What in the hell did she think she was doing?
Lex’s leather Hugo Boss duster plastered itself tightly around his body as he climbed the last flight of metal stairs to the unfinished top floor of his father's latest edifice. He held onto the rail for a moment as a strong gust of wind suggestively tried to push him toward the edge. Once the wind died, he stepped forward and immediately spotted the figure he’d been tracking. She was backing toward him, her gaze never leaving what would eventually be the center of the penthouse.
"Chloe?" He repeated her name louder when he realized the wind had blown his voice over the ledge. He was curious about her agitated state since he'd only been two or three minutes behind her and knew that no one was in the building. "Chloe, what are you doing here?"
She spun to face him, mascara running down her cheeks. "Lex?" she asked in surprised confusion. She stumbled toward him like she had forgotten how to make her limbs work.
Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight as she clutched his coat and sobbed against his silk shirt.
"I thought...I thought...I was so mad...always second...never first...I didn't mean anything. I swear I didn't." She pulled back and looked into Lex's face, her eyes begging for forgiveness.
Her desperate voice made it easy to grant absolution for whatever imagined sin she might have committed. "I know you didn't."
"He wanted me to spy on Clark." Her throat convulsed several times as she tried to pull herself together. "I pretended to go along, but only so I could figure out why he wanted the information."
"Lionel," Lex said knowingly.
"I thought I could handle him."
He shook his head and squeezed her gently, marveling at the naiveté of youth.
"I didn't think...I didn't think..."
"Didn't think what?"
"I didn't think he'd try to kill me."
"What?" Icy horror ran down his spine. "What do you mean?" He held her out at arm's length. "Chloe?"
Sobbing as if something within her had broken, she pointed to a wooden crate sitting several feet away. Lex separated himself from her and moved cautiously toward the box.
"No time. No time." Chloe wrapped her arms around her chest and began rocking back and forth.
The LCD read thirty-six seconds.
"Run!" he yelled, his voice raw with startled fear.
She shrugged her shoulders at him, conveying her helplessness. "No time."
Lex grabbed her by the wrist and raced toward the stairwell.
"We'll never make it." Yet despite her prediction, she managed to keep pace with him.
Lex lunged down the stairs, dragging Chloe in his wake; knowing they'd never reach the bottom before the bomb went off, but unwilling to accept the inevitable.
The explosion rocked the building, causing it to jerk sharply in the wind. Lex circled his right arm around Chloe's waist and hauled her to his side before grabbing the railing and continuing their descent.
Something above them cracked and rumbled, and Lex knew the penthouse was starting to collapse.
His heart pounded loudly in his ears as he pushed them faster. "Just a little bit further."
"We're still ten floors up."
"Stairwell," he shouted, without further explanation. The first eight floors were enclosed with brick and mortar. If they could reach the finished portion of the building, they might be able to find a pocket of safety.
The metal frame jolted and buckled, but Lex dug deep within himself to find just a little more speed and strength, never loosening his grip on the teenager. The air around them screamed as the stairs began to wrench away from the main building. With a heavy thud, they jumped onto the last landing above the permanent structure.
Lex heard a whistling noise and looked up in time to see several metal beams diving toward their position. Without thought, he threw Chloe down the stairs and into the encased stairwell a heartbeat before his world went red in pain.
"Mr. Luthor? Can you hear me? Mr. Luthor? Can you squeeze my hand again? Mr. Luthor?"
He was tempted to open his eyes, just to find out where in the hell Luthor was so he could shake the bastard awake, for it was obvious the speaker wasn't going to shut up until she got some sort of response.
"That's right, Mr. Luthor. Can you open your eyes for me? Come on. Give it a try. The nurses have a pool going as to what color they are."
That implied a hospital. Why in the hell was he in a hospital?
He struggled to open his eyes so he could demand a few explanations of his own, but his eyelids felt like they had been weighted by lead. Eyes weren't supposed to be heavy, were they?
"You can do it. Come on."
He opened his eyes, only to slam them shut, the world being too bright.
"Trudy, turn off the light, please." He started as a gentle hand cupped his face. "I'm sorry about that, Mr. Luthor. Let's give it another try, shall we?"
Luthor? His name was Luthor? They were talking to him?
This wasn't good.
Lex leaned back in his wheelchair and tried to soak up as much of the sun's warmth as he could. No matter how much he complained about his room's temperature, the air conditioning was always set on meat locker. The only time he ever felt warm was when he was outside. It was also the only time he ever found any semblance of peace. He didn't know why he thought the rehabilitation clinic would be any different than the hospital, but he had hoped that he’d be granted a little more privacy.
It seemed like there were always people in his room: doctors, nurses, technicians, physical therapists and countless other staff members. In addition, he had a lot of acquaintances stopping by to say hello as well. A part of him wanted to believe he really had that many friends, but there was something in a majority of his visitors' eyes that belied that fantasy. Mostly, they seemed to be trying to assure themselves of his incapacity.
The devil with long hair--Dad, he forced himself to acknowledge--liked to make grand sweeping entrances which sent most of the hospital staff running for cover. Lex wished he had the same option. There was something malevolent about the man, something that just made his skin crawl. His father had a habit of saying one thing aloud, while implying or alluding to something else entirely. Lex knew he was missing whole levels of contextual meaning in their conversations.
His father seemed to believe that Lex's inability to remember was an act of rebellion designed solely to drive him to distraction. When they were alone, Lionel--it was easier to think of him in that term--hissed that this game wasn't going to work, that he had covered all his bases and there was nothing Lex or that little girl could do to him, so he might as well stop fooling around. Besides, who in the hell did Lex think he was he to play such a game, after giving him such grief about pretending to be blind?
Lionel had pretended to be blind? Lex wondered what kind of sick bastard his father really was.
A blonde girl named Chloe had visited him a couple of times after he’d regained consciousness. She cried more than she actually talked, but she had thanked him a couple--hundred--times for saving her. The first time she visited she had casts on her right leg and left arm. As far as rescues went, he apparently sucked at them.
Chloe had reassured him, repeatedly, that she was safe, that she had a way to insure that he wouldn't try to hurt her again, that she had copies with people and in places that he'd never even think about looking. He always nodded, which appeared to make her feel better. Lex was fairly certain that Chloe was the little girl his father was talking about, although he had no idea what either of them were trying to tell him.
Gabe Sullivan, Chloe's father, swore to take care of the plant until Lex was back on his feet, figuratively, as no one seemed to believe he'd ever walk again. Gabe vowed fidelity to Lex for saving his daughter. His intensity scared Lex a bit, but Gabe's loyalty made Lex think that he might have been a good man before the accident; that thought gave him a lot of peace, especially after one of Lionel's visits.
Every Friday afternoon Gabe would stop by the rehabilitation clinic and report on the happenings at the plant. Lex always tried to pay attention and nodded when he thought he should, although it was harder to determine the right time with Gabe than it was with Chloe. Every once in a while, a term like profit margins would open up a wealth of information in his head, and he knew exactly what Gabe was talking about. However, such discoveries also saddened him immensely because they made him realize how much he'd forgotten.
The nurses tried to console him by saying he should be grateful that he could think at all, that by all rights he should be brain dead. Lex didn't find that thought very reassuring, despite their thinking he was a living miracle.
Sometimes a dark haired, pretty girl would come to talk with him. She was fairly quiet and never stayed long. She liked to talk about a place called the Talon.
People claiming to be business associates stopped by, too. They were almost always loud and obnoxious, talking about times he couldn't remember and painting a picture of him he didn't want to believe. After a while, he asked the staff to limit their visits.
The one visitor Lex enjoyed the most was a redheaded woman named Martha. Martha snuck him cookies, brought him books and read to him when he was tired. He thought he could probably listen to her talk all day as she had a very nice voice.
Martha talked a lot about her son Clark. It took him a while, but Lex finally realized that he and Clark had been friends, seemingly best friends. She told Lex that a lot of people hadn't understood their friendship--for what could the son of a billionaire and a farmer possibly have in common--but that neither of them had cared what others thought and had simply enjoyed each other's company. When he was tired and feeling lonely, she'd tell him about several of his adventures with Clark and how they used to look out for each other. Martha was sure that Clark would visit as soon as he learned about Lex's situation.
In fact, he noticed that a lot of people talked about Clark. They kept assuring him that Clark would come once he found out that Lex had been injured, although Lex was beginning to doubt them. He'd been hurt almost a year ago and he found it hard to believe that Clark hadn't heard anything about his injury during that time.
Lex opened his eyes and looked around. His candy striper had wandered off again. He guessed she was trying to sneak another peek at his physical therapist, on whom she had a horrible crush.
Scratching his chest lightly, he took in his surroundings and grinned. He was alone, and better yet, he was feeling adventurous. It was time to explore the rest of the grounds. Unsetting the brake, he quickly rolled himself down the sidewalk until he was around the bend in the path. Once out of sight of the main building, he slowed down and contented himself with enjoying the day.
After several minutes, his arms began to grow tired, and he thought about taking a breather, but he saw a small pond in the distance. Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself until he was sitting by the shore, then reset the brake.
He crossed his arms over his chest and used his hands to rub the muscles in the opposite arms. Lex smiled to himself, enjoying the peace and quiet for several minutes, reveling in the scents and sounds that reminded him what it meant to be alive and free as opposed to being locked in a sterile environment. He yawned, surprised by how tired he was. Plotting escapes was more exhausting than he had expected.
He fell asleep wondering what he and Clark might have done on such a beautiful day.
"Please," Lex rasped, forcing the word past his cracked lips. He tried to use his elbow to straighten himself in the chair, but found he didn't have any strength in his back to maintain the position for more than a couple of seconds. He wondered, with some amusement, what his captors' reactions would be if he asked them to tie him to the back of the chair.
"Please what?" a voice taunted from the darkness.
"Water," he whispered. "May I...water, please."
"You'll get water as soon as you tell us what we want to know."
Lex ground his teeth together to prevent the frustrated scream growing within his throat from escaping.
For the thousandth time he wondered how he'd ended up in this place. His last memory had been falling asleep by the pond, warm and content. When he’d first became aware of his current surroundings, he prayed he was still caught in one of his all too-frequent nightmares and that his day nurse would wake him up soon. But as time passed, he realized the nightmare was real.
He had awoken with his wrists and ankles strapped to a sturdy wooden chair in the middle of a large dark room. A single light bulb dangled overhead. He had no sense of whether it was day or night or even of how much time had passed.
The intellectual part of his brain, that came out of hiding every once in a while, informed him that he was probably hallucinating due to lack of food, water and sleep. Hallucinations or not, the pain he felt was real, as were the hands that seemed to come out of nowhere to slap or punch him. After a while, he decided it was his intellect that was the hallucination. His snort of amusement upon making that decision had gotten his lip bloodied.
There were three captors. One was brutal and stupid, lacking finesse in his questions. Lex mentally called him ‘The Ape.’ The Ape enjoyed inflicting pain, and didn't seem to particularly care whether Lex knew the answers or not.
The second captor was kinder, but only in comparison to the first. He spoke softly and seemed to be genuinely trying to figure out just what Lex did and didn't remember. He often asked non sequitur questions about history and science, some of which Lex could answer and some he couldn't. Freud, as Lex called him, seemed to be trying to get an idea of how much knowledge and memory Lex had lost. He never physically harmed Lex, but in many ways Freud was worse than The Ape. Freud taunted Lex with his past, taking gleeful pleasure in revealing all of Lex's past failures and humiliations.
Lex struggled not to believe him, tried to convince himself that Freud was lying. After all, he was only twenty-three years old. No one could possibly have done all the things of which Freud accused him; there simply weren't enough hours in the day.
The taunts, however, had a ring of truth to them, which weighed heavily on Lex. If Freud was telling the truth, or even some version of it, it would certainly explain the looks people had given him when they had visited the rehabilitation center. It would also explain a majority of their sly tones and off-handed comments. Lex felt the shroud of his past sins weigh heavily upon his shoulders.
The third person never spoke. Lex's tormentors apparently reported to this faceless figure, although he never spoke directly to Lex or in a voice loud enough for Lex to hear. He knew this was the man responsible for his suffering and for that reason Lex feared him the most.
"What's the code for your LexCorp account with Chase Manhattan?" Freud asked softly from the shadows.
Lex closed his eyes. "I don't know."
"How much money do you have in the account?"
Lex whispered harshly, "I'd tell you if I could remember."
"For a glass of water, yes."
Freud's laugh was harsh and devoid of any amusement.
"Enough," a new voice from the darkness commanded crisply. "This isn't getting us anywhere."
Lex released a shuddering breath, knowing things were going to get very bad, very quickly, if the third man finally decided to make his presence known. "Why are you doing this?" Lex asked, trying for bravado.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen," the leader taunted, amusement lacing his light voice.
"Do I know you?" Lex lifted his head, despite the pain.
"Know? Not really. However, you always thought you did."
"I hurt you," Lex said apologetically.
"You hurt everyone you touch," the voice snapped, refusing to acknowledge the penitence.
Lex knew that a more direct apology at this point would only serve to get him beaten, so he remained silent.
"Poor little rich boy. Poor little mutant freak. Unable to bear your own pain so you inflict it on everyone around you."
"Yes," the voice taunted back. "How many people have you gotten dismissed from their jobs because they weren't deferential enough to you? How many people did you lead astray with your wild ways? The Pied Piper of the Metropolis rave scene. Want to party? Want to get high? Want to thumb your nose at authority? Be Lex Luthor's pal because his daddy can get him out of any charge; failing to mention, of course, that daddy only protects Lex."
Lex tried to focus on the moving figure in the shadows, but couldn't make out any of his features. "What did I do to you to warrant such treatment?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know, not sure if he could bear the shame and guilt.
"What didn't you do?" The voice laughed harshly. "I've worked hard for your father over the years. Slaved for him. Compromised my values and ethics for him. Wanting nothing more than a pat on the head, a good job, an acknowledgment of what I had accomplished in his name. But no matter how hard I worked, he could never see me over you. Blood over water and all that tripe."
"Sounds like your problem should be with my father, not me."
"Your father is a great man."
"My father is Satan."
"You have no clue how much he's sacrificed for you, do you? You have no idea the extremes he's gone to in order to cover up your mistakes, despite your not caring a whit about him. But then again, you don't care for anyone, do you?"
"That's not true."
"Isn't it? What about Amanda? Jude? Amy? Nixon? Pamela? Phalen? Elizabeth? What about your wife?"
Lex's head snapped up. "My wife? I have a wife?"
"Had," the voice laughed harshly. "What kind of man turns his wife over to the authorities less than two weeks after being married?"
"I don't understand."
"Despite being in prison, she should consider herself lucky." The voice ignored his confusion. "After all, look what you did to Victoria and her father. The old boy had a heart attack and nearly died after you defiled his daughter and destroyed his company. Sir Harry has never been the same since crossing your path."
"Everything you touch turns to dust, Lex."
"That's not true."
"It is true," the voice shouted.
Lex shook his head, trying desperately to come up with something to counter the hateful words. "Gabe...Gabe said I saved the plant."
"You used the workers to launch yourself into the business world. They mortgaged their homes and went into debt for you. How many times has your father had to bail you out and take over operations just to get the plant back on its feet?"
"I don't know," Lex admitted.
"The plant has never been anything more than an expendable game piece in your ongoing chess match with your father. You play with people's livelihoods, Lex. You destroy everyone who trusts you."
"Chloe," Lex said, grasping at straws. "I saved Chloe. Everyone says so."
"Ah, yes, Ms. Sullivan. The young woman who betrayed your father, lied to him to get close. And not understanding the things she, quote, discovered, she threatened to go public, the feckless child. You may have finally met your equal in young Ms. Sullivan, Lex. Despite your heroics on her behalf, she'd sell you out in a heartbeat for a byline."
"Martha Kent? The woman whose medical records you stole?
"I wouldn't do that!"
"But you did, Lex. You taint everyone you touch."
Lex struggled with his memory. "Not Clark."
The voice laughed viciously. "Yes, even young Mr. Kent, who was so desperate to get away from you that he ran away from home and hasn't been heard from since."
"No. He'll come for me. Everyone says so."
"You're a pathetic idiot."
"Clark will come for me," Lex shouted, refusing to relinquish anyone else to his tormentors.
"You don't remember Clark. You wouldn't even recognize him if he were to step out of the shadows right this moment. Face it, Lex, you're all alone in the world. No one really cares about you. No one loves you. You should've had the good grace to die. All you're doing now is wasting oxygen."
A name bubbled up unexpectedly from the murky depths of his subconscious. "Fuck you, Dominic."
"What?" the voice gasped in surprise, seconds before Lex's world exploded in pain.
While surveying the stark white ceiling of his new surroundings, Lex decided that he was never going to close his eyes again. It seemed like every time he opened them things either got worse or more bizarre.
That thought had barely seeped into his brain when pain screamed through his body. He startled slightly when he realized his hands were fisting a blanket draped over his body, but couldn’t really process what that might mean. When the throbbing finally lessened to a dull ache, he lifted his head ever-so-slightly and blinked in confusion. He appeared to be lying on a small twin bed.
"You're awake," a deep voice said joyfully.
Lex turned his head and watched an old priest push himself out of a decrepit-looking rocking chair.
"Thomas, that doubter. Heh." The priest laughed at his own joke. "How do you feel, son?"
"Yes, I imagine you do. Dr. Wilson gave us quite a laundry list of your injuries."
"Where?" Lex asked, frustrated by the rawness of his throat.
As if sensing his problem, the priest picked up a glass and guided a straw to Lex's lips. "Easy now. Start small. The water's not going anywhere, so take your time."
Lex was positive he’d never tasted anything quite as exquisite as the cool liquid slipping down his throat. After taking several sips, he mouthed, "Thank you."
Lex took in the tiny, sparsely furnished room, which consisted of the bed, a dresser and the rocker. A crucifix adorned the opposing wall. "Where?" he tried again.
"You're at St. Agnes," the priest said softly. "In Gotham," he added, when Lex shook his head in confusion.
"Yes. I take it by your surprise that you're not from around here?"
Lex shook his head. "How?"
"I don't know how you got to Gotham, but you came to be at St. Agnes because Thomas found you lying in an alley. He thought you were dead. I must admit that was my initial impression as well. I've seen a lot of bruised and broken men in my time, but, child, I do believe you may have taken the cake."
Lex tried to chuckle, but closed his eyes as the pain in his back flared again.
"Ride it out, child. Ride it out." The priest patted his arm. "Should I call Dr. Wilson?"
Lex gritted his teeth and shook his head. Once the pain subsided, he opened his eyes and focused on the priest. "What's to become of me?"
"We're not going to throw you out on the street, child. You may stay here as long as you'd like."
Lex nodded, grateful beyond words.
"Is there someone we can call for you?"
Lex didn't even hesitate before shaking his head.
Face it, Lex, you're all alone in the world. No one really cares about you. No one loves you.
"Do you know your name, son?"
Names were amazing things really. Say Lex Luthor and before the end of the day he would be whisked to Metropolis, back into his life of luxury where everyone he knew either despised him or wished him dead. Say anything else and he could start fresh--as a pain-wracked cripple with no financial resources or prospects.
"Joseph," he whispered softly. "Joseph...Kent."
Lex stopped, popped onto the back two wheels of his wheelchair and turned to face the giant black man. "Jamal." A smile broke over his face and he raised a clenched fist and danced through a series of hand movements with the gang leader. "What's up?"
"The Sevens signed the treaty, man."
"Nope." Jamal handed him a sealed envelope. "You know everyone's calling you The Arbitrator now?"
Stunned, Lex grinned and took the envelope. "That's everyone, isn't it?"
"Everyone but the Richey Riches. And if they even think about coming downtown to start something, the UG will smack them down so hard that even their parents won't be able to afford their plastic surgery. Spoiled rich brats."
Lex tucked the envelope inside his winter jacket and adjusted his knit cap.
"Man, why won't you let the Commish shine the light on you for your props?"
Lex smiled at his friend. "It's not about props, Jamal. It's about making the streets safe for your grandmother. It's about not giving the Bat a reason to come down here to work through his issues. It's about collecting my ten from Father Mike, who was convinced the Sevens would never sign."
Jamal barked out with laughter. "That'll teach him to bet against you."
"Speaking of bets..."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll be delivering a pot of my Gran's jambalaya to the parsonage by three."
Lex's watch beeped. "Damn, I'm going to be late."
"Need a lift?"
"Naw. I'm practically home now."
"Stay frosty, JoJo."
"Back at ya, Jamal."
Lex spun his chair and pushed himself toward the corner, finding a rhythm on the wheels that would get him home in short order. He called out greetings to people he recognized on the streets, warmed by their smiles and gentle laughs as he zipped amongst the afternoon crowd.
He couldn't wait to see Father Mike's face when he told him about the Sevens signing the United Gangs treaty. With the last real holdout on board, the inner city could finally speak with one voice, could finally address the city powers and be acknowledged with respect instead of being reviled with loathing and fear. Accountability had given the gangs pride and a sense of worth, each gang wanting the best for its neighborhood and willing to work with the other gangs in unity to achieve it.
He briefly wondered what Lionel would think of his life now, almost a year after his kidnapping. Dirt poor, yet respected, he was happy beyond measure, knowing he was making a real difference in the lives of the people around him.
Father Mike constantly told him that he was a good man, and he hoped, on some level, he was. If Freud and Dominic had been telling the truth about his previous life, he doubted his current good works would be enough to balance out his karma, but he liked to think that, perhaps, Clark would be proud of the effort he was putting into his redemption.
Lex grabbed the gate pole and swung his chair into the church yard. He just wished he could remember who Clark was. He knew he was idealizing the boy based on the stories Martha had told him, but he found that working toward the goal of being respectable in Clark's eyes gave him the courage to persevere when the pain and loneliness became overwhelming. Besides, he wasn't hurting anyone and Clark would never know.
"Joseph, I swear you could vex a saint," Father Michael said with affectionate exasperation as Lex rolled into his office.
"Sorry, Father, but look what I have." Lex dug inside his jacket and tossed the envelope onto the desk, becoming peripherally aware of a stranger sitting quietly in one of the high backed visitor chairs.
"That's you owing me ten and the remote for a week," Lex crowed happily, while he removed his fingerless gloves.
The priest's hand hovered over the envelope as if afraid to touch it. "Saints be praised. The Sevens signed?"
"The Sevens signed."
"You, my boy, are a miracle worker. A miracle worker."
Lex shook his head, and said in the most serious voice he could muster, "You just underestimated my determination to watch Baywatch, Mike." When the priest started to stutter, Lex barked out with laughter.
"I swear, Joseph, one of these days I really am going to perform that exorcism I keep threatening you with."
Lex chortled with amusement, then turned to face the young man who was silently watching their interaction.
"You're going to give our guest the wrong impression of our parish."
The priest tried to release a put-upon sigh, but his grin ruined the effect. "Joseph, I'd like you to met Jerome. Jerome, here, has answered our prayers and our ad for a handyman."
Lex stretched out his hand in greeting. "Pleased to meet you."
Jerome, who couldn't be any older than twenty, paled. Lex started to withdraw his hand, but the boy jerked, then grabbed Lex's hand and shook it vigorously.
"Whoa, farm boy, you got quite a grip on you there."
His hand was immediately released. "Sorry."
Lex grinned, and patted Jerome's knee. "No apologies are needed." He looked at the elderly priest. "You want me to get Jerome situated?"
"If you would. The Bishop will be here by five and I still need to go over these reports."
"Sherelle Jackson's jambalaya should be here around three," Lex informed him.
"How... No, I don't want to know. You're bucking for sainthood, aren't you, boy?"
Lex rolled his eyes and executed an about-face in the tiny space by the desk. "Come on, Jer. I'll show you where you'll be bunking."
"So, do you prefer Jerome, or Jer or some other name entirely?" Lex looked up at the quiet boy walking beside his chair.
"Jer or Jerry's fine or even Kent, if you want; that's my last name."
Lex stopped his forward momentum. "You don't say."
"I do say. Why?"
