why is that, do you think?" Clark craned his neck to look up at the façade of what he thought might have been the old Seaborne building. A lot of the deco molding had been blasted off, but there were still signs of it here and there.

"Don't know. Just is. Things just held up better closer you get to the L."

"The L?"

Slick waved an arm back towards the area around the Planet and the shadowy bulk of LuthorCorp. Clark turned around, walked backwards for a few paces, narrowing his vision and scoping out details through the haze. A portion of the LuthorCorp roof had collapsed in on itself, taking most of the huge Logo with it. All that remained, perched haphazardly at the edge of the gaping crater into the building guts was the lone standing letter 'L'.

Clark shivered, and turned back around.

"Granny says," the girl walking next to Lex ventured softly. "That when the world ended - -it started there. Nobody knows the how or why. Least nobody here. The Laughing man, he might know. They say he was there too, that he's the last left of the Board. Course you might not survive the askin'."

"The board?" Lex asked.

The girl shook her head, looking spooked. The other kids did.

"You can ask Granny." Slick said, stepping up onto a narrow slab of fallen masonry and treading its length until he reached a place where the ground opened up.

There was barely a crevice, surrounded by piles of debris, that led down into darkness. A long piece of sidewalk had collapsed down, creating a ramp of sorts down into the darkness. The smell coming up wasn't pleasant. The city sewer or utility system.

The kids climbed down, handing off their scavenged treasures while the girl rooted around and came up with a hidden torch. She lit it with a worn looking, flip topped metal lighter that she pulled from a pouch like it was a holy artifact. Slick eyed it with ill-disguised envy as she put it carefully away.

"You live down there?" Lex hesitated at the lip of the path downward, lip curling faintly at the stench drifting up. The kids were already down, the last one looking back with a dirt smeared face.

"Nobody says you gotta come." The kid snarked, before disappearing into flickering shadows on the heels of his fellows.

Clark didn't particularly like the smell or the promise of the sludge that produced it, but he'd mucked through worse things. He moved around Lex, and made his way down without looking back. Lex could stay up there and fend for himself for all Clark cared. These kids would be better off without Lex skulking around injecting his subtle poison.

He kept an ear out regardless. Heard the sound of Lex descending - - the careful soft footfalls of a man who was trying to pick his way through unknown darkness. The light of the torch was fading up ahead as the kids lengthened their lead.

Clark had to bend his head to clear the rounded ceiling and there was standing water here and there, which made the footing slippery. Debris littered the ground as well, rubble, and trash and other more pungent things. Clark didn't have night vision, but his sight was still better than a human man's might be at discerning obstacles in the path. As mad as he'd been at Lex - - as mad as he was at him - - he couldn't check the instinctive concern.

"C'mon," Clark said gruffly and reached out to grasp Lex's arm, easier to hurry him along by guiding him around the crap on the floor than loose the kids altogether and end up floundering in pitch darkness.

"Don't touch me," Lex snapped, jerking his arm away. Clark let him, pressing his jaw in annoyance.

"Fine," Clark snapped back. "Stumble around in the dark."

There was a soft click and light blossomed forth, born of a very small, very powerful pen light in Lex's gloved hand. Face underlit, Lex gave Clark a sardonic arch of the brow, before brushing past him, carefully working his way through the accumulated debris down the sewage tunnel.

Clark glared a moment at his back, the gentle swish of long coat tails, then stomped along after.

The kids had trooped far ahead, holding no sympathy for strangers that hadn't the sense to keep up with them. They came to an intersecting tunnel, where the water was ankle deep, and there wasn't even the glimmer of the reflected torchlight to clue them which direction to follow. Lex hesitated at the center, lost and Clark canted his head, listening for the sound of footfalls. They echoed softly from the right.

"This way," he directed and sloshed down the path. The tunnel broadened a little here, as if it were designed for a heavier water flow, slanting a little. Sewage and drainage heading down to a low point where it might empty out into the river.

He slowed enough for Lex to catch up with him. It was wide enough to walk side by side, Lex's little light catching on piles of clogged trash. Lex's gait wasn't as smooth as it normally was. He wasn't so much limping, as favoring his left side. A lot. He was holding the hand with the penlight close to his body protectively.

It occurred to Clark that he'd hit him hard back there, when all he'd been able to see was red. When he'd been so damned sure that Lex had been responsible for - - everything. He wasn't so sure now. If it had started here, in Metropolis and not in the frozen arctic - - maybe kryptonian technology had had no bearing. Other than to rip him out of his own comfortable time and into this one.

Them. Lex too. Neither one of them had been there when this had happened. Four years into their future, God knew how many years in this present's past.

Still, he'd lost it with Lex and God only knew what portion of his brain had been holding back his full strength, because it hadn't been the thinking part.

"'m sorry," he muttered, "For hitting you."

And he was, grudgingly, because his parents - - the one's that had actually raised him - - had always taught him that to lose his cool and use his strength against normal people was like brandishing a weapon. No different than if he had a knife in his hand and used it to slice into somebody in a moment of anger - - and honestly, a knife was a lot less dangerous.

He was generally damned good at it, at confronting infuriating situations and keeping his cool, at checking a temper that admittedly tended to take after Jonathan Kent more than Martha. It was just nobody made him as crazy as Lex did.

But Lex had already been injured and even if he hadn't - - well there was no such thing as equal footing with Clark unless kryptonite or some other time bomb of Kryptonian origin were involved. No matter how much Clark wanted to - - to God, beat Lex until he was bloody or shake him till his teeth rattled in simple frustration - - breaking his neck in the process would be no less criminal than any of the things Lex had done. And he didn't want Lex dead. He'd already figured that out in the arctic snow when he'd thought just that.

