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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 9

 

Lex couldn't catch his breath. It was his own fault, so wrapped up this past year or more in his pursuit of hard truths and the things that would counter them, that he'd fallen short in taking care of his own physical needs. He couldn't recall the last time he'd just gotten out and run. Or felt he had the time to spare to go to the gym and simply spend an hour working out tension and allowing himself a few precious moments to simply forget.

He felt the lack now, after scrambling as fast as his aching body would allow twenty city blocks in the desperate hope of getting back before Clark. He used to be able to get some of his best thinking done during a long run - -but it was hard to focus when his shoulder screamed bloody murder and it felt like knives were stabbing up into his lungs with every breath. Harder still when half his labored attention was drawn to shadows in the destruction where things he didn't need to confront likely skulked.

He remembered the way flawlessly. His sense of direction within the boundaries of a city - - even a ruined one - - was infallible. Drop him in the middle of the boondocks, though, where the roads were barely paved and only went by route numbers, if that, and that sense of direction dwindled.

Despite half killing himself in the effort, when he reached the barricade he had the sinking feeling he was still too late. The bus and the surrounding wall bristled with armed men and women, and there was the sense of people on edge that hadn't been there when they'd approached the first time.

He stopped thirty feet away, leaning over his knees, grasping for the breath to speak.

"Let me in. I have important information for Granny." Name-dropping wasn't beyond him. And it wasn't as if they wouldn't recognize him from yesterday - - he didn't exactly blend in with the crowd here. He hadn't left with Slick this morning - - had been careful not to - - so unless Clark had already poisoned them against him - -

The bus creaked as they rolled it back just wide enough for a man to slip through. It was invitation enough and there weren't weapons pointed at him when he edged through, just a lot of tense faces. Unless something else had happened while he was away, they knew about the boy, but likely not his involvement. Clark had to have already brought him back and they were few enough of them, that one of their own killed would rock the whole community.

Even then, they didn't scare him nearly as much as Clark. He could reason with them - -make them understand that it had been bad luck, not malice responsible for this. Clark didn't understand reason. Clark saw what Clark wanted to see and nothing else. God knew how Clark's alien intellect mixed with human rational anyway. And now Clark had no reason whatsoever to hold back.

A barrage of questions came at him, most of which meant nothing to him, most of which he ignored. He heard mention of Freak retaliation and 'Jane's boy' being dead or almost there. Lex pushed through them - - not sure if the former or the latter would make his life easier - - on a mission and they were too distracted by the paranoia of a worse threat to try and stop him.

The old junk woman had been along the wall of a crumbling building near the rear of the compound. He found her among her accumulated stash of eclectic junk. He stood there, looking for that one piecemeal stick with its chunk of green rock. Found it near the old woman, half under the blanket she was sitting on.

"Freaks ain't come yet, have they?" The old woman asked of him, craning her neck to stare towards the front of the compound. It was entirely possible she was too infirm to get up and join the crowd by the barricade, or she simply refused to leave her treasure trove of trash unguarded.

"No," he said. She might not wander far from her little kingdom, but information apparently spread fast and far through the compound.

"Could have told 'em," she said. "They don't ever come this far out 'cept in darkness. Tonight's when we have to worry. Damn kids will be the death of us all."

"That stick with the green rock," he cut into her predictions. "I need it."

Her eyes narrowed, hand moving protectively to the stick in question.

"What for?" she asked warily.

He didn't have the time for polite barter. He wouldn't explain all the myriad reasons if he had. He could just take it, wrest it from her old hand, he was almost desperate enough, but she'd raise an outcry that would bring the people here down on him as surely as the culpability of Slick's death. He slipped the watch from his wrist and held it out. It was a very nice watch. She eyed it very much the way Slick had eyed the lighter - - but she was older and smoother than the boy.

"What do I need a watch for? Ain't no appointments I gotta keep?"

"Think of it as collateral. I don't need to keep the stick - - just borrow it for a while. I'll bring it back when I'm done and you can keep the timepiece."

Take it. Take it, he willed. He wanted to snatch it so bad he could taste it.

