"That's not equivalent trade."
Garrison scowled, but only because he knew he was wrong; Conner reflected that lunchtime trades had gotten so much easier since Randall had gotten the Full Metal Alchemist DVD set. Watching it on the sly when their parents and nannies were unawares only made it cooler, Conner had told them, and he, Randall, Garrison, and Geoffrey had built a fort out of Randall's couch cushions and watched sixteen episodes in one sitting.
Garrison debated for a minute, and then said, "Fine. But I have to pants a girl."
There was a moment of silence at the lunch table, and by the time Conner finally slid over the pudding cup, Geoffrey was asking, "Why does it have to be a girl?"
Randall snickered, and ate his low-carb, high-fiber brown bread and tofu-butter sandwich, saying, "Cause Garrison's dad thinks he's gay."
"He does not!" Garrison shouted, coloring darkly before whirling back at Conner and yelling, "Anyway! It has to be a girl! A girl!"
Conner rolled his eyes, saying, "It doesn't matter if it's a girl or a boy. I just figured you'd get in less trouble with the nuns if it was a boy." He twisted around in his seat to retrieve a battered blue notebook, the cover scuffed and dog-eared from being carried and stuffed everywhere, hidden behind his back, and jammed underneath his mattress or taped to the ceiling of his wardrobe. He opened it to page thirty-eight and double-checked his list.
"You still have four Snack Packs," Randall pointed out, reaching over before Conner smacked his hand away with the notebook, glaring.
"This is for business, business!" he insisted. "You already said you wouldn't help."
"I said I wouldn't be stupid," Randall corrected. "Your distraction plan is stupid."
Conner glared down at his notebook and made a note in one of the margins to un-invite Randall to his ninth birthday party. Geoffrey dropped his elbow onto his Capri Sun pouch, which shot an arc of Hawaiian Cooler all over Randall's sugar-free lunch, leaving Randall turning as red as a tomato and doing his best impression of a puffer fish.
The entire table burst out into laughter as Geoffrey said, "I'd worry about your stupid face first, Randall."
"You can't even spell your own name, Geoffrey Chaucer Archer!" Randall yelled back, voice rising in pitch with every successive syllable until Conner was hissing at them to be quiet as the nuns glanced in their direction, already frowning in familiar disapproval.
"I can spell it just fine!" Geoffrey yelled back, and Conner groaned, gathering up his pudding cups and notebook and putting them all away as the nuns started toward their table, almost as tired of Conner's friends as Conner was. "E-D. That's how you spell my name! E-D!"
"It's not Ed just because you decide it's Ed, stupid!" Randall yelled back, sopping juice out of his unbleached wheat crackers with his jute-fiber napkin. "You have to sign stuff at City Hall!"
By the time Sister Marie and Sister Anne reached the table, Conner's part of the table was clear except for his lunch, and he wore an expression of deep distress at his friends' argument, which was only getting louder and meaner. Randall said he'd tell his father; Geoffrey said he'd tell Conner's. They'd settled for glaring and throwing bits of napkin at each other before the nuns separated them to opposite ends of the lunchroom.
At the end of the period, Conner gave Geoffrey a Snack Pack, no strings attached.
Sulking during recess, Geoffrey said, "Randall sucks, anyway."
"Yeah," Conner agreed. "Plus, his lunch is always freaky. Dad says their whole family is one big hippie experiment gone wrong."
"Yeah," Geoffrey echoed. Pausing, he added, "What's a hippie?"
Conner shrugged, and tapped his foot, impatiently thinking about Thursday. "Dunno. Dad says if he tells me I'll probably run off and do drugs."
Geoffrey scowled and ate his pudding. "Your dad says that about everything."
Conner didn't quite reach the reception desk, but his fingers were clearly visible where they gripped the edge of the polished, mahogany-colored surface. From his vantage point, Conner could see the entire uppermost office space, which was a modernized, open-design area with a thin distribution of people and desks. There were lots of plants, computers, and fluffy armchairs, all of which contributed to the feng shui of the place, according to the lady in the hemp dress who'd come to the office one afternoon a year ago.
He hopped, clinging to the counter, holding his upper body over the surface with his arms and his feet kicking air as he said in a rush, "Hi, Miss Charity, can I talk to my dad?" and fell back to the ground, deeply irate.
His father kept promising that Conner was owed a growth spurt, probably in about five or six years, but five or six years was the majority of his life so far, and that was way too much time to wait before seeing over a desk.
Charity leaned over, smiling at him and said, "He's got meetings all afternoon, Conner. I'm sorry."
Conner frowned, readjusted the shoulder straps of his bookbag and asked, "Is there anybody who might be late? That you could squeeze me in for just a few minutes?"
Conner's dad and Charity had never dated, which instantly made her one of his favorite people. And because he liked her so much--and because she always smelled like fresh lemonade--Conner didn't like to use what his father liked to say were "masculine wiles" on her. Which, now at least, was just him pouting and blinking his eyes; in years to come, his dad promised, Conner would have other ones, not that he should abuse those either.
But she glanced at the computer screen, and then winked at him, so that Conner could see the dash of pale purple eyeshadow she wore on her lids. She whispered, "Mr. Haffez is always about five minutes late. I'll buzz your father and let him know, all right?"
Conner beamed at her, and gave her a thumbs up. "Thanks a lot, Miss Charity."
She ruffled his hair and jerked her head toward the waiting room chairs, saying, "Go on, sit down. I'll bring you a cup of lemonade in just a second."
LexCorp's lemonade was always very good. Whether that was because LexCorp was very good at everything, or because Lex knew Conner loved the stuff was up in the air; either way, it was good for Conner, and he sipped happily while Charity walked back to her desk, the practical click-click-click of her shoes rhythmic and dull on the Berber carpet.
In his chair across from the reception desk, Conner could see all of Charity that was above the desk, and she was wearing a very pretty tan suit with a silver pin of a butterfly on one of the lapels. When she leaned over to hit the intercom button, it caught a late-afternoon beam of sunlight and looked as if it were about to flutter away. Conner sighed and leaned back into the seat, smiling.
This was going to work, he told himself. Of course it would. He'd planned it to every last detail.
"Mister Luthor?" Charity said, quietly, in her Work Voice.
There wasn't a buzz of static--his dad would have hated that--before Conner heard his father say smoothly from the other room, "Yes, Charity?"
"Your son is here," she replied gently, smiling up at Conner. "He only wants a few minutes. Since your next appointment is Mr. Haffez I'm going to pencil him in for five."
There was a short silence, and when Conner's dad hit the intercom again, Conner swore he heard laughter in the background, and his father's voice was louder this time, saying, "Thank you, Charity. And we're going to have to talk about your unscheduled visits in the future, Conner."
There was a click, and then no sound. Conner grinned, and finished his lemonade.
Conner had to walk around a tall, dark-haired man named Stanley Martinez to get into his father's office. Mr. Martinez had a thick, bushy beard that completely covered his upper lip, and he shook Conner's hand like he was a grown up and said, "You're an interesting kid, Luthor."
Conner puffed up. "Thanks," he said proudly.
His father only muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like one of those fifty-dollar words that were going to put Conner through private school. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Martinez." He dropped one hand on top of Conner's head heavily. "I'm sorry my son interrupted our meeting."
Mr. Martinez waved him off, grinning and walking to the elevators. "Oh, hardly."
It was only then that Conner's dad turned to look down at him, with one arched brow and blue eyes that were just shy of amused.
"You realize that you're nine right?" Lex asked, ushering Conner into the enormous office and shutting the door behind them.
Conner's dad had the best office in the world, and it wasn't just because it was his dad that Conner thought that. Fortune magazine and Forbes had come in and taken pictures once. The first one was of his father lounging in one of the soft, black leather chairs, feet kicked up and a smile on his face, casual. The second one had pictures of Conner's dad's profile, dark and curving against the floor-to-ceiling windows that were two sides of the office walls.
But what Conner liked best about it was how many wonderful things were tucked into it: brown-gold globes that were so old they definitely weren't worth whatever his dad had paid for them at Christie's, books with yellow pages that looked like they were going to fall out, armchairs and a glass desk and the newest Mac computer--and always a stack of CDs with women shrieking about dying on them.
Conner climbed into one of the chairs in front of his father's desk, and kicked his feet, even though they sort of stuck out instead of hanging down.
"Don't get too comfortable," his dad said. "I'm kicking you out in four minutes."
"I want to negotiate a vacation," Conner said, getting down to business. He pulled his bookbag off and unzipped it, pulling out the careful graphs he'd made in math class when everybody else was charting apples versus oranges. They were bar graphs, and Conner wasn't really sure they made sense--numbers weren't his thing--but his dad always said visual representations were important.
His dad said, "A vacation."
Conner held up chart number one, which showed two bars. One was labeled "Conner On Vacation" and showed a bright yellow bar with a smiley face drawn into it. The other bar showed "Conner Stuck With Nuns Or Mercy Or Hope" and it was a very small green bar with a barfy face drawn into it.
He cleared his throat. "This is a representation of my happiness when I'm allowed to be by myself--" he pointed at the yellow graph "--and this is me when I'm stuck with nuns. Or Hope or Mercy." Conner looked for comprehension across his father's face.
His dad cocked one eyebrow. "You didn't actually have to draw the vomit, Conner."
"I wanted it to be clear," he replied, concerned.
His father nodded. "All right," he said, motioning for Conner to go on seriously. "I take it you have more graphs, and you only have--" Lex paused to check his watch "--two and a half minutes left."
Conner nodded and reached into his backpack again and pulled out his second and last chart, which was supposed to be a line graph but had somehow dissolved into a picture of a bunch of big buildings in Metropolis and a gigantic bee that was eating the Hardwick Inc. buildings and a slime monster crawling up the LexCorp labs near the corner. But the important part was the picture of Conner walking around near the Daily Planet building with the word bubble saying: WOW I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN WITHOUT THE NUNS OR MERCY OR HOPE!!!!
His father made a sound suspiciously similar to choking.
"So I rest my case," Conner said importantly, struggling to lean over and set the two charts down on his father's desk. He looked at his dad seriously. "Have I made my point clear?"
"I think so," his father finally said. Leaning back in his chair, Conner looked at his dad and his dad looked back.
Conner saw his dad's face everywhere: on TV, in newspapers, in magazines. But it never really looked like his dad. Lex Luthor's face was too unlined, too well-lit, and his eyes were always bluer--or not blue enough when Conner saw him filtered through something. Lex Luthor didn't look like Conner's dad at all, as if he was some weird mirror version, like in those horrible movies they showed on FX he wasn't supposed to watch.
But now, Conner thought his dad looked just right: a little bit tired, and trying not to laugh, with his shirt kind of wrinkled and his tie kind of loose, one hand tapping on his glass desk and grinning at Conner. That made sense.
"So you see why it's very important that I take a vacation from nuns and Mercy and Hope," Conner pressed.
"Naturally," his father agreed. "The barfy face was very descriptive. Excellent shading on the vomit, by the way, Conner."
He nodded. "Thanks. I wanted it to be lifelike."
"Sure," his father said, smiling madly.
"So can I?" Conner asked hopefully.
His dad smirked at him, and set the pictures to one side. "Oh, of course not."
"It's very cute that you tried though," Lex said, upbeat. He glanced at his watch again. "And look, you've gone over your time by one whole minute." He stood up and helped Conner out of his seat, pushing him gently to the door as Lex tightened his tie and fussed with his own collar.
Mr. Haffez shoved his way into the office just as Lex gave Conner one last push into the lobby, and before he knew it, Conner was back in Mercy's car, sulking and kicking at the leather upholstery because he knew the scuffmarks would bug his dad.
The first thing he did when he got home was mess up the order on all his dad's shelves of Scientific American. Then, he went to call Geoffrey. He hadn't wanted to use his Super Special Backup plan, but that's what it was for, he guessed. Conner dialed away and wondered which girl Garrison was going to end up pantsing, and if she'd hit him really hard for it.
No matter what his father said, Conner was pretty sure Mercy hated playing chauffeur. She always opened the door for him with a smile on her face, and that was a pretty good indicator that she was imagining something less cheerful beneath it. It was cool on an intellectual level to know that someone who graduated from the School of America worked for his dad and drove him to and from class; it was a lot less cool when you were alone in a car with her in rush hour traffic.
Conner looked out the tinted windows into the busy street, scowling as he saw Randall climbing out of his father's latest sports car. It was red and low-riding, and it was skimpy enough to be Randall's latest stepmom. Conner and Geoffrey agreed that Randall would probably grow up to be On The Society Page In The Bad Way; between his dad's never-ending mid-life crisis and his mom's perpetual health and wellness obsession, Randall got exposed to a lot of hemp and boobs.
Finally, it was their turn at the drop-off point and Conner scrambled out, waving goodbye to Mercy as she peeled away from the curb and merged into Metropolis traffic. Conner asked his dad once long ago if he'd had been the one to teach Mercy how to drive; the only person who didn't think that was funny was Conner's dad.
Sister Hyacinth, who had used up all her charity when she was younger and less shriveled, hustled all of class A into their classroom, gave them a look that meant they were all going to be in Purgatory for a long time, and stomped off to terrorize some more children.
Conner scowled. "I don't know why they let her teach here."
"She's holy," Geoffrey said, "or something."
Conner and Geoffrey's desks were pushed together like most of the other desks in the room. There were three columns of two desks together, with big aisles between that the nuns liked to walk through, narrowing their eyes at them, or cooing. Conner had put walkie-talkies behind their stacks of books in the bellies of the desks a week ago in preparation; he'd even gotten some extra batteries to stick in his pocket, just in case they ran out of power and there was a code red.
"Aren't holy people supposed to be nice?" Conner asked.
Geoffrey pulled out his math notebook and started drawing on the inside cover, shrugging. "Maybe she's weird holy. You know, a holy mutant."
Conner considered the idea for a moment before he decided that it was probably the most valid answer, and went back to triple-checking everything for later that afternoon. He dragged the notebook out of his backpack again and flipped through a few pages, coming across the water-crisped page with green ballpoint on it.
He checked off each one as he tapped it with his free hand:
1. Lighter--check, borrowed from Mrs. Banner's purse when she'd given him breakfast. 2. Copy of the Daily Planet--check, swiped from his dad when he had been looking for his iPod. 3. Walkie-Talkies--check. 4. Big labels so they could tell GEOFFREY from CONNER--check. 5. iPod--check, with Mission Impossible music because dad said it was important to have mood. 6. Map of Metropolis--check, with important streets highlighted in green marker. 7. Bus pass--check, because Geoffrey said the drivers ate kids who didn't have exact change. 8. Two dollars in quarters--check, so he could get soda.
Conner smiled in satisfaction, and zipped up his bookbag again, tucking the blue notebook away and pulling out his cow-print notebook. It had HISTORY written on the cover, and Geoffrey had taken a Sharpie and drawn a little Godzilla in the corner, which Conner had colored green. It was an awesome notebook.
Beside him, Geoffrey dragged out his notebook, too, and they stuck Geoffrey's shiny-new history book between them on the desk just as the bell rang and Sister Marissa bounced into the room, her wimple and skirts nearly trembling with excitement as she clasped her hands in front of her chest and asked if they were all ready to learn to love their country.
Randall said, "My mom says our government is just a puppet for a fascist regime."
Sister Marissa looked at him, and Conner and Geoffrey rolled their eyes and flipped to the first blank page in their notebooks. Somebody to their left threw a paper ball at Randall, and Julie Meyers, who looked like a pug, said, "Randall, you stink!"
"Well, our government is most certainly not a puppet for a fascist regime, Randall," Sister Marissa said finally, very carefully. Conner could see her mentally scheduling another Friendly Discussion with Randall's parents already. "Actually, our country is a wonderful place! Today, we'll be talking about the American Revolution, and why everybody gives too much credit to Paul Revere!"
Conner tuned her out, and when he turned to his side he realized Geoffrey was way ahead of him, and already halfway through his drawing of the classroom. Conner just watched his friend draw; he was always surprised by how Geoffrey seemed to be able to draw straight lines without a ruler, and even if peoples' faces never looked right and sometimes the round parts looked more pointy than anything, Geoffrey drew the best straight lines.
"You ready for recess?" Conner whispered when Geoffrey was coloring in the legs of the desks.
Geoffrey gave him a look. "Yeah, but if I get in trouble, I'm going to kick you so hard!"
Conner made a face. "I planned this perfectly. You won't get in trouble."
"You're going to burn down the school," Geoffrey complained. "We'll all get in trouble and die."
Conner ignored him, and turned back to Sister Marissa, who was making a spirited attempt to draw a horse on the chalkboard.
He looked at the wall clock. The hands were on nine and two; sighing, he put his head down and waited, staring out the wide windows of the classroom into the carpool lane, and wondered what Clark Kent could tell him about his mother.
Conner's dad didn't like talking about Conner's mom much; it always made him uncomfortable, like he wasn't sure exactly what to say or how to say it. Which was weird, because Conner's dad always knew what to say and how to say it, even if he didn't have anything to say at all, which Conner learned the hard way because he got lectured a lot.
"Why can't we pretend we don't have any problems like people do on TV?" Conner used to complain.
And his dad would look at him for a long time like he was about to laugh and say, "One day, I'll tell you a story about my own father. But until then, we're going to talk about this," and then hed just go on and on and on. Conner would force himself to nod appropriately every time his dad mentioned Alexander the Great or The Art of War.
But the point was, it was weird to see his dad have nothing to say, which was why Conner knew something had happened to his mom, and it had to be terrible.
"Maybe it was aliens," Geoffrey had said once during a sleepover at Conner's house.
"I don't think so," Conner had replied skeptically. "Dad put missiles on our house so he could shoot stuff down a long time ago." Geoffrey had thought that was the coolest thing ever, so then they'd gone to look at where the steel barrels were elegantly hidden into the architecture and forgot all about Conner's mom in favor of looking for the launch sequences.
It was later, one night when he was already supposed to have been in bed, when he heard his father arguing with somebody on the balcony. Conner's dad put a fifty-dollar bill in a special lockbox every time he said a bad word around Conner--"This is your college fund," his dad had explained. "So making you cuss is good?" Conner had asked--and if Conner was counting right, his dad owed the jar some serious money.
So he'd crept out of his room and behind some curtains near the balcony door, and he'd been perfectly still and regulated his breathing so he could hear and see slightly through the gauzy cloth.
"Why are you doing this?" his dad had said, angry. "What does it prove to you?"
"I'm just trying to get to the bottom of this," another voice had argued. "Your official press release just doesn't make sense. People don't just disappear like that, not naturally. You--look, just tell me, who was Conner's mother, how did he--what did he--"
"Shut the hell up. Just shut the hell up and get off my balcony and leave my family alone."
Conner had shuddered then, he'd never heard his dad so angry. And when he'd squinted, he could someone's broad shoulders and dark hair and a blue suit and red cape. When Conner realized that his dad was having a fight with Superman he officially decided that his dad was the coolest person ever; not everybody got to fight with Superman.
"I just want to know," Superman had said.
"Well, you won't," his dad had argued. "Clark Kent can leave this scoop alone."
And then Lex had started stalking back into the house so Conner made a dash for it, and was back in the darkness of his own room by the time his dad stopped just outside his door and took a deep breath.
So the next day at school he and Geoffrey had talked it over and Conner had come to a few conclusions. One, his dad rocked. Two, Superman was nosy. Three, Clark Kent knew something about his mother.
Conner hoped Clark Kent knew a lot about his mother.
All Conner's dad had ever told him was that she was beautiful, and very kind. There was only one photograph of her: she had long, dark hair and a very pretty smile. She was wearing a white lab coat and holding a clipboard, waving at the camera. Conner used to keep the picture in his room, but sometimes he'd wake up at night to see her smiling at him and he'd feel weird, and put her outside his door for the night. One morning, he'd woken up to find his mom's picture moved to the mantel, and it'd stayed there ever since.
She looked strange to him, and even though she seemed nice, and his dad said she was nice, Conner didn't really like her very much, which made him worry if he was a little bit broken. Geoffrey said that after his mom had died, he'd lay in bed and talk to her all the time, and when he was really sad, he'd get out of bed and go sit on the couch with his dad, even if it was late, and they'd fall asleep talking about Mrs. Archer.
Conner and his dad never did that.
After Geoffrey finished his drawing of the classroom, he turned to Conner and whispered, "My mom's name was Evelyn."
"Mine was Ashley. Dad said she was very nice," Conner said awkwardly.
Geoffrey nodded, and grinned. "I hope she was as nice as my mom."
"Yeah," Conner said softly. "I hope so, too."
The last class before recess was English, and Sister Julianne called students alphabetically to give their book reports. Conner had done his on Mattimeo and Geoffrey had his on Go Jump in the Pool! They were, of course, the best book reports in the whole class; Geoffrey even threw water on the class as a visual aid. Conner wished his dad would have let him bring his sword to school for his book report.
By the time that Sister Julianne finally dismissed them, Conner was nearly vibrating out of his seat. He looked both ways and shoved the walkie-talkie labeled GEOFFREY in Geoffrey's hands and hissed, "Okay, do you remember what to do?"
Geoffrey rolled his eyes at him. "Just don't burn the school down."
Conner was too busy jamming everything in his bookbag to be insulted. He grabbed the newspaper and his lighter in one hand and shouldered his backpack with the other.
It was time.
In the third grade Conner had managed to compromise with his father so that Mercy no longer stood at the door of whatever classroom Conner was in at the time. (In return, he had to stop doing things to get his dad called in for conferences all the time; it wasn't Conner's fault he had a tendency to break stuff easily.) It freaked out his classmates and Mercy kept making the nuns cry; it was just a bad arrangement.
But the problem was that Mercy was still technically patrolling the school. Sometimes she climbed the roof, other times Conner saw her scaling the building. The worst part was that she was always somewhere within a one block perimeter, scaring the local homeless people or going through the bushes for potential bomb threats.
Conner was halfway convinced that when he'd been young, his father had inserted a tracking chip somewhere. When he'd turned seven, he'd spent a solid two hours looking for it, but then his father had walked in on him inspecting the space between his legs with a mirror. All Conner had taken away from that experience was that if the So You've Become Sexually Active speech his father apparently had planned for when he was sixteen was anywhere near as awful as the So You've Discovered That You Have Special Feelings There speech, he was either going to have to run away from home or just avoid turning sixteen altogether.
The point was, he didn't have a chance of getting away if Mercy was anywhere around.
So really, Conner thought to himself, shoving desks to the edges of the room and chairs into the corner, picking up pieces of stray paper and taking apart the Daily Planet he'd brought along, it was her fault that he was being forced to resort to such dramatic measures.
When he was done, he surveyed the classroom. Sister Julianne always left the room first, and Geoffrey had waited until all the other kids had filed out toward the playground before giving Conner the thumbs up. He only had about ten minutes to work before one of the nuns would notice something was wrong, so Conner was quick about it.
The Discovery Channel had been showing something about brush-burning earlier that week, and Conner had taken notes. Burning extraneous plant matter to clear the forest floor for new growth: good; out-of-control wildfires: bad. He pushed everything else flammable away, made a pile of newspapers, put a water bottle on one of the desks, and scanned the ceiling for the smoke detector--he was practically right underneath it.
He dug the walkie-talkie out of his pocket, and said into it, "I Rock Harder Than Full Metal, do you copy?"
There was a buzz of static, and then, "Copy, Metropolis Alchemist. Garrison's walking toward Julie Meyers."
Conner's jaw dropped. "She's going to kill him!"
"Yeah," Geoffrey agreed, "it's going to rock--oh, hold on a second, he's doing it!"
Conner sort of wished he were on the playground right now, so he could see Julie Meyers expression, the nuns' expressions, and most of all Garrison's expression.
"Okay! Okay! Everybody's going nuts!" Geoffrey said, excited and laughing. "This is great! She's wearing like, purple underwear with flowers on it!"
Conner glanced out the window and saw the two nuns that had been in front of the school running toward all the shrieking on the playground out back, and as soon as no hide or hair of them could be seen, Conner thought he heard footsteps going across the roof.
Nuns, down; Mercy, down; Julie Meyers and Garrison, so down.
Geoffrey was laughing so hard he could barely talk when Conner heard him next, saying, "If you're going to do it, you'd better do it now--every nun in Metropolis is back here."
"You remember the rest of the plan?" Conner asked, getting nervous.
"I have it completely memorized," Geoffrey said. "Good luck."
Conner nodded to himself, turned off the walkie-talkie, and shoved it into his bag.
He picked up a long shredding of newspaper and lit the end--and dropped it back into the pile. Grabbing his bookbag, he climbed on one of the desks near the back of the room, kicked out the window screen, and jumped out onto the pavement, only skinning his knee a little bit in the process.
When he crossed the threshold of the school, scrambled over the wrought-iron gate, he heard the fire alarm begin to shriek, and he couldn't hold back a whoop of triumph, laughing as he rushed down the street and around the corner.
"I don't make change," the bus driver said, glaring at Conner.
Conner stared back at him silently and handed the man his bus pass.
Several seconds and some intense glaring later, Conner was seated tensely, counting stops and watching the city go by. Metropolis was always in a rush, Conner thought. Everybody moved fast because there was somewhere they were supposed to be five minutes ago. The buildings were sleek and clean and shiny with glass, and everybody wore grays and blacks, with flashes of color like secret jungles in their pressed shirts or on their full lips as they rushed from lunch to their cars to their jobs again. Conner liked the craziness, always wanted to know more about it.
Five stops later, Conner got off half a block away from the seventy-six-story Metropolis Communications building.
It was one of the older buildings in Metropolis, with windows that reflected the blue sky and revolving doors with brass bindings and doormen in maroon uniforms with tassels. It shared the block with a tiny city park with a man-made pond where there were ducks and sometimes swans. Sixty-five floors of the building were radio stations and local cable and network news offices and sets; the top five were for the Daily Planet. It was the most famous part of the Metropolis skyline, and one of Conner's favorites.
Conner's first and only visit to the Metropolis Communications building had been in the third grade, when their class had gone there on a field trip. They'd been herded into the lobby of the Daily Planet, where the lady at the reception desk had smiled at all of them and waved, while reporters had dashed in and out, muddling their way through the ocean of children that had suddenly appeared.
Most of the kids in his class had thought it was boring, but Conner loved the hectic rush of the newspaper office. Later, when they'd been allowed to peek into the bullpen one by one--on the promise that they would never ever repeat any of the words they heard the grown-ups in there using--he'd seen people bent over their desks, phones clutched to their ears and writing furiously, or with fingers flying over keyboards, throwing things around, having fights in corners. It was so loud and crazy and totally alive, completely different from the sedate, navy and silver walls and quiet rules of St. Ann's Academy for Children.
On the street, Conner weaved in between the masses of people traveling every which way, glad he didn't have to cross the street to reach the Daily Planet building. (He was adventurous, not suicidal.) He ducked around women in skin-colored pantyhose, men in pin-striped suits, most of them tapping messages into their Blackberries, a lot of them shouting into their cell phones; everybody wearing jeans he walked by was listening to their iPod.
Conner stuck his hand into his own pocket and felt the smooth surface of his dad's metallic purple iPod mini and grinned.
He tugged out the headphones and cued up song number one hundred and forty-six.
By the time he reached the revolving brass doors he'd liked so much in third grade, the Mission Impossible theme was reaching a crescendo.
He stood there on the worn red carpet leading into the building for a moment, frozen. There were people staring at him left and right, and it made him remember how small he really looked--compared to all the giants running around Metropolis, anyway. Even the doormen with the maroon uniforms and tassels looked at him skeptically, but Conner took a deep breath. He'd been planning this for ages--three entire weeks. That was practically an eternity. He wasn't going to waste all of his careful effort because he was going to chicken out at the last minute.
No, he was going to forge ahead bravely! He'd be like St. George, or Roy Mustang, or somebody else really awesome who won a lot.
Conner fisted his hands, and took a step forward.
So Lou and Bob were the two doormen in the maroon uniforms. They weren't the same guys who worked there when Conner had first visited, and Lou and Bob were nice enough, if it wasn't for that telling Conner he wasn't going to get into the building without a security pass thing. Conner said that he could barely reach the reception desk, it wasn't likely he had a bomb or anything; then, Lou and Bob stopped smiling at him.
Conner's dad was always talking about how Conner tended to forget he was only eight-going-on-nine, but when two guys the size of Mt. Rushmore were telling you that you'd better go on home, it was hard to be precocious about it.
So he'd decided to put the Mission Impossible theme on repeat and remain vigilant, hidden around the corner of the building in one of the hanging eaves. Which had been fine until it had started to rain like nobody's business.
Water was roaring in the gutters, the busy streets were suddenly deserted except for a few occasional stragglers, holding up umbrellas pretty uselessly and shuffling as quickly as they could over the wet sidewalks to their cars or the metro station on the corner.
And most especially, rain poured like a tiny waterfall down the sloping awning where Conner was hiding; he was damp and flecked with rain all over. He'd been too hot earlier but now he was starting to get a little cold--and his knee hurt. All in all, bad outcome.
Conner sulked, kicking at the building hatefully. Who cared, he told himself. They all sucked. One day, his dad would buy out the company and then Conner would get them for sure.
"Stupid Lou," he muttered. "Stupid Bob."
"What the hell are you doing, kid?"
Conner's head jerked up.
The first thing he noticed was the cigarette. The second thing he noticed was the stubby nails on the hand holding the cigarette, which disappeared up one gray sleeve into a grey suit. And when Conner finally blinked and lifted his head he saw the most beautiful woman in the world.
She had dark hair and dark eyebrows and dark eyelashes that framed dark blue eyes and she had a very pink mouth.
Conner's jaw dropped, and he stared.
The woman cocked one eyebrow and lit her cigarette in one smooth move, tucking her lighter into her pocket again and taking a drag off of it. She tilted her head back and blew out a cloud of gray-white smoke, and Conner thought she looked even more beautiful like that than before, with her long neck curved. When she finally looked at him again, she was narrowing her eyes carefully, like she was trying to remember where she'd seen him before.
The blue eyes suddenly flashed, and a row of white teeth appeared between her pink lips and Conner felt himself blush so hard he almost fell over.
So this is what his dad had been talking about when he'd bought his new car--love.
He took a deep breath, and drew himself up to his full height--which was four feet two inches--and said, "Hi, my name is Conner Clark Luthor." He stuck out his hand and hoped it wasn't shaking too hard. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
He hoped it sounded okay. His dad had taught him all those rules of etiquette; this was the first time Conner wished he'd been paying attention all those times.
She grinned at him, tucking her cigarette gracefully between two fingers on her left hand and bending over him. "Well, it's nice to meet you Conner Clark Luthor. I'm Lois Lane," she said, and shook his hand. Grinning, she added, "I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance today."
"You are?" he squeaked.
Lois smiled at him brightly, bending her knees so she was crouched at his eye-level, and Conner thought she was even prettier up close. And she smelled like lavender, lightly purple, like his dad's favorite shirt.
"Absolutely!" she said happily. "Now, what brings you here on this particular day, Conner? Can I call you Conner?"
Conner couldn't seem to make himself let go of her hand, and Lois didn't seem to be in any big rush to pull it away from him either. It was probably fate, he thought to himself. Suddenly, Lou and Bob didn't seem like such awful guys. Hey, after his dad owned this joint maybe he'd even get them promotions; they could have two tassels on their hats instead of just one.
"You can call me Conner," he assured her quickly, flushing red all over again. "Um. I was trying to get to the Daily Planet." He looked at her urgently. "There was somebody I wanted to talk to there."
Lois' smile got even bigger and Conner got weak in the knees.
"Yeah?" she asked, excited. "Were you looking for me?"
"Yes," he said stupidly, and then blinked and added, "What? Sorry. Um. Can you repeat the question?"
Lois laughed, and it sounded like bells. She dropped her cigarette, and as she straightened to a stand, she snubbed it under the toe of her very pointy black shoes. But most importantly, she didn't let go of his hand. Instead, she cocked her head to the side and beamed at him. She said, "It's raining kind of hard, do you want to come up to my office? I work at the Daily Planet." She laughed again. "I could show you the big planet on the roof, too, if it stops raining soon."
Conner's eyes got as big as plates, and he nodded feverishly.
