Past tense is HARD, dammit.
Also, hating LJ a little. May this only post once.
It's weird, how fast you get used to paranoia, because James was doing a great impression of one who lives really happily with that fact. Under the cover of trees--and Clark had no idea why the kid seems to think it can protect them, but he wasn't asking questions--he moved in a way that reminded Clark of Lex when Lex was feeling particularly vulnerable. Everything in the straightness of his back, the flicker of his eyes everywhere at once, always watching, always worried. The one time Clark had spoken to Lex, James had gone stiff and still, and Clark hadn't tried it again. No one should look like that just hearing his voice. No one.
Lex had given the necklace back, and the kid, after a second's hesitation, had stuffed it deep into his pocket, basking in the smile Lex gave him as a reward. Clark kept his distance, too, pretty sure that no matter what Lex said or did, there was no way James was going to take his presence too well. With all the layers and space between them that James kept, the feeling of the rock was almost muted, the vaguest sensation of unease just in the pit of his stomach.
The journey was unnerving as they angled through the woods almost at random. This strange, uncomfortable suspicion that James was deliberately taking the longer, more convoluted way, and right, smart, but the kid was barely *twelve*, if that. He shouldn't be--
"....built after the last incursion into our territory," James was saying brightly. "Mom said they were driven out with their tails between their legs. They can't get past the barrier conventionally, but they've been adapting their ships for short excursions. That's how--how the last time--" The soft tenor trailed off, almost breaking as he looked up at Lex with wide eyes. "I. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--"
"No problem." Lex sounded so calm. So--well. Normal. "Tell me more. After all, I've never been to this zone recently--"
"It's Smallville," the kid answered with a wrinkling nose. "The Kryptonians can call it anything they want, but it doesn't make it true, Mom said. They say all kinds of stupid things."
Clark's stomach did a strange pitter-patter that had nothing to do with meteor rocks or sanity. Breathe. Just breathe. You can do this.
"What do the Kryptonians call it?"
James shrugged. "The Badlands." Another shrug, even more careless. "Too much kryptonite--" James stopped, hesitating, and Clark could almost see the war in his head reflected on his face. Coming to a stop, his mouth opened like a fish gaping in air, then shut tight. Instinct fighting reason. Worship of Lex against conditioning, maybe, and Clark found he couldn't even blame James for that. Then he took a deep breath. "There's a shield up. He--if he gets too close--" James' voice trailed off, and from the look on his face, he regretted saying that much. "I--can't bring it down. I can *tell* them, but--"
Jesus. Clark thought of the little necklace in James' pocket. Shield? What the *hell* was that? A--shield. Of Kryptonite? Clark's imagination offered up morbid visions of solid green walls and dying in front of them, and oh God, he had to do something, anything. Think of something else.
Just--take it in. This wasn't his world. This was--like Lex said. A dream. A something that made no sense, but nothing real-real. Even if the remembered pain of kryptonite poisoning was still trembling through every nerve in body memory. This was--this was wrong.
"C--Kal is my friend, James." Clark watched Lex turn all his intensity on James--Clark remembers being fifteen and feeling that for the first time, the way Lex could refocus, make you feel like you were the center of the universe. That nothing was as important as you were. That--and God, and all of that, only strengthened in the year they'd known each other. Lex did it like habit, almost unconscious, but right now--right now, it was deliberate, and this was something Clark was glad Lex had never used on him. He wasn't sure he could stand up to it.
James nodded slowly, eyes glazing a little. Jesus, what did this kind know of them? What *was* Lex to these people? What--what--
"I can try." His voice implied he'd do more than try. Small, callused hands clenched against the dirty thighs of his jeans, he nodded firmly. "When they know--when they know you're *back*--" Shaking his head, he turned quickly, moving faster, and Clark imagined that they were getting along faster, less--twisted path. What did they know about them? About Lex, about Kal, about--about a shield and ships and Kryptonians, Jesus, it was like his worst nightmare flooding into his best dream ever. His *people* were here, and they had answers to every question he'd ever thought to ask.