"It's mine, too."
"Nope." Lex chuckled. "This will work though. I'll tell everyone you're my cousin. That should keep you from being hassled too much in the neighborhood."
"Not hassled, per se. It's just that folks around here are wary of strangers."
Lex started pushing his chair forward again. "Anyway, I, for one, am happy to have you here. Father Mike needs more help than I can provide, especially since he's put me in charge of the neighborhood outreach program."
"So, it's just the two of you?"
"Yeah, essentially. Thomas comes and goes. You'll meet him later. We were supposed to get a younger priest a few months ago, but the diocese can't decide whether or not they're going to close us down. Mike refuses to retire until the church decrees it, and since we're holding on by the skin of our teeth they're in a wait-and-see mode." Lex waved his hand around, pointing to their surroundings. "But, as you can see, this place is literally falling down around our ears. It'll be one less worry if we have someone we can count on to get the place up and running again."
"I'm your man then."
They walked in silence for several moments.
"How...how long have you been here?" Jerome asked quietly.
"I've been here for a little over a year. Thomas found me and brought me to Father Mike."
The boy frowned. "Found you? Is that how you..." The boy waved his hand at Lex's chair.
"Oh, no. This happened in Metropolis about two years ago."
"I didn't...that is...I'm sorry."
Lex reached up and patted the boy's arm. "You're one of those people who feels responsible for the entire world, aren't you?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Look, Jer, don't feel sorry for me and we won't have any problems. Okay?"
"Okay," the boy whispered.
"Because I don't do pity."
"I don't pity you."
"Good." He grinned at the boy. "Because how embarrassing would it be to have your ass kicked by a cripple in a wheelchair?"
Jerome chuckled and Lex relaxed. This had all the signs of a beautiful friendship.
Lex hesitated a moment, then knocked lightly on Jerome's door, not wanting to wake the boy up if he'd fallen asleep. To his surprise, the door opened almost immediately. "Do you like jambalaya?" he asked without preamble.
"I don't know." Jerome shrugged. "I've never had it."
"Well, we can remedy that situation. Come on." Lex turned and headed down the hallway, smiling to himself when he heard Jerome scramble behind him.
Acting casual once he caught up, Jerome said, "I thought the bishop was here."
"He is. He and Mike ate earlier and are now playing a grudge match of chess. The bishop is convinced he can beat Mike tonight."
"You don't sound convinced."
"I can't beat Mike."
With a smirk on his face, Jerome opened his mouth to say something, but the smile quickly disappeared as he snapped his mouth shut.
"Yeah, smart boy," Lex teased, wishing Jerome wasn't quite so reticent. "It's a good thing that Mike's a priest, otherwise he'd probably be a dictator over some small third world country. The man's absolutely ruthless on the board. Anyway, the point is," Lex said as he rolled into the kitchen, "we have the place to ourselves for all intents and purposes."
"You don't have to...that is...I have..."
"This isn't charity," Lex said pointedly. "I'm feeding you because Mike put all the dishes away this afternoon in preparation for the bishop's visit and I can't reach the bowls. Plus, Mike will get cranky if I pull him away from his game. He's convinced the bishop cheats."
Jerome laughed. "Well, in that case."
Lex grinned and nodded at the cabinet on the right side of the sink. Jerome retrieved the bowls, then turned and looked expectantly at Lex.
"The black pot has the rice and the green is the jambalaya. Since this is your first time, I suggest you load up on the rice and take it easy on the stew. A little goes a long way." Lex rolled to the refrigerator. "As a purely defensive measure, I suggest milk. Is that okay?"
"Milk would be great."
A minute later they were situated at the table. Lex watched Jerome's face as he tentatively tried his first bite.
"Hey that's not bad," Jerome said happily, then took a bigger bite.
"Watch out for--"
The boy's eyes widened suddenly, and he lurched for his milk.
"-the after bite." Lex chuckled, taking his own bite.
"Wow." Jerome set his empty glass on the table with a thunk.
Lex lifted the plastic jug and poured more milk into it. "It'll put hair on your chest."
Lex laughed in delight. "Well, it hasn't yet with me, but Jamal claims it's how he got his."
They ate in silence for several minutes. While Lex made sure not to stare, he couldn't help but noticed the way Jerome's hands trembled as he ate, as if the boy hadn't eaten a good meal in a while, despite his size. Even though he was full, he knew Jerome wouldn't eat anymore unless he did, so he pushed his bowl across the table. "When you get yours, get me a bit more, too."
"The hell you're not," Lex cut him off. "I may love Ms. Jackson's jambalaya as much as the next person, but even with Thomas helping out, it'll take us days to finish off the stew. And believe me, if you think it's hot today, try eating it after a day or two of sitting in the refrigerator. The only good offense is a strong defense."
"That makes no sense," Jerome countered, even as he stood and moved to the stove.
"I'll remind you of that tomorrow when we're eating this for lunch."
Lex picked at his food while Jerome started on the second bowl. "So, runaway?" he asked casually.
Jerome frowned at him. "I'm twenty-one."
Lex rolled his gaze heavenward and held his arm over the table in a twisted manner.
"I will be," Jerome started hotly, then added softer, "in October."
"Been harder than you thought?"
Again, Jerome frowned, but nodded and shrugged at the same time.
"The community center has a night-time GED program. They meet twice a week. Who knows, it could help pass the evenings."
"Thanks," Jerome whispered.
"Tanesa runs it. I can introduce you tomorrow if you'd like."
"Your job's not contingent on it or anything," Lex added, not wanting the boy to feel pressured.
"We're cool." Jerome smiled at him. "I'd definitely like to get my GED, and maybe even look into the local community college."
Lex smiled and decided to push his luck. "Have you called your folks recently?"
Jerome shook his head, but said nothing.
"How long has it been?"
The boy's gaze looked everywhere but at Lex.
"You can always tell me to shut up."
Jerome sighed. "It's been almost three years."
"If you ever want to call them, let Mike know. He won't mind paying the charges."
"How about you?"
A timid knock sounded at the outside kitchen door.
Lex raised his voice, "Come in, Thomas."
The door opened and Thomas hesitantly entered the room. The skinny homeless man looked nervously at Jerome, then longingly at the stove top.
"It's okay, Thomas. Jerome, here, is our new handyman. You'll be seeing a lot of him," Lex said softly, trying to assure the skittish man.
"Hello, Thomas," Jerome offered, using the same tone that Lex had.
The little man smiled nervously, revealing several missing teeth. "Grandma Jackson's jambalaya," he said reverently.
"Don't stand on ceremony. Pull up a bowl." Lex waved his hand toward the cabinet. "The Bishop's here. That's why it's so clean."
Thomas snickered. "Bishop'll never learn."
"I think he's hoping for a miracle." Once Thomas had begun serving himself, Lex looked back at Jerome, stifled a yawn, and asked, "What about me?"
Jerome hesitated, looking nervously at Thomas' back, then went ahead and asked, "Are you a...runaway?"
Lex frowned for a moment, convinced that wasn't what Jerome wanted to ask, but the boy's eyes were expectant and bright with curiosity.
Thomas sat at the table and shook his head sadly. "Not runaway. Throwaway."
"Found Joey broken in an alley. Lazarus, Joey is. Dead man walking."
Lex rolled his eyes over Thomas' dramatics. "Well, obviously, not walking."
Jerome leaned his elbows on the table. "I'd say there's a story there."
"There is, and a damn good one, too," Lex teased. "And the moment you want to share your story with me, I'll share mine with you."
Jerome sat back, ignoring Thomas' cackling.
Lex yawned again. "Hey, Thomas, will you set everything in the refrigerator when you're done?"
"Sure thing, Joey. Joey should go to bed. Joey's overdoing it again."
Lex shrugged, feeling a wall of tired begin to crash down around him. "Hey, did you hear? The Sevens signed."
"Thomas heard. Thomas just knows that Joey's gonna make Thomas watch the History Channel."
Lex chuckled. "I told you that doubting me would cost you."
"In Thomas' blood, doubting."
"I'll help him wash up," Jerome offered quietly.
Lex nodded his thanks then headed for his room. Jerome seemed nice, and had earned points with him when he didn't flinch at the thought of Thomas joining them. He was still a little shy, giving the impression of being a big farm kid, but Lex could see the intelligence sparkling in the green eyes. Even though Jerome was a few years younger than he was, Lex still looked forward to getting to know him. Maybe he liked chess.
"Clark! Help me, Clark!" Lex bolted upright, his throat raw from shouting, and his hand fumbling for the lamp by his bed.
A second later, the door burst open and the overhead light flickered to life. Jerome's eyes were huge as he scanned the tiny room, looking for danger.
Lex waved his hand, trying to get the boy to stand down. "It's okay," he finally gasped between big gulps of air.
Jerome relaxed, then moved further into the room. "May I?" he asked, indicating the bed.
Lex patted the covers.
"Are you okay?"
Trying to get his breathing under control, Lex whispered, "Nightmare."
"Sounded pretty bad."
Lex shrugged, then rubbed both of his hands over his face and scalp. He noticed Jerome looking at his head. "Startling, isn't it?"
Jerome hesitated. "A little. I mean, you were wearing a cap when we met so I didn't really notice. How--how'd it happen?"
"Not a clue."
Lex released a shuddering breath, grateful that his heartbeat was finally starting to calm. "Traumatic amnesia, or so Dr. Wilson says."
"From when Thomas found you?"
"No, about a year before that."
Lex chuckled. "I've hit a bit of a rough patch in recent years."
"Geez, J-Joe, maybe I should start calling you Job."
"Naw. It really hasn't been that bad."
"Really, it hasn't been that bad; at least, not since I've been at St. Agnes." Lex yawned and was surprised when Jerome helped lower him to the mattress.
"It looks good on you."
"What does?" Lex mumbled, feeling the edges of sleep start to steal over him again.
"The lack of hair."
Lex hummed an acknowledgment.
"Do you remember the dream?" Jerome settled the comforter over Lex's chest, and gently smoothed the wrinkles.
"Not really. I just felt like I was about to fall a really long distance."
Jerome looked away for a moment, then brought his gaze back. "And this Clark you were shouting for?"
Lex smiled and snuggled down into his blankets. "Clark's my friend."
"What do you remember about him?"
Lex frowned a bit, barely awake, but tried to answer the question anyway. "Not much. Just what Martha told me. She said we used to look after each other, that he was my best friend."
A hand gently cupped his chin as he dropped off to sleep. "I'm sure he was."
Lex's arms quivered as he lowered himself into the wheelchair. "Not today," he whispered. His back, however, ignored his pleas and spasmed. A whimper escaped his lips before he was able to clamp them shut. He rocked gently in the chair as he rode out the pain, releasing a sobbing gasp when the worst finally passed.
Father Mike was going to give him ten different kinds of grief if he realized how much Lex had overdone it the day before. But it had been important, damn it. Hadn't the Seven signed? He couldn't afford to be weak today, not when the various nations were meeting for the first time. He chuckled at the analogy; his own little United Nations.
The vibrations from his laugh set off another wave of spasms and for a second he considered taking one of the pills Dr. Wilson had prescribed for him. He disregarded the thought, though, before it was fully formed. While he might not have a lot of memories of his past, he did remember the dullness with which his brain had worked while he was at the rehabilitation center.
The drugs had given him a certain level of comfort, but he had been reduced to an almost child-like state in his thinking. It was better to deal with the pain, and maintain some semblance of dignity and intelligence, rather than be a babbling child.
As much as he wanted to see Dominic burn in hell, his father's lackey had been responsible for weaning Lex off the mind-clouding drugs. The child may have been captured sleeping by the pond, but it was the adult who had woken up, nearly dead, in the alley. Who knew that kidnapping could be beneficial to one's mental health?
He slowly straightened in his chair, relieved when the movement didn't set off another round of pain.
"You can do this," he whispered to himself. "It's just mind over matter."
An hour later, after his morning routine, he rolled into the kitchen, pleasantly surprised to find both Father Mike and Jerome at the table. "You're both up early this morning," he greeted.
"Jerome wanted to get a jump on the day," Father Mike explained. The priest frowned when he looked at Lex's face, then pointed to his place at the table as if Lex had forgotten where he was supposed to sit. "It does my heart good to see a work ethic in one so young."
"Are those Saul's bagels?" Lex asked, his mouth already watering in anticipation.
"Can we afford--"
"We can afford bagels, Joseph. Really, now. You shouldn't worry so much about finances. You need to have a little more faith."
"That's your department, remember?"
Father Michael rolled his eyes. "So what time is the summit meeting?"
"One o'clock." Lex reached for a bagel, but the soreness in his back made him flinch. He knew his hand hesitated momentarily over the bread, but hoped it hadn't been noticeable. "I'll leave right after lunch."
The priest eyed him warily, and Lex strained to make his movements more fluid.
"As I was saying, Jerome, he has a tendency to overdo. Never take his word about how he's feeling because he will never admit to being in pain." Father Mike stood and pulled a jug of orange juice out of the refrigerator. He ignored Lex's outstretched hand and simply poured the juice directly into Lex's glass. "His eyes, however, never lie. The darker the shade of purple under his eyes, the worse it is. Also take note of his lips; teeth marks are another indication of when the pain is bad. For instance, notice how smoothly he's moving this morning. To outside eyes, all indications are that it's just another day, but when you combine the deliberateness of his actions with the almost plum color under his eyes and the chapped lips, you know that his back has been spasming up a storm."
Lex closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. "Please don't talk about me like I'm not here."
"Don't be put off by his growl," Father Mike continued as if he hadn't heard. "While it can be fairly vicious, he has yet to actually bite anyone."
"Yet." Lex glared at the priest, then at Jerome, who was grinning at him, even though his eyes were filled with concern.
Lex placed the bagel in his lap, then rolled his chair backward. "If you two will excuse me, I have to prepare for the summit."
"Jerome will be driving you this afternoon."
"It's ten blocks, Mike. I can handle ten blocks."
"Be that as it may--"
"Besides, Jerome has work to do. You know, the reason we hired him."
"I can have the entryway completed by noon," Jerome offered quietly.
"Well, I could just throw a bucket of paint on the walls, too, but that's not quite the look we're going for," Lex said, trying unsuccessfully to bite back his sarcasm. "The walls need to be scraped, holes patched, and the trim covered. I think you're going to be busy enough without having to babysit the poor cripple."
"Ah, but if he could get it done to your exacting specifications, would you be willing to let him accompany you?" Father Mike interjected.
Lex glared at both men, who simply graced him with innocent expressions. He mentally pictured the entryway of the parish and calculated the size. It was probably going to take the boy a week to get done. "I won't accept a half-ass job."
Lex simply glared harder at the priest.
"Deal," Jerome said a little too quickly.
"Whatever." With that, he rolled out of the kitchen.
A knock on the study door made Lex look up from his paperwork. Jerome stepped into the room, without invitation, awkwardly balancing a tray of food.
"Where do you want this?" he asked, eyeing the corner of the desk.
"What time is it?" Lex countered.
"What?" Lex turned slightly in his chair to look at the clock, biting the inside of his cheek when his muscles expressed their unhappiness over the movement.
"Father Mike wants you to eat before we leave."
Lex frowned. "I thought we agreed I'd be going by myself."
"No, we agreed that I would drive you after you signed off on my work in the entryway."
"And you're ready for an inspection?"
"After you eat."
"Look, Jer." Lex rubbed both hands over his face, then scratched his scalp through his knit cap. "I put up with the mother hen routine from Father Mike because, well, one, he's letting me live here for nothing, and two, he's a priest. It's part of the job description. While I don't like it, I tolerate Thomas' behavior because he read some ancient Chinese proverb that said once you save a man's life, you were forever destined to keep saving him, and he thinks he's now my own personal Jesus Christ, and I don't have the heart to disillusion him. But I don't need another mother. Okay?"
Jerome nodded in all the right places, but continued to unload the tray, placing a bowl of jambalaya, a bagel and a large glass of milk in front of Lex.
"I'm never going to be able to eat all of that," Lex said testily, despite his growling stomach.
The boy placed the remaining dishes in front of his chair. "So eat what you can."
"You're not taking me seriously."
Jerome sat in his chair and picked up his bowl. "On the contrary. I take you very seriously."
"You're just not paying attention to me."
"I am." Jerome took a very small bit of jambalaya. His eyes got big, but he didn't make a mad scramble for his milk.
Lex took a deep breath, not wanting to hurt Jerome's feelings, but needing to make his point.
But before he could speak, Jerome cut him off. "Let me do this, Joe."
Lex shook his head, but Jerome continued.
"This isn't about balancing out my karma for all the wrongs I've done before."
Lex snapped his mouth shut, the boy's wording hitting a little too close to home.
"I just need to..."
"Need to what?" Lex prompted when Jerome fell silent.
"Take care of someone."
"Look, Jer, I don't need--"
"No, but I do," Jerome confessed in a whisper.
Jerome sat his bowl on the corner of the desk. "You were right last night, when you guessed that it'd been harder than I thought to be on my own. As much as I know my parents love me, and as much as I know they'd like to hear from me, I can never take away the pain I caused them. Ever. And I can't bear to look in their eyes and see the remembrance of what I did, even if they can forgive me." Jerome's gaze locked with Lex's. "I'm okay with that. Really, I am. But last night..."
"Last night?" Lex asked, confused.
"Let me feel that way again, J-Joseph. Let me feel useful."
Lex dropped his gaze, unable to bear the pain in the bright green eyes. "This is dirty pool."
Jerome remained silent.
"You can't make me responsible for your emotional well-being. I have enough on my own plate."
"I know," was the quiet admission.
Lex looked out the tiny window facing the brick wall across the alley for several moments. "I won't let you neglect your work."
Jerome's voice was hopeful. "I won't neglect it."
Lex growled at him, releasing most of his pent up frustration.
"Thank you," Jerome said, happily, picking up his lunch once again.
Lex leaned his head back and released a large sigh. "Okay, we'll talk again after the entryway is finished."
"Yes, I know you think it is, but..."
"Is that your final answer?"
"Yes, Regis. You can check it out once we're done eating."
As he looked into Jerome's smiling face, Lex wondered if he was beginning to lose control of the situation. "Fine. Whatever."
"I told you so."
Lex's mouth hung open in stunned silence as he rolled his chair to the closest entryway wall. "No way," he finally whispered.
"This is impossible."
Lex blinked. Not only was the paint job in the entryway completed, but it was done with a professional competence he hadn't dared to expect, given their limited financial resources. He looked at Jerome, who had his arms crossed over his chest and a smug smile on his expectant face. "What are you? Some sort of alien?"
Jerome blanched for a moment, then grinned toothily at him. "That's right. I'm from the planet Krypton. Your sun has given me all sorts of supernatural powers, one of them being that I can paint at supersonic speeds."
"I have the ability to leap over church steeples in a single bound and see through confessional walls. I can also shoot fire out of my eyes when I get horny."
Lex's laughter caught both of them off guard. "Please, I beg you, let me be there when you break that news to Father Mike."
"So, do I get to go?"
"Oh, shut up."
Jerome chuckled happily.
"Leap over steeples in a single bound. That's so lame." Lex rolled his gaze heavenward, his eyes widening when he noted that the ceiling was painted as well.
"Did I mention I can fly, too?"
"Anyone ever tell you before that you're obnoxious?"
"Tomorrow your chore list is growing."
"Bring it on," Jerome quipped back, challengingly. "But I get to go with you to any summits or summit-related meetings."
"Now wait a minute. I didn't agree to that."
"Yes, you did. Well, not in so many words, but you did...in the study."
Lex shook his head. He was definitely losing control of this situation.
"I can't believe you called Batman a demented vampiric pixie from hell with abandonment issues and a twisted messianic complex," Jerome said, his voice torn between amusement and gentle rebuking.
"It's not like I said it to the man's face," Lex defended.
"You don't think he'll hear about it?"
"I honestly don't think The Bat is going to be worried too much about my opinions."
"I think you underestimate your influence," Jerome countered. He easily lifted Lex from his chair and gently placed him on the passenger side of the parish's rusty van.
Lex hissed, then bite his lip to stop the noise.
"Are you okay?" Jerome asked, standing at Lex's shoulder, careful not to touch him.
Lex nodded his head tersely, but remained quiet.
"We'll be home in ten minutes. Will you be all right for that long?"
Again, Lex nodded his head.
Jerome stepped back and closed the van's door. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, Lex listened to the back panel door slide open so Jerome could stash the wheelchair before closing it again. The boy was careful not to jar the van as he got behind the wheel.
"How are you holding up?"
The engine sputtered and coughed to life.
"You overdid it."
"Today was important."
"I know," Jerome admitted.
Lex felt the van pull away from the curb, but didn't open his eyes.
"How come you turned down a seat on the inner council?" Jerome asked, and Lex knew Jerome was trying to take his focus off the pain.
"The council is for the gangs. One representative from each gang, no matter how small, no matter how powerful, each with an equal voice. While I can advise, I have no place on the council itself."
"Is that why you fought so hard to keep other outside people off as well?"
"Yes. The UG needs to be self-governing. They can seek advice from whoever they choose, but they don't need outside influences with voting power. No matter how well intentioned a person might be, it'd be too easy to abuse that sort of power. The seats themselves aren't permanently assigned to any one person. Each time they go to council, each gang will pick the best person to speak for them on that issue. This gives each gang power over its own representatives, so no one person can abuse his or her power."
"Yes, theoretically. No political structure is totally free from abuse."
"You've really given this a lot of thought."
Lex smiled. "Perhaps a little."
The smile disappeared, but Lex didn't open his eyes. "Because the poor have no voice. Without a voice, they can't draw attention to their plight, at least not without resorting to drastic actions. Usually violent ones. It's easy to ignore those you can't see or hear, or to dismiss them as animals because of a violent few. The UG gives the people with power in the neighborhoods pride and responsibility for the power they wield. It embraces who they are. They're not suburbanites complaining about property taxes. They're real people who live in hard circumstances. People who can see solutions but who have had no way in the past to implement them or seek help. By having a voice, they can't be dictated to by do-gooders who want to put a Band-Aid on a gushing wound."
"Am I so passionate about their plight?" Lex asked, tiredly rolling his head and opening his eyes so he could look at the boy.
Jerome swallowed once and nodded, never taking his eyes off the road.
"Let's say I've had some experience in dealing with the bureaucracy."
"Because of your physical condition?"
Chuckling humorlessly, Lex said, "It was a rather shocking epiphany to be treated like an idiot child simply because I had no money. The casual cruelty with which those in need are treated is dehumanizing."
Jerome pulled the van into a parking space near the back entrance of the church and took the keys out of the ignition. "How did you come up with the idea for the UG?"
"Father Mike got tired of my bitching and put me in charge of neighborhood outreach program. He told me to put up or shut up."
"And here you are."
"And here I am." They stared at each other in silence for several moments. "Are you going to rat me out to Mike?" he asked quietly.
Jerome gently hit his forehead against the steering wheel several times, then sighed. "Not tonight."
"Because you're right, it was important for you to be there. But you have to promise me you'll take the next couple of days extremely easy."
"Jer, I have a lot of--"
"Of course if you want me to get in trouble with Father Mike I suppose we could--"
"That's emotional blackmail."
"Yeah, what's your point?"
Lex sighed heavily. "All right. I'll take it easy tomorrow, and--," he raised his hands cutting off the boy's protest, "we'll see how I'm doing on Wednesday. Deal?"
Jerome didn't look happy, but nodded as he got out of the van. "Deal."
Lex waited patiently while Jerome got the wheelchair out of the back of the van and set it up. The passenger side door opened several moments later.
"How bad is the pain?" Jerome asked quietly, but made no move toward him.
"Joe," the boy said warningly.
Lex bit his lip. "It's bad," he mouthed.
"My hands are pretty numb at the moment and my shoulders are burning. But," Lex added when he saw a look of distress pass over Jerome's face. "Other than that, I'm doing pretty good."
Jerome's eyes flashed to Lex's face, and a small smile teased at the edge of his lips. "You don't say?"
"I do say."