So Lois grinned and led him into the building. This time, Lou and Bob didn't even pay attention to him, and before Conner knew it, he was in that glass elevator again, watching the city get smaller and smaller beneath his feet, his left hand still in Lois'.
Lois Lane laughed a lot, and she even though she smelled a little bit like smoke she smelled more like lavender and rainwater and ballpoint pen ink, which Conner always thought was kind of sweet-smelling. When he told this to Lois, she looked at him for a second and pulled a ballpoint pen out of her desk and sniffed it carefully before her eyes widened and she'd said, "You're right. I'd never even thought about it before."
This was how Conner knew they were going to be together forever.
Otherwise, and almost more importantly, the bullpen was wonderful. Conner had never seen so many people look so tired and crazy and using more four-letter words--sometimes, four of them together! It almost made him want to take notes so that he and Geoffrey could practice for when they were adults. There were people wandering around waving things and yelling across the room or shouting at the copy machine in the corner; someone was always hitting their computer--as soon as one person stopped, someone else had already started.
Best of all was Lois' desk. Conner couldn't really see the surface of it, but he could see a desk calendar with all sorts of weird shorthand on it in Lois' curly handwriting, dates with circles on them and big X's through them and illegible scribbles that were underlined twice. On November twenty-third, there were three shiny goldfish stickers. There was a Metropolis Rockets mug, which Lois said was for pens and pencils, but was totally empty except for what looked like six hundred crushed up Trident gum wrappers. Lois' computer was a shiny white Mac with an adjustable monitor that had pale pink Post-It notes wreathed around it like a Barbie Christmas, and none of them made any sense. When Conner asked Lois what they meant she usually just blinked at him and admitted she didn't know.
"Yeah, but what do you think they mean?" Conner asked, running his fingers over one in the corner that just had a picture of a little stick figure with glasses being eaten by an enormous lizard.
Lois glanced at the particular Post-It note Conner was touching, and smirked.
"Actually, that one I could tell you--but I probably shouldn't," she whispered conspiratorially.
Conner stared at her dolefully, and suddenly Lois' dark blue eyes seemed to snap, or panic, or something, because she was raising her hands and opening her mouth to say something.
But then the phone perfectly in between Lois' desk and the one pushed up to face hers started to ring, and before Lois could reach the handset a big, brown hand had grabbed the receiver, stretching out the cord as a man flopped down in the chair directly facing Lois' desk.
"Daily Planet," the man said, winking at Lois from behind his tortoiseshell glasses.
Conner and Lois scowled at him at the same time. She leaned over to where Conner was sitting in a chair they'd pulled up to her desk and said quietly, "That is the reason for that Post-It. He's always just appearing. One minute, he's no where to be seen, the next minute he's all over my phone." She glared across the desk. "It's like he's faster than the speed of light or something."
Before Conner could agree enthusiastically that the guy across the desk probably sucked, the man said into the phone, "Yes, this is Clark Kent speaking."
Conner fell out of his chair.
"Look what you did to him!" Lois hissed angrily, holding the sandwich bag of ice on the back of Conner's head. She turned back to him, and said more gently this time, "You feeling any better?"
Conner just stared at Clark.
Lois looked between them for a second before a horrified expression came over her face.
"Oh my God, Clark," she said. "We gave him brain damage."
Clark Kent just scoffed at Lois, and peered at Conner's shocked face, saying kindly, "Hey, kid? You feeling all right there? You fell pretty hard." He glanced back up at Lois for a second asking, "Where did you pick this one up? Isn't he kind of young--even for you?"
Lois swatted him with her free hand, but jerked it back, shaking it and muttering about how some people were like gigantic blocks of granite. "I found him hanging around the building. Give me a break, it's pouring. I didn't want the kid to get pneumonia."
The way Clark Kent rolled his eyes told Conner that he probably didn't really believe Lois.
"Right," Clark said under his breath. "Hey, kid--"
"His name is Conner," Lois interrupted irritably.
Conner just looked between them silently and thought about how nice it was to feel Lois' hand on the back of his head--even if it hurt a lot and the ice was kind of giving him an even worse headache. But you made sacrifices for love, his dad had explained, when Conner asked why they were waiting for the scary German mechanic for six hours in his creepy garage with only one lightbulb.
"Hey, Conner," Lois asked again; this time she set the ice on the desk and crouched right in front of him, her hands on his knees. "Come on, sweetie. Don't scare me here." She looked at him in concern, and ran one hand over the back of his head gently, ruffling his hair a little with her fingers. "You don't think anything's bleeding back there, do you?"
He nodded warily, a little nervous to move his head. "I'm okay," he said quietly.
Lois laughed. "Great!"
"Conner," Clark said uncertainly.
Lois looked back up at Clark, raising her eyebrows. "I'm surprised you don't recognize him," she snapped, one hand still protectively on the back of Conner's head--which Conner was totally okay with. He could ask Clark questions about his mom later, right now he was sacrificing for love, and if that meant Lois had to keep touching his hair, he could deal with that. "What with the way you totally abuse your press credentials to stalk Lex Luthor at every turn."
Suddenly, Clark turned very white and he stared at Conner like he was seeing him for the first time--which made Conner instinctively lean into Lois, watching Clark warily from the corner of his eyes. His dad hadn't sounded too happy about Clark Kent that day on the balcony; maybe going to the Daily Planet hadn't been a very good idea, because Clark Kent looked kind of crazy.
"Hey, Conn--cut it out, Clark! You're freaking him out!" Lois scolded.
"You're Conner Luthor?" Clark asked, hoarse.
Before Conner could lose it entirely because this was totally not how he'd planned for this whole thing to go down, he saw Clark's face go from white to totally gray, and suddenly Clark wasn't looking at Conner anymore.
"Thanks for all your help, Miss Lane. My lawyers will be contacting you."
Conner's eyes just about popped out of his head--he knew that voice. And he bet every single Full Metal Alchemist comic he had that it was going to ground him until he was dead. He swallowed hard and twisted around in his chair.
His dad was dressed in the same black suit he'd been wearing that morning, only his tie was gone and his collar looked damp from the rain, which meant he'd been totally freaking out. And even though Lex's hands looked like they were casually tucked into his pockets, Conner could see them balled up into fists against his thighs, and he heard a little voice in his head use all of the four-letter words he'd learned today.
Lois pulled away and said, "Hey, don't even start with me today, Lex. I found your kid wandering around the pouring rain. You should be giving me some kind of award for social work."
"Yes," Conner's dad said, too pleasantly, "parents are always thrilled to give honors to intrusive women who expose their children to nicotine and head injuries." And before Lois got a chance to protest, Lex turned to look at Conner coolly. He said, "Conner, I think you have my iPod."
Conner silently reached into his pocket and pulled it out, handing it over wordlessly.
Peripherally, he saw Clark go from gray to kind of green.
"Thank you," Lex said, and cocked his head toward the door. "I think it's time we head home now." Conner's dad glanced up once more, eyes flashing angrily at Lois for a beat and sliding over to Clark Kent, where they paused and froze for a second before he turned back to Conner, who was getting out of the chair and picking up his bookbag.
"It's been a pleasure to see you two again," Lex said. He grabbed Conner's hand, so tightly that Conner's fingers hurt. "Sorry to have interrupted your day. Let's go, Conner."
Conner only nodded, and let his father drag him out of the bullpen, all the reporters parting for them like the ocean.
When they were out in the hallway, Lex said, "You are so dead."
Conner nodded sadly. "Yeah," he agreed. "I kind of figured."
His dad hadn't said anything when they got to the car; just let Conner climb into the driver's side seat and fold his hands in his lap, looking nervously to his side. Lex spent the entire ride glaring at every other driver on the street and making threatening growls at lagging pedestrians on the crosswalk.
The worst part about being in trouble wasn't actually being in trouble, it was the waiting. Conner thought that his dad must have spent a lot of time waiting as a kid, too, because he obviously knew that it was the worst part, and dragged it out as long as humanly possible.
By the time they got back to their building, Conner was nearly crawling the walls, and he walked into the private elevator up to their house as quietly as he could, keeping two feet behind his dad.
As soon as the metal doors closed and they were moving up, his dad dropped to his knees and grabbed Conner up into one of those ferocious hugs--like he was afraid Conner was about to disappear, or run away, or dissolve into thin air. Conner could feel his dad tightening his arms, and it was starting to hurt and getting hard to breathe, but Conner didn't say anything, just took short, shallow breaths.
Guilt was starting to seep in; it was easy not to feel bad about something when you were busy running from the fire you set in the school or trying not to be eaten by the three hundred pound bus driver named "Tito." But when Dad was squeezing the life out of him and saying things like, "Never do that again," and "I was so worried," and "What would I have done if I didn't find you?"
Conner put his head in his father's neck, and smelled sweat and soap and his father's expensive shirt. He said, "Sorry, Dad."
"That's not going to get you off easy," his dad said, muffled into his hair.
Sometimes, Conner thought he got mixed-signals from his father. Sure, apparently he'd done the worst thing ever, but on the other hand, his dad couldn't stop hugging him. It all got really confusing after a while, and Conner started whining and shoving his way out of his dad's arms, which was perfect timing because the elevator doors opened to their seventy-seventh floor penthouse apartment and Mrs. Banner attacked Conner like he'd gone to war or something.
"Oh--man! Mrs. Banner--lemme go! Ow! I can't breathe!" Conner yelped.
"Lori, please stop suffocating my son--you'll have to get in line for that," Conner's dad said mildly. And when Mrs. Banner finally and tearfully let go, Lex added, "Would you please start dinner? We're eating at eight--and we have a guest."
Conner knitted his brow. A guest? On his deathday? What, they wanted to watch?
It wasn't until he managed to glance around the apartment that he caught sight of Geoffrey sitting on the couch, hair sticking up in clumps in every direction and face smeared with soot. He looked small and uncomfortable in his disheveled uniform on the sleek, gray furniture, and lifted one hand, waving and saying, "Hey, Conner. Your dad decided to ground me, too."
Geoffrey and Conner had a mutual nonaggression pact, which basically said, "If you don't make fun of my stupid hair, I won't make fun of yours." But in this situation, Conner really wasn't sure what to do--was it even right not to make fun of Geoffrey's hair when it looked like he'd stuck it in a tub of glue and just bunched it up with his hands? It looked at least two times as bad as it normally did, and Geoffrey got made fun of plenty for his hair on a good day, anyway.
"My dad grounded you?" Conner asked, incredulous.
Geoffrey scowled. "This was your stupid idea, Conner."
"Yeah, but, my dad grounded you?"
Geoffrey rolled his dark green eyes and huffed, his cheeks puffing out in sooty-gray annoyance.
"I mean," Geoffrey said finally, "it's not like this is the first time he's done it."
Conner had to admit that was true. When he and Geoffrey had first met in kindergarten at St. Ann's Academy for Children, it was because Conner had accidentally broken the chalkboard in Sister Annabel's classroom and Geoffrey had been caught trying to feed Randall paste. So they'd sat next to one another outside of Father McCauly's office waiting to be called in for their punishments, and they'd spent most of the fifteen minutes comparing stories and picking at the band-aids on their knees.
Ever since, whenever Conner's name had been linked with trouble, Geoffrey was generally somehow involved, too. Last year, they'd tricked Randall into eating processed sugar, and after Randall's mother had called Conner's dad in a fury, Lex had just rubbed the space between his eyes and grounded them both.
Now, Conner climbed onto the couch next to Geoffrey and sighed. "I don't think it's going to be like last time," Conner admitted, remembering how his dad had played N64 games with them until they'd fallen asleep. "I mean, he thinks it's funny when we mess with Randall."
Geoffrey pursed his lips and ran his hands through his hair, which made it worse.
"I guess you're right," he admitted. "What do you think is going to happen?"
"I don't know--how much does he know?" Conner asked nervously. This could go really bad, or really really super ultra-bad, depending.
Geoffrey gave Conner a look, and Conner gulped, but before he had time to say that big long prayer about Our Father and the sixteen Hail Mary's he'd forgotten since last week, his dad came back into the room with a completely neutral expression on his face.
Lex had put them in two hard-backed chairs three feet away from one another. It put Conner in the uncomfortable position of having nowhere to put his hands, since it was weird to scrunch up his shoulders and jam them into his pockets, and his dad had rules about slouching anyway. Geoffrey was sitting straight up in his chair, hands in fists on his knees.
Conner's dad had turned out most of the lights in the room and left one of the spotlights he had lined up along the ceiling trained on where Conner and Geoffrey were seated. Lex stood backlit against the white, hands casually in his pockets, smiling almost pleasantly at them.
"Dad, Dad," Conner tried, "you still love me right?"
"Of course I do," Lex said in a way that did not make Conner feel more assured at all.
"Weasel," Geoffrey hissed.
"Conner," Lex started, friendly and upbeat, "when you visited my office yesterday--unscheduled, by the way--did I or did I not say that you were not permitted to go reveling wildly unsupervised through Metropolis?"
Conner blinked. "Uh."
"Revelry," his dad said in a clipped tone. "Partying or merrymaking."
"Oh," said Conner. "I didn't have, like, party hats or streamers or anything."
Lex glared at him.
"But you're right," Conner agreed heartily. "You're totally right. You definitely said I wasn't supposed to do any of that revel stuff. You're so right."
Lex turned his stare on Geoffrey, who visibly shrank back in his seat. "And you, Mister Archer, when my son made you aware of his plan you didn't see it fit to tell him that perhaps it was less than completely wise?"
Conner figured it was only because all their teachers were priests and nuns and stuff that either of them ever understood Conner's dad.
"Well, sir," Geoffrey started, completely earnest in a way that Conner could never pull off. He'd practiced for hours and it was never even close to convincing. "When Conner told me Miss Mercy was always following him around, I thought, 'Man, that sucks, I wouldn't want Miss Mercy to follow me around all the time.' I figured, Conner's my friend, I should help him."
Now, it was Conner's turn to mutter, "Weasel," under his breath.
"So," Lex went on to say, "when my son proposed that he start a fire in the school in order to trigger the alarm, and then have you inform his bodyguard that he was still in the building so that she would run in there and cause something like six thousand dollars worth of property damage searching for him--you thought this was a good idea?"
Geoffrey brightened. "Well, but, sir--she totally ripped that desk up though! It was way cool, like watching the Hulk or something!"
"Geoffrey!" Lex snapped, "Focus!"
"Sorry, sir," Geoffrey muttered.
Lex just turned back to his son and said sharply, "What part of this miserable plan did you think that you'd get away with?"
Conner thought that saying "All of it" was a pretty good ticket to the afterlife, so he kept his mouth shut.
"If you'd wanted to go see the Daily Planet, I could have taken you for a tour or rented it out for the evening or something. You recklessly endangered the nuns at your school, Mercy, Geoffrey when he had to run in after Mercy when she was on her rampage, as well as Mister Thomas who seems to have earned himself a black eye--"
"Whoa!" Conner said, unable to contain himself. "Julie gave Garrison a black eye?"
"--and you're confined to the laundry room until morning. I'll have Mrs. Banner bring you dinner and a sleeping bag at eight," Lex finished, glaring furiously. He then turned to glance at Geoffrey and said, "And you, you're in the study."
Luckily, one of the four telephone lines in the penthouse rang, and Conner's dad, giving them one last glare, walked off to answer it.
"Hah!" Geoffrey whispered. "Study! That's way better than the laundry room!"
Conner blinked at him. "What are you talking about? At least I can touch stuff."
Okay, so Conner was all smug bravado when Lex had herded Geoffrey to a small, carpeted spot in his office to sit and fidget because he couldn't touch anything all night, but Conner's dad had picked the laundry room for him for a reason.
Conner hated the laundry room. It was the epitome of boredom.
There was nothing to do in there except for watch the dryer--and there wasn't even anything in the dryer to watch this time around. He'd gotten so desperate about two hours into it that he'd opened the lids to all the cleaning supplies just to smell them, but then he'd gotten a little too fond of one of the bottles and figured that was a bad way to go. Conner still wasn't sure what a hippie was, but he would bet his entire Full Metal Alchemist collection that his dad would be even more pissed off about walking in on his son sniffing cleaner than setting the school on fire.
Eventually, he ended up turning on the washer and the dryer and laying on top of them until he fell asleep, watching the sleeping bag where he left it on the floor.
When he woke up, it was to his father's bemused expression.
"So we've learned our lesson," Lex said.
"We learned about this in school," Conner mumbled. "This is cruel and unusual punishment."
"And we're not going to orchestrate elaborate escape plans that involve large amounts of collateral damage."
"I don't even care what 'collateral' means," Conner sulked. "It's in the Constitution. You're not allowed to do this to me. My brain is going to leak out of my ears."
His father looked at him appraisingly. "Well, don't get it on the clean towels."
Conner tried to kick at his father--which only resulted in him rolling off of the machines and landing with a painful thud on the ground.
Breakfast ended with an extended lecture about using one's powers for good and not evil, during which both Conner and Geoffrey suffered some sort of debilitating coma. Then, Conner's dad said that Geoffrey's parents were coming to pick him up in an hour, and that if Conner wanted to tour the Daily Planet, they could do it that afternoon.
Back at the scene of the crime, Conner started getting sick to his stomach. Through those revolving doors, up that elevator, through a bullpen with lots of people yelling was the most beautiful woman in the world. What if she was mad at him? What if Conner's dad had insulted her the last time he'd been there? What if she thought he was just some stupid little kid? He wasn't! His dad was always talking about how he was too precocious to be just nine!
Conner rubbed his hands on his second best pair of jeans. He'd dressed carefully when his father had said if Conner wanted to see the Daily Planet, they were going to do it right. He was wearing his comfortable blue jeans, because one of the girlie magazines with a half-naked woman on it in the dentist's office had been talking about How A Woman Wants Her Man To Dress said that comfortable and cute was the way to go. So Conner was wearing his favorite jeans, his scuffed up red Converse sneakers, and a gray long-sleeved shirt.
"I dunno, Dad," Conner said uncertainly when they were outside the Metropolis Communications building.
His dad looked down at him expectantly. "What do you mean?"
Conner fidgeted. "I mean--she's up there."
"Oh," his dad said. "Oh, well, Conner, you don't have to be afraid of her. She's just a reporter, like all the other crazy ones in the world who are really just vultures in disguise, you shouldn't waste your energy worrying about--"
"No, that's not what I meant!" Conner interrupted. "You were totally mean to her! What if she thinks that we're alike and she doesn't like me anymore?"
Conner was getting more and more panicked, his hands were sweaty again already and he jammed them into his pockets and thought furiously. Well, if she was upset at Conner because Conner's dad was a jerk, then Conner would just have to change her mind. He could write her poems (they were learning that in English next week), and bring her flowers (he could totally take the ones off of the dining room table), maybe he could ask her to dinner!
His father looked confused as he said, "Wait, are you embarrassed of me?"
Conner glared. "Well you were mean to her!"
"She threw you off a chair!" his dad argued.
"I fell off on my own!" Conner shouted back. "I love her."
His dad turned a really horrible color green. "Maybe we shouldn't tour the building."
Conner stared up at him defiantly. "Dad, you can't keep me locked up forever."
Lex stared at him for a long time before he started rubbing at his temples. "Is this to get me back for putting you in the laundry room?" he asked. "Because I'm not sorry I did it."
Conner sulked. "This is why the nuns always say we should have counseling."
"We are not," his father reiterated for the tenth time, "getting counseling."
"Um," an unfamiliar voice broke in. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
Conner and his dad turned around to see Clark Kent standing a foot away, looking nervous.
Conner scowled. "Lois doesn't like you," he said.
"Um," Clark said, looking urgently between Conner and Lex.
"Oh, for the love of shit," Conner's dad muttered.
"Fifty-dollars!" Conner yelled, and stuck out his hand.
Lex almost reached for his wallet before he jammed his hands back into his pockets and glowered at Conner, who pouted: so close. Then, Lex glowered at Clark and asked, "Aren't you supposed to be covering the latest endowment to the Metropolis Children's Hospital?"
"Oh," Clark Kent said hastily, almost embarrassed. "Well, it was getting boring, and there were all these inane speeches. So I paid Larry from the Post twenty bucks to record it and--" Clark Kent's eyes widened, and he pointed at Conner's dad, voice raised, "You were the anonymous donor! You wanted me out of the office!"
"Whoa," Conner said, "Good move, Dad."
Clark Kent scowled at him.
"That," Lex said, "is definitely slander."
"Why are you guys here?" Clark Kent asked. Conner noticed he was wringing his hands; in movies, criminals always did that when they knew they were guilty and about to get caught; Conner wasn't sure what Clark had done, but he was so going down for it.
Lex grabbed Conner's hand, and said, "Nothing. We were just leaving."
Clark Kent said, "Oh," the same time Conner yelled, "But you said we could tour the Daily Planet!" at the same time Lex said reasonably, "We'll just have to do it some other day."
And then, after Conner gaped at Lex and Clark gaped at Conner and Lex glared at nobody in particular, Clark said, "You could still take the tour--I could give you the tour," as Conner whined, "But you said I could!" and Lex muttered another fifty-dollar word under his breath.
"What if Lois is there?" Conner demanded. "What if she's wondering if I'm okay?"
His father groaned. "She is not wondering if you're okay."
"She could be!" Conner insisted, and then wheeled around to Clark Kent, who was staring at them open-mouthed. "You can give me the tour, right?"
His father's hand tightened on his fingers, and Lex said coldly, "Absolutely not. We're leaving now, Conner."
"Come on, Lex," Clark Kent said, still nervous-sounding. "What harm could it do?"
Conner looked between Clark Kent's weirdly anxious expression and his father's closed face, and figured that once upon a time, Clark must have wrecked one of his dad's cars or something, because Lex Luthor didn't get that kind of ticked off at somebody unless they hurt someone he loved. Lois didn't like him, Conner's dad didn't like him--Clark Kent had to be completely evil.
"Plenty," Conner's dad said in a clipped tone, he turned to leave, dragging Conner with him. "Conner, we're leaving."
Conner figured it was probably smarter not to argue and followed his father down the street and around the corner where the car was parked.
They were already nearing their building again when his dad finally started talking again.
"You can't trust reporters, Conner," his father finally said.
"Okay, dad," Conner replied dutifully.
"They're always trying to figure you out, see through you," Lex added; he sounded angry, and Conner winced and shrank down in his seat. "Don't let them do that, Conner. Some secrets you just have to keep."
Conner wanted to say that Lois wasn't like that. He wanted to say that Lois was awesome, the best, the coolest girl he'd ever met, and the girls he met were almost never cool.
"Because when they figure you out," his dad went on, "they hurt you with it--without fail."
It made Conner think about why his dad was so overprotective, why Conner wasn't allowed in public without Mercy or Hope watching him and keeping all the photographers and reporters away. It made Conner think about the only picture of his mother and why his dad never talked about her. It made Conner think about knowing his mom--and why he didn't remember her at all, why he didn't think his dad remembered her either, and how that made him sad, even though he couldn't say.
Maybe his mom was a secret his dad wanted to keep. Conner guessed that was okay.
"Okay, dad," Conner said softly. "Okay."
They got home and ate lunch and his dad watched one whole episode of Full Metal Alchemist with him without nitpicking all the scientific inaccuracies in it.
Garrison really did have a black eye, but it looked awesome and he had been bragging about it all day; Julie Meyers seemed to hate all the boys in her class more than ever, and spent most of her time sitting with the nuns either crying or talking about being a nun, which Conner and Geoffrey found hilarious because she'd tried to make Geoffrey go with her just two weeks ago.
The real superstar of the week was Geoffrey, because playground legend for once was pretty much school wide truth. Conner liked Geoffrey enough to just play second-fiddle, letting him tell the story and interrupting with how awesome it was every few minutes. They were the envy of every boy at St. Ann's: Geoffrey because he'd run into a burning building, and Conner because he'd run away from school.
"So Conner gives me the signal," Geoffrey said, hands in the air, audience rapt, "and I say, 'Copy, Metropolis Alchemist'--" this got an appreciative "oooo," "--so I look around the school yard and give Garrison my signal." Geoffrey tapped his nose for effect, and Garrison, sitting in the corner, jumped up, yelling:
"So I nod, and I look around and there's stupid Julie Meyers, so I think, yeah, I'm gonna do her! And I sneak up--"
"You did not sneak," Geoffrey interrupted Garrison interrupting, a frown on his face.
"So I sneak up," Garrison said, plowing onward, "and I grab her skirt, and I just pull it down." The boys gathered up around them all howled with laughter or shouted with total disgust, and Garrison pointed at his black eye proudly, adding, "And then she punched me! Look!"
Conner and Geoffrey looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
"Anyway," Geoffrey said loudly. "So after Garrison's laying on the ground crying like a baby after Julie barely tapped him, I go around looking for Mercy to--"
"How can anybody look for Mercy," one of the boys said, shuddering. "One time, I looked at Conner funny and she said that if I did it again I'd regret it. She looked at me like she was going to kill me and eat me or something!"
Conner smiled fondly and Geoffrey snickered.
"So I'm looking for Mercy, and when I find her she's randomly shoving kids around the playground looking for Conner. So I go up to her and grab her arm and she's about to give me the Vulcan death-grip or something but I yell, 'Miss Mercy! Conner's still in the building!' And right then the fire alarm goes off. It was the most perfect timing ever."
The boys huddled around them looked between Conner and Geoffrey in awe, and Garrison sulked, his badge of honor a thing of yesterday.
"And then Mercy just goes tearing through the crowd," Geoffrey exclaimed, making huge motions with his hands. "Like a charging bull or something and then she's kicking down the doors of the building and knocking nuns out of the way like bowling pins or something!
"I'm sitting there laughing so hard I can't breathe, but then it's been like five minutes and all I hear is this crashing and banging and stuff coming from inside the building and figure, oh man, Mercy's gonna rip up the entire school lookin' for Conner if I don't go in and tell her about our plan."
Conner watched the other boys stare, and he smirked to himself, giving Geoffrey a sideways look. Geoffrey was great at telling people stories, and it didn't matter if they were true or not. Conner and Geoffrey got away with most of the stupid stuff they did on a combination of their good looks, dumb luck, and Geoffrey's ability to convince anybody of anything.
"There's like, total wreckage in the hallways," Geoffrey exclaimed, and then waggled his fingers and made crunching noises. "Like she just went through the school and totally kung-fued the entire place."
Conner was pretty sure Geoffrey was making that part up, because even though Mercy could do it, the school couldn't clean it up quickly enough, and it wasn't like they were missing a day of class or anything. But it was still a good story, so Conner cupped his chin in his palms and listened, because Geoffrey told the best stories; besides, Conner sounded pretty cool in this.
"By the time I get into the classroom she's busting up windows and desks like the Hulk--" Conner winced. That part was definitely true, his dad had spent some serious time lecturing him about it and talking about Alexander the Great and dead Chinese guys "--and she goes and throws like, this stack of history papers into the fire Conner's got going in the middle of the room!"
Geoffrey threw up his hands and shouted, "Boom!" loudly enough to send everybody reeling back.
"So the little fire isn't so little anymore and the whole stack is like, going up in flames and the desks and stuff are catching from the little bits of paper flying out so the smoke's going crazy and I'm yelling at her that Conner ran out ages ago."
Conner was laughing out loud at this point; he could just imagine Mercy's face at that.
"By the time she finally hears me and gets it, she just grabs me like I'm a dog or something and hauls us out of the room. Which was great because the firefighters started busting the leftover windows with these huge things of water just a second later," Geoffrey finished with great satisfaction.
The boys around them started shouting out questions left and right, and Conner winced and edged out of the circle. Geoffrey might have like getting shouted at, but Conner got yelled at plenty by reporters and his dad and Mercy and even Mrs. Banner, so he went to the library and looked at a copy of Love You Forever for a long time.
Every time Conner asked his dad about his mom, his dad always got this look on his face like he was trying not to ask Conner if he was a bad father. And that wasn't the point at all, Conner thought to himself, annoyed. The point was that all the other kids at school had a mom or had mom stories, like Geoffrey had mom stories. Even though Geoffrey said that Conner could share his mom stories, it wasn't the same. Conner wanted mom stories of his own.
So he'd started asking weirder questions, like if he could see a picture of his mom. That had backfired though, because even though his mom was beautiful and looked nice, she looked completely strange and he hadn't liked having her in the room with him at night. He'd asked about her favorite food or what she'd smelled like or if she liked to dance because Geoffrey said his mom had loved to dance.
"Maybe he just doesn't like talking about her," Geoffrey had said one day.
"But why wouldn't Dad want to talk about it?" Conner asked.
Geoffrey had shrugged, and looked far away at the Daily Planet building from Conner's bedroom balcony. "It makes my dad sad. He doesn't like talking about her, either. Most of the time."
And then Conner had felt incredibly selfish and mean, so he'd gotten a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream out of the fridge and two spoons. He and Geoffrey had eaten the entire thing in one sitting, and then spent the rest of the weekend sick at Conner's house. The upside was that Lex hadn't yelled at Geoffrey, even when Geoffrey had puked on his new pants, so Conner figured that his dad liked his friend--a lot.
But nobody didn't have a mom. Even Jesus had a mom, so of course Conner had one, too.
Conner was sick of asking his dad about his mom, though. He didn't like seeing his dad's face get sad or worried, mostly because his dad was almost never sad or worried, and it was weird seeing it there--weird and really bad. So he'd stopped asking about six months ago.
Then, one night, he got up to drink some water, and heard his dad talking to Superman, and they'd talked about Conner and Clark Kent.
And he'd decided then and there if his dad wasn't going to answer his questions, then Conner would answer them himself. It was like flipping to the back of the math book to check the answers instead of actually doing the work, or something.
Conner kicked the edge of his desk, shucking off his dark blue sweater and pulling off his tie.
Only it hadn't worked, and after three months of planning and bribing his classmates, he still didn't know anything about his mom.
All Conner did know was that Clark Kent sucked, and that Conner was in love with Lois Lane.
It was time to regroup, Conner decided. He scowled at the blue notebook he had left abandoned in disgust on the floor near his bed. It was useless. Stupid blue notebook. He opened one of his desk drawers and rifled around until he found a different notebook. It was red, which meant that this time, everything would work out perfectly.
"Conner? Can I speak to you about your birthday party for a few minutes, please?" Lex said, peeking into Conner's room.
Conner turned around, setting the new red notebook on his desk. He grinned at his dad and said, "Sure, Dad. Let me write something down first."
"Dad?" "Yes, Conner?"
"Does everybody do this? Because it's kind of weird."
Conner's dad looked up from the white board, uncapped purple dry-erase pen still clutched in his fingers. "What's weird?" he asked.
Conner shrugged from where he sat with a copy of the school directory.
"I don't know. I mean--most people don't treat a birthday party like going into war or something, do they?" Conner asked, not exactly sure. When he went to birthday parties, they were generally catered, and that looked like it probably did need a group of generals or something to organize. But his birthday parties were mostly about Pringles and Playstation 2, which always made his dad look like of sad--but in that "I can't believe you like this stuff" sort of way, and not anything Conner really had to be worried about.
His dad capped the marker and made a very serious face.
"Conner, birthday parties are important. They can make or break your reputation. Depending on what happens or who shows up, they can make or break you."
Conner stared at his dad. "Dad, I'm in the fourth grade."
"That," Lex said, pointing the marker at Conner, "is no excuse for shabby planning."
Conner made a face. "Is this one of those life lessons disguised as fun?"
"Would I ruin your birthday like that?" his father asked, turning back to the white board.
Rolling his eyes, Conner pushed himself off of the bar stool and landed with a little thump against the hardwood floor. He thought they were the one of the best parts of their apartment, which wasn't really an apartment, considering they owned the entire floor--and the roof. But the floors were still great: smooth and cool during summer, and Conner liked to walk around on them barefoot and sometimes, he'd see little, steamy footprints where he'd just stepped.
"But you don't think life lessons ruin things, so that's not even a real question," Conner complained. He walked to the fridge and poured himself a glass of orange juice, and padded back to where his father was creating some sort of huge chart on an easel set up in front of the breakfast counter.
"Conner," his father said patiently, "we've talked about this."
Conner sighed, set down the orange juice, and picked up the class directory again.
