"What are you doing here?"
As Lex looked up and over, Clark realized that was probably not the right opening line.
"I think, Superman, the question would be what are you doing here," drawled Lex, proving Clark's thought. "This is my property. Private property. Technically, you would be trespassing. I wonder who I should call to report it? The police? Oh, but wait, they can't do anything about you, can they?"
Definitely not the right opening line. Clark sighed to himself. He probably should have flown on by once he'd seen Lex there. He'd just been so... flabbergasted.
"This just isn't someplace I would have expected to find you." Clark gestured around at the green forest, with the small wooden cabin and the brook burbling by it. It was a quiet, peaceful place. Not terms normally associated with Lex Luthor. Well, at least not when Superman usually encountered him.
Lex was sitting by the stream, his back against a tree, reading a book that he'd put down when Clark had come by. He was wearing casual clothes. Not down to jeans and t-shirt, perhaps, but in loose khakis, light-weight hiking shoes, and a collared beige shirt that was unbuttoned four buttons down, smooth pale skin peeking out from underneath.
It was about as unlikely a scenario as anything Clark could have thought up.
"It is not my job to meet your expectations," Lex said with a bit of a snap.
No, not since he was fifteen. Clark closed his eyes briefly. "You weren't in Metropolis."
"As you can see, I'm not doing nefarious deeds, nor—" Lex broke off abruptly, then finished after a brief pause, "conspiring with criminals. So you have nothing to worry about."
Clark mentally filled in the break with 'kidnapped and tortured,' even if it wasn't what Lex had planned to say. Despite Lex's rapid healing, Clark could still see bruises on his skin under the clothes, and the lines in the bones where fractures were mending.
At the warehouse the other day, Clark hadn't even been able to stop and tend to Lex. Others had gotten Lex out while he'd been busy fighting the mutant. He'd heard through the usual rounds that Lex was recovering... but when he'd woken up this morning and not heard Lex's heartbeat, he'd panicked a bit and gone searching.
Most of his friends would say he was crazy for still caring. Clark thought that himself on the days he thought about it. Most of the time he tried not to think about any of it.
There was an awkward silence for awhile as Clark tried to either make himself leave or find something to say. Lex didn't help at all, just sitting there staring at him.
Finally, Lex waved a hand at the brook. "Pull up a rock."
Clark frowned, not understanding.
"If you're not going to l—" Lex broke off again, then started over. "If you're going to stay, then don't loom – you're giving me a crick in my neck."
Clark felt a little giddy. Lex wasn't asking him to leave. He wasn't even going to say it, no more than Clark had been able to go.
Carefully, he picked his way across the loose ground and slippery moss to a flat rock along the edge of the brook, one that would give him a good angle to Lex's tree, slightly below his height.
Gathering up his cape, he sat down, thinking how very strange it was to be here as Superman. Superman didn't fit into these setting any better than Lex Luthor did. Clark Kent would have, once upon a time... but it had been many years since that, too, had been the case.
Lex wasn't looking at him, even after he'd sat down. He was staring out across the brook at the trees and the shades between them.
"Once, when I was young," Lex spoke in the soft low tones he used to use when telling historical tales to a fascinated younger Clark, "I was marooned on a tropical island for three months."
Well. Whatever Clark had been expecting, it wasn't that. He had no idea how the island fit into this.
"Most people would think a tropical island to be paradise. And, in some ways, they would be right. But for me, alone, with no survival skills and nothing, nothing at all there and no one else... I almost died, many times over on that tropical island paradise."
Clark shivered, remembering headlines on a newspaper, and a day spent at Lex's funeral. He'd not been happy with Lana for making him leave before the services had finished that day. The day was supposed to have been about Lex, not him. Even the joy a month later of having Lex come back had never totally dispelled the memory of his death. There was not much that got through to Clark when he was on red K, but that had.
"And yet, when I returned to life and civilization... there was that which I missed about it. All the intrigues, the pettiness, the mistrust... there had been none of that there." Lex paused. "Well, none but which I'd created myself." He gave a tight, bitter grin. "I'm good at that."
Clark's heart turned over a bit. He wanted to refute it, to reassure Lex... but honestly, it was true. Lex wouldn't have been kidnapped and tortured if he'd not been meddling in the first place. Lex's schemes hurt himself almost more often than they did anybody else. Then there were the times that they did hurt others... Clark hardened his heart again and reminded himself that they were enemies.
With a shake of his head and still not looking in Clark's direction, Lex went on. "I used to play sounds of the sea, waves crashing against the shore, in the hopes of regaining the part that I was missing. Even that backfired, though, as my father used it as yet more evidence that I'd lost my mind on the island."
For the first time, Lex's gaze slid to Clark, the blue eyes narrowed in anger. "Which, by the way, I have never, ever forgiven those who were supposed to be my friends at the time for not telling me about. Okay for the rest of it, but not even a "hey Lex, by the way, you weren't really insane, it was your dad drugging you," once I'd gotten back? Leaving me to find it out years after the fact? It was all the more proof that friendship is just a lie."