"What am I going to do with you?" Jerome asked quietly.
"Well, I'm thinking that putting me in the chair and getting me inside is as good a plan as any."
Jerome chuckled. "Where do you come up with these brilliant ideas?"
"Some of us are just blessed with brains, I guess." Lex grinned back, feeling a bit of his pain drain during their exchange.
Jerome flashed him a suspicious look, which made Lex grin even wider. "You know, you could sleep in the van tonight."
Knowing Jerome would never do it, Lex agreed readily, "Okay."
"You'd probably do it, too, wouldn't you?" the boy vented good-naturedly. "And never complain once."
"Oh, I'd complain. I'm still spoiled enough to whine," Lex said between clenched teeth as Jerome lifted him out of the van and set him in the chair. Panting, he continued to clench Jerome's shirt until the worse of the pain had passed.
"Are you okay?" Jerome asked quietly, still bent over the chair, his hands tenderly petting Lex's chest.
"No, you're not. Just give it a minute. We're not in any rush."
Trying very hard not to rock, Lex leaned forward, his forehead resting in the crook of Jerome's neck and shoulder.
"I got you, J-Joe. I got you," the boy crooned.
"I wonder what the UG would say to this cozy little picture," a voice chuckled humorlessly from the shadows.
Jerome stood quickly and turned toward the menace, putting himself in front of Lex's chair.
"Ah, Batman, we meet at last," Lex hissed in greeting, not able to see around Jerome, but knowing instinctively who their visitor was. "The grapevine is working faster than usual tonight."
"I don't like you, Kent."
"And just which Kent would you be referring to?" Jerome crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the masked man stepping out of the darkness.
The Caped Crusader ignored him. "Are you going to call off your watchdog?"
"Jer." Lex tried to move his arm, but discovered he didn't actually have the strength to lift it. "While the Bat has a tendency to work through his emotional issues by pounding on people weaker than himself, I think it's safe to assume he's not going to trash the crip tonight."
The only concession Jerome would make was to take a step back so he was standing beside Lex's chair; however, his arms remained crossed and his whole body remained tensed for action.
"You have some threat you want to make?" Lex asked casually, affecting a bored attitude.
"For someone so helpless, you have a big mouth."
"Jer!" Lex snapped, when he felt, more than saw, Jerome begin to lurch forward. "Face it, Batman, you don't like the thought of giving up your role as lord and master of the inner city."
"Should I like the thought that you're organizing dangerous animals into packs?"
"They've always been packs, Batman. Now, they have a voice." Lex straightened in his chair, although it cost him. "I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your time has passed. There was a time when Gotham desperately needed you and you stepped up to the plate when others were afraid to do so. But now, your mere presence draws psychos. Every madman on the planet comes here to try their hand against the local sheriff as it were. The gangs have participated, yes, but because they have families to feed and bills to pay. Being a henchman may be dangerous work, but it pays well."
"You make them sound so innocent," the shadowed man sneered.
"I know better than that. These are extremely dangerous men. So why not give them focus? Are you afraid you'll be out of a job soon?"
"If they become too powerful, they'll start trying to assert their power over the rest of the city."
"A valid concern. So my guess is you'll be sticking around to make sure it doesn't happen."
"I'm watching you, Kent," the man said as he stepped back into the darkness.
"And I'm watching you, too, Bruce."
A sudden flurry of movement made Lex gasp in astonishment. When his eyes could focus again, he found Jerome holding Batman's arms out and apart as far as they would go. Both men were straining with the effort.
"Touch him and I will tear you limb from limb," Jerome growled, his face inches away from his opponent's.
"Then you better keep an eye on him," the cowled man hissed back. "Accidents happen."
"You better pray he remains the picture of health or you and I will be discussing this further."
Lex watched, stunned, as both men stepped away from each other as if on some unspoken cue. A second later, Batman whirled into the shadows and disappeared. Jerome stood silently, staring into the darkness as if tracking the other man's movements. Sighing in frustration, Jerome finally turned to face him.
"What? I conceded his point," Lex said innocently.
"You. Are. The. Most. Exasperating. Man. On. The. Planet."
Lex grinned brilliantly at his savior. "And just think, you've known me less than a day."
Jerome's eyes got big, then he rolled his head back on his shoulders and barked with laughter.
"Aw, Jer. You like me. You really, really like me," Lex said, giving the boy his best Sally Field impersonation.
"Shut up, Joe."
Lex snickered under his breath, but the laughter died abruptly.
"What?" the boy whispered, worried.
"You better get me inside. I think the adrenaline's starting to wear off."
Under any other circumstances, Lex knew he would be mortified beyond what he considered tolerable to be helped through his evening ablutions. However, his body was beyond caring, as was his mind. He was cognizant of lying in bed and a part of him liked the idea of not having any idea or memory of how he got there.
"Open up," Jerome said softly, sitting on the bed beside him.
"What?" he mumbled, trying to focus on the boy.
Lex pressed his lips together and shook his head.
"L-Joe, don't be stubborn. Open up."
He shook his head again.
"Do you want to be in pain?"
Lex turned his head to face the wall.
"Why are you being so stubborn?"
"Makes me stupid," he answered tiredly.
"What?" Jerome asked, startled.
Lex ignored him.
"What's he talking about?" Jerome asked someone else in the room.
"It has something to do with his time before he came to us," Father Mike said quietly. Lex felt bad about the concern he heard in the priest's voice, knowing he was causing it, but refusing to medicate himself into a stupor to alleviate it. "But he's never fully explained his concerns, other than to say that pain pills dull his intelligence."
"Joe," Jerome said, focusing back on him. "You have to listen to your body when it tells you it's hurt. You can't just ignore it. You can cause yourself serious damage that way."
"Are you calling me stupid?"
Despite his exhaustion, Lex felt a smile grow on his face when he heard the amusement in Jerome's voice.
"I'll tell you what. You take one pill tonight to help you sleep, and one in the morning and I won't push anymore on you." Lex started to shake his head, but Jerome continued, "You promised you'd take it easy tomorrow anyway. So what does it matter if you're stupid or not?"
Lex turned his head back toward the boy and frowned; Jerome's logic made a certain amount of sense.
As if sensing his acquiescence, Jerome pressed a pill to his lips. "Please. For me."
"Blackmail," Lex grumbled, but as the word slipped out, the pill was slipped into his mouth. He sighed in aggravation, then demanded, "Water."
A straw immediately appeared and he sipped, coughing a bit as the water started down the wrong pipe.
"There you go," Jerome said softly, taking the glass away. A warm hand gently cupped his cheek. "That wasn't so bad."
"I'm not. Honestly."
Lex sighed heavily when he heard the regret in Jerome's voice. His eyes fluttered closed even though he wanted to tell Jerome it was all right, but the effort was too much.
"If you're okay, I'll let you get some sleep."
For some reason, the thought of Jerome leaving filled him with panic. "No," he demanded. Without opening his eyes, his hand flailed out until it gripped Jerome's arm.
Jerome gently patted his hand. "You want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?"
"I'll leave you two alone then," Lex could hear Mike whisper. "You did good, child. I would have laid odds against your getting him taking the pill."
Jerome chuckled. "Naw. He's just a big pussycat."
Lex hissed at him, which only made the two men laugh.
The door closed softly and he felt Jerome shift on the bed beside him. "You overdid today."
A hand rested lightly on his chest. "Why are you killing yourself over this project?"
"Clark," Lex answered, barely awake.
"He is, Joe. I know he is."
His nose twitching, Lex opened his eyes enough to focus on the dark head of hair tucked under his chin. He couldn't remember the last time he had awakened to anything even closely resembling warmth. He hummed happily in his chest.
A hand gently, but clumsily, patted his chest. He covered the larger hand with his own, smiling as he felt an acknowledging squeeze around his thumb. Clark worked too hard. He wondered if he should say anything to the Kents about the amount of work they expected from him. He was only a teenager after all, he thought as he drifted back to sleep.
"Wake up, Joe. You need to take your pill."
"I won't make you take one tomorrow. I swear."
"Let me take care of you, Lex. Let Clark take care of you."
"Take a sip."
Red numbers glared unblinkingly at him as Lex opened his eyes. He pulled his head back in order to focus better on the clock. It read five, but whether it was morning or evening he didn't know.
Amazingly, he didn't feel as drained or as fuzzy-brained as he usually did when he awoke after taking the pills. Knowing he'd never be able to go back to sleep, he moved gingerly through his morning routine, relieved when his muscles didn't scream over every little movement.
"Thomas?" he asked in surprise when he opened his door and found the homeless man lying in the hallway against the opposite wall. "Are you okay?"
The skinny man yawned and pushed himself to his feet, giving Lex a goofy smile. "Thomas is fine. Jerome asked Thomas to make sure Joey eats since Joey didn't eat anything yesterday."
Lex sighed, but smiled tolerantly at his friend. "As long as you don't try to push the chair, we shouldn't have a problem."
"Thomas may not be the brightest bulb, but Thomas has some survival instincts."
"Everyone's a comedian," Lex muttered, but gave his friend a warmer smile as he rolled into the hallway. He let Thomas shut the door behind him. "What day is it?"
"Yes." Thomas snickered.
"Thomas is not the only dull bulb this morning."
"Is Thomas sure about his survival instincts?" Lex growled while he rolled into the kitchen.
The skinny man tittered with laughter, then pointed imperiously at Lex's place at the table. Lex rolled his eyes and wondered what was up with people thinking he couldn't remember where he was supposed to sit. "Jerome made breakfast this morning." Thomas made a big show of putting an oven mitt on his hand, then retrieved a plate from the oven and set it gently on the table in front of Lex. "Hot," he said unnecessarily.
Lex blinked at the huge stack of French toast on the plate. "Thomas, there's no way I can eat all of this."
Thomas opened the refrigerator and pulled out the milk and butter. "If Joey doesn't, Thomas will tattle."
"If Joey does, Joey will explode and Thomas will spend hours and hours cleaning up the kitchen."
Thomas put his items on the table and frowned.
"What if you help me eat a couple of pieces? No one will know but us."
"Thomas already ate."
Lex sighed, then tried another tack. "There's no way I can eat all eight pieces, and you know what Father Mike says about wasting food."
Thomas considered the argument. "Okay," he said, sounding a little relieved. He turned and pulled another plate from the cupboard.
Using a fork, Lex scooped up six pieces of bread.
"No. Joey. Two."
"Five?" he countered, hopefully.
"Okay. Four." And as he put the four pieces of toast on Thomas' plate, Lex wondered if this was what Jerome had planned all along.
Lex continued to frown at his report, then looked distractedly toward the door. A slow smile grew over his face when he saw Jerome filling his doorway. "Hey, Jer. Come on in."
"How are you feeling?"
In invitation, Lex pointed to the chair on the other side of his desk. "I think I'm going to take the fifth."
"Don't give me that innocent look," Lex scoffed. "I know if I say 'fine' you're going to feel justified in bullying me in the future, and if I say 'awful' you're going to mother hen me into an early grave."
Jerome shook his head and chuckled as he moved across the room. "You're such a dork."
"You wouldn't be the first to say so."
Jerome sat, his fingers nervously rubbing the arm of the chair.
When it didn't look like Jerome was going to initiate conversation, Lex said, "Seriously, though, I want to thank you for...not making the other night a big deal."
"You're welcome," Jerome acknowledged. "But I have to ask..."
"Ask what?" Lex prompted when the boy fell quiet.
"How did you know?"
"Know? Know what?"
"Batman's real name."
"Oh, that." Lex rubbed both hands over his chin. "Would you believe it was a lucky guess?"
"You're kidding me, right?"
Shaking his head, Lex grinned cockily. "Actually, I can't believe I was right. Of course, if you really think about it, it wasn't that big of a leap in logic. I mean, look at the Bat's toys, and the technology behind them. Only someone with more wealth than a third world dictator would even contemplate wasting that much money on the gadgets he has."
Jerome ran both hands through his hair and cupped them behind his head. "So what are you going to do with the information?"
"Do with it?" Lex asked, perplexed.
"Nothing. Why would I do anything with it?"
"Well, if you sold it to the tabloids, you could get out of the inner city."
Lex frowned. "Why would I want to get out of the inner city?"
"Don't you want a place of your own?"
"From what?" Jerome started to open his mouth, but Lex cut him off. "Privacy is just a fancy word for being alone. What would become of Father Mike and Thomas if I left? They need me. If it wasn't for me, they'd have to eat Mike's cooking and I can't have that on my conscience."
Jerome barked in laughter and relaxed back into his chair.
"What about you?"
"What about me?" the boy asked, startled.
"What are you going to do with the information?"
"Because Gotham needs him."
"Exactly." Lex smiled proudly at him. "Besides, don't you think other people have made the same speculation? I'm willing to bet my chair there's no possible way to prove a connection between the Bat and Wayne. If the man has any intelligence at all - and despite my ragging on him, I do believe he has some - I'm sure he covered all of his tracks a long time ago."
"So why tell him at all?"
Lex dropped his gaze and straightened the papers in front of him. "Because I wanted to send him a message."
"What sort of message?"
"Just an 'I'll leave you alone if you'll leave me alone' sort of thing."
"And you couldn't just say that?"
Lex rolled his eyes. "Like he's going to take a crippled man seriously."
"Oh, I think he took you seriously the other night."
"Yeah, I rather got that impression, too." Lex grinned at Jerome and leaned back in his chair. "Anyway, it's a mystery solved."
Shrugging, Lex said, "I hate mysteries."
Lex chuckled humorously. "I suppose because so much of my own life is one."
Leaning forward, Lex could see that Jerome was trying to ask his question casually, but failed miserably. "How's that?"
"No doubt." Lex stopped and rolled his gaze heavenward. "No doubt," he repeated, "Father Mike has told you all about my inability to remember anything past two years ago."
"He may have mentioned something about it," Jerome conceded after a moment of awkward silence.
Lex grinned at Jerome's thinly veiled attempt at political correctness. "Have you noticed that for a man of the cloth he's the biggest gossip this side of the Mason-Dixon Line?"
"It's probably a toss up between him and Thomas."
Lex chuckled. "True enough."
"So you don't know who you really are?"
"No. I know who I am, I just can't reconcile that person with who I am now."
Frowning, Jerome leaned forward. "What do you mean?"
Lex opened his mouth to explain, then thought better of it. "It doesn't matter. I'm not him anymore."
Jerome, however, refused to let it go. "I don't think you were a bad person before, J-Joe."
"Based on what?" Lex asked with great amusement.
The boy hesitated. "Based on who you are now."
"Bad may be too broad of a term," Lex conceded. "Try self-absorbed, selfish, stubborn, arrogant..."
"You..." Jerome shouted, then stopped himself and lowered his voice, "I find that hard to believe."
Lex shrugged. "So do I."
The bewildered green eyes made Lex smile. "It's sort of complicated." When Jerome looked expectantly at him, he tried again. "I know who I am now. I can read newspaper articles all day long and talk to people who used to know me, but I can't remember that man. Obviously, I don't think of myself in those terms anymore. I'm not saying people were wrong. Quite frankly, there were too many of them for me to believe that it was only a couple of sour grapes. I like to think that I've evolved into a better person. Well, except for, perhaps, the stubborn part."
"I don't know who you've been talking to, but I think you're doing yourself a disservice to believe the negative."
Lex chuckled. "Which is why I'm keeping you around."
A sly grin blossomed over Jerome's face. "I thought you were keeping me around to fix up the church."
"Well, this week, yeah, but what are we going to do with you next week when you're finished?"
Lex threw a frown toward the door, then looked over at the clock perched precariously on the corner of his desk. What was Jerome working on at seven o'clock in the evening? Hadn't Father Mike insisted that Jerome hang up his tools at five, for fear he'd work until midnight every night?
"Yo, Joe!" Jerome shouted from the other end of the hallway. "Joe!"
"What?" he yelled back, irritably.
Lex sighed heavily and very deliberately set his pen on top of his stack of papers before wheeling himself around the desk. He glanced down the hallway at the boy who was intently bouncing a basketball back and forth between his hands.
"You bellowed?" he asked mildly.
Catching the ball, Jerome looked up and grinned in his direction. "Come shoot some hoops with me."
"Come play with me."
"I'd love to play hoops with you, Jer, but I seem to be missing a couple of vital components for a meaningful game."
"People in wheelchairs play basketball all the time, Joe."
"You're always busy."
"So what's your point?"
"Come play with me, please," the boy wheedled. Lex opened his mouth to protest, but Jerome cut him off. "Please."
Knowing instinctively that Jerome would be a brat until he conceded, Lex sighed and slumped his shoulders in defeat
"Yes!" Jerome crowed in triumph. "Come on, before it gets too dark."
"You're sort of spoiled." Lex rolled down the hallway toward his impatient friend, and wondered if Mike had put Jerome up to this little scenario, knowing it was just the sort of ploy at which the priest excelled.
"Nothing." Lex fought to keep the grin off his face. "I just occasionally like to state the obvious."
"Whatever. Get a move on."
"Fifteen seconds," Jerome said with great amusement. He raised a cocky eyebrow and leaned back in his chair, making a big show of looking at his watch. "Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven."
"Hello, Joey. Hey Jerome." Thomas appeared practically from thin air, his face bright with anticipation as he tried to glance casually around the kitchen.
"Told you," Lex whispered under his breath. "Hey Thomas. You have excellent timing. Mrs. Dannison just dropped off a batch of her chocolate chip cookies."
The skinny man inhaled deeply, his smile bordering on ecstasy. "Hmmm. Mrs. Dannison's chocolate chip cookies."
"Isn't it about time for 'Days of Our Lives'?"
"Yes. Today is the day that Father Mike and Thomas will hopefully find out what was in the vial that Maya gave Tony."
"In a soap opera? Get real. It'll be weeks before you guys find out." Lex nodded Jerome toward the refrigerator. "Would you do me a favor, Thomas?"
"Of course. Joey knows Thomas would do anything for Joey."
"I know." Lex reached up and gently patted his friend's arm. "That's what makes Thomas the best."
The homeless man puffed up with pride as he rapidly blinked back his emotions.
"Dinner's going to be running a little late tonight because I forgot to take out the hamburger. Would you mind taking this tray in for you and Mike? You know, just as a little something to hold you two over until dinner."
The homeless man nodded and practically danced in anticipation when Jerome put two glasses of milk on the tray. Lex set a plate of cookies between them, then affectionately waved Thomas out of the kitchen. He gave Jerome a small smile, which the boy returned goofily, while Thomas took exaggerated care in carrying the platter out of the kitchen.
When Thomas was gone, Jerome asked in awe, "How does he do that?"
Holding up a cookie, Lex said, "You can't possibly understand until you've had one."
Jerome frowned at him, but took the cookie. "But he showed up less than a minute after I cracked the seal."
"That's just freaky."
"Perhaps." Lex shrugged. "You do realize, don't you, that I won the bet?"
Jerome's frown deepened. "You didn't need a bet to get me into the program, Joe. I told you I was going to do it."
"Yes, but you've been putting me off for nearly a week," Lex said casually. "Be that as it may, Tanesa's expecting us at two."
"At two? How could you have known that..."
Lex raised an eyebrow and took a sip of milk from the glass Jerome had set in front of him.
"There's no way you could have set this up."
"Me? Set this up? Jerome, whatever are you talking about?" Lex asked with overstated innocence.
Jerome waved his cookie at Lex. "You realize you're kind of scary."
"Good thing I only use my powers for good then." Lex picked up his own cookie and took a bite out of it, humming happily as he did.
"Good thing." Rolling his eyes, Jerome bit the cookie in half. "Oh my God." The boy put his hand over his mouth to catch any falling crumbs. "This...this...I...I..."
"Joe, this is fantastic. I mean...seriously...wow."
"Thomas' mysterious appearance once the container's opened suddenly makes sense, does it?"
Jerome shoved the remainder of the cookie in his mouth. "But the cookies, the bet, Tanesa...how...how..."
"Word to the wise, Jer. Never bet against me."
"Don't lower the basket."
"If I'm going to learn how to play this damn game, I'm going to do it the normal way."
"We could always start off low and raise it." Jerome gulped nervously when Lex glared at him. "Or not."
"Now you're learning."
"Where are you going, child? At ten o'clock at night, I might add," Father Mike called out, making Lex raise his gaze from his accounting paperwork in time to see Jerome trying to walk past his door.
"Just for a walk."
"You do realize it's dangerous out there. It is Gotham, after all, UG treaty or not."
Lex watched, fascinated, as Jerome actually seemed to fidget. "Yes, sir, I know."
"Be safe and try to be back at a decent hour."
Jerome smiled, as if touched by the concern being afforded him. "Yes, sir."
Lex cleared out his calculator. "You realize he's the Guardian everyone's gossiping about?"
"Aye. And you realize he's making sure the Bat doesn't get too close to you?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"What are we going to do?" Father Mike asked quietly.
Lex rolled his head back onto his shoulders, wishing, not for the first time, that he wasn't so physically helpless. He knew if anything happened to Jerome, he'd never forgive himself for remaining passive, but didn't know what else to do. "We're going to let him find his own way and be here if he needs us."
Lex released a sigh and rubbed his tired eyes which were growing numb from boredom. He had been working on UG paperwork all day and his mind was screaming out for some sort of distraction.
He hated nights like this, when the church was silent and streets were still. His doubts and fears always waited for quiet, lonely nights to jump him, having absolutely no regard for his being on holy ground. He chuckled over his imagery even as he pushed his chair away from the desk and rolled into the hallway. Mike was at the hospital visiting a parishioner, Thomas was out scrounging for treasure, and no doubt, Jerome was either studying or 'walking.'
Lex allowed himself a satisfied grin. While Jerome might have dragged his feet getting into the GED program, he was certainly blazing through the course. Tanesa was very happy with the boy's progress. At this rate, Jerome would be attending the local junior college by the spring semester.
Without any clear destination in mind, Lex rolled aimlessly down the hallway, surprised when he found himself outside of Jerome's room.
The door was open and it took him several moments to realize he was staring at the studying boy. Before he could back away, Jerome looked up and smiled at him. "Hey, Joe."
"How are your studies coming along?" Lex asked casually, trying to recover from the embarrassment of having been caught.
"Wonderful. In fact I just finished my last assignment." Jerome closed his textbook and looked at him expectantly, with the familiar 'entertain me' expression gracing his handsome face.
"Do you play chess?"
"Not on your level."
"I play basketball with you."
Lex smirked, then turned his chair back toward the study. "Come on then."
"And the crowd goes wild," Lex crowed in triumph, raising his arms over his head to accept the accolades of the nonexistent audience.
"I'm impressed, Joe." Jerome slapped Lex's back companionably, his hand lingering over Lex's shoulder for a moment before spinning and taking his own shot. "You made seven out of ten free throws."
Although Lex shrugged nonchalantly, he knew he wasn't doing a very good job of hiding his cocky grin. "It was just a matter of putting the game in a proper light."
"Oh? Do tell."
Lex popped a wheelie and balanced the chair on the back two wheels. "It's all physics."
Jerome dribbled around him. "Physics?"
"Force. Rate. Energy. Resistance."
"Have I mentioned lately that you're a dork?"
"Maybe once or twice." Lex stole the ball, then swinging his chair in a tight turn, took a shot. He watched as the ball wobbled on the rim before falling into the basket. Hooting, he clapped his hands and turned to face Jerome, the boy's proud grin warming him unexpectedly. Who knew basketball could be so much fun?
"Just who the fuck do you think you are?"
"I think, Ronnel," Lex said in a normal tone of voice, "that I'm just one man in a room full of men tired of listening to you talk without saying anything." Lex tried not to notice the men around the table nodding their heads in agreement, but concentrated on keeping his focus on the leader across the table for him.
"You can't trust Johnson."
"Why not?" Lex asked reasonably.
"Because he's done things."
The Sevens' representative slapped the table with his open palms and leaned over it. "What are you, a fucking attorney?"
"If you have proof, then give it to the council."
Ronnel's head slumped in defeat. "I don't have proof, man."
"Can you get it?"
