May, Year One (right after Clark's 16th birthday)
At the high school Spring Fling Dance, the decision was made to not alert the students about the tornadoes until it looked as if they might be heading their way. If they did, the students would be taken downstairs to the basement shelters for safety.
Clark, oblivious to the danger outside miles away, danced with Chloe, exchanging a gentle kiss with her, smiling down as she beamed up at him.
Lana, in her panic, forgot everything she knew about tornadoes, and rather than throwing herself into the nearest ditch, got back into her truck. A large tornado sucked the truck into its vortex and she was gone.
Even as Jonathan Kent was punching him, Roger Nixon had the presence of mind to remove and pocket the media card from his camera. When Kent got his fingers around his neck, ripping his camera away, threatening to use his guts for garters if he ever darkened the Kent farm's door again, Roger, through the pain of his broken nose, pretended to be cowed, agreed meekly, and then smirked all the way to his car. He had the card in one pocket, and a piece of the alien's ship in the other. It was time for Roger Nixon to stand up and be noticed.
Blood streaming from a cut above his eye, Lex shoved the bookcase that had fallen on him and staggered to his feet. He made his way to his dad, almost slipping in a widening pool of blood. He stared down at his very, very dead father, whose head had been crushed by a broken beam.
Adrenaline still surged through his body, a combination of the pain he was in, the rage he'd felt at his dad at the closing of the plant, and the fear from the inexplicable explosion of the windows in his office and other end-of-the-world special effects. Staring down at his dad, his body trembling, Lex had no idea how to feel.
Martha carefully tended to Jonathan's cuts and bruises. Nixon had slashed his arm with the corner of the camera before Jonathan had wrested it away.
"We don't tell Clark about any of this," Jonathan stated firmly.
"Jonathan, are you sure? I think he'd want to know." Martha placed the last of the steri-strips closing the wound. Being a farmer's wife had made her quite adept at first-aid.
"I don't want him running off doing something stupid."
"That reporter saw the spaceship," Martha protested. Or at least she thought he had. They'd found him at the top of the bulkhead door but Jonathan had leapt on him immediately, more concerned with putting the fear of God in him and chasing the man off their land than with getting all the facts.
"We don't know that for sure."
Martha sighed, silently cursing her husband's temper. He'd thrown the camera in the furnace in anger, frustration at the threats to his son overcoming common sense. As it had bubbled and melted, Martha couldn't help but think it might have been nice to see what he'd taken pictures of.
"Besides," Jonathan added, "without any proof, he'll just sound like a lunatic."
"You don’t think he'll come snooping around again?" Martha asked. “I can’t believe you scared him off that easily.”
Jonathan made a fist, as if he'd be more than willing to beat the man up again. "He won't be back. I understand men like that, Martha. He's all bark."
"I hope you're right." Martha placed her hands on her husband's shoulders, resting her forehead against the top of his head. "What would he have done with the pictures?" Fear for her son made her heart pound.
"Sell them to someone. Someone like Lex Luthor," the name dropped off his lips as if even the sound of it tasted bad. "That's assuming he wasn't collecting the information for Lex in the first place."
"Jonathan," Martha cautioned.
"I don't want Clark to have anything more to do with that boy," Jonathan announced.
"Lex means an awful lot to Clark," Martha said cautiously.
"I don't care. I just know that Lex is somehow behind this. We already know he investigated Clark once."
Martha sighed. Her husband's excessive antipathy toward Lex had always confused her, even considering his past with Lionel. "And we also know he stopped. I don't believe he'd do anything that would hurt Clark." And she truly didn't. Lex loved Clark. Martha wasn't sure exactly how, but she could see it in his eyes.
"Anything a Luthor touches goes bad," Jonathan spit out. "I never should have let them become friends in the first place."
"Lex has been a good friend to Clark."
"How do you know, Martha?" he countered. "Clark's as blind as everyone else in this town. Who wouldn't be seduced by all that power and money? And let's not even talk about those cars he drives."
"We've taught Clark better than that," Martha objected. She'd always suspected a large part of Clark's appeal to Lex was that Clark did know better, that his feelings for the younger Luthor had little to do with his money and the trappings of wealth.
Jonathan shook his head. "Choosing to be friends with Lex should never have been Clark's decision to make. He's too young to see the truth. So, I'm laying down the law right now. Lex has always been too curious about Clark and being with him has only whetted his appetite."
"What are you talking about?" Martha asked.
"Can't you see it?" Jonathan asked darkly. "Lex wants Clark. There's this hungry look in his eyes whenever he's with him. If he could, he'd eat Clark alive." Jonathan's eyes expressed his deep disturbance with the idea.
"You think that Lex is attracted to Clark?" Martha was surprised that Jonathan had seen it. Or more correctly, allowed himself to see it.
Jonathan snorted. "Attracted is too mild a word for it. And I'm not even talking about sex, although I think that's part of it. There's something about Clark that Lex craves, and it makes my skin crawl."
Martha moved to the stove to put some tea on; movement around the kitchen akin to meditation for her.
"Lex looks at Clark like an addict looking at their next fix," Jonathan growled, interrupting the brief silence.
Martha turned around, leaning back against the counter by the oven. "Clark looks at Lex the same way," she said softly, even knowing the explosion she was risking.
She got it. Jonathan stood up angrily, his chair skittering a few feet before falling with a crash. "No, he doesn't. Don't say that."
"Jonathan, we can't turn back the clock. Maybe if we could it might have been better if Lex and Clark hadn't met, but they have, and--" And Martha was pretty sure that cosmic worlds had collided that day, for better or worse. Her heart beat in fear for her son again. And for Lex.
Jonathan moved quickly until he was standing in front of Martha, his hands grasping her shoulders. "Trust me, Martha. Lex is bad news and he's not welcome here any longer."
"I don't know what the exact story is, but I know Lex is behind that reporter being here tonight. I know it," he repeated. "And I don't want Clark within a mile of anyone with the last name of Luthor."
"Jonathan--" Martha tried again.
Jonathan slashed a hand through the air. "That goes for you, too, Martha. He's not above using any of us. Or of trying to pay us off if we catch him in the act. We don't need him, and we don't need his money. I'm not letting Lex Luthor buy this family."
It wasn't until the prom was over, and Clark and Chloe were in her car, that they realized there'd been tornadoes in the area. As they headed for Clark's home, they saw flashing lights up by Lex's mansion. Clark convinced Chloe to drive there, and as she wove her way through the police cars, fire engines and ambulances, finally coming to a stop, he leapt out, frantic, looking for Lex.
His breath caught when he saw a body bag being loaded into one of the ambulances. Even more frenzied now, he darted between the men and women hovering around the door. It wasn't until he got inside and saw Lex sitting on the bottom stair, a bandage on his forehead over his right eye, talking on the phone, that Clark allowed himself to breathe.
"Lex," he called out, heading across the room.
Lex saw him and a look of relief crossed his face as well. He spoke into the phone, "I'll call you back," and flipped it shut. "Clark, you're all right." He eyed Clark head to foot and smiled tightly. "Even your bowtie's still straight."
Clark's hand reached up to touch the black fabric and grinned at Lex. "Thanks to you."
Chloe was suddenly there at Clark's side, and she was pinching him. "You could have waited for me," she hissed.
"Chloe, you look very nice," Lex said.
She beamed at him, even as she self-consciously touched her hair. "Who, uh--" she pointed toward the front door and what lay beyond. "Who died?"
"My father," Lex said calmly. Only his shaking hand, as he accepted a drink from one of the many suited people milling around, betrayed his emotions.
Clark's jaw dropped. "Your dad is dead?" Clark sat down next to Lex. "That was your dad?" He inched closer. "Are you--? That was your dad?" he asked again. Lex's dad was dead? That seemed inconceivable to him. The thought of his own dad dying made his stomach hurt. "What happened?"
Lex touched the bandage on his forehead, wincing slightly. "The tornado happened. It shattered the window in my office and brought part of the roof down."
"On your dad?"
Chloe twisted her mouth up to the side. "You don't seem too shook up about it."
"Chloe," Clark admonished.
She shrugged. "Well, he doesn't. If it was my dad I'd be freaked."
Lex gave her a wintry smile. "My father's and my relationship was--complicated."
Clark grimaced. He knew what that meant. It meant that Lionel Luthor was a complete and utter asshole, and it was a miracle that Lex was so, well, not like him. He wished he and Lex were alone so he could give his friend a hug. Lex might accept hugs in private on particularly bad days, but he hated PDAs.
"Have you been home?" Lex asked.
Clark and Chloe shook their heads. "No, we saw the lights and came over here," Clark said.
"You should probably go home. I'm not sure where else the tornadoes touched down. You should make sure your folks are all right."
Clark cringed; he hadn't even thought of that, too concerned with making sure Lex was all right. "I could call them." He wanted to make sure they were fine, but he really didn't want to leave--and not just because Lex might need him. For whatever reason, as crazy as it seemed, when most of the world thought Lex was bad news, Clark felt the safest, and the most able to be himself, when he was with Lex.
Lex patted his leg. "Go home. I have a lot of business to take care of. I'll probably be leaving for Metropolis in the morning."
Clark didn't like the idea of that. "For how long?" Then he squirmed a little at his self-centeredness. Lex's dad had just died and all Clark wanted was for Lex to be available for him.
He got another pat from Lex. "I don't know. A few weeks at least." He glanced around the room and let out a wry laugh. "The king is dead." Then, so softly Clark barely heard it, Lex muttered, "Long live the king."