"Right," he said, flipping open the directory to CLASS A, where his name was exactly in the middle of the list of twenty-one children. "Geoffrey, of course."
Lex turned to glance at Conner over his shoulder. "Alphabetically," he said.
Conner rolled his eyes extra-hard this time, just for emphasis.
"Do you want that in last name, first name format, too?" Conner asked sarcastically, and then groaned out loud when his dad said that was probably a good idea.
"Fine, fine," Conner finally grumbled, bouncing one knee up and down. "Aaron, Timothy. Not invited."
Conner's had divided the white board into four columns, the first one said "INVITED," the third one said "DENIED," and the third and fourth both said "WHY." He wrote down "AARON, T." in the "DENIED" column and tapped at the "WHY" column next to it, looking at Conner expectantly.
"He always smells like cauliflower," Conner said simply.
Lex looked at him for a moment, and then shrugged and said, "All right," and wrote down "REEKS."
"What does 'reeks' mean?" Conner asked, dog-earing one of the pages of the directory, seeing if he could achieve the perfect equilateral triangle, which they were talking about in math that week.
"It means someone smells like cauliflower all the time," his dad said easily. "Now, go on."
Conner tapped the directory page, now dog-eared on both free corners. He grabbed a highlighter off the table and started highlighting ever other letter on the page. "Next, Anthony, Eve. Not invited."
Lex smirked, writing it down. "Because she's a girl?"
Conner scowled. "Because she tried to get Geoffrey to go with her last month!"
His dad looked like he was trying really hard not to laugh. "And this is a bad thing."
"It's horrible!" Conner insisted. He gave up coloring the letters, getting more annoyed at just the thought! Stupid Eve! What did she know? They were almost in fifth grade, anyway, way too old to be playing house, and Geoffrey was cool, he wasn't going to be hanging out with girls. "She was trying to make him play house! I would never let that happen to one of my future minions!"
His dad put down the dry erase marker and covered his mouth with one hand for a second before he pulled his fingers away and said, "That sounds really terrible, Conner."
"She's a hag," Conner mumbled. "She's worse than that crazy reporter woman you're always talking about!"
Lex looked like he was about to choke on something, so Conner asked, "Dad, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," his dad said smoothly, still looking like he was about to fall down laughing or throw up or something. "What's the next name on the list?"
"Archer, Geoffrey," Conner said automatically, this one he knew by heart. "Invited. He's going to be my minion when we grow up," Conner added confidently.
His dad actually got halfway through writing "MINION" before he turned around to stare at Conner, saying, "Are you sure Geoffrey's going to be your minion, and not your friend or something?"
"I think he can be both," Conner said confidently, which made his dad make a noise that sounded a lot like a giggle, even if Lex said he never giggled.
"Right," his dad muttered. "Next?"
Conner looked down at the mostly-neon-yellow page, and looked up saying, "Santos, Carmen. Invited, because she kicked Randall during recess once."
His dad wrote this down with a flourish.
Half an hour later, Conner and his dad were looking at the board thoughtfully.
"Thirteen," Lex said with a frown. "Bad number. Weird seating."
Conner put the directory on the counter and threw the highlighter on top of it. "Can't we just sit around and watch movies and eat ice cream?"
His dad glared at him. "The last time you ate ice cream with a friend, he threw up on my pants."
"That was only once," Conner argued. "It wasn't that bad."
In the background, Mrs. Banner looked like she was shaking her head at them before she bent over to inspect the contents of the refrigerator and pull out what looked like half a farm and an entire kitchen. And no pie, which sucked. Dinner looked like a bust.
Lex raised his eyebrows. "Wasn't 'that bad'?" he asked. "Conner, you made Filipe cry. He's forty-seven years old, he'd never seen anything that horrible happen to Armani pants before."
"Armani pants suck," Conner shot back.
His dad just walked into the kitchen and kissed Mrs. Banner on the cheek, saying, "Lori, you know, strangely enough, I suddenly have this strange craving for baked squash tonight."
Conner started yelling at the top of his lungs.
No matter what Conner said or how tightly he hugged her around her leg, Mrs. Banner wouldn't budge, and by the time she pulled out the cleaver to chop the squash for baking, Conner had to give up hope. It just figured that his dad seemed to be able to do something to girls that Conner couldn't--or couldn't yet. He told his dad later that night, when he was reading Conner a chapter of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH that he was totally going to figure it out one day, and then they'd never eat squash again.
"So," Sister Julianne said excitedly, "what is geography?"
"Geography's dumb," Brent yelled.
"You're stupid, Brent!" Eve said, and then turned around to make cow-eyes at Geoffrey, who was busy drawing another dragon on Conner's notebook. Conner stuck his tongue out at her for Geoffrey, and she glared at him and turned back around, black curls bouncing on the back of her blue jumper.
Meanwhile, in between Sister Julianne talking about stuff that nobody really cared about, like where Alaska was, Conner was thinking about the problem with the seating. After a lot of arguing and compromising and eating squash, he got his dad to agree to order mini-pizzas and sandwiches if they sat down to eat them. Which meant that Conner had to invite one more person to make it an even fourteen, and Conner had a totally great idea about who he should invite. He nudged Geoffrey's foot with his shoe. He used to elbow Geoffrey, but then one day he messed up one of Geoffrey's drawings and Geoffrey hadn't talked to him for a week. Being minionless in the fourth grade was awful, and so Conner always tapped Geoffrey somewhere other than the arm for his attention.
"Hey, hey," he whispered.
Geoffrey muttered, "What?" and didn't look up.
"Do you think I can find Lois' phone number online?" Conner asked urgently.
This time, Geoffrey looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Why?"
"I've got a plan," Conner said. "Come with me to the library during lunch."
Geoffrey finished drawing the dragon on Conner's notebook, and wrote YOU ARE SO STUPID underneath it, and flipped open his Geography book. He didn't look at Conner for the rest of the period and he didn't go with Conner to the library.
The Daily Planet website was huge, and it was full of words that Conner didn't understand, so he gave up and typed in "Lois Lane really pretty girl" into the "Search Site" function.
It came up with about a million articles, all by Lois Lane, and at the bottom of the first one, it said, "Contact Lois Lane at LLane@DailyPlanet.com or (913) 369-2416, ext. 1145." He wrote both the email address and the phone number and walked out to the pay phone next to the sliding double-doors of the library.
Conner used to have a cell phone, but he kept breaking it every two days. It wouldn't have been a huge problem except that he kept breaking it while dialing numbers and that made his dad look worried. So Conner's dad said maybe he could have a cell phone again later, when they started making strong ones. He said he had the same problem all the time, and that Conner should just be a little more careful with the phones in the future.
Conner didn't really believe it, but mostly he forgot about it, because he only ever called Geoffrey on the cell phone anyway, and apparently Geoffrey was going to be a jerk this week.
He dialed the phone number, and when the electronic voice telling him to punch in the extension came on, Conner cut her off mid-sentence, pushing 1-1-4-5 with shaky fingers.
The first three times, Conner hung up before it could finish ringing.
He felt dumb and a lot younger than almost-nine, and he kept banging his head against the wall next to the phone, but had to stop when the librarians started looking worried.
Conner's dad said very few people won anything through cowardice. Conner figured that probably meant that he should try really hard, so he took a deep breath, called again, and this time, on the second ring, he didn't hang up, only sucked in another breath, until he thought his chest was going to explode.
The ring cut off in the middle of the third tone.
"Listen, you little shit, I don't care if you're calling from a Catholic school--I don't appreciate being cranked in the middle of my workday--"
"Lois?" Conner squeaked.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. And then Lois said, "Conner? Is that you?"
Conner nodded furiously, and then remembered she couldn't see him, and squeaked again, "Yes."
"Oh," she said, strangely. "Um. Sorry. You go to Catholic school?"
"You said a fifty-dollar word," Conner said dumbly, clutching the phone receiver so hard he heard the plastic cracking, and then remembered to loosen his grip. He felt so dumb. He was sure steam was going to start coming out of his ears any minute.
Lois laughed into the phone, and Conner felt his knees turn into jelly. "Well, Sweetheart--" Sweetheart! "--I don't have a fifty. Will a five do?"
"Oh," Conner said in a rush. "You don't have to pay me. It's okay. I'll keep it a secret."
"Well, thank you very much," Lois said, still laughing. "Now, why did you call me today, Conner Clark Luthor? And from school, too?" There was a pause. "Is everything all right? Does your head still hurt?" She sounded nervous.
"I'm fine," Conner promised. "I was just. Um. Well."
"Spit it out, Sweetie. I've got to run soon," Lois said. Conner thought she was the nicest person ever.
Conner took one last deep breath, and said as quickly as possible:
There was a pause on the line, and then Conner heard Lois giggling, which was even better than her laughing, he decided.
She sounded totally delighted, and said, "I would love to come to your birthday party, Conner."
"Really?" Conner shouted into the phone, overjoyed. His first date! "For real?"
"Of course," she reassured him. "How should I dress? What present do you want? Will this be at your house with your dad, Conner?"
Conner was barely thinking, there was all this buzzing noise in his head. He was so happy he could barely talk, which was weird because Conner was always talking, especially when he wasn't supposed to. So it took him a second to say back to her, "I like Full Metal Alchemist, the party is going to be at our house, and--" he paused shyly "--I bet you look pretty no matter what you wear, Lois."
She laughed into the phone again, and said, "Conner, you are adorable."
"I am?" Conner said, high-pitched. The librarians were looking at him again.
"Yes, you are. And I am so glad you invited me, but now I've got to run," she said. "How about this--do you have my email address?"
Conner caught himself nodding at the phone again before he said, "Yeah, I got it off of the website. You wrote a lot of articles, Lois."
"Smart kid," Lois said, and she sounded proud. "Okay, I want you to email me with your address and when the party is, okay? And I promise you I'll be there. With Full Metal Alchemist--and a fifty-dollar bill for swearing earlier."
When Conner hung up, he nearly ran into a seventh grader before darting back into the library and to the closest computer.
Conner sent his dad an email at quarter till noon saying that he'd found a fourteenth person to be at the party, and that Lex could start calling catering companies as long as they weren't French and wouldn't be serving food that Conner couldn't pronounce. At ten till, Lex wrote back telling Conner that it was excellent news and that they'd be eating assorted Italian.
Conner didn't know what that was but at least with Italian he could mostly sound it out.
Geoffrey, when Conner got back to class, still wasn't talking to him. And no matter how many times Conner shoved over a slip of paper that said WHAT IS WRONG? Geoffrey didn't respond, just watched the front of the room and took notes in perfect, capital letters.
By the end of the day, Conner was annoyed. Geoffrey had spent the last half of the day ignoring him, and Conner had never taken well to being ignored. So he grabbed Geoffrey's English/sketch notebook at the end of class and wouldn't give it back, holding it behind himself and glaring at Geoffrey.
"What is wrong with you?" he asked, angry.
Geoffrey glared and stuck out his hand, trying to reach around Conner and only smacking his fingers on one of the desks instead.
"Nothing!" he said back. "It doesn't matter. Give me my notebook, stupid!"
Around them, people were starting to stare. Julie Meyers was looking at Geoffrey funny and Randall was snickering under his breath. Garrison was putting his stuff away really slowly, watching Conner and Geoffrey out of the corner of his eye. Sister Julianne, at the front of the room, was still erasing the board, and looked like she was ignoring them.
Conner narrowed his eyes. "I am not stupid," he said. "And why are you mad?"
"I wasn't mad until you stole my notebook," Geoffrey yelled. "Give it back!"
"I'm not going to give it back until you tell me why you're mad, stupid!" Conner shouted back.
"Oh yeah?" Geoffrey roared, grabbing his bookbag from the ground and tossing it over his shoulder. "I don't want the stupid notebook anymore! Take it, I don't care! Give it to stupid Lois as a stupid wedding present!"
Geoffrey stomped out of the classroom and Conner stared at the door for a long time before he yelled, "Argh!" and threw the notebook on the ground, stomping on it once or twice.
Julie Meyers rolled her eyes and left, and Garrison followed, yelling, "Hey, Geoffrey, wait up!" as he ran out the doorway. Randall only smirked and walked out like he was royalty, while Sister Julianne turned around and watched Conner like a hawk as he slowly finished packing up his things.
Just before he left, though, he ran back to his desk and picked up Geoffrey's notebook. He brushed it off and clutched it to his chest, and didn't say a word all the way home.
"Geoffrey's stupid," Conner declared the second his dad walked in through the door.
Conner's dad looked kind of tired, and he was tugging at his tie, but he stopped in front of the closing doors of the elevator and looked at Conner like he was a very strange animal that had somehow found his way into the apartment. Conner stood his ground; someone had to agree with him.
"I see," his dad finally said.
"He's so stupid," Conner insisted. "Right, Dad?"
His dad rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Conner, I usually like to know what I'm agreeing to before I agree to it."
"You're agreeing that Geoffrey's stupid!" Conner shouted, stamping his foot. Mrs. Banner had already frowned at him and told Conner that picking fights with his good friends was not something that good little boys did. And then she'd gotten out squash, so Conner knew that she was hopeless. Someone had to like him--his dad had to like him, it was like, law!
Conner's dad tugged at his tie like he was getting more tired by the second, and started walking toward his home office, which was sort of like his office at work but had a lot more books and weird, ancient plates and jars Conner wasn't supposed to touch if he wanted to reach puberty.
"Dad!" Conner yelled, and followed angrily. "Dad! Come on!"
"Right, right," his dad said over his shoulder. "So what did Geoffrey do that was so stupid?"
"He didn't come to the library with me! That's what!" Conner raged, stomping into the study, waving his arms. "He got mad because of something totally stupid and he wouldn't even come to the library with me! And then he didn't talk to me!"
Lex was setting down his briefcase, booting up his computer and reaching behind him to the minibar to grab a bottle of his snotty blue water, which Conner thought was disgusting.
"Oh, go on," his dad said, "these are wildly compelling reasons."
Conner scowled. "You're making fun of me!"
"Yeah, probably a little," his dad admitted, smirking and flopping down into his desk chair, which was huge and made of soft black leather. "So he didn't want to go to the library."
It obviously was getting through to his father how serious this problem was. Conner started waving his hands around in the air as he yelled, "It's not just the library! He totally dissed me! He completely dissed me! He ignored me all through class and then he threw his sketchbook at me!"
Lex stared at Conner.
"Okay, so I took the sketchbook!" Conner yelled. "But he totally called me stupid!"
Conner's dad had this really annoying habit of just smiling when people yelled at him, mostly Conner, since Conner had never seen anybody yell at Lex Luthor. Charity liked to tell him stories while he was waiting for his dad, and she said that she'd never seen anybody else yell at Conner's dad either. Which was sort of cool, if Conner thought about it--but that wasn't the point. The point was Geoffrey was stupid and his dad was being a jerk, too.
His dad folded his hands on the desk and raised his eyebrows at Conner.
"So I'm guessing you two had a fight," his dad said, leaning back in his seat.
Conner huffed and threw himself onto the sofa, arms crossed over his chest and sunk into the cushions, toes on the ground to keep himself from sliding off the slick leather. He glared at his dad and said, "Yeah, we had a fight. And Geoffrey started it. Because he's--"
"--Stupid, yes, I'd gathered," Lex interrupted gently. "What did you fight about?"
"I don't know!" Conner wailed, throwing his arms open and sitting up, which made him slide down the sofa precariously. Regaining his equilibrium, he said, "I mean, one minute, it's great, we're talking about my birthday party and who to invite and stuff and the next minute he's just being a jerk."
His dad looked at him weirdly. "Well, you did tell Geoffrey he was invited, right?"
"Geoffrey's been invited since forever," Conner huffed. "That's not even it at all."
Conner's dad made sympathetic noises while his computer made a techno beep that meant it was checking for email or bombs or whatever his dad had programmed the freaky computer to do. It was white and really thin, and some sort of cutting-edge Apple technology his dad had explained. Conner didn't care about all that junk; he just didn't like how it recognized his voice and said hello if Conner walked into the room when it was on.
"What did you say to him, exactly," his dad asked, kind of distracted.
The couch sucked, Conner decided and slid onto the floor, which made him look more pathetic, which couldn't be a bad thing when he was trying to sucker his dad onto his side. Conner looked woefully around the office, which was actually one of the smaller rooms in the penthouse, with lots of bookshelves with lots of weird books--"Dad, what's Clan of the Cavebear?"--and weird pottery and weird paintings of people who looked like they were smelling something really awful.
But Conner's favorite part about the office was the wall of windows that looked out over Metropolis. If he stood close to them it felt like he was floating--and how cool would that be?
"I just said that I was inviting--" Conner cut himself off.
His dad hadn't really been excited about Conner's true love, which sucked but sometimes happened. Conner had read enough comic books to know that your parents always thought that you shouldn't get together with your true love (especially if you were a superhero). So maybe it was better if Conner just didn't tell his dad who he'd been trying to invite. It wasn't like that was the most important part of the story anyway.
"--inviting a girl I know," he went on. "And he just freaked out!"
Lex looked at him funny for a second, sprawled boneless on the office floor before he said, "Conner, have you been talking about this girl a lot?"
Conner turned six shades of red.
"Right," his dad said dryly, "don't answer that."
"Geoffrey sucks!" Conner yelled from the floor. "A lot!"
"I think maybe he's just annoyed because you're ignoring him to talk about a girl," his dad said, way too nice because he was talking about Geoffrey, and Geoffrey sucked.
Conner rolled onto his side and glared at his dad. His tie was caught under his arm and kind of choking him but the important part was that he was looking his dad in the eye when Conner said, "Dad, whose side are you on, anyway?"
His dad was smiling in a way that meant You're Kind Of Stupid But At Least You're My Kid.
"I'm on your side, of course," Lex said smoothly. "But if you think about it, do you want your best friend--"
"Minion!" Conner interrupted. "Future minion!"
"--future minion to be upset at you over a girl?" his dad finished.
Conner was quiet. That was the thing: Lois wasn't just any girl. She was the coolest girl in the world, and she smelled really good, a lot of like lavender and cigarette smoke and peppermints. Actually, Conner thought excitedly, wasn't Lois older than him, by a lot? Then she was a lady, a woman. He wasn't just in love with some girl; he was in love with a woman.
"She's not just any girl though," Conner said, still red as a tomato, and he rolled onto his back and let his arms open wide on either side of him, sighing at the ceiling. "She's the best girl ever."
There was a long silence from his dad before Lex said, "This isn't Lois Lane, is it?"
"Uh, you said you hated her," Conner said.
His dad was quiet for a long time before Conner heard him shuffling papers. And by the time he'd turned over and propped himself up on his elbows, Lex was glancing through some files and peering at something on the computer screen like it was the most important thing in the world. Which it could have been; Conner had walked in on his dad working on enough weird stuff to know when to leave his dad alone.
"Anyway," Lex said as Conner was pushing himself to his feet, "Geoffrey's your best friend. This girl is new, right? You have to decide what's most important: your best friend or the girl."
His dad looked kind of tense when he said it, like this was something he'd thought about before. Like he was psychic and knew that Conner would have this problem with Geoffrey and Lois. Lex's eyes were darker than normal, and his mouth was in a tight, straight line, and Conner felt weirdly uncomfortable, like he'd just walked in on an argument his dad was having on the phone--even though they were the only people talking.
"Um," Conner started, pausing at the doorway and turning around to look at his dad. "Um, who would you pick? I mean, between the best friend and the girl?"
Lex only looked up at him long enough to catch Conner's eye before he said quietly, "I always picked the best friend."
Conner looked at his feet. "Oh."
"You've got homework, Conner," his dad reminded him. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going to do it now," Conner muttered, and rushed off to his room, where he read six volumes of Full Metal Alchemist and wished Roy Mustang was there to help him out. All of this would be so much easier if he lived with a really smooth guy who got all the girls instead of just his dad.
Conner managed to finish his math homework and got halfway through his geography before he totally forgot his dad's advice and remembered to check his email because Lois might have written back. He scrambled over to his computer, a shiny, less-scary Mac that didn't talk, and opened up Entourage, clicking Send/Receive with shaky fingers.
Six messages came in: one from Sister Hyacinth reminding all the children from St. Ann's about next week's Faith Fair, one from Geoffrey titled "YOU ARE SO DUMB!!!!!!" with nothing in the body of the message (which Conner immediately deleted), one from his dad reminding him that he wasn't supposed to have any fun on the internet for a week as part of his punishment for arson, two pieces of spam from Viz.com, and finally--
An email from Lois Lane.
It took three tries for him to click on it right. When the window finally popped up, it read:
hey there, cutie. really looking forward to your birthday party this weekend, i think it'll be a blast. thanks bunches for the instructions and I'll be there with bells on. can't wait to see you on saturday!!!
ps--bought you a totally awesome birthday gift.
Lois Lane Staff Reporter, The Daily Planet LLane@DailyPlanet.com W #: (913) 369-2416, ext. 1145 C #: (913) 427-9003
HEY LOIS! WE LIVE AT 3108 MACARTHUR STREET, PENTHOUSE SUITE. IT'S BY A LOT OF OTHER REALLY BIG BUILDINGS AND STUFF. IF YOU CAN'T FIND IT YOU CAN EMAIL ME HERE OR YOU CAN CALL ME OUR PHONE NUMBER IS 360-7996! SEE YOU THERE--CONNER.
Conner took a deep breath and fell backward onto his bed, grinning a mile wide at his ceiling.
He thought about how great it was going to be to have Lois at his birthday party, how much fun it was going to be if she would play video games with him. How they could hang out all the time. She could teach him how she typed so fast and how to draw mean pictures of Clark on pink Post-It notes and Conner could stick them all over his computer so it'd be just like hers.
And maybe, Conner thought to himself, if she and Geoffrey hang out together some, Geoffrey would learn to like her, too.
By Friday afternoon, Geoffrey still wasn't talking to Conner, and Conner decided that this made Geoffrey something worse than stupid, and that as soon as he got a chance to look up a good word for it, then he'd call Geoffrey that.
Instead of hanging around with Conner and drawing dragons on Conner's notebooks, Geoffrey played kickball with Garrison and Randall and Curtis, who had a lazy eye and totally couldn't pitch. Conner was an awesome pitcher for kickball, but nobody ever asked him, so he spent recess rereading Lois' email and not looking at the kickball field at all.
When he got home, there were big plates of food everywhere, cold sandwiches that Mrs. Banner was putting into the refrigerator, and huge pitchers of lemonade that Conner kept helping himself to in between helping Mrs. Banner put things away. There were lots of cookies and fruit and lemon-ices, which Conner hoped his dad hadn't had flown in from Italy, but probably were because his dad was kind of nuts.
It was enough to take his mind off of something-worse-than-stupid-Geoffrey when Mrs. Banner patted him on the shoulder and said, "Your father's on the roof, setting up. You might want to go help him, Conner."
"There's not like, any huge things up there?" Conner asked, worried.
Mrs. Banner snorted. "What do you think? I saw him taking up rope, a meter stick, a brick, and a lot of chalk." She cocked one eyebrow at Conner, hands busy washing apples. "Now, what do you think he's making?"
Conner let out a whoop, and bolted up to the roof, which his father had remodeled a few years back so that it had a pool and a big, glassy dome on one end where there were telescopes and things. Out of all the cool things about their house the roof was the absolute coolest, and during spring and summer, Conner spent almost all of his time not in school on the roof, reading books in the dome, swimming, or just laying out in the sun, picking at his homework.
When Conner was younger, he and his dad used to go to the roof and look at constellations, but one night Superman had flown past, cape all red in the dark and his dad stopped taking him up, even though Conner knew he sometimes went by himself.
It wasn't such a big deal, since Conner could always go by himself, but he did hate Superman a little for ruining stuff all the time: not being able to run around without Mercy and Hope, not watching constellations anymore, fighting with his dad on the balcony.
Conner rounded the spiral steps up and burst out onto the roof, where there were already three long tables set up and lots of weird things that looked like they were about to explode or turn into man-eating robots--or exploding man-eating robots. All the plants had been moved to one side, or partitioned off, so no kids could run into them and kill a fern, and the high cement railing around the roof had an extra row of wrought-iron around the top, which looked like pretty curlicues. The wind was blowing hard that day and there were bricks on top of everything that looked like it could blow away, and the few brown leaves that had made it into the empty swimming pool flapped around in the deep end.
Conner's dad was on his hands and knees near the pool. He was wearing jeans Conner only saw him wear at home and a gray MetU t-shirt that looked about a hundred years old and he was holding a huge piece of bright red sidewalk chalk. Conner rushed over, skidding to a halt as he realized that he was standing next to a giant circle--one his dad was drawing.
"Whoa!" Conner shouted, practically jumping. "Whoa! That's an array! Dad, you're drawing an alchemy array!"
Lex looked up, looking sweaty with smudges of chalk on his cheek. "Yeah, I noticed, Conner," he said, and looked down again, muttering, "Organic chemistry was easier than this."
Conner laughed and ran around the roof some more, exclaiming at how awesome everything was, how it was going to be the best party ever. And after he finally calmed down enough to help, his dad gave him a big, circle stencil and told him to just trace the lines wherever he saw empty ground. By the time the sky was turning pink and dark blue, Mrs. Banner came up to the roof with a tray of hot soup and sandwiches and juice, with a dark-colored beer for Conner's dad.
"It looks beautiful," she said, examining all the arrays they'd drawn.
They were awesome, Conner thought, mouth full of chicken-salad and half an apple. His dad was giving him one of those slightly embarrassed but mostly amused expressions as he sipped his bottle, and Conner pointed frantically at different colored arrays, trying to get Mrs. Banner to look at all of them, look at the best ones.
There were four huge ones on the corners of an invisible square in the roof, Conner's dad explained. He'd done them with rope, a brick, and a piece of chalk, walking along with the rope taut to draw a perfect circle, and then he'd done it with shorter ropes and just drawn scribbly, curling things in the middle, or copied them out of Conner's Full Metal Alchemist art book. Then, there were dozens of little ones in all sorts of colors that Conner had made from the three stencils. By the time they were finished eating, it was getting late and kind of dark, so Lex turned on the dome-lights and the roof lights, which shot into the canvas partitions for the plants and the weird machines--"Pyrotechnics," his dad said, and promised they'd be cool--and onto the arrays.
It looked like it was real magic. Like Conner could clap his hands together and suddenly things would spring out of the floor and become real. Everything was a little ghostly and blue.
Mrs. Banner, Lex, and Conner all stood there a little while in the middle of the roof.
"Whoa," Conner said, grinning.
"That came out really well," his dad said, approvingly.
"I'm so proud of you boys," Mrs. Banner added, and kissed them both on the cheek before she checked her watch and realized she had to get home. Lex told her not to worry, and sent Hope to drive her home, saying, "Thanks so much for staying late tonight, Lori," even as Mrs. Banner giggled and said, "Not a problem, Lex."
After Mrs. Banner was gone, and when Conner had taken a long shower and washed all the chalk out of his hair and the chicken salad off of his face, he ran into his dad's bedroom.
It was all dark wood and white sheets, even more books than the office and it had lots of globes in it, and dark, creamy-colored drapes. His dad was sitting in an armchair by the window, wearing flannel pajama pants and a dark purple LexCorp Softball t-shirt, reading a Warrior Angel comic book in its plastic sleeve.
His dad looked up to see Conner rush into the room, and blinked, asking, "Anything wrong?"
Conner shook his head quickly, and fisted his hands for just a second before he ran over to his dad and hugged him, really fast, muttering, "Thanks a lot, Dad. That's the coolest thing ever," and pulling away, blushing furiously and running out of the room.
He fell asleep thinking about the dome-lights, the way Superman looked flying past the stars in the sky, and all the alchemical arrays on the ground, and wondered if they were real magic after all.
Saturday morning, it looked like it was going to rain, and Conner stared out the huge windows at their breakfast area forlornly, looking past the railings of the wrap-around balcony and past the frothy green plants Hope glared into growing. The sky was gray and the clouds were gray and his oatmeal was gray, like it was just trying to rub it in.
By eleven-thirty, his dad was on the phone about to order a huge tent when the whole world exploded into sunshine and his dad snapped the cell phone shut with a click.
"Fixed it," Lex said, smirking.
"Did not!" Conner argued, but he was grinning too much for it to really work.
His dad smiled. "Of course I did! I just called God, told him to clear up the weather because my son was having a birthday party."
Conner stared at his dad. "You did not."
Lex held up the cell phone and said, "He's on speed dial four. I swear."
Conner thought about this for a second and then glanced back out the window before scowling at his father and deciding he really didn't care why the weather cleared up. And anyway, if his dad did have God on speed dial four, it wasn't like it'd be surprising or anything.
He barely managed to eat any lunch because he was so excited, but Mrs. Banner snuck him three peanut butter cookies while he helped his dad move all the food up to the roof.
"This is going to be the best party ever," Conner confided, taking his third cookie.
Mrs. Banner winked at him. "I already knew that," she whispered back.
Weirdly enough, Garrison was the first one to arrive. His black eye as slowly getting green and sort of sickening, like the color of Conner's graph-puke, and they agreed this was the coolest thing ever. He shoved a huge box at Conner and said, "Hey, Mister Luthor," and they rushed up the spiral stairs from the solarium to the roof, where Garrison yelled about how cool everything was.
And then, one by one they showed up, Julie and Randall and Curtis and Grayson and Bob, whose full name was sadly Jonathan Johnson John. Conner piled their gifts up on a table on the roof and they all ran around looking at the alchemy circles. Even Julie--when she wasn't threatening to give Garrison matching black eyes if he came near her--thought they were neat, and asked if she could draw some more curlicues in one, which Conner's dad thought was a great idea.
It was when they were all on their hands and knees, adding extra lines and swirls to the ordinary circle arrays--Conner had explained that if they touched the four big arrays they'd all die--that Conner heard the intercom buzz.
He started to push himself up.
"--Clark Luthor, please come downstairs immediately."
"Oh crap," he muttered, and Julie looked at him like he'd just kicked a puppy or something.
Garrison said, "That's so cool! You used a Hail Mary word!"
Conner didn't even have time to explain that he totally used Hail Mary words all the time, and that "crap" wasn't even the best one he'd learned from his dad, either. He thudded down the steps and slipped on the last one, falling a little, and when he got back up, rounded the corner, went down the hall and down the three steps into the sunken foyer he looked up and saw Lois in dark blue jeans, blue flip-flops, and a white t-shirt. Conner thought she looked like an angel.
"Hi!" he squeaked, feeling himself turn red all over.
She beamed at him and waved her fingers and Conner felt himself swoon a little.
Then, his dad cleared his throat. "Conner?" Lex asked.
"Uh," Conner said, snapping out of it to look at his dad's You Are So Grounded Until You Can Vote, Like, Before That Amendment Was Made look. "I invited Lois?" he tried.
"Yes, I had noticed," his dad said icily, and Conner was starting to think that maybe he was going to have to live in the laundry room until he was thirty.
Lois, on the other hand, didn't seem to think there was a problem at all, and she crouched down and smiled at Conner, saying, "Here, let me go on and give you your present, kiddo."
Conner was kind of torn between feeling insulted that she'd called him "kiddo" or going over there so he could smell her hair again, and decided in the end that he was sort of young, at least she hadn't called him "baby" or anything totally gross like that. Conner gave his dad a sideways look to check that he wasn't going to explode soon or anything, and crept over to where Lois was in front of the elevator.
She grinned at him, and pulled something out of her jeans pocket, buckling it on Conner's wrist before she turned it over so Conner saw a bright new watch. She said, "Here, I found this yesterday at a great store." Lois pointed at the flat face of it, adding, "I asked around to see if they had anything nice with Full Metal Alchemist on it and they handed me this watch--what do you think, Conner?"
He finally stopped staring at her very pretty eyes to look down at his hand, and felt his jaw drop when he saw Roy Mustang on his wrist, long shots of flame acting like the big hand and little hand, telling Conner that it was three-thirty in the afternoon.
Conner was completely speechless, and when he looked up at Lois again, he was so red and happy he couldn't think of anything he might want to say even if he remembered how to again.
His dad really did look like he was going homicidal at this point but Conner didn't even care.
"Thank you, Miss Lane, for leading my child to deliberately deceive me," Conner's dad said, gritting his teeth and dropping one hand onto Conner's shoulder, squeezing hard. "I think it's time that you leave now."