Lex cast a glance at him, expression damned near impossible to read with the light cast in front of them. He didn't say anything, just slogged along, and that was fine with Clark. He'd gone after Lex in a red-tinged rage and Lex had gone after him, with cold calculating deliberation. Just because things evened out didn't mean he was willing to engage in small talk.

"If there was a war," Lex finally said, more like he was talking to himself than Clark. "It wasn't nuclear. If a strike were close enough to do the damage done here within the lifetime of someone still here, there'd still be enough residual radiation to make the city unlivable. None of these kids exhibit any signs of long term exposure or even the birth defects you'd expect from a parent's exposure. It wasn't nuclear."

He said it again, as if to concrete the idea inside his own head.

Clark stuffed his fingers in his jean pockets and thought about Smallville, and the cities beyond. Razed to ground, billions of tons of concrete and metal just - - reduced to powder. All but the densest pieces eaten away.

"DC is gone. New York. Everything in-between. "

Lex's eyes snapped back to him. He felt the intensity of the look through the murk.

"Nothing standing. Just - - leveled."

Silence. Just the sound of wet boots sloshing through stagnant water. Something dead and bloated floated ahead of them and Lex made a hissing sound of distaste and stepped up on the curved portion of the wall to avoid it. Clark did the same on the other side.

"My mom - - my mom was in DC." He tried to work it out in his own head. "But maybe not - - four years - - her term would have been up - - unless she ran again and got voted in again - - she'd have been home, if not - -" he trailed off. It didn't really matter. The results would have been the same wherever she'd been.

He felt it again, the wetness at the corners of his eyes. He lifted a hand and brushed it away in annoyance. Damned if he'd let Lex see him grieve.

Lex didn't ask for details, which was a surprise, because Lex loved his details. Lex always wanted to know the whys and wherefores - - and funny thing, here and now, Clark probably would have told him. Anything he asked, because really, what was the point in secrets anymore - - when there was nothing left to protect?

There was a light up ahead, sunlight, coming in through a big hole in the ceiling. The cave in that had caused it blocked off further passage through the tunnel, even though the water eased its way under the debris and carried on. The girl waited at the foot of the rubble, shifting impatiently. She beckoned as they emerged from the gloom of the sewer.

Lex flicked off his penlight and slipped it into one of the coat's inner pockets. God knew what else he had on him. A man trekking through the arctic towards the unknown would come prepared and Lex liked to think ahead under the most mundane of circumstances.

They followed the girl as she scampered up the incline. She was lithe and fast and moved like she'd been navigating mountains of debris all her life. Which of course, she probably had. Clark climbed up, bounding the last steep span between collapsed and solid ground. He held a hand down to Lex, who glared up, not appreciating the offer. But Lex was operating with one bad arm and a lot of deep bruising - - maybe worse. And no matter how badly he didn't want physical contact with the alien, Clark figured his choices were limited.

If looks could kill, Clark would have been incinerated on the spot, but Lex reached up with his right hand regardless. Clark grasped it, and pulled him up, one smooth motion, pulling back his hand as swiftly as Lex yanked his away.

Clark turned his attention to place they'd emerged. Back the way they'd come was a big mess of collapsed buildings, burned out carcasses of wicked looking beams and jagged canyons of rubble. It didn't look particularly traversable, which was why, he guessed the underground route had been taken. The buildings on the other side though were still partially intact. Not nearly as whole as those around LuthorCorp, but still standing. A lot of them were three or two sides shells, some of them blackened by fire, none of them particularly sound seeming. He could smell the river though. So they were on the north side of the city.

The kids were trooping down the street, and up ahead between a canyon formed by two toppled buildings were what seemed like barricades. A wall ten foot high of interwoven debris, crammed with shards of glass, lengths of twisted, sharpened metal, anything and everything that might slice a man up if he tried to climb it. The graffiti covered bulk of a city bus, a mish mash of armor plating covering the banks of windows on the outside had been rolled aside to allow Slick and his little band entry. The girl, along with Clark and Lex brought up the rear.

Not five steps past the barricade and they were surrounded by weapons, wielded by adults. Slick was talking up ahead with a woman. There was a lot of arm gesticulation and raised voices.

"It's very likely," Lex said dryly, staring at the sharp ends of the weapons leveled in their direction. "That Slick, overstated the degree of our welcome."

Clark looked past the hostile welcoming committee to the surrounding camp. It took up the space of a good city block, and there was a barricaded similar to this one at the far end of the street. It looked like some sort of vagrant settlement, tents and huts and shanties built on the sidewalks up against what was left of building fronts. Dwellings built out of all manner of scavenged material. A lot of the surrounding buildings were crumbling, facades blown away or open to the elements, the floors between stories collapsed in places, but there were signs of people living in them anyway.

A little ragtag city in the midst of a massive decimated one. Out of all the life that had thrived here in Metropolis, this was what remained. Hundreds of people, hustling about daily routine. Cook fires burned, traders hawked scavenged goods, kids ran rampart, the occasional dog yapping on their heels. Even a cat, lop eared and curious, perched atop the barricade bus and stared down at them regally. Little as it was, it was humanity and it gave him hope.

