... yeah. I hope this doesn't suck, I really do. I've been trying to avoid WIPs, but I just couldn't resist this idea. I hope at least someone enjoys it.
Feedback will ensure that I owe you any future children and periodic offerings of expensive chocolate. ^_^;;; Big thanks go to Amber, who provided the Straylight run playlist that helped get this baby written.
Canon Note: This is AU after mid-season two, while still keeping with some later events. For example, Clark blew up the ship, but his parents weren't hurt, and Lex never even contemplated marrying Helen. Other bits and bobs may pop up, but the whole Lex-is-Crazy plot never happened, and there was no baby Kent. Hopefully this will make sense.
And now, without further ado...
World Shaking Down
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
The motion of the train is an old feeling, so familiar it settles deep into his bones.
Wide awake on the three am express, Clark Kent purposefully relaxes every muscle in his body, allowing himself to enjoy the feeling of being carried forward at such speeds. There's something soothing about it, something he misses when speeding along under his own power, and it lulls him into the half-doze his mind has been craving for days. In his lap, his right hand flexes unconsciously, closing around nothing-- his suitcase is stowed safely under his seat, all battered brown leather the flaking gold letters C.K. Barely larger than his lap, he's been living out of its sturdy, well-traveled form for over a year, necessities and unforgettables tucked neatly together. Its considerably more scuffed than when his mother presented it to him, just after his high school graduation, holding it out as if it pained her. To let her baby go, off to college in a city half a state away.
Clark moves restlessly in his padded seat, much more accustomed to hard benches and jolting rides down unpaved roads. At twenty-three, he's a lanky man, impressive frame hidden by an ill-fitting gray suit. His runs a hand through his hair, takes off his useless horn-rims and pinches the bridge of his nose, verdant green eyes closed against the scenery blurring by. Outside, the world is dark, the flat of Kansas spreading in both directs under a lazy half-moon. Only fields and telephone poles, wires draped like charred spider-webs under the brilliant stars. Soon, the landscape will become a bit more familiar, and the darkness will bleed into the glow of restless city lights. The train sways, clatters along, stirring memories like dusty soil. Himself, so young it stretches the fibers of his remembrance, laying beside his mother on quilts thrown into the bed of Dad's old blue Ford. Half of this is told in his mother's soft voice, but the images are his own-- he's curled against her breast, listening to the strange, singular thud of her heart, watching the stars overhead. The motion of the truck is the motion of the train; a good trick, his mother said, was a car-ride for little boys who couldn't sleep. Sometimes, in the uncharted mists of half-consciousness, Clark wonders if that's all there is to it. Because beyond the memory of Mom's beautiful smile and amber-gold hair lurks another woman, darker, eyes the black of polished onyx, commending him into the void. Millions of light-years, it would have been, one lonely boy careening through space. Another memory of motion, intense and endless.
He's tired, Clark realizes, in the same way most people note that it is raining. His body doesn't need a great deal of sleep, but it does not like to be starved, either. For a moment, he fights to wake himself, opens bleary eyes to comb over the slumped forms of dozing passengers, the unblinking red of 3:52 AM displayed under a panel of blue reading-- in commanding, block letters-- LEXTRANS. The first three letters burn against his eyes, but it's too late, and Clark's eyes flutter closed again, leaving him in the echoing caverns of his own mind. He counts forwards, backwards, in Mandarin, French, Arabic, Japanese. Languages come to him easily, something that amuses his father. Jonathan Kent will sometimes chuckle, muttering about the hurdle of learning English, and the irony that now Clark barely has to try. As with everything else, Clark has had to force himself to slow down, and still he was the marvel of the Linguistics Department at Kansas State. One tall young man and his suitcase, off to see the world-- an adventure, always, nothing to run from.
Oh, and Clark lies fairly well now, at least to everyone else, but the dichotomy of his existence has never quite settled into his brain, leaving him naked before his own truths. Sometimes he believes there are so many things he'd give up to be able to lie to himself, but the feeling usually passes, leaving him with an archive of fact verses fiction. Numbers scatter, words scatter, and his inner eye instead shows him the shell of the storm cellar, blown away by a dead man's memory and a key made of green stone. Laying there, sprawled in the debris, watching the blue of the sky with thoughts that couldn't quite solidify. A voice, far away, and Lex scrambling over to him, overflowing as always with 'what' and 'why' and 'how'.
(Because, some part of him whispers, we always come back here in the end.)
So he ran. Not right away, of course-- his parents might have been angry, but the ship was gone, and no one had been hurt. Later, though, on a night alive with music and bright lanterns spilling out from the castle into the grassy, festive yard. His graduation party, thrown by Lex Luthor himself, who toasted Clark and even, jokingly, took him out onto the dance floor. Clark remembers most of the evening in pleasant gold haze. Not drunk, but nicely buzzed on accomplishment and that flash of pride in Lex's arctic gaze. Stumbling against his friend, touches lingering, before excusing himself. A long, unfamiliar corridor, and a door he didn't realize was locked until the knob twisted off in his hand.
