Remember these Wednesday100 drabbles?
The topic was Vacation.
A superhero's work is never done.
However, Clark Kent did get two weeks off from the Daily Planet every year. The brown-suit-and-glasses was just as much a disguise as the tights-and-cape, and it was a relief to shed either one. Usually he just went home to Smallville, to the jeans-and-flannel that suited him best, to eat pie and do farmwork and be able to just breathe, at least between global catastrophes.
This year Mom wouldn't hear of it.
"You mean I can't come home?" (Superman didn't whine, but sometimes Clark still did.)
"Sweetie, you're a grown man. GO ON VACATION!"
Lex Luthor, President and CEO of LexCorp, part-time criminal, full-time genius, didn't let anyone tell him what to do.
Unfortunately, that meant nobody said anything when Lex really needed a vacation.
He called the travel-agent personally; a stranger couldn't tell he'd screamed his voice raw in nightmares.
"What kind of trip would you like?" she chirped.
Lex ran a shaking hand over his scalp and swallowed. "No beaches, no heat-waves, no nightclubs, no crowds, nobody named Lewis or Lionel -- no "L"-names at all. No airplanes."
There was a momentary silence. Lex controlled his breathing.
"I'll see what I can do."
Okay, this was nice. Clark was glad he came. He wrote that on a moose postcard for his folks.
His small, shabby, painted pink-and-purple hotel was walking-distance to everything in town, even for people who hadn't traveled to Fairbanks on foot. The sun shone 'til eleven at night. Clark felt like he was flying all the time, even when he was just walking over to check whether the surprisingly huge comics shop had the new Amazing Spiderman yet.
Huh. That was an awful nice car for Alaska.
A sharply-dressed bald man was inside looking at Warrior Angel comics.
Train from Metropolis to Seattle, ferry to Vancouver, a low-end cruise ship to Anchorage, and train again to Fairbanks. He was days -- no, weeks -- from anyone who knew him. 'Jet Set' might be an archaic phrase, but it seemed to still be a valid concept. People who knew Lex Luthor didn't travel by train, and they'd probably never even heard of 'Carnival Cruise Lines.'
Lex had never been on a break like this one. He was finding out new things about himself, but he wasn't sure if they were enduring truths he'd never previously realized, or just the temporary sequelae of his current -- well, not breakdown -- state, maybe, or condition. It was probably a mere feature of this purely temporary condition that Lex found he liked nothing so much as to simply sit looking out a window, and that he furthermore couldn't seem to force himself to eat anything but ice cream. He just needed a few more days' rest, away from the demands of business and politics and the never-ending struggle to keep the people of Earth (or at least the people of Metropolis, his own city!) from falling to their knees to worship that very-questionably-attired alien, Superman. A couple more days' rest would undoubtedly restore him to himself.
He had a really nice window, though, located on the third floor of the newest hotel in Fairbanks, with a beautiful view of the ever-changing Chena River right across the street. He could sit quietly and watch the tourists, who came in big busloads to go through the Fairbanks Visitor Center on the river's bank and pick up maps and coupons and use the computer or the restroom. There was a wonderful ice cream store just down the block. Lex had visited it three times, escaping the maid who came to make up the room. He'd spoken to no one but the counter-girl and the desk-clerk for three days. His cell phone had somehow gotten turned off on the last train, and he hadn't gotten around to checking in with his staff since Anchorage.
The last time he'd been completely out of contact with everyone for so long had been seven months ago, at the beginning of this current slide.
What with one thing and another, Lex had been in a ridiculously large number of lab explosions. The last one had been different only in that there was no good reason for it to blow up. They weren't engaged in even ordinary government-contracted weapons research, much less anything more experimental or illicit.
There had been threats, but there were always threats. Probably the most pertinent in this instance involved LexCorp's recent contract with the newly-reconstituted Sudanese government. Not only were there excellent profits potentially to be made, but also, Lex felt, there was a huge amount of good press available for the human race -- the long-standing problems in that unfortunate African country were nothing that the SuperAlien could solve. Human beings' hard work and leadership were finally turning the tide, and Lex intended to give the new government every connection to other human beings, international trade, etc. that he could. "Take that, Alien. We can save our own damn planet!"
Naturally, some splinter group of wackos disagreed that trade with the Sudan was a good thing, and they turned out to be slick enough to get through LexCorp Security. The security breach was perhaps inevitable, since he'd had Hope and Mercy working on another few important projects for him, but who would expect real trouble at a perfectly respectable, absolutely above-board Agricultural Research Lab anyway?
