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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 8

 

It took less time to get back down town than Lex remembered it taking traveling from it to the barricaded survivor's compound. But then, he'd been tired and more battered than he was now after a night's rest and frankly overwhelmed. He wasn't now.

It was amazing frankly, a testament to his own adaptability, that he could travel through this devastated city that had once been a shining beacon of wealth and human achievement and not feel the weight of despair.

Block after block of crumbling buildings, streets littered with debris and wreckage. And no life. No sound of human presence, no movement save for the fluttering of old cloth here or the scuttering of things better left to his imagination in the darkness of alleys and broken doorways.

Keeping up with Slick left him a little breathless. The boy was relentless in his passage, quick eyes darting here and there as if he expected things hiding in the shadows that Lex could only guess at.

"You see anybody up round the L, just run," Slick advised when they were close enough to see the jagged top of LuthorCorp past the rooftops of other buildings. "Ain't no fighting them that live in there and those they take don't ever come back again. Least not the same as they were."

Lex doubted that. A gun and a good aim could make quite a difference against the sort of weapons these people had been reduced to. He had a clip and half to deal with anyone that got in his way.

The front entrance to the Daily Planet was untraversable, the great bronze doors jammed beyond any hope of opening by the collapse of the stone jamb overhead. But there were easier ways in to a building where every pane of glass had been shattered.

The north side was a lost cause, the rubble of a neighboring building rising above the second story, but the sidewalk windows that used to let muted light into the basement on the west side were dark portals into the guts of the building.

"Been in there," the boy said quietly. "Not much left that anybody'd want."

Lex pulled his penlight out and flashed light into the darkness below, wary of oversized insects as much as missing floors and deadly drops.

"Where'd you get one o'those that works?" Slick whispered. "That's better'n the lighter."

"Too bad. You made your deal," Lex said softly and slid in through the window, dropping six feet to the debris littered floor of what might have been the basement archives. Shelving was toppled, brittle contents scattered like confetti on the floor. The air was heavy with the smell of rust and mold, the basement no doubt prone to gathering runoff from rainwater when the storms so prevalent to the Midwest blew through.

He weeded his way through the mess, Slick following in his wake. The basement offices were down the hall, across from the elevators - - shattered desks, wrecked equipment, the ceiling half collapsed - - carnage in a place where a week before he'd passed through and seen the controlled chaos of a working newsroom. That stopped him for a second, a sudden sense of displacement. Of the world being skewed beyond rational.

He took a breath and pushed it back, trudging on ahead. There would be a service stairwell at the end of the hall leading down to the underbelly of the building. From there private access to the passage leading under the street to LuthorCorp.

The stairwell door was off its hinges and plain concrete stairs with paint chipped metal handrails led down into darkness. The penlight, powerful as it was, did little to illuminate more than the immediate area.

"Ain't no good thing poking 'round in the pitch dark," Slick complained, voice a reedy whisper. Lex ignored him, concentrating on picking his way down the stairs. The debris down here was limited. The underground places the most shielded from whatever had wrecked havoc above. The last time he'd been here hum of the machinery that ran at the heart of the old building had permeated the air. It was all silent and cold now.

The private passage would be past the main boiler to the north. Slick kicked a pipe dislodged from the array in the ceiling and it clattered, echoing in this huge, dead place. Something skittered in the darkness, roused by the sound and Lex silently swore. But the sound subsided and no sibilant rush of a hundred insect legs followed. He let his breath out, relaxing his grip on the gun, and moved on.

He found the doorway to the connecting passage, but the electronic lock was long dead, so opening it was a matter of brute force. He broke the door handle off with a fire extinguisher still neatly attached to its hook near the door, and with the boy's help, found a metal bar to pry it the rest of the way open. The shoulder screamed bloody murder at the effort, but it was overshadowed by the warm thrill of victory.