"Done with what?" She asked, infuriating old bat.

It was a damned good question though. Done with what? With something he should have taken care of a long time ago. With something he'd failed at time and again through ignorance or soft heartedness or simple bad timing. Clark was dangerous. Clark was the intruder here - - the alien - - and using that meteor rock to protect himself served the duel purpose of protecting what was left of this ruined world. It was no less his responsibility now than it had been then.

He ground his teeth, just shy of cursing at her - -at himself - - at the situation in general - - that was how rattled he felt, that he couldn't gather the patience to smooth talk an old junkwoman - - to come up with a convincing lie. The hand with the watch was shaking. He clenched his fingers around the band.

She held out her hand, sensing maybe, his inability to form a decent answer. He dropped the watch onto her palm, and didn't wait for her to inspect it, just reached down and snatched the walking staff, ignoring her protest. She wouldn't raise too much of a fuss - - she had accepted his trade so there was only so many accusations of theft she could aim. He didn't care.

He stalked away from her, heart thudding hard enough he could feel it in his throat. It was the sort of adrenalin-laced victory he'd experienced when he'd first gotten his hands on the 'object'. That first rush of knowledge that he held a power equal to that of his enemies. This simple little chunk of rock - - the sort you might find just digging in your backyard in Smallville - - might not hold the mystique of that other hard-won artifact, but it held power all the same. It could take Clark down.

He found himself near the back end of the compound where people were scarce, the majority gathered near the front most likely, where they might conjecture in mass about the likeliness of a Freak attack and work each other up into the sort of frenzy that might get someone hurt.

"Lex."

He stopped, a sudden calm descending, evening out the beat of his heart and the pace of his breath. He turned, keeping the walking stick hidden behind the folds of his coat. If past experience served, Clark would need to be a lot closer than the forty feet distance he was, to feel the effects. A few feet away, maybe, if he were distracted, before he realized he was in trouble.

Lex lifted a brow coolly, all his rambling thoughts suddenly turned to a sharp, cohesive purpose, which stood bright eyed, and flushed across the street from him. He could see it from even that distance, that holier than thou look of disgust that Clark wore so well. As if Clark Kent had the right to judge him.

"Problem?" Lex inquired lightly, just enough of a sneer in his voice to guarantee a reaction from Clark.

"What the hell did you do?" Clark demanded, just there in front of him, feeling no more need to hide that incredible speed now that the secret was out.

Lex saw it the moment Clark felt the presence of kryptonite. Saw his face go pale and his eyes widen in distress. All it would take was a thought and Clark might be gone - - and Lex's chance of catching him with his guard down would evaporate.

He whipped the stick out, smashing the business end with the rock across the side of Clark's face. It made an impact. God, it made an impact beyond what he'd expected. Skin spit and blood spattered and Clark went down like a stone in water. And all Lex could absorb was that the self-righteous look had been wiped off Clark's face, replaced by one of ashen shock and pain.

Good. Just fucking fantastic. He felt a rush of giddy power - - of control regained after too long being at the mercy of fate and this lying alien prick.

He dropped to his knees over Clark, distantly registering that the warm wetness he felt on his face was Clark's blood. He drew back the staff, prepared to bring it down again, but Clark wasn't struggling, Clark wasn't doing much of anything, but staring up dazedly through half lidded eyes, blood leaking out of a nasty gash high on one cheek.

Blood as red as anyone else's - - but then he'd known that. Had seen Clark bleed before - - part of the reason he'd been fooled so long - - Clark's clever manipulations or Clark's dumb luck throwing him off the trail just when he'd been close to figuring it all out.

So many years of lies. So many years of him being made a fool out of. Of swallowing it all and coming back for more because he'd been that Goddamned needy for that elusive something Clark had offered. He could hate himself as much as Clark for that.

"Lex - -" Clark mumbled, so damned pretty when he was stunned and bleeding.

He balled a fist and smashed it down, felt the softness of Clark's lips under his knuckles. Felt the sharp bite of teeth beneath and the wetness of blood. His or Clark's. Split knuckles or torn mouth, one or the other. Maybe both.