So there Lex had lain, head lower than his heels (which at least had the benefit of keeping the blood from his inevitable head wound out of his eyes) trapped beneath the remains of a desk (fortunately metal-topped, rather than glass) which had borne the brunt of the collapsing basement wall. The lead shielding in that wall was old, left over from the days when Dad's LuthorCorp seemed to specialize in the seemingly unremunerative field of mutagenic fertilizers. It must be ten or fifteen years since the building had housed any radioactive materials.
After quickly ascertaining he was very thoroughly trapped, Lex had managed not to waste precious oxygen by futile struggling for three solid hours, keeping time by the beating of his pulse, loud and steady in the blackness. As the time dragged by, Lex cursed the mindset that had prevented him selling the unnecessary lead as scrap. He should at least have transferred it to one of his top-secret labs, where it might have been of some use in deterring that nosy extraterrestrial snake-in-the-grass. The superfluous lead's weight had partially collapsed the floor supports as well, and crushed the desk and chair into a tangled cage which kept Lex's arms bound at his sides. He had absolutely no leverage with hands or feet.
Finally he decided that the air was no staler than before, and there would be nothing to be lost by exerting himself.
Unfortunately, it turned out that there was nothing to be gained, either.
Lex wasn't sure how long he struggled uselessly in the dark. He tried to free himself with all his strength, all his ingenuity, all his will, holding nothing back. There was nothing to spare for counting heartbeats, which furthermore were erratic indeed by the time he failed comprehensively to get loose. Dripping with sweat, dripping, he thought, with blood, gasping with exertion and with dust, Lex's eyes and ears were dazzled with roaring spangles of exhaustion. He hadn't managed to move one centimeter. He lay still for a while then (not letting himself acknowledge that he'd been lying still the whole time), trying to get his breathing under control.
Quite some time passed like that, in alternating cycles of pointless struggle and exhausted recovery. He may even have slept a little. It was hard to tell.
Presently, due to that familiar combination of boredom, weariness and terror that most people are fortunate enough to avoid their whole lives, his mind began to wander.
"Shouldn't you be cryin' for help?" Lewis asked. He had no trouble moving around.
Lex tried to ignore him. Lewis crouched and started rifling the desk drawers, flung open in crazy disarray just past Lex's left shoulder. "Why is it I can see him?" Lex wondered. It had been pitch dark before.
"Course it's dark, Lex. We're under four stories of broken-down building here."
"Is anyone else trapped?" Why was he even asking? A)How the hell would Lewis know? and B)Lewis didn't exist! He never had!
"The plant manager's secretary was comin' down to see if you wanted coffee. Her boss took off for his three-martini-lunch after you asked to see the sub-lab. Nobody but you'n her was below ground level when the place blew. Listen!"
Lex did, straining his ears to hear past the rushing of his own blood. There were noises, far away, or he thought there were. Grating, shifting -- he knew he shouldn't ask Lewis, but he could only hold out so long.
"What is it?" Lex whispered.
"Fire department, mebbe Search and Rescue." Lewis quit picking his teeth with a letter opener he'd found, and cocked his head like a dog. "She's screamin' for help. Why don't you?"
Lex swallowed and tried to shake his head. He thought there might be such a thing as death with dignity. Additionally, he was not going to scream in front of Lewis. Who did not exist.
Lewis stuck the eraser end of a pencil into his ear, and scrubbed vigorously and with evident enjoyment. "They won't be able to reach her," he said casually. "She's too deep, and the wreckage is too unstable. You should have paid attention to those threats."
"Which ones?" Lex murmured. The spangles behind his eyes were getting brighter, and/or the dark was getting darker. Lewis flashed in and out like a strobe.
After a while, Lex had a dream. It started where so many of his nightmares did, in that dark blood-rainy landscape of desiccated plants and bones. He walked until he was tired, then fell. Instead of bony arms, clothed in blood and mud, reaching up to pull him down into Hell, where his Father reigned eternally in torment, the sun unexpectedly peeked over the horizon. In its dim, fresh, pinkish light, the skulls and bones were revealed as rocks and sticks. The mud was just regular mud, on the bank of a long-forsaken river, whose rushing could now be heard competing with distant birdsong in the formerly dead silence. A big dark-haired man in work clothes suddenly appeared. "You shouldn't lie here in the cold, Lex. You'll catch your death," he said, and helped him up.
Lex woke up in the Emergency Room of Metropolis General Hospital seventy-three hours after the explosion. He felt cold, and dizzy, and sore. The hospital staffers working on him were shocked when he regained consciousness. He identified a crash cart nearby and wondered if that was its customary location, or if his heart had actually stopped this time.
A skinny black man in a white lab coat shone a light in his eyes. Lex blinked hard and flinched. "Can you tell me your name?" the man asked, in a loud slow voice.