Almost there. The tunnel would feed out into LuthorCorp sub 1. The mainframes would be two levels below that, but if he were lucky - - God, let the luck flow a little in his direction - - the same backup power that would be keeping them functional would feed into the base security system that secured the stairwell doors and a man with a master code and a keycard would find access. Otherwise he'd be fucked, because those doors would take more than a crowbar and a block of metal to break open.

The connecting tunnel was a long stretch of utilitarian concrete. Ceiling light panels had been shaken loose, and littered the floor. Shattered fluorescents crunched under their feet. There was accumulated trash against the walls, which meant there was a break somewhere that had allowed the wind and time to carry it in. He saw it not far ahead, wan light coming in from a narrow fissure where the ceiling and half of one wall had collapsed inwards from the weight of the street above, almost blocking the tunnel, but not so much that a determined man who wasn't too broad might not clamber over the rubble and slide down the other side. If Clark could have made that opening, it would have been a tight squeeze.

There was more debris over here. A surprising amount of it. Old papers and cardboard, a old coin operated public telephone, pieces of decorative stonework and tin plated advertisements with faded artwork, broken light fixtures and fragments of mosaic tile, piles of time yellowed magazines, and shards of what looked to be the remnants of some ornate chandelier. An odd collection to have ended up gathered so haphazardly here.

They boy snatched up a few pieces of ornamental glass, stuffing them in the pouch at his belt, and toed around in the rest for more treasure. Lex moved on, passing another large mound of rubble and trash, light flashing ahead down to where the tunnel darkened again.

Something shifted. The rustle of paper and he heard the boy's intake of breath. He swung the penlight back around, caught the movement of the rubble shifting, not settling but rising up.

And up, crowding the tunnel ceiling. Impossibly tall, impossible broad and the light only caught a fraction of it - - a man-like shape, only wrong somehow and huge. A rumbling growl echoed from a chest the width of a Volkswagen Beetle. Small head perched upon a sloping neck with tufts of hair sticking out like a child who'd attempted to give himself a haircut and ended up horribly botching the job.

The boy let out a little yelp of fright and scrambled backwards and the noise and the sudden movement spurred the huge thing into action. It roared, a deafening sound in this closed space and lurched forward swinging a fist larger than the proverbial ham towards the fleeing boy.

Lex flung himself backwards against the wall, heart in his throat, grabbing after the gun in the sort of instinctive panic that overshadowed reason. He fired twice, not even knowing what it was he shot at, but it was impossible to miss with the thing filling so much of the space. It bellowed in pain or anger, trashing violently, thumping against the tunnel ceiling in its movement, and the already fractured area began to splinter.

The boy was clambering up the pile of rubble blocking the route behind them, squirming through the space that he and Lex had cleared. It was the smart route of escape. There was no chance of this behemoth following in their wake, but still - - Lex hesitated a fraction of a second, longing after the secrets buried in the depths of LuthorCorp. The bite of loss so bitter it tasted like blood in his mouth.

A fist smashed down towards him and he was marginally quicker than the thing delivering the blow. He dove to the side, hit the floor and rolled, putting more bullets into the thing.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Until the gun clicked empty and there was nothing to do but desperately clamber backwards as it lunged at him.

It reared up, head and shoulders smacking into the ceiling with stunning force, and this time it did more than splinter. It slumped to one knee, maybe having stunned itself more thoroughly than the impact of bullets to the body, and chunks of cement loosened and rained down. Lex curled to the side, protecting his head. As the sky fell he had momentary lurid memories of the last time the ceiling had collapsed upon him - - huge chunks of crystal falling from incredible heights - - of pain the darkness that followed - - but this time light flooded down instead of oblivion and illuminated a path to escape.

The landslide of rubble led upwards, past tangled pipes and asphalt to the street above. He saw the boy's startled face on the other side of the debris, before the kid scrambled up, clawing his way to freedom.

Lex took a precious second to stare at the giant in the newfound light. The thing - -man, he supposed - - was still up right despite at least six slugs in his body. There were little trickles of blood here and there on a chest the color of mottled tapioca. It raised its head and small, dark eyes glared out of him from under a pronounced brow that sloped back into a malformed skull. There was what looked to be a brand on the broad plane of chest that was disturbingly familiar. Almost it could have been the LuthorCorp logo. Distinctive L with a smaller, box like C nestled within the angle.

