The tall corn had fallen, becoming a quiescent sea of green. The silence after the impact was absolute. He could feel his heart cold and leaden in his chest, seized with something he refused to call fear. This should not have happened. This should not have been allowed to happen.
"Lex!" Where had he gone? He'd seen Lex walking into the rows of corn, he'd *told* him to come back, but of course the boy hadn't listened. He never listened.
Silence, unbroken by anything but the sound of his own too-harsh breaths. It could not happen like this – not again. It was too sudden, too unreal. Not like this.
Lionel's steps crunched over the crushed plants unsteadily. The stalks and leaves beneath his feet felt almost like flesh and bone. Lex could be anywhere beneath this sea of green, small body crushed to the ground just like the corn, his son, his only son. But it couldn't happen like this, not again. Lionel refused to accept it.
He breathed deep and calmed himself, recalling the direction Lex had wandered off in. First, evaluate the situation fully. Then, take immediate action to minimize the damage. Finally, analyze –
A puff of hair, orange against bruised green. The stench of chlorophyll bit into his sinuses as he bent to pick it up.
Lex was only a few steps away, almost entirely covered by cornstalks. Hope and terror warred in Lionel's heart as he dragged the broken stalks off his son. He wasn't bleeding, he was breathing, but – his hair –
Radiation poisoning. It would have to be. Lionel was no expert on chemical warfare, but this – meteors or bombs, whatever it had been –
He realized he'd retreated a step, tried to force himself closer and couldn't. He needed to get help. It might be unwise to touch the boy anyway. What if Lex shouldn't be moved?
The rationalization allowed him to turn and run back. He couldn't remember the last time he'd run outside of his fitness studio – it was undignified and smacked of lack of control. Striding was intimidating, it spoke of energy and certainty, confidence and authority. But he didn't slow down. There was no one to see him, and at this moment, it didn't matter.
The factory yard was deserted – apparently, everyone had taken cover inside the production hall. As if that would save them if another wave of meteors – bombs, whatever it had been – came down. His briefcase was still propped on the hood of the Ross brothers' pickup, exactly where he'd left it. At least he'd had enough of his wits left about him to snap it shut before heading into the corn.
A minute later and he had finally succeeded in entering the combination into the new LuthorCorp-patented digital lock. He fumbled with the cell phone and had already hit the speed dial for his executive secretary's mobile when he realized that the net was down. Jesus, hadn't anybody heard of emergency backups? Had the incompetents that called themselves net providers somehow managed to miss the Cold War?
He threw the useless phone halfway across the yard. "Help me – my son!"
The words stuck in his throat for a heartbeat before he forced them over his lips. Either no one heard, or no one cared. None of the cowards came out to help. Didn't they realize that his only son was lying in the cornfield, maybe dying, maybe dead already?
A hot surge of rage welled up in him. He would fire the lot of them as soon as he got to a working phone, breach of contract or no. It would be easy to manufacture sufficient grounds – rampant incompetence. Embezzling. Alcoholism. Hell, if need be he would forge their birth certificates and deport the entire pack as illegal aliens.
The fact that the Rosses had left the key in the ignition of their pickup almost swayed Lionel to forgiveness. When he stopped by the roadside, as close to the spot where he'd found his son as possible, Lionel made sure to pocket the truck's keys.
Lex was still curled in the same spot, but his eyes were closed, and he wasn't moving anymore – not even to shiver. Lionel couldn't bring himself to touch him. This naked creature didn't look like his son anymore. What if he was –
"Lex, son -"
*Don't think about it,* he admonished himself. *Don't think.* First. Evaluate the situation. Second. Take immediate action. Minimize the damage. Get Lex to a hospital. Now.
He reached out, but drew back before touching the still body. To his surprise, Lionel found that his breathing had grown unsteady and his hands were shaking.
Lillian had had her hair cut before she went into hospital for the first time. Lionel hadn't realized how much he'd hated the new style until he saw her in her hospital bed, cropped hair like a wan halo against the pillow, emphasizing the delicate line of her neck, the too-sharp contours of cheekbones beneath a sprinkling of freckles that was stark against the paleness of the skin. Too bare – too vulnerable. He hadn't been able to bring himself to visit again for over a week. Neither of them had ever mentioned it.
He looked up, away from the small form of his son lying in a bed of crushed cornstalks, skull bare and white as bone. Wasn't there anybody here who could help him? Surely there must be somebody...
At first, he thought he was hallucinating. But when he'd blinked and looked again, the child was still standing in the same place – smiling up at him as sunnily as though the last hour had been nothing but an unlikely nightmare. A child that young wouldn't have been out in the fields alone. Had his parents been killed? Had he wandered here from the street, or even the factory?
The boy advanced carefully, picking his way over the uneven footing. If his parents had been killed in front of his eyes, surely the child would be traumatized. And why was he naked?
When the strange child reached the spot where Lex lay, he stopped and regarded the other boy in earnest silence, finally stooping. Lionel was close enough that he could see his son's eyes open at the touch of the child's hand on his cheek. They fell shut again almost immediately, but the relief that surged through Lionel instilled resolve into him. He bent and lifted Lex into his arms, settling his son's head against his shoulder and trying to ignore the sight of the wisps of red hair that still clung to the pallid skull.
The naked boy watched him. He seemed to be about two, perhaps three years of age, as old as Julian would have been.
Julian had had red hair, just like Lillian. Just like Lex. He'd been less delicate than Lex had been as a baby, though not as robust as this boy.
"Where are your parents?" Lionel asked. The only answer he received was another smile, starting out almost shy, then blooming into a happy grin, steady and unafraid. Lex never smiled like that. Julian – Julian was dead. And Lex...
Lex looked even more like Lillian now, and Lionel had never fooled himself into believing the doctors when they spoke encouragingly of revolutionary new treatments.
Lionel hesitated. He couldn't very well leave this child here alone, but neither could he tolerate any further delay in bringing Lex to a hospital. "Where did you come from?" he asked again, rather sharply.
The boy studied him for a moment and then turned, beginning to make his way deeper into the field. Perhaps his parents had been caught by the blast and were lying in the vicinity, hidden by the corn just as Lex had been.
This child looked so healthy, so strong... calmly standing in the midst of devastation with not a scratch on him. Looking at him, it seemed inconceivable that life was so fragile – that it could be taken from you overnight, between one heartbeat and the next. That someone could lie down to sleep one night and not wake up. Step into a field of corn and not walk out. Go to a routine check-up...
Lionel resolved to spare a minute to look for the boy's parents, but no more. No one could ask more of him when his own son lay poisoned and unconscious in his arms.
The crater torn into the field by the force of impact lay only a little further along, camouflaged by the flattened corn and a small dip in the ground. The rounded, half-buried shape at the center of the hollow made it immediately clear that the impact had been caused by neither meteor nor bomb.
The boy had followed Lionel. He walked up to where the egg-shaped craft lay buried in the soil. Lionel would not even have tried to move it on his own; the boy hunkered down, considered for a moment, and grabbed hold of one spiny metal protrusion with chubby hands. The ground shifted beneath Lionel's feet, and the ship came free of the earth's embrace with a sound grotesquely reminiscent of that of a cork popping out of a bottle.
On the way back to the truck, Lionel carried Lex in his right arm and held the alien's dirt-smudged hand with his left hand. The alien smiled up at him and dragged his spaceship behind them.
It was a myth that your life passed before your eyes in the instant before you died. Either that, or you got a choice in the matter. Lex certainly wouldn't have chosen to live through his twenty-one years again, no matter what the circumstances; once had been quite enough. Whatever the reason, the only thing that went through Lex's mind in the instant before the Porsche tore through the guardrail into free fall and his head collided with the steering wheel was "oh fuck."
Coming back from the dead wasn't all it was cracked up to be, either. For one thing, it hurt. For another, the first thing Lex saw when he opened his eyes was the anxious face of his savior, tousled dark hair still dripping water.
"Jesus," Lex rasped once he had finished vomiting what felt like half the river. He paused to grimace at the pain in his chest. Christ, *everything* hurt – his head, his ribs, his heart, his lungs, every fucking thing. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Saving your ungrateful hide, you stupid prick." Lian's face closed down into the usual sullen scowl, but he continued to hover, going so far as to support Lex's shoulders when he tried to sit up. "If it had been anyone else standing on that bridge, you'd both be dead now."
Dimly, Lex realized that this much unsolicited helpfulness, coming from this particular person, was significant. He felt too awful to think about much of anything except how much he hurt right now, though, and he could definitely use the assistance. Considering he was feeling as though he'd taken three dozen valium – on top of something far more vicious – Lex on his own probably wouldn't have been able to do much but flop on the ground like a stranded fish. It took major effort just to hold up his head.
After a moment of marshalling his strength, Lex very carefully turned to assess the situation. Lian had dragged him up onto the gravel slope beneath the pier to revive him. The Porsche had ripped through the bridge's iron guardrail as though it were foil. The torn beams were bent outwards, stark against the blue sky. They looked almost as though they were grasping for something, and Lex couldn't suppress a slight shudder.
It had been terrifying, that split second when he knew that he wasn't going to survive. Even in his darkest moments, Lex had never wanted to die; the futile knowledge of how intense his desire to live was came as a shock even so. And when he'd caught sight of Lian, when he'd realized there was no way he could bring the car around in time to prevent it from hitting him...
Waking had been almost as bad, a start of pure disoriented shock, a flash of mingled nausea and agony. But in between dying and living again, there had been a soaring moment of freedom. It had almost been worth it, just for that timeless instant of unfettered joy.
"You were dead when I dragged you out, Lex." Lian's voice was low. "You weren't breathing. Your heart had stopped."
Lian was still glowering fiercely, but in the second before he looked away, Lex thought he saw a suspicious sheen in his eyes. A small jolt of shocked surprise ran through Lex, resonating too much with recent memory to be anything but wrenching. He couldn't think straight. Maybe there was something wrong with his sight, too.
The boy dashed a wet sleeve over his face quickly before scrambling to his feet. "I'll go get help."
"No!" Not his sight, then. Lian was panicking, which wasn't like him at all. Lex struggled to get to his knees in preparation for standing, but before he'd managed to so much as shift his weight, Lian snarled and lunged at him. Heavy hands fell on Lex's shoulders and held him down.
He gave Lian his coldest and most unnerving stare, but his brother seemed unimpressed, countering with a narrow, icy glare of his own. Good – maybe he was getting back on his game now. About time, too.
"How did you get me out?"
Lian shrugged with infuriating casualness. His hands remained where they were. "Pried up the roof. The car was totalled anyway."
Lex felt an absurd flash of regret at the premature end of his favorite Porsche.
They were both still rattled. That was no excuse for sloppiness, though, and he made his voice hard and more than slightly scornful when he spoke. "Go back in and bend it back, Julian. Then, and only then, can you go get help. Why do I have to tell you this?"