"You have to wonder what they're trying so hard to keep out," Lex commented and Clark twisted his head to look back at the barricade. Slick had said that the 'freaks' - -and Clark wasn't sure if that were the name of a rival group of survivors, or a more literal description - - lived in the area around LuthorCorp and the Daily Planet. He'd also mentioned "East Enders'. Were there turf wars here, with people fighting over what little remained in the city? He wondered what they found to eat here. From the perpetual murk that clung to the place he doubted a lot of plant life would thrive. Unless they were farming outside the expansive ring of rubble that had once been the suburbs of Metropolis. But that would be a long hike and he hadn't noticed anything resembling a cultivated field. But then he'd been focused on other things on the trip back to the city.

The woman Slick had been talking to strode over, the boy trailing sullenly. She was maybe in her thirties, not much taller than Slick but with that whip chord hardness of a woman intimately familiar with hard labor. Most everyone here had that same look. She had a scar under her right eye, and uptilted brown eyes. She looked like Slick. His mother maybe, or an older sister.

"He says you wondered in from out there. That right?" She waved an arm covered in earth-toned tattoos in an ambiguous half circle.

"That's right," Lex answered smoothly and she narrowed her eyes, looking him up and down, taking in clothes that had held up pretty well under the collapse of the fortress.

Other than the hole in the shoulder Lex looked like he might have just come in from a brisk walk through the country. Granted the outfit probably cost more than most people's cars - -but still. Clark looked a bit more dingy, with a jacket that had seen better days and a T-shirt - - worn thin to begin with - - that now sported a collection of rips and holes.

"Been a long, long time since any came in from the scrubs," she commented warily as if she didn't quite believe the claim. "Didn't think there were any left alive out there."

"We don't mean any harm," Clark tried to assure her. "Its just - - we've come a long way and - -" he looked around him helplessly at the shambles of the city. "This isn't what we expected to find."

"What did you expect?" She asked.

"Civilization," Lex said simply and Clark winced a little and what might very well be construed an insult.

The woman smiled thinly, thinking going on behind intelligent eyes. "You've got the remnants of it."

She squared her shoulders, apparently coming to a decision. "I'm Jane, this brat here is mine."

Slick scowled, but she ignored him waiting for them to do her the same favor she'd done them and offer names.

"Clark." Clark held out a hand, which she looked at with curious detachment and made no move to clasp. "Clark Kent."

"Clark. Clark Kent." She repeated, eyes traveling down his body, back up again with a faint cant of an eyebrow. She shifted her gaze to Lex.

"Lex," Lex said simply and didn't bother with the hand or the surname. "The boy said there was a woman who was here when this happened. Someone who remembered."

Jane scowled at him, then down at Slick. "Boy has a damned big mouth. And I'll slap it bloody if I hear you've been to the L again, hear me?" She raised her hand to back up the threat and the boy curled his lip in a snarl and backed away, muttering under his breath. She clenched the same hand into a fist when she turned back to Lex and Clark.

"Granny. Granny's who he spoke of. She was there." She jerked her head for them to follow and started walking. A few of the men followed, while others pushed the barricade bus back into place.

They reached their destination in short order. A canvas draped shanty up against the side of an old building. Jane motioned for them to wait and ducked inside, came out a few minutes later and beckoned.

"Be polite," she whispered. "Granny's got status, understand?"

Clark wasn't quite sure he did, but he hadn't been brought up to be anything other, especially in the presence of an old woman. Well, maybe not that old. Mid-sixties, with long, bead-woven grey hair that hadn't quite lost all of its original tones. Strands of brown shown through. Her eyes were bright and hazel and her clothing a collection of patched tie-dye. She sort of looked like a really old hippie in the middle of a particularly destitute commune.

She smiled at them, sitting on the bucket seat someone had ripped out of a car. There was a little brazier on a patchwork box table in front of her, some weak incense burning in it. A cat curled in her lap, tail twitching, eyes slitted just enough to keep an eye on them as they entered.

"Sit down. Sit down," She welcomed. There were some old, really natty looking sofa cushions, with splits in the cloth and foam stuffing showing through scattered around.

Clark plopped down without hesitation, fumbling to cross his legs Indian style to keep his boots from kicking the table.

"Long legs," the old woman remarked.

Clark shrugged, helpless to do anything about it, and smiled back at the old woman. Lex loomed over him, not so quick to take her up on the offer.

"Oh sit down," she chided. "Before you fall. I can feel your aches from here."

Lex lifted a brow, surprised. He'd been hiding it well since they'd reached this camp. Granny was sharp if she'd noticed a minute into his company. He eased himself down next to Clark, sat there, straight backed, one knee bent, the other curled under him, not so much a danger to the furniture as Clark.

"They say you know what happened here." Lex said without preamble, a sharp edge to his voice that hinted to Clark more than his body language just how much he did hurt.

Granny clucked her tongue. "Right down to it, huh? Not even a few idle pleasantries for an old woman to brighten her afternoon?"

"I'm sorry," Clark said. "Its been a long day and you're doing us a favor talking to us - - my name's Clark. His is - -"

"I know what his is." She cut him off, her smile fading a little as she looked at Lex. Lex stared back at her with that narrow eyed, gauging look he got when he was trying to suss a curiosity out in his head.

Clark figured Jane must have told her who they were when she'd slipped into the tent.

"We're not from around here," Clark said, hoping she wouldn't ask for details. Hoping he didn't have to start his association with these people - - the only people that might be left for him to associate with - - with lies.

"Aren't you?" she asked, stroking the tabby.

"Ahh - -" he floundered.

"Forgive him," Lex said dryly, with a glance Clark's way that held a hint of poison. "He's usually much more fluent with his lies. Neither of us are strangers, it's just been a long time."

Her smile came back, amused and she raised her voice to say. "They're not planning on slitting my throat, Jane-girl. You can go about your business."