Clark glanced quickly at Chloe, sort of wishing she'd go away for a moment, even as he felt guilty about it at the same time. He'd just been kissing her like she was his girlfriend, but all he wanted right now was to be with Lex. He leaned in and spoke softly, "I'll stay if you want me to. If you need me for anything. I can even go with you to Metropolis."
The look he got from Lex warmed him up like hot chocolate; it also made him want to stick even closer. But Lex was shaking his head. "That means a lot to me, Clark, especially because I know you mean it. But you need to go home. I'll keep in touch, I promise."
Clark nodded and reluctantly stood. "Call if you need something. I can come right over."
Two men in suits appeared, clearly wanting Lex's attention. Lex gave them a brief nod and then looked up at Clark. "Thanks for coming by." He spared a brief smile at Chloe. "Both of you."
Chloe returned his smile tightly, a sorry-your-dad-died-but-can-we-leave-now sort of smile. Clark figured it was time to go. It took a lot of self-control not to grab Lex and give him that hug. Clark was pretty sure Lex would go through this whole thing, worrying about LuthorCorp, arranging the funeral, everything, without getting any kind of hugs at all, and Clark thought that sucked.
Lex smiled up at Clark again and, with a weary sigh, turned to the men and began to speak to them.
Clark dragged his feet out the door, intermittently looking back at Lex, really, really wanting to stay. But finally they were outside, and Chloe was unlocking the car and looking at him with the expectation that he get in it. Now.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, he slipped into the passenger side and put on his seatbelt. They left Lex's property, following the ambulance that was making its bumpy way down the driveway. Once they reached the main road, the ambulance turned right, and Chloe turned left. "I can't believe Lionel Luthor is dead," Chloe said.
Clark wondered if a part of Lex was glad. Maybe even more than a part of him. All of it belonged to Lex now. He could run things how he wanted. He could leave Smallville for good and run LuthorCorp from Metropolis. He could even close the Smallville plant, or not reopen it, as technically, it was closed right now.
Clark hoped it didn't make him a pervert that the thought of Lex with all that money and power was sort of a turn on. Not that any of it was why he'd become Lex's friend. In fact, usually Clark didn't like all that money because it got in the way, put this weirdness in between them that took an effort to knock down over and over again. But now Lex wasn't just the son. Now he was, well, Lex had said it back at the castle. Now he was the king. King Lex. Clark grinned at the corn as they whizzed by it.
They arrived at Clark's farm, and he was glad to see that there didn't seem to be a lot of damage. And then, all of a sudden, he realized that he was alone in the car with Chloe, and that he'd kissed her before. For some reason that seemed like years ago and he'd lived a whole life between then and now, and maybe him and Chloe wasn't such a good idea. How could it be when all he wanted was to be back with Lex?
He smiled nervously at Chloe. "Sorry, that was sort of a weird way to end the night."
She smiled nervously back. "Yeah. I had fun, though."
"Yeah, me, too." There was a pause. "Do you, uh, do you want me to go with you to your house to make sure everything's all right?"
She shook her head. "Nah, I'm good."
"Okay." Clark sighed in the darkness at the lameness of this conversation. "So, um." This was agony. He tried to think back to the kiss at the gym. It had been so nice. Maybe there hadn't been any fireworks, but it had been nice.
The front door to his house opened up and his mom was standing there, the porch light revealing a worried expression. "Clark?"
Clark let out a small sigh of relief. He gave Chloe an apologetic look and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "I guess I'll talk to you later." Then he grinned. "Thanks for the ride. Sorry I couldn't get one of Lex's limousines."
She shrugged, grinning back. "No problem."
He opened the door and unfolded himself out of the seat. Then he leaned down and gave her a wave. "Night."
She nodded. "Night." Chloe turned the car around and drove away, after yelling out a greeting to his mom.
Clark walked to the door. "Everything okay here? We didn't even know there'd been tornadoes until we left the dance."
She nodded. "Everything's fine."
Something in her voice alerted Clark and he looked at her more closely. He followed her into the house and saw the bandage on his dad's head. "What happened?" He glanced at his mom. "I thought you said everything was fine," he gently accused her.
His dad touched his head. "Nothing to worry about, son. The storm whipped up some debris and your old man just zigged when he should have zagged."
Clark stared suspiciously at them both. Their voices didn't sound right, almost as if they were begging him to believe them, almost as if they had something to hide. Suddenly he remembered his news. "Lex's dad is dead. The tornado made the roof cave in and he got caught in it."
"I suppose Lex is just fine," his dad said disapprovingly.
"What's that supposed to mean? Jeez, his dad is dead; you might pretend to care."
"All right, all right. I'm sorry." As if the words hurt him to say, his dad choked out, "Was Lex injured?"
Clark decided it wasn't worth the effort to get into it. "He's mostly okay. He's got a few scrapes and bruises. I couldn't visit with him long, there're a million folks over there."
His dad got that look on his face, the one Clark hated more than anything. "Clark, I don't want you going over there anymore."
"Dad," Clark started to protest.
"No, I mean it. Lex is going to be too busy to spend any time with you, and you shouldn't waste his time."
Clark stared at his dad, and then at his mom, who occasionally came to Lex's defense, but they stared back at him, united. "If he calls me, I'm gonna go over there," Clark said mulishly. "He needs a friend right now."
"He'll be too busy to call," his dad said matter-of-factly. "You might as well get used to the idea that Lex will move back to Metropolis now that his father's not around to enforce his exile to Smallville. I know you don't like to hear it, but the only reason Lex tried to fit in here was because he had no other choice."
Clark wished he understood why his father hated Lex so much. If there was anything he could change about his dad, it would be this. In almost every other way, he had the best dad ever. Deciding retreat was the best defense right now, Clark just gave his parents a vague nod. "Well, I'm sort of tired; I'm gonna go to bed."
His mom came over and gave him a hug, reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. "You look so handsome." She smiled. "Did you have a good time with Chloe?"
He nodded. "Yeah, Chloe's great." Clark's life felt unexpectedly complicated, even more than usual. "So, um, goodnight."
"Goodnight, son," his father said.
The next day, Clark found out that Lana was dead. Her truck and body had been found ten miles outside Smallville, next to a shed that had been set down by the tornado in almost the same shape it had been picked up in. Lana hadn't been so lucky.
In his grief and guilt, Clark destroyed a third of a corn field by running through it at tumultuous speeds and letting his arms scythe the stalks in two.
Roger Nixon, who hadn't yet left Smallville, got it all on film. He thought over the evidence he had and decided it was enough. He'd heard about Lionel's death, and decided Lex was probably too busy to see him now. Besides, he didn't like how Lex talked to him, so Roger would just find someone else to sell his information to. He had an idea; with a little assistance from his friend Bill, he might be able to pull it off.
When Clark got home, he went up to the loft in his barn and stared at the telescope; it was still set to Lana's porch. It didn't seem possible that she'd never be there again. That she was gone. He wondered if Whitney knew, and if not, who would tell him.
Even Clark could appreciate the irony of Whitney going off to fight in a war where he'd be facing death every day, and before he'd even gotten out of the country, Lana gets killed by an act of God.
Clark was consumed by guilt. He should have been there. He should have known. It seemed inconceivable to him that while he'd been dancing and enjoying himself, Lex's life had been turned upside down, and Lana had died.
Lana was dead.
Lionel was dead.
Lex was probably going to go away.
That one hurt the most. Clark felt badly that Lana's death wasn't the thing that hurt him the most, but the thought of losing Lex was far worse. Without giving it any more thought, Clark raced to the castle. As soon as he got there, he could see he was too late. Everyone was gone.
Clark didn't even need to go inside. He swore he could always tell when Lex was inside. It was like the whole building stood a little taller or gave off sparks. It sounded silly, Clark knew, but he could still always tell. Lex was gone. Off to Metropolis. Off to a new life that maybe didn't include Clark.
He thought about racing to Metropolis, but that would be hard to explain to Lex, and this didn't seem the night to tell anyone that he had all these superpowers when it didn't seem like he could save anyone.
He ran home even faster, as if by running as quickly as he could, he could leave his ghosts behind. His dad was waiting in the yard when he got back.
"Where have you been?" Jonathan asked, accusingly.
"He's gone, Dad, all right?" Clark bit out.
"Good." Jonathan stared at him another few seconds and then turned and climbed up the steps to the house.
Just for a second, Clark hated him.
The next day, Clark answered the phone when it rang. "Kent Residence."
"Clark," Lex said. "I just heard the news."
Clark was glad his dad was out in the fields somewhere. "Yeah, things have been pretty bad around here." It was like the meteors had hit again. Or how Clark imagined it must have been. The first disaster took out Lana's parents and made her the honorary ward of the entire town. This time, it had come for Lana.
"Are you all right?"
I wish you were here, Clark thought to himself. "It's just a lot to deal with." And I wish you were here to help. "How are you doing?"
"They're keeping me too busy to feel anything. I've been in meetings non-stop."
"I wish I could be there with you," Clark said.
"I wish I could be there with you," Lex said in return. "If it was anything but this, I'd cancel everything and come back to Smallville. But--"
"I get it, Lex. Your dad died. That's huge." Clark supposed it was just as well that Lex wasn't here until his own dad had a chance to cool down a little. Clark had no idea what had gotten him so worked up about Lex this time. He wanted to ask when Lex might be home, but Clark wasn't up to hearing Lex say he wasn't coming back. Maybe Clark could go visit Lex there.