Conner blinked hard and turned to his dad, yelling, "No way! Come on, Dad! It's my birthday!"
"And you lied to me," Lex said smoothly. He looked disappointed and that made Conner shrink a little, feeling his stomach knot up inside and he didn't like it at all. What was wrong with his dad, anyway? It was his birthday.
"I didn't really lie," Conner said awkwardly. "I didn't say I didn't invite her."
"Then you lied by omission," his dad bit out. "You can look it up later, on your own when--"
"Don't be such a spoilsport, Lex," Lois drawled, smiling sweetly, standing back up again. Her eyes were shining and Conner thought she was just great, he even liked the way that she crossed her arms over her chest and raised one of her eyebrows, which Conner's dad did all the time but looked way better on Lois' face.
The hand on Conner's shoulder tightened more, and it was starting to hurt when his dad said, "The last thing that I need is to get lessons on parenting from you, Lo--"
The elevator doors opened again, and this time, Conner's eyes got wide when he saw Clark Kent--Clark Kent, the jerk!--standing there nervously, holding a really expensive-looking camera and holding a cell phone to one ear, saying into it, "Lois, I don't know why you turned off the phone but I think that this is a really--" he finally looked up "--bad shit."
"Fifty-dollar word," Conner said stupidly, slapping his hands over his mouth right after he said it.
His dad glared and Lois was biting her lip trying not to laugh. Clark just blinked and reached for his wallet before Conner's dad let out a noise that meant he was completely disgusted.
"Oh, for God's sake," Lex said.
Lois smiled. "The more the merrier, right, Lex?"
Clark looked desperate and said, "This was all Lois' idea. I swear."
"And now, blow out your candles, Conner," Lex said, and he sounded genuinely happy.
Conner grinned, and did, all in one breath.
This was probably the last year he'd be able to do that, he thought, kind of depressed. He'd already been fighting to blow out the ninth one without pausing to take another breath, ten would be totally impossible. But, his dad looked happy and there was a huge cake shaped like the name CONNER and Conner got the slice with the purple C, which was tradition.
Earlier, when Conner had given Lois a tour of the roof--which was the only place Conner's dad said she was allowed to go--she'd talked about how pretty the arrays were, how all the food looked great, and what a good host Conner was.
Conner kept touching his watch and smiling at her, trying not to blush too hard and ignoring Clark as much as he could. Clark spent most of his time sitting at a table trying to make himself look small, which was stupid because Clark was huge like a big tree or something. He did take a picture of Conner and Lois together, though, so Conner decided maybe he wasn't 100% awful, but he was at least ninety-five, because Lois called him her date.
Lex had already given Conner the "I'm not ruining your birthday party because we have witnesses here and I can't kill you in front of them but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to make you regret this every day for the rest of your life" speech and he was mostly-okay now.
Conner's dad was cutting cake and handing pieces out to all of Conner's friends. The boys asked for big pieces and Julie asked if Conner's dad was thinking about dating again any time soon, and batted her eyelashes at him. But before Lex could stop looking terrified and answer, Randall was asking if the icing had any dairy in it. Then, Conner's dad was staring at Randall like he was some sort of alien, and Julie was threatening to punch Garrison in the face again, so Conner knew that everything was normal and that the party was going great. The sky was blue and bright and it was great.
So Conner took his plate, and walked over to where Lois was sitting with Clark at the corner of the roof, where Conner's dad had suggested they stay and think twice about using flash photography.
When Lois saw him coming, she said, "Hey, honey--" Honey! "--what's up? Great party."
Conner smiled shyly and set his plate down. "Can I sit next to you, Lois?"
She grinned and reached over, ruffling his hair with her soft hands. "Sure! Move over, Clark."
Which Clark did, sliding one seat down and looking at Conner like he was trying to figure something out or something, which Conner did not think was cool. He wasn't a math problem and there wasn't an equal sign anywhere, but he was sitting next to Lois, which had an equal sign to cool. He climbed up into the seat and picked at his cake, saying nervously, "So, uh."
Lois grinned. "So yeah," she said lightly. "This is a really nice roof, Conner." She looked around at Metropolis and all its high buildings around them. "Really beautiful," she said again, and this time her voice was softer like her eyes were softer, and Conner just had to stare at her for a minute, with her long, dark hair flying out in the wind.
And when Conner shook his head and looked away, blushing dark red, he realized Clark was looking at her, too, eyes soft and he was smiling like he thought she was just beautiful like that--like he loved her the same way Conner did.
Conner felt a sudden, hot rush in his chest, like he was angry and sick at the same time and for a minute he just wanted to kick Clark under the table. But Conner hadn't hit anybody since one time he'd accidentally broken his dad's wrist. Lex said it was okay later, that it was an accident and stop crying, Conner, come--come on, come here, I love you, okay? But it wasn't okay, and Conner didn't like hitting people, or grabbing people.
But Clark still sucked.
So he said sweetly, "Clark, can you get me a cup of punch, please?"
Clark stared at him for a second before blinking huge, green eyes. "Uh," he said. "What?"
Conner stared at him, blinking even huger green eyes. "Please? I'm thirsty, and you're closer," he said, adding, "kinda."
Clark gaped at him until Lois laughed, loud and alive and she said, "Oh, Conner, honey, he totally thought you were ignoring him." She patted Clark's cheek from over the table and said, "Be a dear, Smallville, go get the birthday boy a cup of punch already."
Glaring, Clark swatted at Lois' hand, but then he looked at Conner cautiously, and said, "Okay, I guess. Any--uh, what kind do you want?"
Conner blinked at that. "Uh, there's kinds?" he asked. He'd been drinking milk all afternoon.
And then Clark grinned, pushing himself up, saying, "Yeah, of course. I mean, your dad planned this birthday party, right? There's always three kinds of punch."
For a minute, Conner totally didn't know what to say, because Clark was right. His dad planned the party and of course there would be three kinds of punch, but there was something really, really wrong about Clark knowing that. But before Conner could ask Clark if he was like, stalking them or something, Clark waved one huge hand and said, "Nevermind, nevermind. I'll just grab whatever. They're all great punches, too."
Which was also true, Conner thought, fuming, watching Clark go to the punch table, where he grabbed a cup and looked at three different punch bowls while Conner's dad glared.
That was totally it, Conner decided. Clark was in love with Lois and he was stalking Conner and his dad--this was war. Originally, Conner just wanted Clark gone so he could talk to Lois without being stared at; now, Conner grinned, and cracked his knuckles discreetly.
"That's gross, Conner," Lois said, frowning. "You'll give yourself arthritis."
"What's arthritis?" Conner asked, and glanced over to where Clark was ladling some pale orange liquid into a cup now--and then poured it all over his hand when Conner's dad walked over there and said something quietly. Loser, Conner thought, sighing.
"It's something you get before you die," Lois told him, and smacked his hands. "So stop it."
Conner nodded. Dying was bad. "Okay," he agreed, and then pointed at the sky behind Lois' head, saying, "Lois, look! It's so pretty."
Conner wasn't really sure what he'd been pointing at, but when Lois turned around, apparently she saw something she thought was, because she stared out over the city a long time. Long enough for Conner to look at her pretty hair and put Lois' half-eaten piece of cake on Clark's seat.
By the time Conner composed himself and Lois turned around, Clark was walking up to the table, looking kind of white.
"You look kind of pale, Smallville," Lois said, smirking.
Clark glared at her. "Shut up, Lois," he snapped, and thunked the cup on the table.
Strike three, Conner thought, and didn't bother to hide his grin when Clark sat down in his chair.
"I--I don't even know what to do with you," Conner's dad said. His mouth was doing a weird thing, where it looked like he was frowning on one side and then trying not to laugh and then frowning again. Conner thought maybe it was old age.
"I mean, normally," Lex said, "I'd tell you to apologize immediately and go to the laundry room."
Conner turned white. His dad couldn't do that. Not on his birthday, not when Lois was there.
"But then again, he wasn't invited," Lex said, frowning again.
Conner nodded quickly. "Yeah. He totally wasn't invited."
His dad stared at him. "But you made him sit in cake," he said weirdly.
"Clark sat on it himself!" Conner argued. "I just put it on his seat. He didn't have to sit on it."
His dad looked at Conner for a long time before he rubbed his face with his hands.
"What did I do to deserve this," Lex muttered, and after a pause, he cracked one eye open to look at Conner and muttered, "Don't answer that, I already know," so Conner shut his mouth and didn't mention The Incident With The Dancing.
After a minute, Conner dad seemed to have decided something and said, "You still have to apologize," just as Clark stepped out of the first floor washroom, face red and wearing a pair of spare sweatpants, glaring daggers at Conner.
Lex looked up and over--his mouth doing that weird thing again--and said, "Ah. Mr. Kent. Are the sweatpants all right? I know they're a little short."
And they were, Conner could see Clark's ankles over the tops of Clark's sneakers.
Clark turned even redder, and narrowed his eyes. "They're fine, thank you, Mr. Luthor."
Conner glanced between Clark and his dad and pouted. "Dad--"
"Conner," Lex said warningly. "Apologize."
Sulking, Conner turned around and looked at Clark's annoyed expression, muttering, "'M sorry I put cake on your chair and you had to wash icing off your butt. And that Lois fell down and sprained her ankle because she was laughing so--"
"And that's quite enough out of you," Lex interrupted, and this time, he looked more like he was going to laugh than he was going to frown, which Conner figured was score one in his favor.
Just then, Lois hobbled into the living room, grinning brightly.
"Everybody happy?" she asked, and before anybody could answer, she said, "That's great." She grinned at Conner. "Hey, Conner, honey. I figure, since we've got the time, how'd you like to give an interview and get some more pictures ta--"
Conner didn't even have time to let his eyes get really big and wave his hands "no" in warning before his dad said quietly, "Conner. Go upstairs."
Conner opened his mouth to argue but then his dad narrowed his eyes in a way that meant Conner was supposed to be gone like, yesterday.
"Yeah, I'm going to go right now, really fast," Conner promised, and ran, pausing at the doorway into the solarium to hit the intercom button as discreetly as possible and rushed out of the room.
By the time Conner made it up the spiral staircase, all of his guests were gathered around the intercom listening, open-mouthed.
"I cannot fucking believe this!" Lois was screaming. "What do you think gives you the right--?"
"What makes you think you have the right to exploit my child like this?" Conner's dad roared back. "I'll have your press credentials! And if you think for a minute that I'm joking I'll--"
"What the fuck ever, Lex!" Lois yelled back, and Julie turned so red Conner thought she was going to blow up. "You're being ridiculous! It's a birthday party, he invited me, you know, as a guest!"
"You haven't been a guest in any home of mine for years and for good reasons!" Conner's dad bellowed. "The sheer audacity of you, showing up here and tricking my son into thinking that you like him or something--I should have seen this coming--"
"Guys," Clark tried to interrupt.
"Stay out of this, Clark," Lois snapped. "Lex has a temper tantrum coming on here." There was a mean pause. "He's probably still bitter about my walking out on him--"
"Get out of my house. Right now," Conner's dad said, quiet and low.
There was a pause before Clark said, "Come on, Lois. Let's go. We shouldn't have come anyway. Lex, I'm really sorry that we--"
"Just get out," Lex said, very slowly.
There was a shuffle before Conner heard Lois yelling, "No! Why do I have to get out? I was invited! Clark, stop being such a fuckin' pussy, all right? I was invited, you're my guest, we have as much a right to be here as any of those munchkins--whoa."
Then, Conner's dad said lightly, "Mercy, Hope, could you please escort these two out of the building and then draw up the necessary paperwork to file a formal complaint against the Daily Planet, please?"
Conner winced. Whenever his dad said "formal complaint," nothing good ever came of it. Last time that Conner heard "formal complaint," he'd almost gotten kicked out of school for messing up some of the bricks on one of the outside walls when he'd kicked them angrily. "There was a formal complaint, Conner," his dad had said, tight and annoyed. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it, and no matter what you hear anybody say, it's not your fault."
That was what Conner's dad was always saying: not his fault.
Only it was, because Conner wasn't exactly stupid. He could put two and two together and nowadays, he mostly got four. Every time he'd snapped one of his cell phones, or accidentally pushed a hole into his clothes from knotting them in his hands, or the way sometimes if he wasn't careful he seemed to shove things clear across the room without even trying--those were his fault. He was getting better at controlling himself, and even if he never said it, Conner was kind of jealous of all the other kids, who seemed to be able to act naturally, without even thinking about it.
Conner thought he heard a lot of pushing and yelling in the background and Lois saying a lot of fifty-dollar words before he heard his dad say, "Clark, I asked you to leave long before I ever bothered throwing Lois out. I thought I'd made it clear then: stay away."
"Fine," Clark said, short and flat and very quiet, like he was muttering it under his breath or something, because their intercom system was what Conner's dad called "top of the line technology," and Conner swore he'd actually heard pins drop before.
And then there wasn't anything, just the sound of the elevator doors closing.
All the kids around him were gaping at Conner, and Conner was staring hard at the intercom, waiting, hoping that maybe Lois was still there or his dad had changed his mind and maybe this birthday party wasn't ruined.
"God damn it," Conner's dad said, and Conner knew it was over.
He fisted his hands and stormed through the crowd of kids around him and searched the entire roof, fuming and ready to scream or cry or hit something even though he knew he wasn't supposed to if he didn't want the building to fall down. And everywhere he looked, it seemed like the only people he saw were Julie and Randall and Garrison, who was poking at the canvas partitions that were keeping the plants safe.
"Where is Geoffrey?" Conner finally demanded, furious, whole body shaking.
They had to plan. They were going to put glue in Conner's dad's shoes, or put earthworms in his food, or maybe he'd put glue in Lex's shoes and put earthworms in his food and then do it to Clark because why was he at Conner's birthday party anyway? And with Lois?
Randall looked at Conner funny from where he was eating one of the watercress sandwiches on whole wheat bread.
"He didn't come," Randall said, and he was smiling.
Conner stared at him. "What?"
"Geoffrey didn't come," Randall repeated. "Garrison was supposed to tell you but I think he forgot. He got a new bottle of rubber cement yesterday I hear."
Gaping, Conner said, "What?"
Randall snorted, and set his watercress sandwich delicately in his lap. "I know. I can't believe they gave Garrison more glue either. I mean, you'd think that needing a new jar of it every two days means that somebody would figure out that he's not like, making dioramas or something--"
"Randall!" Conner yelled. "I don't care about Garrison sniffing glue!"
"Oh," Randall muttered, sulky.
"Geoffrey didn't come to my birthday party?" Conner said, horrified.
Randall blinked, like this was the most obvious thing in the world, and before he could open his mouth to say that it was the most obvious thing in the world, Julie wandered up and interrupted.
"Well, obviously not, Conner. You two haven't spoken to each other in forever!" she said matter-of-factly. "Why would he come to your birthday party if you guys aren't even friends anymore?"
Conner felt dizzy. "We're not friends anymore?" he asked faintly.
Garrison was stuffing cake in his mouth, but when he walked by, he had a look on his face that said, "Well, duh, Conner. What are you, stoned or something?"
Suddenly, the roof party was horrible and the arrays were horrible and Saturdays were horrible.
What was especially horrible was that right at that moment Garrison spilled punch all over Randall so Julie started shrieking laughter and Randall just started shrieking. Conner couldn't think with all that noise and he didn't know why anybody thought anything was funny at all when Geoffrey hadn't come to Conner's birthday party.
As annoying and dumb and stupid as Geoffrey could be, Geoffrey was Conner's number one minion, Conner's best friend, and Conner's artist in residence. What was he thinking? How could he just decide not to come? Conner had made his dad save the letter E out of the cake for Geoffrey because he sometimes still remembered he wanted to be called Ed. What kind of friend left the letter E at somebody's party and didn't tell them they weren't coming?
If Geoffrey had saved Conner the letter C at his party Conner would have stolen Mercy's stuff and rappelled down the side of the building to get there! He would! He and Geoffrey had tried it once, even! And sure they hadn't really ever gotten out of the window but they'd totally put on the harnesses!
He stormed past his guests, down the spiral staircase and thumped out of the solarium. When he stormed past his dad in the living room, Conner saw out of the corner of his eye that his dad seemed to be trying to swallow something and hide the bottle at the same time. Which was stupid because his father didn't have to hide whatever he was drinking unless he was drinking, which Conner didn't like him doing, because it made him glassy and weird, talking about weird things.
Weird things like destiny and fate and not escaping that scared Conner so Conner stared at the ground and stormed to his room on sense-memories alone, and when he slammed his door shut as hard as possible, he thought he saw a photograph flying off of the mantle, flying across the room in a shatter of glass.
During the third grade, at the school book fair, Conner had seen a slick blue book lost in the stacks of yellow Apple young readers novels that had been stacked on every surface at St. Ann's library. Nuns were busy fussing with all the younger kids so Conner had picked it up and looked at the cover, and saw a laughing baby with dark brown hair throwing toilet paper around the bathroom.
So he flipped it open and read it three times before he took it to the register and bought it for four dollars and ninety-five cents.
When he got home that day, he told his dad that he hadn't seen anything at the book fair he liked and went to his room, and read the book until he'd fallen asleep, feeling sick and lonely and very small all over again. When he woke up the next day, it was only four in the morning, so he had padded over to his dad's room, and fallen asleep in the big chair next to his dad's bed--and when he'd woken up again, it was nearing eight and he was asleep tucked into the bed next to Lex, who was looking at him with gray eyes the color of that morning's light.
"Nightmares?" his dad had asked.
Conner had shaken his head and said, "No. I just wanted to see you."
But he'd seen enough to know that his dad wasn't a mom, and he would never hold Conner and sing, "I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."
It wasn't that Conner's dad was bad at it or anything, just that he was Conner's dad, and Conner didn't have a mom. And no matter what Conner asked or tried to make his dad tell him without having to ask, it seemed like Conner had never had a mom to begin with. Even the picture of the pretty lady on the mantle that broken into a hundred pieces now didn't look like mom--she looked like a stranger, someone weird and unreal and not very warm or soft at all. Conner didn't think she'd ever hold him and sing.
So Conner didn't have a mom, not one that was all his. But at least Geoffrey had said that Conner could share, and that was okay, even if it was a little weird. It meant they were friends and that Conner had a little bit of a mom. He'd seen pictures of Geoffrey's mom. She was round and always smiling and had dark, dark brown eyes, and she was always kissing Geoffrey's dad or hugging Geoffrey or looked like she was about to dance, and Conner could imagine her singing to him, and holding his hand.
But now Geoffrey wasn't Conner's friend anymore and Conner had just broken the only mom that was ever really his own, and Conner didn't have any mom anymore.
He crawled up onto his bed and stuck his hand under his mattress and felt around until he caught the corner of a book, and he pulled it out, and looked at its dog-eared corners and folded pages, with little ripples from water or brown spots from soda.
Conner ran his hands over the cover before he opened it, and all the words started to get blurry.
It seemed like no matter how hard he rubbed at his eyes he just couldn't stop, and Conner hated crying; it made his face red and blotchy and he felt stupid doing it. He felt just as little and dumb as hid dad seemed to think he was sometimes, and it made him feel tired.
But all he could do was read the words over and over again and think that he didn't have a mom, and that Geoffrey wouldn't even share his anymore.
Conner's dad wouldn't tell him about his real mom, and maybe he'd never had one. Maybe Conner had been some weird twist of fate or destiny like his dad was always talking about and maybe that meant nobody had ever sung to him, or crawled up to his bed and night and brushed his hair. Maybe, Conner wasn't supposed to be there, because there was nobody there to love him forever and like him for always.
And then he was crying like a stupid baby and he couldn't even stop, not even when his dad walked into the room and yelled, "Oh, God--Conner!" and not even when his dad grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.
"Geoffrey isn't going to share anymore," Conner hiccupped. "He doesn't even want to be my friend because I'm such a jerk--he's not going to let me share his mom anymore!"
Conner couldn't see his dad's face but he felt his dad's fingers digging into his sides.
"Conner, that's not--"
"I don't have a mom!" he yelled into his dad's shoulder, and he was grabbing his dad's shirt, pulling at him and so angry and tired and sad he didn't even know what to do anymore. This was his birthday! Things like this weren't allowed to happen on his birthday! His dad's speed dial four totally wasn't God or else this wouldn't be happening on Conner's birthday!
"I don't have a mom and maybe you just found me or maybe I wasn't supposed to be here or--" Conner said stupidly into his dad's shoulder, just babbling like a crazy person until he felt his dad freeze suddenly, and pull away.
"Conner," Lex said, voice dark and severe. "Conner, look at me."
So Conner looked up, and his face was probably red and puffy and covered in tears and snot, but his dad put his hands on his cheeks anyway. And this close together Conner's dad's face looked a lot paler, a lot scarier, and his eyes were very, very blue.
"You don't have a mom," Lex whispered.
And Conner stared at him, and seriously was regretting not breaking both his wrists before.
"You wanted to tell me that?" he shrieked, completely hysterical.
"Conner," his dad said, very quietly. "No, you don't have a mom, not like the other kids do."
"Uh," Conner said, feeling like his entire brain had just turned into Garrison's favorite glue.
His dad looked at him hard, like he was trying to find something in Conner's face that he'd been looking for his whole life or something--as if Conner was hiding that destiny and fate that Lex talked about when he was drinking in front of the fireplace.
But the way his dad was looking at him meant that something Really Important was about to happen. Like Conner learning how to walk or learning how to read or snubbing a member of the Green party, and Conner held his breath.
"You," his dad said seriously, "are the world's most wonderful accident, Conner."
"Maybe you should make a chart," Conner said.
His dad turned kind of green. Which might have just been because it was nearly morning and the sky outside looked the color gray of his dad's favorite shirt, or maybe it was because he was really turning kind of green.
"Conner, I'm sorry. I don't think I can draw you a chart," Lex said.
"Why not?" Conner asked.
"Because it was nearly a decade of research that went into it and I stink at drawing helixes anyway," Lex said smoothly. "Do you understand what I explained, though?"
Conner almost always understood things when his dad explained them nice and slow, with big hand motions and lots of pictures. For the Masturbation Is Just Fine And A Preferable Option To Premature Sexual Experimentation Or God Forbid Intercourse But Please Don't Let Me Ever Accidentally See You Doing It Because I Will Die speech, his dad made a PowerPoint presentation, complete with pictures of locks on doors.
"So you took someone's DNA, and you took your DNA, and you mixed them together and made me," Conner said tentatively. When Lex had started to explain it, he'd made a lot of hand gestures like he was taking one thing away from somewhere and putting it somewhere else. And then there was mixing. And then his dad kind of hopped, skipped, and jumped around the whole nine months thing, saying, "And then you were born and I never got a good night's sleep again."
His dad smiled. "Yes. Basically. Well--I didn't take the DNA, but yes, someone did. Take my DNA, and someone else's DNA, and made you."
Conner stared at his eyes, and felt very tired, woozy from lack of sleep. "So you didn't want me?"
Lex put the heels of his hands over his eyes and groaned. "Conner, that's not what I said."
"Yeah, but," Conner started, nervous, fiddling with the edge of his shirt, "it's not like you wanted me or anything, right?"
His dad kind of looked like he wanted to die.
"I mean, you didn't even tell people to take the DNA," Conner babbled, staring down at his hands. "And you told me I was an accident, right? And--"
"I said the world's most wonderful accident," Lex corrected frantically, cupping Conner's cheeks and turning his face upward. "Conner--hey, Conner."
"Wonderful accident," Conner repeated sourly. "Right. Still an accident."
"I think we should focus on the 'wonderful' part," his dad said.
Okay, Conner thought. All of this was weirdly starting to make sense. He was a freak. Sure, he'd always known it a little bit, but now it was kind of hard to ignore it: his dad hadn't wanted him, he didn't have a mom. Conner was a science experiment gone way wrong. He guessed that was okay. Not everybody was planned, right? So really, it wasn't any different--only, yeah, Conner was like that extra fungus that turned into penicillin. Maybe, Conner was the human equivalent of lifesaving fungus.
"I--I'm like mold," Conner whispered to himself. It didn't sound encouraging.
His dad stared at him. "Um."
Conner stared back. "Mold," he said solemnly.
"I'm very confused," Lex admitted. "And you're not mold."
Conner narrowed his eyes. "Dad. Mold is the only wonderful accident I can think of right now."
Lex looked kind of like he was lost. "Mold," he repeated.
Conner tried to make sure his lower lip wasn't quivering, because no matter what his dad said, it totally made him look like a girl. "I'm like mold. You know, that good mold." Conner made an injecting motion and his father's eyes got large. "The stuff with the--the penicillin."
His father's mouth turned into an 'o' of understanding and brightened. "That's it exactly, Conner."
"So I am mold," Conner managed.
"So you're penicillin," Lex corrected. "You're a miracle, Conner."
Conner made a face that meant that he thought his dad was feeding him total crap, which he wasn't allowed to say since Lex felt that it damaged their father-son relationship and was inherently false, since Lex hadn't dealt crap since he got out of the fertilizer industry. Also, Conner could generally depend on a night in the laundry room if he decided to get shirty with his dad like that.
"How come?" Conner demanded. "I don't save anybody."
And for no good reason at all, his dad's face got all soft, and worn. It made Conner kind of shy. Lex's eyes looked very blue, and darker, like he was really paying attention to Conner, the kind of look his dad got when he was reading Conner bedtime stories or that he'd had when they used to look through the telescope on the roof together late at night.
"Dad," Conner said, nervous. "Dad."
Then his dad smiled at him, like Conner really was a miracle, and said very quietly, "You saved me, Conner."
It made him feel very small and very warm; most of all, it made him feel very important.
"Oh," he said softly.
His dad folded him gently into a hug, and Conner's small arms came around his father's back, hands feeling his dad warm through the expensive cloth of the shirt.
Like always, his dad smelled like rich things, soap, and paper, like home. When his dad went away on business--which he was doing more and more these days--Conner always liked to steal his dad's old MetU t-shirt and wear it around the house. It made Mrs. Banner get all teary-eyed and cooing, and she always took loads of pictures, but Conner was already used to that. Some of his first memories were of his dad taking pictures--and the other ones were just like this: his dad and how he smelled.
"So you do want me?" Conner asked, fingers scratching nervously at his dad's shoulders. He muttered it into Lex's shoulder, blushing and kind of scared. His dad got mad at him a lot; it wasn't too late for him to like, change his mind about keeping Conner. And then what would Conner do? He'd be homeless! He'd have to do tricks for money to buy asparagus!
His dad laughed, and pulled away enough to kiss him on the temple.
"Dad!" Conner whined, pushing at his dad's chest. "That's gross!"
"Of course I want you," his dad said, grinning. "Of course I want you."
Conner nodded seriously. "Okay, so like, can I get that on paper?"
His dad started laughing, and Conner yelled, "I just want--Dad, cut it out!--I want documentation! For like, when I blow up your car or something."
Lex put it on paper. They both signed it the next morning with Mrs. Banner as a witness, who was used to their kind of weirdness and only laughed and gave them both extra eggs.
The next day, right before their first class started, Conner pulled Geoffrey aside, dragging him away from Curtis--who was totally going to end up on Conner's bad list if he kept taking up all of Geoffrey's time like that--and into the corner of the classroom.
Geoffrey looked away and asked, "What do you want?"
"You didn't come to my birthday party," Conner whispered, because he could see Eve looking at them from the corner of her eye. And if she thought that Conner and Geoffrey fighting meant that Geoffrey would go with her, she was so wrong it wasn't even funny.
Geoffrey glanced at him for just a second, and Conner thought he looked angry.
"You had Lois," Geoffrey spit out. "Why would you want me there?"
Conner opened his mouth to tell Geoffrey he was so incredibly stupid Conner didn't even have words for it, but decided against it and said, "I don't have a mom."
Geoffrey looked confused for a second before he got this really soft look on his face, like he really got Conner or something, and he said, "Yeah, Conner, I know. You told me before."
Conner shook his head. "No, no--not like that." He looked around them, and scowled when he realized that Eve was still batting her eyelashes at Geoffrey. That girl was deranged. "No, I mean like--I never had a mom," he finished in a very soft whisper, close to Geoffrey's ear.
Geoffrey turned to stare at him weirdly, but before he could say anything, Sister Hyacinth stomped into the room and told them to open all their math books, and Conner and Geoffrey shuffled into their seats because they were already on Sister Hyacinth's Really Super Short List, and they were kind of afraid to find out if there was a Really Super Crazy Short List.
They scooted their chairs up to their desks together and their feet kicked under the table; it was weirdly normal and Conner was glad for it, like they were sort of friends again. It was more important than ever, since Conner would never have mom stories of his own. It was okay, though, because Geoffrey's were generally great.
It was about four minutes into the lesson about adding fractions when Geoffrey shoved a piece of paper onto Conner's desk. It read: SO YOU DON'T HAVE A MOM? AT ALL?
Conner looked at the paper for a long time. Geoffrey always wrote in capital letters, and they always slanted to the left. He always got in trouble when he did it because the nuns were really into having good penmanship, and Geoffrey had the total opposite.
Conner wrote back, No. It's weird. I'm like mold.
Geoffrey gave him a Look. YOU'RE NOT EVEN GREEN.
I'm like mold, I'm not actually mold, Conner wrote back furiously, eyes casting wary glances up at Sister Hyacinth, who was writing a one over a two on the board and saying something ominously, like she said everything else. But most importantly, she wasn't paying any attention to Conner and Geoffrey, which was a first.
MOLD IS GROSS, Geoffrey wrote back, making a face.
I'm like penicillin. That's good mold, Conner explained, and his handwriting was loopy and nearly completely linked together. His dad said it was because Conner had spent too much time learning how to write in cursive and it was too late to fix himself. Like, I'm a good accident.
THAT'S COOL, Geoffrey scribbled, capital letters skewing this way and that. He drew a blotch on the page and put some crosshairs around the edges and labeled it "Conner," drawing an arrow at it that said, "mold, but good mold." It made Conner laugh, partially because the picture looked completely ridiculous and partially because it felt like about a thousand years had passed since Geoffrey had last drawn something for him, and it was really nice to have random scribbles on his notebook paper again.
But then Geoffrey's face got white in a really familiar way, too, and Conner's eyes got wide. He turned around very slowly in his seat to see Sister Hyacinth glaring down at them.
"Uh," Conner said.
"Gentlemen," Sister Hyacinth hissed, reaching out her gnarled hand for the note Conner was already crushing into a ball on his desk.
"Uh," Geoffrey repeated.
Sister Hyacinth raised her pencil-thin eyebrow, and dipped her hand a little, expectant.
Geoffrey leaned over to Conner, and moving as little of his mouth as possible, whispered, "It's so totally your turn this time.
Conner only nodded bravely and wadded up the note as small as possible.
"Oh, not this again," Sister Hyacinth muttered under her breath, just as Julie Meyers from three rows up said, "This is totally the grossest thing that you two do" like she didn't say it every time they did this or something.
"It's for security reasons, ma'am," Geoffrey said solemnly, pushing himself out of his chair.
"I hate this part," Conner sulked, and stuck the paper ball in his mouth, chewing sullenly. The only good thing about this whole stupid rule they'd made up was that because of That Time Conner Threw Up Like, Two Sheets Of Construction Paper, they always used small sheets of notebook paper, because it was more easily digestible.
Sister Hyacinth made a face like she'd just swallowed something really awful. "I think your father's security detail is having an adverse affect on you, Mister Luthor.
"You're probably right, ma'am," Geoffrey said politely, grinning, and Conner smacked him, because if they were going to get sent to the hall anyway, he might as well go for good reasons.
Sister Hyacinth rolled her eyes and pointed to the door of the classroom.
"Are you feeling okay?" Geoffrey asked quietly.
Conner was still grabbing his stomach. "We need to start using wood-free paper," he said.
Their voices were echoing down the hallway, and it sounded funny, like they were bouncing off of the walls. St. Ann's had white walls with a dark blue line of paint and corkboards with lots of posters and fliers tacked up everywhere. It was weirdly mismatched, with lots of short things and lots of big things. That's one of the downsides of going to a school with two hundred people and twelve grades.
"Maybe we should stop passing notes instead," Geoffrey proposed.