Clark was so easy to break with the rock at his throat, his skin veiny and sallow around where the kryptonite touched. The stone had sharp enough edges that if he gouged it across the line of Clark's jugular, he could open the vein. Sit there and watch him bleed out and that would be that. It wouldn't take long. And once the ground was saturated with Clark's alien blood, and he was cool and still, Lex could wash the blood off his hands and go tell a tale of his choosing to these wary people about just who had been at fault for what.

"The boy - -" Clark gasped, blood welling from the split in his lip. "You - - just left - - to die. How could - -?"

Lex blinked down at him, amazed that the foremost thing on Clark's mind was Slick and Lex's abandonment thereof. He knelt there, feeling Clark's stomach heave under him, feeling the occasional shudder that ran through Clark's body and it hit him that it wasn't an act. That Clark was fool enough to overlook the very real probability of his own demise in favor of worrying about a boy they'd only just met. That it had never been an act - - that distressing habit of taking responsibility for everyone that crossed his path.

And it grated. God, it made him want to slam his fist down again and again in sheer frustration that Clark could lie there bleeding and still find the breath to fling accusations.

"You stupid, deceitful son of a bitch," he ground out, leaning down and grasping Clark's jaw, digging his fingers in hard enough to make Clark whimper. "You don't get to judge me. You don't get to pretend you're better than me, Goddamn you. Not when your whole damn existence here has been a lie. Not when you looked me in the eye a hundred times and just - -" Hurt/wounded/bruised to the core. Deeper than anyone other than Lionel had ever had the ability to inflict.

Clark blinked up at him, liquid green eyes, sweat making strands of his dark hair cling together on his forehead. Seeing Clark sweat was a novelty. Even in the heat of summer, coming in out of the fields, Clark had never seemed to sweat. That one biological thing he couldn't fake.

Lex tightened his hand on the rock, grinding it down against Clark's throat, seeking that cold numb required in the contemplation of stealing a life. It came easier, recently than it had and didn't loiter so actively in the company of guilt, but he couldn't summon it now. It wouldn't come in the face of Clark's big green eyes or his soft, bleeding lips, or the heat of his body under Lex's weight.

Clark was an alien. Clark was an inconvenience. A liar. A danger. Lex had been willing to do what needed doing in the Arctic in that alien fortress when he'd been so damned certain the fate of the world had been at stake. When he'd been so damn angry at the magnitude of the lies Clark had been feeding him all those years. He hadn't gone there to kill him - - but he'd been prepared for the possibility. He'd been prepared to make that sacrifice for the sake of humanity. And when he'd sat there, Clark in his arms, possibility turned to reality, waiting for the world to crash down and take them both - - that cold numb had been the farthest thing from what he'd felt.

He cursed and shut his eyes, feeling that edge of weakness that always lingered at the back of his mind surge up - - the part that he'd tried damn hard to squash that liked to try and reason him out of the little evils that needed doing to prevent the bigger, catastrophic ones. All of which had been for nothing in the end. This end.

Did it even matter anymore? What Clark was capable of? Hadn't the worst already been done with Clark possibly not even directly responsible? Would Clark cold and lifeless, be of any advantage to him when there were things out there that only Clark was capable of dealing with? That bit of logical rational made the decision easier - - made it seem not so much as if he were giving in to the weakness that Clark spurred more than anyone else in his life.

He ground his teeth, knuckles snow white on the staff and pushed himself up. Clark gasped at the knee to his gut and lay there afterwards just like anyone else that had been cracked across the face by a rock tipped cane. Lex took the stick with him and walked away, not looking back. Heart thudding again with the absolute certainty that he'd regret this. Eyes stinging from blood in them maybe. Tired. Just damned tired.

If the people that he passed saw the blood on his face or his knuckles, they didn't give it more than a passing glance. Blood here was likely a commonplace thing. Clark's blue shirt had been dark with it. That detail came to him after the fact.