For a moment, he'd simply stood there, feeling oddly as if he'd broken the honored silence of some dim and sacred chapel. Artifacts and evidence, computer screens flickering in an bizarre parody of votive lights, and presiding over it all had been his own visage, smiling shyly, almost sheepishly for his senior picture. Footsteps behind him, and Clark had turned, face to face with Lex and an expression on his best friend's face that-- even now, five years later-- he still doesn't understand. He knew only that it was raw, overwhelming and exposed, making Lex's once-impenetrable demeanor at once readable and somehow more obscure. A hurt, a longing, and Clark can not close his eyes against this, because it's all in his head.
The plan had been for Clark to attend Met U-- they'd gone over the brochures, the applications, curled up together in the loft. Lex, knowledgeable, easily navigating red tape, and Clark nodding, grinning endlessly, knowing they'd be doing this together.
The day after the party, he applied to Kansas State.
This is not the worst part, and Clark knows it. He's learned to live with the ache, like a veteran wakened with phantom pain, functioning despite the lack of something vital. It hurts, and he's used to it, a pounding behind his eyes that doesn't fill the silence beside him. No matter how well he trained himself, there were always those moments of 'I should tell Lex...' and 'I wonder if Lex is...'-- little, vicious pieces of glass. Deep in the false bottom of his suitcase, there lies testament to the fact he himself has not been forgotten-- the beautiful gold pocket watch that appeared after his college graduation; emerald cufflinks, a first edition copy of The Once And Future King, and other little treasures delivered anonymously on his birthday. They are well loved and well cared for, their existence a guilty secret he breathes to no one, holding it close on those nights when it feels as if he's being skinned from the inside. Emissaries from the past, offerings whose meanings he could not hope to divine.
And now, in the still, sterile air of the bullet train, Clark finally succumbs to full sleep, and a dream. The world is an endless plain of snowy white grass, the sky dark and unbroken by any light save a faint emerald glow. Off in the distance, there is a tower, a single spire of virulent green. Lex is beside him-- Clark knows this, recognizes the touch of his friend's hand as if it has never left him. Caresses, slow and sweet, Lex's voice sliding warm against his ear and down his neck. He doesn't understand the words; he knows only that he is held, treasured, secure in the circle of Lex's arms. So prevalent is this dream, so pervasive is the nameless yearning it conjures, that Clark has been denying himself rest, letting days melt into periods unseparated from one another. Lex touches him so gently, as if to say it can all be taken back.
Clark dreams, and in the real world, the horizon outside the window begins to lighten, until it is pierced by the artificial dawn of city lights.
The train rushes onward, towards Metropolis.
Despite the numerous pharmaceuticals dedicated to the prevention of such an occurrence, Lex Luthor awakes in the small hours of the morning, just as his expensive Swedish clock chimes three. The triplet tolls are soft and melodic, a far cry from the resounding click that echoes out from his dreams, the sound of a key finally in the embrace of the right lock. For a few long moments, he doesn't move at all, laid out between his expensive Egyptian sheets like some sort of sculpture. For him, there is no groggy climb to consciousness-- he's trained himself out of it, rankled by the way time and reality blurs between dreams and life. A frustrated sigh, and he rolls gracefully out of bed, silken robe wrapped around him like a second skin. His scarred lip is turned in a frown and he whirls, intent on stalking to the medicine cabinet for something to lengthen his interrupted respite. And yet, he pauses, his neck prickling, suddenly hyperaware. Instead, he leaves the bedroom for his study, and the wide, one-way windows overlooking Metropolis' glittering sprawl.
The LexCorp Towers are the tallest buildings in the city, hovering six stories above the ones Lionel Luthor erected. The elder Luthor is dead, buried (against the provisions in his will) far from Lillian's angelic tomb. The thought of this does not make Lex smile, but it brings him a sort of satisfaction, as if he has finally managed to protect her in death as he could not in life. No, Lionel Luthor is buried at the other end of the memorial park, a black totem ruling over the worms, and Lex hasn't been near the spot since the funeral itself. Part of it is superstition, like whistling in a graveyard, but the other part is simply that Lex was remarkably unaffected by his father's death. Just a sense of relief and a brief, childish pang of guilt.
'Just stay dead,' he remembers thinking, watching the coffin lowered, the image of the ever-dutiful son. 'You're dead, so just stay that way.' At twenty-six, Lex is the fourth richest man in the world and, as the tabloids are so fond of pointing out, ironically reclusive, considering his youth. Now Lex smirks because, while there is always a vapid beauty to decorate his arm at corporate functions, his love life is something that can barely be speculated upon. With less than two facts to rub together, publications both dubious and legitimate have labeled him the 'eternal bachelor', and moved on from hints of sex scandal to questions regarding his 'health'.