Lex grimaced. "This is Met General. Shouldn't you people know me here by now?" he rasped. The guy kept darting the light in his eyes, and it really hurt. Lex closed them and said, "I'm Lex Luthor. Cutting edge biotechnology, advanced robotics research, commercial real estate, and head injuries. Satisfied?" He refused to open his eyes again no matter who told him to. They did a lot of painful stuff to his arms and legs without meds, since he was head-injured (of course!), so he supposed they were getting their revenge. Eventually, despite everything, he fell asleep again.
This time he didn't dream.
That had been seven months ago. The dimwitted domestic terrorists who'd blown up his facility were in jail awaiting trial. They'd left plenty of evidence around, and one of their number had been caught and started singing even before Superman had pulled Lex and the secretary from the rubble. (He still didn't know how his subconscious mind had known about the secretary.) Everything was under control. He should be fine; the indignity of being rescued by an enemy alien was nothing new. Yet here he was, holed up incommunicado in a hotel in Alaska, living on ice cream and not doing anything. Lex wondered if this was how Howard Hughes had felt at some point. He kept sitting by the window, though, looking out. It was nice.
Huh. A kid across the street was reading a comic book. He had a plastic bag that said "The Comic Shop" on it.
Lex realized he was three months behind on Warrior Angel.
It didn't seem fair. It wasn't like he was some horrible burden at home on the farm, was it?
The miles sped by under Clark's feet (running was more fun than flying, even if it was slower) and he worried at Mom's conversation like a kid worries at a scab. He'd always thought he was pretty good around the place. Okay, sure, he ate a lot -- was that it? Mom didn't want to feed him? Couldn't be. She loved feeding him. He was home to supper most every Sunday, and he helped out a lot with the heavy chores then, too.
Heh heh -- splattering through the snow on these tall Canadian mountains in July was pretty funny. Clark tunneled and twirled, launching himself upward to make a snow volcano -- cool! There was no one around for miles in any direction. He flopped into the snow he'd plowed soft and made an angel, in July! He got up, laughing, and drew a halo over its head, and then two little horns, and laughed some more. Clark shook the ice out of his hair, double-checked his "watch" to make sure the Fortress hadn't signaled him about anything, and set off running again.
Okay, yeah, maybe Mom had a point.
Clark had actually been to Fairbanks a couple of times before. Once in a while, Superman needed a lot of money in a hurry. Clark had researched the laws regarding prospecting -- got an article out of it later, too! -- and hunted around and found gold in places where nobody ever went. Then Superman legitimately converted it to cash in Fairbanks, Alaska. Both times he'd been really rushed, though, and he hadn't been able to look around much. Besides, sightseeing in the suit wasn't easy -- people kept wanting him to do things.
So when Mom told him, "Go on vacation!" Fairbanks was the first place he thought of. It was pretty close to the Fortress, too, and the little signaling doohickey he wore as a watch wouldn't let anything too bad get past him on a worldwide basis, he hoped. Metropolis would just have to take care of itself (although he was pretty sure he could hear Lois scream from here -- it wasn't like he could just let her get killed by drug lords or anything, even if he was on vacation!)
The Alaska Highway followed the Tanana River down from the mountains pretty much straight to Fairbanks. All roads in central Alaska led to it, just like Rome. Clark kept the highway noise a mile or two to his left, and just sped along. There were a lot of moose out here, and they looked funny when he zoomed past and surprised them. He also saw a bear!
The Fairbanks Hotel was the oldest hotel in Fairbanks. A sign in the lobby said it dated back to 1911 or something, and it was built kind of crooked, but Clark liked the cheerful pink-and-purple paint job. He got a small room, bath down the hall, with an old-fashioned single brass bed and a wash-hand stand, for $55 a night, which seemed pretty reasonable for the middle of tourist season and no reservations. They didn't sneer at his clothes, either, or the fact that his entire luggage consisted of one battered backpack, and they had bikes for rent!
Clark stowed his gear in the little room and asked the desk-clerk, whose name-tag said "Ted," where was the best place for a big dinner. He was hungry after his long run. The man gave him a little yellow map with all sorts of places advertised around the edges, and used it to show him how to get to Alaskaland, although the map said "Pioneer Park."
Gesturing at the map spread out on the desk, Ted said, "They have a real nice all-you-can-eat Salmon Bake, every night. All the tour-buses come, but it's still good. When I have relatives visiting, I take 'em there. If you want a big meal, that's where to go."
"Thanks!" Clark replied, beaming. He rented a bike and took off.