Not Clark's. Surely not Clark's. The boy's then. Sly, clever boy who like most teenagers, had held great stock in his own immortality. It had not been Lex's job to tutor him in that false notion. Not his responsibility to throw his life away in a futile effort to save a dying boy. He tasted a twinge of bitter bile at the back of his throat, a curl of culpability that made him press his lips and wish desperately for cool detachment. It was easier to find in the comfort of a penthouse office, behind a desk with all the trappings of modern power. Easier to find when Clark wasn't looking up at him with big, wounded eyes brimming with accusation.

He saw a place where the mortar had been worn away between chipped the cinderblocks of a wall to form a deep crevice and wedged the walking stick into it. He was loathe to part with it entirely - - that one advantage he had over Clark - - and wished to avoid having to barter yet more of his dwindling stock of new/old items to the old woman for the use of it again. He'd paid well enough with the watch to warrant keeping it a good while longer.

He wasn't entirely sure where he was going. Outside of this barricaded place seemed a death sentence, once way or another. Whatever dwelled at LuthorCorp seemed less than inclined towards rational dialogue. The rest of the city was rife with scavengers both animal and human. Outside the city - - was a wasteland. Nothing but scrub grass and endless flat land and the remnants of civilization not so fortunate as Metropolis, if what Clark said were to be believed.

He needed a reasonable, rational head here to take his side if the crowd turned against him. He thought of Granny. She had reason enough to distrust him, but still, she seemed to hold an interest in him and she held power of a sort and respect. He could deal with her uncomfortable insights if she provided him the protection of association.

Granny's tent was near the middle of the compound. He needed a few moments alone with her, so he could gauge her mood and decide whether she might be an asset or a liability.

There was a crowd around her tent, people gathered in small groups - - some of them armed, some not. He saw Slick's little band of compatriots, huddled off to one side, furtive and sullen and worried. The girl saw him and her eyes widened, her mouth open in surprise a moment before a cry rose from the direction of Granny's tent.

"You son of a bitch!" It was Jane pushing her way through the gathering of people, face livid with rage. Heading towards him, jagged tipped spear in hand. So talking to Granny before this broke wide open didn't seem to be an option. Not knowing what Clark or the boy, if he was capable of talk, had told them made it damn difficult to come up with a sympathetic story. Obviously she knew he'd been involved in the venture to the L or he wouldn't be in her sights now.

"Is he all right? I got back as fast as I could."

"Is he all right?" she shrieked at him. "He's lying in there half dead. You talked him into going up there when he damn well knows to steer clear. Digger heard you. Traded his life for a Goddamned trinket!"

Fuck. He could deny it, but he doubted they'd take his word over one of their own. They were muttering around him, the sort of simmering, helpless anger on their faces that desperately needed to place blame - -any blame to give them outlet.

"No, you don't understand - -" he started, searching for a rationalization that would make them understand that the risk had been justified, but nothing any of these people would comprehend or fall short of condemning him for came easily to mind.

Jane growled in rage and lunged at him, point of her jagged spear aimed at his belly. Ironic that it wasn't a meteor mutant or an alien that would take him out, but a mother blinded by grief and anger.

It stopped, just short of his sweater, tip enveloped by a big hand. Clark. Just there again, like a bad penny - - or an unexpected stroke of good fortune. Hard to figure out exactly which, when his heart was pounding in his chest and his stomach flip flopping in that sort of nervous reaction that came from escaping slow, painful death by a hair's breadth. It was a distressingly familiar feeling.

Clark's face was bloody, but his cheek, where the gash had been was whole and perfect under the stain. No surprise there. Lex had seen it before. Wounds that he'd damn sure known were there just miraculously gone. No miracle, just superior alien biology.

"Let go," Jane screamed in rage and tried to jerk it away. "Bastard comes here and starts stirring trouble - - We'll deal with that right quick."

There were murmurs of assent, wild-eyed people already stirred up and not averse to a little mob mentality.

"He didn't know," Clark jerked the spear to the side, letting it go, inexplicably stepping half in front of Lex. "He didn't understand what it was that lived up there. Nobody could that hadn't seen it for themselves. It was ignorance on top of bad luck and you can't condemn somebody for that."

Lex stood there, fists clenching, unmoving, trying to figure out what the hell Clark's angle was. Trying to fathom what earthly reason Clark had for standing there protecting him when he'd been prepared to slit Clark's throat a handful of minutes ago.