As expected, the order earned him a sullen glare, but after a challenging lift of one eyebrow and a moody grunt, the boy took himself off, diving into the stream with a showy splash that had Lex checking the bridge and the banks of the river to make sure they were still alone. Fortunately, Lex seemed to have chosen a conveniently deserted spot to kill himself.
By the time Lian climbed back out of the river, Lex was so cold and miserable that he'd almost stopped caring. It must have shown; Lian's moody sulk gave way to a flash of what looked suspiciously like alarm, and he sped to a slightly too-fast pace on his way back to Lex's side.
"You look like shit, Lex. Are you –"
"You did check for suspicious dents in the metal, I assume." Lex couldn't tell whether his voice had been as sharp as he'd intended. Lian's face didn't change; he only nodded and bent closer. "And the radiator grille? If there are any fibers from your clothes caught in –"
"Jesus, Lex, shut up already. No one's going to have the chance to get that close a look – as soon as the car's towed from the river, we'll have it compacted."
It was a good point. Lex shut up. Not that he had all that much choice – at this point, his teeth were chattering so badly that it would have been too undignified to persist in berating his wayward brother, anyway.
Lian found that there were few things that could bring your world crashing down about your ears like the discovery that you were a stranded alien lifeform. He supposed the fact that he hadn't been even remotely prepared showed a lamentable lack of the kind of cold, analytical logic that seemed to come so easily to his father and Lex. Not being prepared for any eventuality was a cardinal sin in the Luthor household, and yea verily, Lian had been caught with his pants well and truly down.
There had been clues, true enough – the kind of clues that, in retrospect, could have been clearer only with the help of a large wooden hammer. Still, Lian's larger-than-life father had been talking about emperors, god-kings, and pulling the strings of the modern world for as long as Lian could think, and Lex had been bald since he was nine and doing astrophysical equations in his head since he was twelve. Lian thought he should really be cut some slack when it came to not hitting on the extraterrestrial explanation for his own strangeness.
Suddenly being a space invader gave you a whole new perspective on pretty much everything. Perspective wasn't the only consequence, of course. There was also the utter disbelief (because this was clearly insane), the blinding shock (because Dad did *not* pull pranks like this), the panic (hard to escape with a universe of certainties collapsing around you), the hysterical shouting, and, of course, the Condescending Paternal Smile of Doom.
Lian, Lian, Lian. What did you think you were, son, something that crawled out of a petri dish one day and that I decided to take home and introduce to my wife?
Perspective. He'd known he was adopted, if not where Dad had found him. He'd known his abilities had figured large in the decision to make him a Luthor. This was only as it should be; his abilities raised him above the rest of the crowd, made him someone out of the ordinary – someone who would not be out of place in the Luthor fold.
Even though this still held true, Lian's new knowledge cast a chilling slant on the matter. Dad had a way with language – he could evoke vivid pictures with a few well-placed words, so clear as to seem almost like memories. An alien kid in a blasted cornfield, dragging his spaceship with one chubby hand... potentially the most revolutionary discovery on the face of this biologically and technologically underdeveloped planet.
He wasn't entirely certain just where the crucial difference lay between this truth and those he'd sometimes pictured in younger years, but whatever it was, it was deeply unsettling. It made him flee the lab, his father and the silent shape of the spaceship before Dad had quite finished expounding on the subject of how Lian had fallen to earth in the midst of a meteor shower. How art thou fallen from heaven, how art thou cut down to the ground...
No doubt his father had been expecting a dramatic reaction. It explained why he'd chosen the early hours of morning for his revelation, the only time when Metropolis streets were relatively free of traffic. The vicinity of the lab was entirely deserted, but Lex's penthouse was downtown, and Lian winged a delivery van, a courier, and even several parked cars on his not entirely co-ordinated rush down the streets. He was running too fast to be seen, though, and he was certain he didn't cause any inexplicable accidents.
Almost entirely certain.
Lian had to stop in an alley near Lex's building to stifle a fit of near-hysterical laughter. Maybe in the morning, the Inquisitor would print a feature on UFOs hidden away in secret laboratories and the nocturnal activities of hubcap-kicking aliens in downtown Metropolis, never suspecting that for once, their usual drivel was nothing but the truth.
Conscious decision didn't play any part in his headlong dash. Hard to say why Lian headed instinctively for Lex; he'd thought he'd stopped running to him a long time ago. Luthors did not run to anyone, ever. But Lex was always so cool and collected nowadays... nothing seemed to faze him anymore. Even Dad had to work at getting to him, and looked to be failing at a steeply increasing rate. If Lex had been the one to fall from the sky and into Lionel Luthor's lap as though dropped by a giant interstellar stork, Lian imagined he'd have greeted the sight of his toddler-sized spaceship with a thoughtfully raised eyebrow and nodded once, slowly, while reaching for a notepad to jot down some interesting theories on the alloy of the ship's hull, relative velocity, vector of entry, whatever.
Well, no. As comforting as the image of a preternaturally collected Lex was, Lian had to admit that realistically, the discovery he'd been living under the same roof with an extraterrestrial lifeform would definitely give Lex pause – and that was if Lian could make him believe it in the first place. But surely Lex wouldn't be this panicked. Surely he'd go at the matter logically and find some way to turn it all into known facts and conjectures to be tested, and he'd know if there was anything Lian ought to do, like – like try to phone home or something. He'd probably even be able to figure out how to do it. Lex would –
No. Lex would do nothing, because Lian would not, could not, tell him. Not if he didn't already know. The information was too valuable, and Lian didn't know of anything he could have demanded in return to balance the scales. Lex had secrets, but Lian was certain there was nothing quite like this lurking in his closets. Handing anyone such an advantage went against everything Lian had been taught.
Maybe they could keep this apart from the usual wrangling, though. If Lian asked Lex for help in figuring this out, if Lian just trusted him... If Lian showed him how important this was to him, surely Lex would understand. Surely Lex wouldn't use him as a weapon in his ongoing campaign against their father.
Could Lian afford to take that chance, though?
In a way, dealing with Lex was even trickier than dealing with Dad. At least Lian always knew where he stood with his father. With Lex, there were always things that got in the way. Memories of a younger Lex with an explosive temper who fought Dad with bitter intensity, often over wrongs done to Lian rather than himself; Lex's sudden, genuine smiles; his habit of lecturing Lian on keeping his head down.
Lex wasn't Dad, but that didn't change the fact that he was a Luthor, and Lian knew how the game was played. To a Luthor, family were people who understood you. Family knew you and what you were capable of, would pit themselves against you with equal skill and ruthlessness, and would never, ever let you get away with weakness or mistakes. They were the ones who mattered: the ones truly worth fighting.
For all that Lian's earliest memories were of Lex patiently naming all of the toys in the nursery, Lex was dangerous. He'd been raised to be, and lately, it had become increasingly obvious that Dad's educational efforts were paying off.
God, Lian hoped Lex already knew about him.
As it turned out, Lian didn't have to decide anything that day. While forcing himself to stand still in the elevator, he pressed his shock-numbed mind into constructing alternate reasons for him to turn up at Lex's in the small hours of the morning – just in case he decided to go that route. None of the things he came up with were particularly convincing; the best of the lot was probably the stellar "I had a nightmare and couldn't go back to sleep." Lex might have been amused, or he might have been worried, but he certainly wouldn't have been fooled.
Perhaps it was just as well that Lex wasn't home.
Lian slept on Lex's couch that night, dreaming of cornfields and meteors and tall men in armor battling above him, looming like skyscrapers; mythical heroes too wrapped up in tipping the scales that governed the fate of creation to notice that they were trampling Lian and his toy spaceship underfoot. A steel-eyed goddess watched Lian as he searched for his sword in the cornstalks. This is not your fight, she said, her hair burning like fire. This is not your life. Who do you think you're fooling, pretending to be one of mine?
The movers woke him when they came to pack up Lex's things.
Lex's favorite Porsche plowing you straight through an iron guardrail and off a bridge. More than that, tearing the car open with your bare hands to drag Lex out, cold and still and blue-lipped and *not breathing* –
And more than even that, feeling his heart begin to beat again beneath your hands, listening to his first shallow, tortured breath, having Lex come back to you to bitch about how you forgot to take the precautions that really should have been second nature by now, that – to a real Luthor – should have been as instinctive as... breathing.
Perspective. In a big way.
The medics Lian insisted on calling were gratifyingly easy to get rid of, perhaps because Lex glossed over the more dramatic parts of his misadventure. No doubt it helped that the extensive bruising on his ribcage was already beginning to shade into brown and purple around the edges, lending a modicum of credibility to his claim that it was the result of an altercation he'd had days ago back in Metropolis.
Lex planned on interrogating the youngest Luthor exhaustively as soon as he got dried off and warmed up. He only sat down on the sofa in his new office for a minute, just long enough for the painkillers – and the scotch – to take effect.
That was the plan, anyway. By the time he woke up, it was dark, and Lian was nowhere to be found. Nowhere in the room, in other words; Lex wasn't feeling up to investigating the rest of the mansion's seventy-odd rooms quite yet.
He'd almost dozed off again when the phone started ringing. The sound threatened to make his headache return, and Lex decided he'd let his secretary take care of it before remembering that she was wrapping up things in Metropolis and wasn't due to arrive for weeks yet. He then considered outwaiting the caller, but since it could really be only one person, that idea was scrapped, too. It was never a good idea to ignore Dad. It made him think you were up to something particularly interesting.
He didn't sigh as he stood.
"Lex Luthor." Lex felt a bit woozy, whether from sleep or dying, but his words came out gratifyingly crisp.
"Lex." His father's voice was cool with censure. "I've heard of your latest peccadillo. Do you really think that this is the right kind of first impression to be making with your employees?"
"Dad. Your concern for my well-being warms my heart. Yes, I am feeling much better, thank you for asking."
An impatient sigh. "I don't have time for this, Lex. Have the consideration to reschedule your attention-getting activities to some time when I'm not in the middle of a corporate takeover." The muted tapping of a keyboard, and a pleased sound that had nothing to do with their conversation. "Duty calls. I'll leave you to the fertilizer plant, son. Keep in mind that I don't hold with second chances."
"Imagine my shock and dismay," Lex said to the dial tone. After a moment of gloomy thought, he dropped the receiver in the cradle, wincing as the clatter resounded in his skull with unusual vehemence.
Interesting. Not a word about Lian – and by now, Dad was bound to know he was in Smallville, whether Lian had announced his travel plans before leaving or not. Lex had more than half expected Dad to issue Lex with official orders to pack Lian back off to Metropolis.
If it had been anyone else, Lex would have known they'd been sent to spy on him. With Lian, he was unsure. It was difficult to imagine a collusion between Dad and Lian as more than a short-term, sporadic effort. Lian would have to stay for several weeks or – better – months in order to gain any kind of significant insight into Lex's doings, and to forge an alliance intended to last that long, Dad and Lian would have to trust the other not to double-cross them with Lex. And they couldn't. Lex had invested a huge amount of effort and years' worth of plotting to ensure that they couldn't.
