On a bridge, in the night, down a country road, beside an old house. He doesn't have to know what he's seeing to know what he's feeling.
Love to Blackfall, Koi, Caro, Nifra and Bethy, who inspired.
Night's like pitch with no moon, headlights cutting through with thick swathes of white, illuminating asphalt and the dead fields of high summer. Two hundred seventeen miles outside Metropolis, farther than he's chosen to drive in years.
Urban sprawl is far from here. Just night and thickness and an endless heat the air conditioner can't begin to penetrate, sweat popping up beneath the suit, slicking silk against him like a second skin.
The country's always been like this--you could drive forever and never see the end, lose yourself in back country roads that twist and wind in on themselves like a riddle that doesn't have a solution, and he can remember driving them for hours in his youth. When Lex was just Lex and he loved his cars and he loved his freedom.
A stutter on the gas pedal, a second taken out of time....
*"I could have sworn I hit you."*
And the car slows, Lex isn't sure why his foot shifts to the brake, sliding him onto a bridge that's never existed anywhere but in his mind for more years than he can count. The sputter of the engine drags his attention briefly to the fuel meter, long enough to register empty, not quite enough to care.
Getting out, his feet encounter the dusty asphalt of the drought-stricken rural district, and he remembers the reports on his desk, stacked one foot high with dry numbers and suggestions of sale. Office interpersonal fighting and the day-to-day drudgery of corporate politics--somehow, the slow death of Kansas' breadbasket hadn't penetrated the haze of endless work.
Different in the hot, dry air. He thinks of the cool of his penthouse and the soft silk of his sheets, the warm body of his wife, the woman who's shared his bed and his ambitions but never touched his life.
He's never wanted her to, and now, he's not sure that he remembers why.
A few dusty steps before his feet encounter steel-reinforced beams beneath wood, the metal handrails of a bridge that he can draw from memory. It decorates the edges of notebooks beneath squiggled lines of code, snatches of Greek tragedy and Walt Whitman that he entertains himself with during board meetings and long negotiations with endless corporate giants.
It needs work, he thinks, gloved hand closing over the rail, fingers circling curiously, feeling the settle of warm metal through the leather. Cracks in plaster and concrete, and the bolt's rusty and worn. He pulls experimentally and feels the sway, lets his body echo it when he closes his eyes.
Lets himself feel it, just this moment, this second, with nothing but the wind whistling over the fields and the quiet of water moving sluggishly beneath. A trickle, not a stream, not a river.
"I want--" he hears himself whisper, and the whole world seems to stop when he says it, wind dying to nothing, the fall of dirt back to the earth; wondering if he can finally answer this question to himself. No words follow, and the world picks up again like it never left off.
Child's folly, to think the sun rises and sets on his whim. He's years from being the kid who believed he could do anything.
*"If you had, I'd be dead."*
He dreams of water, though. Like this.
A bridge, a car, and water, surrounding him. Thick and cold and dark, steering wheel against his chest, and no air. Clawing toward light and *something*--with warm, soft dirt beneath him, a warm, living body above him, and God, so much *want* it's an ache that will never go--
This. Sharp metal and earthy, green-brown color-taste that slicks his tongue, and the chase of sweetness behind like an afterthought. His palm flattens on the rail, measured steps with closed eyes, listening to the water move beneath and capturing it even as it disappears into the recesses of memory.
Turning to rest his elbows on the rail, he stares into the muddy water far below. Insanity starts with so much less, but he remembers this dream like he remembers so little of reality. His wife's name has never been this close.
The sharp cut of headlights makes him wince, and he turns to watch as an old truck comes to a slow stop, lumbering behemoth beside the slim Porsche. Lex doesn't move--he's not sure he *can*, and if ever a vehicle could hesitate, this one did, tires restless and inertia pulling them away.
When the engine cuts off, Lex breathes again and straightens, blinking as the truck door opens. A thousand worst-case scenarios come and go, he's one of the richest men in America and he's alone on a country road, vulnerable, he left everything behind and even the gun pressed against his thigh doesn't seem the protection it should be.
Strangely, he doesn't reach for it.
The figure's tall, broad, typical country hick, and Lex can trace the lines of flannel and denim long before he sees the face. Strange, how his fingers think they know the feel of that shirt even when they don't, leather thumb rasping against his palm.