Lex drew in a shuddery breath, a sick, tremulous feeling coiling in his gut. He didn't want to think what a half human thing with the company logo meant branded into its flesh meant - - he couldn't take the time to hash out the possibilities.

The man-thing drew back his thick lips and snarled doglike, before gathering himself to rise. Lex swore, pocketing the gun and the penlight and began his own scramble up the rubble mountain towards the street. He tore his hands in the process, but the sting of that was distant, overwhelmed by rushing adrenalin.

"That's one o'them! That's one o'them!!" Slick was screaming at him, waiting up top, bouncing from foot to foot, flushed with excitement now that he'd escaped the heavy fist of death. "Run."

It wasn't a bad notion. Lex could hear the rubble shifting as the thing below tried to climb up after them. He started after the boy, reaching into an inside pocket as he did for the extra clip. Snapped it into place, a fraction of a second before something impacted with him from above.

 


Clark went home again.

Sat on a weathered old rock that had thrust up out of the earth at the edge of the front pasture for as long as he could remember. Whatever had razed the rest had left the stone untouched. Still smooth and lichen covered on the underside where the sun couldn't reach.

He'd done his crying, but grief would be a more durable companion. He knew from experience how long it took for the pain to fade into something tolerable - - something that sat old and familiar at the edges of the heart.

Get used to it, Kara had said. They'll all die while we live on. It's the way things are. Jon had said the same thing and they'd both shaken him with the plain statement of truth. He hadn't wanted to accept it for what it was, but the practical part of him realized that mortality was yet another of those things that made him different from the human race. But knowing the cold facts and living them were two very different things when you thought you'd have forty or fifty years to get used to the idea of loss. Having them there before you shut your eyes and gone when you reopened them was another thing altogether.

He'd never entirely understood Lana's ritual forays to her parent's graveside - - dead was dead, after all and there was nothing in the ground but bones that held no ghosts of the people they'd been. But he'd commiserated, because she'd believed and he'd wanted very badly into her good graces. Even after his father had died - - he'd only ventured to the gravesite a few times with his mother to place flowers on ritual days. But he hadn't felt that connection. Hadn't felt anything but lonely in the old, weather worn Smallville cemetery. He felt his connections when he went home and fiddled with the old tractor that had been the bane of his father's farming existence, or lit a fire in the hearth that his father had rebuilt stone by stone after the second Smallville meteor shower. Those were the things that made him remember.

But none of those things were here now. Not even a scrap of rusty tractor metal - - so maybe he could understand a little better what Lana, who'd had nothing physical left of her parents, had gained from sitting by a cold chunk of granite.

Sometimes not everything could be carried in the heart. Sometimes people needed more corporeal reminders.

So he built a memorial. A thing to mark the memories of lives lived out here - - of happy times. Of friendship and dreams and love all stolen in what seemed the blink of an eye.

He spent the night crafting it, using stone from the old Miller quarry outside town, hewing out the slabs that were manageable enough to carry back to the farm. At first he thought cross. A big stone cross sunk into the ground, a grim reminder of the past.

But then, his folks had never been avid churchgoers. Oh, they'd had faith, but they'd practiced it in everyday things. A cross was too much like a headstone and he didn't want this place to be a graveyard, he wanted it to be an acknowledgement of their existence. Mom, Lana, Chloe, Lois, Dad, everyone this place held memories of. Everyone who'd lived in town who'd never hadn't a proper clue what it was that had brought such disruption to their sleepy rural lives.

So he came up with something simpler, something that thrust up out of the earth where the barn had stood and grew into a towering monolith, because it was never quite good enough or big enough to fill the empty space inside.

He spent the night at it, tirelessly moving stone, stacking it in the configuration he wanted, until it stood taller than the windmill that had graced the field beyond the barn, broad at the bottom and narrowing out at the top, melded together with heat vision.