Pioneer Park turned out to be pretty cool. Maybe people called it Alaskaland because it had a merry-go-round and a train ride and a big playground, as well as a bunch of historic displays of old buildings and planes and Indian artifacts and mining equipment and stuff. The Salmon Bake was at one end, and there were lots of buses lined up in the parking lot. Ted was right about the food. There was plenty, and it was good. In addition to the baked salmon, they had fried halibut, lots of salads and stuff, and two kinds of cake. The people were friendly, too, and Clark got into some nice conversations. He hadn't had so much fun at a dinner for quite a while. Trust Mom!
The Fortress didn't beep him. Lois didn't seem to be yelling for help. Nobody in his immediate vicinity was in any trouble, as far as he could tell. Clark ate a lot. The sun didn't go down! He was used to that sometimes when he was at the Fortress, but not when he was just being himself and there was no emergency, and people around. It was almost enough to make Clark giddy. It was almost enough to make him forget to be worried about Lex.
Once he got to thinking about Lex, Clark knew he wasn't going to be very good company anymore, so he hopped back on his rented bike and headed on out.
It was easy enough to find his way back to his hotel. The Chena River ran right down the middle of town, pretty much, and most of the roads paralleled it. He didn't need to think about where he was going, so he could worry at his other mental problem.
Lex knew who he was. He'd called him by his right name, right to his face. Clark couldn't quit waiting for the other shoe to drop.
How long had he known? Why hadn't he threatened Clark's folks yet? Lex really, seriously believed that Superman was a big problem for the world, and he wouldn't stop at anything to get rid of the 'Alien Menace.' Clark knew that, knew it like he knew the sun rose in the east. But he also knew that Lex knew exactly who he was, because seven months ago, when he dug Lex out from under all that lead at his last exploded lab, Lex looked him right in the blue Superman eyes, weakly grabbed onto his red Superman cape, called him "Clark" plain as day, and then passed out. Maybe he'd only figured it out just then. Maybe he hadn't committed any crimes since then (that Clark knew about) because he'd realized that if Superman was Clark Kent then he didn't need to fight him all the time anymore.
Maybe the sun didn't rise in the east.
Clark wished he could talk to somebody about it. Unfortunately, Mom had plenty to worry about all the time anyway, and Dad would probably just have a heart attack, and the only other person who knew he was Superman, and could therefore understand the problem at all, was Pete.
Pete had hardly spoken to him since he moved to Wichita when they were kids. Clark saw him in Metropolis sometimes. He worked for LexCorp now, but he didn't answer the phone when Clark called, and he didn't call on Clark when they saw each other at LexCorp press conferences. Clark still wasn't sure what he'd done to wreck his friendship with Pete. He supposed worrying about that would make a nice break from worrying about Lex.
Clark put the bike away and greeted the friendly night-clerk (his name-tag said "Charlie"), then went to his little room to brood. It was allowed. He was on vacation.
Over and above the fact that Lex Luthor might do something terrible to his folks the next time he felt like he had to Stop Superman, Clark worried about why it was that he didn't seem to be able to keep any friends. He was perfectly sociable with strangers. Take those people at the dinner tonight -- they'd all had a terrific time. He was interested; they were chatty; he was friendly; they were forthcoming. Why, he could write a feature article about any one of them right now! Clark got along great with co-workers, too. Jimmy liked him, and nobody worked as well with Lois as he did. That was because she was driven and insane, and he was mild-mannered and useful to her -- she needed him, for his trick memory for facts and quotes, and his spectacular spelling and proofreading skills. He also admired the way she wrote, and wasn't too proud to tell her about it, and of course he was always Johnny-on-the-spot for anything related to Superman.
Don't just sit there and mope, Clark. If you have a problem, do something about it! That's what Dad would say, if Clark dared to trouble him with this. It was almost midnight, and it was finally dark outside. Clark put his hands behind his head and thought as hard as he could. If he really put his mind to it, could he get Pete, or Lana, or maybe even Lex, back as a friend? Could he make Jimmy or Lois or Perry be the kind of friend he used to have back home in Smallville?
Clark wished that he were the same species as the people of Earth. They seemed to understand each other so effortlessly. Mom and Dad were like two halves of the same creature, and had been as long as he could remember. Perry and Lois's arguments were like an exchange of gunfire -- they had everything over and done with before Clark could even figure out what the problem was. Once he got past ordinary surface chitchat, though, the kind of thing that came up in interviews or just casual conversations, people seemed to Clark like puzzles. He still didn't even know how or what he'd done to alienate Pete. (Alienate! Hah!) Lex was a little clearer -- he'd been kind of judgmental and grabby to him as a teenager, and even though Lex hadn't said anything about it at the time, as far as Clark could tell, he figured it hadn't done the friendship any good. Recently, of course, there had been all the crime and crime-reporting and crime-stoppage and stuff, but they'd stopped being friends way before all that started.