"Car problems?" It's a low voice, rich undercurrents of Kansas and summer nights, and his mind takes off in a thousand tangents at the catch of vowels, wondering what his name would sound like on that mouth. He doesn't even realize he's holding the railing too hard until it snaps, fucking hand and its strength, balance shot to hell, and when the green eyes materialize in a face he's never seen, he...forgets.
Forgets the bridge and the water and the heights he hates, forgets to smile and speak, forgets his name and his place, and the too-fast arm around his waist is like the ground, stable and unbending and solid. A turn of his head shows he's inches from his own death, and he thinks that perhaps he should care.
*"You saved my life."*
Thinks this man shouldn't, but the grip's personal and holds him effortlessly, warm and strong through silk and cotton.
"Whoa." It's an afterthought, breathed into the air like a breeze, and Lex only nods, letting himself be set back on his feet while the man steps back. Feet between them when there were only inches, and Lex clenches his hands to keep from reaching out. "I--sorry. You looked like you were going to fall."
I was. I have. Before. Lex bites the words away. "My car seems to be having problems."
The dark head tilts. Even in this kind of light, Lex should be recognizable if the man's ever been to Metropolis, and he's waiting for the hitched breath and widened eyes, the stumbling words that greet him wherever his father's name falls. Nothing. "Sorry to hear it. Do you need a ride?"
Lex takes a breath and a step at the same time. Like walking a tightrope a thousand miles above the ground. He's not sure what he's doing or why. "I could use a phone."
The dark head nods slowly, and Lex watches the headlights fill the green eyes with light before a big hand slips out. "Clark Kent. I live nearby, if you don't mind leaving your car."
Hard palm, strong, wrapping around Lex's hand in endless gentleness. "Alexander Thorul. Thank you.."
He remembers a farmhouse.
Little sun-yellow cliche, set back in beds of summer flowers before a burnt yellow-brown lawn. An ancient swing rocks lazily in the hot breeze that ruffles the man's hair--Clark's hair. Old, worn stone marks the path to the whitewashed porch. Behind it, Lex can see the silent fields that once boasted crops, burned down to bare dirt beneath the merciless drought. Clark's big and bracing as the proximity lights come on--jarring technology surrounded by nostalgia. There are ancient chintz curtains fluttering in the windows and the kitchen light is on. Lex wonders who is waiting for Clark within.
The porch groans beneath their weight, and Lex finds himself walking softly, as if the boards will reject him on principle, and he only looks away at the loud clatter of the screen door, worn netting showing the holes of time and use. Clark throws him a grin as bright as the warm yellow light pooling at Lex's feet.
There's a momentary hesitation--only a second, and Lex watches Clark slip off big, dusty workboots, leaving them on the porch outside the door. A glance over a checkered shoulder. "She hated it when I tracked dirt into the house."
Lex nods and his body stops where Clark's did, dusty black leather matched beside worn brown, padding on thinly socked feet into the kitchen. No cooler than outside, but the slow buzz of an electric fan sends air across Lex's face, and he closes his eyes as the sweat dries away.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Lex opens his eyes on Clark, leaning into an old-fashioned, latched refrigerator. Inside are containers of various sizes and uses, and Clark picks up one, raising it to his mouth. Milk, thick and white, the kind that's fresh and delivered directly from farms.
Strange visions of fields of cows, dipping into the ground like artifacts of a completely different world. Lex nods and takes another step into the kitchen, letting the door rattle closed behind him.
"Water will be fine."
Clark grins back at him, a white mustache across his upper lip that he licks away. Lex watches the soft pink tongue track golden skin. Not so much the bucolic farmer, even surrounded in country-chic, and younger than he thought. Reaching into the refrigerator with one long arm, Clark pulls out a gallon jug and then opens the freezer. Lacking anything better to do, Lex leans into the counter by the door, looking down at the well-worn vinyl beneath his socks. Vivid contrast of black silk, perhaps like his appearance in this kitchen.
"I'm sorry if I'm disturbing your night," Lex says, eyes fixing on the golden band circling Clark's fourth finger. "Or your wife."
The faintest stiffness of a broad back. Flannel seems to freeze, stone-still, and there's the unmistakable sound of fumbling plastic before the tray falls to the floor. Another too-fast movement, and Lex is faced with a forced smile stretching lips paled to white.
"You're--not. She died a few years ago."