Luthor family dynamics were a constantly shifting tangle of temporary alliances and embittered struggles for advantage, but as long as they could maintain some kind of balance, it worked. More or less – Dad did push the envelope most of the time. If Dad and Lian ever formed a lasting entente...
Lex would just have to see that they never did. His life was already difficult enough.
Smallville was where boring went to die. It was as though Devilicus' GehennaRay had sucked the potential interest out of the entire region and then added some dreariness just to be on the safe side. It was surrounded by nothing at all – just fields, corn and corn and yet more corn, with the occasional fence and pasture or ancient, creaky windmill to perpetuate the monotony. Smallville itself was a similar blank in Lian's mental map. Terra Obscura.
Kansas: The Heartland. The Corn Belt. The Big 0.
Lian had never been inclined toward the quiet country life. He'd lived in Metropolis all his life, barring the occasional trip or vacation. Not that he'd necessarily wanted to stay there forever – for one thing, it sucked not to be allowed out of your father's sight because he was convinced you couldn't take care of yourself and, if left alone for longer than two hours at a time, would inevitably be abducted to turn up again as part of a competitor's new product range. Still, Lian had no complaints about big city life. He *liked* being surrounded by diversions and luxuries.
It had taken him three days to get his hands on an acceptable motorcycle in this burg. The Smallvillian dealer had had to order it from Metropolis, and then they'd had to redo the purple dragon Lian had requested airbrushed on the side five times before they finally got it right.
The hotel was intolerable. He'd had closets that were larger and more imaginatively decorated, the floor looked like it hadn't been scrubbed in decades, and Lian was afraid to turn in the night for fear of destroying either the bed itself or the tasteless plywood nighttable. The shower-stall was too small, and the shower-head was fixed at the level of Lian's chest. So far, he'd managed to resist the temptation to rip it from the wall, but if he got shampoo in his eyes one more time trying to reach the water...
To add insult to injury, both the receptionist and the maid stared at him as though he were an exhibit in a zoo – a real live Luthor, transplanted from his natural habitat for their viewing pleasure.
Lian had originally planned on giving Lex all the time he needed to settle in. Lex hated to be pushed – if he felt manipulated, he turned into a grade A bastard in no time flat, and then Lian wouldn't be able to do anything with him. It was better to give Lex a bit of space right now, what with Dad sending him into exile and Lian following that up by saving his life. Lex would come looking for Lian in his own time. If it took too long, Lian could always act up a little, do something almost-but-not-quite inhuman. It was a sure-fire way to make Lex turn up coldly furious on his doorstep, demanding that Lian move in with him so Lex could keep an eye on him.
Now, though, faced with the reality of the dingy hole in the wall that was the Smallville Ramada's honeymoon suite, Lian decided that a change of plans was imperative. A week would have to be enough for Lex to find his feet in Smallville. Good strategy was one thing, lack of comfort quite another.
In the meantime, he could get on with the other reason he was in Smallville.
Thirteen years was a long time to let information lie. All evidence of the destruction the meteor storm had wreaked must have been removed long since. By now, even the last of the debris must have been cleared away, or plowed under to sleep deep beneath the surface of the corn. Scarred earth would have closed and healed over with a new skin of green. People's memories, always unreliable, would be the product of imagination more than fact after this long; small snippets of fervently believed legend – brimming with pathos, heroism and hope in the midst of despair – would have been born to replace the too-harsh reality of sudden, inexplicable catastrophe.
All true, but even so, Lian felt that Smallville would provide the key to his past. Which form it would take was uncertain, but it couldn't be anywhere else but here, where he had first set foot on this world.
And no one said he couldn't have fun while he was searching for his origins.
The high school gym was a rather pitiful affair, but Lian hardly noticed. He was too busy being stunned. He had never felt like this before in his life, and he did not like it at all. Was this pain, this strange pulling in his stomach, as though someone had reached right into his guts and was winding them around their fist?
His legs gave out suddenly and he crumpled to his knees, catching himself with one hand while the other stayed pressed to his stomach. The impact with the floor was like an explosion in his kneecaps, sharply unpleasant sensations bursting outwards.
There was a peculiar and foreboding tightness in his throat.
"Hey, are you okay?"
With something almost like wonder, Lian realized that he was a hair's breadth away from throwing up. No wonder Lex had always been so ill-tempered on the mornings after his trawls through Metropolis' seedier nightclubs. If Lian had had to deal with Dad right now, he'd have vomited on his shoes and considered it an appropriate commentary.
Someone knelt next to him – a cheerleader, to judge by the short skirt and shapely thighs. It took Lian several moments of careful breathing and inner chanting to gather the strength to look up. *Luthors aren't weak, Luthors aren't sick, Luthors don't fucking collapse to their knees in front of the entire goddamned football team...*
The girl crouching next to him looked genuinely concerned, her open expression revealing no trace of mockery or hunger for scandal. At any other time, Lian would have been interested. She was undeniably pretty – a bit blander than he preferred, but with long soft hair that looked as though it would feel good trailing over his skin. At this moment, though, all Lian really cared about was the slow salto his innards were performing and the deafening pulse that had begun to hammer at the inside of his skull. Bright shards of pain twisted in his head.
"No, I –" There was a moment of almost-clarity, and the girl's face swam before him, eyes huge and questioning. In the instant before the nausea rose up again, he had time to panic. *Get Lex,* he almost begged, but managed to choke the words down in time. Luthors didn't beg for help. Luthors didn't *need* help.
"I'll be... fine." God, he hoped so. What *was* this? What was he supposed to do to stop it?
"Lana, move over, let me give the guy a hand." The cheerleader's place was taken by a boy wearing football gear and an earnest expression to match the girl's. "Come on, let's get you over to the bleachers."
Lian took the offered hand and let himself be pulled up. Another new and, truth be told, frightening experience – he honestly didn't know whether he'd have been able to stand on his own, and the football player's grip felt too strong by far, as though he were exerting more force than Lian was capable of, right at this moment.
Sitting down seemed to help. His stomach settled as soon as he'd slumped onto the wooden bench, and his head cleared enough to let him focus on his surroundings. His first impression had been accurate – the gym was barely adequate and overdue for renovation.
Only three quarters of the football team were openly staring at him. A small gaggle of cheerleaders stood near the door, caught between rampant curiosity and the need to seem blasé.
The football player next to Lian made an abbreviated gesture towards the pretty cheerleader who'd tried to help. She nodded agreeably, giving Lian one more sympathetic look before jogging over to rejoin her fellows. The gaggle closed around her for a moment, and when they re-ordered and moved off to a more convenient spot to pick up practice again, Lian's cheerleader was carrying pom-poms and had become indistinguishable from the others.
"You need a doctor?"
Lian shook his head automatically. The lack of throbbing pain that followed the action was miraculous; he breathed deeply once, twice, and almost closed his eyes in relief as the sick weakness drained from him.
"I'm okay," he said, speaking slowly and giving the other boy a grateful smile to gain time. This called for a bit of extempore improvisation. What would be sufficient cause for such a violent bout of illness, but not be serious enough to prevent him from joining the team? "I've already seen a doctor. It's not as bad as it looks, or feels, for that matter. Don't think I'll ever eat fish again, though."
The football player seemed to accept this explanation. Lian himself was far from satisfied with it. It had been the only thing he could come up with on such short notice, though.
"Talk about making a dramatic entrance, huh?" Lian gave a rueful smile. He hadn't envisioned his introduction to Smallville High quite like this, but he could work with it.
"Yeah." The other boy's amicable tone was encouraging. "Sure got our attention. My name's Clark. You?"
"Julian, but everyone calls me Lian." Back on track, and moving right along. He returned Clark's smile and restrained himself from offering a handshake. Social mores in Smallville were a bit different from what he was used to. "I'm new. I was hoping to try out for the football team."
Clark gave him a look that Lian countered with an easy grin. "Not right now, of course. I just thought I'd check the lay of the land – find out who I need to talk to, see whether you're even looking for new players, you know."
The appraising once-over Clark gave Lian was familiar and reassuring enough to push him entirely into his present role. This, he could handle easily. There would be time enough to deal with everything else later.
Lian had devoted careful attention to the minutiae of his appearance, from the slightly tousled hair to the faded jeans and inexpensive running shoes. With some judicious adjustments to his posture, he was indistinguishable from any of dozens of Smallvillian youths, though in considerably better shape than most – as his plain and comfortably loose t-shirt failed to conceal.
Clark regarded Lian for a thoughtful moment before nodding decisively. The moment he opened his mouth, a chorus of bright voices began chanting a rhythmic, unspeakably inane little verse, and they both glanced over to the cheerleaders. They were now engaged in bouncing up and down like demented yo-yos, shaking their pom-poms and tossing their heads.
For a long and slightly vertiginous instant, Lian truly felt like an alien, observing the bizarre rituals of a primitive species.
"We're always looking for new players," Clark said. "The coach isn't in today, but check in tomorrow at the same time. I'm sure he'd be happy to arrange for a try-out sometime next week, when you're okay again."
On a hunch, Lian chose to leave by the door that led into the school proper instead of the one he'd entered by. He'd felt his old self again all through the conversation, but sure enough, when he drew near the energetically cheering girl with the almond eyes and soft-looking long hair, his knees grew weak and his insides clenched. He barely had the strength to tug open the door by the time he reached it, and the effort was not the only thing that made his heart pound in his chest fast and harsh, like a drum.
Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, and the fact that it *could*... and he didn't know what had caused it, except that it must have something to do with the cheerleader. Lana. Something to do with Lian, specifically, and Lana.
Lian went and sat in the library until the almost overwhelming urge to call Lex had passed. Only a firm reminder that he was a Luthor kept him from hugging himself.
It was only recently that Lex had begun to change, although in retrospect, Lian could recognize the first signs much earlier.
He'd caught him swimming naked with a girl, once. She'd been lovely, her nude body glistening and sleek as she climbed out of the water and bounced on her toes twice before arching back into the pool, breaking the surface with hardly a splash. Lian remembered that she'd been lovely, objectively speaking, although he couldn't recall what she had looked like – whether she'd been dark or fair, short or tall, plump or skinny, well-endowed or boyishly slim.
Lex had been laughing, and the girl had come up in the circle of his arms when she surfaced from her dive. Not long after, they'd made little splashing sounds and hushed, choked moans as they moved together against the side of the pool. The girl had wrapped her legs around Lex's waist, and Lex's muscles had been shifting rhythmically beneath his skin.
It hadn't really been that interesting to watch – mildly revolting, even. Lian had left before they'd finished. The next morning, the girl had been gone, and Lian had been glad.
He remembered the way droplets of water glistened on Lex's shoulders, the way the muscles in his back moved. When he'd turned his head to the side, his mouth had been slightly open, his eyes closed. There were freckles on his shoulders.