It wasn't like Clark could go after people really, and just drag them back and make them be his friends. There was a line that crossed over into stalking, and he knew people hated being stalked. What he never seemed to be able to figure out very well was where exactly that line was, so it was probably better not to go there at all.
Maybe, if he could somehow figure out what people wanted from him, and give it to them, when they came around by themselves by chance... That was why strangers and Superman was easy, or interviewing people was easy. People wanted rescue from Superman; he could do that. Interview subjects and random strangers wanted perfectly straightforward conversation, and sometimes to have their names spelled right. Clark could do that, too. Lois wanted fact-checking and proofreading and rescue from thugs -- easy! Jimmy wanted the loan of ten dollars 'til payday, and cheerful advice, and help fixing his car. Okay. Perry wanted a good-enough reporter, who was happy to work long hours.
Pete wanted -- maybe Chloe back? Clark couldn't do that. He worried about Pete a little longer, round and round in his mind, and then gave it up as a bad job.
Lana wanted? Jeeze. Who knew? Her parents, probably. Clark didn't brood about her nearly as long as he had about Pete. He'd brooded about her plenty in years gone by, anyhow.
Lex wanted the truth. He wanted to know things, and he didn't want to answer a lot of questions himself, either. Wow. Clark hadn't had to think twice to figure that out. Lex also wanted the Earth to belong to the Human Race, but since Clark wasn't really trying to rule the world as its Alien Overlord, he could give him that without even breaking a sweat. Since Lex already knew most of the truth (He knew Clark Kent was Superman!) Clark should easily be able to tell him anything else he wanted to know. Lex kind of wanted to rule the world, too, but Clark pretty much thought that would probably be okay, as long as Lex managed to get himself honestly elected or something.
So, he had at least one plan. If Lex ever talked to him again, Clark would tell him everything he wanted to know, and not ask him things all the time. Clark almost never got picked for questions at LexCorp press conferences anyway; he could let Lois do that part of their job. It was a little exciting, actually. He'd never voluntarily told anybody everything, or even anything, really. Clark felt better and fell asleep.
The sun was up again by three a.m., and Clark was wide-awake by four. Fairbanks wasn't exactly bustling at that hour, but there were a few people around, and the sky outside was spectacular. He was up and dressed in a flash, made the little bed, smiled and waved to Charlie on his way out, and hit the town.
There were a lot of interesting buildings, and plenty of old picturesque things all over the downtown area. The river was nice, and the weather was perfect. Clark sped a little when nobody could see, and he was able to explore as far as the University (they had a lot of outdoor sculpture, and it was a totally different kind than what you'd see in Metropolis) before he was hungry for breakfast.
Mmm. Sourdough pancakes.
After breakfast, Clark hiked around at the Creamer's Field Bird Sanctuary. It was still early, and the few people on the trails were easy to keep track of, so he was able to fly with the birds a little, and that was a lot of fun. While perched in a big tree watching a wary nearby eagle, Clark noticed a place with a big sign that said 'The Comic Shop' over by one of the bridges back towards downtown. He wondered if the new Amazing Spiderman was out yet.
Zooming across the highway at a fast human speed (everybody else he'd seen jaywalked, too) Clark noticed a Chinese restaurant across the parking lot from the comics shop. Mmm. Chinese food. There was a really nice car parked in the exact geometrical center of the lot. Must be a tourist's rental; all the local vehicles would've looked right at-home in Smallville.
The Comic Shop was huge inside. Clark figured they must get a lot of business from the nearby military base, and probably there was a big demand for comics and indoor-type games in the winter. He hit the 'Just In' section first, and sure enough there was a new friendly neighborhood Spiderman he could take back and read in his room tonight. He looked around at all the dice (shiny!) and smiled cheerfully at the other shoppers nearby. Everybody smiled back. He gradually worked his way back to the big bins of back-issues, just looking, and stopped dead at the sight of a bald familiar head. Clark x-rayed him just to be sure. He'd know that skeleton anywhere.
It was Lex!
Lex didn't jump; he just sighed. Someone had located him. He was slightly surprised to find that he could straighten and turn, with a pleasantly detached business-like expression firmly in place. He was even more surprised that he didn't lose that thin veneer of composure when he saw who had accosted him.
It was Clark Kent.
It took only three deep breaths for Lex to convince himself that it could have been worse. Lois Lane could have tracked him down instead, or his Father could have risen from the dead.
"Mr. Kent. How did you find me?"
Clark blinked at him, in the old familiar way. He wasn't wearing his glasses. "I didn't. I'm on vacation. What are... Um. I mean, I'm surprised to see you in Alaska."
A horrible thought occurred to Lex. He wasn't 100 percent certain that this was really Clark Kent. The possibility that he was hallucinating again could not be entirely discounted. There was a twelve-year-old boy rummaging the half-price X-Men bin nearby. Lex put on a suitably disdainful tone of voice.