Clark nods and takes the tray to the sink, dumping it with the clatter of breaking ice cubes on porcelain, returning for another one. It's all written in the tight knot of his shoulders beneath the flannel, the unmistakable trembling of broad hands as he pours Lex's glass and adds the ice, but when he turns around, nothing except pleasant affability shows on his face.
Peasant, his father might say, but Lex tunes the voice away from habit and takes the glass Clark extends. A brush of fingers against his, accidental and meaningless, but Lex feels the burn as he pulls away, taking a slow drink. "The phone's by the refrigerator," Clark says slowly, and Lex thinks he understands the message. He'll leave now, before he touches another wound.
If there's one thing he does well, it's causing hurt.
Discreetly, Clark excuses himself upstairs, and Lex watches him leave before padding to the phone, lifting up the receiver. Scratch of a dial tone on the backs of his ears; bad phone lines. He closes his eyes as he dials the number from memory.
No surprise, the voice on the answering machine is his own, cool and impersonal. His wife is out for the night, at the dinner party he'd left hours before. Smoothing over his departure with graceful words and fluttering smiles, wounded eyes watching the door for him to return. He'll see those eyes when he gets home, asking questions she'll never voice.
An endlessly disappointing husband for an endlessly disappointed wife. He shouldn't be surprised. He's good at that, too.
Leaving the message, Lex hangs up the phone. He could call any number of people and demand a ride, but all the numbers seem to vanish from his head and the dayplanner is in the glove compartment where he left it.
"Wasn't home?" Clark's too close--Lex should have felt him approach but didn't, and he turns to find him a breath away. Flannel stripped away, the t-shirt beneath fresh from the drawer. Overgrown dark hair brushed neatly back. The big hand that touches the wall near his head is damp, and Lex thinks of Clark upstairs, cleaning up quickly to greet his unexpected guest.
He makes it easy to tell the truth. "It looks like it. Do you know a towing service around here--"
Clark grins. "Nope. This is Smallville--the world rolls up at eight."
Lex feels himself begin to smile. "When did I leave civilization?" He picks up the forgotten water, taking a sip, needing to do something with his hands. The fresh smell of soap from Clark's skin is addictive and too close. And Clark draws away too soon.
"Probably wherever you got your car. Did you leave the number here--" Clark stops, shaking his head. "And I left without telling you."
"She should be home in a few hours." Morning at the earliest. A shoulder pressed to a soft beige wall, Lex feels Clark's gaze on him, curious and questioning. "Surely there's a hotel--"
"There's a guest bedroom with clean sheets," Clark answers firmly, a teasing smile lighting up his face. "I was raised better than that."
Of course. Lex imagines a flash of red hair and a smile that had never been turned on him before Clark turns away, and the echoes of memory fade even as Clark opens the refrigerator door again. "Is there anything you need out of your car?"
Nothing he thinks he'll miss. "No." Left alone on a bridge in the dark, it will be lucky to survive the night. Lex curiously finds himself not caring. Pulling off his gloves, he slips them into his pockets and crosses to the small table.
"Sorry, I don't have much--" Muffled before Clark turns back around. "I don't do much shopping." He returns with pre-made sandwiches under plastic wrap. "Ms Potter sends them when she thinks I'm about to starve."
"Not a good cook?" Lex is. He learned in college.
Clark grins as he sits down across from Lex at the worn kitchen table, a glass of milk at his elbow. "Never learned. I--Lana used to love to do it. She and my mother--" Clark stops, shaking his head like he's clearing invisible cobwebs. "Sorry."
"No. Lana was your wife?" Clark left him an opening the size of a jet plane. He reaches into it because that's what he does. Curiosity he rarely lets himself feel is slipping its tether, and Lex watches green eyes darken with remembered pain.
"Fifteen years last week." Clark blinks, looking down at the plate before peeling away the cellophane with big, steady fingers. Relaxing in some nearly imperceptible way when he looks into Lex's eyes, shy and sweet. "She and I--sort of high school sweethearts."
Lex nods, letting the platitudes slide away from his conscious mind. "That's very romantic." Still a cliche, but at least he thinks he's navigating the conversation better. A sandwich gives his hands something to do, his mouth an occupation. He's never liked small talk that doesn't involve ancient history or corporate takeovers.