Years later, Lian followed Amanda home, just to see if he could. He stood on the other side of the street from her apartment building and looked up, and he saw the light go on in her bedroom, waited for it to go out some time later. She slept on the back side of the building, and Lian thought that if he got some rock climbing bolts to drive into the stone and support his weight, he could scale the wall to her window very quickly. So quickly that no one would have a chance to investigate the sledgehammer-sound of metal being thrust into and ripped from concrete... at least not before he'd reached her window, gone inside, and come back out to leave the same way. It would only take a minute. Less than that.
It would have been obvious to anyone who knew about Lian that he was responsible, of course. But Lian didn't think about that as he stood beneath her window; it was all purely hypothetical, after all.
He wondered who she thought about before she went to sleep. He didn't have strong feelings about her, and he failed to understand how anyone could. She was not particularly beautiful, nor was she a great wit, or particularly smart. Dad's women were always gorgeous. If he'd thought about it at all before Amanda appeared on the scene, Lian would have guessed that Lex's women would always be brilliant. But Amanda was not. Amanda wasn't even Lex's woman, really.
Not smart in the least. But she did have a nice smile. And, for whatever reason, Lex liked her.
Lian left before anyone noted his presence, and didn't follow her home again.
Dad claimed the Luthor mansion in Smallville was the ancestral home of their line. Lian rather doubted it; he hadn't made a particular study of Scottish history, but the family who'd built this thing had obviously been very wealthy. The first mention of a Luthor in any historical document was a court record from New York around the turn of the century, where Livius Luthor ("blacksmith") had been fined for disturbing the peace. He'd probably still been hung over at the trial, because he'd tried to excuse his drunk and disorderly conduct with enthusiasm after winning a horse in a card game. A Luthor should have been able to come up with a better excuse than that.
Lian circled the mansion twice before he caught a glimpse of Lex, ensconced behind a massive desk with his laptop and a glass of scotch. Idiot – he had to be taking antibiotics to guard against pneumonia after inhaling half the river, but of course that didn't stop him from drinking. Sometimes Lian thought Lex was *trying* to kill himself. At least he'd gone off the recreational drugs, as far as Lian could tell. That year had been like an extended nightmare –
Without warning, his foot slipped out from under him. Lian gave an embarrassing squeak before tumbling head over heels down a slope. He came up hard against a collection of solid and uncomfortable objects that felt a lot like rocks. Checking was pretty much out of the question, though, what with the neon green, glow-in-the-dark field mouse the size of a terrier baring its teeth at him from about two feet away.
Lian squeaked again – in surprise, of course. The mouse growled.
An uncertain moment passed while Lian and the glowing rodent stared at each other, neither willing to commit to a course of action just yet.
"Uhm," Lian said at last. This was ridiculous, but then, so was your father taking you to a lab and showing you the spaceship you'd touched down in. There was no one around except him and the neon mouse. He might as well try. "You don't happen to be from – somewhere else, do you?"
If it was, it didn't speak English, or just didn't feel like talking to him.
Lian shifted on the ground, moving slowly. He didn't want to spook it. "Hey mouse," he said softly. The animal's whiskers twitched, and it retreated a step. Lian froze until it stilled.
He found that if he moved very smoothly, the mouse would twitch nervously, but not retreat further. Until he'd gathered his legs beneath him and tried to bring his hand closer to the animal, that was. As soon as he lifted a finger toward it, the mouse bolted.
Lian lunged. The mouse wasn't even a yard away, and there was no way to miss it – its bright green halo had even begun to pulse slightly at some point, making it stand out in the night like a strobe beacon. No living being on the face of this planet was as fast as Lian. There was no possible way for one rodent, no matter what size or color, to escape him.
But escape him it did. Lian was not at all sure how it happened, but his legs went out from under him and he crashed face-first in the dirt just when he thought he had the animal in his grasp. Soft fur brushed his fingertips, and then the mouse was gone, and Lian was left gasping for air in the ditch behind Lex's window.
His knee throbbed where it had hit the ground, and he had trouble catching his breath. Although he didn't feel nearly as bad as when the cheerleader had come too close, he felt distinctly ill. The mouse was gone, but even after waiting a minute or so, Lian didn't feel much better.
What if it wasn't the cheerleader and the mouse after all. What if Lian was the problem? Maybe he was dying – maybe people never grew to be sixteen where he came from. Maybe something here was poisoning him. Maybe his system had had as much oxygen as it could take, and he was going into shock right this moment, and Lex would find him here in the morning, dead of too much healthy country air.
For a moment, Lian thought he might be hyperventilating, but Luthors didn't panic. No real Luthor would ever panic. Luthors were logical. Lex wouldn't panic. What would Lex do?
He rolled over and climbed to his feet slowly. His legs were a bit unsteady, but it wasn't too bad, and after several deep breaths, Lian very carefully made his way to a convenient boulder, just the right size and shape for sitting on.
At first he thought it was his imagination, but by the time he'd reached his goal, he was certain. He felt better with every step. Several yards beyond the boulder, he could almost imagine he'd imagined the entire episode. He was tempted to pick up a rock and crush it between his palms, just to prove that he could, but the sound would wake everyone in the manor, and it wasn't really necessary. He knew he'd be able to, if he wanted.
Very deliberately, Lian turned and walked back past the boulder. The change was instantaneous, and this time, Lian could take a perverse kind of satisfaction in the roiling in his stomach and the tremors running through usually obedient muscles.
Poisoning, but not by anything so profane as oxygen. Thirteen years ago, less than a mile from this spot, Lex had been caught in the middle of a meteor storm, and been poisoned. The meteors had since been analyzed and judged harmless, but the facts spoke for themselves: Lex was bald, there were glowing green mice in Smallville, and Lian – who had not even known what pain or illness felt like until he returned to Smallville – was suddenly mysteriously sick.
He had to backtrack twice, but with the help of triangulation, it took no longer than five minutes to find the cause of everything. It took longer than that to dig the meteor fragment from the soil, both because Lian was clumsier than usual and because he had to pause and gather his strength every other minute. He was a Luthor, though, and Luthors did not wimp out.
The thing looked almost like a fist-sized, uncut emerald – if there were emeralds that glowed in the dark with an eery, pulsating rhythm almost like the beat of a living heart. It was hot to the touch, searing his skin, and Lian was certain he must have whimpered at some point. It didn't matter, really. There was no one to hear.
Lian crawled away until he could no longer feel the meteor's effect and slumped panting on the ground while the unnatural light in the heart of the meteor died slowly, dwindling first to an even, dull glow, then to nothing at all.
He lay still for a long time even after he'd fully recovered, staring at the lump of stone and thinking.
It was almost a week before Lian turned up again. Lex might have worried if his credit card hadn't been billed for a hotel room downtown, various items of less-expensive-than-usual clothing, numerous electronic toys, and a motorcycle. The characteristic combination was reassuring, and Lex refrained from passing on the incurred expenses to his father until such time as he'd found out a bit more about the game Dad and Lian were playing.
In the meantime, Lex had more than enough on his mind with LuthorCorp Fertilizer Plant No. 3. He wouldn't have chosen to come to Smallville, but since he was here, he'd do the best he could – and Lex's best was damned good by anyone's standards. Not that he expected Dad to admit that, no matter what miracles he worked in this neglected little fief of his father's business empire. Still, they'd both know. That would have to be enough. It had always had to be, even though Lex could never quite stop himself from attempting to force an overt acknowledgement of some kind from the stubborn bastard.
"Hey, Lex," Lian said when he breezed in at last. "Good thing Raines is here with you. Where'd you get that incompetent excuse for a butler? You might have told him to expect me – I had to get down on my knees and beg before he called for Raines to confirm my identity."
"Strangely enough, I doubt that," Lex said absently. He was almost through the last of the plant's annual reports, and it confirmed everything he'd so far concluded about the type of mismanagement that had taken place here. Before he could even begin to work on improving productivity and lowering costs, he'd have to redesign the overly complex management structures and inefficient operating procedures the plant was presently mired down in. Without clear lines of communication, unambiguous assignment of responsibilities and efficient workflows, the innovations he planned on implementing wouldn't be able to take full effect. Lex hated wasting his time.
The situation was complicated by the fact that evidently, his father had utilized Fertilizer Plant No. 3 as LuthorCorp's Siberia – the last stop for employees who had proven their incompetence or undesirability elsewhere, but were for some reason still in Dad's employ. Perhaps they had connections or other potentially valuable assets, or perhaps Dad simply wanted to keep meeting up with their wives at the annual LuthorCorp Christmas party.
Ideally, Lex would have liked to cut out at least one management tier altogether, size the rest down by half, and weed out every last one of the Siberians. That would cause far too much bad blood, though, and do more harm than good in the long run. He needed to gain his employees' trust and willing cooperation if he was to get anywhere, so to start with, he'd restrict himself to replacing the worst offenders and shifting the others to new positions, where he'd have the opportunity –
"I have chosen my Macellum," Lian declared dramatically. "This will be my castle of oblivion."
After a calculated pause, Lex put down the report and straightened in his chair, giving Lian a hard look. Lian smiled brightly back. He was holding a folded newspaper in a suspiciously casual way that immediately had Lex searching his memory for any less than wholesome activities he'd engaged in over the course of the last months. Nothing came immediately to mind, unless the tabloids were now so hard up they were printing accounts of his late-night studying binges.
"Macellum." Lian nodded encouragingly, and Lex sighed before going on. "I fail to see the parallel, but no doubt you will enlighten me."
"Flavius Claudius Iulianus was brought to Macellum to continue his exile in seclusion, locked away from the world under the watchful eyes of various spies of his ruthless cousin, the Emperor Constantius." Lian grinned. "He didn't like it there, but he learned much – and when he left, he went where he pleased."
A very clumsy analogy, considering the historical Julian had almost immediately been forced back into exile after making his bid for freedom. It was irritating, but Lex prudently kept his thoughts on the matter to himself. Correcting his brother's historical references would only put his hackles up, and Lian in a sulk gave new meaning to the word obstinate.
"Should I infer that I am one of the spies of Constantius?"
"Would I insinuate such a thing? You forget that Gallus, Julian's older half-brother, was finally reunited with him at Macellum."
If it was an intentional dig, it was so far off the mark Lex couldn't take it seriously enough to be offended. "I seem to recall that Julian found his brother brutish and uneducated."
Lian shrugged airily. "So the analogy isn't perfect. Who cares? It sounded cool."
Lex shook his head and didn't bother to suppress his smile. Luthors weighed every word before they spoke it and never backed down, and if Dad had been here, he would have made certain Lian learned to abide by the family credo. Lex wasn't Lionel, though.
"What brings you to Macellum, Julian?"
A moody glower greeted this question, followed by an extended amble through the room. Lian found the liquor cabinet, considered the scotch briefly, made a disgusted face and wandered on to inspect the view from the stained glass window behind Lex's desk. Lex swivelled his chair patiently, waiting while his brother stomped elephant-like across the Persian rug and stared out of the second window.