Conner gagged a little. "I think your pen ink is poisoning me."
Geoffrey rolled his eyes. "Right," he muttered.
Conner waited a long time before he said, "So someone took my dads DNA got mixed with someone elses and I got made. I was kind of a lab accident." Pause. "So I don't have a mom."
"Who'd do that?" Geoffrey asked, eyes wide.
"I don't know," Conner admitted. "Dad kind of looked like he was going to have a seizure if I kept asking about it."
Geoffrey was quiet. "That's freaky, Conner."
"I know," Conner said sadly. "I think my whole life is freaky."
"S'not so bad." Geoffrey shrugged and looked around them, kicking at the ground.
Getting sent out to the hallway was only a punishment for kids who hadn't figured out that they could talk and relax out there. It'd taken them about two years to figure it out, but Conner and Geoffrey were kind of masters at getting into trouble.
"Yeah?" Conner asked, but didn't wait for an answer before saying all in one breath, "Anyway. Now you know some dirt on me so we have to be friends again."
Geoffrey snorted. "That's totally not how it works."
Conner scowled. "You suck."
Geoffrey started to laugh, which Conner suffered graciously, and figured meant they were friends again. It wasn't like he ate paper for just anybody; it was a pretty short list. That didn't mean that Geoffrey could keep laughing, so Conner tried to kick him, which only made Geoffrey laugh harder, so Conner started yelling and Geoffrey started yelling back.
Then, they got sent to the principal's office.
"Twenty-five minutes into the day," Sister McAllister said, half-amused, when they got there.
"It's an all new record," Conner said thoughtfully.
"Even for us," Geoffrey admitted.
It was monsoon season in Metropolis, and Conner was soaked by the time he made it from the awning of the school to the car, where Mercy was holding the door open and completely undisturbed by the weather, which was kind of freaky in and of itself. So he spent most of the forty-five minute ride home through the awful traffic wringing his clothes out on his dad's expensive leather upholstery. He was probably going to get the laundry room anyway for getting sent to the principal's office, so he might as well take it out on something before he was useless and stuck with warm towels all night.
It was nearly five-fifteen by the time he finally got into the penthouse and Mrs. Banner was waiting for him when the elevator door opened with a huge, just-out-of-the-dryer towel.
So after Conner complained a few minutes while Mrs. Banner fluff-dried him, he stumbled--kind of dizzy--off to his room to change into some clothes that didn't make him look like a dork or a priest in training.
Conner's room wasn't actually small; it just looked that way in comparison. It was a speck next to the living room or the library or the solarium, and a kinda-speck compared to his father's study and bedroom. But Conner thought if it was any bigger, he'd be in serious pain cleaning it, and he wouldn't even have enough stuff to fill it.
As it was, the pale blue walls were plastered with news clippings, posters of Full Metal Alchemist characters--mostly Roy Mustang--and there were bookshelves built into the walls, overflowing with every book his father had bought him, and everything that he used to drag home from school book fairs. The cheap paperback copies of Radio Sixth Grade looked weird next to the leatherbound copies of The Secret Garden, but Conner liked the contrast; he thought it said a lot about him. His bed was lined up against the wall, and he had blue lamps, with papery-color lampshades with stickers and notes glued onto them, which Conner's dad said completely defeated the purpose of having a lamp, but didn't replace.
The best thing about Conner's room was his window.
When he'd been four and his father had shown him the blueprints of the penthouse just before they'd moved back in after the remodeling, Conner remembered that in the west wing, there was a weird crosshatch marking named "C. W." Two months later, he and his dad had walked into his room to see the enormous porthole window, with crossing white bands over the glass.
The window was taller than Conner, and almost taller than his dad, and it had a curving seat with a dark blue cushion that Conner sometimes fell asleep on--and then fell off of.
Conner also had a computer.
He typed fast, deleted faster, and had just enough time to draft and re-draft an apology note to Lois four times before he heard his father's voice over the intercom saying, "Conner, I really think that it's a few years too early for your adolescent rebellion. Come into my study, please."
But his dad was still guilty about the not having a mom thing and being accidental good mold thing, because Conner only got a lecture about behavior in class and sympathy about how confused he probably was, and was sent on his way. His dad had a distracted, tired look on his face, which made Conner forget about getting away with stuff and worry that his dad wasn't getting enough sleep--because he didn't, and sometimes, Conner thought this dad looked too breakable, like he was about to snap into two pieces or just fall asleep and never wake up.
At seven-thirty, he and Mrs. Banner ate dinner together at the breakfast table and at eight Mrs. Banner kissed his cheek and headed home in the last drizzling wet of the storm. Conner did all of his vocabulary homework in twelve minutes, read volume four of Full Metal Alchemist, skimmed the Daily Planet, and watched something on FOX where a lot of rich people took off each other's clothes and shouted, then the blonde one slapped the brunette, and Conner shut the television off.
By nine, Conner knew there was something wrong because his dad hadn't come to tell him to go to bed yet, so he tiptoed to the study and saw his dad asleep on the desk, head pillowed on folded arms. Conner ran to the linen closet and got out a blanket, which he draped as well as he could over his dad's back before he shushed the computer which was trying to tell Conner to go to sleep since Lex couldn't, and went to his room.
He lay in bed a long time before he fell asleep.
When Conner was three, Superman had slammed into their front window, shattering all the bulletproof glass in the living room. He remembered how he smelled blood and broken things and how his father had grabbed him and handed him over to Mrs. Banner. She had started screaming when she saw something dark and green out of the corner of the window and dragged Conner into the panic room. She'd curled around him, holding him tight, and he'd only been able to see snatches of what was happening over her shoulder as the seconds ticked by.
When the metal-slick door had slid shut, Conner remembered that outside, his father had been leaning against a wall, standing with his back to Conner like a protector. There had been blood running down the side of his arm and Superman had just pushed himself back up to his feet and Conner remembered that both of them looked like heroes.
Conner woke up and figured that maybe one of the reasons his dad wasn't getting enough rest was that people kept coming to pick fights with him at like, three in the morning.
He groaned and rolled out of bed, padded over to the study, where he peeked in the door to find the blanket bunched up on his father's desk, and his dad on the balcony saying something quietly back to Superman, who was yelling at Conner's dad about how something just didn't make sense, and what the hell was going on, and just tell me the truth, Lex!
Conner had the stupidest life ever. His dad didn't take care of himself, he had bodyguards who always looked like they just wanted someone to mess with Conner so they could use their kung fu, and his best friend came up with stupid plans about eating paper. Also, Superman was picking fights with his dad like Julie Meyers picked fights with Geoffrey, which according to Geoffrey's dad either meant that Superman was neglected at home or had a crush on Lex. Which was scarier than the mold-accident thing any day.
Conner couldn't even care this time because he was so tired, and he stumbled into the kitchen and poured himself some orange juice. He squinted at the oven clock until he heard his dad stalking into the living room and stopping short.
"You didn't go to bed," Conner accused, turning around in the kitchen stool glaring.
His dad looked rumpled. Which was weird. "I had a lot of work."
Conner narrowed his eyes. "Your computer was bored, it was trying to tell me to go to sleep."
His dad had a face that was sort of guilty, but mostly tired, and he walked past Conner and started up the coffee maker, which was already setup for the next morning--which, technically, it was. It started to bubble and pop, and Conner let his eyes slip shut when the room started to smell like hot coffee.
"Superman was picking a fight with you again," Conner muttered, putting his head down on the counter next to his half-full cup of orange juice. "You two are loud."
When Conner blinked sleepily, he saw his dad's face, and it looked tired and old and guilty.
"Sorry," Lex said, stroking Conner's hair. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Conner shook his head, which meant he mostly mashed his face into the counter. "S'not your fault," he muttered. "Just gotta make Superman stop stalking you."
His dad laughed, tugging him off the counter gently and picking him up. Conner was nine and totally too old to be carried around and stuff but he figured it didn't count if he was about to fall asleep on his feet. So he just buried his face in the crook of his dad's neck and made snuffling noises as Lex carried Conner back to his bed and tucked him under the sheets again.
"Who else's kid am I, though?" Conner asked blearily, because he'd been thinking about it all day but couldn't think of a good way to ask. "Whose DNA made me?"
His dad's eyes closed and he said, "You're tired, Conner. Go to sleep."
"'M not that tired," Conner slurred, the whole world going blurry. "Tell me."
There was a long silence, but just before Conner tipped over into dreams, he heard his dad say, "You're mine, and nothing's going to change that."
Someone started shaking him at seven-thirty that morning.
"Is it Saturday?" he asked hopefully.
Mrs. Banner looked down at him sympathetically, hand still on his shoulder. "Thursday," she corrected. "Time to get up."
"I think you're lying," Conner muttered, pushing the covers off and sitting up slowly, reaching around for the uniform he'd tossed all over his bed the night before. "I can't find my pants," he said sadly, staring at his lap.
"Honestly," Mrs. Banner said. She glanced around and plucked Conner's trousers off of where he'd tossed them over the back of his desk chair the night before and dropped them in Conner's forlorn and open hands. "Sometimes, I don't see any of your father in you at all. You know he wakes up every morning at--"
"Seven o'clock and he can dress himself and everything," Conner grumbled, already familiar with this particular line of scolding. If there was one perk to finding out that he was a freak lab accident, it was knowing that he could blame his inability to wake up on time and wear clothes that matched on his--uh, other parent.
She smiled at him tolerantly and dropped a kiss on his head.
"Get a move on it, buster," she said, "otherwise, you'll miss your dad before he goes to work."
Conner moaned and fell back into his pillows. "Give me sleep or give me death."
"Misquoting Patrick Henry won't get you out of going to school, Conner. Get up," his dad called, and Conner cracked open one eye to see Lex doing something complicated with one of his cufflinks right outside his door. His dad nodded at Mrs. Banner and said, "Morning, Lori."
Then his dad and Mrs. Banner spent some serious time talking about something totally lame in the other room while Conner thumped around his trying to tie his tie and brush his teeth at the same time, and only managed to get toothpaste on his shirt and stub his toe. As usual, nobody felt bad for him, though his dad did give him another one of those gross, I Feel Guilty Because I Was In Bangkok During Your School-Sponsored Whatever kisses, and they stepped out of the door together at eight-fifteen.
Mercy was on the warpath that day, and she cut off six people before they even got off of MacArthur Street. His dad didn't seem particularly worried but his face was stuck in the Daily Planet financial section, and he wasn't watching the pedestrians flee in terror like Conner was. It was what his dad called morbidly fascinating.
Conner waited until they were about close to school before he said, face pasted to the glass of the car window, "So you never answered my question last night."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his dad's knuckles whiten on the paper before it was folded and set out of the way.
Conner slanted his eyes away from the rolling scenery outside the window and grinned.
"You thought I was asleep, didn't you?" he said.
His dad glared. "No," he snapped.
"You totally did," Conner crowed. And after a pause, Conner added, "So tell me already."
"I'm starting to think that I liked you more when you were mute," his dad said briskly and pulled his Palm Pilot out of his pocket and began tapping at it purposefully, like Conner hadn't already figured out he was frantically playing Minesweeper and trying to ignore Conner or something.
Conner stared at the window again, watched the buildings get older. Conner and his dad lived on the fringes of the business district, where West Eden and Millionaire Mile intersected, and it was a thirty minute drive in city traffic to reach the school. Everything got wider instead of taller as they drove out of the center of Metropolis and into West Eden, the older, more stately part of the city. Instead of glass skyscrapers and modern architecture, there were a lot of old brick buildings and stone brownstones.
The car came up to a long, circular strip of asphalt that cut through a big, sloping lawn of green grass, with trees and leaves and vines crawling all over the black wrought-iron of a strip of fences that outlined the school property. The school was an enormous, converted mansion with lots of newer buildings and athletic fields around it. There were twelve grades and a little over two hundred and forty people at the school, and sometimes, it was like being stuck in a really big, expensive fishbowl. The first time he'd seen St. Ann's Academy for Children, Conner had thought the place looked like an insane asylum, which, for some reason, made his dad laugh and look uncomfortable at the same time.
"Not telling me stuff is the same as lying," Conner said suddenly, annoyed, and flopped back into his seat, glaring at his dad. "It's an o-word."
"Which I taught you and you apparently forgot," Lex replied.
"Which isn't even the point," Conner snapped. His tie kept getting tighter around his neck, and he felt like it was going to choke him. "Just tell me already!"
"Conner," his dad said, rubbing the bridge of his nose, "I don't think--"
"This is so unfair!" Conner yelled, jerking at his tie angrily.
Mercy started swerving around some Lexus SUVs, which meant that Conner only had a few more minutes to get this out of his dad before they got to school and Sister Hyacinth glared at Conner and his dad, like they were personally bringing down the moral barometer of the school.
His father smirked. "Life's unfair."
"No! You're unfair!" Conner yelled again, getting madder by the second.
Lex narrowed his eyes. "You're not displaying much maturity at the moment, Conner. I don't see why I should tell you anything."
"You tell me I don't have a mom," Conner shouted, "you tell me I was a lab accident, you tell me I'm great but you won't tell me the most important part! I mean, seriously, Dad!--what's the big secret? Whose DNA was it? I mean, do you even know? Who made me if it wasn't you? If you didn't make me--how did you get me? You didn't like steal me or anything "
He trailed off when he saw the look on his dad's face.
"Omigod," Conner said, hushed. "You stole me?"
"I found you when you were still a fetus," his father corrected, irritated.
"That's--wow, still! Dad, that's crazy!"
His dad started to rub his face with his hands. "God," he muttered.
"Whoa," Conner gasped, eyes huge. "Dad, you're like, a biological fugitive!"
"Conner, I'm about to throw you out of this car," his dad said warningly.
"How do you even steal a fetus?" Conner boggled. "Dad, you're like a criminal mastermind!"
His dad's fingers flexed a little bit near the door handle, and it made Conner swallow hard. Because, sure his dad loved him and everything, but that didn't mean the guy didn't still put him in the laundry room for setting the school on fire or that he wouldn't you know, try to throw Conner out of the car or anything.
"God. I knew I should have just gotten fish," Lex said under his breath.
"I," Conner declared, glaring, "am way cooler than fish."
His father rolled his eyes, and pressing the intercom button by his elbow, he said, "Mercy? Could you call ahead to the school and tell them Conner won't be in today?"
Crap! Conner thought, he was getting thrown out of the car!
"And also, please turn around, we're going to the Gilead labs today," his father finished. Releasing the intercom button, he turned to Conner, brows raised, appraising. "You want a chart?" he asked, and Conner nodded dumbly. Lex smirked. "I'll show you a chart."
His dad was looking at a blue folder on his lap nonchalantly and sipping some coffee that a guy in a dark blue lab coat had brought a little while ago, even though the first thing he'd said when he'd tasted it was, "Obviously not shade-grown."
"Clark Kent?" Conner shrieked again.
Lex looked at him over the folder, and said, "Yes. That's what the chart says."
They were in one of the dozens and dozens of R&D labs at Gilead Labs Inc., and his dad was taking the time in between seriously traumatizing his own son to read a few progress reports generated by his crack scientists, who seemed to treat Lex more like their nerd king than their boss. They made weird jokes about biology and chemical engineering while Conner tried not to slip into a coma from sheer boredom or embarrassment; his dad didn't wear a pocket protector but it came pretty close when they were around test tubes.
And then his dad had given him the stack of files, nearly three inches thick, and said, "The other DNA came from Clark Kent." He'd looked at him with steely eyes. "Remember to breathe."
"Clark Kent?" Conner repeated, this time more defeated than anything.
His dad set down the folder and the coffee, and folded his hands in front of him, looking grim and serious. "Yes, Conner. Clark Kent." When Conner gaped at him, Lex said, "You wanted to know. You pitched a fit and I lied to nuns, and here we are."
"This is the worst day ever," Conner moaned, putting his head down on the lab counter. "We lied to nuns and my mom's Clark Kent. We're going to hell."
How could that be possible? Clark Kent? His mom? Clark Kent wasn't even a girl! (Was he?) How did that work? Could it work? Oh, God, Conner thought suddenly, horribly, he didn't even want to know where he'd come out of. But besides that, Clark Kent sucked! He--he stalked Conner's dad and Lois didn't like him and he crashed birthday parties and sat on cake and he was weirdly tall! He was a stalking, weirdly tall, party-crashing cake-sitter!
Conner flipped frantically through pages of notes that made no sense to him until he saw a picture of Clark Kent, with his messy hair and dorky glasses, smiling awkwardly at the camera. It looked like a driver's license picture, and Conner jerked the page out of the folder and read all the information on it.
Clark Jerome Kent, only son of Martha and Jonathan, adopted at three, graduated with a degree in Journalism from Metropolis University. He started off working at the Metropolis Star, a small, indie paper that distributed once a week, before he got an entry-level job in the copyediting department of the Daily Planet. After a year and a half there, he'd gotten moved to Metro, where he hung around turning in stories about Superman sometimes and waited outside of office buildings to jump on Conner's dad for quotes other times. He drove a 2002 Ford Taurus.
Conner felt kind of sick.
"How--I mean, how?" Conner managed. "He didn't, you know, have me did he?"
Conner dad looked ill at the thought. "No. It was purely scientific. DNA was combined and injected into an ova and--" Lex cut himself off, and after a moment, seemed to make a decision, and said, "and then nine months later, there you were."
Very quietly, his father added, "Conner, Clark doesn't know about you."
Conner was going to get whiplash from going between relief and horror.
So Clark Kent hadn't actually given birth to him, but he didn't know about Conner, either. Which actually explained a lot, Conner thought stupidly, and which made sense, but still hurt.
His dad waited a long time before looking at him and saying, "So, any further questions?"
Conner looked hard at Clark's picture. Ford Taurus, he thought.
"I--I'm going to need therapy," Conner said hoarsely.
His dad hummed in agreement. "That's what the cussing fund is for," he said sympathetically.
Friday morning, Geoffrey asked if Conner was still sick, did he know about Garrison getting sent to the school counselor, and then gave Conner a notebook with a big green dragon on it.
"Happy birthday," Geoffrey said. "It's kind of late."
Conner stared at it a long time until Sister Hyacinth threatened to take it away.
The thing was that Conner was really looking forward to having a mom. Or a mom-type object.
Realizing that he sort of had a mom, and that he kind of hated him was a downer. It wasn't like Conner wanted Clark to be so loveable that he'd be unable to resist hanging out with him all the time and telling him stories about school or introducing him to his friends or whatever, but it sucked a lot that Conner mostly just wanted to make him sit in cake. That didn't really seem right. Even if Clark didn't know about Conner, Conner knew about Clark, and the school counselor had already told Conner that repressing frustrations was an unhealthy behaviorism--whatever that meant, but it sounded bad.
So really, the only thing that Conner could do was to "exercise his efficacy," which his dad explained meant getting off his butt and doing something about it.
He waited until lunchtime rolled around and Geoffrey started to take apart his turkey and Swiss on rye sandwich before he opened his new dragon notebook to page one. He labeled it OPERATION MOM, SORT OF.
Geoffrey gave it a sideways look but kept on scraping the mustard off his bread.
"Is your dad going to ground me for this again?" Geoffrey finally asked, eating his Swiss cheese first, taking bites from alternating corners. "Because I swear to God your dad's computer is so totally scary."
Conner bit his lower lip and turned to the next fresh page, smoothing his hands over the lined paper before he glanced up at the big window in front of their lunch table. It was sunny and brown outside, with naked tree branches and piles of dead, dark leaves all over the ground, raked into neat piles by the groundskeepers who looked like they ate kids for breakfast.
Escaping from school wouldn't really be ideal, Conner decided, since that last time there was all that property damage and Conner swore that Mercy said she'd chew off his face in Portuguese the day afterward, even though his dad wouldn't translate. Also, apparently, his photograph had been distributed to everybody who worked at the school and to drivers of nearby bus lines by his dad, like some kind of fugitive. It was really kind of sad how little his dad trusted him.
"How hard to you think it is to highjack a golf cart?" Conner mused.
Geoffrey scowled. "Your feet can't even reach the pedals."
"Yeah, but that was just the golf cart at your dad's club," Conner argued. "Maybe these are different."
Geoffrey made an X with his fingers. "Don't even start," he warned.
"You're no fun," Conner muttered, but crossed out "golf cart" and wrote down "hike????"
Garrison chose that moment to wander into the lunchroom, looking kind of glazed. He slumped into a seat next to Geoffrey and stared at the wall next to his head intently. Conner and Geoffrey exchanged a look, shrugged, and decided not to ask, but Conner wrote down underneath his last scribble, "fake drug overdose????"
Geoffrey was reading over Conner's shoulder, Conner could tell, because he snorted and started eating his turkey while rolling his eyes. Just to spite him, Conner left it on the paper.
By the time the lunch bell rang again, Garrison had his face pressed against the wall and Conner had a list of twenty-three things he could do to get to Clark Kent
Two weeks later, Conner was on page twenty-eight of the notebook and nearly tearing out his hair. Ideas one through twelve were pretty much really illegal, so Geoffrey said that if Conner wanted his help, they'd have to skip straight to number thirteen, which ended in both him and Geoffrey having to be saved from the cafeteria meat locker, so that was a no go. Number seventeen and twenty got Conner Hail Mary's and number eighteen got Geoffrey a trip to the school nurse for The Talk. Geoffrey made Conner make a blood pact never to talk about number twenty-two and Conner's dad had an allergic reaction to number twenty-three, which made him cranky and nasal for four days.
A few days before Christmas break, Conner had a moment of inspiration and called Geoffrey.
"I'm a genius," he declared.
"I've been thinking," Geoffrey replied. "You kind of suck at this. Maybe you should, you know, stop."
Conner jammed the phone between his ear and his shoulder and thrashed around his room, looking for his best jeans and nicest shirt. If this was going to work, everything would have to be perfect. He'd have to like, comb his hair or something. Maybe he could borrow his dad's cologne; girls always seemed to be commenting on it while they stood really close to him.
"I'm a genius," Conner said again. "So here's what I'm going to do."
"Hey, if you had a building, would you want it two or three stories?" Geoffrey asked, and Conner heard paper rustling in the background.
"Seven," he said. "Anyway. I'm going to call Lois. And I'm going to ask her for a tour."
Geoffrey didn't say anything for a long time, which meant he was looking for a pencil or something, because even though he had six billion of them lying on his big, slanty desk, he could never find one that wasn't already worn down to a nub. "That's stupid, Conner," he said.
"It totally is but it'll work," Conner insisted, dragging out his dark blue shirt, the one that Mrs. Banner said made him look so handsome she couldn't resist giving him a big kiss on the cheek. "I'll call her and ask for an interview and then I'll be at the Daily Planet and I can talk to him!"
Geoffrey sighed into the phone. "Who?"
"Clark Kent," Conner said, digging around his closet for a tie. He used to have a dark gold one. It was kind of cool. He remembered when his dad's last girlfriend bought it for him, Conner wouldn't take it off for one week except to shower.
"The guy you made sit in cake?"
"He sat in cake all by himself," Conner snapped. "And yeah."
"Why?" Geoffrey asked, and then there was more rustling. "Seven is big, Conner."
"I have a lot of stuff," Conner shot back. "Because he's my mom. Well, kind of."
There was an even longer silence on the phone before Geoffrey said, "Conner, have you been hanging out with Garrison a lot?"
Conner didn't find his tie but he found his nice, khaki pants, the ones that he wasn't allowed to get messed up, and he threw them next to his blue shirt on the bed before he got down on his hands and knees to feel around the bottom of his closet. He found six books, a flashlight, three empty Pixie Stix wrappers, and one of Geoffrey's sneakers before he grabbed something silky and long in the corner.
"Found it!" Conner yelled, and scrambled back to his feet, setting the phone down and hitting the speakerphone button. "I am not sniffing glue, Geoffrey."
"I'm just asking," Geoffrey muttered. "Oh God, you're dressing up, aren't you?"
Conner tugged off his dorky gray v-neck sweater, standard St. Ann's Academy for Children uniform and therefore Saturday morning detention, and kicked off his brown loafers, shucking off his pants and shirt while saying loudly, "Yeah. I'm wearing my gold tie."
Geoffrey hummed something. "Hey," he asked suddenly. "Is my sneaker in your closet?"
"Yeah," Conner said, pulling on the blue shirt. "Did you want it?"
"Not really," Geoffrey said. "So how are you going to get there? Isn't your dad home today?"
It was a Saturday afternoon, which meant that Conner's dad said he was going out for a walk--but he took his briefcase. Conner was tired of trying to make his dad admit that he was going into the office again, so he'd stopped in the second grade and just said, "Have a nice time" while his dad said, "I might be late for dinner." His dad never made it back in time for dinner.
"Nope, it's Saturday," Conner said, tucking his shirt into his pants. "I'll just make Mrs. Banner drive me over or something."
"Won't Mercy want to come?" Geoffrey asked. "What do you want the building to look like?"
"Like I own it," Conner said immediately. "And I think Mercy's still mad at me. She hasn't been around the house recently. I think Dad thinks that I'm not going to do anything after the meat locker thing."
Geoffrey laughed. "Well, he was totally wrong."
"I forget how to tie this thing," Conner said, frowning at the tie around his turned-up collar.
"Well, don't get arrested," Geoffrey said cheerfully, and hung up the phone.
Conner scowled at the handset before he put it down on his desk.
It was just a tie. How hard could it be?
The answer was: really hard.
Over his five years at St. Ann's, Conner had gone through three ties, all of which his father had tied for him ritually on the first day of school, and that Conner had carefully loosened and hung like a dark blue, striped noose from a peg in his room in the afternoons. There was a lot to be said about getting around something when you couldn't conquer it, but Conner figured that if he called his dad saying that ties were his Waterloo, Lex might die of shame--or laughter.
After about twenty minutes he gave up and typed "how to tie a tie" into Google, which produced diagrams. He concentrated, he folded everything right, he debated getting out a ruler just so that he could actually do the proportions correctly--since they were sort of like fractions, if Conner based it on the way his dad had explained last week's math homework.
When he finished, he looked at himself carefully in the mirror.
His hair was dashingly mussed, his shirt and pants were mostly wrinkle-free, and the tie looked, well, not horrible anyway. He toed on the really expensive Italian shoes that always made his feet hurt and made his way around the room with a canvas messenger bag, tossing in the spare house key, pass card, and security clearance tag, the emergency pager his dad required he carry with him everywhere, a bag of Twizzlers that he had been hiding in the bottom drawer of his desk, his digital camera. Last but not least, he strapped on his Roy Mustang watch, for good luck.
He sat down, zen-like, at his desk. It was Saturday, so she probably wasn't at work--unless she was like his dad, and then the only place she could possibly be was at work. Then again, maybe it would just be easier to call her cell phone. So Conner did, sort of. This time around, it only took him two tries to get through without a panic attack, so when she picked up, she was in a slightly better mood than she was the last time he'd heard her over the phone.
"It's me," Conner blurted out. "Conner, I mean. Clark Luthor? I mean, Conner Clark Luthor."
Lois laughed and said, "Yes, good afternoon Conner Clark Luthor."
"Yeah, hi," he squeaked, and after moment of sheer hopeless uncoolness, he said, "I--I was wondering if you'd, you know. Show me around the Daily Planet."
There was a short, amused pause. "Well, Conner, you unfold the newspaper, and then you turn the pages and sometimes, you even read the words on the--"
"I meant the offices," Conner added, quickly, flushing. "Um. I didn't get to see much last time." He thought furiously. "I mean, what with me falling down and hitting my head really hard."
This time, the pause was more guilty than anything else. Which meant it had worked.
"Um, yeah," Lois said.
Conner brightened. "So it's okay?"
"I mean, I think it's okay," Lois said, weirdly cautious. "Did you get permission from your dad about this, Conner? Or is this like the birthday party all over again?"
Conner winced. He'd been hoping she'd conveniently forget about that. He heard from Mrs. Banner later that Lois had spent a good twenty minutes trying not to get thrown out of the building, and then a good two hours calling Conner's dad to pick fights with him the next day. All in all, probably not a really good first date. At least nothing caught on fire.
"Dad's away at work," Conner said sadly, mostly because people tended to be nicer to him when he did that. It was like everybody took Lex being at work as an automatic Treat Conner Like He's Royalty Or A Poor Neglected Kid sign. Sometimes, he felt kind of bad about it, because occasionally old ladies from the historical society would give his dad dirty looks at really snotty parties, but mostly, Conner just thought it was a really useful tool.
"I guess that's fine," Lois said finally, and Conner figured it was score five bajillion six for the home team, negative four for the visitors.
Conner beamed. "You're the best, Lois."
"Kid," she said. "I'm starting to second-guess your intentions here."
Conner blinked his eyes hugely, even though he knew she couldn't see him. "What do you mean?" he asked innocently.
"Nevermind," Lois muttered. "Anyway, what time do you think you'll be here?"
"Soon," Conner promised. "Mrs. Banner drives like a crazy person, my dad says." And because Conner believed in the carrot at the end of the stick, he added, "And maybe I'll have some time to answer some of your questions, too, Lois!"
He could hear her smile at him through the phone line, and it made him kind of nervous. But being nervous about Lois wasn't the point that day, the point was meeting Clark Kent and not making him sit in cake--this time. Conner had the weird feeling that maybe Clark sort of deserved sitting on cake, if only because his dad had this weird look on his face that last time he'd seen Clark, like Clark had wrecked one of his favorite cars or something.
"Soon sounds good," Lois said.
"Yeah, it does," Conner agreed.
Conner's dad didn't talk about That Time, which was how Conner always saw it being spelled in his mind.
He'd been little and his dad had been in the hospital for a week and a half afterward; Mrs. Banner said she'd had to stay with Conner in the hospital because Conner didn't want to leave, just curled up next to his dad all the time. She said that Conner had cried when he'd been asleep, tears running down his cheeks, and for once, Conner didn't say that he didn't, because he thought he remembered what his dad looked like in that huge hospital bed, all white and broken and asleep. It was terrible, and Conner believed that he'd cried, he'd probably cry again. But that was the last time she'd ever said anything about That Time--afterward, she just got a tight, angry expression on her face and told Conner to go wash his hands.
He'd been three, but he remembered almost everything.
He remembered that it was raining outside, and that his dad was running around the house, shouting into his cell phone and pulling a duffle bag over his shoulder, that Conner and Mrs. Banner were already waiting by the opened elevator doors--that there was something big and green and angry-looking outside their window, flying in the air.
Conner remembered just flashes, the white gleam of teeth, enormous, leathery wings that had clipped the side of their building; the force knocked Conner over into a coffee table and had given him a scar just below his hairline. He remembered seeing all of Metropolis on fire, red and yellow flickering out beneath them, in lower buildings, he thought he saw people running and screaming, cars crashing together in the street before his father had jerked him away from the window, saying that they were leaving, and where the fuck was the armored car?
It had looked like the world was ending.
And suddenly, he'd seen green eyes, just for a moment, and a worried face, before it had resolved into Superman's back and his dark hair as he had stood in front of Conner's window with his cape flying ragged around him. It was like Superman had come to them on purpose, like being there and keeping Conner from seeing the monster was his job, that keeping him safe was more important than his getting slammed into the roof ledge, than blood running down his face.
But what Conner remembered the most was the dark, dark wing of the green thing in the sky slamming into Superman when he peeled himself off the ledge--that split-second of silence before Conner had seen his entire house shattering inward very close to where Conner's dad was pushing Mrs. Banner and Conner into the panic room.
There had been broken glass and suddenly a whole person crumpled on their floor with a red cape beneath him like a pool of blood and Conner remembered his dad, a long, terrible gash down his arm as the doors had closed--and then Conner remembered screaming.
By the time Mrs. Banner finally agreed to open the doors of the slick metal room, nearly six hours had passed and Conner had broken the skin on his palms slamming against it, lost his voice shouting for his dad. He remembered Mrs. Banner shouting at him when he'd wriggled through the tiny sliver of space as the door slowly, so slowly, pulled open and cutting his palms even more on broken glass when he'd fallen down.
Then Conner always remembered his dad, thrown on the ground with his eyes closed and red like an angry rose blooming out over his stomach.