Crossing to the sideboard, Lex pours himself a small shot of brandy, before moving towards his desk. A key unlocks the false bottom of the desk's center drawer, and Lex-- meticulous as always-- removes several folders, spreading them carefully on the leather tabletop. He pages through them gently, with the familiarity of private ritual. Photographs, glossy and well preserved, hold frozen windows, broken moments of the past. His own face is younger in the first few, painfully open in his own hindsight. Himself and Clark, shoulder to shoulder, smiling, laughing. At the Talon, at the Castle, and once at the Smallville Fair, arms linked under the bright canvas sun. Their eyes are almost never on the camera-- instead, their gazes are locked, as if sharing some private joke. Then there are a few shots from the Clark's graduation party, painfully ignorant of what is to come. Himself, toasting Clark, ruffling the younger man's hair in a rare show of exuberance. How funny, how _ironic_, that a scant twenty minutes would bring the end of what was, in so many ways, Lex's most treasured relationship. As always, there's a sick little twist in his stomach, a fist around his heart, as he looks at these photographs, a sort of perverse pity for the solider who does not sense the coming sword. Because there had been Clark, green eyes no longer laughing, standing dwarfed and lost amongst the evidence of Lex's obsession, in the curio world of his most hidden need. Oh, he knew what it looked like, and that's part of what it was-- the search to own Clark's secret, to crawl inside and understand. But it was more than that, a silent sanctuary presided over by Clark's smiling, unguarded face.
Unguarded no more, as Clark stared at him, eyes begging for an explanation, expecting none. He'd said, "How could you?", and the room's acoustics turned the soft words into a sharp, painful echo. Then Clark was running past him, out into the hall, and by the time Lex turned the corner, it was if his young friend had never been there at all.
Gone, from Lex's home-- and, a few weeks later, from Smallville altogether.
Lex is absent from the rest of the photographs, their subject holding just one constant. Clark himself-- laughing at Kansas State's Freshman Night, standing proudly with his fellow reporters as the student paper received an award. Clark, a year or so older, surrounded by unfamiliar faces at a party. His graduation from university, paper clipped to the announcement that ran in the Kansas Star. Now the photos take on exotic backgrounds, the periods between them more pronounced. Istanbul, where Clark interned at the Ottoman Archives; Paris, where he did a stint with a small travel magazine. Botswana, and Clark volunteering with relief efforts-- and Russia, and Nepal, and Japan.
"Always such a hero," Lex whispers, briefly closing his eyes. Clark waits behind them as always, drenched in river-water and almost giddy in his relief. 'I thought you were going to die,' his voice echos down from the past, and Lex shivers under the phantom touch. Five years of drawing LexCorp up through the ranks of the Fortune 500, five years of working and fighting dirty, as the situation deemed. Ignoring Clark's voice, a twisted Jiminy Cricket, when the deals were particularly dark and-- at the end of the day-- returning home to reports that tracked his former best friend, offering Lex glimpses of what he'd lost. He'd tried to explain himself, during those painful weeks before Clark left the small town-- he'd called and cajoled, offered and apologized. But Clark wasn't home, he was out, couldn't come to the phone, and even Martha Kent's voice turned vague and politely chilled.
Lex turns to the most recent shot-- Clark at a small village orphanage just south of Beijing. The young man was seated on crumbling stone steps, surrounded by small, smiling children. There's a little girl perched on his knee, waving a peace-sign at the camera, and Clark is laughing, a gentle giant amongst tiny elves. With a sigh, Lex tucks the glossy images away, returning them to their secret resting spot. He was a fool-- five years have taught him that. Because though he did all he could to reach Clark during that awful, silent summer, he'd still limited himself. He'd played fair, played by the rules, held always by that image Clark had once possessed, the thought that he was essentially good. If he could force back the hands of the clock, hold time at his mercy as he did so many other things, Lex would not have made the same mistake. He would have fought, fair means and foul, to ensure that Clark had no where to run.
To say nothing of the love, charred and needy, fermenting in his heart.
Elbow on the table, Lex rests his forehead against his palm. He no longer fights against the merciless, machine-pieces of his fate. He's a Luthor, and that means he will get what he wants. Pressing a few buttons, he brings his laptop to life, intent on getting some work done now that his sleep has been denied. Off in the corner of the screen, his email icon flashes, presenting him with a report that makes his cold blue eyes widen.
From LEXTRANS systems in Jefferson City, Missouri. One redeye express ticket purchased by Kent, Clark J., bound for Metropolis.
Lex stares at the screen, letting the solid black letters sink into his gaze. He rises from his chair, looking eastward out on the city, out towards where Unity Station receives the LEXTRANS express. He smiles allowing himself a moment of romance, a moment where he is sure he'd awoken because Clark is about to step foot in his city, and Lex's body did not need to be told. Dawn is racing the silver bullet train towards Metropolis, coppering the Kansas plains.
Whether he knows it or not, Clark is coming home.
Feed the muse-- she won't bite unless you ask. ^_~