There was the rustle outside of bodies moving.

"Like my own daughter," the old woman said. "Protective."

"Any other time, I'd be happy to indulge in a little small talk," Lex said. "But at the moment, I'm finding the need for a few basic facts more pressing."

"Were you here when it happened, ma'am?" Clark asked, trying to offset Lex's abruptness with his most earnest look.

"Oh, your mama taught you the manners, but who taught you to use those big eyes like that? You make a girl all fluttery inside." Granny chuckled and Clark felt his cheeks redden.

Lex rolled his eyes in impatience or simple irritation over the fact that people weren't jumping to fill his requests.

"There's nobody alive that was right there, when it happened." Granny said abruptly, all the humor gone from her face. "Those of us who survived were underground, shielded by lead- - concrete - - earth. Anybody above ground - - well, there were no bodies to bury, let me tell you. Almost wish there were rather than everyone just being gone. Lot of the ash still floating around up there - -maybe that's part of what's left. Who knows."

"God," Clark said softly, horrified all over again.

"How long ago?" Lex asked, hiding his own unease if he felt it.

"Fifty years, give or take."

Lex sat back, absorbing that.

"It took a long time for people to even get back to acting like they were people again," Granny said sadly. "A long time when those of us left didn't act much better than animals. Some still don't. Which is why those barricades you were wondering about are up out there."

Clark opened his mouth, shut it. Was she that good at reading people, or was it just a good guess that they'd questioned the need for the defenses around this little settlement?

"Was it a war?" Clark asked.

"Not of the type you think," Granny said, gaze on Lex, eyes all over him like she was trying to get under his skin. Lex didn't flinch from her gaze, met it with calculating blue eyes of his own.

"Lead and concrete. It was a cell," Granny said. "That's where I was when it happened. That's why I survived it. Me and a lot of others, right smack dab in the center when it happened, deep down under the L - -"

"Under the - - L?" Clark asked, trying to comprehend what she was saying. She'd been in a cell under LuthorCorp - -? Back when Lex had been waging his war against the meteor infected. Did that mean she was one of them?

"Don't you want to ask me why?" She leaned forward, reaching out a thin, wrinkled hand towards Lex.

He flinched back, avoiding it, the hint of something around the edges of his eyes that might have been distaste - -might have been fear.

Granny pulled her hand back, eyes gone dark and angry. "Didn't want me to touch you back then, either. Don't you remember, Lex? Don't you remember me? Course I was just a girl then. They didn't always call me Granny. I used to have another name. Used to have a home and a family. Used to go to school, but I didn't like it very much. Never being a pretty girl was bad enough, but when you know what they're thinking about you - - what they're feeling - - high school's not a nice place."

"Delia Rivers," Lex said softly, and Clark could hear his heart thundering beneath his ribs, but Lex managed to keep the calm in his voice, managed not to look as spooked as Clark felt. "You've changed."

"You haven't." The anger eased out of her face, she stroked the cat a few times, as if to calm herself.

"You were a meteor - -" Clark hesitated at the word 'freak', but sometimes it was just easier on the tongue than the more politically correct term that Chloe had taken to with a vengeance since she'd found out she was one of them.

"Freak," she finished for him. "The second Smallville meteor shower changed me. Like it did a lot of folk, I'd guess."

"He had you in 33.1," Clark surmised and cast a black glare at Lex. "Under LuthorCorp."

"No," Lex said, shaking his head as if he were trying to clear it of clinging fog. "There was never - - Not under LuthorCorp."

"Not while you were alive," Granny said, eyes never leaving Lex, keeping her cool even when his visibly faltered.

"What?" Clark said, floundering.

"And when did I die?" Lex asked, fighting for that same cool, but not able to shed the edge to his voice or the pallor of his skin. Shaken up, and badly if Clark were any judge.

Granny chewed her lip, thinking. "Oh, six months or so after we met. Just turned up missing one day - -Company was shy with the details, if I remember. Plane down on some oil scouting expedition - - or some such nonsense. But here you are now, huh? Long way from the cold north." She turned an odd little look on Clark, canting her head as if she were hearing things even he couldn't pick up. "Faster back than to."

He shivered at little at that. How had she known about the speed? Was she a mind reader? What else had she picked up about him?

"Four years before this happened?" Lex asked softly and she nodded.

Clark felt his stomach lurch, reminded again and painfully, that he'd been ripped out of his own timeline - - denied any chance of stopping whatever had happened - - and deposited here, after the fact. After it was too late. All those lives he could have saved - - gone, like so much dust.

"No," Granny said sadly, and leaned forward, placing her thin hand on the threadbare knee of his jeans. "Not as you were - - are."

He drew a shaky breath, staring at her stupidly, little prickles of unease rising all over his skin.

"You let the hounds loose," She shifted her gaze to Lex, colder. "And they followed your bidding. They built something terrible, to combat something worse - - and we all lost."

"Who were they?" Lex asked hoarsely. "What did they build? What were they fighting?"

"The Board. The bitch that headed it. Those that took power when you were gone. Don't know what it was they created, just that there were some that wished they hadn't. Don't know what they were fighting, not even sure they did. But then, those of us in the path of power, rarely know the motives that drive it? Us little folk, we just suffer the consequences. Easy to look at a few lost lives as statistics, isn't it? Harder when there's only a few lives left."

She was leaning forward, eyes boring into Lex's, picking up God knew what, if she was psychic. Maybe Lex figured the same, because his face hardened and he shot up. Not as graceful as he usually was, operating with a lot of aches and pains, but he gained his feet, stared down at the old woman who was staring placidly back up at him, then turned on his heel and stalked out of the tent.