"What?" the representative asked, startled, raising his head to meet Lex's gaze.
"If the council agrees to postpone the vote for one week, could you get proof?"
"What kind of proof?"
"Man, I can't get--"
"Can you convince someone to talk to the council about their experiences with Johnson?"
"Yeah. I could do that. I know five or six people who would talk to the council."
"Why the fuck should we agree to postpone the vote?" Elijah Watson, leader of the Daggers, demanded.
Lex took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Because someday a topic which you feel passionately about might be in front of the council, and you'll want the same courtesy as you're about to extend to Ronnel."
"And you're here why, exactly?" Watson sneered as he stood.
Lex raised his hand in submission. "If I've outstayed my welcome, tell me now and I'll leave."
"No," several other members shouted.
Addressing the council, Watson shouted, "He's only here because he has nowhere else to go. If he had any money, do you think he'd really a fuck about us?"
As the members turned to look at him, Lex shrugged. "I'd like to think I would."
"Just what do you get out of being here?" the Daggers' leader demanded.
"A chance to participate in the community."
Ronnel straightened. "I can do it," he told the council, overriding what Elijah was about to say. "You give me until next Tuesday and I'll have five different people here to test-i-fy about Johnson."
"Ball's in your court, Elijah," Lex said, leaning back in his chair.
When the final tally was taken, it was unanimously decided to postpone the vote for a week.
"You made me look stupid in there."
"I didn't make you look stupid, Elijah," Lex said tiredly.
"Son of a--"
There was a flurry of movement, and Lex once again found himself behind his self-appointed guardian.
"Hello, Joe. Staying out of trouble, I see," Jerome said with amusement, although he didn't turn to look back at him. With his arms crossed over his chest, Jerome never took his gaze off the man in front of him.
"Hey, Jer, I wasn't expecting you tonight."
"I just happened to be in the neighborhood."
"Happened to be in the neighborhood?" Lex scoffed.
"I knew you'd be tired, and I know you get cranky when you're tired, so I figured I better run interference for anyone who might blip on your radar."
"You don't need to worry about me hurting Elijah, Jer. We were just discussing perceptions."
Jerome nodded his head, as if fascinated. "Any insights you care to share with me?" Jerome asked the gang leader.
"No, Guardian. We're cool," Elijah said, raising his hands in submission.
"You know a perception I'm fond of?" Jerome asked softly. When Elijah shook his head, he continued, "That the Arbitrator is under my care. It's not true, of course, because he's an independent free-thinker, capable of taking care of himself. It's just a perception that makes me feel like I have a place in his life."
Elijah nodded his head slowly. "I understand."
"I thought you would."
Lex waited until Elijah was nearly a block away before he caught Jerome's closest hand. "I thought you weren't going on walks anymore."
Lex gripped the captured hand tighter. "Don't."
"I haven't, not for a while."
Lex stared up into Jerome's face. Jerome was the world's worst liar, but his expression at the moment was sincere. "Perception?" he finally asked.
Jerome turned his wrist, patted Lex's hand and grinned.
"Congratulations. You did it," Lex said softly, happily.
Blinking in disbelief, Jerome's fingers traced the bold lettering on the parchment in his hand. "I actually did it."
"With near perfects scores on all of his tests," Lex knowingly told Father Michael.
The old priest clapped his hands once, a proud grin on his face. "Well, this calls for a celebration. And I have just the thing."
The mischievous look in Mike's eyes made Lex immediately suspicious. "What?"
"I'm thinking a couple of Mrs. Dannison's cookies and a nice tall glass of milk."
Jerome raised an eyebrow, even as his gaze sought Lex's. "I thought we were out."
"Oh, we were. We were. But the dear lady brought another batch over this afternoon."
"This afternoon?" Lex baited.
"Why yes, this afternoon." The priest waggled his eyebrows, then headed for the kitchen. "Come along, children."
"What about Thomas?" Jerome called after him.
"He'll show up. He always does," the voice drifted back from the hallway.
Putting the certificate on Lex's desk, Jerome turned and grinned at Lex. "You realize he's been holding out on us?"
"Come on. I want to see where his hiding spot is." Lex lurched his chair toward the door, but Jerome stepped in front of him. "What? He's already got a head start on us."
"I just...I just wanted to thank you for everything, Joe," Jerome said softly, nervous energy radiating from every cell of his being. "I never would have accomplished it without you."
"Sure you would have."
"I wish that were true, but we both know I would've just kept making excuses. Not only did you kick my butt, but if it wasn't for your tutoring, I don't think I would have gotten as far as I did as fast as I did."
"Maybe not as fast, but you would have done it. You're a very smart man, Jer."
Jerome blushed. "And you have a talent for teaching people things without making them feel like total idiots."
Lex waggled his eyebrows. "So you think Tanesa might give me a job?"
"What do you need with a job?"
"I was just thinking it might be nice to have something to keep me busy after the UG is on its feet and you're in community college."
"But I thought you were the UG advisor?" Jerome asked, confused.
"I am. But now that the system is up and running, I shouldn't have to oversee every detail for too much longer. They need to be self-sufficient. After all, that was the whole point of the union."
Jerome seemed to consider Lex's words for a moment, then nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I think you'd make a totally great teacher."
"Thanks." Lex was surprised by how touched he was by Jerome's heartfelt words. "Come on, the old man has had plenty of time to get his stash out of hiding."
Lex tried to move forward again, but stopped when Jerome dropped to his knees and impulsively wrapped his arms around Lex's chest and chair. At first, Lex sat stiffly, unsure how to respond, but as the seconds ticked by, he raised his arms and returned the hug.
"Thank you," the boy whispered against his collarbone.
"Hey, you're the one who did all the hard work," Lex protested. His fingers lightly scratched the back of Jerome's head.
They sat, unmoving, for nearly a full minute. Jerome leaned his head a little heavier against Lex's shoulder, then rocked backward. Before Lex could withdraw his hand, Jerome laid one of his hands over Lex's and leaned into Lex's touch.
"Maybe. But I did it for you."
A thousand questions raced through his brain, but in the end only one made it to his lips. "Why?"
"Because I want you to be proud of me, J-Joe."
Contentment washed through Lex, confusing him slightly. Using his free hand to cup the boy's cheek, he looked into the green eyes and whispered, "I am proud of you, Jerome. Very proud."
A cackle echoing in the distance made both of them blink, and the moment was gone.
Jerome stood, reluctantly. "Think we can teach Thomas to sniff cookies through the container?"
"It's worth a shot." Lex grinned at him. "Come on, let's go before all that's left is crumbs."
"He rolled over my toes!"
"So?" Jerome dribbled the ball to the center line, bounced the ball twice and passed it to Lex.
"But he did it on purpose, man!" Tyree Jackson whined.
Lex caught the ball and passed it to Thomas. "And he's going to do it again if you keep talking about him like he isn't on the court."
"But that's evil, man."
"You were the one who said street rules, Ty," Lex reminded the teenager with a smirk.
Jerome raced past them and dunked the ball when Thomas missed the shot. He turned, ball in hand. "Don't even think about knocking over the chair."
"I wouldn't do that to the Arbitrator."Tyree accepted the ball, then dribbled it toward the center line.
"Yeah," Darnell Watson chimed in. "Everyone knows you don't mess with the Big A, unless you want to be tied into knots by the Guardian."
Lex stopped his guarding and spun his chair to frown at Jerome.
"What?" Jerome said innocently, batting the ball out of Cristobel's hands. "I haven't tied anyone up in knots for months."
"Well not since-Hey! Ow!" Darnell yelped as Jerome dribbled by him with the ball.
Jerome passed to Thomas, who realized he was blocked in and bounced the ball to Lex. Lex took the shot and high-fived his teammates once the ball plopped into the basket.
"Nothing but net!" Jerome whooped.
"You and I will talk later," Lex promised with a small frown.
"Naw, don't be like that, Big A," Darnell said, passing the ball to Cristobel. "If it wasn't Jer, it'd be the UG and Jer's real nice about it and all. Besides, he saved Roberto's sister from the Richey Riches the next day, so they're all good."
"Come on, Ty! Focus!" Cristobel cried out in frustration when Thomas stole the ball from the teenager. "We're getting our asses kicked by a white guy, Thomas and a crip."
"Don't make me get Father Mike," Lex threatened with a grin. "He's got a sweet lay-up shot that'll make you all weep with envy."
"This is so sad." Ty shook his head, then laughed and dodged around Lex and lunged after Jerome. "Hey, watch the toes, man!"
Lex rubbed his forehead and wearily sank back into his chair. The proposal which the Director of Urban Development had sent to him appeared to not only be a balanced one, but a fairly generous one to boot. However, he had no idea how he was going to present it to the UG. The plan was perfect - almost too perfect. He knew he was letting his personal prejudices interfere with his judgment, but it was hard to overlook the fact that Wayne Industries was backing the initiative.
A quiet voice from the doorway interrupted his thoughts. "You're overdoing it again."
"Hey, Jer." Stifling a yawn, he grinned, feeling the worries of the day drop off him as he looked at the boy who was trying his best to frown at him. Lex ignored the silent reprimand. "You're late. I thought you might have called it an early evening."
"Naw. I was just putting the finishing touches on the plumbing project."
"Finishing touches?" Lex asked incredulously as he waved the boy into the room. "You realize Father Mike's going to consider that the third miracle and nominate you for sainthood?"
Jerome ducked his head and blushed as he set up the chess board. "I'm no saint. I just had parents who were huge believers in elbow grease. I suppose they managed to instill some work ethic in me after all."
"Hell, Jer, I have a good work ethic, but you make me look like the world's biggest slacker."
"That's 'cause you are."
Snickering, Jerome held out both of his hands in closed fists. Lex pointed to the left hand, and the boy opened it to reveal a white pawn.
They played the game in silence for several minutes, each of them taking time to study the board before making a move. While their games were always good-natured, both men took their chess seriously.
Lex had been delighted to discover that Jerome was more than proficient at the game. However, he noted as Jerome pulled his hand back from his knight for the third time that his mind wasn't quite on the board. "You seem troubled tonight," he observed quietly.
Leaning forward to make his move, Jerome released a heavy sigh. Without preamble, he asked, "Do you ever think about redemption?"
Lex raised an eyebrow. "Here? At St. Agnes?" He shook his head and grinned. "Never."
The boy chuckled, despite his obvious mood.
"Why?" Lex asked, when it appeared Jerome was going to remain silent.
"Do you think it’s possible to do enough good things to balance out one very bad thing?"
Knowing his answer would be important to Jerome, but trying to be as casual as possible, Lex leaned forward. "Yes," he said quietly. "I think, however, for redemption to have any value, you still need to face the consequences of your actions. I don't think one bad thing is enough to condemn you to eternal hell, especially if you've devoted your life to doing good."
"You sound like Father Mike."
"Whatever you do, don't tell him that! He'll be impossible to live with if he thinks he's been a good influence on me," Lex teased.
They lapsed into a comfortable silence. "So you've been thinking about contacting your parents?" Lex asked, once Jerome had made his move.
Jerome's head snapped up in surprise. "What makes you think that?"
Shrugging, Lex leaned back into his chair. "You've gotten your GED, you've done quality work on the church and you're respected in the neighborhood. There has to be a part of you that would like for them to know you're not the same boy who did whatever it was you did, to let them know you've grown."
"Have I mentioned how scary you are sometimes?"
"Perhaps once or twice." Lex chuckled softly, then sobered. "So have you? Been thinking about it?"
Picking at a thread from the hem of his shirt, Jerome nodded, but didn't make eye contact. "Yeah. A little."
Yawning, Lex said, "You know my thoughts on the subject."
"But I won't push."
"Yes, you will. You'll drop a million hints and try to figure out the best way to convince me to do it."
"Perhaps." Lex snorted with amusement. "But not tonight though."
"You look beat," Jerome observed softly.
"I am, a little bit."
"Why don't you call it a night? I'll put up the game."
"Are you sure? It'll only take a minute to wipe the board with you."
"You're a funny guy."
"I try." Rolling toward the door, Lex stopped by Jerome's chair, and noted that the boy looked a bit tired himself. "What are you doing tomorrow?"
"I'm helping Father Mike down at the food kitchen in the morning, but I'm free in the afternoon. Why?"
"I thought we'd go check out the community college."
Jerome's green eyes brightened with pleasure. "I'd like that."
"Good," Lex said pleased. "See you tomorrow then."
"It's a date." Jerome leaned toward him, and instinctively Lex closed the distance. Their lips brushed lightly against each other's.
"Are you walking tonight?" Lex asked as he wheeled to the doorway.
"N-no, I'm, uh, heading to bed. You know, as soon as I'm done here."
"Don't stay up reading all night."
"I won't. Sweet dreams, Joe."
Lex rolled to his room, his exhaustion becoming more and more pronounced as he made his way through his evening routine.
Once he finally got situated on the bed, it took him several minutes to get comfortable. Breathing deeply, he tried the relaxation technique Father Mike had taught him -- to picture his worries as stones. He liked the imagery of skipping them over still water and watching them sink into oblivion. As the last mental stone sunk, he felt himself start to slide into unconsciousness when a thought which had been niggling at the back of his mind came to the fore.
Gasping out loud, his eyes shot open and he clutched the quilt to his chest. Dear God, had he kissed Jerome?
A horrified gasp made Lex lift his gaze from his bowl of soggy Corn Chex.
Thomas was standing in the doorway of kitchen, his eyes wide with worry. "Joey stay put. Thomas will get Jerome."
"No!" Lex shouted, thrusting his outstretched hand toward the homeless man, then repeated the word in a softer tone. "That's not necessary, Thomas."
"Please, Thomas. I didn't get much sleep last night, that's all."
The skinny man frowned, then walked to Lex's side and laid the back of his hand against Lex's forehead. "Joey not feeling well?"
"I'm okay. Just tired," he added when Thomas opened his mouth to protest. "I'm...just worrying about the proposal the city sent over yesterday."
Thomas slipped into the chair next to him. "Send it back," he said seriously.
"I would, but it's practically perfect."
"Wayne Industries is backing it," Lex clarified.
"Ahh," Thomas said knowingly.
"So is it perfect because Wayne knows the world will be watching his actions when dealing with the UG or because I'm missing something?"
The skinny man patted Lex's forearm. "Joey is the smartest man Thomas knows."
"Thank you, Thomas. But I don't know if I'm smart enough for this."
Thomas started to push himself out of his chair. "Let Thomas get Jerome."
Reaching out, Lex gently gripped his friend's arm, and shook his head. "No. He's busy helping Father Mike this morning and the city isn't expecting an answer for a couple more weeks. I have plenty of time to research the proposal."
Thomas reluctantly sank into his chair. "But Jerome always makes Joey smile."
Lex blanched for a moment. "I know, but Mike needs him more this morning."
Thomas frowned, as if weighing the consequences of his not seeking out his young friend. "Joey is sure he doesn't need Jerome?"
"'Cause Jerome won't be happy with Thomas if Joey is hurt and Joey didn't find Jerome."
"I'm fine, honest. Besides, Jerome and I are going to the community college this afternoon to get Jerome registered for the spring semester."
"Does Joey need Thomas to get him anything? To run any errands?"
"No, but thank you. I'm just going to take it easy this morning."
The skinny man nodded in approval. "Okay, then Thomas is going to seek treasure before Father Mike comes back."
Lex reached across the table and snagged a Granny Smith apple then tossed it to his friend. Thomas caught it in one deft move, and patted Lex on the cheek before heading for the door.
The little man turned to face him. "Yeah, Joey?"
"Did you, uh, see Jerome this morning?"
"He didn't look sick, did he?"
Thomas frowned slightly and shook his head. "No. Jerome's smile made Thomas think that Jerome had won the lottery."
Lex chuckled for Thomas' sake then waved him toward the door. When his friend was gone, Lex put his elbows back on the table and rested his forehead in the palms of his hands.
It didn't sound like Jerome was upset by last night's events. Of course, a smile from the boy didn't necessarily mean that the kiss had actually happened, Lex reasoned. After all, Jerome had a naturally bright smile, which he flashed given the smallest provocation.
He sighed, trying for the five hundredth time to remember the sequence of events from the night before. They had been playing chess. His day had caught up with him and Jerome had suggested he go to bed. Lex had asked him if he was free to go to the campus and Jerome had said yes, had actually called the trip a date. Lex shook his head, refusing to dwell on that thought. He had asked if Jerome intended to patrol, or at least had used their euphemism for what Jerome did.
Lex couldn't remember when the kiss had actually occurred. Was it after Jerome had mentioned the date or after he said he wasn't going for a walk? Or had it happened at all?
Could the whole thing just have been a figment of his tired imagination?
Lex slipped his fingers under his stocking cap and gripped his head.
And if it hadn't been real, just what was his subconscious trying to tell him?
Besides the obvious.
He knew he had great affection for Jerome. The boy's positive outlook on life never failed to brighten Lex's day. He was almost puppy-like in his friendliness. He was enthusiastic, energetic, bright, witty and caring. He also had a protective streak a mile wide and was fiercely devoted to Lex, for reasons Lex couldn't fathom.
He was like a little brother, Lex reasoned. Kissing family was okay, or at least television shows made it seem perfectly acceptable. Besides, hadn't he witnessed Jamal kissing his little brother on several occasions? He decided he wasn't going to dwell on the fact that Simon was only six years old.
But Jerome always makes Joey smile.
Lex sighed, knowing that Thomas' statement was true. He always looked forward to his time with Jerome, whether it be playing basketball or chess or just listening to the boy rant about the quality of mortar.
He could admit his affection, his friendship, for the boy.
"But what about Clark?" his subconscious asked darkly.
Lex swallowed hard, and slid his fingers out of his hat and over his face.
"Feckless, unfaithful, spoiled, rich brat," his subconscious taunted. He wasn't overly surprised that it had the same voice as his father. "What will Clark think when he comes for you?"
His savior, who had jumped into the River Styx and dragged him back into the world of the living.
The boy who, despite his age, had rescued him from kidnappers and people bent on his destruction.
The one person who had believed in him when no one else did.
He released a deep breath which seemed to well up from his soul.
Clark deserved better than to be forgotten.
After all, Jerome was just his friend.
There were days, he thought with a huff of amusement, when he really missed the mind-numbing drugs which would have allowed him to slip into a fog and not have to deal with unpleasant situations.
Sitting in the parish's kitchen, alone, he knew he could admit that he was falling for Jerome, that his feelings for the boy had grown past mere affection or friendship; the unintentional kiss, or even the dream of the kiss, had proven that. However, Clark didn't deserve to be forgotten. He shook his head and wondered if he was losing what little sanity he had left. No matter how hard he tried to rationalize his desires, he knew he had nothing to offer Clark, or Jerome for that matter. Nothing except a tarnished name, a broken body and a damaged memory.
Lex Luthor, some catch.
While Joseph Kent had a certain amount of respectability, he had no worldly goods.
Matters of the heart would only lead to messiness and bruised feelings which would take weeks, if not months to heal. Prudence dictated that it was better not to even contemplate that particular path.
Some people were just meant to be alone.
Lex had accepted that fact shortly after he had awoken from his coma.
No, it was best to focus on the Wayne Industries proposal and figure out a way to convince Jerome to call his parents. Once Jerome was gone, things would be easier. Besides, Father Mike and Thomas needed him, so life wasn't all bad.
"So what do you think?" Lex asked Jerome as they moved down the main hallway of the administrative building.
Taking in the bustle around them, Jerome nodded happily. "It's doable. Definitely doable."
"I'm thinking you should get the basics out of the way first. You know, English, Science, Math, and History?"
"Whoa now," Jerome said with a small laugh. He stepped in front of Joe and opened the door leading them to the outside. "I was thinking I should start off slow, like only taking two classes."
"Why?" Lex nodded his thanks and rolled out onto the sidewalk, shaking a little as the frigid breeze welcomed them outside.
"Because I'm still renovating at the church."
"Evening classes would--"
"One or two, sure, but not every night, Joe."
"Joe, come on. I have to have some 'me' time."
"'Me' time?" Lex stopped his chair and turned to face his friend. "Geez, Jer, you're not even twenty-one yet--"
"I will be next week."
"Fine, you will be next week. What do you need with 'me' time?"
Jerome's hand brushed Lex's cheek, while his thumb gently traced Lex's bottom lip. "Oh, I can think of one or two things."
As his chest began to ache, Lex realized he had stopped breathing. Shaking his head, he rolled his chair out of Jerome's reach.
Lex backed his chair a little further away. "I'm...sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Jerome asked quietly, his voice unsure.
"I...about...last night...I...uh...I shouldn't have."
"Do you see me complaining?"
Lex looked nervously around the campus. "Do we have to do this here?"
Pointing to a bench off the beaten path, Jerome said, "Yeah, I think we do."
But Jerome was already walking away from him.
Lex rolled his head back onto his shoulders, dropping it only when he was aware of several gazes resting upon him. Looking up, he saw Jerome staring intensely at him, the silent command to follow practically screaming from him. Obediently, Lex complied.
Jerome sat on the bench and Lex waited for him to speak, not sure how to start the conversation or avoid it altogether.
"Did I misunderstand..."
Swallowing hard, Lex shook his head, refusing to make eye contact with Jerome.
"Then what?" Jerome asked softly.
"I don't want your apologies, Joe. I want to know...I thought..."
"Quit apologizing, damn it. Just tell me what's you're thinking."
"I...I've...been by myself for a long time."
"Yes," Jerome prompted when he hesitated.
"Other than Father Mike and Thomas, I don't really have any friends. I--" he added, cutting Jerome off before he could speak, "Know a lot of people, am friendly with even more; but it's different."
"You don't let them close to you."
Lex raised his eyes for a moment to meet Jerome's gaze before he dropped them again. "Yes."
"So it's a choice?"
"And that means what exactly?"
"It means I spend a lot of time in my own head."
"I don't understand."
"It means, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about boundaries and taboos. I can enjoy a thought for the thought itself, without overanalyzing it or worrying what other people will think."
"Okay," the boy again prompted.
"Last night I...acted on a thought I've been having, that seemed natural in my head, without holding it up to the light of the world in which I physically live."
Jerome chuckled softly. "Did you note any protest on my part?"
"That's not...the point."
Lex shook his head. "No."
They sat in silence for a moment. "Then what is the point?" Jerome finally asked.
"Look where we live."
Jerome opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again without uttering a word.
"Then let's look at the fact that despite your being almost twenty-one, you're still essentially running away from home."
"What does that--"
"How can you hope to forge a healthy new relationship when you haven't dealt with the ramifications of your last one, even if it's just your parents? You'd be building on a lie."
Jerome's voice dropped an octave. "So this is about me?"
"No," Lex defended quickly, raising his gaze to meet the boy's. "No, when it comes to deception, you don't even qualify as a novice."
"What? Says the grand master himself?"
Lex huffed harshly, then added in a softer voice, "I have nothing to offer you."
"Except your heart."
Lex dropped his chin to his chest, wincing slightly when the movement pulled a muscle in his back. "I can't even offer you that."
"But you said--"
"It already belongs to someone else."
The boy inhaled deeply, in shock. "Who?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does to me."
"I don't think--"
Lex released a pained sigh. "There was a...boy, who brought me back to life when there were those who thought he should have left me for dead. He believed in me despite of who I was, despite who my father was and is."
Lex nodded. "While I have great affection for--"
"His name," Jerome demanded.
"I hardly think that matters."
After a moment's hesitation, Lex said softly, "Clark."
"Jesus!" Jerome exploded off the bench and stalked forward several feet before he turned. "You said you didn't remember anything about your past!"
"I-I don't." Lex swallowed and looked about nervously to see if anyone was paying particular attention to them. No one was. "I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"Have you even seen this," Jerome struggled for a moment to find the right word, "'boy' since you've awoken?"
"No," Lex admitted softly.
Stalking forward, Jerome demanded, "Then how do you even know about him?"
"His...his mother...Martha...told me."
"Told you what?"
"How we were friends."
"But you have no actual memory of him?"