"The Freaks are likely to come calling and my boy's lying in there with his skull bashed in and you blame ignorance?" Jane screamed.

"I'm sorry," Clark said earnestly. "I'm so sorry for that, but killing him won't make a difference."

"What are you?" Someone demanded from the crowd that had gathered around them. "Come up out of nowhere - - you one of them?"

Clark stiffened, realizing his slip - - realizing he'd just revealed in the middle of a not particularly friendly gathering that he was more than human.

"No," Clark said vehemently. "I'm - - I'm just a little - - different."

Jane leveled the spear at Clark warily, and Lex shook his head in disgust. As ways to divert attention from him went, this was a good one, but it just might lead to the both of them evicted from this dubious safe haven. He doubted Clark had given it a thought beforehand, which made it all the more frustrating.

"You got a tat?" Someone asked and Clark blinked, not understanding the implication. Maybe he hadn't the time to notice the mark on the Giant's chest. Maybe he just hadn't connected the dots.

"What?"

Jane stalked up to him, too angry to show proper caution. She grabbed hold of the neck of Clark's T-shirt and pulled it down to bare his shoulder.

"No mark," she said. "All the Freaks have marks."

"Not all that're different are Freaks. You all know that." Granny stepped out from under the flap of her tent, wiping her hands on a stained towel. "Be glad this one is as fast as he is, or you'd be giving your boy to the river."

"He okay?" Jane forgot all about Clark and Lex and the various threats they represented, moving instead towards the old woman.

"Time'll tell. But he's resting easy," Granny said.

A murmur went up from the crowd, a dozen or more sighs of relief. Clark's among them. Lex took the opportunity to take a step backwards, away from the closeness of Clark's broad back. Away from the blaring inexplicability of Clark's acts.

Who in their right mind stepped in and bared himself to censure for the sake of an enemy? If Clark had just held back and let Jane have her way, any danger Lex represented to him with his knowledge of Clark's weaknesses and his true origins would have been eradicated. God knew everyone else connected with Clark and Clark's secret wouldn't have hesitated to just let Lex die.

But not Clark. Clark had to play the hero. Had to barge in play savior time and again, carrying his outrage over perceived wrongs like a badge, like it gave him the right to - - step in and help where help wasn't wanted. What was a spear in the gut after all, compared to mortally wounded pride?

Goddamn him. Damn the fact that not having a rusty spear through the stomach was something to be deliriously happy about. Damn the fact that for a moment there, when his mind had been blank at the prospect of onrushing death, there had been nothing but relief at Clark's presence.

People were talking, but their voices were a blur of meaningless sound - - Clark's came through - - soft assurances that he meant them no harm. Lex backed away, through the crowd that had forgotten him, feeling a different sort of numb - - the kind that came with confusion.

No one bothered to stop him, their need for violence ebbing with the probability of the boy's survival. They likely wouldn't do him bodily harm, but there would be repercussions. Jane would see to it. Unless he could talk his way into Granny's good graces - - or Clark could.

He laughed, sudden and bitter at the thought of relying on Clark to plead his case. God knew the world had turned on end, but had black turned to white and up to down as well? But even revealed as something more than human, Clark would win these people over. And he'd do it with the sort of guileless sincerity that Luthor genes made Lex incapable of. Mix that with those eyes - - those damned soulful green eyes that were like a barometer for Clark's true feelings - - and he didn't need the superhuman powers to be formidable. He just needed to be Clark, with his overdeveloped sense of fair play, his ridiculous standards, his propensity for playing hero. His tendency to be where he was needed, even when he wasn't wanted.

Lex sat down off the beaten track, on a long slab of concrete. Leaned over his knees and simply breathed, gathering thoughts and calm. He was tired and he hurt. He'd been running off willpower and adrenalin half the morning and both had waned.