Clark could hear someone talking to Lex, telling him he was late. Clark was flattered Lex had taken the time to call.
"I'm afraid I have to go," Lex said unhappily. "Take care of yourself, Clark. If you need anything, call me."
"Same to you, Lex."
Lex hung up, and the resulting silence seemed particularly loud. Clark hung up just as his dad walked in the front door.
"Who was that?" Jonathan asked, frowning.
"Chloe," Clark lied.
Jonathan grunted and went to the sink to pour a glass of water. Clark grabbed his backpack and headed for the barn. Weird how life moved on. Lex was in Metropolis, maybe for good, Lana was dead, but Clark still had homework to do.
Lex stood with his drink in hand and stared down at the city of Metropolis, thinking of Clark. Strange how out of the countless numbers of people who were there to serve him, all Lex wanted was a sixteen-year-old boy from Smallville.
The physical distance between them sucked, as did the timing. Lex wanted Clark here with him, and he wished he could be there with Clark. Lana's death would be a difficult one for Clark to deal with, as he'd worshipped the ground she'd walked on for years. In any other circumstances, Lex would have been there, but right now it truly was impossible. It was taking all the public appearances he could handle to keep LuthorCorp stock from plummeting. His father might have been an asshole, but his stockholders had believed in his ability to make money.
Lex knew he could do it. In fact, he was reasonably certain he could do it even better. He just wasn't sure he wanted to. Living in Smallville had changed him. Having responsibilities, people who looked to him, watching his Smallville plant thrive because of his own efforts, having a friend like Clark--they had all changed him.
Maybe it was time to pare down. He took another sip of his drink, watching the city glitter, and wondered just how many billions one man needed.
The next day, in between meetings, Lex phoned Clark to check on him.
"Kent Farms," Jonathan Kent's voice came over the phone.
Lex grimaced, wishing Clark had answered. "Mr. Kent, it's Lex Luthor. Is Clark around?"
"No, he's not," Jonathan said hostilely, "and I've told him that you'll be too busy to bother with him anymore."
That sounded like an order to Lex, and he didn't appreciate it. "We're friends, Mr. Kent," he said carefully, wanting to stand his ground but aware of the fact that Clark's father wasn't exactly rational when it came to him. The memories of Mr. Kent's words under the influence of the Nicodemus flower still stung.
"He's too young to be friends with the likes of you," Jonathan bit out, "and it's time he got out from under your thumb."
Lex wondered what had set the man off this time. "Perhaps if you told me what was bothering you--" Lex tried.
"I'll tell you what the hell is bothering me," Jonathan snarled. "Some a-hole named Roger Nixon was sniffing around here. That name sound familiar to you?"
Shit. "Whatever he was doing there, it wasn't on my behalf," Lex said guardedly. "I made it very clear to him that our business was at an end." At least about Clark, Lex amended in his mind. He'd made that fact indisputable to Nixon when he'd promised to ruin the man if he focused any attention on Clark or his family.
"You might be able to fool a sixteen-year-old with that sort of evasive talk," Jonathan said angrily, "but I know he was here because of you. You don't know how to be friends with someone. You don't even know what the word means."
Lex's stomach knotted as Mr. Kent came a little too close to the truth for comfort, except for one thing. "Not Clark," Lex protested. And yes, he had made some wrong decisions regarding Clark, but he'd never purposefully chosen to put his friend in harm's way.
"Especially Clark," Jonathan hissed over the phone. "Stay away from him. Stay in Metropolis. No one wants you here."
The phone slammed down in Lex's ear and, as he pulled the phone away, Lex was dismayed to see his hand was shaking. He slowly placed his phone on his desk, taking in several deep breaths to try to find some semblance of calm.
Roger straightened his tie, wanting to look his best, knowing that he was hitting the big time here. Yasser Farouk was as big as it got. Money, power, connections--people didn't even say his name without looking around to make sure no one was eavesdropping.
Never in a million years would Roger have approached someone like this, except he knew he had something just that good. Something amazing. Something that was going to make him a boatload of money.
His friend, Bill, had wanted in on the deal, and Roger had had to promise him thirty percent of whatever he got before Bill would call a friend who knew a friend. At least Roger had kept what he was selling a secret. Bill had tried to pry it out of him, but all Roger would tell him was that it was big. Really, really big.
Bill's anticipatory greed had finally taken hold of him when Roger had started talking about millions. Whatever this Kent kid was, he'd be worth a fortune to somebody, and this Farouk guy was the man to see if you wanted to sell something like this to the right somebody.
There'd been rumors on the streets for a long time about auctions where items beyond belief were sold for millions, sometimes billions. Mythical items, one of a kind items, occasionally illegal items. Only the very, very, rich were invited.
That was all Roger had ever been able to find out on his own. At least it was all he'd been able to find out that sounded like the truth. He'd heard plenty of nonsense--how there'd been a unicorn auctioned off once, and Big Foot, that millions had been bid for one night with the most exotic courtesan in the world. The urban legends were plenty and, until now, Roger had been willing to write most of it off as a hoax.
That was before he'd seen a teenage boy do the things he could do. Before he'd seen a spaceship in the storm cellar of a Smallville farmhouse. Now he was willing to entertain the thought that unicorns existed, along with a yeti or two.
He had no idea how Bill knew what he knew about Farouk. Roger was good at ferreting out secrets, but he'd gotten nowhere. Whatever system Farouk had put in place to protect the identities of who was doing the bidding as well as the items he put up for auction, it had seemed impenetrable.
But Bill had come through, and now Roger was standing outside an unmarked door wearing his best suit, with photos and film in hand, ready to make the deal of a lifetime. He ran a hand down his torso, straightening his suit jacket, hoping it would help quell the nervousness in his gut.
Finally, getting up the nerve, he knocked.
Clark waited until his father was out in the fields before he called Lex. He'd never seen his father this insane about Lex, and it wasn't worth the hassle of getting caught.
On the other hand, Clark had no intention of not talking to Lex. His mom had gone to town to drop off some pastries at the Talon, planning on doing some shopping while she was there. So, with both parents out of the kitchen, Clark decided there wasn't going to be a better time. Picking up the phone, he dialed Lex's number.
"Clark," came Lex's voice. "It's good to hear from you."
"Yeah, me, too," Clark said, relieved. Lex hadn't called since the night after Lana's death, and Clark was afraid there might not be a place for him in Lex's life anymore.
"I’m sorry I haven't called," Lex said after a moment's pause. "Things have been crazy."
Clark didn't need Lex to tell him that. Lex had been on the news every day, dozens of microphones being shoved in his face. It seemed as if the entire world was focused on LuthorCorp stock and whether Lex would be able to handle his legacy. Clark had no doubts, but it couldn't be easy to cope with things with that kind of audience. Not that Lex didn't like being in the limelight, but there was limelight and there was blinding lights, and this was all about the latter. "Are you all right, though?" Clark asked.
Another pause. "I'd be better if I had my best friend with me," Lex finally admitted.
Clark couldn't stop the thrill that shot through him at Lex's words. He knew he was obsessed with Lex, always had been. He'd figured it was okay because Lex was just as obsessed with him. But, despite Clark's secrets, he'd always felt that Lex was so much more interesting, and that it was only a matter of time before Lex would eventually turn his sights to something more appealing than a teenager from Smallville. "I can be there in three hours," Clark offered. Actually, he could be there in five minutes, but then he'd have to hang around for two hours and fifty-five minutes before he could knock on Lex's door.
Another pause. "I'm tempted to take you up on that offer, but…"
Clark swallowed, suddenly nervous. "But?" he prompted.
"Family's important, Clark, and I don't think your parents would be very pleased if you came to see me," Lex finally said.
"I don't care," Clark said stubbornly. "They don't understand." They had never understood his and Lex's friendship; had, in fact, felt threatened by it, and Clark was sick of it.
"I do," Lex said softly. "It's enough that you would come if I needed you here. I can't tell you what that means to me. And I'm sorry I can't return the favor."
"I get why you can't come here," Clark said. Then, hesitantly, he asked, "When's your dad's funeral?" Clark would be there for that, come hell or high water.
"Friday at two pm," Lex said, then with a snort added, "It's at the Cathedral, of course, with Bishop O'Reilly officiating, per my father's will."
Clark snickered. Naturally, Lionel would go out in a huge news-worthy splash. "Not the Pope?" he asked with a grin, even as he acknowledged that this was a pretty morbid topic to be teasing about.
"Trust me, if my father could have arranged it, the Pope would be here."
"I miss you," Clark said.
"I miss you more," Lex said.
"Shit!" Clark said.
"Something I said?" Lex asked humorously.
"That's when Lana's funeral is," Clark griped. "How weird is that? It's the same day and the same time. Crap."
"You need to go to Lana's funeral," Lex said firmly. "No one will understand if you're not there, whereas I will understand why you're not here."
Clark knew it was true, and it was also true that he wanted to go to Lana's funeral. Lana had been a huge piece of his life for years, and he still couldn't quite believe she was dead. And while, as a friend, he wanted to stand by Lex, Clark couldn't care less about being at Lionel's funeral. His mother would scold him for being uncharitable but, as far as Clark was concerned, the world was a better place without the man in it.
"I wish I could be in both places at the same time," Clark said.