And then there'd been hospitals and doctors, people from TV stations and reporters, Mrs. Banner and lawyers and everybody asking him if he was sleeping okay. Conner remembered waking up in a wet bed, shaking and cold and scared of the big stone walls around him, of the dark shadows and weird shapes. Conner remembered how he'd stayed in Smallville in his dad's castle with all his old memories until one day a helicopter landed on the lawn and Conner went home, finally.
"Look, Conner," his dad had said then, unfolding blueprints. "We might as well take this opportunity to redesign the house--you're growing up. You'll want a cooler room anytime now."
Conner had leaned into his dad's side, carefully, and looked up at the side of his father's face.
"Does it hurt?" he'd asked. "Are you okay?"
And Lex had smiled down at him, ran one thumb over Conner's cheek, and hadn't really answered the question at all before showing Conner his window.
Sometimes, Conner still woke up screaming from nightmares he didn't remember. And sometimes, his dad heard him and came into his room and sat with him all night and looked angry and sad, like he'd done something terrible, when it hadn't been Lex's fault at all.
Conner's dad says Conner's too young to have his own demons, but Conner thinks that as long as they aren't all his father's, he's okay with one or two.
So he'd wanted to find his mother, because maybe she--Clark, he thought, Clark was his mom now--could make the nightmares go away, and then it wouldn't always feel like Conner was waiting for the next time he had to watch his dad's heart break, framed in the light of Conner's window.
Mrs. Banner liked Conner better than she liked Conner's dad, which was probably the only reason that Conner was getting away with this. When Conner had told her the story about how he'd only wanted to see the Daily Planet newsroom and how his dad had been awful and had a fight with someone outside the building and ruined the whole trip, she'd gotten a determined look on her face.
"Well," she'd said. "It's very educational. I can't say I approve of your father's temper. I'll just have to have a conversation with him about that when he gets home this evening."
Conner had nodded at her earnestly, because this probably meant that he was getting pie tonight.
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Banner," he had said sweetly, and hugged her leg.
So they were at the Daily Planet again, past security and up the elevators, in the reception lobby where, weirdly enough, there were no copies of the Daily Planet but where there was what looked like every other newspaper and magazine in the world.
"Why don't they read the newspaper?" Conner asked curiously.
"Nobody 'round here reads the newspaper."
Conner and Mrs. Banner whipped around to see an older man peering at them curiously. His sleeves were rolled up around his elbows and his tie was loose, which Conner decided meant he had to be cool. He had gray hair and a big smile, and he didn't do that thing where he squatted down to Conner's height and asked him how old he was.
Instead, the man said, "I think the last tour closed up an hour ago." He raised an eyebrow at Conner. "Sorry 'bout that, kid."
Shaking his head, Conner said, "It's all right. I already took the tour. You guys cussed a lot."
Mrs. Banner raised her eyebrow at the man in front of them, and while the man cleared his throat uncomfortably, Conner added, "I'm here to see Clark Kent, please." He stared upward at the man's stubbly chin. "Is there like, an intercom where I can call him?"
There was a long pause.
"You're a weird kid, anyone ever tell you that?" the man said.
"All the time," Conner said earnestly.
"I'm very sorry," Mrs. Banner cut in, crushing Conner's fingers in her hand in a way that meant she was going to give him that six hour lecture on etiquette or at least faking it in public once they got home. "My name is Lori Banner--and this is Conner Luthor."
The man grinned, and stuck out his big, rough hand, which Mrs. Banner took with the free hand she wasn't breaking Conner's fingers with.
"Perry White," he said, grinning, eyes intent on Mrs. Banner's face. "And Lori is a lovely name."
Mrs. Banner turned red, and Conner wrinkled his nose. Grown-ups were disgusting.
"Oh, thank you," Mrs. Banner said, tittering. "And I've always loved your articles, Mr. White."
Perry seemed to brighten at this, and his smile got even more crooked. "You've read my work?"
"Oh, sick," Conner muttered, and jerked his hand out of Mrs. Banner's grasp. He shook out his fingers and blew on them, watching the blood rush back into his fingertips and giving a dirty look at Mrs. Banner, who was fluttering her eyelashes at Mr. White like she was Eve Anthony or something like that. Girls, Conner fumed, he'd just never get them.
The two heavy, dark doors that led out of the reception area were mostly-shut, but through one of them, Conner could see a dingy hallway and bad overhead light. And if he listened really carefully--"Why, of course I've read your articles, Mr. White! Your exposé on the money-laundering scandal at city hall was one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I've ever seen!" and "Oh, you're much too kind, Lori--can I call you Lori?"--he could hear people talking down the hallway. They were saying important things, about deadlines and cut-tags and photogs, whatever "photogs" were, and someone was shrieking about a byline, Conner thought.
He'd thought the Daily Planet was exciting the first time he'd visited, and Conner missed it, because the last time he'd been there he'd spent most of the time staring at Lois' hair or falling down.
But he remembered white Apple computers and QuarkXpress, and long, skinny reporter notebooks and lots of Palm Pilots and digital sound recorders. People were walking in and out all over the place and there were always phones ringing, landlines and cell phones and somebody's pager, too. It'd been busy and alive, loud and mixed up and all confused, just the opposite of St. Ann's and exactly like Conner's dream come true. It'd be cool to have his name on the front page of the newspaper. When he'd told his dad as much over dinner the day after his field trip, his father had gotten a funny look on his face and muttered, "As long as it's in a byline."
"You were at Northwestern, too? Now, why didn't I see you around the newspaper office?" Perry White said, way too excited about talking to Mrs. Banner.
"Oh--you!" Mrs. Banner tittered back.
Conner rolled his eyes and did not turn around.
Conner decided that on a scale of one to barf, old people flirting was right around pee-yew.
He kept looking down at his Roy Mustang watch and watching the smaller lick of flame crawling closer and closer to the two--which meant precious time was passing that he could be asking Clark stuff like, "How did you know my dad?" and "Why does he think you suck now?" and "Hey, so, you don't have a crush on Lois or anything, right?" and probably, "How would you feel if your son made you sit in cake? I mean, just as a hyp-hypo-imaginary question and stuff?"
Just when Conner was beginning to eye the distance between Mrs. Banner and himself to make a desperate run for the door, the heavy, dark door on the left swung open, and Conner saw Lois.
She was wearing a dark grey suit with pinstripes and strappy shoes. Her hair was tugged up into a swirling knot and Conner was surprised to see her wearing a pair of glasses with dark burgundy frames. She looked like a scary angel librarian.
"Lois!" Conner rushed over, grinning.
She grinned and took a few clicking steps forward. "Here I thought you were standing me up."
Conner's jaw dropped. "I would never."
"Lane," Perry White barked, and Conner and Lois both turned to look at the older man. "What the--" he glanced at Mrs. Banner and hesitated "--hades are you doing? Aren't there phones you're supposed to be chained to?"
Lois winked at Perry White and crowed, "Hardy and Rawlins squealed like little baby pigs: the story was wrapped and at copy five minutes ago." She said "five minutes" like it was a lot of time. "It's got three corroborating sources and everything."
"You pass--this time," Perry White said, and then glanced down at Conner. "You taking the kid on his tour?"
The excited, tense voice in Conner's head yelled, "Yes! Yes she is! Right now! Let's go!" Out loud, Conner blinked his eyes innocently and tugged on Lois' sleeve as he said, "Can I?"
"Oh--wait--!" Mrs. Banner said, slightly distressed until Perry White put a hand on her arm and said:
"Now, Lori--Lane, despite outward appearances, is a perfectly functional human being. She's even clean, which is more than I can say for the other animals I've got working for me." He smiled crookedly at Mrs. Banner in a way that made Conner want to go kick him between the legs and say something about how she cooked him squash, you dirty old man! "He'll be just fine."
"Well," Mrs. Banner compromised, flushing again, "I suppose. As long as they're in the office."
Perry beamed approvingly at her. "Absolutely. We've got the second best security in Metropolis. Our writers are famous for making peoples' hit lists." Mrs. Banner got a weird look on her face at that, but before she could change her mind, Conner was dragging Lois to one of the swinging doors, and Perry was saying, "Now then, Lori, there's a wonderful coffee place just two floors down from here "
By the time they made it through the winding inner lobbies and reception desks, past the ad department and to the glass elevator up to the Daily Planet newsroom, Conner was mostly over his nausea.
"Your boss is gross," Conner moaned. "He was hitting on Mrs. Banner."
Lois smiled fondly. "Yeah. Perry's dumb like that."
"Ugh," Conner agreed.
It was okay this one time, but if Perry White kept it up, Conner was totally telling his dad.
"Anyway!" Lois said brightly, clapping her hands together. "What were you hoping to see in the newsroom today? But more importantly, how do you feel being Lex Luthor's child--his only child--has affected your life?"
Conner blinked, and said, "Im looking for Clark. Kent. Is he here today?"
"Kent?" Lois asked in surprise. "Yeah, he's here. I think he's stuck doing the Metropolis At Christmastime tab, poor bastard. Anyway--my question?"
"Oh," Conner said. "Uh--it means I have my dad's last name."
Lois looked like she'd smelled something bad, and as the elevator doors dinged open, she asked, "Are you for real, kid?"
Conner rolled his eyes, long-suffering. "That's what I'm trying to figure out, too," he said, and shot out of the elevator, bolting toward the battered brown desk where Clark Kent had a doughnut hanging out of his mouth as his hands flew across the keyboard.
It wasn't that Conner wasn't afraid of meeting Clark--really meeting Clark--because he was.
To quote Garrison, Conner was scared enough to piss himself. And it was real scared, not the kind of scared Conner felt at a movie, or when Mercy was looking at him like she was trying to remember how to draw and quarter a human being. It was scared like being behind the metal door, with his father on the other side; it was scared like waking up and thinking that he was all alone. It was scared like that time Mrs. Banner had been in a car accident, and Conner and his dad had to rush to the hospital.
So yeah, Conner was scared.
It was just that compared to never having a mom, or always wanting to make him sit in cake, being scared seemed kind of stupid.
And Clark wasn't that big, and with a doughnut hanging out of his mouth, typing really fast and looking annoyed with his skinny white computer, he looked like any normal person.
Conner could handle normal people. He took a deep breath, and opened his mouth.
"I have to talk to you," Conner said, and it came out lower than he expected.
It took half a second for Clark to register Conner's existence, and when Clark did, he mostly just turned to his side in shock and stared, doughnut still hanging out of his mouth.
"Right now," Conner added urgently.
Behind him, he could hear Lois' clicking shoes, and Conner started to panic.
"Well?" he asked, resisting the urge to put his hands on his hips.
Clark tried to talk, but just ended up almost dropping his doughnut and having to make a supernaturally fast dive for it, which told Conner that Clark was kind of a klutz, too. Conner had mostly managed to stop himself from moving that fast already; it only ever happened anymore when he wasn't paying attention. Maybe Clark missed that day of kindergarten, too.
Clark set the doughnut on his keyboard--he'd totally regret that later, Conner thought--and took a deep breath before pasting a big smile on his face. It looked shaky, like whatever expression Clark really wanted to show him wasn't PG enough for Conner to see.
"Hi," Clark started. "Conner."
Conner rolled his eyes, hearing Lois getting so close he could nearly smell her perfume.
"Take me out for coffee," Conner instructed him. "Perry White said there was a nice coffee house in this building and I think we really need to ta--"
"Conner! Honestly! That was incredibly rude!" Lois said, catching up with him, one elegant hand dropping to his shoulder. She was glaring down at him and Conner managed to smile back, saying sweetly:
"Sorry, Lois. I just got so excited."
"By Kent?" Lois said, disbelieving, giving Clark a dirty look. Clark just bunched his thick eyebrows together and opened his mouth like he was trying to make up an argument and just wasn't quick enough before Lois said, "Whatever, kiddo. There's no accounting for taste. Look, sweetie, Conner--" Sweetie! "--about those questions you were going to answer."
"You said you'd answer her questions?"
Conner blinked, and realized Clark had said that--said that angrily. He peered to his side to see Clark fisting the hand on his desk. Clark Kent's dark green eyes looked a little too black, and Conner thought that for the first time since seeing Clark Kent, there was something interesting about him.
Lois' hand flew in Conner's peripheral vision, and she said, "Kent, this is none of your business."
"The hell it isn't," Clark said, frowning and looking between Lois and Conner. "You agreed?" he asked Conner, and shooting a glare back up at Lois, he said, "You made him agree?"
"I didn't make him do anything, Clark," she snapped, and put one hand on her waist. "Now, please stop harassing my guest and finish writing your tab story."
She said "tab story" like it was a fungus.
The look on Clark's face made Conner think it kind of was, but Clark's green eyes caught Conner's desperate expression again before he set his mouth in a straight line.
Around them, the whole newsroom was buzzing, and people kept looking in their direction, shrugging their shoulders, and going back to their desks. It looked like a Monday, and Conner was amazed by that, how everybody at the Daily Planet didn't seem to know that it was a weekend, and that they were supposed to be at home playing video games and eating waffles. It was like an entire floor full of Conner's dad.
"Lois, you know and I know exactly why what you're doing is wrong," Clark said, like he was reasoning with a kid--like he was reasoning with a kid Conner's age. "So before you get sued and the Planet gets sued and Perry has a heart attack, give him cab fare or drive him home, okay?" He looked down at Conner. "Does your dad know you're here?"
Conner asked, "Did you know my dad? A long time ago?"
Clark turned white as Lois laughed, "Conner, Clark doesn't know your dad."
But then the silence got longer and Conner thought he was totally going to lose this staring game, because Clark wasn't blinking, but he was getting a look on his face like his chest hurt, like something in him was sad. For a minute, Conner thought that Clark looked really young, like all the thirteen-year-old boys at school, small and confused, lost in all the tall kids the next building over.
Something in Conner's head clicked, and he whispered, "I have your name."
Clark's mouth fell open a little just as Lois shrieked, "You knew Lex Luthor?"
And then Clark did something where he leaned forward and suddenly Conner was being dragged to the opposite end of the newsroom. Lois was yelling something in the background and Clark was calling over his shoulder, "I'll tell you about it later!" and clutching Conner's hand, tugging him down a stairwell until they were two, three floors down, before Clark stopped suddenly.
"Oh, God, sorry," he said, hushed, dropping to his knees in front of Conner and letting go of his hand carefully. Clark looked like he was worried Conner was going to break. "Are you all right? You're not--I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Clark's glasses looked funny in the overhead light, and his hair seemed brown and yellow.
Conner blinked. "I'm fine," he said, and Clark stared at him for a second.
It made Conner shy all of a sudden, to be looking at Clark Kent so close. Weird, like seeing half of his own face, peeled off and put on another person. Suddenly, Conner knew where his green eyes came from, and how they looked from a different angle, not exactly reflected in a mirror. Suddenly, lots of little things he'd wondered about were starting to make sense, like how Clark moved just a second ago, how fast he was, and how Conner remembered that rush, that shock, from when he was younger and didn't know better, and made his father worry.
Conner thought he might never have been shy before, and that it was hard, not being able to talk the way he wanted to, as fast as he could.
"I--did you know my dad?" he asked again, blurting it out, and watching Clark's face soften.
Clark put a hand on Conner's shoulder, and it felt warm and huge through Conner's shirt. He smiled, and said, "Yeah. I did. A long time ago." Clark tilted his head to the side, a more serious expression on his face. "Did you really tell Lois that you'd answer her questions?"
Sighing, Conner said, "It's not like dad tells me anything incriminating anyway."
Clark knew Conner's dad, and Clark was Conner's mom--sort of. Clark's picture had been in that thick folder at Gilead Labs, paperclipped to a long file about the schools he went to and what he did and what kind of car he drove. Conner wondered why his dad kept a file if Clark and Lex knew each other, why it was important to have it all down on paper if his dad already knew it in his head.
"Somehow," Clark muttered, smirking, "that doesn't make me feel better."
Conner tensed. "You don't have a crush on Lois or anything, right?" he asked urgently.
The face Clark made told Conner that Clark looked at Lois like Geoffrey looked at Julie Meyers.
"No," Clark said after a long time. "How on earth did you get that--nevermind. Just, nevermind." He took a deep breath and gave Conner a This Is Very Important And I'm An Adult Are You Paying Attention? look. "Conner, why are you here?"
Conner bit his lip.
His dad hadn't really said anything about not letting Clark know that Conner knew. But that might have just been because they'd been so busy lying to nuns and skipping school that his dad forgot to tell him, "Oh, by the way, if you tell Clark, I'm disowning you." It was totally possible, Conner thought, panicky. Plus, Clark didn't know about Conner. Conner just wasn't sure how grown-up men reacted to being told they were moms; it probably wasn't good.
"Um," Conner started stupidly.
This whole plan was dumb. Why hadn't Geoffrey stopped him? Why had Mrs. Banner gone to have coffee with Perry White? Why was his dad working on a Saturday like the rest of the people in the stupid newsroom? Why was Conner stupid?
"I got lost?" he said.
Clark looked at Conner like he was so, so mentally challenged. "Conner," Clark said solemnly.
Conner sighed, annoyed. Okay, so Clark and his dad both had that same stupid voice when Conner did something wrong. Conner couldn't decide if that was a good thing about Clark--because it was like Conner's dad--or a bad thing about Clark--because it was like Conner's dad.
"I found something," Conner murmured, staring at the concrete ground, seeing that it was kind of a sickly orange in the overhead lighting. "I just wondered. You know, if it was true."
"That we were friends?" Clark asked, and his voice was soft.
"Yeah," Conner whispered, and felt sick, because that wasn't what he wanted to ask at all.
The hand on Conner's shoulder tightened, but only for a second, and Clark said, "We were friends, Conner, your dad and I. But that was a long time ago."
Nine years was a long time. Maybe Conner was why Lex and Clark weren't friends anymore, and the crazy, sideways thought made Conner a little sick. His dad didn't have enough friends, not any who he wanted to come hang out on Saturday afternoons instead of working, and Conner thought that wasn't right, hoped he hadn't done it, made everything go wrong.
"Why aren't you anymore?" he whispered, barely loud enough to hear.
There was a horrible thumping noise before Conner heard something hard slap against metal. The door of the stairwell was kicked open, and Conner whipped around in the shaft of white light to see Lois looking wild-eyed and mad, standing behind Mrs. Banner who was aiming a gun at Clark's head. They looked completely crazy.
"You jackass!" Lois shouted. "How did you weld the door shut?"
Conner's eyes widened. Weld the door shut? When? He didn't remember this.
But before he got a chance to ask all sorts of nosy questions, Mrs. Banner was cocking her gun and yelling: "Don't move a muscle, mi--!"
And then Mrs. Banner narrowed her eyes. She took one hand off of the gun to stick it into her pocket, where she fetched her glasses and put them on her face carefully, blinked twice, and then hit the safety and lowered her weapon, yelling exasperatedly, "Oh--for goodness sake! Clark! What are you doing?"
Clark just managed a painful smile. One of the hands raised over his head waved nervously.
"Mrs. Banner," he said politely, and Conner turned around to gape at him. It was like the Twilight Zone or something. "It's--it's nice to see you again."
Mrs. Banner slipped the gun back into her holster, strapped to the small of her back. Conner had asked her a long time ago if it was normal for housekeepers to be armed at all times, but then Mrs. Banner had said something about how it was habit from when she'd been "active," and Conner got a little too freaked out to keep asking questions about it.
"And you!" Mrs. Banner trilled, glaring disapprovingly at Conner. "Honestly, Conner!"
"I thought you were at coffee," Conner explained sullenly. "And it wasn't like he was touching me inappropriately or anything."
She'd made him watch that video about the guy in the park and the Catholic priests six times when he was four, and then she'd made okra for meals for a week because Conner's dad hated it, and she was always muttering about horrible decisions and what was wrong with public schools.
Mrs. Banner narrowed her eyes, hand hovering at her back. Lois just stared.
Clark muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "Conner, you're not helping."
"Sorry," Conner apologized, but brightened and said, "Hey, it's only a Berretta! If she shot you, you probably wouldn't even die."
"Yes, he would," Mrs. Banner said primly, but at least her hands came away from the gun, and she put them on her waist, glaring down at Conner. "Young man, you've got a lot of explaining to do."
It seemed like a minor eternity passed before--completely destroying Conner's very earnestly faked I'm Very Sorry tension--Clark Kent's cell phone rang. It shrilled three times before Mrs. Banner sighed and said, "You can answer your phone, Clark."
"Yes, ma'am," Clark said meekly, and made steady motions with both his hands in plain view to get his phone out of the pocket of his wrinkled slacks. Clark frowned at the little display for a moment and Conner blinked at how familiar Clark's confused expression was until Conner realized it was his own very confused expression, too.
Clark finally answered it, saying, "Hello?"
There was a long pause where Clark just got whiter and whiter until he just turned green. He nodded a few times and said, "Okay" before he hung up.
"What?" Conner asked, concerned. He'd just found his mom, it'd suck if she died.
Clark looked sick. "I think I just got invited for dinner."
In the distance, Lois yelled, "This is so not fair!"
They were going back to the penthouse in Mrs. Banner's Lexus. Initially, Clark had offered to drive them back to the penthouse before he'd seen the expression of pain on Conner's face and said that maybe they should go in Mrs. Banner's car instead.
Still, not being in the Taurus didn't seem to be helping all that much, considering Clark kept looking like he really needed an air-sickness bag and Conner was seriously worried that Clark was going to quit breathing any minute. Mrs. Banner seemed completely immune to it, and kept babbling about how she was going to make that wonderful artichoke sauce or how maybe she should do something more Kansas, whatever that meant.
All around them, Metropolis was going dark blue, with shadows stretching everywhere, lights fading into the city, green and white and golden against the buildings. Conner loved this part of the day best; even if it was the opposite of morning, it felt like Metropolis was waking up after a long, long day, putting on its silver jewelry about to go dancing. Conner knew all about going dancing, he'd seen his dad do it, when Conner had been much younger and his dad was special friends with a pretty lady with dark, long hair. Lex had put on a silver bracelet and black clothes and gone dancing, and he'd looked just like Metropolis did at half past five on a winter evening.
"How about meatloaf?" Mrs. Banner said brightly. She looked into the rear-view mirror to see Clark's still-green face. "How do you feel about meatloaf?"
"I don't think he's hungry," Conner said sadly.
"I could eat," Clark said--despondently. Conner had learned that word during detention that morning. Clark was 'despondent,' but still hungry.
"Of course you could eat," Mrs. Banner said cheerfully. "Now, meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans--it's tradition. Do you want the brown gravy?"
Conner thought this was weird. Mrs. Banner seemed way too happy about Clark--even if he was Conner's mom--sitting in the backseat of the car. It was also kind of suspicious that she knew what Clark liked to eat; even if Mrs. Banner had needed those lightning memory skills when she was fighting Charlie in the bush, Conner didn't see how she'd know Clark liked meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans or that it was a tradition.
"Lex hates the brown gravy," Clark muttered.
"He'll just have to manage," Mrs. Banner replied primly, making a left turn at about forty-five miles per hour. Conner really hoped she wasn't going to teach him how to drive.
Clark looked sad. "He'll sulk."
Conner narrowed his eyes. Something was weird.
"Well, I like you better anyway," Mrs. Banner said easily, and Conner gaped.
"More than me?" Conner asked importantly. If Mrs. Banner liked someone better than Conner, the whole world would just spiral wildly out of control--how would Conner even begin to deal with that? Even if Conner never figured out that masculine wiles thing, at least Mrs. Banner and Geoffrey were supposed to like him best; if Mrs. Banner didn't, he was down to one! And who only wanted one person in the world to like them best?
Mrs. Banner made a soothing noise, and at the red light, patted Conner on the head.
"Of course not," she said reassuringly. "Compared to you, both of them don't count at all."
Conner breathed a sigh of relief just as Clark muttered, "Oh, I see how it is."
"Don't you start now," Mrs. Banner snapped, frowning into the mirror. "I wasn't the one who grabbed a little boy and dragged him into a stairwell." Both Conner and Clark sat up straighter at that expression, probably because she'd been in black ops and sometimes talked with Hope and Mercy about killing men with one finger.
By the time they got to the penthouse, Conner was skittish and feeling just as green as Clark looked. Somewhere along the way, he'd managed to forget that his dad was kind of neurotic and was going to kill him a lot for this whole stunt. The problem, Conner reflected glumly, seeing the outline of LexCorp towers in the distance, was that Conner thought of really amazing ideas and never really managed to come up with a good way to end them. That was why his dad always won; it was a depressing fact of life.
One of these days, Conner was going to figure out how Lex did it and then Conner'd win at life.
They were pulling into the sublevel parking lot when Conner suggested, "Maybe we should go out to eat."
Clark nodded feverishly. "I agree," he said quickly. "I totally agree."
"I think it's the best idea ever," Conner added, desperate.
It was like Conner could see his dad flipping out through all the buildings--one glance at Clark told Conner that Clark was seeing it, too. The more Conner thought about it, the more it seemed like Clark and Lex had to have known each other; the look on Clark's face was the same one on Conner's right before he got sent to the laundry room for a week.
"Not on your life," Mrs. Banner said sternly and Conner and Clark deflated.
She parked the car, and Conner and Clark slumped into their seats.
Mrs. Banner was tucking her security pass and taser into her bag when Mercy knocked on the car window, saying, "Conner, Mr. Kent--Mr. Luthor is expecting you."
In many ways, Conner knew better--he always had.
After all, he was his father's son, and Conner knew he wasn't stupid. He knew better, he almost always did. But the problem with Conner was never about knowing better, it was making himself stop. There was something tempting and beautiful about challenges, about long math problems and logical flaws; he liked to ask questions that didn't have clear answers and Conner always, always said too much--wanted too much--knew too much.
His dad always said not to ask too many questions, not to ask them dangerously. Conner was nine, why did he need to know? The world wasn't simple, it wasn't even Catholic complex, with the lines of Latin that Conner thought sounded like sad singing when he recited them out loud during Catechism class, with nuns leaning over his shoulder like black shadows with strange, white linings.
But there had always been something soft and gone in his life sometimes, Conner thought it was his mother. Other times, Conner thought it was something else entirely. So even if he and his father were happy together, it was like they were happy and broken, off-center, a little bit out of frame. Like there should have been somebody else--like there had been somebody else, long ago.
So Conner wanted to know even if, deep inside, he was afraid.
Finding out was only half of anything, and he knew that even if he was only nine.
Conner almost threw up on his way up the elevator. Clark just stared at the ground.
For the first time ever, Metropolis all lit up just made Conner want to puke, and not press his face to the glass and wish he could fly, hovering over all of it. Actually, Conner wished he could step outside of the elevator, make a straight, steady drop onto the pavement, and completely avoid the "dad killing him horribly" part of the night.
When the elevator stopped softly with an elegant tone, Conner had already come up with an elaborate and sure-fire excuse for Mrs. Banner taking him home with her. If Clark was really good, maybe Mrs. Banner would take him, too. They could run away to Timbuktu. Nobody had to die.
But before Conner even got a chance to turn around and beg, Mrs. Banner pushed him gently out into the foyer of the apartment. Conner saw Mercy give Clark a not-so-nice shove, and suddenly, the elevator doors were closing. Conner wanted to cry. Dully, in the far corner of his mind, he thought, "Great. No one will hear the screaming other than Clark."
There were no lights on and it was totally dark; Conner felt blind in the apartment. It seemed to make everything louder, and their shoes were thumped against the wooden floor of the foyer. Conner winced every time he heard his sneakers squeak, heard Clark's loafers slap against the surface. The apartment was pitch black, and all the bluish light from the city was blocked out by the huge blinds that Conner's dad had pulled down.
It suddenly felt like everything that Conner did was just going to make his father angrier, and the concept of accepting what could not be changed that Geoffrey preached all the time right before they locked a nun into the boys bathroom or dumped Kool-Aid into the pool seemed to make a lot more sense.
Conner bet that if he could see Clark's face, Clark would look pretty doomed, too.
It was weirdly comforting, because Conner was (almost) never embarrassed in front of his dad, so he figured he shouldn't be embarrassed in front of his mom, either.
Conner set his bookbag by the door and kind of felt around by sense, taking a few steps forward until he realized Clark wasn't moving. He shifted his weight onto his back leg and turned, saying knowledgeably, "He's just going to get angrier the longer we make him wait."
He sounded a lot braver than he felt.
Clark stared at him for a moment, and the whites of his eyes were shiny like light off of glass.
"Seriously, Conner," Clark said suddenly. "What's going on?"
Clark sounded kind of angry, a lot confused, and it made Conner stare down at his feet, embarrassed and out of place, not sure what to say or if he was allowed to say it. He hadn't planned for all of it to blow up in his face--he never really did--and when he'd thought about later that evening earlier that day, he'd thought about playing Grand Theft Auto until his eyeballs fell out of his skull, or his dad threatened to throw the Playstation 3 out of the window, whichever came first. The evening hadn't really included Clark coming over and all the lights in the apartment being out and dying young.
"Conner," Clark said again, disapproving.
Conner scowled at his shoes. "God, do they have like, a class in high school that teaches you how to sound like that or something?" he asked, annoyed.
Conner squinted, and recognized corners and walls, felt out the path to his dad's office by memory, but realized that Clark didn't have the same luxury--nobody could see in the dark. So Conner said, "Look, you'll find out soon enough. Or we'll both die. Whatever," and grabbed Clark's hand.
It was strange--Clark's hand was enormous, and calloused. Conner's clammy skin was against Clark's sweaty palm, and it was weird, so weird, being that close to a person other than his dad, other than Geoffrey. But Clark was his mom, wasn't he? And Conner felt stupidly comfortable with him, like nothing could really happen, like Clark was safe, and Conner was safe with him.
"Here. You'll fall down otherwise," Conner said, and took a step forward.
Clark's fingers tightened gently on Conner's hand. "Thanks."
"I," Conner said quietly, feeling shy. "I won't let you trip."
It took a long time to walk over to Lex's office.
The door to his dad's office was mostly closed, but it was opened enough so that Conner could see the sliver of orangey light and smell the expensive alcohol. There was a really optimistic part of him saying that maybe his dad was just wasted, and wouldn't even care that Conner had tricked Mrs. Banner into taking him to the Daily Planet and brought home a reporter.
They stood there for a long time before Clark whispered, "Maybe he's drunk."
Conner stared up at Clark, awed.
"You're wasting my time," Lex's voice came from inside the room, dark and heavy.
"Crap," Conner and Clark muttered together.
From inside, Conner thought heard the very faintest strains of an aria, one of the really tragic ones about houses burning and moms dying and everything falling apart, which he took as a sign to start composing his will.
He took a deep breath, and looked at Clark meaningfully. "In case I don't get to tell you later," Conner started, which made Clark look like he was going to be sick this time, "I'm sorry I made you sit in the cake. You're kind of cool. Maybe."
Clark looked pained. "Um. Thanks." A pause. "We're not going to die, Conner."
Conner felt sad, and pushed open the door to his father's office. "Sure we're not," he said noncommittally.
His dad was sitting in his desk chair, which he never did, mostly because it was huge and forbidding--it worked. The only light in the room was a small lamp on Lex's desk, and the glass surface was covered in stacks of papers, loads of files, disks, albums; it looked like his dad's file room had exploded all over the room, and it took Conner a solid minute to realize that the mess started at his dad's desk and went all the way across the room, reaching the windows and stacked on the slippery chair in the corner by the bookshelves.
There was brandy, and Conner saw it golden and alive in the crystal glass in his father's hand.
"Conner," Lex said, voice low. "Clark." He raised an eyebrow at them, and it took Conner a minute to realize his dad was looking at where he and Clark were still holding hands.
"I didn't want him to knock into anything coming over here," Conner said quickly.
His dad laughed a little. "Conner, despite Mrs. Banner's initial concerns, I am well aware of the fact that Clark didn't drag you into that stairwell to molest you." Lex took a sip of his brandy, and he looked tired doing it, not like what Conner expected at all, not angry.
Clark made a noise that sounded a lot like, "Oh, sick," to Conner.
Lex blinked lazily, rubbed one hand over his face, and said, "Conner, do me a favor and go to your room, please."
Conner blinked, hard. Finally, he managed to say, "What?"