Half the morning? Ha. He'd been operating on sheer strength of will alone for what seemed weeks now, ignoring injury and common sense in pursuit of his goals. Damned and determined not to be what seemed the only one on the outside of an earth shattering conspiracy. Damned and determined to justify all the lengths he'd gone to find those answers. And they'd been right there all the time, living in the same county, traipsing onto his property whenever the urge struck, trying his last nerve - - the center of his attention for so long that it had been hard to imagine Clark being the answer to everything else.

Mind-boggling answer on the one hand, the alien among them, with his superhuman powers and the advanced technology of the artifacts that cropped up around him. Mundane on the other, almost a let down, because after all it was just Clark. Clark with his cheap clothes and his limited vision and his stubbornness. Big hands. Clean smell of honest earth. The way he'd used to smile before all the humor of youth had been sucked out of him, that would light up a room and drain away, at least temporarily, all doubts of his sincerity. Funny how Lex hadn't taken the time since Kara had broken the news to simply look at it that way. Too busy looking at the big picture to consider the smaller one. Just Clark.

There was the scuff of a footstep and he looked up from under his lashes, knowing damn well who it would be. Clark. Just Clark.

He laughed again, a little madly, but it died halfway past his lips. Lex held out his hands when Clark loitered, yards away, an indication he was kryptonite free.

Clark shuffled forward, fingers stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, mouth taut, eyes hooded. God. Just exactly what Lex needed. He didn't bother to sit up straight, just leaned there over his knees, canting his head enough to look up at Clark from under his lashes, waiting for Clark to fire the first salvo. He was that tired that getting in the opening strike lost its importance.

"Why?" Clark asked simply, one word covering a wide variety of questions.

He had to assume Clark was back to the trip to the L and not asking about the kryptonite incident, because really, the reasons for that ought to be apparent. Lex shrugged, and came up with a simple reply. He was too tired for a complicated one. "Answers."

Clark's brows descended. "To what, Lex? What was so important you'd risk your life and that boy's going into the unknown to find?"

It was surprising that Clark, even dense as he sometimes was, hadn't figured it out. Funny that Lex felt the need to admit it now, when a week before he'd have slit his wrists before acknowledging the possibility. "Culpability. I needed to know it wasn't me - - that this wasn't a result of something I initiated."

Clark opened his mouth. Shut it. Dug his hands deeper into his pockets and stared at the crumbled face of a building over Lex's shoulder. Lex expected something pious to issue from his mouth, something self-righteous and accusatory, but Clark surprised him, sighing and dropping onto the concrete slab next to him, shoulder almost close enough to touch.

"Yeah," Clark said finally, softly, sounding as tired as Lex felt, head down, big hand scrubbing through his windblown hair. "As messed up as this is going to sound - - It'd be nice to know all this was just some totally random event that nobody's to blame for - - that couldn't have been stopped even if - - you know - - things had been different."

Lex knew. Finding some place else to lay the blame would be a very comforting thing indeed. He studied Clark covertly, looking for that familiar hostility - - justified hostility all things considered with the blood stains vivid on Clark's skin. There was just a look of dull shock. The ghost of pain that had been present in the back of Clark's eyes since they'd left the Arctic. Clark never had been good at hiding his grief. Lex was an old hand at camouflaging his own - - at convincing himself it wasn't there at all.

"You used to give a damn," Clark said quietly, hand still clenched in his hair. "About people getting hurt."

Lex clenched his jaw, not willing to get into a debate about the decline of his morality. Wishing Clark would just shut up and sit there, because surprisingly enough, just sitting there with Clark was not an entirely bad thing when he was too tired to design the stratagems for a proper defense.

"He's just a kid - - thirteen. You should have known better."

Thirteen? Lex glanced up in surprise. He'd have guessed two or three years older than that. But he supposed this place forced a body to age faster than it should. But thirteen was young. Thirteen didn't have the sense not to walk into danger at the lure of a shiny object. God knew he hadn't made a lot of particularly smart decisions at thirteen.

"I understand you were scared, but you shouldn't have left him,"

Lex ground his teeth, instinctive urge to deny any such weakness surging up his throat and teetering on the tip of his tongue.

Fear was not a thing easily admitted and especially not to Clark. Only a weak man gave in to his fears. A strong one drove them to ground and disemboweled them. He could hear the sentiment in his head, voiced in his father's rich drawl as clearly as if Lionel had only just spoken it.