The boy looked up, curious and just a tiny bit hostile. Perfect.
Lex smirked arrogantly and gestured at Clark. "Pretend you're a detective. Describe that guy."
The kid put his chin up. "What's in it for me?"
Lex almost laughed. "Ten bucks."
The kid narrowed his eyes at Clark, who looked confused. "About six foot four, black hair, green eyes. Kinda burly."
"You left out the two most important things. He's a reporter, and he's a pain in the ass." Lex paid the boy, who laughed and left, comics in hand.
"Now, Lex. Don't be like that." Clark grinned at him, and he really shouldn't be this susceptible to that anymore. "There's a Chinese place right across the way. You wanna... I mean, I'd love to take you to lunch."
"Why on Earth would I want to eat with a muckraking reporter?"
"I guess you wouldn't, but I'm on vacation! I didn't even bring a pencil with me! Don't you... I mean, I'm not being a reporter for another solid fourteen days, at all. Everything I hear and say is totally off-the-record, and we used to be friends, and you know, Alaska! Please come have lunch with me. I'll pay!"
That puppy-like expression was still strangely endearing, and hard to resist, and Lex was hungry, and felt alone -- "Fine. But I'll pay."
"Great!" Clark exclaimed, beaming at him. How many years had it been since Clark Kent had beamed at him, since anybody had? It was a rare expression in Metropolis.
Lex didn't thoroughly regret his impulsive action until he stepped across the threshold into the restaurant. The smells of the place might not have been off-putting to the majority of their potential customers; in fact, the bright noisy dining room was full of people devouring the fare with gusto. However, Lex had not eaten anything that could, strictly speaking, be defined as solid food for well over a week. He felt nauseous and a little dizzy.
He nearly had his polite excuse for fleeing back to his hotel room formulated in his mind, when Clark suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders, steadying him. Clark's big hands were warm even through the broadcloth. "Whoa! Lex, are you... I mean, you don't look so good."
"I'm fine," Lex muttered. It wasn't what he'd meant to say. Before he could summon back his original statement, Clark had them both seated in a booth and was ordering him a bowl of soup, in Mandarin. "When did you learn Chinese?" Lex asked suspiciously.
Clark did that deer-in-the-headlights thing that Lex hated, and then took a deep breath and said, "Four years ago. In San Francisco. I just kind of picked it up. Turns out I have a freak thing for languages."
Lex was so surprised that he was almost sure he let it show on his face. All he said, though, was "Smallville."
Clark let out a little rueful snort of a laugh. "Yeah."
The soup came, and it was nice. After the first delicate spoonful, Lex's stomach changed its mind and decided that this was just what it needed. Clark's food was different, and plentiful, not ordered from the menu but rather picked out from the waitress's cryptic recommendations. He beamed more at Lex, in the intervals of shoveling his meal down. There wasn't much conversation. Suddenly Clark looked at his wristwatch and frowned.
"I'm sorry, Lex. I have to go now. I'm not sure when I'll be back, but I'd like very much to spend more time with you when I return. I'll find you in town, okay?" Clark winced a little, as if he'd misspoken somehow, threw some money down on the table and left at a quick walk.
By the time Lex finished his soup and got back to his car, Clark was nowhere to be seen.
Comfortably ensconced in front of his hotel-room window again, Lex mulled over the strange interlude. Clark's behavior had been weird in a different way than it had always been, back when they had been friends.
Heh. Obsessing about Clark Kent made him feel like a kid again.
Lex realized he hadn't smiled in months.
Suddenly the view wasn't quite as enthralling as it had been. Lex welcomed the restlessness. He went back downstairs to his rented car, and drove awhile.
Fairbanks was quite a bit more than a picturesque remnant of a frontier past. Once he got out onto the highways, Lex thought it resembled Grandville in a way. There was a University, considerably larger than Grandville Community College, but surrounded with a similar blend of coffee shops and bookstores. There were the ubiquitous big-box stores that infest rural communities of all kinds in this modern age. Further out, though, this town was surrounded by forest and marsh instead of the familiar Kansas farmland.
Lex turned around at a scenic overlook (allegedly one could view Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, on a sufficiently clear day) and headed back. As he drove past the Office Depot, he suddenly, on a whim, decided to pull into its enormous parking lot. He hadn't brought a computer with him on this trip; he'd done no work at all since his weary, panic-stricken phone call to the travel agent back in Metropolis, more than a week earlier. For all he'd been paying attention, LexCorp could have vanished like the dust of ancient kings.