"Dad won't let me spend a year in Oxford, like you did," Lian burst out finally, whirling away from the view to glare at Lex accusingly. "I was willing to compromise, but no, Paris and Switzerland and Tokyo are right out, too, and so is every damn school in the entire world except Metropolis. It's too *dangerous*. Someone might find out about me! What am I, a little kid? It's no more dangerous in Berlin or, or Rome or Sydney or wherever than in Metropolis, and I'm old enough to take care of myself. I don't need anyone looking after me."
His tone was resentful, and the heat behind the words was genuine enough, but it was an old argument. The last time Lex had witnessed this point being discussed between Lian and their father, Lian had been passionate, but resigned, and sullen with it. All three of them had known that Dad wouldn't budge on this point.
Lex tipped his head to the side and studied his brother intently. To his credit, Lian didn't fidget, though his stance tightened up infinitesimally.
"No," Lex decided at last. "Good, Lian, but not good enough."
And, surprisingly, it was as simple as that. Lian caved. He threw himself onto the sofa and expelled a gust of air in a hissing sigh. The defiance was missing from his expression when he turned toward Lex; his face looked strangely bare, almost defenseless, without it.
"Dad took me to the Rodale Foundation's high security lab."
The implications tightened around Lex's heart like a vise, making his breath hitch in his throat and a numb chill invade his gut. Only the sight of Lian sitting before him, green gaze very steady, allowed him to force air into his lungs to speak. "I'm listening."
His voice must have given something away; Lian paused to search his expression, looking suspicious. Lex felt his face smooth into neutral attentiveness beneath the scrutiny. "You do know about it, right?"
"Of course," Lex said immediately, the lie slipping out without thought. "I wasn't aware you did, however."
The challenge that had begun to dawn in Lian's expression was eclipsed by a sudden rush of jumbled emotion. "I didn't. When I – I thought it had to do with the meteors, an effect of the radiation, like your hair and – I know, there was never a truly satisfactory explanation, but in my wildest imaginings I wouldn't have pictured..."
A milky curve of semi-transparent hull, dusted and dulled by the dark Kansas soil. An oddly graceful, compact superstructure enclosing the dome, elegant in its straightforward functionality.
Lex had convinced himself long ago that the blurred image in his memories of that day had been no more than a figment of his shock-numbed imagination... a desperate bid to make sense out of madness.
"He showed you the ship." By the time he spoke the words, there was no doubt left in his mind, and his thoughts were racing to make connections. Dozens of facts sundered by unlikelihood suddenly closed ranks and turned into valid conjecture. He should never have discounted this possibility; it was actually far more likely than a breakthrough in genetic engineering or miraculous luck in mutations. "The spaceship you arrived in, together with the meteor shower that almost destroyed Smallville."
It was an excellent diversionary maneuver. Who would think to look for one particular meteor when the entire area had been bombarded with them? A single one would have been far more likely to be discovered, particularly since the target would have to be a fairly densely inhabited region, or the ship's young passenger would die. Lian could have survived longer alone than a human child, but even Lian needed to eat.
The ultimate purpose? Not even a matter of conjecture at this point.
As tactics went, sending out a child in a meteor storm left much to be desired. The element of chance was far too large. The safety of the alien boy depended entirely on who found him. How likely was it that a random passer-by would decide to adopt an extraterrestrial? Even if they were amenable to the thought of raising an alien, how many people would be able to keep his secrets until he was old enough to fend for himself?
Dad had been a stroke of sheer good fortune, no more, made even more unlikely by the fact that Lionel Luthor was perhaps the least likely person on the planet to take a shipwrecked alien toddler under his wing. Although, of course, securing a powerful ally while he was young and impressionable was sound strategy.
It wasn't even out of the question that Dad had had other, more personal motives. An indestructible, perfect son – wasn't that just what he'd always wanted?
The faint, familiar bitterness was swamped by yet more connections clicking into place. Dad had never revealed a particular interest in Smallville, although Lex was now certain he owned far more of the town and surrounding lands than he'd cared to make known. Over the years, Lex's routine checks into LuthorCorp had unearthed a number of acquisitions that had never made sense before now – and the ones he'd found had only been the fairly straightforward acquisitions, no doubt merely the tip of the iceberg. Lionel had done a good job of hiding in plain sight. He hadn't bought just the crackpot astronomer's research station in the Arizona desert; he'd also bought a less than successful football team in Kansas and a small chain of arts and crafts shops in Wisconsin.
It was so obvious, and yet, no sane person would ever make the connection. Lex couldn't help but feel a grudging measure of admiration.
"That's a pretty big bombshell to drop on someone," muttered the alien on Lex's leather couch. "I'm afraid I didn't take it very well."
They shared a glance. Lionel Luthor's position on excessive shows of emotion was entirely uncompromising, no matter what the occasion.
"So that's why you're here," Lex said softly. "Returning to where it began."
Lian shrugged and looked away to study the bookcase on the opposite wall. "Yes, plus I don't want to deal with him before I've sorted this out in my own mind... and I thought I'd spend some time with you while I was in town. We haven't really talked for a while, and now that you're finished with university... Considering how busy you must be with the plant, though, I should probably just stay out of your hair. Figuratively speaking, of course."
Rolling his eyes at the weak crack, Lex got up to stroll around to the other side of the desk and lean against it comfortably. An almost unnoticable hint of pink tinged Lian's high cheekbones, and his eyes were wide and earnest when he caught Lex's gaze again. It seemed he wasn't quite finished babbling yet. "As it turns out I'm not related to you at *all*, but... maybe – "
"You shouldn't be living in a hotel," Lex interrupted. "People will talk. There's more than enough spare rooms in the mansion. Take your pick."
The sudden flash of victory in Lian's eyes caught Lex off guard. "God, Lex, you're a soft touch."
He was fairly sure he managed to catch the jolt of surprise before it showed on his face. 'Soft touch' wasn't a term Lex usually associated with himself, although in this instance, he supposed it was accurate enough – he'd walked straight into Lian's little trap, and he should have known better. Using genuine emotion to lend credibility to a ruse was an old trick, and a very good one. It was a double-edged sword, though... it could make the wielder bleed as much as the victim. Lex only ever employed this particular stratagem when dealing with his father. It wasn't worth it with anyone else.
There had been truth behind Lian's intentionally displayed vulnerability; Lex knew him too well to fall for a mere pretense. Evidently Lian found the emotional cost worth the inconsequential victory it had gained him, even though all he'd done was trick Lex into offering something he could have had for the asking.
Lian was completely off balance, desperately scrambling to re-establish some measure of control.
While the ends he'd furthered by his little demonstration were rather pitiful, however, the means were another thing entirely. Deliberately displaying vulnerability in order to exert power... How exceedingly Luthor. Dad would have been proud.
Lex had never needed to resort to such tactics with Lian, but apparently that would soon change. It was an ugly thought, for all that Lex accepted it with determined calm. Lian was almost sixteen, after all.
"Anything of interest?" he asked, gesturing towards the newspaper. A less than elegant change of subject, but it got the job done – Lian tossed the paper over with a smug quirk of the lips.
A local high school paper, as it turned out, relatively professional in terms of layout and print quality. Lian had made the front page. The picture was excellent, but peculiar, featuring Lian in jeans and a simple black shirt, a backpack slung casually over one shoulder and a big and entirely unfamiliar smile on his face. The lack of expensive clothes and aggressively confident poise was in itself remarkable, but more than that – there was even a hint of shyness in Lian's posture, as though he were not at home in the spotlight, but willing to put on his best face in spite of it.
It was a *dorky* smile. The word popped into Lex's head from nowhere, and with a definite tinge of incredulity flavoring it. He couldn't prevent himself from looking up to counter the incongruous image of his brother's face wearing such an outlandish expression with the accustomed sight of Lian lounging on the couch as though he owned the place, clad in immaculate charcoal designer pants and a calculatedly casual t-shirt that had doubtlessly cost more than the monthly income of most of Lex's Smallville employees.
Very deliberately, Lian conjured forth a huge, dorky grin identical to the one in the school paper. It looked completely genuine, and it changed him completely. It made him look like someone who *should* be wearing plaid flannel and chewing on a straw. Amazing, and definitely a talent to be watched in the future.
Self-effacing wholesomeness was a good image to cultivate in a place like Smallville. Lex wasn't certain whether Lian would be able to uphold the illusion for any length of time, but then, he didn't have to. It was first impressions that counted – and more importantly, this picture hadn't been taken for the benefit of the students of Smallville High. It was a statement of intent: I will fit in here.
The surname of the latest newcomer to the school will ring a bell with any Smallville resident who hasn't been hiding out in a storm cellar since the meteor strike. Not only does half the town work for Julian's father, Lionel Luthor, but his older brother has recently moved into the Luthor mansion to take over the management of the LuthorCorp-owned fertilizer plant.
"In a way, I'm getting back to my roots," Julian – called Lian by his friends – explains his move to Smallville. "My family used to live here before grandfather moved to Metropolis. As soon as I heard my brother would be taking over Plant Number Three, it occurred to me that it would be a good opportunity for me, too, to get away from the big city for a while. Not that I don't like Metropolis." He shrugs with endearing openness. "It's great, but I've always liked the country, you know? And I really like Smallville. Weird as it sounds, I feel like I can be myself here in a way that's just not possible in Metropolis. And being here also gives me a chance to hang out with Lex. Lately he's been very busy, what with getting his degree and getting into the family business and everything. So, I asked Dad to let me finish school in Smallville, and he agreed. And, well, here I am."
There was more in the same vein, and Lex skimmed over it quickly, noting only that the article consisted almost entirely of direct quotes and that Lian seemed to have done everything but scuff his toes on the ground and say "Aww, shucks." Endearing openness, indeed.
This was either for Dad's benefit, or for Lex's. Maybe for both, to some degree.
What was Lian planning? To research his origins, of course, and get away from Dad. To come to grips with what he now knew about himself. And what else? The likelihood of Dad allowing Lian to finish school in Smallville was about as high as that of Lex waking up with a full head of hair one morning. Lian would have to come up with far better levers than a feature in a school paper – assuming he actually meant to stay.
There were far too many unknown variables in this equation. Lex would have to work on that.
"Not bad," Lex said at last, opting to take the article at face value for now. "It won't stop Dad from dragging you back, but at least it's an argument in favor of letting you stay. A weak one – you'd better start looking for more. Still, if you're lucky, he'll be amused at your budding deviousness."
The smile Lian flashed at Lex was suspiciously innocent. "That's what I'm counting on – as well as the fact that he can't claim I won't be safe here, with you around to babysit me and the town all but owned by LuthorCorp."