He thought about carving names into the stone, but there were so many people lost that it seemed unfair to only name his chosen few. He sat for a long time afterwards, when the sun had started its slow rise on the horizon and stared up, searching for some inscription that might do justice to the things his creation represented. He couldn't find the right words.

Maybe exhaustion had robbed him of eloquence. Maybe he'd never had any to start with - - not like Chloe or mom, who always knew the right thing to say. Or Lex, who was never at a loss for words. Maybe it would come to him later when he wasn't feeling quite so numb - - he had time after all.

He sat for a long time after, listening to the sound of the wind, of grass rustling, of insect life crawling among the blades, of larger things creeping at the edges of thicket. It was good to know that those things had survived. Good to know that life, however humble it might be, still thrived.

A breath and he rose, dusting off hands on the front of his jeans. He slipped his jacket back on and looked west in the direction of Metropolis. He'd left last night sick with despair - - had needed to get away from what had become of humanity - - to get away from Lex-born turmoil - -but it had been a cowardly act. He could set up all the shrines he wanted in desolate places, but the place he needed to concentrate his energy was there, where humanity strived with no less determination than the ants building cities of their own out in the field.

It took him a handful of seconds to reach Metropolis, to navigate the ruins of the city and hop the jury-rigged barricade into the compound. People moved about early morning activity, none the wiser. He moved among the people, not having a particular destination now that he was back here. Instinctively he searched for that one familiar face. Caught himself searching out a smooth bald head and black clad shoulders and had to stop and question why Lex rated a place at the top of the concern chart. Familiarity. You clung to what you knew and the only thing he knew in this place was Lex. And in that vein of thought - - where the hell was he?


Gleaming yellow eyes. That was the only thing Lex saw clearly before the breath was knocked out of him from impact with the asphalt. That and a snaking swirl of dreadlocked hair before the thing that had hit him was lashing out, a glint of unnaturally long nails in the wan light and Lex felt the sear of scored skin after the fact.

It was female - - he got that when he reached up to try and block the rake of those nails and got a good view of a pair of barely covered breasts. She wasn't particularly articulate, snarling and growling with teeth that had been filed to points - - or formed that way naturally or unnaturally depending on the state of her mutation. And she was a mutant. The eyes gave it away. All gold with slits of black running vertical up the center like a cat. It felt like he'd been raked by animal claws. His neck was bleeding, he could feel the sting, accompanied by the trickle of warm wetness.

He got the gun up, right handed, and fired and she screamed and rolled backwards off him, coming to a crouch a few yards away, staring down with shock at the bleeding bullet hole above her hip. His aim sucked with that hand.

"Toys," she hissed, able to speak after all. "You've got toys."

He aimed the gun at her, gaining his feet with effort, transferring the weapon to the left hand and lifting the right to the wounds she'd made on his neck. Three long slashes that were bleeding, but not so copiously that the big vein had been compromised.

"Fuck with us, I'll tear your guts out and eat them," she snarled, shifting from foot to foot in her crouch, hand to the bullet wound in her side, though if the pain of it were effecting her, she didn't show it. He could shoot her again, point blank in the head and solve the particular problem she represented. It would be the smart move and he was a stickler for tying up loose ends. Especially the ones that threatened painful deaths.

He couldn't do it, not staring her in the face, and he cursed himself silently for the weakness. He started backing away, concentrating on keeping his gun hand from trembling. No good to show her just how badly shaken he was, though if she had half the feline instincts she looked to have, she'd sense it.

The boy was moving behind him, backing away cautiously, but Lex didn't spare the attention to actually look at him.

"I know where you live, little boy," the woman crowed, seeing him too, bringing a hand up to lick at the blood. "Know who's pack you run with. Look for me and mine one night."