Clark winced, hard. His younger self had been desperately afraid and desperately stupid. He'd lost Lex and had failed him so completely that nothing else he'd done after that had been right at all. If he'd had a time machine, there were so many things he could tell his younger self. That one among others.
Lex picked up a pebble next to him and threw it in the brook, the sound lost among the continuous murmur of water moving over rocks. He watched the water, seemingly fascinated with it. "I tried going to beaches after that... the Caribbean, Hawaii, Greece... even tracked down the one I'd been on and bought it. But it wasn't the same. Even surrounded with every comfort, I'd wake up at night shivering from the nightmares.
"So I built my own retreat." Lex gestured around them. "Or found it. A mirror, reflecting the good and not the bad. A place removed from civilization... yet not so far I can't get to it if needed."
For as remote as it seemed in the middle of it, the freeway was fairly close. Lex's car was parked about a half-mile down, and had been the first thing Clark had found.
"It's sunny, yet with shade and filtered light enough that I won't get sun-burned over and over again until I had burns upon the burns and cracks in the blisters. This light will never harm me, yet it's pure, not artificial."
When Lex had gotten back, he'd borne the evidence of those burns and had for weeks. A lesser man without gifts would have been scarred from it. Clark thought now that perhaps his friend had been, if not on the outside where it showed.
"There is water, making its way along the forest floor, serving as refuge and resource for hundreds along the way. Fresh water instead of salt." Lex paused, throwing another pebble in. "There was actually a stream on the island – without the fresh water it provided, I really would have died. But the sound of waves on the beach was stronger there. Here... here I listen to the brook and nothing else.
"There are trees, tall and majestic, shelter for me, providing the shade and reassuring in their centuries of life.
"There is a shelter, one which I didn't have to build myself, without tools, making tools of nothing, inventing that which I'd never been taught. It is there, solid behind me, not to disappear with a wind.
"There is food, enough for years if I needed it, or more close by. No need to hunt for grubs in the ground to barely subsist."
Clark shuddered. Lex had rarely spoken about the island, but the grubs he had mentioned, more than once. You did what you had to to survive, but that didn't mean you had to like it.
"I don't have to build a fire from nothing, not for heat nor for a signal to be rescued. I don't want to be rescued from here.
"I have no need of invented company here, at my refuge away from people." Lex's mouth curved up slightly as he watched the trees across the brook. "Though sometimes I do miss Louis. He was a good person. When he wasn't trying to kill me, and I wasn't trying to kill him. Even my imaginary friends turn on me eventually, and me them. Story of my life."
That was one thing Clark had never gotten. "Why Louis?" Lex had never really talked about him, but like the grubs, the name had slipped through sometimes.
"Why you?" Lex tossed a few more pebbles in. "I don't do very well on my own, despite years of practice and seeming appearance. And I didn't know how to survive without help. It was easier to get advice from somebody who knew how to do it, rather than to admit I was making it up as I went along." His mouth twisted wryly. "Now, I don't usually bother. And yet, you are here all the same."
"I'm not imaginary," Clark said softly.
"No?" Lex's blue eyes evaluated him, scanning up and down slowly. "A figure out of the comics... an alien come to save the world, prettier than any human, with morals of a god, rescuing people whether they deserve it or not. I think there would be a lot of people who would say you don't really exist."
Clark didn't really want to argue with Lex. Not now. He looked around but didn't see any good pebbles next to him. Larger rocks and dirt, but none of a nice tossing size. He picked up the smallest of the rocks and tossed it in, making a splash that washed up onto his boots.
Lex snorted and reached down for his book, opening it and turning his attention away from Clark. "There're more books in the cabin."
Pride and Prejudice. Clark raised his eyebrows at the title. Well, he supposed if Lex was out here to get away from normal, that would be about as far as you can get. Still a classic, but not a weighty one. Lex was determinedly not looking up, not allowing any eye contact to allow comment on his choice of books.
Yet, Lex was still not turning him away. He was offering books to keep Clark here. Clark was realizing that Lex really didn't do well with solitude. At least not right now. Had he ever been? Most of Lex's life had been alone, in one way or another. Even surrounded by others.
He supposed he should be thinking about Lex's evil side instead of sitting here feeling sorry for him. That just because Lex had bad things happen to him through his life didn't mean he didn't himself do bad things too. But... Clark just couldn't. Not now. Not after almost losing him again, and not with Lex sitting here talking to him and being vulnerable in ways he wasn't normally. Not with Lex letting him stay.
Lex turned a page on his book, to all appearances absorbed now in the reading.
It was a good spot for reading, there in the forest remote. It was a good retreat.
It certainly beat the cold arctic snow.
Clark drew his knees up to his chin and tucked his cape around him while watching Lex. Lex just kept reading. It had been a long time since he'd done that. It had been a long time since he'd been allowed to.
"Seriously, there are other books in the cabin. Stop being a rock. You're too colorful to blend in with them. You're clashing with the moss." Lex didn't look up even as he spoke.
Well, maybe he wasn't allowed to now either. With a sigh, Clark got up, letting his cape fall around him. He walked back up the slope.