"What's your point?" Lex asked angrily, feeling defensive.
"You're in love with a figment of your imagination!" Jerome accused.
Lex shook his head. "No!"
"Yes. You are. He didn't even know you were injured."
"Maybe not. But he'll come for me when he does."
"What?" Jerome lifted his hands over his head in frustration, then dropped them to his side. "You wouldn't recognize him even if he did."
"You're throwing over flesh and blood for a memory, a memory that isn't even yours, of a person who couldn't possibly live up to your expectations if you were to meet him in real life."
"So?" Jerome asked incredulously.
"What harm is there in letting me have my fantasy? I'm not hurting anyone. Besides, it helps me," Lex bit back an angry gasp, then gritted between his teeth, "It helps me through the night, through the times when the pain--" He closed his eyes and tried desperately not to rock back and forth in his chair.
"The harm," Jerome said softly, which made Lex open his eyes when he realized Jerome was kneeling beside his chair, "is that you're throwing flesh and blood away for a fantasy."
"I'm not who you think I am," Lex confessed in a harsh whisper.
"I think," Jerome said, reaching out and softly caressing Lex's cheek, "I know exactly who you are."
Lex shook his head and leaned away from Jerome's reach, trying not to see the hurt in the boy's eyes as he drew back his hand. "No. You don't."
"A broken man, body, mind and spirit," Lex interrupted, "with nothing to give, no prospects for the future, working off my karma in the hopes that my destiny can be changed from the path laid before me."
"I'm not asking you to give me anything...Joe," Jerome said softly. "You're not the only broken man in this conversation. I'm just asking you to let me walk down the path with you, maybe find my own destiny along the way."
Trembling as Jerome took his hand, Lex found himself unable to draw his eyes away from their clasped grip.
"I won't ask you to love me," Jerome whispered hoarsely. "Just don't send me away. I couldn't bear your sending me away."
"I won't." Lex cleared his throat and attempted humor. "Besides, how will you ever get your AA if you leave?"
Jerome's eyes were bright with unnamed emotions.
"We can't--" Lex started, but stopped, unsure how to phrase what he had to say.
Even though he brought Lex's knuckles to his lips, Jerome nodded. "I understand."
"At least for now."
The boy grinned brilliantly at him. "I can behave."
"I seriously doubt it."
Lex groaned over the double-entendre.
"Let's go get some ice cream." Jerome bounced to his feet.
"Sure, why not?"
"So? Soul-baring makes me hungry."
"Excuse me?" Lex gave a startled laugh. "But just who bared their soul here?"
"Exactly! Think of the spread you'd have had to lay out if I’d done it." Jerome started toward the main path. "Come on."
Lex blinked several times, shrugged, then obediently followed. Just what in the hell had happened? And was it a good thing or not?
"So what did you think of the community college, child?" Father Mike asked as he passed the biscuits to Jerome.
Accepting the plate, Jerome took a biscuit and put it on Lex's plate, then put one on his own before he handed the plate to Thomas. "I like it."
"And how many classes will you be taking?"
"At least one--"
"Four," Lex overrode him.
"Two would be okay," Lex conceded.
"As long as there are no Thursday classes," Jerome said firmly. "Because that's when the UG meets."
Lex rolled his eyes, but noticed that both Father Mike and Thomas were nodding their heads in approval.
"What classes will you take?" Mike asked as he passed the stew.
"I'm thinking English and Math. You know, get the basics out of the way first."
Lex frowned at the boy in an attempt to discourage him from serving him. Jerome ignored him and filled his bowl almost to the brim. Sighing, Lex frowned at Thomas who was grinning at him. The skinny man ignored him as well. He really was going to have to work on honing his displeasure.
"Good. Good," Father Mike said, approvingly. "When do classes start?"
Buttering his biscuit, Jerome shrugged. "January."
"January tenth," Lex supplied.
Father Mike blew on his stew. "You take off whatever time you need. We'll work around your schedule."
"Thanks, but it won't be necessary." Jerome took a bite of stew, not noticing the men around him wincing in anticipation. "I plan on taking night courses."
"Just know that we're flexible."
Father Mike smiled, then looked at the clock and frowned. "Whose turn is it to do the dishes tonight?"
"Thomas'," the skinny man said with a sigh.
"I gotcha covered, Thomas," Jerome said. "Isn't American Idol on pretty soon?"
Both Father Mike and Thomas nodded. Thomas looked like he was about to protest.
"You can make it up to me when I'm cramming for a test," the boy said, cutting him off before Thomas could protest.
Thomas chortled with happiness. "Deal."
Ten minutes later the food was put away and the dishes were stacked in the sink.
"Hand me a towel." Lex rolled next to the counter and held out his hand.
"No. You look like you're about to drop. Why don't you go watch some television?"
"Or read a book."
Lex hesitated until Jerome waved him off.
As he rolled to his room, Lex reflected that it had been an odd emotional day. He wasn't sure anything had been resolved, but at least his friendship with Jerome was still intact, which was more than he expected.
Lex awoke to the sensation of his lips tingling. Flicking his tongue out, he tasted salty skin which seemed to tremble at his touch.
"Clark?" he moaned, not quite awake.
The fingers stroked his jawline and teased down his neck, playing at the edge of his t-shirt's collar, while another hand stole under the white cotton. His stomach quivered at the light touch.
"Is it possible to be jealous of yourself?" a voice whispered by his ear.
"Complex," Lex answered, arching up into the warmth.
"Yes, it is and yes it does," the voice said, clearly amused. Warm lips brushed his forehead as the hand gently petted his chest. "Sleep."
Releasing a contented sigh, Lex complied.
A chill which had nothing to do with the weather ran up Lex's neck. Frowning, he scanned the crowd at the Farmer's Market. He could feel a sense of malevolence directed at him, but couldn't quite pin down from whom.
Lex shook himself and smiled at Mrs. Hanline as she handed him a bag of green beans. "Where were you, love? You looked about a thousand miles away."
He handed her a five and waited for the change. "I'm sorry. I just find the Market fascinating." He gave her his best charming smile.
The older woman blushed prettily and Lex could see that she would have been a looker in her day. Like Lana.
The girl who had visited him in the rehabilitation clinic and talked about the Talon...which was a coffeehouse with Egyptian symbolism on the walls.
My flight has reached the horizon. I am unique in my flight.
She had named it the Talon because Horus, one of the most important gods in Egyptian mythology, who was represented by a falcon, because she thought falcons represented freedom.
From before the accident.
"Joey Kent, where is your head today?" Mrs. Hanline scolded fondly as she held out his change.
"There's nothing to be sorry for, love. Is Jerome around?" she asked, scanning the crowd.
Lex frowned as he pocketed his change. "No. He's painting one of the Sunday school rooms today. I'm fine, Mrs. Hanline, really."
She didn't look convinced, but appeared to be willing to let it go. Lex stuffed his beans into the top of his already bulging sack. "I'll see you next week."
He rolled toward the pumpkins and surprised himself by finding a large one he liked. Thomas liked roasted seeds and he knew he could convince Jerome to scoop out the fruit's meat for a pie. Maybe one of the neighborhood kids would like the shell for a jack-o'-lantern.
After paying for the pumpkin, he tried to balance it in his lap and realized he had taken on a larger task than he'd intended. Before he could concentrate on a solution, he felt a wave of spite wash over him. He jerked his head upward and scanned the crowd again, but could find nothing out of the ordinary.
Was it a gang member? Or the Bat?
He snorted. Paranoid much?
A hand fell on his shoulder and he lurched, causing the pumpkin to roll off his lap. However, quick hands caught the fruit before it could smash onto the concrete of the parking lot.
"Is Joey okay?" Thomas asked, his brown eyes wide with concern.
Lex nodded, trying to moisten his throat enough to speak. "Yes. You just startled me."
"Thomas called Joey's name, but Joey didn't hear Thomas."
"It's not your fault," Lex said, reaching out to pat his friend's arm. "In fact, your timing couldn't be better. It seems I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Do you have time to help me carry the pumpkin home?"
"Thomas has all the time in the world."
"You're a saint, Thomas."
The skinny man tittered, but the smile slowly waned as he noticed Lex's distracted look. "What's wrong, Joey?" he asked softly.
Lex shook his head, intending to blow the question off, but then surprised himself by asking, "Do you...feel...anything, Thomas?"
Thomas nodded, looking slightly scared. "Evil."
"Where?" Lex asked, starting to roll forward.
"Gone," Thomas said, unnecessarily, for Lex felt the emotion dissipate as well. "Thomas take Joey home now," the skinny man said insistently.
"Yeah, that might not be a bad idea." Lex nodded distractedly as he continued to scan the crowd for a moment longer, then followed his friend home.
Gentle hands stroked his chest, making him arch slightly into their touch. He shivered as fingers scratched over his ribs and slipped beneath his sweatpants. Humming languidly, he lifted his hips and let his legs fall open, enjoying the hands that lovingly explored his body.
He felt adrift in a warm sea, his body bobbing on top of gentle waves. The tender hands teased him, yet soothed him so he had no desire to open his eyes and ruin the fantasy. He floated timeless in space, his world consisting only of the hands stoking the fire within him. His breathing hitched as the fire grew hotter, yet never quite blazed out of control.
A moistness surrounded him and he released himself into the coolness, whimpering as the hands slowed and stilled. He moaned at their loss, and in response they danced lightly over his skin.
He sighed happily and tilted his head back, capturing the lips he knew were hovering over his.
"Love you," he mouthed, then slipped his tongue into the welcoming heat, marveling at the innumerable tastes which he recognized but couldn't categorize.
"How can you love me? You don't even know what I've done."
"Doesn't matter. My heart," he insisted, bringing his arms up to hold the body above his. "My purpose." He pressed his face against the soft neck and sighed.
"It does matter," the dream whispered into his ear, although the hands never stopped marking their territory.
"Flawed makes you touchable." He snuffled, feeling himself slipping further into the realm of sleep. "Makes you mine."
"You have it backwards."
"Hm?" he asked, barely in the here and now.
"You've been mine since I claimed you by the river."
He hummed as heat slowly enveloped him like a blanket. "Stuff of legends," he mouthed.
"It's our destiny."
Stretching languidly as he awoke, Lex reveled in the way each muscle moved, surprised when none of them grumbled their normal protest. He felt loose, like he'd just had really great sex.
He felt a foolish grin spread over his face. Did he even remember sex? Searching his memory, he found he didn't, at least not since he had awoken in the rehabilitation clinic. But as he wiggled deeper into his blankets, he realized that while he might not remember any previous encounters, his body most definitely did.
He liked these dreams, he decided, chortling softly to himself. They were definitely better than the ones where he was lost in the darkness and in unspeakable pain, or the ones where he was running and the world was being destroyed behind him.
He rolled his head to right, popping his neck slightly, then froze when he saw an object lying on the floor. He blinked furiously, trying to focus on the item.
He shook his head in confusion. His wallet was brown pseudo-leather, one of Thomas' treasures.
Yet, there sat a blue Velcro wallet.
Scooting his body to the edge of the bed, he stretched his arm out, his fingers scrambling to gain purchase. He managed to snag a seam with a fingernail, and dragged the wallet closer. Once it was beside the bed, he reached down blindly and picked it up. With it in hand, he scooted back to the center of the mattress.
He had a vague sense that he might be violating someone's privacy, but managed to push the worry aside. It was in his room, after all. It was uninvited. Imposing on him. He chuckled at his rationale, pretty sure it wouldn't fly with Father Mike. But Father Mike wasn't around. Glancing toward the door to make sure his assumption was correct, he slowly pulled the Velcro apart, like he was expecting something to jump out at him, and opened the wallet. He was surprised when he saw Jerome's picture staring back at him, which didn't make any sense. Jerome hadn't even been in his room last night. Lex had said his goodnights and left the boy doing dishes in the kitchen.
All of the air in his lungs vanished as his eyes wandered over the Lowell County driver's license.
Clark Jerome Kent
Box 2, Hickory Lane
The expiration date indicated that the license was good until Jerome...Clark... turned twenty-three.
You wouldn't even recognize him if he were to step out of the shadows right this moment.
Dear God. Jerome was Clark Kent.
After nearly a half hour of weighing the pros and cons of confronting Jerome, Lex decided to put the wallet back where he found it. He needed time: time to think, time to consider his course of action, time to absorb the idea that his dream might not have been a fantasy at all.
He moved woodenly through his morning routine, his arms barely supporting him as he shifted into his chair. Looking at the clock, he realized that Father Mike and Jerome...Clark would already be at first service. Deciding that their being occupied was for the best, he dropped the wallet back where he had found it and rolled into the hallway, toward the kitchen.
As much as Lex enjoyed Thomas' company, he was grateful that the homeless man was nowhere to be seen. He didn't think he could face Thomas' questions or his offers to 'get Jerome.' Pulling his knit cap over his head, Lex wheeled himself outside and down the block, putting as much distance as he could between himself and St. Agnes.
Jerome was Clark Kent. The thought repeated over and over in his head.
But why hadn't he told Lex who he was? Why pretend to be someone he wasn't?
You're throwing over flesh and blood for a memory, a memory that isn't even yours, of a person who couldn't possibly live up to your expectations if you were to meet him in real life.
Jerome had once asked him about redemption. At the time, Lex hadn't wanted to pry into boy's obviously painful past. He had wanted to let the boy know that he didn't need to run anymore, but now his curiosity was killing him. What had Clark done that was so bad that he couldn't even admit to an old friend who he was?
Lex remembered Martha's pained voice when she spoke about Clark. She had never spoken in specifics, but had said time and time again that as soon as Clark came home they'd have a lot to talk about. She had never said a harsh word against the boy or implied that the misunderstanding had been his fault, only that she looked forward to seeing him again.
"What did you do, Clark?" he murmured softly to himself. "Why are you hiding yourself away from the ones who love you? Away from me?"
Lex closed his eyes, berating himself. At the very least, he knew why Jerome hadn't told him who he really was. Lex felt himself redden in shame. He had rejected the man he loved for a memory that didn't exist. How fucked up was that? A chuckle built up within him until he had no choice but to release it. It grew until he was unable to roll himself forward, until all he could do was hold onto his sides and gasp for air, until all he could do was sob over his stupidity.
He didn't deserve his fantasy Clark, that much was for certain. And in the bright light of the crisp October morning, he realized he didn't deserve Jerome or the love he was so willing to give.
Lex wiped his face with the back of his wrist. While he might not deserve either Jerome or Clark, he did love them. Loved them enough to let them go.
With a plan forming in his mind, he rolled to the Sav-On at the corner.
Hello. Kent Farm.
"I know where your son is."
Who is this?
"He's in Gotham, working as a handyman at St. Agnes Catholic Church, at the corner of River Road and Mill Street."
Who...who is this?
"His...birthday is on Thursday, isn't it?"
"What better way to enter adulthood than to know that you've been forgiven for the sins of your childhood?"
Please. Who is this?
"River Road and Mill Street. St. Agnes. Gotham. Please come. He needs to know you still love him."
Lex blinked once, slowly becoming aware of Thomas kneeling in front of his chair. The little man's face was twisted with concern as he tried to rub warmth into Lex's left hand.
"Hey, Thomas," he greeted, aware that his words were bordering on being slurred. "Whassup?"
"Thomas was wondering where Joey went. Father Mike says he's faint with hunger after a full mass and a christening." The light words did not match Thomas' worried tone.
"Maigret's baby. I remember." Lex nodded. "I should get lunch ready. Mike gets cranky when he's hungry."
A noise like a car suddenly decelerating caught his attention, and Jerome appeared before him. "Is he okay?"
"Joey's cold. Very cold," Thomas said quietly solemnly.
"What are you doing out here?" Jerome asked, taking Lex's right hand and squeezing it gently between both of his own.
"Thinking about what?"
"Couldn't you think about redemption inside St. Agnes?" Jerome asked, trying for amused, but, like Thomas, failing miserably.
"Thought a roll around the block would clear my head," Lex confessed. He frowned as he noticed the darkness. "What time is it?"
"Can't be right."
"Jerome take Joey home. Put Joey in warm bath. Thomas bring chair," Thomas said in a voice stronger than anything Lex had heard before.
Lex shook his head and reached for his wheel, but found his hand smacked. Blinking in surprise, he looked up and found Thomas frowning at him.
Thomas turned his displeasure on Jerome. "Now. Zzzzzz."
"Zzzzzz?" Lex snorted with amusement.
"Put your arms around my neck, L-Joe," Jerome demanded quietly."
"I'm 'kay. Really."
"Joseph!" Thomas roared, his tone indicating that he was not going to tolerate any more defiance.
Obediently, and somewhat meekly, Lex raised his arms and allowed Jerome to pick him up, hissing in pain as the boy arranged him in his arms.
"Put your face against my sweater."
Lex complied. "Faster than the wind," he heard Thomas command.
"Already there," Jerome replied.
Lex realized he must have fallen asleep, although he had no memory of doing it, because when he opened his eyes to tell Thomas that bossy wasn't a good look on him, they were inside his bedroom. He could hear the water in the bathtub running at full gush. Without a word, Jerome gently laid him on the bed and took off Lex's shoes and socks. When he was done, he moved up the bed, his hands unbuckling Lex's belt.
"Wha-what are you doing?"
"We need to get you warmed up."
"No, you're not." Firm hands pushed his defending ones away. His belt slipped off, as did the jeans. "What were you thinking, spending all day outside? Are you trying to freeze to death?"
"Just thinkin'," Lex muttered unhappily.
"What's wrong with thinking inside?" While the question was asked harshly, the hands removing his jacket and shirt were incredibly gentle.
"Didn't want to explain."
Jerome picked him off the bed and moved him into the bathroom, lowering him into the waiting water.
Lex hissed in pain, his hands clawing at Jerome's sweater as he tried to pull himself out of the tub, his cold body screaming its anger over the sudden change in conditions.
"I know. I know. But we have to raise your temperature."
"God damn it!"
"Sh! Don't let Father Mike hear you."
The boy shushed him softly as Lex thrashed in the water, petting Lex's body, trying to gentle him through touch.
Lex whimpered, and Jerome held him closer. As warmth slowly seeped back into his body, consciousness seemed to slip out. An eternity later and barely awake, Lex felt himself being lifted out of the tub. Gentle hands patted him dry. His token protest sounded incredibly weak even to his own ears.
"What am I going to do with you?" Jerome asked softly, the affection in his voice clear.
Lex huffed, remembering a television show that the cook sometimes let him watch when his parents weren't at home. "Gotta love me."
"Good thing for you, I already do."
"Quit treating me like a fucking china doll." Lex tried to slap Jerome's hands away from his feet. "I can take care of myself."
Jerome continued to roll the sock over Lex's heel and up his calf. "I know. You proved that last night."
"God da--" Lex rolled his head back on his shoulders and squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. He took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly, cognizant of the fact that Jerome was putting the other sock on him as well. "Look, Jer," he said as calmly as he could, "I just needed to think some things through, and accidentally let time get away from me."
"I understand that," the boy said reasonably. "But do you understand how dangerous hypothermia is for a paraplegic?"
Lex gritted his teeth and panted, trying to rein in his anger.
"Why'd you do it, Joe?" the boy asked before Lex could respond. The boy slipped Lex's shoes onto his feet, never looking Lex directly in the eye. "Why couldn't you talk to me? We talk about everything else."
The flash of guilt surprised Lex. "It wasn't anything personal, Jer."
The boy looked up, his eyes haunted. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Lex bit out quickly. He rubbed his eyebrows and wondered how he was going to salvage the situation. He decided that a little bit of misdirection might be for the best. "I don't often allow myself to feel self-pity. Okay? Yesterday was just one of those days."
"Why?" the boy asked in a whisper.
"Because I want so much."
"I don't understand."
"I want to be able to walk, Jer. To run. To properly whoop your ass on the basketball court." He returned Jerome's startled grin. "I want my memory back. I want not to be the person I used to be. I want...I want everything not to be so hard."
Still kneeling in front of his chair, Jerome frowned in confusion. "With everything you've done for the UG you could probably get a job--"
"It's not about the money, Jer."
"It's about not carrying the weight of my past sins on my shoulders anymore."
"Redemption," the boy said in understanding.
"Yeah, redemption. Although some of us," Lex reached forward and caressed the boy's chin before dropping his hand into his lap, "will never be able to balance the cosmic scales of justice."
"I think you're being too hard on yourself."
Lex smiled. "You're probably right."
Jerome looked surprised.
"Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't accomplish anything, Jerome, which is why I rarely allow myself to indulge in it."
"But when you do, watch out."
Lex chuckled. "Yeah, watch out." He looked the boy in the eyes. "But seriously, Jer, I'm okay now. I'm not going to break."
Jerome grinned mischievously at him as he rocked back onto his heels and stood.
"What?" Lex demanded.
"Just promise me that you'll let your Guardian do his job."
"Jer, this overprotective bull--"
"Unless you want to talk to Father Mike and Thomas by yourself," Jerome continued as if Lex had never spoken.
"Because I mean, they're just the local priest and a homeless man, right? The most harmless of men. And you can take care of yourself, after all."
Lex sighed, knowing he was beaten. "I hate you."
Jerome just looked smug.
"What's your price?"
"Price? There's no price."
Lex tried to knock his head against the wall behind him, but Jerome pulled his wheelchair closer to the middle of the room and smiled.
"Just let me do my job," Jerome said in a voice that indicated that he knew he had won.
Lex sighed and slumped slightly in his chair, but nodded. After all, the boy would only be with him for a little while longer. He would use his remaining time to memorize everything he could, so that his dreams in the future would be more reality based.
The nervousness of the redheaded woman standing in the doorway of the soup kitchen's eating area normally wouldn't have caught Lex's attention; after all, a lot of people were nervous about accepting a helping hand for the first time. And with the fluctuating economy, the local kitchens were seeing a lot of new faces. No, it was the intensity of her gaze which made her stand out. She wasn't staring at the food line or the people eating; her eyes were following every movement Jerome made as he moved around the eating area with his metal milk pitcher.
She looked older than he remembered, and while it had been nearly two years since his stay at the rehabilitation clinic, he knew she had aged from worry as opposed to time.
Lex rolled back into the hallway, knowing he should leave and allow the Kents to have their reunion in private, but yet was unable to draw his eyes away from the drama playing out before him.
Martha took a hesitant step toward Jerome, her hand partially raised, then stopped and laid it over her heart. He watched as she tried to calm herself, as if not really believing the image before her was real. He could see her tremble and found himself worrying that she might faint.
Jerome was teasing Albert, cajoling the older man to accept more milk. When he had succeeded in his mission, he turned in the general direction of his mother, but his eyes were on the people sitting at the tables, trying to see who he could serve next.
Martha reached forward again, her hands moving of their own volition, as if she wanted nothing more than to push back the stray curl that somehow always seemed to fall in the middle of the boy's forehead. Jerome caught the movement and looked over in greeting, a bright welcoming smile starting to form, but it quickly disappeared, replaced by shock as recognition hit him.
"Clark?" Martha begged, her hoarse voice cutting through the normal late-lunch chattering.
The pitcher in the boy's hand shook so much that he turned slightly to set it on the table closest to him. Lex could see him swallow hard before turning back to face his mother.
"Sweetheart, please," she entreated, her voice breaking, as she took a stumbling step toward him.
Without another word, the boy rushed forward and wrapped himself around her.
"Clarkclarkclarkclarkclarkclarkclarkclarkclarkclark." Martha sobbed, her hands clenching in the back of her son's shirt. "My son, my sweet son," her voice climbed higher. "Oh God, my son."
"I'm here, Mama. I'm here. I'm here." Clark placed both of his hands around her face and held her, absorbing her features, then placed a tender kiss on her forehead, over each of her eyebrows, on both of her cheeks, and chastely on her lips.
Martha squeezed him harder as if afraid to let him go for fear he would disappear.
"Clark?" a raspy voice called into the now silent room as everyone watched the second act unfolding. Lex looked over and saw a tall blond man trembling in the doorway. Jonathan Kent, no doubt, although Lex couldn't remember him from the rehabilitation center.