"I really do understand, Clark," Lex said kindly. "The funeral is likely to be even more of a zoo than these last few days have been, and I might not have the time I'd like to spend with you. I'd rather visit with you after all the ruckus is over, when I can really focus on you."
Clark liked the idea of that. He liked it when Lex focused on him; he'd never felt anything like it. It felt like when Clark stood outside, soaking in the sun to get his strength back, except Lex gave him a different kind of strength, something indefinable but just as necessary.
"After the funerals, then," Clark said. "Either you come here, or I'll go there, all right?"
"Sounds good," Lex said.
Clark heard his father's footsteps out in the yard. "I better go. Take care of yourself, don't drink too much, and don't forget to eat."
"Yes, mom," Lex said with a grin in his voice and disconnected.
When his father came in the door, the phone was on the counter, and Clark still had a grin on his face.
"What's the joke?" his father said good-naturedly.
"Nothing," Clark said, moving to the refrigerator to get something to drink. He didn't miss his father's quick glance at the phone.
"Somebody call?" Jonathan asked casually, even as his eyes narrowed.
Clark sighed, wondering if it would be better to lie or just tell the truth. He went for somewhere in between. "Nope," he said. After all, he'd been the one to call Lex.
Jonathan looked like he wanted to launch into another Lex-is-the-devil talk; he'd been handing them out like free candy lately, at least a couple a day, but he just moved to the sink to wash his hands.
Lex put his phone away, grinning, warmed by Clark's admonitions. For a moment, he wished his father wasn't dead, so Lex could still be in Smallville, spending a normal evening watching TV with Clark at the mansion. Not that their time together was truly normal. From the moment they'd met, there'd been something more, something that drew Lex in like a bee to honey.
He stood up and moved to the window, looking down on his city. For the first time, his destinies were colliding. He'd always taken for granted the fact that he'd assume his rightful place as heir apparent after his father's death. But, since meeting Clark, he'd also assumed that Clark would be there at his side. Right now, he was beginning to wonder if he could have one or the other, but not both.
Pressing his palms, shoulder width apart, to the window, he allowed himself a second to rest his forehead between them against the cool glass, permitting himself a moment of melancholy. The timing of his father's funeral was no accident. He'd found out when Lana's was and scheduled Lionel's for the same time.
He'd done a good job telling himself it was to protect Clark from Jonathan Kent’s wrath or to keep Clark from doing something that would estrange him from his family, but Lex knew the truth.
Lex didn't think he could handle it if no one from Smallville came to his father's funeral. He was afraid that he meant so little to those people, even the people he'd worked with at the plant for the last two years, that no one would make the effort. And while Lex liked to pretend he was indifferent to the opinions of others, he wasn't.
So, he'd made it impossible for anyone to come, even Clark. It was safer that way. If someone asked, he had a reasonable excuse as to why no one from Smallville was there. He'd have a good reason for why he was standing alone at his father's funeral.
He was suddenly pierced by a longing to see Clark and wished he'd taken him up on his offer. Then, pushing it aside, along with his melancholy, Lex moved back to his desk.
Yasser Farouk only met with a select group of people and foremost among them was his right hand man, Mohammed Ayman. “What do you think?” Yasser asked him. He trusted Mohammed’s instincts implicitly.
“I think this boy will make you a very rich man,” Mohammed said. “I think you need to watch the tapes.”
“And the fool who brought the information?” Yasser asked.
“Truly a fool,” Mohammed said scornfully. “One of a line of fools that brought you to his attention.”
“Ah,” Yasser said. “Then, perhaps, we should invite them all in for a personal show of gratitude.” No one was allowed to know of his existence except those Yasser wanted to know.
“What shall I tell him we will pay?” Mohammed inquired.
“Whatever will entice him and his line of fools to return,” Yasser said. He reached across the desk and picked up the small video tape, as well as the file containing the photos. “I assume he has more he is holding hostage until he gets his money?” Yasser asked.
“Of course,” Mohammed said with a sneer. Mohammed hated amateurs almost as much as Yasser did. “Although he had it with him and has already shown it to me.”
“What was it?”
“He claims it is a piece of a spaceship,” Mohammed said without batting an eye.
His equanimity was only one of the many things Yasser appreciated about Mohammed. “Does he understand the danger?”
Mohammed snorted. “He is a trusting fool.”
“Then we will take it from him tomorrow,” Yasser said, “with the lure of an open briefcase full of more money than he has ever imagined.” It would be the last money he ever saw. There was a reason no one spoke of Yasser Farouk, and once Mohammed got the names of the informants, their deaths would be a further reminder of why.
“I will make the arrangements,” Mohammed said respectfully, as he made a slight bow and left the small office Yasser was using for this particular interaction.
Yasser opened the file to find the face of a handsome young man. Just the face alone could make him money. The next one was a blur, perhaps photographer error, perhaps not; it was too soon to tell. The next few photos were pictures of an exploding truck that, if the sequence of photos were to be believed, showed the young man inside the truck when it exploded, then exiting it, unscathed, other than a burning shirt which he then ripped off, leaving him standing unhurt a few feet away from the truck.
That body would make him even more money.
He flipped to the next series of photos to find a car slamming into the young man, only to leave the car a totaled mess, while he was, again, unscathed.
There was a picture of the alleged spaceship, a picture of the young man lifting a tractor up while an older man fixed something underneath, a series of pictures with times on them showing the speed with which he hammered in fence posts with his bare hands.
He pushed the small cassette into the equipment Mohammed had provided. Ten minutes later he popped it out, pursing his lips, thinking Mohammed was right. This young man, this alien, was going to make Yasser a very rich man, and he was already one of the richest.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Yasser said, knowing it was Mohammed. When Mohammed entered, Yasser asked, “Is he gone?”
“Yes,” Mohammed said disparagingly. “He will return tomorrow at 3:00 with his friends so they may share in the bounty.”
Yasser grinned at his friend. Mohammed would enjoy putting an end to the fool’s life. “I need more information,” Yasser said. Mohammed nodded. It wasn’t necessary to tell him what Yasser needed, Mohammed knew. Except for one thing: “I need to know his weaknesses. And get the spaceship.”
“Of course,” Mohammed said.
Then Yasser would put together his guest list.
Lana’s funeral was awful, and Clark hated every minute of it. Most of it was just because it really meant Lana was dead. Part of it was that Chloe was hanging on to him, wanting to hold his hand, with a look of expectation on her face that made Clark’s gut churn. It made him feel guilty because he’d kissed her less than a week ago and now he didn't want to touch her at all, and it sucked.
Part of what made it awful was that everyone was looking at him with pity in their eyes as if he was going to throw himself on her coffin and cry. Sure, Clark had cared about her, even loved her in a way, but there was so much confusing stuff wrapped up with everything that had been Lana. A lot of it had been painful and humiliating, and there was a tiny, tiny part of him that was glad it was over. And that made him feel guilty. It was bad enough he hadn’t saved her, now he wasn’t even one hundred percent sad that she was dead.
All in all, it was one of the worst two hours of Clark’s life, ending up here at her gravesite, the minister talking about her short life, and how her parents’ lives had been cut short as well, and the unfairness of it all and how you could never understand the inscrutability of God, and how you just had to trust, and it made Clark wonder how God fit into his life when he wasn’t even human, and came from another planet that maybe worshipped giant turtles, or sun spots or something.
His dad kept looking around, and Clark knew he was checking to see if Lex was going to show up. Clark had told him he wouldn’t be there, and his lack of trust in Clark, and his ongoing hate-Lex-campaign was pissing Clark off, making him even more miserable. As far as Clark was concerned, if Lex happened to show up after deciding to blow off his father’s funeral, Clark would be thrilled to see him, and he’d go sit with him, and maybe even hold his hand, because right now Lex was the only thing that was making sense to him.
As expected, Lionel Luthor's funeral was ridiculously pompous and his dad would have loved it. It almost made Lex sad he was dead, because it would have been amusing to listen to his dad's cutting comments about everything and everyone.
Lex, on the other hand, hated it. Not that he was a fan of spending copious amounts of time feeling sorry for himself, but he didn't think there was anyone at the funeral that actually cared about him; rather, they cared about what they could get from him.
He'd been propositioned five times. Three times during the funeral, pieces of paper with telephone numbers on them were secreted into his hands, and twice at the cemetery. All five pieces of paper were wadded up in his pants pocket, from which they would end up in the nearest trash receptacle.
Lex wasn't in the mood to sleep with anyone. Well, that wasn't actually true. He was in the mood to sleep with one person. Clark. Not to have sex, at least that wouldn't be the main reason, not right now. No, he wanted to sleep with Clark because he was big and strong, and he cared about Lex, and Lex wanted to crawl into bed and have Clark curl around him and keep the world away for a little while.
Clark moped around the house after the funeral and wake were over. He'd tried to call Lex twice already, finally giving up, figuring that the funeral for someone like Lionel probably took longer than the one for a country girl like Lana. In fact, when he turned the TV on, Lex was front and center, being besieged by reporters as he was trying to get into his limousine at the grave site. It made Clark furious for him, and he had to clutch the couch hard to keep himself from racing to Lex's side and pushing all those stupid people away from his friend.
He glanced down and saw that he had actually dug his fingers into the couch. His mom was going to kill him.
The funeral story switched to the regular news, and the anchorman said, "This just in. The police are investigating what looks to be a gang related homicide. The bodies of six men have been found in a dumpster behind an abandoned warehouse. All six men appear to have been tortured before being killed. None of the bodies have yet been identified and there appears to be no information explaining why they were killed. Now, the weather."