"It was a miscalculation," he said slowly, instead of the denial he so badly wanted to issue. "I thought - -" thought it would be simple to get in and retrieve vital information. Thought a boy - - God a thirteen year old boy - - had the sense to show him the easy way through the ruin without leading them both into the jaws of pissed off, meta-human death. What it had been was a colossal fuck up on so many levels.

"It was a mistake," he said instead, because voicing any of those other things to Clark was beyond him. "I'm sorry the boy got hurt."

"Yeah. You need to tell that to his mom. You need to fix this."

"Why?"

Clark looked up at him, incredulous, until he figured out there was more to that question than the obvious.

"Why does it matter to you what they think of me?" Lex asked the all-important question. The one that burned like acid at the center of him. "Why would you lift a finger to save me from what I'm sure you think are just rewards?"

Lex lifted his hand, stained with speckles of dried blood. Clark stared at it, damn sure knowing whose it was.

Clark swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing. Looked away, down the alley to where people moved on the street beyond. Refugees in this new world.

"Why didn't you slit my throat when you had the chance?" Clark asked solemnly, turning it around on him. Dead earnest, big eyes shifting to pin Lex.

"Could I have?" Lex asked, smoothly covering the holes that question shot in his armor. "Would it have taken if I had?"

Clark narrowed his eyes a bit, muscles flexing in his jaw. Angry. Good. Nothing that claimed to be as human as the rest of them, barring physiological differences could have not been angry. Nobody was that good at turning the other cheek.

"I don't know," Clark finally said, sourly. "It's not one of those things I've gone out of my way to test out. I ought to kick your ass.'

Ah, now they were back on familiar ground. "It was justifiable self-defense. I thought you were coming after me. Any reasonable person would have sought out a way to even the odds."

"Any reasonable person wouldn't have been in the position in the first place," Clark snapped.

"And this irks you, why exactly?"

"Because even though I know better, I keep expecting you to surprise me. I keep expecting you to do the right thing." Clark huffed.

Lex lifted a brow, forcing back the surge of irritation that threatened calm control. "No you don't. You expect the worst. It's all you've ever expected of me. Understandable that after a while I'd get tired of disappointing you and do my best to meet your expectations."

"That's not true," Clark flared back immediately, breathing hard, on the verge of saying more then hesitating, emotion churning behind his eyes, self- doubt flittering across his face like script on a screen. Questioning that claim then. Amazing.

"Maybe," Clark said softly. Slowly as if he were trying to unjumble words in his head. "Maybe you're right. But me being crappy friend doesn't justify - -" Clark waved a hand, apparently the scope of that non-justification being too large to encompass with a mere word.

Lex smiled tightly. "I don't blame you for being a selfish, self-absorbed teenager. I blame me for allowing myself to be isolated enough to be dependent on one. I do blame you for being a lying, self-righteous, prick, though. You might want to ask yourself how much pain and suffering could have been avoided if you'd decided to deviate from the norm just once and tell me a few truths. If I'd had a fucking clue what was actually going on, maybe I wouldn't have had to dig so deeply trying to figure it out on my own."

Clark had nothing to say to that, elbows propped on knees, glaring resolutely at the cracked pavement between his boots. This was, Lex realized, the longest, most civilized - - despite the barbs - - conversation they'd had in quite a long time. Years.

It was strangely exhilarating. All their little confrontations were, one way or another.

They sat there for a long time, the silence not so terribly uncomfortable between them. The silences had always been easy between them, back when the conversations had been more inclined towards friendlier topics. Almost, when Clark breathed, Lex could feel the brush of his arm against his own. He would have thought, after all was said and done, he would have gotten over that, too. That private little thrill of contact.

This was most certainly not how Lex had expected the afternoon to turn out.

"Do you think," Clark broke the silence. "There are really answers in LuthorCorp?"

"I know there are." No hesitation there. No reason to even contemplate a lie.

Clark looked up at him slowly and said. "I wouldn't mind finding out what they are."

 

 

 

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