The cabin was a bit of a surprise. Not entirely, after seeing Lex out there, but Clark had still somewhat thought that outside was one thing, but inside would the real Lex hidden away. Maybe it was. There was none of the high-tech gadgetry and smooth expensive furniture or equipment inside. It was simply a one room cabin, with a modest full-size bed (Clark supposed a twin would have been too much to ask of Lex), a small kitchenette, and a bathroom off to the side.
There was storage under the cabin, but Lex hadn't been exaggerating when he said there was enough food – there was enough food for years, even if most of it was canned. There was even a pile of MREs down there and that was something Clark never would have thought would pass Lex's lips. Well, okay, the canned beans were pretty high on the list too. The grubs must really have made an impression.
Clark stopped x-raying everything with a faint hint of guilt when he got to the bathroom cabinet. As Superman, he usually tried to keep boundaries, but when Lex was involved, they all tended to drop. In more ways than one. With a sigh, he turned to the bookshelf.
Here, there were some of the old familiar titles he was used to seeing. Shakespeare, Plato, Darwin, Bullfinch. There also, though, were many more lighter selections. More Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Shelley. There even were the classics from L.M. Montgomery, and Clark's eyebrows rose when he saw them. For Lex, being an orphan might have been preferable. There were several books whose spines hadn't been cracked and still had the new-print freshness to them – things that perhaps Lex wanted to read but hadn't had time for yet. A lot of those were current publications, popular fiction and non-fiction both, though nothing too deep.
Eventually, Clark settled on a Warrior Angel novelization and started to head out again. He hesitated as he got to the door, seeing his blue-clad arm reaching in front of him and comparing it to the novel he held in his other hand.
Lex had never said. Nothing definite, nothing that would remove all doubts. The remark earlier about not forgiving former friends was about as close as he would come to it. Clark had never said either. He was sure enough that he didn't go to great lengths around Lex to hide it... but he still didn't know.
Just because Lex was being a reasonable person today didn't mean he wasn't going to turn around and stab Clark in the back later on. With kryptonite.
But he hadn't sent Clark away. Clark was here, in the middle of Lex's very private retreat, uninvited and probably unwanted, and Lex hadn't told him to go. Had carefully not told him to go, and had offered a rock and a book.
It wasn't a lot. But it was something.
When he finally stepped out, Lex's gaze drifted to him and then snapped on with the focus of his laser beams. Clark almost felt like there was a red dot on him, travelling up and down his body. He had the sudden urge to cover himself as if he was naked, which wouldn't have done any good as he wasn't.
Holding his breath and then letting it out, Clark walked back down to the brook. The moss on the rocks was spongy under his bare feet. He had to brace himself on green-clad trees to keep from sliding a few times. His trousers were probably going to get dirty and he didn't think a regular cycle on the wash would get them clean. Knowing him, his white work-shirt wasn't going to stay white for long either. But he hadn't wanted to fly home to get other clothes. This was what he had with him, and this is what he was, now. Farm clothes, jeans and flannel, would have been a lie – a memory that wasn't really true anymore. So... Clark Kent, reporter, not fitting nearly as well into Lex's forest retreat as Lex himself did in his khakis and hiking shoes. Though Clark's brown trousers would probably show less dirt than Lex's khakis. Lex's just wouldn't dare to pick up the dirt in the first place.
He sat down on the rock again, careful to keep the book dry. Unable to resist the impulse, he stuck his feet in the stream. It wasn't as cold as he'd thought. Though since he'd forgotten to roll up his pants legs first, they were now wet too. Oh well.
Clark risked a cautious glance over at Lex.
Some metaphors were almost truth. Lex's eyes were glittering, and Clark wasn't sure if it was the intensity of the look or something else that produced the illusion. It was almost like looking into the sun. There was the same instinctive flinch that made one look away, and yet the brightness kept drawing the gaze back, whether or not it was good for you.
As Superman, Clark had flown into the sun before. Usually he just lobbed things at the sun and that was good enough, but there had been one time he'd needed to make sure and had just kept flying, but he was so tired and muddle-headed by the time the alien bomb had exploded under the heat that he'd just kept flying. By the time he'd come out of the sun, he'd been completely re-energized and ready for anything. Then he'd spent most of the regained energy on reassuring everybody at home because he'd apparently been inside the sun for over a week.
Clark wondered how long Lex planned to stay at his retreat. He couldn't stay that long... he had a job. Two jobs. But... maybe just as long as he could. Until Lex got tired of him. It shouldn't be that long, no matter what odd truce they had going on now.
Lex finally let out his breath. Clark hadn't realized he'd been holding it, and took a tentative breath of his own, wondering what the verdict would be.
Lex smiled. "Okay, then." And he turned back to his book, flipping the page back one.
Clark stared. That was it? That was all he got for this?
After a minute more of watching Lex read, Clark shook himself and picked up his own. He would read about an imaginary hero, doing imaginary deeds, while he sat here with his imaginary enemy in his retreat. There might be nothing of truth in it, or there might be everything. Only time would tell which it would be, and time would be later.
For now, they had this.