He heard the boy cursing softly behind him, and rethought the notion of putting a bullet through her skull. Got a bead on her head and paused, seeing the edge of a brand peeking out from behind the cloth covering her breast. The same mark that had been on the giant. LuthorCorp logo. He ought to know it when he saw it and this one was clearer than the big man's had been, cleaner around the edges.

"Might not wait that long," she giggled and her eyes shifted beyond Lex to the right a heartbeat before the crumbling wall next to the boy exploded outwards and the giant crashed through. Lex hissed and back peddled, aim wavering between the cat woman and the frothing giant.

Slick screamed and tried to scramble away but a backhanded swing from the behemoth sent him flying. He hit a pile of rubble twenty feet distant and crumpled, motionless. Dead maybe from the force that huge fist.

The woman was screeching gibberish, curses, incoherencies, commands maybe that the giant might understand but Lex made no sense of past the pounding rush of blood in his head. He could waste the rest of his rounds or he could run - - even if the boy was alive, it would serve no purpose for them both to fall prey to creatures with an unnaturally high tolerance for bullets. He regretted the boy, but he wouldn't uselessly sacrifice himself for a kid that had known the dangers better than Lex going in. Not when there wasn't a chance in hell of making a quick escape with a hundred and thirty pounds of dead weight past the onrushing wall of muscle and flesh. He wasn't Goddamned Clark Kent.

The giant scooped up two huge handfuls of rubble and Lex swore and turned to run as he flung them. Concrete and rock and dust hit him like shrapnel and he tumbled down, back stinging, behind the temporary shelter of an overturned street vendor's cart.

He couldn't breathe, air propelled out of his lungs at the multiple blows. Stars danced precariously at the edges of his vision. He scrambled backwards, gasping, gun in both hands as the shadow of the giant blocked the bleak morning light.

"Don't kill him quick. Don't kill him quick," the woman was screaming, voice a tinny echo in the midst of all the other ringing in his head.

Fuck.

The giant tossed away the old vendor's cart with a sweep of his hand. Loomed over, reaching down with those same huge hands and Lex ground his teeth and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet might or might not have hit. Hard to tell really when the giant was grabbing for him one second and crashing into the side of the Daily Planet across the street, the next, propelled there by a streak of blue that had come out of nowhere.

Clark. Just there thirty feet away, in T-shirt and jeans, and clenched fists as he stood in the cloud of dust the giant's impact into the wall had made.

"Go," Clark said, not tearing his eyes away from the behemoth as it rose, loosened stone falling down on its head and shoulders as it pushed itself away from the building. If Clark had noticed the boy, he made no sign of it. When he did, if the boy was dead, there was going to be hell to pay.

The woman crouched in the shadow of the alley, teeth bared, fingers curled into claws, blood from the bullet wound staining the short sarong around her hips. He could warn Clark to her presence, but then he doubted she'd be able to make much of a dent in him and honestly, Clark might be as much a danger to him, if he cast the blame for the boy's death at his feet. Clark might not be the only one, if word of this got back to Slick's tribe. So the longer Clark was distracted, the better.

Lex pushed himself up, knees watery, various places on his body throbbing with hurt. The giant lunged towards Clark, huge fist arced back in a powerful swing. Clark caught the fist in both hands, staggering backwards from the impact, but amazingly enough, keeping his feet. Pushing back himself - - a test of strength - - and shoving the giant backwards again through one of the posts between empty windows on the ground floor of the planet building. More stone collapsed, more dust blossomed and Clark followed the giant through the new entryway he'd made. Which left the woman, but her attention was focused on the fight.

A tremendous crash from inside and almost it seemed the building shook, but that was probably nerves on his part.

Lex took a breath and retreated. He thought he remembered the way - - hoped he remembered it, or he'd be stuck wondering the city for hours trying to find his way back. If back was the logical choice considering he'd left in the company of one of their own and come back alone. The mother had some pull in this new society, he thought, and she'd be pissed. He could pull the ignorance card - - come up with a story that placed him in the role of naïve stranger that had trusted a boy when he'd claimed a trip back to the L would offer little enough threat. Which honestly, was not entirely far fetched. But then he'd have to explain what he wanted there and damned if he needed to get into that with the descendants of a world LuthorCorp may or may not have had a hand in the destruction of.