Fifteen minutes later he possessed a perfectly serviceable laptop, and forty minutes after that he was on-line, courtesy of the hotel's free wireless internet setup. He rummaged around for a little while, reading the random news snippets of events that he'd missed during his fugue. LexCorp was fine; the stock was stable; no panic over his absence. After all, people do take vacations. He was pleased to see that they'd won that asteroid exploration robotics subcontract. The government of Canada was embroiled in a financial scandal. Some fourteen-year-old kid in South Dakota had found an unknown species of dinosaur fossil. The latest breaking news was about Superman. He'd been spotted evacuating a village in Japan that had been cut off from all access in a big earthquake. Some earth-science professor from MIT was speculating that he'd damped out the resulting tsunami, too -- no signs of one had manifested, despite the experts' best calculations.
Lex was still working himself up to the ordeal of opening his own e-mail, when there was a knock at the door.
"Lex? It's me, Clark. Can I come... I mean, I'd like to come in."
Lex put the laptop aside and unlocked the door. Clark entered. He seemed even bigger than usual in the confined space of the room.
His hair was wet. Clues started clicking themselves together in Lex's mind.
"Hey, this is nice! You have a great view of the river," Clark smiled, gesturing and moving over to stand at Lex's window. "I went past a place that has boats for rent, and..."
"I know what you were doing, why you had to leave the restaurant so suddenly," Lex interrupted. It was all so clear. Superman must have signaled Clark via his wristwatch, for some sort of assistance with his recent activities in Japan. People in Metropolis occasionally did speculate about Clark's connections to Superman. His old friend was a tool of the Alien. This might be very bad.
Or maybe not; maybe Clark had met him here in Alaska purely by chance. Perhaps he'd decided to come clean about Superman's nefarious schemes. It was even possible that this newly peculiar behavior on Clark's part was indicative of a desire to leave the Alien's service, and he needed Lex's help to get out from under Superman's mighty thumb.
Clark froze, but he met Lex's eyes squarely. "I know. I, I figured you knew..."
Lex swept around to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clark, looking out over the riverfront. Hesitantly, he said, "It doesn't mean that you and I have to be enemies."
A big sunny smile broke out on Clark's face again. "Great!"
Lex sighed. He'd have to try to talk Clark around; he owed it to any human being to try to get them free from that monster if he could. It just seemed like it might be a lot of work.
"Clark. I know that Superman seems like, well..."
"I know that you have a big problem with, with Superman," Clark cut him off. "And I appreciate that, since, well, that you haven't tried to use my folks to put any pressure on..."
Lex was honestly shocked. Just because his (dumb) old friend was a wrongheaded follower of that alien world-conqueror didn't mean that Lex would ever hurt the Kents! "I would never do that!" he declared indignantly.
Clark turned half toward him. His eyes were glistening, and he put his hand on Lex's shoulder. "I should have always known that, Lex. I'm sorry I ever for a minute thought otherwise."
Lex smiled and dropped his gaze. "Just because I think you're misguided to follow that alien -- I mean, I know you think the best of people sometimes, and he does present a very virtuous image to the world." Lex glanced up at Clark to assess his reaction.
Clark's eyes were wide, and his mouth was open. It was a strangely fish-like look, but still damnably attractive. "Um. Lex, I um. I thought you knew!"
"That you work for Superman. Yes, I do. I should have seen it before, actually. Your names are linked so frequently; it doesn't take a genius..."
"Lex, no! I don't work for..."
"Don't bother to deny it. Honestly, Clark, it's almost common knowledge among the denizens of Metropolis who bother to pay attention."
"Lex! I don't work for Superman!"
Lex turned away and looked out his window again. He felt cold and tired, and disgusted.
Clark's voice came from behind him, quiet and pleading. "I am Superman."
Lex turned slowly around to face him, and Clark really didn't like the look on his face. He started babbling.
"I really am, Lex. I was sure you knew! I always have been. Well, when I was a kid I always kinda thought I was just a freak, like lots of people, the far edge of normal, you know? But then you hit me with your car, and it turned out that Dad had a spaceship hidden in the cellar, and there was all that stuff with the caves, and it turns out I'm not from around here at all. Alien. And you know, you maybe always knew, I don't know, 'cause you're always way ahead of me on the two and two together thing, but I know you know 'cause you called me Clark, even though I was in the suit, last time I rescued you. Remember? With the lead? You did know? Right?" Clark winced. He was asking questions again.
Okay, now Lex looked even worse. Crap. Clark had seen him with that look before, more than once, but not recently. This wasn't Luthor to be afraid of, but Lex to be afraid for, and Clark wished he'd never said anything about anything if Lex was going to be all broken about it.
Lex sounded okay though, when he finally spoke.
"Show me," he said, and it was a command, so Clark figured Lex wasn't broken after all.