Clark thought that was weird, but he switched the channel, hoping to catch some more of Lex, even as he knew that the media frenzy had to be driving Lex insane. And while seeing him on TV only made him miss his friend more, it was better than not seeing him at all.
"Clark," his father said, frowning at the TV. "There're chores that need to be done."
"Yes, sir," Clark said, shutting off the TV.
Lex dialed Clark's number and almost considered hanging up when Clark's dad picked up. "Hello."
"Mr. Kent," Lex said politely. "Is Clark around?"
"Lex, I told Clark that it's time for you two to go your separate ways," Mr. Kent said firmly. "I think with your new role as head of LuthorCorp, Clark's life here and your life there are too different. Clark isn't ready for that."
Lex wanted to argue, wanted to explain that the thought of Clark's steady presence and constant friendship was all that was keeping his head above water, but he could hear the man's intractability in his voice. "Would you at least tell him I called?" Lex asked.
"I think it would be better if I don't," Mr. Kent said, as he disconnected the phone.
For a minute, Lex schemed about how he could get a phone to Clark, how he could find ways to talk to him, to see him, to keep him in his life. There was absolutely no way Lex was giving Clark up, despite the seemingly innumerable obstacles now dividing them. There had to be a way. And as soon as Lex had a moment to breathe, he'd figure it out.
Then, his assistant was there, and the people for his next appointment, and Lex had to focus his attention on work, even if his heart was wishing otherwise.
Yasser smiled as Mohammed laid out his plan, a large chunk of a greenish colored crystal on the desk in front of him. Unsurprisingly, the plan was a good one, but then Mohammed never disappointed. "Tell me when our item is acquired," Yasser said, "so I can send out invitations."
Mohammed bowed, and left the room, a piece of Kryptonite clutched in his hand.
Clark was at a payphone trying to call Lex. His dad was still monitoring the phone at home, and every time Clark went near it his dad would start to glower. He had a stack of quarters, and he put one in and dialed Lex's cell phone.
"Clark?" came Lex's voice.
Relieved, Clark sagged against the hard plastic enclosure, "Lex."
"It's good to hear your voice," Lex said.
"Yours, too." It was the first time Clark had felt like himself since the funeral.
"I tried to call, but--" Lex stopped mid-sentence.
A flash of anger swept through Clark. "My dad?" He closed his eyes, trying not to crush the phone.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to say anything." Lex sounded honestly penitent, not that Clark would have cared if Lex had purposefully ratted his father out. It pissed the crap out of him that his father was refusing to pass messages along and being so stubborn about Lex.
"No, I'm sorry he's such a jerk," Clark said. "I don't suppose you feel like sending me a cell phone, do you?" He thought he could hide a cell phone from his dad. And while he normally wouldn't ask for Lex to spend money on him, the two of them staying in touch was essential.
"I'll get one out today," Lex told him.
Clark could hear the relief in his voice, as strong as his own. "Did you hear about Roger Nixon?" The bodies had been identified, and one of them had been the reporter.
"Yes," Lex said. There was a pause. "Your father told me he was at your house the night the tornadoes hit. I think that's why he's so opposed to us remaining friends. I know he blames me."
"You told me he wouldn't bother me anymore," Clark said, confused, even if his parents' odd behavior that night and since made much more sense now.
"I know I did. I thought I had contained the threat. I did everything I could short of physically assaulting the man. Apparently, I was less persuasive than I'd hoped."
The phone beeped, breaking the silence, and Clark fed it some more quarters. When he was done, Clark said, "You didn't send him to the farm, Lex."
"I think your father's right to blame me, though," Lex finally said. "It was me who got Nixon interested, and I'm sorry for that."
Clark had known Lex long enough to know that he never did anything by half measure. His plans were just like Lex--larger than life--and it made it hard for them not to go wrong. He supposed he should be mad about it, especially if that's why his dad got hurt, but Clark was so annoyed at his father, and missed Lex so much, he didn't even care. "It's okay." He glanced at his watch. He needed to be at school in less than five minutes. "I have to go."
"I'm glad you called, Clark," Lex said.
"Expect a delivery at school today."
Clark worried about that for a moment, what other people would think, but then he decided he didn't care about that either. "I'll talk to you soon, then." He really had to go, but he was reluctant to hang up. He wished he was with Lex so he could watch him walk around the room with that small smile on his face. Watch his earnestness when he gave Clark advice; watch him drink one of his blue bottles of water. Clark missed all of it. He hadn't realized, until right now, how much he needed to see Lex. "This sucks," he blurted out.
He heard a soft mirthless chuff of laughter. "I miss seeing you," Lex said, as if he'd been reading Clark's mind.
"Talking on the phone's better than nothing," Clark agreed, "but not as good as seeing you." He glanced at his watch and winced. Even with his super speed he was going to be late.
"No," Lex said. "Nowhere near as satisfying."
There were things being said here, important things, underneath the words. Things that made Clark's heart pound, and his groin grow heavy, and if he thought his father was freaking now, Clark couldn't imagine what he'd be thinking if he could hear this conversation, or be inside Clark's head. If Lex knew about him, about his powers, Clark could be there in minutes, watching him, maybe touching him, and just that fast, Clark knew he had to tell Lex, because there was no way Clark would survive this separation for long.
"You need to go," Lex finally said. "You're already late."
"I know," Clark admitted. He just clenched the phone harder, and he could feel the plastic creak in complaint.
"Go," Lex said. "I'm hanging up." It took him about thirty seconds, but finally Lex did disconnect.
Clark slowly hung up, feeling a grin grow on his face. He had no idea how he'd make it happen, but he and Lex were supposed to be together. Lex had said it after that whole creepy thing with Bob Rickman and Kyle Tippet, after Lex had tried to kill him with that assault rifle, telling him that their friendship was the stuff of legends. Clark snorted. Somehow that seemed so typical of their relationship. God knows, between the two of them, they could hardly have a normal friendship.
He left the phone booth, his thoughts slowly shifting to his present reality, trying to come up with a good excuse for being late. He should have had Lex come up with one for him. Clark looked around to make sure no one was watching him before super speeding it, and was surprised to find two men standing a few feet from him, watching him.
Clark panicked for a second, wondering if he'd done something without realizing it. He checked the phone booth but saw it was still in one piece, even the phone. "Did you need something?" he finally asked. That was when he felt it. The meteor rock. He took a step backwards, preparing to run, thinking if they knew about the meteor rock, they knew about the rest of it.
He bumped into someone and, turning around, he found two more men. It threw him off enough to keep him from running and now he could really feel the effects of the rock, and it brought him to his knees. "Wait," he gasped out.
But they weren't waiting. Two of them grabbed his arms, while one opened the side doors to a van. The fourth moved to the driver's side of the car.
He tried to fight, but he was already too weak, and there was more meteor rock in the van. Much more, and they tossed him on top of it. Clark curled up in a ball, even the strength to roll off the rocks beyond him right now. All he knew was pain as the meteor rock affected him.
"You don't think it will kill him, do you?" one of them asked.
"Get rid of some of it," another voice answered.
Clark felt someone scoop under his body to remove some of the rock, but it wasn't enough to make a difference. The pain intensified, and he groaned; it felt like acid was running through his veins and arteries. He knew the men were talking, and he felt them again removing some rock, but he was beyond comprehension, inundated with pain. His last thought, before succumbing to the darkness that was encroaching, was a silent call for Lex.
The real question, Tony thought miserably to himself, wasn't whether Gibbs loved him or not, something he desperately wanted Gibbs to do. The real question was if Gibbs liked him at all. Or maybe he couldn't even stand him. Tony had been wondering about that lately, and now that he’d started wondering, Tony was cringing at how long it had maybe been going on, and how long Tony had been oblivious to it.
He watched as Gibbs headed down to speak with Abby. "Do you think Gibbs likes us?" he asked Ziva and Tim. He was perfectly happy to throw them in the deep end of the pool, too. The thought that it was only him that Gibbs disliked didn’t sit well.
"What?" Ziva asked.
"Gibbs," Tony said. "Do you think he likes us?"
"Does it matter?" she said.
Tony wondered, for about the zillionth time, what life was like inside Ziva's head. It was a place Tony didn't think he'd want to hang out. "Sure," he said. "It's nice when people like you."
"Caring what other people think makes you weak," she said scornfully.
He stared at her with pursed lips for a long moment and then turned to Tim. "You believe that?"
"No," Tim said. "I don't think there's anything wrong in caring what other people think, at least to a certain extent," he added cautiously.
Tony wondered if Tim was directing that at him specifically. "A certain extent?" he repeated, soliciting more information.
"Well, sure," Tim said. "I mean if you care so much about how someone thinks about you that you lose yourself, or step over your own ethical boundaries to make them happy, that can be bad. That sort of stuff."
That sounded pretty reasonable to Tony; maybe Tim hadn't been trying to score a point off of him. Even if he was able to fool most people, Tony knew he could be insecure. He also knew, having been told this by multiple therapists, most of whom he ended up sleeping with, that he could be way too dependent on needing certain peoples' approval. It was why Tony had created a persona who acted like he didn't care. It wasn't as good as actually not caring whether people approved of him or not, but it was better than being publicly flailed alive on a regular basis.
"Do you think Gibbs likes us?" he asked Tim.
"Sure, I guess," Tim answered.