Just not the answers Clark would ever have wanted to know.
"Clark." Lex was dropping back, and Clark jerked his gaze from the ground, watching Lex's eyes fix on him, worry clear. "You okay?"
"Dream, right?" He didn't sound nearly as light and casual as he'd hoped. Dammit.
There was a moment of hesitation, almost painful, before Lex nodded slowly, and Clark let out his breath in a hiss. "Lex, don't coddle me. What are we dealing with?"
Both pale eyebrows raised. "Did I forget about my doctorate in Smallville weirdness? Clark, your guess is as good as mine."
Clark snorted softly, knowing he was being unfair. "It's--Lex. The way he looks at you--shit, can he hear us?"
Lex's eyes flickered up, catching James', and Clark watched in fascination as James smiled back, bright and carefree. Like--a kid. A normal, human kid who had no bigger problems in the world than what was for dinner and whether he could play baseball with his friends afterward.
Clark stopped the shudder, but just barely.
"No," Lex answered in a lower voice. "I--. Clark, this--they. James can't even tell me what year this is. He doesn't know."
That brought Clark's full attention back. "What?"
"He doesn't use the standard we're used to. It's year fourteen, if that means anything, but I'm not sure from what. Since the landing?" Lex bit his lip briefly, frustration written into every line of his body. "Shit. I can't ask the right questions because I'm supposed to have the answers already."
Clark nodded slowly. That would make sense. Simple math, simple deduction. Anyone could figure this one out. His people were here, had been here. "I'm seeing some obvious parallels."
"That's a lot of maybe's for definite conclusions," Lex answered shortly, but he'd been thinking the same thing, it was obvious. Close enough to touch, but Lex was far away now. He was--what? A leader? Supposed to be a dead leader, like the kid said. A dead leader, because of Kal, according to the uncertain revelations of a preadolescent who was possibly leading them to their deaths.
A *shield*. Jesus Christ, it was too damned much, and Clark wanted just to sit down and take it in. Curl up and ignore it until it all went away. Story of his life, he thought a little viciously. Like his dad. If you just ignore it, it will go away.
"Clark." Lex's voice was careful, and Clark hated that voice. The one Lex only used when he was dealing with Clark like he was any adolescent in the world, not his best friend, not his closest friend, not even that since Helen, who took up all that space in Lex's head that had been Clark's exclusively.
Oh yes, and that was a seriously vital bit of whining to get out there. Kicking at the leaves, knowing he was being stupid and knowing he didn't even care. "I--I want to go home."
"That makes two of us," Lex murmured, and fingers brushed against his arm, slow and gentle. "We'll get out of this, Clark. It's Smallville, after all. Everything eventually returns to a variable status quo. Cheer up."
Clark almost smiled at the careful amusement in Lex's voice. Manipulative, yes. But that, in this case, could not be considered a bad thing.
"I--" Clark stopped, mouth working on words that didn't want to emerge. He tried again. "This is--Lex, what do you think's happened?"
Lex's mouth tightened briefly, and Clark almost regretted the question. It was obvious, painful, *real*. Nothing that anyone couldn't figure out, and that just made it worse, somehow, that Lex wouldn't even *say* it.
"We shouldn't jump to conclusions yet," Lex answered slowly, testing out each word. "We only have James' narration--"
"Humans don't get out of Metropolis alive. Those people--him--knew my other name and were scared to death of me. They're wearing *kryptonite*. He used the word Kryptonians. And fourteen years? Come on, Lex, I'm not stupid." Panic tried for a grip, but anger's good for blocking it, rechanneling it, and Lex was such a good target, being right here and being reasonable. "Fourteen years ago, I landed. And apparently here, I wasn't alone."
Blue eyes met his straight on. "Yes."
That--Jesus. "I can't take this." He couldn't. He wanted to wake up now. And Lex--Lex just watched him with almost-pitying eyes and that wasn't helping either.