Me? That's a question. He explores it, trying the edges of possible responses that don't sound crude in this bright, warm room. I don't know. I don't know her, and I don't know that I ever wanted to. She married me for money and I married her for ambition. She dances well and can play the piano. We dated for two years before we were married. I still don't remember her middle name. Sometimes, I don't even remember what she looks like. "We've been married for fourteen years." He's not sure when their anniversary is.
There was a cake and presents, he remembers, piled high on a graceful antique table that had belonged to his mother. He'd kept looking out the door of the Church. When he'd asked when his best man would arrive, his father had looked quizzical and disgusted at once. Stupid Lex, he's right behind you.
Eternal minutes before he recognized Bruce in his Armani suit, watching him from behind dark, unreadable eyes.
"She and I--there was never anyone else." Clark's eyes are fixed on the plate with a shy blush. A blush, for Christ's sake, rippling color over high cheekbones, and Lex can see the reflection of a thousand happy memories in the clear green.
"I know the feeling." Lex looks at the crust of bread that remains in one hand. "Smallville." He tastes the word on his tongue, feeling the roll of vowels over his lips. It's recognition and strange all at once.
"Ghost town," Clark answers without bitterness, picking up another sandwich. Lifting it up, he looks at Lex over the top of smooth homemade bread. "After the plant shut down, everyone--started drifting away."
"LuthorCorp, went down a few years ago." Clark shrugs and Lex closes his eyes to hide the expression in them, picking up a sandwich to hide the trembling in his hands. "I mean, it was bound to happen, after all the accidents." Yes, the accidents. Lex takes a bite and can't taste the home-cured ham. "So we're back to the soil again."
"You're a farmer?"
"Raised by the best." Clark smiles wistfully. "Organic. My dad like his dad--you get the idea."
Fathers always have such hopes for their kids, planning their futures like signposts are needed to get it right. Lex wonders when he started falling short. Maybe at birth "This their farm?"
Clark nods. "Yeah."
The silence isn't uncomfortable, and Lex lets it stretch, broken only by the furtive crinkle of cellophane, the soft sounds of glasses being raised and lowered. He's used to imported water and a gourmet cook, but food's never been his passion.
He's beyond wondering what his passion was supposed to be.
The television's familiar, at least, and Lex sits on the opposite side of the couch from Clark, pretty images of reality dancing across his vision briefly before the evening news again. Clark gives him a beer, long necked and cold, and he drinks without thinking, rough burn on the back of his mouth, unaccustomed to alcohol not sold by the thousand dollar. The cushions are lumpy beneath the lovingly crocheted afghan, and Lex wonders if Lana was the one who had made it.
"So--what do you do?" Clark asks over the newscaster's solemn predictions of future drought over the third beer, and Lex takes a drink from the bottle. What *does* he do? He's his father's glorified assistant and henchman, at the best of times. At the worst, the scapegoat of every failure. Lex closes his eyes as he takes a slow, careful drink. "Acquisitions and mergers. Mostly telecommunications."
"Oh." It's clear that Clark doesn't know what that means, and Lex thinks he probably doesn't either. Another drink to explain the silence, and then Lex lets the deceptive comfort loosen his tongue. Unforgivable, his father might say, but he hears his father in stereo all the time and doesn't need him here as well. It'll be soon enough before the real thing.
"Paper-pusher." He gives Clark a calculated grin to relax him and gets the same back, free and clear. Jesus, those smiles. Like a light turned on inside, and Lex thinks he's never seen anything like it. "Boring, really. Years ago, I almost had to--" Come out to a place like this. No. That's too much. "Had a different career track. But I think this suits me better."
Clark nods over his bottle as if in agreement. "I--well. I went to MetU for a while. But something always called me back here." Unconsciously, one hand touches his ring, fingers stroking over the gold as if it's the most precious thing on earth. "My dad--he wasn't so sure, but--I like the land."
Lex nods along with him, feeling like an idiot for doing it, and realizes his bottle is empty. Clark gets up with the kind of effortless grace he's only seen in dancers, plucking the bottle from his hand and going into the kitchen, returning with two more. When he sits down, he seems to be closer.
It could be Lex's imagination.
"Did you always want to be a farmer?" The question slips out, natural, and Clark shakes his head with another one of those grins.
"Nope." Twisting the top off effortlessly, Clark takes a long swallow, long golden throat stretched, and Lex's eyes linger on the pulse point, the skin just visible at the juncture of neck and shoulder. "For a while, I wanted--this'll sound stupid."