Clark sat there afterwards, gaping. Feeling as if world-shattering things had just happened, when all that had really gone on was a conversation with an old woman in a rag tag tent.

"No," Granny said and he blinked at her. She scratched behind the cat's left ear and smiled. "Not mind reading - -per say. I don't hear what folks are thinking outright. Just get the gist of it. I get more of what's underneath. Empathic they called me, for lack of a better word, back when they were trying to see how I ticked."

He stared, not knowing what to say to someone who claimed they could read what he'd hidden beneath the lines. He had so many secrets, protected for so long.

"You were right," she said. "About destiny."

He blinked. She dipped her finger into a jar of water next to her and let it drip onto the back of her hand. The droplet slowly edged it way down between the knuckles of her index and forefinger.

"Its not handed down. Not pre set, no matter what some folk believe. Its like water, it takes the path of least resistance. Today it traveled this route. Tomorrow, " she dipped her finger again and let the droplet fall, but this time flexed her hand and it took a different route between two different knuckles. "It takes another. All depends on the man and the decisions he makes."

She wiped her hand on her skirt, then waved it at him. "Now go on, leave me to my meditations. These are good people here, they'll treat you well, if you're an honest man."


The air outside smelled of decay. Of human sweat and smoke and things cooking over open fires that he'd rather not think about. But still, getting out of that tent, out from under the eyes of an old woman that he recalled all too vividly being young, was like a breath of sweet fresh air.

Lex took a moment, shutting his eyes, letting the dizziness ease away and wondered if perhaps there had been more than incense burning in her battered little brazier.

He started walking. He had to. Had to move. The place shifted around him, ragged with life, with the remnants of civilization. His city reduced to this and he couldn't believe her when she said it was LuthorCorp tech that had had a hand in it. Refused to believe it when everything he'd strived towards had been to protect mankind.

She had reason enough to fuck with his head - - though fifty years and Armageddon seemed a long time to hold a grudge. A disturbed girl whose parents had welcomed the offer of help. She hadn't been mistreated. She hadn't been a danger to others and she hadn't had the power to harm - -just to unnerve and a generous settlement with her parents had given his researchers all the access they needed.

He'd seen her once, because he held an interest and some of the things she was able to do, to sense, bordered on more than the empathy that seemed her strongest gift. But he was rightfully wary of psychics and clairvoyants and she'd seemed to have a touch of both. She would have been catalogued and released - - harmless - - low-grade mutation - - should have been. He remembered the report crossing his desk.

His shoulder glanced off a passing man, and there was a growled complaint. Lex didn't look at him, couldn't quite focus on a face when there were too many other things crowding his mind. How much could she really know anyway, when she sat there flirting with Clark like he was nothing more than the wide-eyed Kansas farm boy he seemed from the outside? Any psychic worth her salt would have sensed the alien underneath - - sensed the threat. Instead she leveled accusations at Lex. Straight out lies, because he'd damned sure never had a holding facility anywhere near a publicly recognized LuthorCorp holding, much less under the corporate headquarters. Sheer stupidity to contemplate it, or a complete disregard for the fall out if word of it ever got out.

He sat down on a long slab of concrete, knees gone weak - - tired. Just so damned tired. There was a man across the clearing between shanties, with one arm gone at the shoulder, with horrendous scarring up the exposed flesh of his neck and the side of his face. A woman was arguing with him, gaunt and scarred herself. The people around them, scurrying, shuffling, sprawled in dark corners, striding about with obvious weapons and the battle scars to prove they'd used them in combat - -all of them scarred one way or another - - the lucky few that had survived.

The roof tops were crumbling, ragged silhouettes against a sky that looked like it ought to be hovering over some grim factory town so filled with the smog of industry that the sunlight hardy had the chance to pierce though.

Not over Metropolis. Not over fucking Metropolis.

Everything he'd done had been to protect this place - - places like it. That he'd had a hand in initiating it - - that anything he'd set in motion with his efforts had contributed to the wreckage the world had become was ludicrous. He knew there had been necessary evils - -he lived with the necessary evils - - but there'd been nothing that would have been the cause of this. Destruction from the mid-west to the east coast at the very least, if he could rely on Clark's account.

Rely on Clark. He couldn't. He knew in the rational part of his brain that anything out of Clark's mouth was likely a lie designed to protect the secret that wasn't anymore - - to disguise motives that Lex could only guess at. And yet, first instinct - - that instinct that radiated from the gut - - wanted to believe that Clark's devastation was real.

He ran a hand over his scalp, brought it back down to pinch the bridge of his nose. Leaned over his knees and sat there, blocking out the view of civilization on its last leg.

He'd changed his will after his father had no longer been a threat. He'd known there might be a chance after all, that he wouldn't come back from his confrontation with the Traveler. With Clark. With no heirs he'd cared to acknowledge, it would have all gone back into the company - - his personal holdings, his controlling stock - - into a trust dedicated to the pursuit of his goals, under the direction of people he knew had a vested interest. People who understood the threat. People he could trust as far as he trusted anyone.

As much as he wanted to believe no directive of his had precipitated what had happened - - it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that something, somewhere along the road had gone terribly wrong.

What could they have designed in four years time that could have been responsible for this? What had they developed it to use against if Clark was right here with him, absent from that past/future?

There was no reason to think anyone here would know. Even if Delia Rivers - - Granny - - could see her way into men's souls, it didn't mean a thing if the only men she'd encountered were guards and researchers. He'd been careful not to get too close to her for just that reason, wary that touch would stimulate the gift - - as it had with that other prophet who'd created scars without meaning when he'd been naïve enough to take things to heart.