And then there was Clark. Who he'd known had inhuman speeds and now proved he was more than a match strength wise for a behemoth three times his size. And Clark had a tendency to get violent when innocent lives were lost. And Clark would blame him no matter what story he told. He might talk his way out of this with those people but Clark would be a problem. And he had no defense against Clark - - the gun less than useless. But there was something . . .

He reached the hole in the street leading down to the sewer passage and scrambled down, trading the gun for the penlight and splashing through ankle high water at a jog.

The old woman sitting in her little tent amidst her piles of accumulated junk, among which was a homemade staff with a chunk of meteor rock lashed onto the head. That offered a defense against a Kryptonian. Their home is their weakness. But he'd known that one way or another since the second time he'd met Clark, strung up half naked in a Kansas cornfield, a chunk of green rock dangling from his neck. He just hadn't understood why or had the sense to put two and two together when the numbers were right there in front of his face.

He knew now and had no qualms taking advantage of the information. He had everything to lose if he didn't. It was just a matter of getting back to the compound before Clark and getting his hands on that rock.


Clark had gone up against the occasional very large opponent, but this guy was beyond huge. Eight and a half feet, maybe more and almost half that at the shoulders, arms bigger than Clark's legs, fists just ridiculously massive. But the head was relatively small and there was the look to the bone structure almost of a Down's child - - the expression in the eyes of someone who was lacking that normal adult spark of intelligence.

It made Clark pull his punch, when he followed the big man into the building - - seeing that stunned look of incomprehension in small dark eyes. A mistake, because his opponent had no qualms about attacking him and there was nothing slow about his physical reactions.

A big foot kicked out from the pile of rubble the giant had landed in and slammed into Clark's legs. His feet skidded out from under him and he landed on his ass on the rubble strewn floor of - - god, he recognized it for what it was now - - the Daily Planet lobby.

It was shock, how strong it was. Even an unnaturally large human ought to have proportionate human strength. This man didn't have the sheer devastating power of say - - another Kryptonian - - but it was stronger than anything Clark had encountered that wasn't of alien origin.

It was on him, driving a fist down at his face and he took the blow, distracted by a sliver of movement in the shadows at the inside of the expanded hole he'd made in the side of the building. There was another one, skulking about in the dust-filled gloom.

He didn't have the chance to look, busy taking a fist in the face. He felt it. Felt the marble-flooring buckle under the force of his skull being driven down into it. A human head would have been reduced to a smear on the floor. It hurt just enough to drive home the realization that he'd walked into something harder to handle than he'd originally thought. He'd come looking for Lex figuring there was nothing here that could hurt him - - discovering there was - - turned this into a very different ball game.

"Wait. Wait! Who are you?" Clark caught the fist on its second trip down, needing to know if this man/thing was human or something with a more distant origin. God knew it was possible.

But the giant just roared in frustration at him, finding its strength stymied, and drove the other fist down. Clark ground his teeth and rolled, throwing the six hundred pounds of angry muscle on top of him off balance. He used the leverage and kicked the big man across the floor and he came to a stop against one of the large columns, which splintered at the impact.

Clark pushed himself up, taking a step forward. "I don't want to hurt you - -"

It was shaking its head, a little stunned maybe, and Clark saw tiny trickles of blood here and there on its massive chest from holes that might have been bullet wounds. Lex had gotten off at least one shot - - Clark had heard it coming in - - but it looked like he'd had the chance to put a few more rounds in this man thing.

He couldn't fault Lex for it, though. All things considered, Lex was lucky to be alive. Lex was an idiot for coming out here, not knowing what lay in wait. The girl - -Digger had approached Clark after he'd been asking around a bit and admitted with big worried eyes that she'd overheard Lex and Slick making plans. And one way or another, nothing good hardly ever came of Lex's plans.