"I mean really," Tony pushed. "He likes Abby, right?"
"Yeah," Tim agreed.
"He likes Ducky," Tony added.
"Yeah," Tim agreed again.
"He treats them really differently than he treats us," Tony pointed out. "He kisses Abby."
"You want him to kiss you?" Ziva asked, one eyebrow up.
Tony rolled his eyes. "That's not what I'm saying. I'm just comparing how he treats people I know he likes, to how he treats us." How he treats me, he amended mentally. Gibbs didn't smack Tim and Ziva the way he did Tony. And Gibbs looked them in the face when he was talking to them.
He'd been noticing, recently, when he'd get in an elevator with Gibbs, that Gibbs didn't even turn around to look at Tony. He talked to him over his shoulder. Who does that? Granted, Gibbs had never been the poster boy for good communication, but the only time Tony did stuff like that was when he really didn't like someone, enough so that he couldn't even bear to look at them.
And Gibbs was hitting him a lot lately. For the first time since he'd worked for Gibbs, the back of Tony's head was sore. Tony had had a low grade headache all last week from the head smacking. He couldn't help but feel that they were angry smacks, maybe even I-can't-stand-you smacks. Just the thought of that made Tony's guts churn.
"They don't directly report to Gibbs," Tim said, interrupting Tony's painful reverie.
"He was pretty nice to Stan Burley," Tony pointed out.
"Who?" Tim said.
"Never mind," Tony muttered. That had been Kate. And it had been Kate who'd brought it to his attention that he was being somewhat pathetic in his need for Gibbs’ attention. She'd tried to make him feel better on the ship, as if he was a five-year-old being taunted by a school yard bully. But when they'd gotten back home after working that case with Burley, she'd suggested he snap out of it because it was pitiful the way he needed Gibbs' approval. Kate had always wielded a painfully sharp tongue.
The thing was, Tony used to think Gibbs liked him. Used to think that Gibbs really liked him. Used to think he'd catch Gibbs staring at him out of the corner of his eye, maybe even checking him out.
Not so much any more.
"He's not really nice to Fornell," Tim mused, "and he's known him a long time, and I think they're sort of friends."
"Good point," Tony said.
He wasn't sure when it began to change. Wasn't sure when the tone in Gibbs' voice began to be more irritated than amused, more disgusted than affectionate.
Maybe after the whole thing with Ari and Kate. Certainly Gibbs had pursued his job and their cases with a renewed vigor and focus, less willing to put up with any distracting bullshit. Maybe he blamed Tony for Kate's death. God knew Tony still blamed himself.
Maybe it was when Gibbs lost his memory and sailed out of here both literally and figuratively, abandoning Tony like he was so much flotsam and jetsam. And, then, when he returned, he abandoned Tony in a whole new and humiliating way, by taking the team back over and demoting Tony back to field agent without a word of thanks or explanation. Maybe, in the midst of grappling with his missing memories, Gibbs forgot that he sort of liked Tony.
"He was often not nice to the Director," Ziva mentioned, "and they were lovers at one point."
"That's different," Tony said. "Throwing sex into the mix always changes things and makes them awkward." Things had definitely gotten strained between him and Gibbs with his undercover work for Jen. He'd lied to Gibbs on his first gig for Shepard, and if he hadn't actually lied the second time around, Tony had certainly committed the sin of omission. Tony knew Gibbs had lost some faith in him. Maybe that had been the beginning of the end. It had certainly put a strain on Gibbs' and Jenny's friendship. Gibbs had been pissed at Jenny beyond belief about the whole thing. Tony had hoped it was at least partly on his behalf, Gibbs' actions always spoke louder than his words.
The words were essentially non-existent. Abby had told him how upset everyone had been, including Gibbs, when they thought Tony had been blown up in his car, but even Tony's supposed death hadn't caused actual words to leave Gibbs' lips.
"I think he likes me well enough," Tim threw out, a little smugly, Tony thought. "He buys me coffee."
"Once," Tony said through a clenched jaw.
"More than once," Tim said even more smugly.
Gibbs had never bought Tony coffee. He'd never bought him a damn thing. Well, okay, pizza, when Tony was on death row. Somehow that didn’t feel like liking as much as pity.
"I think you should not let it matter so much," Ziva said with one of her I-know-so-much-more-than-you looks.
Tony squeezed his lips tight to avoid telling her to fuck off. Telling Tim to fuck off. Maybe telling Gibbs to fuck off. He looked back at his computer, trying to remember what the hell he'd been working on.
Maybe it was that mission with the FBI, the set-up, maybe Gibbs had started disliking him after Tony got in his face down in the morgue. Or maybe it was after Tony had saved his and Maddie's life. Maybe Gibbs didn't want to be beholden to Tony. Lord knows Gibbs hadn't said a word of thanks. Again. Hadn't even looked at Tony on the dock or afterward.
Gibbs for sure hadn't wanted Tony to meet his father. Had made a point of excluding him, or trying to, Tony amended with a small smile. As if even Gibbs was going to keep Tony from learning something new about him. Anything. Everything. He wanted to know everything about the man.
"How about you, Ziva?" Tony asked tightly, although he was doing his best to come across as calm. "Do you think Gibbs likes you well enough?"
"I think Gibbs believes I am a good agent, and that he is glad I work for him," she answered definitively, no doubt in her voice.
It made Tony hate her for a second. Somehow he just knew that Ziva had never had a true moment of self-doubt in her life. Oh, she had moments, but something in her would just squash the sentiment like a bug under her heel until it was gone. He hated people like that. Envied them. Tony spent too much time doubting himself. Rehashing his decisions, reliving his mistakes.
Tony tried to think of the last time Gibbs had said something nice to him.
Well, okay, he was sort of nice to him when he was stuck away being agent afloat, and he promised to get him home. Which he did. Of course, when he saw Gibbs for the first time after being apart for so long, he must have looked hungry or something, because he had complete strangers telling him to tone the lust factor down.
Tony couldn't help it. He loved, no, that wasn't a strong enough word. He adored--no, too girly. He yearned--no, too bodice ripper. He, well, maybe hungry was the right word. He was hungry for Gibbs like a starving man. He needed Gibbs like oxygen. Like his lungs would collapse if he couldn't breathe Gibbs on a regular basis.
He sometimes wondered why. The guy was an asshole. If he wasn't already an alcoholic, he was fast on his way to becoming one. He treated most people like dirt. He had no regard for people's personal lives, just assuming that everyone was as married to the job as he was. He'd been divorced three times, and was probably paying so much alimony, even if one of his ex-wives had remarried, he could barely afford groceries, which could explain why Tony was the one buying groceries both times he'd stayed with the man.
Okay, that was something good. Gibbs had let him stay with him. Twice. Not willingly, true, but he'd opened his house to him. That had to mean something, right? Of course, it was over two years ago, but at least Gibbs must have liked him then, right?
"Do you think Gibbs likes you?" Tim asked Tony.
"Everyone likes me, Probie," Tony said.
"He hits you a lot," Tim pointed out.
"And he gives you a lot of the grunt work to do," Ziva teased.
Tony sneered a smile at her, making a point of not letting it show that the fact that other people maybe thought Gibbs didn't like him was killing him.
It had to have been the lying, Tony thought. The undercover mission from hell. The nine circles of hell. First circle: Jen played him. Second circle: he lied to Gibbs, not once but twice, so that was sort of the second and third circle. Fourth circle: he fucked over Jeanne. Fifth circle: the Frog ended up dead, anyway. Sixth circle: another fucking car in smithereens. Seventh circle: Jeanne tried to frame him for murder. Eighth circle: Jen was dead and it was partly, if not wholly Tony's fault. "And the ninth circle of hell, boys and girls," Tony said loudly as he stood up quickly enough to cause his chair to bounce off the back wall of his cubicle.
"Is going to be your ass if you don't have something to report, DiNozzo," Gibbs said briskly as he stalked to his cubicle.
This was the ninth circle of hell. Right here. Gibbs didn't even look at Tony, just shot a glare his way. The job and Gibbs were giving him a fucking ulcer. Tony knew he was insecure, but this job, and being around Gibbs, was making him certifiable. "I quit," he announced.
"What?" Tim yelped.
"Shut up, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, dismissing him. "McGee, what've you got?"
McGee shot a worried look at Tony, but then faced Gibbs, saying, "Ensign Douglas made three phone calls the night he died."
Tony let out a silent chuff of laughter. Gibbs obviously didn't even care if he quit. Well, okay, maybe Gibbs didn't actually believe him. Probably thought Tony was being dramatic to deflect Gibbs from noticing that he didn't have anything to report. But he did, god damn it. He always did. He was a good fucking agent. He'd been a good fucking cop, and he needed a vacation so he could get his fucking head straight again, because he was going fucking insane.
So Gibbs didn't like him. Fine. You know what, Tony thought, I don't really like him either. I need him like I need gravity and food, true, but-
And here Tony had an epiphany. Gibbs was bad for him. He was like a drug, like an addiction, and Tony had lost all rational thought regarding him. When complete strangers were calling him on his addiction, it was maybe time to go cold turkey.
He noticed that McGee was still babbling. The thought of going cold turkey, of actually, on purpose, never seeing Gibbs again, took Tony's breath away. He put his hands on his desk to keep from dropping to his knees and puking.
Ziva was talking now. Okay, so maybe cold turkey wasn't the way to go. Maybe he needed an in-between step, like some sort of Gibbs methadone.