But LuthorCorp plaza was still mostly intact and if the outer structure had survived then the vaults deep underground that had housed the company mainframes would most certainly have been shielded. Sealed and protected against the ravages of time as well as human interference. And there were back up systems to protect that oh so vital information that should still be viable. At least there should have been.

"Hey." The skinny kid who'd led them here was standing before him, slouch shouldered, with that perpetual sullen look on his face. "Jane said I should fetch you over for grub, since you're ignorant strangers and likely to starve 'till you figure out the way things go here."

Lex stared up at him and Slick's scowl deepened. Teenaged rebellion in the apocalypse was no less pronounced than it was any other time. "Don't much matter to me if you do," the kid muttered and turned on his heel.

Lex rose. "How do things go here?"

"Everybody pulls their weight that wants to eat. Some pull more than others."

The boy skirted around a raucous group of men around a tin can fire, drinking out of weathered bottles. The smell of strong alcohol permeated the air around them. Homemade brew most likely. Trust humanity to find a way to keep its vices alive and well.

"So what's so dangerous out there, that you people need to live behind barricades?"

Slick gave him a look that clearly said that was an idiotic question, but he answered anyway. "This is a good spot and there's other clans that'd move in given the chance. And 'vengers that don't have no 'legiances are always lookin' for the chance to take what ain't theirs. And then there're those that're just plain crazy, livin' out there alone, that'd kill you and gnaw on your bones as soon as look at you."

"And the freaks at the L?" Lex asked. "What about them?"

Slick drew his brows and he said shortly. "They roam downtown - - mostly."

"They're dangerous?"

"'Course they're dangerous. You stupid?"

Lex pushed down annoyance and fixed a placid look on his face. "Just ignorant of the facts. There's a difference. Tell me about the freaks?"

"They ain't normal." The boy snapped. "Some of 'em look it, but don't let it fool you. Some of the others - - ain't no mistaking them for normal folk. And they got it good up there, living in the L. They say there's whole rooms in there of food stuff intact from the old days, and other shit. A 'venger told me once that she saw lights from inside the L one night that weren't from no fire and heard music that sounded like something that come from Granny's day. So they must got some sort of power running."

Lex frowned. Power from the geo-thermal back ups and if they'd tapped into that and were diverting it away from the mainframes - - fuck. Just fuck. He needed to get in there somehow - - someway.

"So I take it, you kids are not supposed to be scavenging around there? Your mother seemed pretty upset."

Slick bristled, as Lex expected. "Jane don't tell me what to do. I ain't suckling at the tit no more that I need her rulin' my comin's and goin's."

Lex nodded, a little curl of design beginning to unfurl. "Mother's don't like to let go when their sons become men."

Slick's chest puffed out a bit, flattered despite himself by the comment. "Yeah, well. She likes the stuff I bring back well enough."

"Have you ever been in the L itself?"

The boy cast him a quick suspicious look, as if he feared Lex were gathering information to spread to Jane. "Maybe."

"It's a big building. There are probably a lot of ins and outs."

"Probably," the kid agreed warily.

"Maybe even ways in underground, through neighboring buildings," Lex suggested.

There were indeed, if those subterranean passages were still viable. Both the McNally building and the Daily Planet had connecting, emergency passages to LuthorCorp. His father had put in the former when he'd been constructing LuthorCorp tower. Lex had had the latter built after he'd acquired the newspaper. The merits of having more than one route of escape was one he'd learned the hard way, over the years.

"There's tunnels all over," Slick said with a sly look. "Some of 'em's safe to travel, some not."

"I'd bet you'd know, better than most."

"Damn right." Slick agreed vehemently.

They reached a gathering of people inside the three-sided shell of a gutted building, not too far, Lex thought, from where Granny's tent had been. Most of the building debris inside was long gone, either carted away or used in the construction of the shanty shacks that littered the remains of the city block within the barricade. There was still a confluence of junk. Everything from old mattresses and dilapidated sofas, useless appliances battered and rusting with age up against the walls. There were little dwellings all around the inside walls here as well, and a central fire pit around which lay slabs of concrete and chunks of masonry dragged in and used for benches.

Slick abandoned him at the edges, sauntering off to a group of kids, which may or may not have been the ones he'd been with when they'd found each other up by LuthorCorp.

There was a lot going on here, a lot of little cook fires in front of individual tents, a lot of people converging and talking, trading, passing on information. Lex strolled around he edges, taking it in. He saw a woman, at the far end, old and decrepit sitting out front of a tiny little shanty, overflowing with accumulated junk. She looked half blind and crippled, but she guarded the mess like it was gold.

Almost he walked on, but the glint of something in her bird's nest of trash caught his eye. An old cane, converted into a weapon maybe, though he doubted the crone had the strength to wield it. The top was fixed with sharp bits of metal and rock, but what snagged his attention was the glint of green stone. A jagged geode secured with wire to the business end of the stick. He'd seen enough of Smallville's own brand of meteor rock to know it when he passed it by and this was a fist-sized chunk.

A better weapon than the old woman would ever know, if wielded against the right individual. She bristled when he lingered, staring at her property, glaring at him with rheumy old eyes, and he moved on, making a mental note of the spot.

He worked his way back around the lot, to the gathering around the central fire and the smells of cooking flesh. The aroma was less than appealing, but his stomach growled regardless. How many days since he'd eaten? His appetite had been less than ideal on the trip to the fortress, shriveled by expectation and the nerves that went with it.