Which led to this. Lex a hair's breadth from being a smear on the street and Clark dealing with a very pissed off giant of dubious origin.

"Who are you?" Clark asked. He heard the whisper of movement behind him and spun as a much, much smaller attacker leapt at him out of the shadows. He batted her aside, curtailing his strength as he realized it was a woman. She still went flying, but she turned mid-air and landed with unusual grace, crouched on all fours like some big, angry eyed cat. She launched herself at him again, all claws and hissing with rage, even as the big man was scrambling to his feet, ready to aid in the attack.

Great. Neither one seemed inclined to give up and go away. Clark stepped backwards, and let the woman sail past him, heard her startled yelp of surprise when he just wasn't there anymore and took a moment to concentrate on the one that could actually hurt him.

He ducked a clumsy, roundhouse swipe and slammed the palm of his hand against the big man's chest. The giant staggered backwards, but amazingly enough didn't go down, just stood there, splay legged like a boxer who'd taken one too many hits but refused to topple. Clark had to wonder if the big man hadn't had bullets inside him, how much more energy he'd have had to devote to this fight.

He could stay here and prolong it, but what was the sense of beating them down? Better to just abandon the effort and chase down Lex - -make sure he was okay after tangling with these two. Make sure he didn't run into anything else on his way back to the relative safety of the compound beyond the abilities of a normal man to handle. Even a particularly self-sufficient one. He could only assume Lex's guide had already cut out - - probably at the first sign of danger, leaving the newcomer to deal with the things that dwelt in the L by his lonesome. It sort of annoyed him - - even if it was Lex. No matter how badly they'd been at odds or what terrible things Lex had done, he had never been able to shake the instinctive urge to protect him in the face of imminent death. Ingrained habit from better days, maybe, or as Chloe liked to accuse him of - - his own obsessive need to simply protect.

Clark never understood the word 'obsessive' in conjunction with that particular need when it was just the right thing to do. And beating the stuffing out of these two just because he could, didn't sit right with him. He didn't know what had transpired here to piss them off so badly - - and he doubted Lex would tell him if he asked - - but this was their territory and he was the intruder so they had certain rights involved in defending it. He could back off now that Lex had a good long head start and hope he didn't have to discourage them from following him.

He used his speed and left them there and to anyone with normal perception he might as well have simply disappeared. He came to a stop on the street outside, and took the time to stare up at the LuthorCorp's towering grey corpse. All those broken windows were like jagged eyeholes into ominous darkness inside. Before, it had probably held no less ominous things - - cutthroat corporate to the less public obsessions of its namesakes - - but at least mirrored glass had reflected nothing of the building's true nature. Clark shivered, on the verge of speeding off, when a prickle of something caused him to look to his right, down the street where a mountain of rubble was all that remained of the building that had stood next to the Daily planet.

It took him a second to differentiate pale limbs and dusty clothing from the debris. And it hit him, a sudden pang of dread, that the boy hadn't cut out on Lex at all.

He cursed and ran over, kneeling in the debris where the boy sprawled. Blood coated the side of Slick's face and neck, the most obvious source a glistening scalp wound, the flesh torn deep enough to see bone beneath. Clark listened for signs of life and heard the slow thud of a heartbeat. Alive then, but with that head injury, it might be a temporary state. He narrowed his eyes, scanning for broken bones, for cracks in the spine that he'd only worsen if he moved the boy carelessly. There was a fracture along the boy's left arm, broken ribs on the same side, but the spine seemed intact.

He took a breath, hesitating lying hands on the boy. He knew people were fragile, but every time he came face to face with a broken body, it hit him all over again. Damn Lex for talking the boy into traipsing out here. Damn Lex for taking off without even taking the time to mention to Clark that the boy was still here, injured. All it would have cost Lex was a little lost breath.

If he hadn't paused to look up at LuthorCorp he might have missed Slick all together and left the boy here to die just like Lex had.

He cursed, swallowed back his anger at Lex and tried to figure out the best way to pick up the boy without hurting him more.