"DiNozzo," a strident voice, tinged with anger, cut through his nine circles of hell.
"Boss," Tony said, tuning back in, only to find Gibbs, Tim, and Ziva all staring at him.
"If you don't open your mouth and start talking," Gibbs threatened, "you won't need to quit."
Tony looked at his computer, praying desperately that something there would jog his memory. Almost faint with relief he said, "Airline tickets. He had airline tickets for two for tonight. To Italy. Not too many people buy expensive, first class, tickets to Italy and then off themselves." He sat down, grateful for the momentary distraction from his breakdown.
"Who was he going with?" Gibbs barked.
"Alicia Wright," Tony said after scrolling down a little.
"And do we know who Alicia Wright is?" Gibbs asked menacingly.
"On it, boss," Tony said, fingers pressing keys.
"McGee," Gibbs snapped out, putting Tim on the hot seat again.
The man truly was an asshole, Tony thought. He'd always been an asshole, except for the occasional moment when he wasn't one. Brief moments; certainly not long enough to make up for being such a consistent asshole. Yes, the man was committed to his job. Yes, he was a brilliant investigator. Yes, the man had buried a wife and child--which he'd never told anyone about.
And yes, that sucked, Tony couldn't imagine what losing a child must be like, but you know what, and Tony knew he was the pot calling the kettle black here, but had Gibbs never heard of therapy? At least Tony was in therapy. Intermittently. At least he knew he was fucked up. Tony wondered if Gibbs knew he was fucked up, too. He seemed to take such inordinate pride in being a bastard. For the first time, Tony wondered if that was a made up persona like Tony's. Maybe the real Gibbs--the real Jethro--was someone completely different. Maybe for Shannon and Kelly, or his ex-wives, or for Hollis Mann, he was charming, witty, funny, doting.
"You having trouble paying attention, DiNozzo?"
"No, I'm fine," Tony said. "Alicia Wright, I got an address." Then Tony winced, "ooh, and a death notice for her. Maybe he did off himself. She died, boss. A week ago." He checked the tickets. "He bought the tickets a month ago."
"They were engaged to be married," Ziva said. "I just found the engagement announcement."
"Well, that sucks," Tony said.
"Ya think, DiNozzo?" Gibbs said disparagingly.
There was no Gibbs methadone. "Yeah, I do think, boss," Tony said. He stood up again, pulling off his badge and placing it on his desk. He kept his gun; it was his. Of course without the badge, he didn't have a license to carry, but he'd figure that out later. "And I quit. I'll be back later for my stuff." He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and walked out of his cubicle.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Gibbs yelled at him.
"Someplace far away from here," he said. He didn't wait for the elevator, just slammed through the stairwell door and raced down as fast as he could, feeling both freer than he'd ever felt, and full of fear like a junkie already knowing he was out of drugs and had just lost his supplier.
Tony heard the door slam open above him, and Gibbs yelling, "DiNozzo!" but Tony kept running.
Tony felt like he was in one of his movies, breaking out of prison or on the run from the KGB. He felt an urgent need to go to ground. He had no idea what he'd do then, but he did know that slowing down and letting Gibbs catch up to him was a bad idea. He was like an alcoholic who'd managed to turn down one beer, but knew he'd succumb if he was offered another. All it would take was a few words from the man to have Tony crawling back into the bottle.
He sprinted for his car, and took his first deep breath when he pulled out of the parking lot, no sign of Gibbs behind him. He didn't know why he even thought Gibbs would come after him, but Tony still felt like he was being pursued. Once he got home, he locked the door and put on the chain, something he hadn't done since he'd moved in.
Even as he knew he was being temporarily insane, the adrenalin pumping through his body dictating his actions more than common sense, he dragged a heavy chair to rest in front of the door. It made him recall one night when he was nine, left with the help, as he often was, and the new chauffeur had had a little too much to drink. The guy had creeped Tony out sober; drunk with a leer in his eye, he terrified him. Adela, the maid, had whispered to Tony to lock himself in his room and not let anyone in.
Tony had done as he was told, doing his best not to cry when the guy started pounding on his door. At the time, Tony wasn't clear on what the man wanted, but now, looking back, he could guess. Tony had finally fallen asleep on the floor of the closet, and when he'd woken up the man was gone, never to be seen again.
As he stared at his door, almost waiting for the pounding to begin, Tony began to suspect that he really was going crazy. Gibbs had driven him mad; there was no other explanation. A second later, Tony snickered. Okay, that was a bit dramatic. Maybe. He still stood there looking at the door. Did he really expect Gibbs to follow him? Why would he? If he wanted Tony gone, he just got his wish. And if he wanted Tony not to quit, coming over here and yelling at him wasn't the answer. And Gibbs would yell. Tony had no doubt about that.
He heard a car squeal into the parking lot, and his heart, which was already racing, began to jackhammer in his chest. "Jesus," Tony said, as he put his hand over his heart. Maybe he'd have a heart attack, and then he wouldn't have to worry about any of this.
Someone was running now.
"Shit," Tony said.
The pounding started. "Tony," Gibbs yelled. "Open the damn door."
Tony stood there, like a deer in headlights, thinking he made the right call leaving NCIS if he was this close to the edge. He was just burned out, he rationalized. There was a reason he left every job after two years; everyone needed a break now and then. And working someplace where you got smacked on the back of the head so often your head hurt was wrong. So what if Gibbs was there. So what if Gibbs was right outside his fucking door. Tony needed to stay firm. Time to move on.
"Tony," Gibbs hollered, his fists banging on the door.
Someone was going to call the cops. Tony snickered. He'd like to see Gibbs talk his way out of that. He wondered if this was why all his ex-wives ended up fighting back with such grand gestures. Because he pushed, and pushed, and pushed, until you snapped and bam, you're reaching for the golf clubs.
It was quiet all of a sudden, which had Tony taking another step back and thinking about the safety of a closet. Then the door swung open a couple of inches, hitting both the chain and the heavy armchair. "What the hell," Gibbs snarled. Then he looked up, and through the three-inch crack, saw Tony.
Tony had no idea what he looked like, but Gibbs shut his mouth, his eyes opened wide, and he put up a hand, like in an old time Indian movie, as if to say 'how'.
"Let me in," Gibbs said softly.
Tony shook his head, taking a step back until there was a wall behind him.
"Tony," Gibbs said, calmly, gently. "Just open the door."
"I don't think so, Boss," Tony managed to say. "I like that I’m in here and you're out there." Tony just had to get through tonight, and then he'd start his cold turkey program on how to break his addiction to Gibbs, which would be much easier with Gibbs on the other side of his door.
"Tony," Gibbs said. "Come on. We can't talk like this."
Tony ran through his options, wishing he had a back door.
There was a loud crash, and Tony gaped as Gibbs shoved the door open, breaking off the chain and pushing the chair far enough in that he could enter. He shut the door behind him, moved the chair close to where it usually was, and stood there staring at Tony.
"Hey, boss," Tony said. He found himself sliding down the wall to sit on the floor.
Gibbs stood there, gazing down at Tony. "Comfortable?"
"No, not really," Tony said. "But I don't think I could fit in any of my closets."
"Is that supposed to make sense?"
Tony thought about telling Gibbs about his nine year old almost run-in with the crazy chauffeur, but decided it wasn't worth it. He made himself get up and perched on the edge of the couch. It didn't look like Gibbs was planning on leaving anytime soon.
"Can I come in?" Gibbs asked.
Tony snorted. "I kind of thought the lock, the chain, and the chair, were a pretty clear message."
"That was for me?" Gibbs asked, looking genuinely startled.
"Sort of," Tony said. "See, I was nine, and…" he shook his head. "Never mind. What do you want, Boss? Or I guess you're not that anymore, are you?" That question made Tony want to cry. No more Gibbs. Be brave, little toaster, he told himself.
"You can't quit," Gibbs said.
Surrendering to the inevitable, something he'd often done when dealing with Gibbs, Tony said, "Have a seat." He pointed at the chair across the room. "Over there."
Gibbs, naturally, ignored him, and moved to sit on the other end of the couch. "What's going on?"
"I quit," Tony said. "I can't do this anymore."
"Work for you."
"Why?" Tony choked out on a manic laugh.
"Yeah, DiNozzo, why?"
"Because you're an asshole, Boss," Tony said, surprised at having to explain these facts to Gibbs when he prided himself on being at the top of the asshole class.
"I've always been an asshole," Gibbs countered. "Why now? We've worked together fine for years."
Tony considered the man that he was obsessed with. He was handsome, no doubt. Was still in good shape considering how much older than Tony he was. His eyes were a stunning blue. His smile, while scarce, when it appeared, changed his entire appearance, misleadingly, to a friendly, approachable, man. "Were you ever nice?" Tony asked. "I mean back with Shannon and Kelly, were you nice then?"
Gibbs glared at him. "That's none of your business."
"Right," Tony said. "Okay. You can leave now. I'll e-mail you my official resignation and send you a bill for the door repair." He was starting to feel like himself again. An obsessed adult, yes, but an adult who could speak up for himself.
Gibbs sighed. "Yes," he finally said.
"Yes, what?" Tony asked. Yes, he was accepting Tony's resignation? Yes, he'd pay for the door repair?
"Yes, I was nice. Nicer," he qualified.
Tony was amazed that Gibbs had volunteered that information, and he couldn't for the life of him figure out why he had.