Familiar laughter caught his attention and he searched out the source. There was Clark, the object of fascination for a group of young children and a scraggly dog. The dog was running circles around Clark's legs and the kids - - which couldn't have been more than four or five were chasing it, absolutely fearless of the stranger in their midst. Absolutely oblivious to what it was they so carelessly toyed.

And Clark - - Lex balled his fists, that tension behind his eyes building again - - Clark's grin belied the anxiety and anger that had tightened his face earlier. Clark's unexpected laughter sounded nothing but honest, his eyes wide and amused as he turned circles following the passage of the dog. He prevented a child from tumbling face first on the ground, a big hand, capable of God knew what, latching onto a fragile shoulder. And the kid just laughed and caught her balance and kept on running.

And all Lex could see were the lies. Layers upon layer of lies; the flagrant ones the subtle ones, the ones of omission, the ones brandished like weapons, the ones that pierced to the heart and poisoned the wound thereafter. How could Clark's smile look so honest, his laugher sound so pure when there was nothing but deceit underneath? When he wasn't even human?

Emotion welled up, convoluted and incomprehensible and he had to shut his eyes and force it down, force himself back to the cold logic that he needed so badly to deal with Clark - - to protect himself from Clark.

He opened them up again, calm reasserted and found Clark staring at him, the lightness draining from his face, as if Lex were the monster here in the midst of unsuspecting humanity. As if Lex were the one to be feared.

Lex arched a brow, inclining his head in Clark's direction, thinking that last one just might be true, because he knew Clark's Achilles heel and he knew where to find it.

He moved towards the fire, ignoring Clark's glower, even if he were painfully aware of Clark's presence. The pit was more of a long trench, where the embers burned low and hot under a variety of jury-rigged grills and spits. There were things cooking that looked unsavory to say the least, small bodies that very well might be of the rodent variety spitted and charring over flames. Other things sizzled on racks, and he felt a vague curl of nausea when he realized they were insect - - very likely brethren of the large cockroaches he'd encountered on the way in.

He'd eaten worse things by necessity, but remembering the curdled insides of the bug he'd blown away did not encourage appetite. The rats looked more appealing. What he wouldn't give for something vegetarian. The only plus was the appalled look that crossed Clark's face as he wondered up to the fire pits and realized what was on for supper. Clark turned a bit pale at the prospect, which made Lex quite determined to man up and consume whatever gruesome tidbit was offered.

Besting Clark over the last few years had become somewhat of a challenge for him. Ridiculous of course, if he looked at it rationally, for him to feel the need to compete with a Kansas farm boy - - well, Kansas farm boy/alien invader - - but he couldn't shake the need to take Clark down a peg, to crack that infuriating armor of self-righteousness - - to make him hurt. Because pain given demanded a return and Lex paid his debts.

It was easy to forget Clark was anything but human, emotion mirrored on his face like a guidebook to his heart. Lex watched him, surreptitiously this time from under hooded eyes, as Clark mingled with Slick and his cronies, asking maybe about the nature of what grilled over the fires, maybe just engaging in the sort of small talk that a teenager might appreciate, Clark being not that many years from one himself. And even Slick, sullen and uncommunicative as he was, seemed at ease with Clark's towering presence. Even here, Clark drew people in like a magnet, garnered their trust like he wore some sort of badge of virtue on his chest. Lex tried to find a flaw, a crack in the façade, but there were none to be found. Broad shoulders, perfect face, sun-kissed skin peaking out from the tears in his t-shirt - - and maybe that was the tell. The only flaw was in the perfection.

He was torn from his observation by a chunk of something thrust at him. It was the girl, the one from Slick's little gang, offering some of the grilled cockroach in what looked like a section of the chitinous shell. He swallowed, accepting it with a nod, forcing a smile that he hoped concealed just how very much he wasn't looking forward to eating roach. He needed what allies he could find in this place. She blushed and scurried away, embarrassed.

He looked down at the food. The meat had solidified somewhat from cooking, charred around the edges. His stomach rumbled even as his mind rebelled. His last meal had been dry rations in a tent on the arctic tundra. He found a place to sit, an overturned wooden box against the wall and worked up the nerve to pick at the meat. It was no less terrible than he expected, but it was needful, so he forced it down.

He found water in a communal barrel and god knew what it was tainted with, but he needed to wash the taste of roach from his mouth. Surprisingly enough it tasted fresh, like rainwater.

"All things considered, it wasn't half bad." Clark appeared out of the gathering beside the water barrel, that same wary tenseness on his face. Lex wondered why he'd bothered to say anything at all - - what he was trying to gain, for they were certainly beyond affable conversation.

"Really? What planet are you from?" Lex asked humorlessly and Clark's expression darkened. And the scowl was so much more familiar nowadays than the easy smile. Easier to deal with.

"Do you even need to eat or is that just a front to make you blend in?"

"You're a son of a bitch," Clark growled under his breath and Lex fell more smoothly into stride.

"Because I'm curious? That's a harsh assumption. Who wouldn't be? Didn't Lana ask you the basic questions when she found out she was sleeping with something not human? Did you call her a bitch for it?"

"Don't," Clark said warningly. "Talk about Lana."

Ah, the Lana card. It never failed to throw Clark off his game and Lex had no doubts whatsoever there was nothing feigned about that emotional baggage. If there was a creature in the universe capable of faking the turmoil Clark had evidenced throughout his years of tragic pursuit of Lana Lang, Lex doubted it would have an interest in the human race's feeble machinations.

"Why not? She's long dead. She was halfway there before we took this little trip through time."