Perhaps Lex was using the wrong set of parameters. It seemed unlikely, but... Dad had always given Lian more leeway in some ways, perhaps because he felt that someone who could demolish a building in a fit of teenage rage needed to be handled with a softer touch. Then again, if Lex had never been sickly, whiny, or afraid, he might have been afforded the same privileges.
And that was an unproductive line of thought that Lex had thought he'd been finished with long ago.
He shook his head and folded the newspaper carefully. Lian jumped up to reclaim it, taking a moment to regard the unlikely picture of himself dressed up as a clean-cut farmboy with a pleased expression before rolling the paper into a tube and thwapping Lex playfully. "Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. Bet you couldn't have pulled that one off."
Lex gave him an exaggeratedly haughty look. "Not all of us have the rare good fortune to be naturals at the country bumpkin look."
Lian laughed, unoffended, and squeezed Lex's shoulder on his way to the stained glass window.
The view seemed to exert a curiously strong draw on him. He stared out into the garden with peculiar concentration, face gradually closing down into a glower. While the landscaping around the manor wasn't dazzling by any stretch of the imagination, it certainly wasn't bad enough to warrant such disfavor.
"Looking for anything in particular?" Lex asked after several moments.
"No, it's just –" Lian glanced toward the second window. "You can't see anything except the garden from here. The wall's too high."
Lex raised a questioning eyebrow, but Lian shook his head, dismissing whatever had gone through his mind. "It doesn't matter. I'm off to get my stuff. You have your mechanic with you, right? I wouldn't let any of these hicks within twenty feet of my bike."
The interview was evidently over. Before Lex could answer, Lian had blurred to the door and slipped out. Lian had grown increasingly cavalier about using his abilities in recent years, but he'd also gotten far better at monitoring his surroundings and choosing his moments accordingly. It was a vital skill for him to develop. Watching Lian practice it still had Lex biting back admonitions to be careful.
It would take Lian about an hour to ride his motorcycle into town, find someone to deliver his belongings to the manor, and return to oversee the move to his new domain. Someone who didn't know Lian might have assumed that in a house as large as this one, the more remote rooms would remain untouched by the arrival of a single teenager. Lex, who did know Lian, briskly jotted down notes on the strategy he'd begun to work out that morning, made several phone calls that couldn't be put off until tomorrow, and then powered down his laptop to go warn the cook about the imminent descent of what amounted to a plague of locusts. Effective immediately, all meals would have to be prepared in sufficient quantity to feed a ravenous horde of Mongol invaders (the cook smiled at Lex, evidently believing this to be an exaggeration), and there would have to be at least two gallons of milk, half a bushel of apples, several varieties of cookies, and an adequate supply of Swiss or Belgian chocolate and salted rice crackers in the house at all times.
The chocolate and rice crackers, it transpired, would have to be imported from Metropolis.
As far as Lex could tell, Smallville was a fairly typical medium-sized Midwestern town. Main Street was the center of commerce as well as community life, such as it was. Even Smallville High – a mainstay of the town's social activities by virtue of a football field and a gymnasium that doubled as the site for cake walks, square dancing, and similarly bucolic entertainments – was on Main Street.
There was only one café. Lex still held out a faint hope that, with sufficient training, the proprietors could be brought to produce a substance that bore an at least superficial resemblance to café au lait. In the meantime, Lex regarded his almost-daily encounters with the place's vile brew as a kind of ritual sacrifice, furthering his plan to integrate himself into Smallville community life. Lex didn't usually frequent the place in the afternoons, so he hadn't known it was quite this popular with the high school crowd. He might have guessed, though. The choice of venues for hanging out was limited.
It was peculiar to see Lian here; he should have seemed utterly out of place – every bit as much as Lex himself did – but he didn't. Instead, he blended seamlessly into the scenery, comfortably settled at the best table and chatting to a group of eminently Smallvillian youths with an open, genial mien. The clothes he was wearing would not have seemed remarkable on a farmer working the fields, and even his body language was different, devoid of the usual reserve and the perpetual hint of challenge.
The brightness of Lian's smile when he caught sight of Lex was as startling as everything else about this encounter. It also gave rise to speculations that trouble in the form of one of Lian's schemes was brewing.
After short deliberation, Lex decided that he preferred to find out sooner rather than later. Coffee (for want of a better term) in hand, he changed course to make his way over to the corner Lian had laid claim to. In a second suspiciously welcoming gesture, Lian stood as he approached, putting one large hand on Lex's shoulder. He was already taller than Lex. By the time he stopped growing, he'd be towering over both Lex and Dad. "Lex! Great to see you. Guys, this is Lex, I've been telling you about him."
Absorbing the hint of pride Lian had injected into his tone with composure, Lex gave the clutch of teenagers his most charming smile.
"This is Chloe Sullivan, the Torch's editor, and Pete Ross. Pete runs the debating club." The girl nursing what the serving staff would have called a cappucino looked him up and down thoroughly before accepting his extended hand. Her assessment seemed powered by nothing more than habitual curiosity, and he didn't take it personally. By contrast, her companion's glower was unmistakably personal. He shook Lex's hand after a noticeable hesitation, evidently choosing grudging politeness over public unpleasantness by a narrow margin. One of the Creamed Corn Rosses, no doubt. Interesting that he was here at all – perhaps he was making an effort for the sake of his girl. She'd want to stick close to Lian to get further stories out of him, if nothing else.
The broad-shouldered boy on Pete's right leaned forward to offer his hand with a ready smile, as did a younger girl with freckles and rust-colored curls. "Clark Kent and his sister Cathy. Clark's the captain of the football team, and Cathy's the swim team's rising star. And Lana Lang, head cheerleader and Clark's girlfriend." An exotically pretty girl dimpled appealingly at Lex.
A high-class circle – Lian had assembled both the sports stars and the intelligentsia. It appeared the social elite of Smallville High was already eating out of his little brother's hand. Lian was almost alarmingly good at this... certainly far better than Lex had been at his age, or any other. Lex made a mental note to stop thinking of him as a headstrong child. Underestimating a Luthor was always a grave mistake.
He wondered which of the girls Lian was – or would be – sleeping with. He hoped it wasn't the redhead; she looked about twelve, and the Luthor name was already mud in this town.
"I'm really glad Lian will be joining the football team," the blond boy – Clark – said. "He was great in the try-outs, and we can definitely use another quarterback who can tell his hands from his feet. He's got a lot of raw power, too. I think he'll do really well."
"Will he?" Lex replied politely, glancing at Lian. Lian gave him a wide, unabashed grin. He must have gotten better at forging Dad's signature.
"I can be careful," Lian said later that day, having practically shooed Heike out of the training salle. "It's the best way to get in with the important people right away. And besides, I've always wanted to play football. It will be fun."
Lex tucked his fencing mask under one arm and slowly tugged off his glove before replying. "It won't be fun when Dad hears of it."
Lian was suddenly standing very close, pleading written all over his face. Only long practice allowed Lex to avoid flinching at the too-fast change of his brother's position. "But he won't hear of it right away, will he? And when he does, I'll already have proven that I *can* do it. Besides, he'd look really indecisive if he retracted his permission at this point. And what kind of an impression would it make if a Luthor were exposed as a forger of permission slip signatures before he'd even officially started school here?"
Lex gave him an openly incredulous look. If Lian believed those were the only options Dad had of making his alien son quit the football team, he hadn't been paying attention the last thirteen years. Did he think this would give him a bargaining chip of some sort? Or was he asking Lex to intercede on his behalf?
"I don't see the point, Lian," Lex said at last. The answer fit in either case. "It's not worth the battle. Save your strength for a more decisive confrontation."
"Every confrontation is decisive, in one way or another."
It sounded like a quote from Lionel Luthor's book of wisdom, though Lex couldn't remember ever hearing this particular phrase from his father. He sighed and shook his head, beginning to undo the fastenings of his padded jacket. "Don't rush into an unnecessary skirmish when you have plenty of unavoidable ones ahead of you. Which reminds me... You're not sleeping with the Kent girl, I hope."
Lian looked genuinely startled. Good. Lex hadn't really thought it very likely, but better to be safe than caught unprepared. Of such stuff were PR nightmares made.
"She's just a kid, Lex. What would I want with her?"
He tugged the jacket over his head and re-emerged to find his brother staring at him, perhaps affronted at the intimation he would stoop to seducing younger girls. Up to now, Lex hadn't paid much attention to his brother's sexual tastes – he'd been more than happy to leave any damage control in that particular area to his well-practiced father. With Dad in Metropolis and Lian running loose in Smallville, though, Lex supposed he should make some inquiries and perhaps install a number of safety nets, just in case. If Lian was half as much trouble as Lex had been at his age...
Lex gave his brother a shrug and a cool smile. "I seem to recall an outspoken preference for redheads."
Silence. At length, Lian moved to the desk and drummed out a vaguely familiar rhythm on it. "Clark's adopted too, you know."
The statement seemed like a complete non sequitur for a second; then, Lex's gut froze with the realization that he'd been unutterably, inexcusably stupid.
It had been a long time since he'd last felt the vertiginous knowledge of having fucked up in such a spectacular way. He'd almost forgotten just how much he hated the sensation.
There was no earthly reason to assume Lian had been the only one to come down in that meteor shower. It should have been the first thing Lex thought of. That particular meteor shower might not even have been the only one to mask the arrival of an alien. When the reason for Lian's presence was completely unknown, how could any possibility be ruled out? As trite as the "alien invasion" plot was and as much as Lex would have liked Lian to be an innocent refugee like Warrior Angel, the simple fact of the matter was that it would make sense to send scouts to mingle with the native populace ahead of the invading force. All the better if the scouts in question initially knew nothing of their purpose – that way, they could not betray their masters.
How long would Lex wait, if he were an alien general? Why would he wait at all, given a technological superiority of such magnitude? Perhaps resources were low, or invasion was not actually the goal. He couldn't make the mistake of assuming aliens thought like humans, though – that was perhaps the most dangerous trap of all.
Lian abandoned the desk and crossed over to Lex again, standing very close. In a flash of chagrined understanding, Lex realized how he had managed to miss the obvious implications of Lian's true heritage. Lian was too familiar, too much an ordinary part of Lex's life to make sense in the context of "alien" – a context that declared "outsider, stranger, unknowable quantity, dangerous invader, incalculable threat."
An inexcusable error, perhaps, but very explicable. Very... human.
He had been missing far too much lately, and all of it seemed to center around Lian. It was simply not acceptable.
He'd come down in a spaceship. He'd been sent to earth for unfathomable purposes by an unknown power.
Lian wrinkled his nose and smoothed a wayward lock of hair from his forehead, and in spite of Lex's best efforts, the fragile sense of distance he'd managed to build up fractured and collapsed.
Lex had drawn cat whiskers on Lian's face for three consecutive Halloweens before Lian had decided that he was too dignified for such childish nonsense. He'd made a cute cat, suitably sulky, bristly and green-eyed. Even if he'd arrived by spaceship instead of the traditional human way, he was too familiar to be anything but Lian.