Martha let her son go, allowing the scene to play out without her interference.
"Son," Jonathan started, then stopped, swallowing hard, making Lex realize that the boy's nervous habit had been learned by watching his father. "Please," the older man beseeched with such longing that Lex's eyes burned with tears. "Forgive me."
"Dad," Clark whispered, then threw himself at the older man, wrapping him up in a bear hug. Jonathan gripped the back of Clark's shirt with one hand and put the other in Clark's hair, holding him so tight that Lex wondered briefly if the boy could breathe.
Martha joined the men in her life and they enveloped her into their cocoon. Their heads were all pressed together, and Lex could hear their sobs of happiness.
Lex slowly backed his chair further down the hallway as the room burst into applause. Clark was loved, as Lex had suspected, but now the boy knew it as well. There was no more need for Jerome.
Wiping his eyes as he rolled into the crisp afternoon, Lex chuckled, finally understanding why he'd been so self-absorbed in his previous life. Doing the right thing not only sucked, it hurt like hell.
"Joey?" Thomas asked, startled, as Lex rolled past him.
Never stopping, Lex continued to his office. "Hey, Thomas. I forgot I had the UG meeting tonight. I just need to get my briefcase, then I'll be on my way." Lex felt like he was racing the clock, knowing he needed to get out of the church before Jer...Clark brought his parents by to see where he'd been living.
Appearing in the doorway, Thomas asked, "Where's Jerome, Joey?"
Finding the files he was looking for, Lex answered distractedly, "He's tied up at the moment."
The older man's incredulous tone drew Lex's attention back to his friend. "No, Thomas. Not literally."
"Because while Joey's in a wheelchair, Thomas knows Joey can be dangerous."
Lex returned Thomas's surprised look.
"Thomas has the squashed toes to prove it," Thomas continued, a sly grin on his face.
Lex chuckled as he put the files in his briefcase. He snapped the locks closed, then dropped the case into the tote on the back of his chair.
"Thomas will send Jerome after Joey as soon as Jerome arrives," Thomas promised solemnly.
"No!" Lex shouted, then lowered his voice. "That won't be necessary."
Sighing, Lex realized that an escape without some sort of explanation wasn't going to happen. "Jerome's parents have come to take him home," he said in soft voice, surprised that uttering the simple words could hurt so much.
Thomas staggered into the room and dropped into the nearest chair. "What did Joey do?" he whispered.
The accusation, although there was no heat behind it, felt achingly familiar. Lex wondered if he'd been confronted a lot in his past life. "Only what needed doing."
"But what of Joey?"
"What do you mean?" Lex asked, trying to sound affronted, but failing.
"What will become of Joey?"
Lex rolled around the desk and laid a hand over his friend's. "Joey will do what he was doing before Jerome came onto the scene. He'll...I'll finish up with the UG, then find something else to occupy my time."
Thomas put his free hand over Lex's, cocooning it between his own. "But will Joey smile anymore?"
Lex felt his lips tremble. A lie would be so easy to toss out, but as he looked into the face of his friend he knew he couldn't insult him with such casual disregard. "Eventually," he whispered.
Thomas leaned forward and Lex unconsciously copied the movement until they were sitting with their foreheads pressed against each other's. "Maybe Joey and Thomas could go on a road trip," Thomas whispered after several moments of silence.
Lex nodded as he sat back in his chair. "East or west?"
"Thomas is thinking Boston. Thomas hears there's lots of treasure to be found in Boston."
"Yeah, but if Joey took Thomas to Boston, then Mike would have all of Mrs. Dannison's cookies to himself."
"Thomas has clearly not thought this plan through." Thomas crossed his eyes and grinned.
Lex lifted his hands and shrugged. "That's all I'm saying." Rolling back a few feet, he rubbed his hands together and checked the room to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything. "Okay. If you'll tell Mike I'll be back at the normal time, I think I'm set." He noticed Thomas shaking his head. "What?"
"Thomas is going with Joey."
"Thomas," Lex said, annoyed.
Growling, Lex tried again. "Thomas."
Thomas crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow. "Joey."
Knowing he was beat, Lex sighed heavily. "All right, but I'm buying dinner."
"Okay," Thomas said brightly.
"You agreed to that awfully fast."
Thomas flashed Lex a remarkably innocent smile.
"Uh-huh." Lex turned his chair and headed into the hallway. "You know, there was a time when people actually feared me."
Thomas patted him on the shoulder as he moved to Lex's side. "Thomas is sure that Joey used to be very scary."
Lex sighed heavily and tried to ignore the snickering man beside him.
Dinner at the Boxcar Cafe had been a simple one, and Lex found himself grateful for Thomas' company. The two had enjoyed a simple meal while Lex outlined his strategy for presenting the Wayne-backed proposal to the council. Surprisingly, Thomas had given Lex several insights into how to present the plan.
Lex knew the homeless were practically invisible in society, and knew the reciprocal wasn't necessarily true. During the course of their discussion, Thomas had proven himself a keen observer of the human condition and very savvy when it came to street politics.
"Does Joey feel that?" Thomas whispered as they walked toward the UG headquarters.
Rolling his chair to a stop, Lex could feel the malevolence practically pulsing toward him. "Yes." He paused and scanned the street. "Do you see anyone?"
"No. Joey should have brought Jerome."
Lex shook his head. "Jerome is going home."
"Joey's not safe. Jerome would never go home if Joey wasn't safe."
Grabbing his hand, Lex forced Thomas' attention back to him. "Which is why Jerome is never going to know. Jerome needs his family, Thomas. I'm not going to make him choose."
The little man didn't look convinced.
"Okay," Thomas said petulantly, although Lex could tell by his face that he understood. "But Thomas is going to stick like Elmer's."
"People are going to talk," Lex said impishly.
Thomas started to respond, then shook his head when Lex's tease penetrated his worry, and grinned at him. But as soon as the smile appeared, it disappeared and he looked around startled. "It's gone."
Lex scanned the street again, aware that the malice had dissipated. "So it has." He propelled himself forward. "Well, come along. We got rumors to start."
The shouting was making Lex's head ache. He rubbed his eyebrows and wished he had thought far enough ahead to have put a small bottle of aspirin in his briefcase. He looked around the table, not surprised to find several members standing and bellowing at people seated across the table.
He had known the Wayne Industries proposal was going to create a controversy, but had hoped that it wouldn't be quite so divisive.
"What do you think, Arbitrator?" Jamal boomed, his voice drowning out the others.
When the voices quieted, Lex said, "I think the Council has a right to be worried."
"What?" several leaders asked, startled.
Lex motioned for everyone to sit down. They complied, watching him curiously as they waited for their explanation. Unconsciously, Lex began to rub his temple. He opened his mouth to speak but Joran from the Warriors interrupted him.
"Yo, A. You looks like you could use something. You want an Advil, Tylenol, Midol, Ecstasy, Bayer, Excedrin? You name it, I got it for you. No needs for you to be in pain."
Several of the leaders eyes grew wide at Joran's audacity at offering the Arbitrator an illegal substance, while others sat back and simply watched Lex.
It was all he could do to stifle his sigh.
"Midol? You're offering me Midol? Come over here, you pussy. I may be in a wheelchair but I'm pretty sure my hormone-laden fists can knock you upside your head."
The table roared with laughter as Lex once again passed their trial. Someone jostled him good-naturedly and it was all Lex could do not to groan in pain. He nodded at Joran, who flashed him an embarrassed smile in return.
When everyone finally quieted down, all eyes once again focused on him.
"I wish Ethan had his license already so I could just drop this in his lap." Lex nodded to the young man who was being put through law school by the UG council to represent their future interests. "We've gone through this proposal a hundred times and both of us have come to the same conclusion. On the surface, it looks perfect."
Leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table, Ronnel asked, "On the surface?"
Lex nodded. "We've both researched the proposal and the municipal codes. Ethan's even gone through all of the Gotham Council records for the last two years, and we can't find anything that even suggests that there is anything wrong with the plan. And frankly, that worries me."
"Because the City's up to something?" Jamal asked.
"I don't know." Lex leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temple again. "The thing we have to remember is that all the large cities around the country are watching our situation. No one thinks we can make the UG work, although I think a lot of people are rooting for us, including, believe it or not, Gotham's city officials. It could be that everything is perfect because they don't want to be seen as trying to take advantage of us, and I'm willing to admit that I could be overanalyzing the situation. While going through everything with a fine tooth comb might not be necessary in this particular situation, it's probably not a bad habit to get into because eventually someone, someday, is going to try something. We have to be ready for that sort of subtle deceit."
"So what about the plan?" another leader asked.
Lex straightened in his chair. "Well, the thing to remember is that we don't have to send a counter-proposal for another two weeks. I suggest we break the plan down into its elements and continue to research this until the last possible minute. I think--"
"Why in the fuck do we care what he thinks?" Elijah Watson shouted, jumping to his feet and glaring at Lex. "He ain't nothing more than Bruce Wayne's lapdog."
"I. Beg. Your. Pardon," Lex said so coldly that several of the leaders pushed themselves away from the table.
"Deny it, bitch. Deny you run in his yard."
Lex felt an icy fist squeeze around his stomach, knowing that Elijah was making a power play, but not sure what it was the Daggers' leader thought he had. "Deny it? How could I possibly deny it?" he asked mockingly. "After all, my picture was on the society page last week, hobnobbing with old Brucie himself. I must say, I looked stunning in my Armani tux."
The leaders at the table laughed nervously as they watched the two men volley back and forth at each other.
"Is that the way you're going to play this out?"
"Play what out, Elijah? If you have something to say, just say it."
Elijah put his fists on the table and leaned forward, grinning in triumph. "Deny you're Lex Luthor."
"Dog," Joran chuckled. "Hook me up with your supplier cause I wanna be trippin' on whatever you're ridin'."
"I thought Luthor was dead," the leader of the Sevens said, confused.
"Naw, he was in a coma after rescuing that reporter chick," Jamal chimed in. "The paper said he was kidnapped two years ago. The kidnapper was found dead last month, although there wasn't much of him left to find. Speculation has it that Senatori tried to blackmail the old man and when Luthor wouldn't pay, he killed the kid."
Lex's gaze never left Elijah's. The Daggers' leader ran his tongue slowly over his top teeth. "Well, lackey?"
"I am no man's lackey, Elijah."
"Perhaps, yes. Perhaps, no." Grinning and drawing each word out slowly, Elijah asked, "So tell us, Alexander Joseph, if I were to make a phone call, would I become a rich man?"
"I suppose that would depend on who you called."
Standing to his full height, Elijah asked in a deliberate voice, "Are you or are you not Lex Luthor?"
"Yes, I am," Lex said without hesitation, his eyes never leaving Elijah's.
The room exploded with shouts as the leaders jumped to their feet. Lex watched Elijah grin wolfishly at him, then slowly take his seat, as if totally unaware of the chaos swirling around them.
After several minutes of chaos, Jamal took charge of the meeting. "Everybody sit down and shut the fuck up!"
Still muttering, the leaders took their seats, many of them still bouncing their gazes between Elijah and Lex.
"Arbitrator," Jamal said in a respectful tone, which surprised Lex.
"I am not now nor have I ever been a lackey of Bruce Wayne," Lex said softly, looking at Jamal for the first time. "I do not have any knowledge about his intentions or his reasons behind this plan. I have no agenda regarding the UG, except wanting to give those without a voice a means to be heard."
Jamal nodded solemnly and looking distinctly uncomfortable. "What about the other stuff?"
"What other stuff?"
"The kidnapping, the rescue."
"I don't see how that's germane to the proceedings before the council."
"Arbitrator," Ronnel pleaded quietly.
Lex closed his eyes for the first time and sighed softly. "When I woke up from my coma, I had no memory of Lex Luthor. I was kidnapped, but when I couldn't remember the codes for my bank accounts, I was beaten and left for dead in Gotham. Thomas found me and Father Mike took me in. I decided," Lex laughed harshly, "that it might be a good time to start from scratch, seeing how being rich didn't seem to be working for me."
"But you're a billionaire," Ronnel pressed.
"Look at me, Ronnel. Do I look like billionaire? I am exactly what you see."
"I don't know how we can trust you anymore," the leader of the Dragons said sadly, sounding betrayed.
"Then don't," Lex said with finality, ignoring the leaders' confused reactions. "The UG isn't about Lex Luthor or Joseph Kent. It's about the gangs and taking back your power and protecting your neighborhoods. I have been nothing more than an advisor to that dream. As of this moment, I...tender my resignation so as not to prejudice this council or distract it with issues not before it."
While several members gasped, no one tried to stop him as he rolled toward the door.
"Well, now that we have that settled," Lex heard Elijah say as he closed the door behind him.
Swallowing hard, Lex bit the inside of his cheek. Maybe Boston wasn't a bad idea after all.
Lex had always thought of life as a journey. But as he sat at the entrance of Gotham Central Park, he realized that he was at a crossroads in his personal travels; caught between his present and his past, between being the spoiled, self-absorbed heir and a defrocked arbitrator, between living a quiet life and being in the center ring of a media circus. He was even caught between Thomas, who was probably waiting for him at UG headquarters, and Jerome, who was no doubt lingering around the church.
"Well, you're certainly having a bad fucking day, aren't you, Luthor?" Lex laughed harshly at himself.
He knew it was simply a matter of time before someone called the newspapers or his father. No doubt there would be a suitable cash reward for whoever shoved him back into the limelight, no matter which route they chose.
While Watson's intent was far from pure, Lex couldn't blame the Daggers' leader for questioning Lex's position with the council. And yet a part of him screamed in rage, angry at having his hard work ripped away from him simply because fate decided to grant Lionel Luthor a son.
What was it about being a Luthor that automatically poisoned everything and everyone they touched? Bearing the moniker was worse than carrying the plague.
Hell, even the Bat was worried that he'd somehow seize power and use it for his own personal gain.
What was it that everyone saw in him? And if it was so obvious, why was he fighting his destiny so hard?
'Clark,' his subconscious murmured.
Lex rolled his head back on his shoulders and shouted at the top of his lungs. "Screw Clark!" He dropped his chin to his chest and laughed harshly. "And Jerome, too."
Had Lex Luthor really been so awful that it was better for Jerome to 'play along' with 'Joseph' rather than risk awakening the sleeping beast? What kind of animal had he been that even his alleged best friend was willing to accept his new identity without question?
Lex rubbed the angry tears away from his face with the back of his wrist.
A wave of malice washed over him, and he gasped at its intensity.
"Of course. What better way to end the day," he whispered to himself, desperately trying to prevent the hysterical laughter bubbling within him from escaping. Once he felt he had control over his emotions, he shouted into the night, "I suppose you want a piece of me, too."
"Yes," a voice hissed back from the darkness, startling him.
Hitting his chest with both hands, Lex yelled, "Well, here I am! Bring it on!"
A shadow separated itself from a nearby tree and moved deeper into the park.
"Come on, you coward! Surely you can take a man in a wheelchair!" Without thought, Lex rolled after the fleeing figure.
Several minutes passed before sanity reasserted control and he braked to a screeching halt. "I must be losing my mind," he chastised himself incredulously.
He took several deep breaths and released them slowly as he looked up and down the path, trying to determine where he was. While he wasn't quite in the middle of the park, he was in deep enough to worry about being caught in the open by himself. The UG might rule the streets, and he was fairly certain that the news of his fall hadn't yet been made public, but there were still enough independent agents roaming around the city to make his safety a questionable thing.
Lex turned his chair, intent on rolling back to the entrance when he heard a quiet beeping noise over the pounding of his heart. Looking to his left, he saw a small dilapidated cardboard box sitting just off the path, a red light pulsating rhythmically from inside. In spite of every survival instinct he had screaming at him to run, he rolled himself off the path and gingerly lifted the lid, only to find enough explosives to put a good-sized hole in the park. The LCD display counted steadily downward. Forty-two. Forty-one. Forty.
"Well," he whispered, caught between amusement and horror, "isn't this just icing?"
Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven.
Lex shook himself out of his daze and looked up to find Thomas jogging toward him.
"Run," he tried to shout, but it came out as a strangled whisper. Struggling to push his chair back onto the cement pathway, he cleared his throat and tried again. "Run, Thomas! Get out of here!"
A blonde shrugged her shoulders at him, conveying her helplessness. "No time."
There was never enough time.
"Joey, what's wrong?" Thomas called out questioningly, picking up his pace to close the distance between them.
"No, Thomas! There’s a bomb! Get out of here!" Lex almost wept with relief when the back wheels of his chair final climbed over the lip of the cement and allowed him onto the pathway.
Never breaking his stride, Thomas circled him, grabbed the handles and threw his weight into the chair, pushing with all his might to get it rolling. Each step closer to the entrance had them moving just a little bit faster, but Lex knew they weren't going to make it.
Never enough time.
"Leave me!" he demanded.
"Shut up, Joey."
The shock wave from the explosion picked them both up and slammed them onto the ground. Every muscle and bone in Lex's body screamed its anguish, and he struggled to stay conscious.
"Thomas," he gasped, arching against the dead grass as pain radiated up his spine. He became aware of warm hands on his face as his body relaxed from its spasm.
"Joey, are you okay?"
Lex nodded, trying to breathe and laugh at the same time.
But before Thomas could complete his question, another explosion rocked the park in the distance, then another and another and another.
A soft beeping penetrated through his shock. Lex turned his head and spotted a paper bag sitting twenty feet away.
Never enough time.
His gaze met the horrified brown eyes of his friend. "Forgive me, Thomas."
"I do, Lex. I do," Thomas whispered, as he laid his body over Lex's.
The last time he’d hurt this bad, Lex thought as he drifted toward consciousness, was waking up after the meteor shower. While he had survived his share of mutant attacks, nothing had hurt as bad as the sky falling on top of him.
"Is there any chance you might have some Russian blood? Because I'm starting to believe you're somehow genetically linked to Rasputin."
Ignoring the heavy weight on his chest which was making it almost impossible to breath, Lex blinked his eyes open and tried to focus on the man squatting near his head. While his vision blurred in and out, he knew he would never forget the face grinning down at him.
"Ah, I see the recognition in your eyes. Good. I would have been disappointed if you'd forgotten me."
Thomas, Lex thought as his mind started to clear. Where was Thomas?
He tried to sit up, but the burden on his chest kept him pinned. Looking down, Lex stared into the dead, open eyes of his friend. "No," he whispered in denial, his voice raw with grief. "Not Thomas."
"Ah, yes, Thomas," Freud gloated. "After all, isn't the price of friendship with a Luthor death?"
"You bastard!" Lex screamed in angry grief, trying to sit up, but unable to move under the weight of his friend's body. "He didn't deserve this."
"Sure he did." Freud laughed harshly. "He denied me your death."
Clutching the back of Thomas' shirt, Lex whispered brokenly. "Forgive me, Thomas."
"Thomas," Freud said coldly, standing and kicking the body off of Lex, "isn't the one you should be worried about. Your moments on this planet are numbered, son."
"Why?" Lex asked, curling in on himself. "I don't understand."
"There is a certain deliciousness to letting you die without understanding," Freud taunted as he stood beside Lex's body. "But that would be doing a disservice to a great man."
Lex blinked in confusion. "My father?"
"No, not your father!" Freud shouted angrily, kicking Lex hard in the ribs. "Dominic Senatori."
Lex gasped in pain, unable to breathe.
"Dominic served your father faithfully for fifteen years. He did all of Lionel's dirty work so that your father wouldn't have to get his hands sullied."
Freud kicked him again, and Lex couldn't prevent the cry which escaped his lips.
"Your father told him to take care of the Sullivan girl, and he tried, but you ruined everything by trying to play the hero. Just what were you trying to accomplish anyway?" The question was punctuated by another kick.
"Friend," Lex gasped between clenched teeth.
"Luthors don't have friends. They have pawns, servants, lackeys, acquaintances, associates, enemies, but never friends."
Lex managed to roll out of the way as Freud tried to kick him again. Freud didn't seem to notice. "Dominic knew you were lying about the amnesia. He knew if he could get your codes that Lionel would forgive him, but you had to ruin that as well."
Lex rolled to his stomach and tried to pull himself through the grass, away from the angry man who was viciously kicking his legs.
"Do you know what Lionel did to him?" Freud asked angrily, reaching down and flipping Lex onto his back. "Do you have any clue?"
Lex's gaze focused on the automatic in the man's hand and relaxed, knowing his pain would be over soon.
"Killing me won't bring Dominic back," Lex whispered.
"You're right. It won't," Freud said quietly. "But it will destroy your father to know you were alive all this time. That despite his wealth, he couldn't find you, let alone protect you."
"If it's any consolation, I'm sorry for your loss."
Freud straightened over him and pointed the barrel of the gun toward his chest. "It's not."
"Lex!" a voice shouted in the distance. "No!"
Freud pulled the trigger. Lex flinched, expecting to feel the lead burn its way through his chest, but as the seconds passed he was surprised to find himself intact. Rolling to his side, he found Clark, gun in hand, standing over a prone Freud.
"Clark," Lex whispered.
Clark looked at him, startled, then raced back to his side. Dropping to his knees, he started to reach forward but stopped, hesitant to make contact as if worried that his touch would cause Lex pain.
"He killed Thomas," Lex gasped out. "He killed Thomas."
A look of pure hatred crossed the boy's face as he watched Freud struggle to gain his feet. Clark started to rise, but Lex grabbed a hold of his shirt and held on as tight as he could. "No, Clark. Not you. Give me the gun."
Clark knelt again, looking confused. "What?"
"Give. Me. The. Gun," Lex said with all the authority he could muster, even as he managed to coax the weapon out of Clark's hand. "His blood is mine."
"Wha-? Lex, no."
"Arbitrator!" another voice called out as people converged on their spot. "What happened? What's going on?"
Jamal and the leadership of the UG stepped in front of Lex, a look of confusion on their faces as they took in the destruction around them.
"He killed Thomas," Lex gritted out, never lowering his gun.
As one, the pack turned toward Freud.
Thomas was dead.
Thomas was dead.
Lights pulsated, red and angry.
Lex wished he would just lose consciousness and be done with the jumbled images.
Familiar and strange.
Thomas was dead.
Why hadn't he been able to save the gentle man like he'd been able to save Chloe?
Because he was a Luthor.
And Luthors were poison.
All of his good works had been wiped out in an explosion of pain.
At least Clark was safe, was with his parents.
One good thing had happened.
But Thomas was dead.
Bright, sterile lights shone from above, making him feel exposed, naked, as if all his sins were on display for anyone to examine.
"Mr. Luthor, I'm Doctor Adams. Do you know where you are?"
Callous fingers touched him impersonally, probed him, made him feel like the mutant he knew he was. Needles pricked his skin and he blinked back tears of pain even as he embraced the ache, knowing that this was his reward, knowing he couldn't escape his fate.
He remembered a crow and corn and the world exploding around him. He remembered his father's stringent tones telling him that Luthors didn't cry, didn't show any form of weakness. 'These are only medical tests. Buck up, for God's sakes.'
"Mr. Luthor? You're in Wayne Research Hospital. Can you tell me how you're feeling?"
There hadn't been corn this time, nor a bird; but the world had exploded just the same.
"Lex, this mute game is growing rather vexing. The paramedics on the scene said you were able to respond to their questions. So, why won't you talk to me?"
Lex continued to stare out the hospital window at the idyllic garden in the enclosed courtyard, a scene unmarred by ugliness or violence, a haven for those more worthy than he.
"As soon as the doctors release you, I'll take you back home, back to Metropolis. You'll be safe there. I made a mistake. I'm man enough to admit it. I should never have sent you to Smallville. Your destiny has always been by my side."
To rule the world -- the future everyone saw in his eyes and feared.