"She wasn't." Clark's eyes flicked away, something raw and painful flickering in the green.

"She woke up," Clark finished, softer and that was news to Lex, but then he'd been rather preoccupied that last week before he'd headed off to find Clark's fortress.

Lex said nothing, because Clark's innate stubbornness, his ingrained reflex to lie would kick in at a prompt, but like most of the human beings he emulated, the need to fill a silence tended to overcome caution.

"It was Brianiac that did it to her. When I killed him, she just woke up. Chloe too."

Chloe? He hadn't known about Chloe either. He'd been seriously out of the loop those last days. He'd damn well known Lana's illness had been of alien origin though, despite Clark's claims of ignorance. Clark hadn't done it. If he believed anything, he believed Clark would cut his own throat to protect Lana. But to accept that Milton Fine was responsible, that Milton Fine had indeed been back in circulation, would be to admit the possibility that he'd been used, a gambit in some alien game between Clark and the construct.

"Why didn't you tell me that?" Lex asked, willing to play on Clark's little bout of admission, even if he wasn't willing to accept it all as gospel. "It might have saved us all a lot of trouble. I knew what he was, so it wouldn't have even threatened your secret."

"Right. Like me opening that can of worms wouldn't have blown up in my face. You being so open minded." He sounded no less sullen than the teenaged boy standing across the yard. He pouted prettier.

"I am open minded," Lex dragged his eyes from Clark's mouth to his eyes. It was a strain to keep the cool in his voice. "And how would you know since you've never attempted to explain anything to me?"

"Like it would have made a difference? If you're so tolerant why didn't you take a minute and try and talk to me - - you know, come up and ask right out if I had plans to destroy life as we know it before you rushed right in and tried to use that - - whatever that thing was - - on me?"

Clark's color was high with indignity, eyes bright with it. Sanctimonious, hypocritical prick. The cool faltered, eaten away by Clark's unique ability to get under his skin.

"Talk to you? You've had seven fucking years to explain yourself to me and haven't done more than spout lie after lie. Why should I have expected anything different."

"Explain myself to you?" Clark threw out his arms in exasperation, voice raised in disbelief. People were looking at them, wary of the possible craziness strangers had brought into their midst. "What makes you think I had any obligation to explain any thing to you? Are you like the end all authority on alien relocation and nobody told me?"

And really, Clark needed to keep his voice down if he were going to bellow that sort of information. Clark had gone all his life sheltering that secret and here he was spilling hints of it in a place where their welcome was shaky to begin with. Which served only to raise Lex's level of agitation, dislodging certain weaknesses better left firmly entrenched behind impartiality.

"I was your friend," he spat back, low voiced. "And I had a goddamned vested interest."

"Yeah, well, with friendship like yours . . ." Clark retorted and stomped off like a child in a snit.

"I would have helped you," Lex couldn't let it go and stalked after, eeling his way through ragged people who parted for Clark, who stood taller than anyone Lex had seen here, and closed back around to stare at his back and impede Lex's forward momentum. "If you'd just given me a fucking chance."

"Right," Clark shot back over his shoulder. "Because you're such a humanitarian. Just ask any of the freaks who've been kidnapped right off the street and detained and experimented on. Why would I be any different? If you never gave a shit about a fellow human's right to life and liberty - -why should you care about an alien's?" Clark spat the word like it was distasteful to him - - like he hated using it in conjunction with himself. And God knew people had to have heard that proclamation. Fucking idiot.

Clark made him see red. Clark knew the harm those people altered by the meteor rocks had been capable of and he'd ignored it unless it had been right in his face wrecking havoc. Clark made him so angry he wanted to find something whole in this damaged place and shatter it. He wanted to shatter Clark. Lex had a dozen legitimate reasons all mapped out in his head - - a dozen dozen justifications for the need to be proactive with meteor- infected subjects. And not one of those sensible, reasonable defenses slipped past his lips. Not a fucking one. What got driven out, by frustration and anger was so much less rational.

"You were different because I love you." He realized the mistake the moment it slipped past his lips. He knew what Clark was. He knew what Clark was capable of - -he knew he was the one man destined to stop it - - he knew all of that and it still didn't change the fact that Clark mattered.

"Past tense." He clarified, because he didn't need that blaring weak spot hovering over his head.

But Clark had already stopped, eyes flashing, that fetching high color still gracing his cheeks, and glared at Lex like he'd just finished stomping a litter of kittens. For a long moment, Clark just stared, breath hard and fast, so much jumbled emotion in his eyes it was impossible to tell what was dominant.

He shook his head finally and growled. "Then God help me, because the things you love don't have a very good track record, do they Lex?"

This time when he stomped away, Lex didn't follow. Just stood there in the midst of a bustling shantytown and let the indignation seep over him.

"Well fuck you, too." He said softly, clenching his fists. He turned, needing to move, to walk somewhere free of people. If he'd been in Metropolis the way it should have been, he'd have shed security and stalked around the manicured jogging path in Centennial park, or hopped into the fastest car he owned and pushed it to its limits on the long straight highways leading out from the city.

He felt eyes on him. Found the old woman - -Granny - -staring at him from a makeshift bench by the fires. A shiver traveled up his spine and he hated it, hated that Clark shook his resolve and this woman, who he remembered too clearly as a girl had the power to unsettle him so thoroughly. He hated this place, with its decrepit echoes of a past that never should have been. He hated not knowing what had caused it - - whether actions of his had had a hand.

But he'd find the truth. One way or another. If it killed him, he'd uncover the secrets that lay beneath the ruins of LuthorCorp.

 

 

 

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