"Is Clark a relative of yours?" Lex's voice was cool and even. His mind was racing.
"I thought of that possibility, but no, fortunately not. Bruised him a bit at practice. And before you ask, yes, I was careful – it's football. It happens."
Which loosened the vise in Lex's gut by a fraction, but didn't excuse his oversight. He'd have to begin researching the possible implications right away. No doubt Dad had done so long ago, but the chances he'd share his findings were slim to non-existent.
Two independent, but co-ordinated lines of research would have to be pursued – one to look into the possibility of previous arrivals, and one to trace Lian's path, gather as much information as possible on his origins, his people, and their technology, and prepare for future recurrences or the implementation of new stages of the master plan behind Lian's presence.
Above all, Lex had to get his hands on that spaceship. Dad would have moved it, of course.
"He's not really related to Cathy," Lian said, the words – irrelevant to any of the dozens of Lex's loosely connected trains of thought – only marginally registering in Lex's mind. "Sure, they grew up *like* brother and sister, but the terms are just convenient labels without actual meaning or relevance."
Occupied with plans of acquiring a constant, planet-wide feed of data from assorted meteorological and tactical satellites and assembling a crack team of astronomers and private detectives to locate and investigate possible impact sites worldwide – over the space of the last fifty years, to begin with – Lex filed his brother's strange conversational sally away to be analyzed later.
He tossed his fencing jacket over a chair as he strode to his desk, hitting the key to power up his laptop and hovering impatiently while it booted. Perhaps an analysis of the meteors could provide clues to Lian's origin. They had to crack the spaceship's safeguards and analyze the technology, learn to imitate it, improve upon it, find potential weaknesses. Install a planetary defense grid to guard against attacks from space. It would have to be disguised as a traditional safeguard against ground-based attacks, or as meteorological satellites.
The expense would be impossible for Lex – or even Dad – to meet. This called for creative thinking.
Lian hung around for a bit before disappearing. Lex didn't notice precisely when he left.
Lex had always had nice shoulders. Lian wondered if the fact that he'd noticed qualified as kinky. Probably not; he'd never heard of a shoulder fetish, and furthermore, Lex wasn't really his brother. In fact, it was a safe assumption that out of the entire population of the earth, Lian was the one person least related to Lex.
Slinky – that was the word. Slinky, and elegantly muscled, and lightly freckled. Not that he could see any freckles at the moment, but he knew they were there, covered by the silk and cashmere blend of Lex's long-sleeved t-shirt. Lex's really soft-looking long-sleeved t-shirt.
Midnight blue was a good color on Lex.
"Anything I can do for you, Lian?"
Lian grinned a fair approximation of his usual obnoxious grin. That shade of pointed politeness meant he'd interrupted Lex in the middle of something he wanted to get back to. Well, it would have to wait, whatever it was. Profit margins, stock tendencies, or something equally mind-numbing, no doubt.
He'd planned this – he'd spent hours going over what he would say, from the basics of phrasing and intonation down to the most minute details of delivery. He'd determined that he would put his plan into motion immediately, not giving himself a chance to reconsider, but now, faced with the smoothly expectant mask Lex used on business acquaintances, he faltered.
As unlikely as it seemed at first glance, Dad and Lex were similar in many ways. For all that they packaged it differently, they owned the same implacable will and steel-trap mind. Dad's intensity was turned outwards; he radiated aggressive energy, an irresistable force that swept people along like leaves before an autumn gale. Lex turned everything he was inwards and locked himself away from view, leaving a surface as hard and blank and perfect as the statue of a long-dead emperor... and underneath, inestimable power, poised to pounce.
Lex and Lian had been close, once. It seemed irretrievably long ago; at this moment, Lex was an inscrutable stranger. A dangerous one.
Of course, that attribute was pretty much the point of the exercise. Going through with this would have been much easier if it hadn't been for Lex's damned sphinx-like poise, though. Lian had always hated it, in exactly the same way that he hated Dad's half-expectant, half-mocking attentive look.
Luthors were not cowards, but they were not fools, either.
"You know that football game I was telling you about?" Lian was glad the question came out casually, not as though it had been thrown into the breach in a last-moment fit of caution.
Lex held his gaze over the laptop's screen for a long moment before capitulating and getting up, brushing Lian lightly with one attractively slinky shoulder as he walked past. Lian shivered.
Damn. This was every bit as difficult as he'd feared.
After a thoughtful sip of whatever he was ruining his health with now, Lex seemed to feel sufficiently fortified to face a discussion about high school football. "If you refer to the homecoming game you have been babbling incessantly about, then yes."
Babbling incessantly was a gross exaggeration; Lian had only mentioned the matter once or twice a day. Still, Lian swallowed his irritation at the small dig and substituted a good-natured smile for his initial reaction. It was almost comical to watch the barely noticeable frown on Lex's face as he tried to come to grips with Lian's new image.
Football had turned out to be every bit as rewarding as Lian had hoped. Lian wasn't officially part of the team yet, but he'd been at practice for several weeks now, and had already established himself as a very good player. In fact, Lian had wondered whether the coach would let him play if something happened to one of the regular players... if Clark were to twist his ankle, say. The temptation had been there, but Lian knew better than to push this hard, this soon. It was too early to challenge the team's star players. That would come later, when he'd truly become part of the team and they were able to share in his success rather than resent him for it.
"It's this Saturday." He tried a wide-eyed puppy-dog look he'd perfected several days ago. The amused quirk of Lex's mouth was encouraging. "Are you free this Saturday?"
Lex eyed him with steely, unswerving attention. "You're playing?"
It was a good thing he'd decided to go the slow and certain route – judging from Lex's expression, the alternative would not have gone down well. "Of course not. How could I be? Not only am I not part of the team yet, I'm not even a student at Smallville High."
"Have you been in touch with Dad at all since you left Metropolis?"
Lian could feel his air of innocent openness waver with surprise. "Why do you ask?" he stalled, immediately aware of the clumsiness of the response. He could have shrugged off the question with a casual denial; instead, he'd given Lex an opening, and one that all but shouted out he was hiding something, to boot.
He hadn't even started on his agenda for this encounter yet, and already he was off balance. He had to get a grip, or this would go south in a spectacular fashion.
Had Dad gotten on Lex's case about Lian this soon? He'd given Lian until the beginning of the new school year. Of course, that didn't mean Lex wouldn't catch heat about keeping an eye on Lian to make certain he stayed out of trouble – and maybe Lex was supposed to convince him to return to Metropolis ahead of schedule. Quite possibly, Dad was attempting to use Lex to spy on Lian, though given the present level of antagonism between Lex and Dad, the attempt would likely misfire. Wouldn't it?
Lex gave an enigmatic smile and perched on the desk with one hip, taking another slow sip of liquor before putting down the glass.
Lian had chosen to embark on this risky course of action because the circumstances were fortuitious. Lex had expected to forge a permanent alliance with Dad after finishing his degree, at least on the business plane. Instead, Dad had sent him into exile – to prove himself, as Dad had claimed. All three of them knew that the true reason was that Dad wasn't willing to share his power. It was an unusually blunt, even clumsy move on Lionel's part, and more than that, it was a clear sign of weakness. Unfortunately, neither Lian nor Lex were in a position to take advantage of it.
If he wanted to see Rome again, a Caesar in Gaul needed allies. At this point in time, theoretically at least, Lex was available for an alliance, even a long-term one. If Lian played his cards right. If Lex was at all interested...
Of course he would be interested. He'd have to be an utter fool not to be. Lian would make a very serviceable army, after all.
The silence stretched. Lian wondered why he'd never before noticed how slim and... well, slinky Lex's hips were.
Damn it, this was not helping.
Just as Lian was formulating a desperate verbal diversionary maneuver, Lex waived his victory. "I can think of no better way to spend my Saturday afternoon than at a high school football game."
The curve of Lex's lips was too slight to be called a smile, but it brought a fleeting warmth to Lex's eyes and allowed the severe marble stillness of his features to settle into softer lines.
Lex had never shown the slightest interest in football. If Lian asked, no doubt Lex would claim that being seen at one of the main events on Smallville's meager social calendar would enhance his standing in local society, or perhaps that he was taking the opportunity to watch the football team in action in order determine tactics that would allow Lian to play well, but not too well. These reasons would be entirely valid, as far as they went, but the fact remained that Lex wouldn't even have considered setting foot in the stadium if Lian hadn't asked him to.
Lian had asked and Lex had agreed. No games, no hidden agendas – straight up front. It set a precedent. It was the perfect opportunity. Now or never.
Luthors did not back down.
Before his misgivings could get the better of him again, Lian took the small case from the pocket of his jacket and held it out to Lex, offering it up on the palm of his hand like a sacrifice. He hoped it would be received as he intended, as an oblation to Pax... even if right at this moment, he felt more like Achilles placing a quiver of arrows on Apollo's altar.
"Interesting," Lex said, picking up the sacrificial quiver. "A snuff box, late Victorian period, no jewels or enamel, inferior workmanship. The material appears to be an inexpensive alloy of base metals. On the whole, I'd place it at two hundred dollars, slightly more if you can produce an authentic-looking document claiming the original owner belonged to the aristocracy."
Lex quirked an inquisitive eyebrow at Lian as though this were a test and he were waiting to hear his score. Lian rolled his eyes. The amount of inconsequential knowledge that lurked in Lex's brain was incredible. "Ten out of ten, Mr. Useless Trivia."
Up to the second that Lex opened the box, Lian had forgotten the true measure of his loathing for feeling sick and weak. He'd trained for this; he'd trained with both the chunk of meteor behind the manor and the pendant, and he was far better at resisting the urge to curl up and die than he had been. Unfortunately, the only difference lay in his readiness for the wave of sensation. The pain and nausea were still every bit as bad as the first time.
Weirdly enough, he always failed to remember the true awfulness of it. Perhaps his brain didn't want to preserve the memory in its unmitigated state.
The stone cast a virescent sheen over Lex's features as he lifted it out of the box by the chain. It began to pulse in time with Lian's heartbeat as soon as it cleared the small lid. Lex was fascinated; there was no mistaking that rapt stare.
With green luminosity and weirdly angled shadows playing over his face, Lex looked rather satanic. By rights, Lex should have been the alien. Too smart, too different, too tricky, too flat-out dangerous to be anything near human...
Deep within Lian, foreboding and caution launched one last attempt to be heard. He ignored the inner clamor as much as he could. It was too late to stop this. It was too late to play it safe.
"I have no idea what this is," Lex said at last, not taking his eyes from the pulsating stone. "But whatever it is, I'm buying."
"It's cut from one of the meteors," Lian said. His voice was firm and calm, if somewhat flat. "Some of them are crystalline, and all of them make me sick."
Lex's gaze instantly whipped to Lian. Apparently, Lian didn't have his expression as firmly under control as he'd hoped. A ripple of shock flew across Lex's face, and in the next instant he'd dropped the cheerleader's pendant back into the snuff box and snapped the lid shut.