His dad grinned at him, lazy and crooked. "No, Mercy and Hope are not waiting there to strangle you, either." Conner let out a breath of relief. "That's something I want to do all by myself," his dad added, and Conner deflated a little, enough to shake his hand out of Clark's grasp.
"Um," Conner said nervously, glancing at Clark, worried. "So."
Lex raised his eyebrows. "Go, Conner. And close the door behind you."
"I'm confused," Conner admitted, pushing his luck. "So I'm not going to die?"
"Not tonight," his dad said easily, and motioned for Conner to go. "Find something to eat and then go to bed.. And if you hear yelling--"
"There's going to be yelling?" Clark asked, high-pitched.
"--just ignore it," Lex finished.
Conner looked desperately between his newly-found mom, and his dad, and thought about finding out what puberty was like, and decided that it was every man for himself. He whispered, "Sorry, Clark," and started to edge out of the room slowly.
He made it out of the door, and was just pulling it shut behind him when he heard Clark say:
"Look, before you get any ideas? You were the one who made me come here."
Curiosity burning, Conner hung around just long enough for his dad to chuckle, rich and tired, before he said, "Yes, of course, Clark. And Conner?"
Conner froze. "Yes?" he answered automatically, and then cursed himself for sucking.
"Kitchen, then bed," his dad reminded him.
"Yes, going, right now," Conner agreed, and rushed off, completely confused.
He was almost asleep, too, after scarfing down a ham and cheese sandwich and carefully brushing his bread crumbs into a pile on the floor beside the bed, even though it was obscenely early in the evening, when he heard Clark's voice echoing through every room of the penthouse, shouting, "What?"
Conner knew enough to know that going to the study now would be to risk death itself. Though he knew Mercy and Hope were generally exiled to watchpoints on the roof whenever Conner's dad was having a particularly spectacular fit, Conner also knew that his dad was a dangerous enough substance on his own. And now, with Clark yelling, there were just more variables than Conner could balance in his head.
Still, he could hear the yelling and he was at least three rooms away. And his house was huge, Conner knew because after it'd been remodeled he'd spent at least a month and a half getting weirdly lost and turned around in the hallways. So the fact that he could hear his dad and Clark yelling through the walls meant that Metropolis was going to start burning around them any minute.
Also, there were all those missiles that his dad had mounted around the house.
Conner decided that all things considered, Clark angry was bad, his dad angry was bad, all the weapons of mass destruction around the penthouse was bad, but all of those added together was a word for bad that he hadn't learned in English class yet.
He cracked open his bedroom door, which made everything even louder, and Conner started hearing bits and pieces of what they were actually yelling at each other.
" Can't believe--!"
"--It's not like I had any--!"
Conner bit his lip and pushed his courage to the sticking place. He didn't want his parents to kill one another; his dad had lots of bombs and his mom was like him--a little too fast, a little too strong, and Conner remembered hurting his dad's wrist, and he hadn't even been that mad. Conner figured that if he didn't do something about it, he'd wake up the next morning to find Clark and his dad all blown up on the study floor.
It was too late to write a will to replace the ones he and Geoffrey had made up during recess in the third grade, but it wasn't like he'd gotten any really cool new stuff that he didn't want to be buried with, so he figured that it was okay.
Conner took a deep breath and tiptoed out, stealing down the hallway, sticking close to the walls but not close enough to rub up against them and make any noise. The apartment was darker than he remembered, and the flickering light from the city looked kind of ghostly; if Conner wasn't hearing his dad and his--well, other dad fighting in the study, he'd think that the house was abandoned, empty, that he was all alone.
"I cannot believe--!"
"--You were going to react just like this! How could I possibly--!"
"You were just fucking chickenshit!"
Conner's eyes bugged out. Weird. That was an eleven-letter word, but still awesome.
His dad's voice was clearer now, and it didn't sound so angry anymore, just loud, like he was trying to talk over Clark who did sound very, very mad, nearly hysterical. Crazy like a teenaged girl, just like Geoffrey's dad muttered every time he came home from One Of Those Cases.
"I pulled all of this out of--"
"Fuck you, Lex!"
"--storage for a reason, Clark. If you don't want to look at it, that's fine. But he's my son--"
"Apparently, he's our son!" Clark yelled, and Conner blanched at that, the way that Clark sounded like he was anything but excited to know about Conner, to have a nine year-old kid.
It made Conner want to make his case, argue a point, say that sure, he was kind of clumsy and was almost always in trouble and the nuns said that he hadn't been raised right for sure, but that he meant well, most of the time. Maybe he could make some visual aids, but Clark had to give him some time, and not just yell like suddenly finding out he was a mom was the worst thing ever.
He was at the door now, close enough to squint and peek through where it was opened just a sliver.
His dad was standing in front of his desk now, hands fisted in his pocket and still trying to lean casually back against his desk, even though his desk was lost in an ocean of file folders and videotapes, scattered paper and thick lab notebooks Conner saw all the time at Gilead. Clark was standing by the couch, like he was trying to get as far away from Lex as humanly possible, and he was angry, really angry, his face was red on the cheeks and white everywhere else and Conner could swear that Clark's eyes looked a little supernaturally golden, like they were about to burst into flame. All in all, Conner got a low, sick feeling, watching them fight like that.
"Yes," Conner's dad said, and his voice was quite now, very soft. "He's our son--and if you don't appreciate that, it's fine." There was a long pause before Lex added, "But you will never make him feel any less wanted, Clark."
It wasn't a direction, it was like his dad had just plucked the rule out of thin-air and suddenly it was true. It made Conner feel safe, and warmer in his fingers and toes, to know that his dad could do that, that speed-dial four was still God.
Clark turned even whiter, and muttered, "Sorry."
Conner's dad smirked, the way he smirked when he didn't really mean it, and picked up a particularly fat notebook, a purple one, with the old LuthorCorp logo on it, holding it out.
"I didn't write this," Lex said. "I'm not sure how understandable it is, but it's the only solid, beginning to end documentation of--" and his dad paused, like he didn't want to say Conner's name "--of him. You can have the copy if you'd like."
Clark's face didn't soften at that, his hands didn't even move to take the folder. Instead, it seemed to make him angry all of a sudden again, and Conner winced, pushing himself closer to the doorframe for support when Clark yelled, "I mean--why do you think that I would be okay with this? Why do you think that this would be okay? What makes you think that you can do--"
"Because I didn't do it, Clark!" Lex shouted, angry now like he wasn't before. "Because I wasn't the one who did it and I wasn't the one who designed the science but I'm the one who has Conner and I don't feel the desire to be angry about that!"
When his dad's voice stopped echoing in the room, Conner saw Clark look a little bit lost, like he was treading water and didn't know which way to find the pool floaters. And Conner got that, he really did, even if his dad had said he was the world's best mistake. Conner knew lots of kids that were accidents, which were like mistakes--he went to Catholic school, most of the kids he knew were accidents--but it was different when your dad didn't have anything to do with it, a whole different kind of weird that he mostly saw on Maury.
Clark moved his hand a little, like it was going to help him figure things out.
"I--I'm very confused," Clark said finally.
"It wasn't me," Conner dad said quietly. "I didn't commission the project--I didn't design the experiments." He turned to stare out of the windows of his office, and rubbed one of his temples slowly. "I just found them, found it. I just found him."
Clark stared at Lex for a long time. "I'm having a bad dream, right?" he asked.
Conner's dad smirked, and it was still not a real smirk. "No," he said.
Conner sadly ticked off that possibility, too. For a while, he'd hoped that he'd just passed out in the car, and that as soon as he woke up, he'd see his dad and Clark playing scrabble and talking about which episode of Full Metal Alchemist to watch with Conner later that night.
"This is all real," Clark said slowly. "And not your fault."
Lex rolled his eyes, and pushed away from the desk, picking his way over the files back to his chair, where he slumped down and started looking through something on his computer monitor like he'd just dismissed Clark in his head or something.
"In case you hadn't noticed," Conner's dad said, "I gave up my side-projects a long time ago."
"I did," Clark said quickly, still annoyed. "I never figured out why."
Conner's dad shuffled paper. Clark shuffled his feet.
"Let's just say it's kind of impossible to have a kid and rule the world at the same time," Conner's dad said, almost like he was joking.
"You gave up the world for baby puke?" Clark joked.
Conner watched his dad raise his eyebrows at Clark and say, "Either read the materials and get out, or get out now. It's your choice."
"Hey!" Clark said, taking a few steps forward and crunching some papers. Conner's dad winced and sighed, leaning back in his seat like he'd expected this. "You can't just--I mean, I still don't understand. You say he's that, you know. But you don't say how, and why, and who, if you didn't do it. You can't just throw me out of your apartment."
"You sound like you're pubescent again," Lex snapped. "That's unbearable."
Clark growled. "Okay. Fuck you very mu--" he started, and froze, eyes growing huge and round and turning to the door, making Conner squeak in surprise and feel every muscle on his body freeze.
Clark kept staring straight at the crack of the door, straight at Conner, and Conner kept staring right back because he couldn't move. If he moved, his dad would hear him and then Conner didn't even know what. There were a lot of four-letter words and eleven-letter words flying around, and Conner wasn't even supposed to say "crap." Everything would probably end up working out the exact wrong way and he'd have to live in the laundry room until he was thirty or something.
Look away! Conner thought desperately, wishing that he could control Clark with his mind. If Clark looked away, and made some loud noises in an opposite corner, Conner could run pell-mell back to his room and pretend to be sleeping. It probably wouldn't work great but it'd be better than getting caught outside of the door, eavesdropping. The last time he'd done that, his dad had fumed for a week, complaining that somebody was going try and arrest him for insider trading because his brilliant son thought it was funny to drop in on midnight conversations and use them as conversation starters during recess.
"Look away!" Conner shouted as loudly as he could in his head.
The only part weirder than trying to control Clark with his mind was when it worked.
Unfortunately, it didn't work exactly like he'd planned.
Clark looked away--for sure--but he looked away really fast and really hard and he ended up spinning into a bookshelf, shouting in surprise and falling down. Conner's dad jumped out of his chair yelling something about a seizure augmented by shock, and Clark started yelling about how somebody had pushed him.
And then Conner got all worried and made some noise which his dad totally heard which led to some really embarrassing yelling--which almost never happened in front of guests but Conner figured that Clark was his mom and his dad was kind of glassy from all the brandy he'd been drinking that night anyway.
Somehow, all of it ended up with Conner sulking in the laundry room while his dad and Clark "Talked some things out, it's adults-only for the moment. Not that that seems to deter you, anyway."
It was just about eight o'clock and Conner looked desperately around the laundry room. The only things in there were household cleaners, a load of linens and towels, and Conner.
At eight-fifteen, he shrugged and started sorting the towels, putting all the dark purple ones (his dad's) in one pile and his (blue and white striped) in separate piles, pulling the dark-colored sheets away from the light ones and dropping them in large, fluffy mountains on the floor of the laundry room.
By eight-forty, when Clark knocked first and peeked into the laundry room, Conner was tipping a scoop of Tide into the first load.
Conner felt himself blush all over. "Um," he said.
Clark blinked, stepping into the laundry room and shutting the door behind him.
"You do laundry?" he asked.
Conner blinked, and looked at the detergent, setting it on top of the dryer and nodding.
"I--I get grounded a lot," he explained after a beat. "It gets boring. Plus, I can read directions."
Clark laughed suddenly, like he hadn't expected this whole thing to be funny. Conner hadn't thought that it would be funny, either, but it seemed like it could be when Clark started helping Conner sort out the remaining towels and sheets. And a little later, when the load started running, Clark sat on the dryer while Conner sat on the thumping washer, and they stared at each other.
Conner fussed with the knee of his pants, the edge of his shirt, stared at the ceiling, and finally finding nothing else to sate his curiosity, asked, "Did you get grounded, too?"
The look on Clark's face told Conner that the idea of being grounded was so far away from however old Clark was that the idea was novel, and kind of cute--not at all what it really was, which was crushing, boring, and mindlessly cruel.
"Kind of," Clark admitted, folding his hands together, smiling a little.
"I didn't know adults could ground each other," Conner said, feeling stupid and inarticulate. That was ridiculous because Conner was plenty articulate--nothing got him into more trouble than his stupid mouth.
Then again, Clark looked like he was having trouble stringing words together, too, so maybe it was genetic and not just his fault. Conner was really getting into having another person to blame for his faults thing; he couldn't believe he hadn't started asking what was wrong with his mom earlier, not when it justified so much in his life.
"Well," Clark finally said. "Your dad's always been different."
"Man, you're preaching to the choir," Conner muttered, and when Clark didn't say anything for a long time, Conner looked up to see a hamstrung expression on Clark's face. "I go to Catholic school," Conner explained hastily. "I say a lot of lame stuff."
Clark raised his eyebrows, like Catholic school was funny. He said, "Ah."
"Are you feeling okay?" Clark asked, suddenly concerned. "I mean--do you feel all right?"
Conner stared at him. "Um."
"Because you just coughed," Clark babbled, standing up and coming over to put his hand on Conner's forehead for a second before pulling it away like Conner's skin was scalding or something. "I mean--is it okay if I touch you? You don't mind or anything? Is that okay?"
Conner stared at him some more. "It's fine."
"Okay," Clark said, breathing a sigh of relief, and pressing his huge palm to Conner's forehead again. Conner had a sneaking suspicion that Clark's hand was the size of Conner's entire face, but he was too confused to voice it. After a long time, Clark said with a frown, "You feel a little warm."
"I feel fine," Conner argued, officially confused.
"You might be sick," Clark shot back, frowning.
Conner was opening his mouth to say how that was completely ridiculous when the intercom in the room buzzed smoothly to life and he heard his dad's voice saying, "Clark, he's not sick, he just coughed. When he's sick, he'll throw up on something expensive."
Nodding, Conner said, "Yeah. I'm not sick."
"Are you sure?" Clark asked.
"He never gets sick," Lex supplied easily. "And Conner, Clark's just being a paranoid new father. Feel free to run screaming if you so desire."
"Cool," Conner said to the intercom while Clark shot it a dirty look, and then it faded out and they were all alone again together in the laundry room.
Clark backed away, but slowly, like he didn't really want to but was afraid that Mrs. Banner was going to burst into the room and accuse him of child molestation again.
"So Dad told you?" Conner asked, nervous. Of course Lex had told Clark, there was no other reason they would have had the fight; it was a stupid question, but Conner was feeling like a pretty all around stupid person today.
Clark nodded and said quietly, "Yeah. He showed me your files."
Conner winced. "I'm sorry that I don't know. I'm sorry, though."
"About what?" Clark murmured, like he genuinely didn't know why Conner was apologizing.
Conner made a hand motion, the same one his dad made when there really weren't words, like when he got a call during the middle of the day to tell him that Conner and Geoffrey had gotten trapped in the meat locker and probably needed to go home for the rest of the day. When Conner made the hand motion that time, he meant that he was sorry he got nosy, that he found out that Clark was his mom, that Clark was a mom, and that Conner sort of ruined things for everybody. Now that it was out, now that people knew, things were going to happen--there were always consequences, and that was a ten-dollar word he'd learned really early on in his life. There were always consequences, and he was sorry that Clark had to deal with them now, too.
Only Clark didn't look very sorry when Conner looked up.
Clark's head was cocked and he was staring at Conner with a strange, amazed sort of expression that made Conner feel like he was famous, like he was a hero or something--it was the kind of look that his dad--his other dad--gave him on Christmases and on his birthday, or when Conner wasn't watching. It made him warm all over, made Conner want to smile because it meant good things, that he was wanted.
Conner's reason for apologizing suddenly felt really stupid, so he just shook his head.
They were quiet for another few minutes before the intercom buzzed again.
"Oh for God's sake, you two," Conner's dad snapped. "Look, it's getting late, I'm tired, and Conner, I'm sure you have homework or lines or something to write. Clark, we'll see you tomorrow morning." There was a pause. "And Clark? If I catch you circling the penthouse tonight, there will be hell to pay."
The intercom fell silent.
Conner cleared his throat. "He's just cranky."
"I see that," Clark allowed.
"Tomorrow's Sunday," Conner said hopefully. "Do you want to come over?"
Clark opened his mouth and looked like he was about to tell Conner why he couldn't do that, and before he could, Conner added, "Because I don't really know you really well. But, well, you're the only mom I've ever had, you know? And I--I sort of want to get to know you." He smiled shyly and hopped off the washer, hearing the last of the water draining out of it. Conner shoved his hands into his pockets, and added, "I mean, unless you're busy, or you don't want to, because I totally understand and it's okay if you don't--"
"I'll come," Clark said quickly, desperately, and Conner looked up, beaming.
"I'll come tomorrow," Clark said again, much more softly. "I'll be here tomorrow."
"Awesome," Conner said, and that was all he could think. "Awesome."
Conner's dad was always saying, "It's only going to get worse," about work, though he never really seemed very upset about it. Conner was finally starting to understand what that meant, how everything could get messier and harder and better all at the same time. Because Conner went from being an ordinary kid with a maybe not so ordinary dad and questionably ordinary friends to being a kid with two dads, no mom, and Geoffrey, who was going through some sort of Cubist phase in preparation for their trip to the Metropolis Museum of Art.
Saturday night, Conner could barely sleep, and after the eighth time he wandered into his dad's room to ask him questions about what Clark was like, Lex had threatened force-feed Conner Dimetapp and drug him into sleep if he wasn't going to go by natural means.
He woke up at seven on Sunday morning, and since it was past six AM, his dad couldn't even complain when Conner bounced into his room babbling excitedly and asking him when Clark would get there, what they'd do, if Conner was like Clark at all.
Lex was a very smart man, Conner knew, which made his dad all the funnier early in the morning, because he acted like a computer, needing time to boot up, and finally functioning perfectly a few minutes later. Only Conner's dad was a little slower and needed coffee before anything could work properly, so when Conner jumped onto the left side of Lex's bed, his dad just looked confused and harassed
"Morning, Dad," Conner said brightly.
His dad blinked slowly. "What time is it?" he croaked.
"It's seven-fifteen," Conner reported, pointing at the clock on the nightstand by his dad's head. "Hey, so I've got some questions."
Lex groaned and rubbed his face with his hands. "Oh, God."
"Am I like Clark? At all?" Conner asked quickly. "Because I was seeing all these places where we're alike, right? And I was wondering--do you see any places where we're alike? Because you know both of us better, right?"
"Conner," his dad said, voice scratchy, "if you don't shut up, and let me go back to sleep, I swear to God, you and Clark will both be homeless and you can do that together."
"You're funny, Dad," Conner said, laughing, before growing serious and adding, "No, but for real, Dad. I was thinking about this last night--all night. I could barely sleep."
"Then why aren't you tired?" his dad asked, and he sounded really sad about that.
"Because I'm young and virile--"
"Virile?" his dad sputtered, looking awake and horrified. "What have you been reading?"
"--and don't need as much rest as old people--"
His dad glared at him, pushing himself up along the mountain of pillows at the headboard, saying darkly, "Thank you."
"--but the point is, I was up all night wondering about this, and aside from us both being kind of clumsy," Conner plowed on, "and kind of fast and stuff, I mean, is there other stuff?"
Lex was mid-yawn when Conner said the words "kind of fast and stuff," but it stopped him dead, and it made Conner re-evaluate what he'd said just to make sure he didn't admit something he didn't want to be admitting. But the way that his dad was staring at him wasn't so much angry as concerned, and Conner wondered if something was growing out of the side of his face.
"So you noticed you're both fast," Lex said softly.
Conner blinked. "Well, yeah," he answered matter-of-factly. "You'd have to be stupid not to."
For some reason, this was incredibly funny to Conner's dad. By the time Lex stopped laughing, he was totally awake, and he ruffled Conner's hair and started to roll out of bed, saying, "Come on. We can talk about this over breakfast. I can't discuss Clark without being caffeinated."
Mrs. Banner had a personal conflict with working on Sundays, so Conner and Lex fumbled around the enormous kitchen on their own. As Conner understood it, it wasn't so much a "personal conflict" with working on Sundays as Mrs. Banner had simply laughed and laughed when Lex had asked her if she would.
But his dad made orange juice with his shiny, steel juicer and washed strawberries and Conner poured the pre-made waffle batter onto the iron. He always wondered about that arrangement, because Geoffrey wasn't allowed near the stove, but as his father explained it, he was more concerned about letting Conner play with knives than something with an "off" switch.
Conner set the plates and flatware out, and by the time that his dad sat on one of the barstools, nursing his first coffee of the morning (strong, two creams, no sugar), Conner was loading up his waffle with organic strawberries and a lot of butter. His dad never really ate breakfast, but had a few strawberries and spent some serious time staring at Conner.
Lex had stared at Conner ever since Conner could remember. It had never seemed strange and he realized eventually that it wasn't--all parents seemed to do it; Geoffrey's dad did it to Geoffrey, even when there were other people over. Conner saw moms staring at their daughters in the parking lot, saw dads staring at fall fairs; it was like parents couldn't really see their children enough. Sometimes, Conner almost felt like his dad occasionally rediscovered the fact that he had a son, and was ridiculously happy with it. So the staring wasn't really bad, wasn't bad at all--Conner wondered if Clark would stare, too, eventually.
"So you're both fast, huh?" his dad said when Conner was stuffing the last strawberry into his mouth. Conner turned and nodded, chewing with his mouth closed. "Hm," his dad murmured.
Swallowing hard and wincing, Conner gasped, "Why? Is that bad?"
"Not bad, precisely," his dad said lightly, getting up to pour a second cup of coffee.
"You said it with the bad voice," Conner argued. "You use that with stockholders and stuff."
Lex snorted. "Conner, please, don't insult me. I don't ever have bad news for stockholders," his dad said smoothly, and added, "It--I just hadn't anticipated having to have this conversation with you for quite some time, Conner."
All the color drained from Conner's face and he dropped his fork with a ceramic clink against the plate, utterly horrified.
"I didn't--I haven't--I don't want to!" he squeaked, panicking immediately.
He'd once seen some of the graphs and charts his dad had filed away in the supply closet in his office. There were cross-sections of penises and weird, pink, egg-shaped things with tentacles coming out of them, and the last thing Conner wanted out of this experience was to give his dad a chance to give him The Talk. Conner didn't plan on hearing The Talk--possibly, ever.
"Conner, you don't even know what it's about," his dad chided, smiling harmlessly, which was how Conner knew this was going to be totally horrible.
Conner shook his head frantically. "No! No, it's totally fine! The nuns already taught me everything I need to know about--that stuff. Really!"
His dad blinked, his whole body tensing, and he said, too carefully, "Did they."
Conner nodded feverishly. "Yeah--everything."
"And what did they say?" his dad asked quietly. Lex's hand was moving toward his cell phone; Conner wondered if his dad was about to call God and ask him what the hell his girlfriends were doing teaching Lex's kid about sex in Catholic school. There was just something weirdly wrong about it.
Conner flushed painfully. So he'd lied, just a little. The nuns hadn't so much "told them" about The Talk stuff as Caught David Markson With His Hand Down His Shorts During Recess About A Month Ago. There'd been a lot of yelling, and some particularly old nuns--the ones Geoffrey and Conner figured were actually zombies--came in and talked about leprosy and going blind.
"Uh," Conner started, figuring that telling the truth was the best route here. "They said that that stuff should happen between a man and a woman--" his dad's expression went blank "--who were married. In church. And that if you play with yourself you go blind and kittens die," he finished in a horrified, humiliated rush.
When Conner finally forced himself to look up and see why his dad wasn't agreeing or talking about how it wasn't really kittens that died so much as puppies, he found that his dad was actually collapsed on the counter, shoulders shaking he was laughing so hard.
Conner frowned. "Dad?"
"That was--" his dad stopped to gasp, pushing himself up so Conner saw the big smile on his face --"that was worth all the years of Catholic school behind and before you, Conner."
Conner's frown deepened. "I'm very confused."
"You're joking, right?" his dad gasped, still laughing. "You're kidding."
"No," Conner said, getting annoyed.
His dad waved his hand around, grinning wildly. "And you got this talk after we had our talk about discovering ourselves?"
"The nuns said you were wrong," Conner said, narrowing his eyes. "Dad, this isn't funny."
"This is incredibly funny," his father corrected, "but unfortunately, not what I was going to talk to you about."
Conner breathed a sigh of relief.
"However," his dad added, "the nuns are wrong. It's perfectly fine to get comfortable with your own body." Conner watched his dad nervously, as long as he didn't say the "s"-word, this was going to be okay, Conner could resist screaming. "In fact, it's the safest kind of sex there is--"
Whatever else his dad was saying was lost in Conner's hysterical yelling, and by the time Conner's voice gave out in favor of taking gulps of oxygen, Lex was saying:
"You and Clark both drive me nuts, that's one thing."
Conner rasped a bit, and hoped that it sounded like "Like, in a good way?" Apparently, it didn't, and his dad only raised one eyebrow and went on to talk about how Conner was infuriating and Clark was infuriating, and luckily he'd been able to deal with them in mutually isolated capacities until recently.
"I'm actually at kind of a loss as to what to do now," his dad continued philosophically, setting his coffee cup on the counter. "You know about each other, Clark is probably compulsively going over all of the feminine influence you haven't accordingly received from him all these years, and you figured out the bus system--there really seems to be no stopping this."
His dad sounded kind of sad, so Conner tried to gurgle sympathetically.
"Don't start that with me," Lex said. "You were the one who got us into this mess."
"I didn't lie to the nuns!" Conner argued hoarsely. In the future, he'd have to try to yell less, it was completely ridiculous, he didn't know how girls did it but if he ever figured out he'd bottle it and it would make him famous.
"Neither did I," his dad shot back, "but you made Mercy have to lie to nuns."
"It's not like she wasn't godless anyway," Conner muttered, and then tried to clear his throat.
"That's not the point," Lex said irritably. He sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. "God. He's going to be here any minute."
Conner brightened. "Is that because he's fast? So he'll be here soon? Because he can move fast like I can?"
Conner was getting really tempting visions of running races down the length of the roof with Clark--with his mom. Sometimes Conner would win, sometimes Clark would win, and his dad could move the liquor cart out of his office into the observatory, and toast them from where he sat underneath the telescope. It was going to be awesome. Geoffrey was going to be so jealous he was going to barf--at least at first, and then Conner would tell him that Geoffrey could share Conner's mom, too, and they'd be square.
Lex stared at Conner, eyebrows knit together.
"Tell me," his dad finally said, "has it occurred to you that this is strange?"
Conner poked his throat--not sore anymore, thank God, so he said normally, "What's strange?"
His dad's voice was exaggerated and casual, saying, "Oh, just this having two fathers thing."
"Clark's my mom, though," Conner said matter-of-factly.
Lex gave Conner an expression like he was trying to figure out how he'd raised Conner wrong, but shook his head and said, "Be that as it may, he's a man, and he's your mom. Doesn't that strike you as odd? Something to be concerned about?"
"Randall's step-dad is a woman," Conner said seriously.
He still remembered the day that Randall invited all of his friends over so that his mother and her new life-partner could put on a presentation about her Big Decision. Geoffrey had fallen asleep but Conner spent most of the time looking at Randall's new step-dad(mom)'s vein: it was huge and faintly blue and melted into what would have been a pretty face--if it wasn't smaller than her neck.
"Sort of, anyway," Conner added. "Her name's Buffy."
Lex narrowed his eyes. "I see."
"She can break stuff with her neck," Conner reported.
"Okay, you can stop now," his dad said, clearing his throat like he had decided to start.
Conner really didn't see what the big deal was; just because he went to Catholic school didn't mean there weren't a lot of weird families--they were just weird families who pretended not to be. Conner had never pretended not to be strange, it was hard to do when your dad owned a third of your town and everybody who worked in it. There was also that thing about crushing bricks to dust and running too fast and now, maybe controlling people with his mind; the point was Conner was used to weird, but maybe his dad didn't know that.
So he reached over and put his hand over his dad's, and it looked small. Conner waited until his dad looked up at him curiously before saying, "Dad. It's okay. I know we're not normal."
Lex stiffened. "We're normal, Conner."
"Dad?" Conner said gently. "The only parent I know who doesn't work for you is Mr. Archer, and that's because he's a judge. That's not really normal. It's okay."
"Conner, we're normal," his dad said, frustrated. "I own a business."
"You own Metropolis," Conner explained, like he was breaking some really bad news. He couldn't believe his dad was being so stubborn about this. "I mean, I can pretend a lot, okay? But we're not normal--" his dad opened his mouth to protest "--but that's not bad, okay? You're cool and I like being your son, even when you put me in the laundry room."
His dad looked kind of watery and pink-faced.
"You did a good job," Conner said soothingly, repeating what the school counselor had told him weeks ago, despite the fact that Conner was covered in red paint. "There was no irrevocable damage."
Lex looked grateful for that and said grudgingly, "Maybe we're a little weird."
Conner beamed. "Tell me about Clark," he demanded, nearly bouncing out of his seat.
"What about Clark?" his dad asked, getting up and gathering the dishes, putting them in the sink; he looked slightly doomed, but Conner could ignore that just like Lex had ignored his barfy-face bar graph.
"Everything," Conner said excitedly. "Like, everything. Are we alike? What else can he do that's weird? We're both fast--can he make people move with his mind, too?"
His dad, despite looking kind of sick, had been following along until Conner got to that last part, and then Lex's eyes got huge, but before his dad could start freaking out, the elevator door made a low, chiming noise.
"He's here!" Conner yelled, tumbling out of his chair and sliding in his socks on the hardwood floor, running toward the foyer.
He barely heard his dad yell from behind him, "Wait! What did you mean control things with your mind?"
Clark came bearing pie, which instantly made him one of Conner's favorite people.
"Clark! You're here! And you have pie!" Conner gasped, effusive.
Clark was still frozen in the foyer, smiling painfully, dressed in a coat that wasn't zipped up, like he was wearing it for show. He was holding a pie, and it looked warm, still steaming, actually, and Conner wondered how Clark had managed to do that in the Kansas winter. But when he smelled cherry, he stopped thinking and let his mouth water in peace.
"Yeah," Clark said distantly, eyes glazed over, "I thought I'd--um. The downstairs security check was--" Clark looked briefly down at Conner, and the color started to return to his pale cheeks. "Sorry about that, hi, Conner."
"You have pie," Conner repeated reverently. "You're the best mom ever."
Clark flushed at that, ridiculously pleased. "Aw--"
"If you say 'shucks,' I'm kicking you out," Lex interrupted, stepping into the room, looking wary and prickly, which meant that things were accelerating to nuclear meltdown nicely, Conner thought with a roll of his eyes.
"You!" Clark said, accusation heavy on his voice. "You didn't fix your metal detectors."
Conner stared at his father, who blinked innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"They still have gold Kryptonite in them," Clark snapped. "I almost fell down!"
Conner stared. Neither of his parents noticed.
"And that would be a terrible shame," Lex said solemnly.
"You," Clark growled, "are so petty."
His father narrowed his eyes at Clark and said, "Conner, would you like to get some plates and forks and serve this up? In the meantime, I'll just strangle your mother."
Conner frowned. "But I just found him," he protested.
"I'll get you a new one," his father said, not looking away from Clark.
The two men looked like they were about to square off, like the fight they'd had and paused the night before was about to come roaring back into focus, and the last thing that Conner needed was his parents to start fighting. He'd seen enough of Randall to see that being the child of a very messy divorce was not something that he wanted, much less the child of a messy divorce that wasn't, technically, a divorce.
Okay, so maybe Conner hadn't really thought this through. Granted, he had a mom to go with the dad now; he hadn't anticipated the apparent fact that they didn't like each other. Given the way that they seemed to be glaring, "didn't like" was a little bit of an understatement.
He had to do something before they threw it down in the family room.
"Dad--I feel kind of sick," he chirped, and got no response from his father but a sudden flurry of concern from his mom, who broke eye-contact with Lex--and in the same move shoved the pie into Conner's dad's hands, who grabbed it and then went all red and dropped the pie suddenly on the nearest flat surface, waving his hands in the air and wincing at the skin on his palms--to drop to bent knees and examine Conner for signs of dire illness, worry clear on his face.
"Sick?" Clark asked.
"Oh, yeah," Conner said earnestly. "Real sick."
"Conner," his father said irritably, "you are not sick."