Something shifted above him, a grating of stone, and a movement of shadow. He looked up to the top of the mountain of rubble at the giant blocking out the wan morning light. The big man held a huge slab of concrete over his head, muscles bunched as he heaved it down. There was no time to gently gather Slick up as it sailed down. Clark scooped the boy up and ran, two blocks away before the slab crashed down and shattered where they'd been.

He was back at the compound in no time, slowing to a walk within sight of the makeshift barricade. The watchers atop saw him, with the boy in his arms and he heard the clamor of commotion.

"I need help. Slick's been injured," Clark cried when he was close enough for them to hear, close enough for them to recognize Slick if not him. The bus creaked as they pushed it back wide enough for him to enter and he found himself the center of a gathering crowd that shouted a barrage of questions at him. Angry, scared people, who knew all too well, maybe, the dangers that lay outside their little ramshackle settlement. Men and women with weapons clambered up to the top of the barricade, searching for any threat that might have followed him in.

"What happened, damnit?" Jane pushed her way through, a pike with a wicked looking piece of sharpened metal lashed to the end in hand. She bristled at Clark like he'd done this himself, before she got a look at all the blood on Slick's face and her own paled, some the anger fading in place of shock.

"He's alive," Clark assured her. "Is there a doctor?"

She touched the boy's face, fingertips coming away bloody, before her face hardened again and she jerked her head and started shouldering her way through the curious onlookers. "Bring him. What the fuck happened?"

She was pissed, her knuckles white on the shaft of the pike. The sort of woman, Clark thought that wouldn't hesitate much in jamming the sharp end of that weapon into an enemy's gut.

Clark was angry at Lex, but not enough to set an angry mother with no qualms about taking care of her problems the permanent way at his throat. Dealing with Lex and Lex's machinations was his problem and his alone.

"I found him at the L," Clark said, no lie there and she hissed out a curse.

"Goddamned hard-headed brat. I told him a thousand times to stay the hell away from Freak territory. That it'd be the death of him - - and now maybe it has." She stalked up to Granny's tent, and the clamor that had seemed to spread like a ripple from the barricade through the shanty town must have alerted the old woman, for she waited outside her tent.

"Damn brat's got himself hurt," Jane said and Granny ushered Clark into the tent with the boy. She indicated a pallet at the back, and he laid the boy down.

"Prowling around the fucking L again," Jane spat. "Like he's going to find some Goddamned treasure that those before him ain't already plundered."

"Calm down, girl." Granny said, easing down next to Slick. "Fetch clean water and the kit."

Jane took a breath, eyes flashing with no less ire, but she nodded and hurried outside.

Clark backed away himself, cooling blood on his shoulder and arm where the boy's head had rested. He didn't need to be here to see them try and save a life. Not when the things that needed doing now were beyond his capabilities.

"Found him at the L, did you?" Granny asked, without turning, her fingers gently probing the gash on Slick's head.

Clark swallowed. "Yeah."

She nodded. "Good thing you were there then."

"Yeah. You think he'll be okay?"

She shrugged. "I'm not a fortune teller, boy. Help me get this shirt off him."

Clark did as she bade, gently lifting the boy so she could pull the threadbare shirt off. There were the beginnings of big bruises along his right side, where the broken bones were.

"Broken ribs," Clark said softly, as she ghosted her fingers across the bruising. "And the arm. Right here." He indicated the where the break was without touching."

"Bones mend," Granny said. "Head wounds are trickier."

She paused, canting her head and looking up at him. "Better go find the other one that was venturing where he oughtn't, before Jane gets wind of what really happened."

He swallowed again, shivering a little. He liked her - - her straightforwardness appealed to him - - but when she said stuff like that - - stuff she had no business knowing - - it freaked him out.

But she had a point. Chances were Digger would spread the same tale she'd told Clark now that the shit had hit the fan. It wouldn't be long till everyone knew, in a little closed community like this.

If Lex had a reason, it better be a damned good for the cost paid.

 

 

 

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