"Why not give them focus," taunted the dark shadow standing in the corner of the room. "I was right about you all along, wasn't I, Luthor? You sounded so passionate about wanting to give the voiceless a voice, but it was never about them, was it? It was about you and power. With one phrase, you turned a political machine into a killing one. If I hadn't arrived when I did, your henchmen would have killed Jolliet instead of having him stand trial. Who do you think you are, determining who lives and who dies? I've heard your father speak. I know how he raised you. You have a destiny. Fine. Just pursue it outside of Gotham. I may only be the washed up local sheriff, but I will defend this territory from the likes of you until someone finally takes me out of the game. Leave my city, Luthor. You're not wanted here."
"Lex Luthor, organizer of the UG. You created your own little United Nations." The reporter circled his bed. "Only this time it wasn't about peace, it was about power. And if you don't mind my saying so, it was bloody brilliant. Gotham has had its share of villains in the past, but no one has ever put the time and effort into building a power base like you did. You almost succeeded. What do you have to say for yourself, Luthor? The public has a right to know. Was Jolliet a disgruntled employee? Or was he trying to seize power for himself? Come on, you can tell me."
A warm hand gently caressed his face and Lex awoke to find Father Mike standing over him.
"How are you doing, child?"
Lex whimpered at the compassion he heard in the priest's voice and pressed his cheek into Mike's palm.
"I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get here, but I had to arrange for Thomas' funeral. They were going to bury him in City Central, which is nothing more than Gotham's version of the Pauper's Field. We couldn't have that now, could we?"
Lex shook his head and started to pull away, but Mike clasped his face with both hands. "It wasn't your fault, child. I know it, and more importantly, God knows it."
Lex blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears.
"The nurses told me that your father has already been here. I'm sure that wasn't pleasant. They also said they've caught three or four reporters skulking about the floor and that one actually got in here. No doubt, someone from the Inquirer. I swear their reporters have absolutely no scruples at all. Kristine, did you know I did her baptism although I had no idea she was a nurse now, said she thought she saw the Bat leaving last night. That isn't going to make Jerome - I mean Clark - happy. All in all, child, it sounds like you've had a fairly rough couple of days."
Lex allowed himself a small nod, since he was unable to turn his gaze away from the kindly blue eyes searching his face.
"I know you don't want the spotlight, child. You never have. I know you're standing at a crossroad, trying to decide where to go, feeling like the entire world has abandoned you. But it hasn't, Lex, it hasn't. And yes, we've known who you were all along. But we supported your decision for a fresh start. Please forgive us that little deception."
Lex sniffed, but nodded.
"Do you know what you're going to do, child?"
Lex shook his head, even as he brought his hands up and rested them on top of the priest's, trying to soak up the comfort he found in the tender touch.
"I’ll wager you've had a lot of people talking at you the last few days. Am I right?"
Lex nodded again.
"I'm even willing to wager Mrs. Dannison's next batch of chocolate chip cookies that you'd give your eyeteeth for a little time to think things through in peace, without having to deal with people and their agendas. Am I right?"
Lex looked at the priest warily, unsure where his line of questioning was headed.
"Say the word, child, and I'll grant that wish."
Lex shook his head, knowing that he would only bring destruction to the kind-hearted priest. No, it was better to keep him at arm's length. He tried to pull his head back, but Father Mike tightened his grip on Lex's face and refused to let go.
"I've just about had enough of your nobility, Joseph. This isn't about protecting me or St. Agnes. This is about your soul. Claim it, child. Hold on to it. You've done good work. You know you have. Let the idiots talk about power plays. We know the truth. Do you want to be saved, child? Do you?"
Lex squeezed his eyes shut, even as he gasped the word, "Yes."
"Then say the word, child. Say it!" the priest demanded.
"Sanctuary!" Lex cried out, although there was no volume to his plea.
"Thy will be done." Soft lips pressed gently against his forehead. "Go to sleep and trust me. It'll be better in the morning."
He dreamed he could smell the faint waft of vanilla from the candle he refused to burn for sentimental reasons, but always kept too close to the radiator, so that the heat had a tendency to extract the fragrance from the wax. His throat tightened longingly as he blinked his eyes open and focused on the ceiling. The goofy grin of Opus the Penguin smiled back down at him.
He gasped quietly, pressing one hand to his chest.
Father Mike had done it.
He smiled as he took in the picture above him, one of Thomas' treasures. It had been a promotional poster for the book "A Wish for Wings that Worked." He had no idea where Thomas had gotten it, considering the book had been out for over a decade. Not that it really mattered. It had always been a gentle reminder that even though he was crippled, he had friends who would help him soar.
He was home.
He had lived in boarding schools, mansions and penthouses and yet had never felt as safe as he did in this tiny room.
He remembered them all, and his eyes burned with unshed tears.
Thomas' final gift.
"Ahh, I see you're awake," Father Mike said jovially as he pushed the door open with his hip, careful to keep the tray in his hands balanced.
"Ah. Ah," Mike scolded with a gentle smile, putting the tray on the table beside the bed. "We never question miracles. We simply accept them." The priest moved to the bottom of the bed frame. "Ready to sit up?"
Lex nodded and the priest started to turn the old-fashioned crank which lifted the top portion of the bed. "Dr. Wilson says you're doing much better than he expected. He considers you a miracle patient."
"I suppose you also told him not to question miracles," Lex said with a small smile.
Mike stopped his movements for a moment and flashed Lex a grin before he went back to cranking. "That's the problem with modern society. No one takes things at face value anymore. Everyone's always looking for the how and why of things."
Lex raised an eyebrow. "And that's a bad thing?"
Mike stood, leaned both hands on the bed frame and fixed Lex with a gentle look. "No, not as long as one leaves room for faith."
Mike moved up the side of the bed and fixed the pillows behind Lex's back before he placed the tray on Lex's lap.
"You do realize that the world is going to come knocking on your door pretty soon?" Lex rubbed his finger along the edge of the tray.
"Aye. But isn't the church a place for the world to come."
Lex lifted his gaze to meet Mike's.
"As long as they stay in the main chapel, of course. The living quarters are strictly off limits. Lucky for you, your office is in the living quarters."
"Lucky for me?" Lex asked, a small tease in his voice.
"Lucky for me, lucky for you, lucky for St. Agnes. The end of the month reports are due next week and I know you'll be wanting to help me with them."
Lex frowned. "Don't even think about touching my spreadsheets, Mike."
"You know I'm more than capable of--"
"I mean it. The last time--"
"You promised not to bring that up anymore."
"So we're in agreement?"
"It appears we are."
They grinned at each other. However, Lex's smile began to wane.
"None of that now," Father Mike said softly.
The priest patted Lex's leg with one hand, while pointing to his food with the other. "Not right now, child. Soon you and I will have a nice long talk, but for now you need to eat. You have a guest waiting."
"What? Who? I don't--"
"I think you won't mind this one."
"It's up to you, of course. I can always send her away."
"Picked up on that, did you?"
"Mike," Lex pleaded in a whisper.
"She's leaving town tonight and wanted to say good-bye."
Lex closed his eyes.
"Okay," Lex mouthed in acquiescence.
"As soon as you eat some of your soup."
Frowning, Lex opened his eyes. However, the priest was scowling at him, his arms crossed over his chest, a look of determination set stubbornly upon his face.
"You sure you don't have some Baptist in you, Mike? I bet you could give one hell of a fire and brimstone sermon."
The priest grinned, ruining the effect of his posturing. "Don't force me to play airplane and hangar, child."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Care to test that theory?"
Obediently, Lex picked up the spoon and took several sips.
Once the priest was satisfied, he stood and headed for the door. "You keep eating. I'll send her in. And Joseph," Mike said once he reached the door.
"Yeah, Mike?" he yawned.
"She'd better bring an empty bowl back with her."
Lex sighed as the priest left, and ate several more spoonfuls, knowing Father Mike wasn't kidding. He was almost done with the soup, when there was a knock at his door.
"Come in, Mrs. Kent." Lex turned to put the tray on the bedside table, but couldn't quite position it properly. Martha took the tray from him and straightened it so it wouldn't fall.
"Hello, Lex," she greeted quietly.
Lex patted the right side of his bed to indicate that she could sit on the mattress without causing him any harm. "I understand you're heading back to Smallville tonight."
She nodded, and he noted that she looked years younger than she had in the food kitchen. "The Millers are taking care of the cattle, but we don't want to impose on their good graces for too long."
He nodded, unsure what to say.
Martha seemed to notice his hesitance and took one of his hands in hers. "Thank you, Lex. Thank you for giving me back my son."
Lex cleared his throat. "He loves you and Mr. Kent very much. He was just scared to go home."
She rubbed his hand, but didn't meet his gaze. "The not knowing was the worst part of the nightmare," she confessed in a whisper. "Not knowing if he was alive or dead, if he had found his way or was lost."
"Clark is a good boy, Mrs. Kent. I don't know what happened to make him feel like he couldn't stay in Smallville, but I do know that you and Mr. Kent raised him right and he will always carry that foundation with him no matter where he goes."
"Thank you." Martha leaned forward and pressed a tender kiss to his cheek before sitting back. "Clark told us about his time here. I was under the impression that you didn't remember anything from before the accident."
"I didn't. At least, not until--"
Martha patted his hand to let him know that he didn't have to continue. "But how did you know who Clark was then? He told us that he was going by his middle name."
Lex prayed he wasn't blushing as the memory of how he came to discover Clark's identity came back to him. "He dropped his wallet."
"Ah," she said knowingly.
Lex squeezed her hand. "Take care of him."
Martha blinked at him in surprise.
"He's not coming back with us, Lex."
"What?" he asked, startled. "But he has to, he--"
"He's staying here at St. Agnes."
"The hell he is," Lex said angrily.
"He told us that he's found his destiny."
Lex couldn't help the incredulousness lacing his voice, "And that being?"
"Walking by your side."
All the breath left Lex's lungs with a whoosh. "No," he mouthed. "No," he whispered, then said it again in a louder voice. "No. He's supposed to go home."
"He says he is home, that he's made a home for himself here at St. Agnes."
"Mrs. Kent," Lex gasped, "you have to know...I'd never...No, he needs to go home. Now!"
Martha petted his chest, trying to calm him. "Calm down, Lex. You shouldn't be getting upset."
"No!" he half-whimpered, half-shouted. "He can't...he has...God damn it...he has to go, otherwise...otherwise, it's all been for nothing."
"What's been for nothing?"
"My...redemption...don't you see...he has to go." Lex flailed his arms angrily, hitting the tray and causing its contents to spill onto the floor. "You have to make him go, Martha. You have to. God, he has to..."
"Clark! Clark!" He could hear her shouting, but he couldn't seem to focus on the significance of her words.
Moments later he was embraced by warm steel.
"Sh, Lex, I got you. I got you," he heard Clark whispering by his ear.
"Clark, you have to go home. You have to go with your parents."
"I'm not going anywhere, Lex."
"No." Lex tried to fight against the possessive restraint. "You have to. It's the only way."
"The only way to what?"
Lex continued to struggle, although he was rapidly losing strength. "To save my soul. To save you."
"You have saved me, Lex," Clark murmured against his neck, even as he gently rocked Lex within his arms. "You have."
Lex shook his head, but stopped fighting, as he felt himself starting to slip into unconsciousness. He was cognizant of the fact that the head of the bed was being lowered and that Clark's grip around him never lessened.
"Now let me save you," Clark's voice said, following him into sleep.
"This is so childish, Lex."
Lex continued to wheel down the hallway toward his office.
"You can't ignore me forever," Clark said, a tinge of petulance coloring his tone.
Rolling to his desk, Lex turned on his computer and pulled the deposit slips from his upper drawer. He was peripherally aware of Clark standing in his doorway, but made no movement to acknowledge him. He opened the banker's bag and carefully dumped the contents onto the top of his desk, separating the checks from the cash and change.
He glanced quickly at the clock and calculated how much time he had to finish his deposit and enter the donations into the bookkeeping program before Father Mike showed up to take the deposit to the bank. Lex hated the fact that due to his slow recuperation his morning routines were taking longer, thus throwing off the rest of his day.
Clark watched him for several minutes before he sighed heavily and disappeared down the hallway. Lex concentrated on not pausing in his movements, not wanting to give Clark any indication that he had noticed his departure.
Lex had awoken the morning after the Kents had gone home, hoping against hope that Clark had changed his mind and gone back to the farm. Instead, Clark had greeted him with a breakfast tray and a smile that would have drained several small power plants if facial expressions were energy based.
No amount of pleading or cajoling could convince Clark that he had made the wrong decision. Even the suggestion of going home for a vacation had been met with scoffing amusement.
The first few days he was back at St. Agnes, Lex had been confined to bed and had spent his days reading and watching television. He couldn't help but wonder if there weren't any other news stories besides him. Each newscast was filled with stories of his kidnapping, his physical condition, his work with the UG, the attack in the park and his subsequent disappearance. No stone of his life had been left unturned, no facet left unexamined, and there were moments when he longed for the blessing of amnesia. Having every mistake and sin paraded in the public arena only solidified his reasons to keep Clark at arm's length. Luthors sullied everything they touched and Lex vowed to do everything in his limited scope of power to keep Clark untainted.
Besides, he knew that Batman was giving him a finite grace period in which to recuperate, time which would be quickly coming to an end. He also suspected that his father was already working on a way to blackmail him into returning to Metropolis.
Despite Lex's refusing to acknowledge his presence for nearly a week, Clark remained strong in his conviction to stay by Lex's side.
Lex double-checked his figures and placed the cash and checks in a banker's bag just as Father Mike entered his office.
"I just finished." Lex smiled in acknowledgment and handed the bag to him. "Profits are up. You must have given one heck of a sermon," he teased.
"It wasn't too shabby if I do say so myself. I have to admit, I was feeling rather inspired." The priest sat in one of the chairs and took a moment to study Lex. "Advent is about to start and I wanted to put folk in the proper frame of mind."
"The giving frame?"
"Hush, boy, you make us sound like a business." Mike raised a quelling eyebrow, which only made Lex snicker. The priest smiled, then sighed.
"What is it, Mike?"
"Why are you doing it, child?"
Lex closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh of his own, knowing exactly what the priest was asking. "Mike, you know as well as I do that my life is about to become incredibly complicated. Even if I'm able to resist whatever plot my father is sure to throw my way, I've been given an ultimatum to leave town. Considering the last UG meeting, there really isn't a reason for me to stay in Gotham, except," he added in a quieter voice, "for the fact that I consider Agnes my home now. But we both know, no matter how much I want it, that staying here is going to cause us both problems."
The priest started to speak, but Lex cut him off.
"The church doesn't want the sort of publicity that harboring me is going to generate. We both know that."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Honestly?" Lex shrugged. "I haven't a clue. It's bad enough that I have to involve you; however, the church will protect you if things get too bad. But who will protect Clark? If the press even gets a hint of who he is, they'll want to investigate him. They'll look into every nook and cranny of his life, including what caused him to run away from home three years ago. If it's sensational enough, they'll casually splash it across the airwaves in the name of news and entertainment and we both know that would destroy him. He's just being stubborn."
"You both are."
"Tell me I'm wrong," Lex demanded.
The priest shook his head sadly. "I wish I could."
"So why are we having this conversation?"
"Have you ever considered," Mike said as he stood and walked toward the door, "that two broken items, when fused together, are stronger than either item had been separately?"
Lex blinked, knowing he was reading too much in the priest's simple question, but was unable to shake the feeling that he was being told something important. Before Lex could question him further, the priest was gone.
Despite his being well versed in the philosophies and tactics of war, Lex found himself completely set back by the quiet calculated moves of his opponent.
The opening volley had been fairly simple - a cup of hot coffee appearing while he was in the midst of his monthly reports.
He had drunk the entire cup before he realized he had no memory of how it got on his desk.
A set of dark purple body towels appeared in his bathroom, thick and lush, smelling faintly of jasmine, reminding him of a time when he took such luxuries for granted.
A bowl of Golden Delicious apples sat in the bowl in the kitchen. There was nothing necessarily suspicious in such an offering, in that there was always fruit to be had; but these were his favorite, a fact Clark knew.
An opening move on the chess board taunted him and in a moment of weakness he responded, then tried to ignore the board for the rest of his day. He hated the fact his gaze sought the board every time he entered his office, waiting for the response. When it was made, he managed to hold out for nearly two hours before he found an excuse to be on the other side of the room so he could make his response.
A warm slice of homemade apple pie appeared a few days later in the afternoon while he was creating several spreadsheets for Father's Mike meeting with the Bishop. Like the coffee, the pie had been eaten before he realized the implications.
A book of slam poetry sat quietly on the table by his bedside, whispering to him until he could no longer ignore the post-it notes and read the marked passages.
Every three days his dirty clothes were washed and left neatly folded on his bed.
Meals were not as awkward as he expected. By unspoken agreement, he and Clark had decided not to put Father Mike in the middle. Breakfasts had always been a 'straggle into the kitchen and prepare your own' affair, although more and more often Lex found casseroles warming in the oven. Lunches and dinner became a time to focus on the priest, to inquire about his day, to tease him about the shows he watched, and to set out chores and assignments for the next day. And while they never quite talked directly to each other, communication was passed back and forth.
Even though Father Mike completed the crossword puzzle from the daily paper every day as part of his morning routine, Lex found a copy of the puzzle sitting on his desk to greet him each morning. With his own copy, solving the puzzle became a race between Lex and the priest with bragging rights lasting until the next morning.
After a particularly hard day, he went back to his room and found the watch his mother had given him shortly before her death, along with a small photo album of pictures of her. Blinking back tears, Lex realized he wasn't going to win this skirmish, wasn't even sure he wanted to anymore, but the pattern had been established and he wasn't sure what to do in order to break it.
Every night, right after he dropped off to sleep, Lex would have the exact same dream. Clark would slip into his room, gently move him to one side of the bed, then crawl in beside him, wrapping his arm around Lex's waist, and laying his head in the crook of Lex's arm.
So prevalent was the dream that Lex was unable to drop into a deeper sleep without having this one first.
What surprised Lex during the first few weeks out of the hospital was the total lack of reporters. Theoretically, no one knew he was back at St. Agnes. In some ways it was a brilliant move, hiding where everyone thought they had already looked; but he found it hard to believe, knowing the nature of Gotham's investigative reporters, that one or two of them hadn't come snooping around the church.
He had also expected his father to come flying into the parish, hair flying wildly behind him, demanding Lex's return to Metropolis. On quiet evenings as he contemplated his situation, Lex could admit, if only to himself, that a part of him was disappointed by the lack of theatrics. Not that he had any intention of going back to his old life, but the lack of drama upset him on levels he didn't want to examine too closely.
He was also disturbed by the fact that for all of his warning for Lex to leave town, Batman hadn't made an appearance. Lex got a secret thrill knowing he annoyed the caped crusader, but considered it par for the course considering that Lex was just as annoyed by Wayne's alter ego.
Apparently, Wayne had reassessed just how dangerous he thought a homeless crippled man was to his city.
"Where were you?" He snuffled into the boy's hair as he wrapped his arms around the figure still trying to settle in beside him.
"We had another visitor."
He hummed, acknowledging the comment even as he slipped further into sleep. "Late."
A hand tenderly rubbed his chest. "Sorry. I just needed to discourage anymore late night visits."
"Yes, I'm fine."
"'kay. Love you."
"Love you, too. Now go to sleep."
Lex cracked his eyelids open when he heard a bone joint pop from beside his bed. His breath caught in his throat as he watched Clark straighten, dressed only in a pair of jeans that weren't properly zipped. His shirt from the day before was hanging in his right hand.
"Sorry," Clark whispered in apology. "I overslept." With that, he slipped on his shirt and left the room.
Dear God, it wasn't a dream.
Lex's breath stuttered as he tried to wrap his sleepy brain around what he'd just witnessed. Since awakening in the rehabilitation clinic, he knew he'd become a much heavier sleeper; he supposed it was his body's way of dealing with the pain, but to have actually slept through...
He needed to talk to Clark.
Pushing himself into a seated position, he hit his useless legs in frustration, cursing the fact that it was going to take him nearly an hour to get out of the room.
Taking a deep breath, Lex pushed himself along the scraped path of the courtyard's snow-covered garden and toward the church proper. He knew he was chancing discovery, but also knew Clark was probably avoiding him, thinking himself safe from confrontation by staying in the populated areas of the church.
The snow crunched under the wheels of his chair and he wondered momentarily if he should have just taken the long way through the halls of the various connecting buildings, even though he had a greater chance of running into a visitor that way. No, he decided, while he knew he couldn't hide in St. Agnes forever, there was no point in blatantly announcing his presence to the world. Besides, cold fingers weren't going to kill him.
The door in front of him opened, and Clark slipped outside and frowned at him. "I should have known you weren't going to leave this alone."
Looking up at Clark, Lex rolled his chair back a few inches as Clark stepped forward. "I think I'm owed an explanation."
"So even though you've refused to talk to me for the last three weeks, you've decided that now's the time to risk being caught by a nosy reporter or exposure to the elements?"
Lex said nothing, just continued to stare at the boy.
"All right," Clark said softly. "But let's go to your office."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Clark waved him silent.
"It's safer that way."
Sighing, Lex turned and obediently rolled back the way he had just come. Clark jogged past him and opened the door for him. Neither of them spoke as they made their way to his office.
Instead of moving behind his desk, Lex wheeled to the center of the office, then turned and faced his friend. Clark stared back, either unable or unwilling to start the conversation.
A number of questions flooded his mind, but in the end, Lex decided on a simple approach. "How long?"
Clark walked past him and sat in one of Lex's office chairs. Not bothering with obfuscations, he simply said, "Since you came back."
Lex turned his chair, not sure what to ask next. After a full minute's pause, he finally asked, "What did you hope to accomplish?"
Green eyes pierced him. "I think you know."
"Yes, I suppose I do." Lex sighed. "Of course, it doesn't change the fact that it's impossible."
"No, it isn't. You're just being stubborn."
"Nothing's changed between us."
Clark leaned forward. "Everything's changed."
Lex huffed with an amusement he wasn't feeling. "So you've decided to come clean, have you?"
Clark slumped back into his chair. "It always comes down to my secrets with you, doesn't it?" Clark said sadly.
Lex shook his head. "No. It always comes down to your not trusting me, your willingness to lie to me based solely on my last name."
"I didn't want to lie to you," Clark said softly, not looking at Lex.
"I think...I think I figured that out along the way," Lex admitted, sending a gentle smile Clark's way when the boy's head snapped up in surprise. "I just wish you had given me a chance back then."
"If it's any consolation, I wish I had, too."
Lex nodded, surprised to realize that it did mean something to him, even after all this time. "Go home, Clark," he whispered.
"No," Clark said stubbornly. "My place is with you."
"I wish it was," Lex whispered. "But it's not."
"I'm hiding from the world, Clark," Lex said, angry at Clark for his stubbornness. "It's only a matter of time before my father, Batman or the media finds me. You deserve more than to live in the shadows, hell, or even the spotlight. You need to go home."
"Lex, I'm not fifteen anymore. I'm twenty-one years old."
"So go to school and get a degree. Become a farmer or a journalist. Wasn't that what you and Chloe were going to be--the dynamic duo of the reporting world?"
"That's not who I am anymore!" Clark shouted, propelling himself out of his chair and crossing the room. He spun when he reached the far wall and glared at Lex. "Jesus, why can't you just accept the fact that I love you!"
Lex gasped, feeling as if there wasn't enough air in the world to fill his lungs.
"I've always loved you," Clark said, closing the distance between them and dropping to his knees beside Lex's chair. "I've loved you when you were the richest man in Smallville and I love you now when you literally don't have two dimes to rub together. For richer or poorer, Lex. In health and in sickness. Back when you used to let me drive the Lamborghini at midnight at a hundred and fifty miles an hour to now when you simply let me walk you home after a UG meeting." Clark reached forward and took one of Lex's hands in both of his. "You once told me that we were going to be the stuff of legends. Do you remember?"
"I've always known you were capable of not only great things, but good things as well. When you had a chance to follow your heart, look what you accomplished."
"Only because I didn't know who I was," Lex protested, barely above a whisper.