Conner made himself look sad, and his shoulders droop. He pressed his hands to his heart and whispered faintly, "I feel sick in my chest."
"Oh, for " his father muttered, but seemed more concerned. Conner could tell from the extra furrow in his brow.
Clark looked just crushed. "Hey, Conner--we didn't--we didn't mean to fight in front of you."
"Randall's parents did that," Conner went on dolefully. "They got divorced." He made his eyes huge. "Are you guys fighting because of me?"
Both his parents went white at that. It was so easy sometimes.
But to be honest, Conner went a little white at that thought, too. He could joke about it, use it to manipulate his mom and dad, sure, but the fact was they were fighting about him, weren't they? They wouldn't have to be here or angry with each other or stuck pretending to be okay if it weren't for Conner. So as much as he wanted them to cut it out, maybe he wanted them to answer his question, too.
"Conner, that's not--"
"Absolutely not, what a preposterous--"
Conner sniffed, tearless, because he hadn't mastered that yet, and murmured, "I just wanted us to spend some time together, you know?" He looked at the ground hard. "When Clark brought pie, I just got excited. Sorry, I know I ruin everything."
There was a long silence during which Conner felt really, genuinely ill.
And then he felt large, broad hands tugging him gently into a hug, and automatically, his arms went up, around thicker shoulders than he was used to, seeing curling, dark hair and feeling it against his cheek. His mom smelled like newsprint and hot coffee, peppermint candy, and maybe ballpoint pen ink, metallic and slightly sweet--Conner breathed it in, memorizing it so that he could start having memories of his mother, too. It was only fair, and he was nine years behind everybody else.
"I'm sorry," Clark murmured, and he was, Conner could feel it. "I'm really sorry. After you--after you looked for me so long. I shouldn't come here and pick fights."
Conner closed his eyes and heard his dad sigh, and reach down to stroke Conner's hair.
"Clark's right," Lex said, and the words seemed hard for him to say. "I'm sorry, too, Conner."
The silence lasted a few moments before Lex muttered, "I'm going to slip into diabetic coma. I'm getting something to drink."
Clark pulled away and said with disproval, "Lex, it's like nine o'clock in the morning!"
Conner's dad just waved a dismissive hand, and Conner fisted his fingers into Clark's shirt, getting his attention again. Conner grinned brightly and said, "This is great! You're making Dad drink! You fit right in!"
It took a second for the thought to finish processing, but by the time it did, Lex had returned to the room with brandy and Clark was laughing, hugging Conner again, and Conner thought for the first time that month that maybe things were going to work out well after all.
Time passed, and Conner began to suspect that being able to control things with his mind was accidental at best, a hallucination at worst. He and Geoffrey vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery, and so promised that as soon they got a chance, they'd set up some G.I. Joes on Conner's balcony and Geoffrey would take notes on Conner's facial expressions as he willed them dozens of stories down to the ground.
But honestly, between trying to keep Geoffrey distracted when Thanksgiving and the anniversary of his mother's death came, keeping Eve from fluttering her eyelashes at Conner's best friend, keeping up correspondence with Lois (who Conner was now convinced was the love of his life), and keeping his parents from killing one another, he didn't have much time to worry about if he could blow stuff up with his mind.
Clark and Lex kept fighting, which was just fine by Conner as long as there wasn't any blood on the carpet, because generally, they felt so terrible after they did it in front of him that they managed to be civilized to one another over dinner and for the rest of the evening, for which both Mrs. Banner and the building security were grateful. Hope and Mercy were mostly just really confused.
"You don't have to pretend to get along if you hate him," Conner had told Lex when he'd found his dad clawing at his desk blotter, on his second glass of brandy for the day.
"I don't hate him," his dad had said through gritted teeth. "Clark just--he frustrates me."
"I think you hate him," Conner complained. "If you hate him, you shouldn't hang out."
"Yeah?" Lex had laughed. "I do a lot of things I shouldn't for you."
Conner had smiled at that.
And if the nuns balked at first at the hideous car that came occasionally to St. Ann's to pick up Conner at the end of the day, the fact that neither Mercy nor Hope emerged from the nearby bushes to initiate a bloody melee was proof enough that something had changed in Conner's life.
Sometimes, Conner wouldn't see Clark for a few days, and other times, it felt like Clark was always there. And there were good days and bad days, sometimes when Clark was too overprotective and seemed to want Conner to act ways that Conner just wasn't sure how to do, and whenever Conner came back to his house discouraged and out of place at that, it was always a good bet that his father would have another roaring argument with his mom the next day.
"I'm sorry! I don't mean to," Clark would say.
"But you're doing it anyway!" Lex would shout. "If you don't cut it out--"
"Don't threaten me!" Clark would yell back.
Nobody was perfect, Conner knew, and so even when things were bad he was always happy to go with Clark to greasy diners around MetU, to hang out at the Metropolis Zoo, to hit up the indie bookstores and used CD joints and the natural history museum. Sometimes, Conner would ask if they could bring Geoffrey, and the three of them would spend the day out in the parts of the city that Conner never really got to see--it was hard to go places when your dad was on most of the print materials laying around on the tables.
Privately, Conner thought it was getting better, and his dad and mom worked out a lot of things after hours. He had seen them once, pushing a lot of paper around, tired and ruffled and sleepy, figuring out hours and rules and whispering and bargaining over things Conner couldn't quite catch.
Whatever it was, by December, his mom and dad had apparently come to some sort of understanding about how this was going to work, and Conner spent his first Christmas ever with two parents. His mom gave him a Daily Planet sweatshirt and a pair of Roy Mustang gloves; his dad bought him a globe with tiny, purple, three-dimensional skyscrapers everywhere LexCorp had a building, and the collectors edition of the Full Metal Alchemist comics and DVDs--even though Conner had all of them separately.
"I like things that come in sets," Lex explained, when Clark had said something about gross extravagance, which Conner was looking up in his new electronic Oxford English Dictionary, which Mrs. Banner had given him three days ago.
Clark had raised his eyebrows and muttered, "I see."
They ate turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce, most of which was kind of cold or not exactly right, but weirdly perfect, because Clark had spent the whole day in Conner and Lex's kitchen cooking it, and made them promise not to come in even if they heard explosions. Later, stuffed and drowsy, Conner made his mom and dad watch Full Metal Alchemist with him until his eyelids started to droop. He felt his dad's hand in his hair, and he hummed a little, burying his face in his dad's side.
"You're so lucky," Conner thought he heard his mom say, closer than the voices on the TV.
"I know," his dad whispered.
And then there were a few long moments before the words drifted in:
"Please--please, tell me where he came from."
Conner woke up with pink light streaming through the windows. He was tucked underneath a large, dark purple blanket, curled up on the sofa. His parents were nowhere to be found, but the mounds of wrapping paper and the tree were still sparkling, and it felt like Christmas wasn't quite over yet, just dim for daylight.
It took a minute for Conner to wrap his mind around the fact that it was morning, and when he rolled off the sofa and wandered down the hallway, he saw his dad's bedroom door open and nobody in there anyway before taking a left. Half-asleep, it took him longer than normal to navigate the penthouse, and the door to the office seemed unbearably heavy when Conner pushed it open.
He blinked twice before he saw his mom and dad, passed out in undignified heaps on the floor, dozens of photo albums and file folders opened on the floor between them, and what looked like thousands of photographs of Conner laid out in glossy piles.
Conner groaned. He'd always known his dad was kind of creepy with the camera and the camcorder, but this was totally ridiculous. He vowed immediately never to let any of his future significant others visit his house, as it would probably lead to Conner's eventual death from total humiliation. He felt himself blush, but consoled himself with the thought that it was only his mom--still, there was no excuse for his dad to have taken so many pictures of Conner flopping around in the bathtub.
He stepped around his dad's head and narrowed his eyes at a messy stack of photocopies, thick, toner-gray lines down the middle of the pages. It stood out against all the photographs on the floor, and Conner glanced left and right, making sure Clark and Lex were still asleep, and picked up the pages, settling down on the rug, back to the bookshelf.
The words were too big for him, and even if he could sound them out, Conner couldn't figure out what they meant, even from context--partially because he didn't understand the words that were context, either. There were lots of footnotes and some unreadable handwriting scrawls on the edges of the pages, which sometimes had dark black strips or parts that were white, unphotocopied. Conner narrowed his eyes and flipped through the pages until he saw names and pictures he could understand: Lionel Luthor, a foggy picture of translucent circles, confusing pictures that looked like things out of Conner's science book.
He took a deep breath, and started to string together the words he could:
Commissioned? Not sure. Ordered the initial--initial?--research to be initiated covertly. Early experimental results were not promising, but fourth attempt embryos--embryos, eggs, Conner thought to himself, eggs that babies came from--were significantly more stable and survived longer than first round.
There was a slow, sick feeling in his stomach, and Conner looked over at Clark, who was mumbling in his sleep and drooling into Lex's million-dollar rug. Clark was Conner's mom, Conner thought dully, but that didn't really make sense, did it? Clark wasn't a girl, and Sister Hyacinth had explained very clearly in the third grade that boys did not have babies, and that Danny Tompkins should stop crying, because nothing was going to come out of his bottom unless he wanted it to, no matter what his older brother said. So Clark didn't have Conner.
Conner turned the page and his eyes got wide and scared:
The picture was gray and black and kind of white, but it was scary, like a tiny lizard with see-through skin, darker veins coursing through it. Conner had seen fetuses before, on the Discovery Channel, but this one didn't look normal, its eyes were too big and looked blotted, like dark marker had bled into white cloth, and there was something wrong with the curve, the spine wasn't smooth. There was a hand-drawn "X" in the corner of the page, and Conner turned it, feeling sick.
And there were dozens of pages of that, lots and lots of different babies--where they babies? Conner didn't think they looked like babies, they looked like monsters, mistakes--and his eyes kept getting bigger and bigger, but the "X"s had notes next to them, with arrows toward parts on the mistakes with notes next to them. "Improved spinal development, genomic cohesion," and "visual sectors developed correctly, aural functioning?" but still "X," still wrong.
There were graphs and charts, but Conner kept seeing the same name, never in type, but in handwriting, "Lionel Luthor" and "Gilead Labs," but all the time, Conner still saw "X," like a warning. X X X X.
He flipped to the end, because Conner was the type of kid who did that type of thing, ruined the endings of stories because he hated waiting. And when he got there he saw more pages with words he didn't understand, but sentences that jumped out at him:
"...Efforts were discovered during Phase III implementation and thirty-four viable samples destroyed."
"Ashley Mouber already implanted SD-87KX and carried to term under heavy observation."
"SD-87KX remains viable."
So, Conner thought strangely, not an X. Viable.
His hands were shaking and he didn't understand. He thought he remembered the name Lionel Luthor, Conner thought that was his grandfather, but his dad never called Lionel Luthor that, never said, "your grandfather," always said, "my father," like he didn't want Conner and Lionel to be connected to one another. Maybe this was why, Conner thought distantly, maybe it was because there were lots of Xs that had to mean something and Lionel's name all around them, written into margins of pages from Gilead Labs, which Conner had visited a thousand times, and Ashley Mouber, who probably had pretty dark hair and sat on the mantle--Ashley who was sort of Conner's mother, who "implanted SD-87KX."
Conner was looking at a chart of his fetal readings when he heard his father saying, "Stop reading, Conner, stop reading," and pulling the pages out of his hands.
He let go, and threw himself into his father's chest; he breathed in his father's cologne and the smell of his expensive shirt and told himself that he had a number--that he had a name.
"Shhh--shhh--it's fine, Conner, it'll be fine."
"Who," Conner gasped, "who were the Xs."
His father's hands came around Conner, and stroked his hair, murmuring softly and saying over and over again, "They're not you, Conner. They're not you."
Conner spent most of the day crying and trying not to understand what he'd read.
Lex spent most of the day looking like he wanted to die and trying to explain what Conner had found.
Clark spent most of the day panicking and wringing his hands, telling Conner that he was loved and asking if he wanted pie, if there was anything he could do.
"I'm not an X," Conner mumbled tearfully, a cold towel over his eyes. He was laying on his dad's bed, because it was more comforting to be near his dad right then, just in case Lex decided that maybe Conner was an X, that one of the other versions of Conner out there was supposed to be his son.
His father stroked his hair. "Conner, you--of course you're not an X. You don't--you have to understand, this isn't something easy to understand. You're wanted, Conner."
"The other ones weren't," he argued, feeling another sob coming. He hated crying. This was stupid. He didn't even understand why he was crying. This was too stupid. Conner was here, right? He'd almost rappelled down the side of the building and his dad still kept him. He was being stupid, crying now. If he kept it up, maybe his dad really would change his mind, not want him anymore. He rubbed at his eyes. He didn't want to be an X.
"Conner, this isn't " Clark started. "You are wanted. We both want you, right, Lex?"
There was a long silence, and Conner thought he was going to throw up, but his father finally said quietly, "I wanted all of you."
It took a while before Conner figured out what that actually meant, but when he did, he pulled the towel off of his face and looked at his dad through his swollen eyes, to find his father looking sad and lost.
"I--when I found out about them, when I found out about you, I wanted all of them," Lex murmured. "I wanted the very first ones and I wanted the very last ones and I wanted you so much I couldn't breathe."
"I found these tapes, Conner," his dad went on. "Videos of lab procedures and things like that, and I saw these stem cells, cells that can turn into anything, under a microscope."
His father leaned over and cupped Conner's face in his hands, thumbs smoothing away the last stray tears that were on his face, and making Conner feel shy again, shy and shaken and scared, still, because there had been thirty-four samples destroyed, and he'd seen enough SciFi movies to know what that meant, to know that he'd only been lucky.
"I saw your heart beat, Conner," Lex whispered, eyes bright and darker than Conner ever remembered seeing. "I watched the stem cells beating, and I realized that I was watching your heart beating, the very first time your heart beat, and I couldn't look away. I couldn't breathe. I wanted to rush into the next room and pick you up and hold you tight, even though you werent even fully formed. I watched the tape for hours."
Clark was staring at Lex now, too, and Conner nodded slowly.
"You are the best thing that's ever happened to me," Lex murmured. "And you were wanted, so much so that I--" his father's voice faltered at this, broke and sounded rubbed-raw "--have done things that I am not proud of, to keep you. I'd do anything to keep you." He stared at Conner hard. "Do you understand that? You will never be an X. You never were an X. None of them were Xs--not to me. Least of all you."
Conner said, "Okay."
And Clark said hoarsely, "Lex."
And Lex said, "Let's order pizza."
So they did, and they let Conner pick which episode of Full Metal Alchemist to watch. Five minutes into episode one, Clark said that he couldn't believe Lex let Conner watch this, and Conner watched his mom and dad get into a low-toned fight about who was a better parent.
It was going to be okay, Conner told himself. He'd figure the rest out later.
The Metropolis Museum of Art had a Luthor wing, but it was filled with ugly Baroque things that Conner's dad had nothing to do with. Conner's favorite part of the museum was the wall of Chagall, with goats playing the violin in dark skies, and paint smeared on the cloth like Chagall had done it with his fingers.
It was a Wednesday and the air was still cold, late-January crisp, and the trees around them were naked, with spidery branches reaching up to the sky. Conner was wearing a Superman toboggan that made his dad turn green and mutter about gross irony and glare at his mom and Geoffrey was nearly vibrating out of his skin, babbling about how cool the architecture exhibit was, and how he was going to show Conner all of the buildings around the city one day, and what their lines and angles meant. Conner didn't really care, but it made Geoffrey happy, and Conner was realizing he liked Geoffrey more than he liked anybody, so it was okay.
St. Ann's fourth grade class was small to begin with, and broken up into four groups left Conner, Geoffrey, Julie Meyers and Garrison together with a lady who told them that she was a docent, whatever that meant.
"Come on, come on," Geoffrey rushed.
"We're here all day," Conner reminded him. "The place isn't burning down."
Geoffrey rounded on Conner, glaring.
"Conner," he said seriously, "every time you get some stupid idea, I always play your sidekick. I've eaten paper for you, I've stolen golf carts for you, and then there was that time I had to pretend to be wildly in love with one of the nuns for you." He narrowed his blue eyes. "You are going to be excited about coming to the museum if I have to beat it into you, are we clear?"
Conner blinked. "Crystal."
Geoffrey's face melted back into its customary, mellow grin. "Good."
Still, it left Conner a little bit unnerved. After all, who was whose minion here, anyway? He opened his mouth to ask, but Geoffrey let out a high-pitched sound that made him sound exactly like a little girl, grabbed Conner's hand, and started dragging him into the gothic architecture room, squealing the whole time.
According to Conner's dad, the Metropolis Museum of Art had started as the house of a very wealthy man in West Eden. When he'd died, his family had endowed the house as well as all of his collections to the city, and over the years, addition upon addition had been built onto it, so the front body of the museum looked like an old brick cathedral, with brown stones melting into slick metal and glass. It was weird but interesting--then again, most things in Conner's life were.
"They're parts of churches," Conner said, staring at a wooden panel with some truly unfortunate-looking women painted on it. They were all wearing wimples, like the nuns.
"They were part of wall paneling in a church from hundreds of years ago," Geoffrey said in a hush. "Part architecture, part art. It's like history, too, you know. You like history."
"So they're old parts of churches," Conner muttered, and then he caught Geoffrey's deadly expression and hastily added, "And wow, they're totally awesome parts of old churches. Way cool. I especially like the girls in the dresses with the stuff on their heads."
Geoffrey rolled his eyes. "Yeah."
"I love houses," Conner added, because he couldn't resist. "The older the better."
"You can shut up now," Geoffrey hissed, but he looked like he was going to laugh.
"I especially love it when they're like, rotting and stuff."
"Next time the nuns look away," Geoffrey threatened, "I'm punching you. Right in the nose."
Conner complained, but more because it was funny to watch Geoffrey get all puffy and red than anything else. Geoffrey almost never got upset about anything, which was probably the only reason that they were friends, because Conner got upset about everything. Conner's dad had once said that if it weren't for Geoffrey, Conner would have probably caused himself to explode years ago.
So he pretended to complain and grinned when Geoffrey punched him on the arm, because it was a good day, and Geoffrey was having fun, which was good, considering how much trouble Conner got the two of them into on any given day. It only seemed fair.
In the middle of Geoffrey explaining what buttresses were--"I swear to God, Conner, if you laugh, you will regret it for life."--Conner felt a sudden, distinct wave of nausea. It started with a sharp pain between his eyes and trickled down his arms and into his fingertips, and his head started to ache with a dull throb. It was enough to make him stop making dumb comments about dumb-looking buildings and be silent as their group moved from the architectural exhibits to a room full of sculptures.
"Hey," Geoffrey whispered, voice low as the docent talked about Rodin. "Are you okay?"
Conner kept rubbing his eyes, which hurt, too, and were starting to blur. Was he crying? He couldn't really tell. He really needed to throw up, but he felt like if he tried to go to the bathroom he would fall down. The class started to move out of the exhibit just as Conner saw some shadows moving into the Rodin room--the bigger they got, the more his head hurt.
"I feel really sick," he mumbled, and leaned into Geoffrey's shoulder. "I'm gonna puke."
Geoffrey's eyes got huge, and before he could yell for the teachers Conner felt his legs give out.
When Conner woke up, he could hear Geoffrey's heartbeat.
His head hurt and his chest hurt and he curled his fingers tight into the familiar wool of Geoffrey's uniform sweater and felt everything shift a little. He tried to open his mouth and say something, but he felt Geoffrey's hand slap over his mouth, and Conner forced open his feverish eyes and stared up at his friend, confused.
It took a minute for the picture to clear up--he was so sick, he was so sick, he'd never been sick before but he was definitely sick this time, sick and dying--but when he saw Geoffrey it only made him even more scared.
Don't talk, Geoffrey mouthed, and his eyes were huge and blue on his white face.
Conner tried to turn his head, and saw out of the corner of his eyes that they were behind one of the bigger statues, pulled tight into a corner. Geoffrey had curled himself around Conner, somehow, and they were both on the ground, knees bumping and elbows smushed, crushed together. Geoffrey was breathing shallowly, like Conner, and Conner wondered if Geoffrey felt sick, too.
What's going on? Conner mouthed, wincing at the overhead lights.
There was a lot of noise in the background, shouting and shoving and everything seemed magnified, like the whole world was under a high-power lens and all of it was coming through Conner's aching head at one hundred miles per hour. Geoffrey seemed to speed up and slow down and so did the heartbeats Conner heard and it was strange and terrible.
Geoffrey just shook his head, mouth in a tight line. Just be quiet, he begged, and his heart raced inside of his chest.
The lights were going to blind him, Conner thought darkly, moaning a little bit before Geoffrey pressed his hand to Conner's mouth again, a pleading expression on his face. Please, please, please, Geoffrey mouthed, frantic, scared, and there were tears in his eyes--he was shaking.
And it made Conner want to cry, too. He just closed his eyes and tried to breath slowly, turning his face into Geoffrey's chest, trying to get the light out of his eyes and when that didn't work, when he fell into blind panic, a sunburst of pain went through his head before he heard the echoing shattering of glass--reverberating through the room, and then a clatter of glass on ground, a few pieces falling on his back, and Geoffrey's hiss.
"What the fuck was that?" somebody shouted. "Jesus Christ!"
"That wasn't in the fucking plan," somebody else yelled.
The shouting and shoving was back, and Conner blinked his eyes open long enough to see Geoffrey's scared face, his mouth shaping the words, Robbers--I think they're taking the sculptures. I don't think they know we're here.
Conner tightened his grip on Geoffrey's sweater. This was all wrong.
I can get us out, Conner said back seriously, but Geoffrey shook his head angrily, eyes narrowing, and he tightened his hand where it was on the back of Conner's neck. Conner saw out of the corner of his eye that the flat back of Geoffrey's hand was cut, and blood was dark and red and running down Geoffrey's long, long fingers.
I can get us out! he mouthed again, hoping that it looked like yelling, trying to shove away from Geoffrey, panicking now. Geoffrey was bleeding. They had to get out of there--they had to get out of there.
And when he tried to move his entire body revolted against him, screaming in pain and the sounds screamed out of control, making Conner think for one terrible, endless second that his head was going to explode it was so loud. It sounded like car accidents and the day that the green monster outside the window had almost killed his father, the loud thunderstorms that sent Conner crawling into his father's study, the sound of the train, that time he saw an accident on the news during noon--all of it multiplied together. By the time it was fading to a ringing in his ears, he realized that Geoffrey was gasping for breath and shaking harder now, pulling Conner closer to him, deeper into the corner, shoved against the base of the statue.
Close enough, Conner realized, so that Geoffrey was whispering into his ear, barely loud enough to be heard, still, "They came into the room when you were falling down and everybody started screaming. I got you back here and I don't think they saw us. Just stop it, please please please don't say anything, please please don't do anything stupid."
I'm strong, Conner wanted to argue. He was too strong, he was too fast, he should be able to get them out of here, he'd done it before, dragged things with him. He'd be careful, keep his hold on Geoffrey's arm light, and they could be out one of the doors on the sides in a few seconds, maybe less. Conner never knew how fast he'd really moved all those times.
But Geoffrey's hand was hot and worried and shaking on his neck and Conner still felt like all of his insides were trying to escape, and even if the overhead lights were out, he could still see flashes of sickening green through his eyelids, like radiation or death. So he just nodded as silently as he could and heard Geoffrey say, "God. Why aren't the police here yet."
Hot tears started squeezing themselves from beneath Conner's lashes; all those stupid freak abilities he'd learned to make go away until now, when he really needed them, and they abandoned him. If he and Geoffrey died here, he was going to be so pissed.
"Your laser's not working," somebody in the room hissed. "That green shit is supposed to cut through anything! Why isn't it working?"
"Forty-six seconds, guys," somebody shouted.
"It's science in progress," a voice snapped back. "You rushed the job--you get the crowbar."
There was a brief, blessedly silent moment before somebody shrieked, "A crowbar? This shit isn't like taped to the fucking ground! What the fuck were you thinking?"
And then the sounds of shoving got louder, until there was a shout, an indistinct, curse, and a clatter.
Conner was only conscious long enough to feel his eyes grow round as he saw for one clear, horrifying moment a piece of fine, glowing green stone.
Later, Conner would claim to remember Geoffrey screaming as the men found them, and how a shaking hand leveled the barrel of a gun at them, but none of these were true. Conner didn't even remember what it was like when the wall of the art museum was ripped away and Superman burst into the room, frozen, and then grabbed Conner and Geoffrey, carried them down to safety.
There were forty-six lost seconds somewhere in there, and Conner didn't want them back. He'd seen enough broken glass and blood when he was much, much younger, and the memory of Geoffrey's racing heart, thudding and scared beneath Conner's cheek, would play out sometimes when he wasn't paying attention, when all of it roared back, turned green, faded to black.
What he knew, though, and knew perfectly, was that he was awake by the time Superman slammed into the Metropolis sidewalk, making a crater but shielding Conner and Geoffrey with his strong arms. What he knew was that Geoffrey had scrambled away and was pulled through the crowd to Mr. Archer--Conner remembered watching gold hair disappear into the arms in a dark grey suit. What he knew was the feel of his father's arms, coming around him and his dad's desperate pleading gratitude as he was crushed against his father's chest, Superman still collapsed in a protective defense around them.
"You're safe," his father chanted. "You're safe now."
Conner managed to stay upright long enough to see that Superman was crying, the same angry, scared tears that were on Lex's face, and that when Conner stared straight into Superman's ash-streaked face, that he saw green, green eyes that he remembered from all the time he and his father and his mother were learning to be a family.
"I'm safe. I'm okay," he promised, leaning into his father. "I'm okay."
Someone was saying "thank you, thank you, thank you, God," over and over and over again, and Conner couldn't distinguish if it was one voice or two--and he realized, feeling his chest loosen beneath the Metropolis sun, that it didn't matter.
"Do chickens really crap eggs?"
Clark shot a dirty glance over at Lex, whose eyes were intent on the road--even if his mouth twitched a little.
"Conner," Clark said warningly. "Language."
Conner rolled his eyes with exaggerated patience. "Excuse me, what I meant to say was do chickens really defecate eggs?"
Whenever Conner asked questions about the natural world--"Hey, Clark, Dad says that in Smallville there's grass just growing. He's kidding, right?"--Clark got a desperate kind of expression on his face that meant he thought the city was going to turn Conner into a retard. Frankly, if chickens really crapped eggs, Conner didn't care if he was a retard, because at least he didn't crap eggs.
"It's not exactly defecating," Clark said defensively. They drove past a WELCOME TO SMALLVILLE: METEOR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD sign.
"That sign used to say 'creamed corn capital of the world,'" Lex said suddenly, taking a left, turning the sleek, silver car onto a smaller road, flanked by green, waving fields of corn on either side.
Clark sighed. "Lex, slow down, you're coming up to the bridge."
Conner could swear that his dad hit the gas pedal harder, but he managed to suppress his grin before his mom's scowl reflected into the rear-view mirror.
"I've never had creamed corn," Conner supplied.
"Well, we have to fix that," his mom said, scowl melting away. "Hey, if we live through this drive, I'm sure Grandma will let you have some."
Conner smothered a laugh into his hand, and looked out the window. Smallville looked completely different than Metropolis, different than Conner remembered it the last time he'd visited. But then again, he'd been three then, and seven years had passed in the meantime, and the green corn and cows looked quiet and calm and very agricultural to his city-boy sensibilities.
"Okay," his dad said, glaring, "I would like to state for the record that since leaving Smallville I have had one--count them, one--vehicular incident."
"'Vehicular incident,' he says," Clark muttered, fussing with his glasses. "'Forced off the road and into the lobby of the Japanese Embassy' says the rest of the world."
Then, Conner's parents started to bicker about the relative semantics of 'forced off the road' and 'momentarily derailed' so Conner let himself stop paying attention. There wasn't any music playing, mostly because Conner's mom and dad liked to hear every word they muttered at each other when they were pretending to fight, and the silence let Conner think.
Since the art museum, things sometimes still pulled themselves into too-tight focus, but the three hours he'd spend vomiting in the hospital afterward seemed to have purged him of his speed and strength, and on his tenth birthday, Conner had tried to move a bookshelf and sprained his wrist from the effort. He spent his time in the emergency room being elated, telling everybody about how it'd happened; Mrs. Banner had spent the same time looking as if she was about to expire from sheer embarrassment.
On the other hand, he thought ruefully, apparently his brain was a registered weapon.
Conner had been on his third Xbox by the time his father had figured out that they weren't just defective--but that losing games and Conner losing his temper seemed to have a direct correlation with the core temperature of the equipment.
"Is this what you were talking about when you said you could control stuff with your mind?" Lex had demanded, holding out the melted interior of the Xbox.
"That is so cool," was all Conner had been able to come up with, which only made Lex sigh in disgust and mutter about why him, what had he ever done to the universe.
"Of course I couldn't just have a son," Lex had complained. "Of course I have a half-alien preteen who can set me on fire with his mind."
It was weirdly inconvenient to lose one set of powers and start feeling out a different one, Conner admitted, especially since somebody could help him figure out what to do about the speed and the strength now. He and Superman had made their separate peace, and even though Superman had saved him, Conner was still a little leery of him. Superman seemed a little bit too perfect, a little plastic, not at all like Clark, who sometimes wore mismatching socks and obviously had a crush on Conner's dad, which was cute when it wasn't totally gross.
The upside was that Conner had a cell phone now, and he didn't have to worry about breaking anybody's skull playing kickball with the other kids at school. He did, on the other hand, have to worry about Sister Hyacinth giving him really weird lectures about the wicked vice of the Greeks. He'd ask his dad about that one later. After Smallville.
About two months ago, Conner had asked if he had any grandparents.
His mom had looked at his dad, his dad had looked at the floor, and then there'd been a lot of closed-door meetings late at night that involved hushed shouting and concern that was written all over his parents' faces the next morning.
"Well, you do have grandparents," Lex had admitted, sipping his coffee.
So further negotiations were held, Conner watched Clark make what looked like a totally excruciating phone call, and three weeks later, here they were, on Wood Shingle Lane, the BMW whispering along the dirt driveway of a yellow house.
Conner fought sudden nausea. He looked for any signs of Kryptonite out of sheer paranoia. Since he'd discovered his 'allergy,' he spent most of his time plotting how to avoid it for the rest of his natural life. He never wanted to feel like that again.
It wasn't working out so well. Maybe he was allergic to crapping chickens.
"So," he said nervously.
His father smiled supportively into the rear view mirror. "Performance anxiety?" he asked.
"Lex, don't be a jerk," Clark muttered, and turned around to Conner, saying, "Don't worry about a thing. They'll love you."
"What if they don't?" Conner squeaked. He was kind of a loser, he knew this, he just didn't want his grandmother and grandfather finding out about it on their first meeting. He was hoping to ease them into the idea.
Clark smirked, and cast a sidelong expression at Conner's dad, replying, "Then we'll let your father deal with them, all right?" It made Lex's eyebrows quirk in pleased surprise--which lasted all of about twelve seconds before Clark added, "Come on. We're all going in together."
Lex turned white. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"My parents aren't going to do anything in front of Conner, Lex," Clark said reassuringly, a big, brassy smile on his face as he got out of the car. Conner stepped out as well--onto dirt. It was totally bizarre. It wasn't even construction dirt. He hopped around on it a few times, just for the sheer novelty of it.
"It wouldn't have to be in front of him," Lex argued. "Your father still has his shotgun and I see that there is still a barn. Much could be done outside of Conner's line of sight."
Clark rolled his eyes and bullied Lex out of the car, and subtly, like he didn't want Conner to notice, his hand slid from Lex's elbow to his hand, and Clark linked their fingers together.
"Come on," Clark said quietly. "It'll be fine."
Conner watched his dad frozen in indecision before he said what was clearly a fifty-dollar word. When Lex reached out his other hand, Conner took it, even though he was ten already, and they walked up the creaking wooden steps to the creaking wooden porch and knocked on the creaking wooden door.
Conner let himself exhale, and felt a grin pulling his lips up at the corners.
His mom was right: it was going to be fine.
"No, seriously," Conner asked, seeing the faded brass knob begin to turn, "do chickens crap out eggs or what?"