The pain stopped. To Lian's displeasure, the abrupt cessation drove a gust of air from his lungs in a very audible gasp.
"Lead," Lex said evenly, staring at Lian with unwavering concentration. "To block the radiation."
"Exactly. I bought the snuff box in a pawn shop in Grandville – it was the only possibility of transporting the pendant that occured to me. I wasn't certain it would work, considering the meteors' extraterrestrial origins, but fortunately, it did." God, now he was babbling. It was all he could do to shut his mouth before he blurted out that he'd snuck into the cheerleader's house while she was asleep and swept the pendant from the dressing table into the box with the help of a pink ruler adorned with butterflies. Giving out more information than necessary was always unwise... and Lex's odd strain of private-school conservatism could come to the fore at the most inconvenient times.
Lex had lost his earlier sphinx-like poise completely. Now, he looked pale and rattled. The knuckles of the hand closed around the little leaden box were white with strain. "Who – transporting the pendant. From where?"
"A girl at school had it. The first time she came near me, I all but collapsed."
If Lian hadn't been monitoring every nuance of Lex's reaction so closely, he'd have missed the subtle shift in Lex's body language. Even with thirteen years of experience in watching him, Lian was unable to interpret the easing in the leashed tension coiled in Lex's slim form.
"Tell me you haven't breathed a word of this to anyone," Lex said with terrible intensity. "Jesus Christ, Julian. You should know better than to tell anyone about a thing like this."
The unspoken addendum "even me" hung in the air between them for a long, painfully honest moment. Lian shivered with something very close to shock. They never spoke of these things. Not like this, not so openly.
He resisted the urge for a fraction of a second before giving in and stepping closer. If he concentrated, he could hear Lex's heartbeat, swift, but strong and steady. It was oddly calming. Lian thought it would be even more reassuring to reach out and feel warm skin and firm muscle beneath his hands, Lex alive and alert and flashing from known facts to conjectures to unified field theories at the speed of light. Lian might even be able to feel the live current of cognition raging beneath his fingertips.
It would all work out just as he'd planned. It had to.
"I'm no-one's fool," Lian said softly. Standing this close, Lex had to tilt his head back slightly to meet his gaze. "Dad probably knows, given how long he's had to work on this, but I wasn't the one to tell him. I won't be the one to tell him anything. I'm not telling anyone but you."
For the second time in as many minutes, Lex seemed at a complete loss.
They stared at each other in tense silence. Lian's doubts began clamoring again at the back of his mind, screaming recriminations. This went against all of his instincts. Lex was too ambitious, too ruthless, and far too smart to be trusted. He could be sentimental, but it never lasted – before anything else, Lex was a Luthor. This was sheer foolhardiness – it was far too late to back out now, even if Lian had wanted to, but...
But that wasn't true, was it? It *wasn't* too late. Even now, it would be easy to prevent this from going any further. Lex was so close; all Lian had to do was reach out. Lex wouldn't be able to open the box in time. He'd never even have time to realize what Lian was doing.
The nausea threatened to rise again even though the lead snuff box was still shut, firmly enclosed in Lex's fist. With a jolt of sheer surprise, Lian realized that the hollowness in his gut and the clamminess of his palms meant that he was afraid.
He was losing perspective.
This wasn't about dangerous knowledge or vulnerability. This wasn't about Dad and his endless manipulations. This was about Lian. Lian wanted to tie Lex to him with unbreakable bonds, with knowledge and power and shared goals. He needed Lex, for more reasons than he could count, and therefore he needed to make this work.
It had to work. Capitulation was a word not found in the Luthor vocabulary.
Lex had been searching Lian's expression with unsettling intensity; too late, Lian realized his face had automatically reacted to his discomposure by falling into the familiar lines of a lazily challenging sneer.
"You remember Club Zero?" Lex sauntered around the desk, trailing one hand over the polished wood. Stupidly, Lian nodded, even though Lex's back was to him. Of course he remembered, even if he wasn't certain of just where Lex was going with this; Dad had been angrier than Lian ever hoped to see him again, and Lex...
His tone was casual. "Max wasn't the one who shot Royce."
Lex had been broken into razor shards, making everyone bleed for the transgression of being around him. Lian had been relieved when Dad had packed him off to Princeton. Had alcohol had an effect on him, Lian would never have touched it after seeing Lex drown himself in it, muting himself, all of his sharp-edged intensity lost in the muzzy stupor of inebriation. So much less Lex than he should be.
Lian had never bought the official version of Royce's death.
"I know, Lex." Even now, Lian still felt the hot burn of anger at Amanda's incredible stupidity. She hadn't been worth it.
Lex laughed, the sound rough and bitter. He didn't turn, but the tension in his shoulders, his entire body was impossible to miss. "No you don't."
"Lex." Lian stopped because he wasn't sure they were still talking about the same thing; he went on because Lex was bowing his head, and the simple motion made the lines of his neck and skull seem wrenchingly vulnerable. "It doesn't -"
"Dad doesn't know, either." Lex wheeled abruptly, his gaze holding Lian's with implacable purpose. "It was Amanda."
And Lian finally realized what this was about. This was Lex's secret, his hidden vulnerability.
Lex had tricked Dad into covering for Amanda; he'd known he'd never have her and he'd still taken the fall for her because, for whatever reason, he loved her. Lian hadn't realized Lex would go this far to protect anyone. And now, Lex had delivered her up to Lian on a silver platter. Even without Dad's help, Lian would be able to find witnesses, find Amanda, undo Lex's sacrifice, throw her to the wolves.
It was power, a primed weapon in his hands. Lex had already proven that he would do anything to protect her, and there was no doubt in Lian's mind that even after all this time, he would do the same again. Perhaps more.
Lex had understood. Lex was accepting Lian's offer. This would work. This would actually work.
Lian had to remind himself that he'd been certain it would in order to stop his voice from being undignified with elation. "I won't."
Lex smiled. It was one of the rare smiles that reached every part of him, lighting him up from the inside. Lian hadn't seen it in far too long; he'd forgotten how open Lex could look, and how much Lian loved seeing him like that. "I know. I won't, either."
"No power on the face of this earth will be able to stop us if we stick together," Lian said softly. "Not even Dad."
This laugh held true amusement, and Lex came back to stand close, one hand on Lian's shoulder. "I think you're right, Julian. Our alliance is going to be the stuff of legends."
Lian had long suspected it, but never before dared to push this hard, to risk everything just to confirm it. No matter how unapproachable he appeared, Lex would always respond to a perceived vulnerability on Lian's part not with an attack, but with a defense. Lex would take the fall for Lian, if he needed to. He'd do whatever it took.
Lian could not have done this alone, but with Lex by his side, all the rules changed. Lex could have run circles around Lian in any test of intellect. He was intimidatingly brilliant when it came to both matters of business and hard science. He could handle people with a comprehensive understanding of what moved them, and an icy certainty in how to turn it to his advantage that Lian could only envy, but never emulate.
Lex was... Lex.
Lian wanted to lick him all over, but it was too early for that. He settled for giving him his best country bumpkin grin and pulling him into a bear hug. Lex was stiff with surprise in his arms, but Lian held on, and after a moment, the locked muscles melted and Lex returned the hug briefly before pulling back. Brilliant, sharp-edged, dangerous Lex. Sweet, slinky, sentimental Lex. The most valuable asset on the face of this biologically and technologically underdeveloped planet, and it was all Lian's.
This was going to be even more fun than football.
"You do realize I've moved it, I hope."
The words failed to cohere into meaning. Lian clutched the dirty plastic receiver of the payphone outside the 7-11 so hard he heard something snap. The sound stabbed him with an almost physical twinge of pain. "What?" he blurted, and could have kicked himself immediately afterwards. He should have waited to make this call, at least for a day or two – until he'd adjusted to the thought of not being human.
Dad had perfected the art of raising a sardonic eyebrow without being physically present.
"You never were the brightest, Lian, but I'd think that even you would be able to anticipate that much."
Lian breathed deeply once, then once again before trusting himself to speak without crushing the receiver into its component atoms. "Why did you show it to me in the first place?"
That earned him an amused chuckle that made him want to kill something. "Do you honestly mean to tell me you never wondered what you were?"
"That's not what I asked."
Paper rustled; his father was silent for half a beat too long before exhaling impatiently. "You have your answer, Lian."
Damn it, talking to his father was like petitioning the Oracle at Delphi. Never a straight answer, and by the time you figured out what he'd meant, it was too late and you were screwed.
"What if I find out how to open it?"
The rustling paused for a moment, but resumed before his father spoke again. "Then you can make me an offer."
Business, of course. Lian relaxed a bit; this was familiar ground, and he felt less at sea just hearing his father place the situation in the safely familiar terms. "Perhaps you can make me one."
Dad laughed, briefly but with real amusement. "We'll see about that when you have something to contribute to the hypothetical partnership, shall we? Now, son, unless there's something else –"
"I'm in Smallville."
"I thought you might be." Still amused, the old bastard. "All the better to pursue your new line of research, I believe."
Lian was certain his father had had every stone in Smallville turned over twice, immediately after finding his alien son and matching ship in a cornfield. Whatever he'd found, though, it hadn't helped him open the spaceship. Thirteen years, and it remained exactly what it had been the first instant Dad had set eyes on it: an enormous well of untapped potential, promising not only riches untold, but knowledge and power beyond the dreams of earthly man.
"Come back before the beginning of the next school year," his father's voice interrupted his thoughts. "You have that long."
"You never – I've never been in a lab," Lian said very quietly. For a moment, he thought his father hadn't heard him.
"You're my son, Lian," Dad said then, with strange emphasis. "You're a Luthor first."
He considered the quarterly projections absently before putting them down and leaning back in his chair, fingers steepled over his stomach. He'd thought it highly likely Lian would run to Lex. Smallville, as logical as it was, had not been the boy's first thought; that dubious honor had fallen to Lex. In fact, Lionel suspected that even Lian's second thought, which *had* been Smallville, owed more to Lex's presence there than to any expectation of unearthing valuable information thirteen years after the fact.
To be so predictable was unfortunate, if not downright dangerous even for someone like Lian. Almost as dangerous as being so dependent on another person.
Lionel had tried time and again to teach his sons these lessons, but even now, they hadn't internalized them. People were fickle, weak and untrustworthy. Putting your trust in someone was akin to handing a knife to an enemy and turning your back. People were frail – they could be held hostage, injured and killed. Inevitably, they would sicken and die. Even Lian was not immortal. His tissue changed and grew, he matured, and one day he, just like everyone else, would weaken and die.
People – whether human or not – were always an investment risk too large to chance.
His sons had refused to learn this lesson, but Lionel was a Luthor. He would try again, and try again, until he shattered their willfully naive insistence on clinging to this sentimental weakness.
He had no fear he would break them; they could not be broken. He had made sure of that.
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