"Bullshit. You knew exactly who you were when Father Mike and Thomas found you. All it would have taken was one phone call, and your father would have swooped down from Metropolis and taken you home and put you under so much security that you'd never get so much as a mosquito bite for the rest of your life. We both know that. Hell, all it would take now is a phone call and you could be back in the penthouse being waited on hand and foot, and yet, you're still here. Why is that, Lex?"
"It's not who I am anymore."
Clark reached out and cupped Lex's chin, forcing Lex to meet his gaze. "I don't know how to tell you this, Lex. But truthfully, it was never you. You just didn't know anything different."
Lex closed his eyes, absorbing the warmth from Clark's hand, then took a deep breath and slowly backed the chair out of Clark's reach. "Maybe not," he conceded. "But I'm not going to saddle you with my sins, not when you have the whole world in front of you."
"Geez, Lex, you make me sound like some sort of vestal virgin."
"Don't mock me, Clark. I--"
Clark raised one hand to cut off his protest, then stood and wrapped his arms around his own chest. "I know about sin."
"I killed the baby."
Lex blinked, stunned. "Wha-what baby?"
Lex shook his head. "Martha...Martha was in an automobile accident. The truck overturned."
"I blew up the root cellar. The shock wave flipped the truck." Clark knelt where he stood, still holding himself. "I couldn't...I couldn't face the pain in their eyes, so I ran. I...I did things, Lex. Horrible, hurtful things, before I lost the...before I came to my senses."
"Clark," Lex whispered, rolling forward and wrapping his arms around the boy's shoulders. Clark melted into his embrace, laying his head on Lex's lap, while his arms tightened around Lex's legs.
"Please don't send me away, Lex. Let me walk by you. Please," Clark gasped brokenly.
Lex ran his hand through Clark's hair, trying to soothe the upset boy.
"I won't talk about love anymore. I swear. Just don't make me go."
Lex shushed him, even as he leaned forward and laid the side of his face on Clark's back, wondering just how much more complicated life was going to get.
A knock on the door made Lex look up and he wondered if Clark had come back. They had been interrupted by a car alarm and Clark had gone to investigate.
"I should have figured you'd look just as bad." The priest sat in the closest chair on the opposite side of Lex's desk.
"What can I do for you, Mike?" Lex asked, hoping he didn't look as wan as he felt, but guessing he probably did. "Or are you going to ply me with cryptic observations all afternoon?"
The priest smiled gently at him. "You can indulge an old man by listening to him reminisce for a moment or two."
Lex immediately felt abashed. "Of course, Father. I apologize. Please forgive me, I'm...I'm a little out of sorts."
"Hush, child." Father Mike leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands in his lap. "Did you know I grew up here in Gotham? In this neighborhood, actually?"
"Really? No. I didn't know."
"It's why I wanted to serve here, because I knew the people, knew what they needed."
"You've done an excellent job serving the community, Mike."
The priest smiled shyly at him, then waved him off, with a look that tried to be grumpy but failed. "That's not why I'm reminiscing, child."
"Please continue," Lex said, resisting the urge to grin.
"Early in my appointment, I became involved with the various street clubs. The boys back then caused minor mischief and got themselves into the occasional fight, but they weren't nearly as violent as they are today."
Lex nodded, because it seemed expected.
"It was during this time that I met Brian. He was seventeen years old and full of life. He fancied himself to be a sculptor, although he never did anything traditional. Of course, it was the sixties and everyone was letting their imagination run wild, what with protests, women's liberation and free love. Heck of a time to be a priest, I can tell you."
"I can only imagine."
"Brian was always looking for treasures to put into his sculptures, although most people would have called his raw material trash."
Lex started at the word 'treasures,' and wondered where the story was heading.
"It was during this time that a new boy moved into the neighborhood, not a boy actually, more of a man."
"Thomas," Lex whispered.
The priest smiled at him, like a teacher happy with his pupil. "Aye, that's right."
"Mike--" Lex started, but the priest continued to talk as if he hadn't been interrupted.
"You wouldn't believe how fast these two young men hit it off. I was present at their introduction, and to this day I swear I heard a click, as if God himself knew these two men were meant to do great things together."
Lex opened his mouth, but didn't know how to phrase his question, so shut it again.
"Of course, back then, people didn't understand such a connection. What am I saying," the priest said sadly, shaking his head, "people don't much understand it today either. No matter. My story. Where was I? Yes, Brian. A beautiful boy, both physically and spiritually. He pursued Thomas like no man's business. It was actually quite amusing to watch his attempts. Some days he was like a big puppy, all awkward feet and eagerness. Other days he was aggressive, sleek and self-assured. But despite all his efforts, Thomas remained strong against him. After all, he was a good Catholic." The words sounded bitter in the priest's mouth.
"What happened?" Lex asked quietly, immediately hating himself for giving into his curiosity.
"Brian was killed by a drunk driver."
"Thomas, as you can imagine, was devastated. I've never seen a man so destroyed by the loss of another. I tried to counsel him the best I could, but one day he simply vanished off the face of the earth. I often wondered if I gave him any peace or if I had only made things worse. God forgive me, I thought he might have done himself harm. Then one day, about six years ago, he simply showed up on my doorstep again, much as he was when you met him. No matter how much I tried, I could never get him to move inside permanently, although over time I was little more successful in getting him to sleep in the kitchen on cold and wet nights."
"I had no idea," Lex whispered.
"No one did. While homeless, Thomas knew everyone downtown, and amazingly, it seems that everyone knew him as well. He had an amazing ability to connect with people in his own quiet way. I always thought he would have made a good priest. Did you know that almost a thousand people attended his graveside service?"
Lex shook his head, unable to speak.
"I was moved by the outpouring, I can tell you that." The priest rubbed his eyes with the knuckle of his index finger.
His voice breaking, Lex whispered, "Why...why are you telling me this, Mike?"
"Because I heard the same click when I introduced Jerome Kent to Joseph Kent in my study all those many months ago."
"I won't stand by in silence again, Joseph."
"My world will destroy him, no matter which one I choose or am forced into."
"Thomas said the stigma of being labeled a queer would keep Brian from being taken seriously as an artist. Obviously, the man never read an art magazine."
"My point, child, is that you're not all-seeing or all-knowing. Only our Father is. You're attempting to set another path for him, and that isn't your place. It's his choice. He's been doing okay in your world so far."
"But he hasn't had to face--"
"Surely you don't think the world doesn't know you're here."
"Who do you think has been protecting your sanctuary?"
"No," Lex gasped.
Lex swallowed hard and rubbed both of his hands over his face, shocked to his core.
"What are you afraid of, child? And don't give me your cockamamie story about wanting to protect him. You were allowing him by your side before, even though you knew who you were."
Lex dropped his gaze to his lap.
"Everyone I've ever cared about has left me," he finally whispered. "My mother. Pamela. Clark. Thomas."
"And so it's easier to be stoic rather than face losing him again?" the priest asked quietly, without judgment.
"If he were destroyed because of my world, I--"
"And if he were to die without your having told him how you felt?"
Lex closed his eyes and tried very hard not to rock back and forth in his chair.
"As you know, the church owns the building directly to the west of us."
Lex opened his eyes and frowned at the priest in confusion.
"Mrs. Henningman passed away two weeks ago and her family has finally cleaned out her apartment."
"I'm thinking that you and Jerome should move in and share rent. I'm sure I could convince the Bishop to give you a break on the rent, considering we're practically paying you slave wages now. But between the two of you, I have no doubt you could manage your bills."
"Mike," Lex started then stopped. "What are you saying?"
"You know what I'm saying, Joseph."
"By the way, my sister is visiting from out of town. I'll be spending the night at our cousin's house in the suburbs, jabbering the night away, no doubt. You wouldn't believe how much those two gossip."
Lex felt an affectionate smile blossom over his face. "You don't say?"
Mike shot him a suspicious look. "I do say. It's really quite sinful the way they carry on. Well," the priest said in a louder voice as he slapped the arms of his chair, "I better be going. Otherwise, I'll hit rush hour and it'll take me forever to get there."
"You should have Clark drive you out there and pick you up in the morning."
The priest stood and frowned harshly at him. Lex attempted a small smile, which only made Mike roll his eyes. "I think not, but the offer is appreciated." He moved to the door, then stopped. "He was proud of you, you know?"
Lex blinked curiously at the priest, unsure of the non sequitur comment.
"Thomas once told me that if he had ever been blessed with a son, he hoped he would have turned out just like you. Learn from the mistakes of your fathers, Joseph."
And with that he was gone.
Lex glanced nervously up and down the dark hallway, then shook his head irritably, and cursed himself for being a coward. He reached forward and knocked on the closed door, which flew open before he had a chance to sit back in his chair.
"I know you're not fifteen anymore," he said, by way of greeting.
Clark stepped back, silently waving him into the room. Closing the door behind him, Lex turned to find Clark sitting on the edge of his bed, a look of fearful anticipation on his face. He rolled forward until their knees touched.
"I don't know what the future holds," Lex admitted quietly.
"Very few people do."
"I do know that I don't want to go back to my old life."
"Then we won't."
Lex didn't miss the pronoun. "Father Mike is making us move into Henningman's apartment."
The slightest hint of a smile started to tug at the corners of Clark's mouth. "Understandable, all things considered."
"He's gone to his sister's for the evening."
Clark nodded, expectantly.
"From this moment forward, there can only be truth between us, no matter how hurtful or ugly it might be."
"Agreed." Clark took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then took another one as if steeling himself for a difficult task. "I'm--"
Lex reached forward and placed his hand gently over Clark's lips. "No. Don't tell me until I can give you the words."
"You need to understand that I won't give them to you until I can stand by your side," Lex said, hating the harshness in his voice.
Clark nodded. "I can live with those terms."
A warm smile appeared on Clark's face. "Yes, Lex, I can."
"Why are you grinning?" Lex asked suspiciously.
"Because what you don't understand is that even if you won't say the words, you tell me each and every day how you feel about me."
Lex frowned. The conversation wasn't going as he had planned and he tried to wrestle it back on track. "I'm thinking this weekend...for the move?"
Clark nodded, his smile growing brighter. "Works for me."
"Then...I guess..." He started to roll his chair backward, but Clark hooked the chair's wheels with his index fingers.
Eyes half-hooded, Clark spread his knees apart and pulled the chair closer. He leaned forward and Lex felt as if mystical forces were pulling at him. Clark's lips were soft and dry, the kiss chaste.
Sighing in contentment, Lex nodded, intent on leaving, but Clark leaned forward again, licking Lex's lips, and there was nothing innocent in his intent. Lex gasped quietly and Clark used the opportunity to delve his tongue deep into Lex's mouth.
Lex groaned as the kiss became more possessive. Never severing their connection, Clark stood, set the hand brake on Lex's chair and placed his hands on the armrests, forcing Lex to open his mouth wider so that he could deepen their kiss. Lex hesitantly brought his hands up to stroke Clark's ribs and felt a surge of power race through him as Clark trembled at his touch. The reaction made him giddy, and he continued his exploration of Clark's lean body, scratching upward underneath his shirt, tweaking the waiting nubs, then downward, tugging teasingly at the boy's waistband.
Clark undulated above him, his tongue growing wilder in its exploration. Growing bolder, Lex traced his thumbs down the front of Clark's pants, feeling the hardness grow beneath the metal zipper. He cupped Clark through his jeans, his fingers tickling at the juncture of Clark's legs, making the boy whimper in need.
Making a quick decision, Lex's hands moved upward and unbuttoned the waistband, then slowly, teasingly, unzipped the jeans.
Clark pulled his head back. "Lex--"
Lex leaned forward and bit Clark's lower lip to silence him, even as he moved both hands into Clark's jeans, skimming Clark's hips and deliberately pushing the jeans downward.
Clark panted against his mouth, his kisses becoming rougher.
Lex grabbed the bottom of Clark's boxers and tugged them downward, breaking the kiss to take a look at his prize.
Still leaning on the chair, Clark breathed heavily against the side of Lex's face. A quiet whimper punctuated his gasps when Lex traced the length of his erection with his index finger. "You don--"
Looking up into Clark’s face, Lex saw only love in the green eyes staring back at him and suddenly the future didn't look so scary. "Sh," Lex said quietly. "It'll be okay."
"Over to the left. No, too far. Back just...yes, that's it. Unless--"
"Well, I don't know."
"Lex, it's perfect," Clark said with more authority, which only made Lex chuckle.
He looked at the couch as it sat against the wall and compared it to the rest of the room. "You're right. It's perfect."
Clark leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. "I'm always right."
"Don't get cocky."
"I thought you li--"
Lex whacked Clark's leg, when he heard the priest grumbling down the hallway.
"Father Mike," Clark yelled in exasperation as he raced out the door and relieved the old priest of the box he was carrying. "I told you I'd get that."
Mike laughed as he stepped into the apartment, his eyes wide in astonishment. "Jerome, you are a miracle worker."
Clark set the box on the kitchen table and puffed with pride. "It just needed a little elbow grease and a fresh coat of paint."
"Look at him, Clark," Lex teased as he watched the priest's eyes narrow shrewdly. "He's already trying to figure out a way for you to renovate the parish's apartments when they become vacant so he can raise the rent."
"Now, Joseph, that's not very charitable," the priest chided, then grinned mischievously. "True, but not very charitable."
Clark started to unpack the box before him. "I'd be happy to do whatever maintenance you need for the building. You know that."
"Ask him for a raise, Clark. Ask him for a raise." Lex laughed as the priest gently smacked his arm.
"Hm, I'll have to ask our accountant about a raise, but I wouldn't hold my breath. He's a notorious skinflint." Mike fixed Lex with a pointed stare.
"Hey, I'm not that bad," Lex protested.
Both Clark and the priest snickered.
"Before Jerome starts working on an incentive plan--"
"Father Mike!" Clark yelped, blushing furiously.
"I want to take a moment to remind you boys that you are vulnerable outside the walls of the church," the priest said in a serious tone. "If it gets to be too much, your rooms will always be available."
"Thank you, Mike," Lex said quietly, reaching out and squeezing the priest's hand.
Mike patted their connection, then headed for the door. "Just don't be late to work on Monday. I hear the commute's a harsh one."
Both Clark and Lex rolled their eyes and groaned as the priest tittered down the hallway.
Clark closed the door, then leaned against it and gave Lex a speculative look.
"What?" Lex frowned, looking over his shoulder in confusion.
Clark smirked at him. "I think we need to properly christen the apartment."
"Properly christen the...oh...yeah, I agree."
Clark shook his head. "But not like that."
"Not like...what are you talking about then?"
Clark toed off his shoes, and unbuckled his belt. Understanding came to Lex in an instant.
"I...uh...I don't know if..."
Clark walked slowly toward him. "Lex Luthor speechless. Alert the press."
"In that case, just open the front door and invite them in," Lex sniped back.
"You can do this, Lex."
"Trust me," Clark whisper, then kissed him deeply.
Pushing open the door to the courtyard, Lex scanned the cement path in front of him and decided it was sufficiently clean to get home. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and glanced at his watch. Ten o'clock. He knew Clark wouldn't be happy with his heading home on his own, but also knew that his lover would be walking. It was something Lex knew Clark had to do, something deeply ingrained within him--to make sure that his neighborhood was safe.
The Bat might protect the city as a whole, but Clark patrolled the UG territory.
While Clark hadn't come out and told Lex who or what he was, he didn't hide his abilities anymore either. Knowing that Clark was special, knowing that he trusted Lex with his secrets, made Lex feel like he was on his way to becoming a good man. There was still enough of the scientist left in him to want to know the whys and hows, but love muted his insatiable curiosity, and he couldn't be happier.
He had decided that his Christmas present to Clark would be to ask his parents to visit. He would stay in his old room for the duration. Even though Clark protested otherwise, Lex knew he missed his parents horribly. In a perfect world, Lex would suggest that Clark go home, but he knew his lover would never leave him behind. Offering to go back to Smallville as a couple would put Clark in an awkward position, especially considering that while Martha had come to see him in the hospital, Jonathan Kent hadn't.
No; this, he decided, was the best solution; especially considering they wouldn't have to leave Father Mike to fend for himself. While they slept in the apartment, they still shared their meals with the priest. Lex shuddered to think what the priest would do to his kitchen if left alone for any length of time.
Lex stopped abruptly and looked at the big man standing in his way. "Hello, Jamal."
Lex nodded once in acknowledgement. "What can I do for you, J?"
"I would much appreciate your attendance at the next council meeting."
"I appreciate the invitation," Lex said as he shook his head and rolled forward, "but Christmas is our busy season. Tell Simon 'Merry Christmas' for me, all right?"
"I told you he'd be stubborn," Ronnel said as he stepped out of the shadows.
Lex swallowed hard, hesitating only briefly in his forward momentum.
"Yeah, but that's what we've always liked about him," Ethan said quietly as he appeared on the path. "He never backs down when he believes in something."
The leader of the Dragons stepped into the light. "So are you saying he don't believe in us no more?"
Lex stopped and turned the chair slightly as he watched more and more of the UG leaders appear out of the darkness. He chided himself softly. Clark had said to beep him when he was ready to go home. He closed his eyes briefly, knowing he didn't have anyone to blame for his current predicament but himself. "As you may recall," he said loudly, surprised at how steady his voice was, "I resigned my position as council advisor."
"No one asked you to do that," Joran said quietly.
Lex looked at the faces surrounding him, but focused on the leader of the Dragons. "As I recall, my trustworthiness was called into question."
The leader fidgeted. "You surprised me, that’s all. I mean, you're Lex Fucking Luthor. Dog, how was I supposed to react to having a billionaire in our midst?"
"Do I look like a billionaire to you?"
"No, you don't," Elijah Watson said, entering the circle of light. "You didn't run," he added cryptically.
Lex frowned. "And just where was I suppose to go?"
"Back to your daddy, your Porches, and your mansions in the middle of fucking corn fields."
"Why?" Lex asked, but then understanding flashed through him. "So you’d know I didn't really care, so it would prove I was nothing but a spoiled rich brat who never worked a day in his life?"
The leader of the Daggers dropped his gaze.
"So what was the UG supposed to be? My humanitarian project for the year?"
"You always made it look so fucking easy," Elijah shouted. He raised his hands as several of the leaders frowned in his direction. "But it's not. An arbitrator has to be able to listen without prejudice, without preconceived notions. You have to see the big picture and weigh an individual's needs with that picture."
"Yeah?" Lex nodded and shrugged at the same time, not sure where the discussion was headed.
"Ethan told us everything you did, spelled it out real clearly for us," Ronnel explained. "We tried to break it up between us, but we can't do it. We can't keep it all coordinated."
"We want you come back," Jamal pleaded softly. "We're afraid we're going to lose the dream without you, that our differences will keep us separated. You once said the world was watching us and wants us to succeed. We want to succeed."
Lex looked up and noticed the caped figure standing on the corner of the building above them, observing the impromptu meeting. "There are those who think I'm grooming the council for my own personal gain."
As one, the leadership turned and stared up at the Caped Crusader.
"He's one man, Arbitrator. One man who doesn't speak for the UG," Ethan said loudly, addressing the shadowed man above them.
"And when he sends you to do his bidding again, like he did with Jolliett, are you willing to go to prison for him?" the question boomed down at them.
Joran looked up at Batman. "Jolliett killed Thomas. It had nothing to do with the Arbitrator. The council will see justice done on this matter. The man killed The Spirit. He took from us. No. One. Takes from us."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Batman replied.
"Says the Dark Knight," Clark called out from the roof of the building on the opposite side of the pathway. "The Arbitrator has done nothing but serve this community. He doesn't rule, he advises. The council rules. Checks and balances."
"I'll be keeping my eye on you, Luthor," Batman promised.
"Don't bother," Clark retorted. "That's my job."
Lex watched the two figures assess each other's strengths and weaknesses before each stepped back into the darkness and disappeared. A moment later, Clark was standing by his side.
"Arbitrator?" Jamal asked quietly as all eyes focused back on Lex.
Lex felt Clark's hand squeeze his shoulder reassuringly, promising to support him no matter what his decision.
Lex sighed. "Please tell me the next meeting isn't until after the new year."
The men around him broke into smiles.
"The third, same time, same place," Jamal said seriously, although his face was beaming with happiness.
"Will someone deliver the minutes of the missed meetings to my office?"
"I will, Arbitrator," Ethan promised. "Tomorrow."
"All right," Lex agreed after a moment's pause.
One by one, each of the leaders came forward and touched their closed fists to his, then to Clark's.
"Keep him safe, Guardian," Elijah, the last to come forward, said quietly. "He's a rare treasure."
"That he is, E."
The leader nodded respectfully, then stepped back into the shadows. "Joy."
"Merry," Clark responded.
When they were by themselves again, Clark looked down at Lex and sighed. "What am I going to do with you?"
Lex leaned forward obediently as Clark pulled his jacket off his arms. He could tell by the set of his lover's shoulders that Clark wasn't happy with him.
"You were very lucky," Clark grumbled as he hung up the jackets.
"Jesus, Lex." Clark sighed, then moved into the kitchen and started to fill the tea kettle. "What were you thinking? Batman and the UG on the same night? All we need now is for your father to show up with a camera crew to make this the perfect evening."
"I know. I'm sorry," Lex said quietly as he rolled to the kitchen's doorway and set the brake, setting his surprise into motion.
Clark pulled two coffee mugs from the cupboard, then rummaged in one of the drawers for the teabags. "I don't want you to be sorry. I just want you to be careful. Even with all of my abilities, I can't be everywhere at once."
"I wasn't thinking."
"No, you weren't." Clark leaned his head against the cupboard's doors. "I can't lose you, Lex," he whispered.
"If you keep doing--"
"I...I love you, Clark."
Clark gasped and turned to face him. Lex tightened his hold on the doorway, praying his legs would hold out for a few more moments.
"Lex," Clark whispered in awe. He started to move forward, but stopped, as if afraid to touch him.
Grinning cockily at him, Lex asked, "Is that all you have to say?"
"I'm an alien."
Lex started, his grip failing. Clark rushed forward and quickly eased him back in his chair. "Jesus, Clark."
"You said to keep it to myself until you gave me the words."
Lex laughed, loudly, until tears formed in his eyes. "Damn, Clark. I already suspected as much."
"Then what were you asking?"
Lex gently cupped Clark's cheek, then slapped it hard once. "How do you normally respond when someone tells you they love you?"
Clark blushed to his roots, but even so, a sly grin blossomed over his face. "Um, how long have you been able to stand?"
Lex tried to swat him again, but Clark laughingly danced out of his reach. Pointing to himself, he said, "Meteor mutant, remember?"
The smile disappeared off Clark's face as he knelt by the chair. "Does this mean you'll walk again?"
Lex shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"No," Clark whispered. "It doesn't." He leaned forward and brushed his lips over Lex's. "Because I'll take you for richer or poorer."
"In sickness and in health," Lex whispered back.
"Walking or wheeling."
"Grumpy or happy."
Clark stopped, a mischievous glint in his eye.
"What?" Lex asked with a soft smile.
"Do I have to take you grumpy?"
"Yes," Lex said pointedly.
"But Lex," Clark whined playfully, "You're always grumpy."
"The cross you have to bear, I suppose."
"Oh, and what cross do you have to bear?"
Lex hesitated, then whispered, "I have to bear the fact that I love you more than life itself, even though it scares the hell out of me."
Clark leaned forward and gently kissed him. "That makes two of us then."
The teapot started screaming behind them.
"Good thing we're in this together."
Clark rose to his feet. "Good thing."
"Maybe instead of tea, the Guardian can find another way to warm up the Arbitrator?"
Taking the kettle off the burner and turning off the stove, Clark grinned at him. "I like the way you think."
Lex backed his chair up and started toward the bedroom. "Speaking of thinking."
"Suddenly I'm nervous." Clark laughed behind him.
"Don't you think the Guardian should have a cape?"
"What?" Clark yelped indignantly.
"Hey, the Bat has a cape."
"Is there something you're trying to tell me, Lex?"
"And the Flash has that Lycra suit."
"Why not? It would show off your...assets."