"You have to. We have to." Lex's hand closed tightly over his arm, pulling him to a reluctant stop. He could have just kept walking, dragging Lex behind him, but James was already scared and Lex was the only one in this entire place who, so far, wasn't insane. Sucking in a slow breath, Clark focused on the fine fingers against his skin, noting the break in one nail, the dirt ground up beneath and over his knuckles. Like Lex Luthor's hands had never been in memory. "Clark, look at me."
It was harder than learning to control his vision--harder than looking at James--harder even than watching Lana when she was with Whitney and Clark knew he couldn't have her. Slow and painful, to lift up and meet and hold, and Lex's fingers tightened. "We're going to get through this. We'll find out what happened and we'll get back home and this--we will."
"Easy for you to say. You're a hero." Lex's mouth turned up at one corner at that, and Clark snickered softly. "I--"
"Trust me. We'll find a way."
Trust wasn't the problem. "We don't even know how." Though Clark's guessing meteor rocks and some kind of bizarre reaction with those, but hell, for all Clark knows, interdimensional portals are like, Mr. Granger's obsession, and maybe that would explain all the cars. And wow, what a stupid thought.
A single glance showed James watching them, sharp eyes and his hand jammed in his pocket. Closed tight around that necklace, apparently. Clark took a deep breath and stepped away from Lex. Almost instantly, the kid relaxed. Right. He's Kal and a threat. To Lex, to humans, apparently, and he can deal. He'll deal and have his nervous breakdown *later*, and had he really been upset at having to do an entire day of bills? Give him boredom and a worn kitchen table right now.
"Not much farther," James offered into the silence, and Lex smiled at him and nodded. "I--um. You wait here. I'll tell them. I--" James frowned, looking between them. "But they--um, may not believe me. About Kal--Clark. So. You know."
Clark's stomach dropped, visions of kryptonite-clad people surrounding him instantly intruding on his vision, and damn, that sucked. Sucked so very, very much. Lex tensed beside him, but merely nodded. "We'll wait here."
"Okay, good." And like a ghost, James vanished into the trees like he'd never been here at all. Clark gaped a little, but Lex's eyes were narrowed and thoughtful. "Lex, I'm not so sure--"
"It's this or the alien overlords. And I think these people could catch us if we ran. After all, James tracked us quickly enough." Hands stuffed into his pockets, Lex began to paste, needing to work off excess nervousness, and no, Lex wasn't thrilled by what they were doing at all.
"I could fly us out."
"You did, and ran us around what could have been half the state. James still found us." Lex's eyes narrowed again, glancing at where James had been. "I wonder--"
Clark watched Lex come to a stop. "What?"
"Meteor exposure. A shield. He's below fourteen--he'd have been exposed *in utero* if they've been hiding and fighting this long." The scientist was emerging with a vengeance, and Clark watched him tune it out, focusing on the situation at hand with an effort. Poor Lex, doomed to so many interesting scientific discoveries and not even able to so much as spend a few minutes marveling at them. "How do you--"
The first thing Clark knew for sure was that there was pain.
Every time, after, he'd think he remember how it felt--the spasms of shocked muscle trying to pull free of bone and curl inside, the hideous feeling of his blood trying to seep through his skin and dribble onto the ground, the lurch of every organ, and every nerve awake and alive and screaming so loudly he couldn't think--but memory wasn't reality. Reality was collapse, and that had to be a lot, had to be too much, because Clark's vision was out, weak as a kitten in the grass, splayed hands unable to even grasp for the ground and Lex--God, Lex. Was alone. Facing....
A massive buzzing in his ears and he could just feel Lex's hands trying to touch him, and God, that made it hurt even more. He could have screamed, but his throat was raw and for the first time, he tasted blood, filling his mouth.
Lex. Jesus, Lex, he was leaving him alone and Clark tried to form words and gave up with the next ripple that shocked out his mind, thank you God, please.
Thank you God, please God, never let me wake up again.