Clark grinned. "Okay."
Lex hadn't even considered visiting the top of Mt. McKinley on this trip. Climbing the tallest mountain in North America was just too reminiscent of those horrible attempts at father-son bonding that he'd occasionally suffered through as a child.
But here he was, and he hadn't had to climb a foot. Clark settled them down onto the brilliant snow, light as a feather. The overcast didn't reach the top of the mountain, but no one below them would have been able to see a thing.
"I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!" Lex quipped, a little breathless.
Clark laughed. "You always know just what to say. When I first learned to fly, it was months before I could think anything but, 'Wow!'"
Lex laughed, too. He could just picture it.
"You look cold, Lex. You want to... I could take us back."
Lex shook his head, even though he had to admit to himself that he was shivering. "It's just so beautiful up here."
"Okay," Clark said, and then he was just suddenly gone. Lex barely had time to consider that Superman might possibly have lured him to the continent's highest mountain peak in order to leave him to his death, before Clark was back with a big coat and a fuzzy hat. "Put these on. They're mine, but I don't need 'em. I just wear them for show, to the office, during the winter-time."
"You went all the way to Metropolis and back in that span of time?" Lex was so bemused by this intimate knowledge of Clark's abilities that he didn't resist being dressed in the warm clothing, even though he never wore stocking caps!
"Yup. Easy as pie." Clark continued to stand close, and Lex was grateful for the warmth, for the nearness. Clark had always stood too close, back in Smallville in their youth, and Lex had loved it. He should have realized long ago that this man was never born of Earth.
The landscape below was perfect and huge and green, painted over with washes of cloud and tracked with little wandering rivers. Lex felt again that he might be, almost must be, hallucinating. The thought didn't scare him as much as it should have.
"Why didn't you ever tell me before?" Lex wondered quietly.
"I was afraid. Not just of you. I was afraid of anybody finding out. Still am, I guess."
Lex looked up into the too-close green eyes. How did he do that -- change them from green to blue? Although, it certainly wasn't any stranger than being able to project heat-beams through the eyes, or use them to see through solid objects... He could ask all these questions, now, and apparently now they would be answered.
"You don't have to be afraid, Clark."
Clark laughed ruefully and ducked his head. "Sure I do. Not of you, I mean, I hope not of you?" He looked bashfully up through his eyelashes, and Lex knew he'd never be able to oppose Superman in any meaningful way ever again. He wondered if that would lead to trouble, further down the road. Probably. Clark was still speaking. "I kinda do have to be afraid all the time, though. Afraid that I won't save somebody, that I won't hear their cries for help, or that when I get there it'll be too late, or that I'll do something stupid and mess up saving them even if I'm there in time. I have to be afraid that somebody'll find out my stupid secret and blackmail me by hurting the people I love, or find a way to hurt me myself. I have to be afraid that I'll hurt somebody. By accident, or when I'm, um, out of my mind, or even on purpose..."
Lex interrupted. "I'm sure you wouldn't..."
Clark looked him very earnestly in the eyes. "It's happened before." Lex wasn't accustomed to that bleakness in anybody else's voice. "That's one reason I was always kinda glad that you were against me all the time, you know? You're the smartest guy I've ever met, and someday if I really needed someone to smack me down, I figured you could probably do it."
Lex didn't know what to say. Clark seemed to be done talking for the moment. Lex turned and looked down again, onto the world spread beneath his feet. Clark was warm and solid at his back.
"Were you sent here to rule the world?" he asked eventually.
"Yup. There's a bunch of stuff in the caves about it. My bio-dad tried real hard to make me Rule The Earth With Strength. I don't wanna though, and I'm not going to." Clark sounded as if the thought made him weary, but there was no doubt at all in his voice.
"You don't worry that your father's wishes for you will prevail despite your best efforts?" Lex ventured.
Clark must have moved closer still; his breath warmed the back of Lex's head, even through the knit cap, as he spoke. "That's not one of the things I'm afraid of."
"I am," Lex whispered.
"I know," Clark replied quietly. "But you're not your father. You don't have to be. You never will be. I won't let you, any more than you'd ever sit back and just let me be mine."
They listened to the wind awhile. Finally, Lex murmured, "Destiny."
sequela, n.; pl. SEQUELAE. [L.] a A consequence; necessary concomitant. b Med. A morbid condition left as the result of a disease.
Notes: A million thanks to Crossbow for her extraordinarily helpful beta! All remaining errors and offenses against common decency are mine alone!
Disclaimer: "Smallville" is owned by DC Comics and/or the WB and/or Millar & Gough and/or Tollin & Robbins. "Superman" was invented by Shuster & Siegel. I don't own any of the characters. I'm just fooling around. Please don't sue.