"I don't want you to quit," Gibbs said, quietly. "Why don't you take a few days off and come back on Monday?"
It was Gibbs' turn to ask for clarification, "Why what?"
"Why do you want me to come back?" Tony asked, sincerely perplexed. "You don't even like me."
Gibbs blinked at him. "What?"
"You heard me."
"I like you fine," Gibbs said.
Tony studied Gibbs, letting the phrase 'I like you fine' roll around his mind. This was Gibbs liking him fine? It was a good thing, then, that Gibbs liked him at all. If he actually did. This could all be a ploy to get him to come back. Even if Gibbs didn't like him, Tony had been his senior field agent for a long time, and McGee, for all the fact that he had grown tremendously, wasn't ready. Ziva still had no idea how to play nice with people she couldn't stomach, so she couldn't do it even if she wasn’t a Mossad agent. Gibbs would have to take someone on who wasn't ready or train someone new. That might make Gibbs willing to stick with Tony even if he wasn't crazy about him. "McGee could probably do it," Tony said.
"Be your senior field agent. He's still a little wet behind the ears, but it wouldn't take you that long to whip him into shape."
"I don't want McGee as my senior field agent," Gibbs said slowly. "I'm satisfied with the senior field agent I have now."
Satisfied. Tony had given his life's blood, sometimes literally, to Gibbs, for eight years, and Gibbs was satisfied. Awesome. "Fucking satisfied?" he said to Gibbs, suddenly furious.
"It's not my job to feed your ego, DiNozzo," Gibbs said.
"Feed my ego?" Tony said, incredulous. He stared at Gibbs, wondering how he could possibly explain any of this to Gibbs without coming across as pathetic and certifiable. In fact, Tony thought, there was no point. "I mean it. I quit. I won't be back tomorrow or Monday. If they'll let me in, I'll come in over the weekend and finish up any outstanding reports and get my stuff."
"I can't be nice to you," Gibbs protested. "I can't treat you differently than I treat everyone else."
"But you do treat me differently," Tony said. "You treat me like shit most of the time, and I can't handle it anymore. And if that makes me pitiful or whatever, well, too fucking bad. The back of my head hurts, Boss."
"If you didn't fuck off all the time," Gibbs growled, "I wouldn't have to smack you."
"If you'd fucking pay any attention to me," Tony yelled, "I wouldn't fuck off all the time."
"I pay attention to you all the time," Gibbs snapped back.
"Right," Tony said scathingly. "By smacking me and threatening to shove your boot up my ass, telling me to shut up, leaving me out of the loop, or giving me all the shit chores to do. Is that how you pay attention to me?"
"If you weren't acting inappropriately all the time, making sexual comments, flirting with anything on two legs, harassing your team mates, and wasting more time than you spend on the case, then I wouldn't have to do any of that," Gibbs spoke even louder, leaning toward him.
"Then why the hell do you want me to work for you?" Tony demanded. "If I'm such a fuck up, you should be glad I'm quitting."
"Because in between you fucking up, you're the best god damn agent I've ever worked with," Gibbs hollered.
Tony shut his mouth. That was unexpected. "Really?"
"Why don't you know that?" Gibbs asked, frustrated. "Why do you need me to constantly tell you that you're good? You're like some puppy looking for a handout."
"Because I'm fucked up, in case you didn't notice," Tony said, hands out to his side, as if showing himself off as exhibit A. "I've had a life-time's worth of therapists tell me that."
"Maybe it's time you grew up," Gibbs suggested acidly.
"Right," Tony said. "This from the man who has managed the stress of his life by becoming the biggest bastard this side of the Mississippi."
"Only this side?" Gibbs snarled. "And we're not talking about me."
"Oh, yes, we are," Tony said. "Because this conversation is about you and me, not just me. I know I'm fucked up, but you're fucked up, too. And hanging around with your fuckedupness is like pouring acid on my fuckedupness."
"So now I'm supposed to be your therapist as well as your boss?" Gibbs bit out. "I don't have time to make sure I'm not hurting your feelings."
"Yeah, no shit," Tony said. Suddenly exhausted, he leaned back on the couch. "Really, why don't you leave?"
"Because we haven't settled anything," Gibbs said stubbornly.
"Don't you have a case you're working on?"
"It's a suicide," Gibbs said. "Ziva and McGee can wrap it up."
"I just can't do it anymore," Tony said again.
"Don't you need this job?" Gibbs asked.
"What do you mean?"
"To pay your bills? Those clothes of yours don't come cheap."
"I've got enough money to get by on."
"You'll have to work eventually," Gibbs said.
Tony shrugged. "I can get a job. That's the last thing I'm worried about." Truth to tell, he had plenty of money to get by on. He'd barely touched the trust fund from his mom. It wouldn't keep him flush forever, but he could go several years without working.
"Talk to me, Tony, god damn it," Gibbs barked out.
Tony stood, fists clenched. "You don't get to break into my house and order me to god damn talk to you. Get the fuck out."
Gibbs put a hand up again.
Tony heard the unspoken 'Tony, stay'.
Gibbs' brow furrowed, and he stared at Tony as if it was only a matter of time before he had Tony all figured out.
It gave Tony a minute to pull it together, to start feeling humiliated that he'd shown such weakness in front of Gibbs, and furious that Gibbs had forced his way in so he'd seen it. "I mean it, Gibbs. Get out of my house. I'm giving you ten seconds to head for the door."
"I'm not going anywhere until you say something that makes some sense," Gibbs said firmly. "I still don't know why the hell you want to quit."
"And I don't have to explain it to you. I can quit if I want, and I do. You've got five seconds."
Not surprisingly, Gibbs didn't move.
Tony stood up. "Time's up." He moved to the door and held it open, taking a second to see that Gibbs hadn't done too much damage. Tony might be able to repair it himself.
"Tony," Gibbs protested.
Softly, but deadly serious, Tony said, "Get out of my house. I'm not asking again."
Clearly frustrated, lips shut tightly, Gibbs stood. "We're not done," Gibbs said as he headed to the door.
Tony moved out of his way. "Yes, we are."
"No, we're not," Gibbs said in his most stubborn voice. "I'm putting you in for a vacation. We are not done talking." He was standing in the doorway now.
Tony was done talking and he started swinging the door shut. Gibbs had to take a step back or get his feet scraped.
"Boss," Tony said.
"Yes?" Gibbs said, his eyes attentively on Tony's.
"Break into my house again, and I'm calling the cops." Tony shut the door the rest of the way and threw the deadbolt, not sure why he hadn't thrown it before. Not that he'd been entirely rational at the time. He was tempted to put the chair back in front of the door, but he knew Gibbs was still standing there, and he'd hear the chair being dragged. Tony wished he had a big, mean dog that could stand there and growl. "Sic 'em, Rover," he said softly under his breath.
"What was that?" Gibbs yelled through the door.
"Unbelievable," Tony muttered. He could only wish to get this much attention when he wanted it. "Go away," he said loudly. He turned the TV on loud enough to drown out anything Gibbs might try to say through the door, and he went to take a shower, feeling a tremendous need to wash the day off of him. Then, it might be a Jack Daniel's kind of night. There'd be plenty of time tomorrow to figure out how to survive sans Gibbs.
Friday 7 am:
The next morning, Gibbs wondered if the dark storm cloud surrounding him was visible to anyone else. When he got on the elevator and everyone else got off, he guessed it was.
He wanted to punch something. Someone. Gibbs knew Tony had issues. You'd have to be blind not to know that, but Tony had been crazy last night. There was no other excuse for Gibbs finding himself being pushed out of Tony's apartment, threats of calling the cops ringing in his ears.
He hadn't slept at all, running their conversation over and over in his head, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. How had he missed it? That was the question Gibbs kept asking. He'd never met anyone as resilient as Tony. He took everything anyone threw at him, and kept on ticking.
When had it shifted so badly? And how had he missed it? Gibbs meant it when he said that once he got working on a case, he didn't care about anything but the case, but it didn't excuse missing an agent reaching his breaking point. Whatever had been driving Tony to quit, and all his comments last night, hadn't been triggered by one event. That was a large build up of crap, and Gibbs should have seen it coming a long time ago.
Gibbs stormed into the bullpen, deriving no satisfaction when Ziva and McGee actually cringed in response. He threw his jacket over the back of his chair, slammed his chair in under his desk, and stalked off.
"Did Tony really quit?" he heard McGee ask behind him, sounding pretty unhappy about it.
And so he should be, Gibbs snarled to himself. They thought things were rough with Tony around? They had no idea.
"Gibbs," Abby began, seeing him in the hallway.
"Not now, Abs," Gibbs snapped out. He'd rather push her away than take his anger and frustration out on her. He was in no mood to be pleasant.
That must have communicated itself loud and clear because Abby literally plastered herself against the wall as if to get out of the way of an armored tank.
If Gibbs had been in the mood, it might have made him smile. He strode into the morgue, glad to see Ducky was alone. "Am I that much of a bastard?" he snapped.
Ducky looked up in surprise. "Hello, Jethro," he said.
"Just answer the question," Gibbs demanded.
"A somewhat ironic tone to take when asking such a question," Ducky said with a small smile. "May I ask what is prompting your query?"
"Tony quit, and he told me it was because I was an asshole," Gibbs blurted out.
"Ah," Ducky said, walking to one of the wheeled stools in the room, and sitting down. "Is he serious, do you think?"
"He threatened to call the cops on me if I bothered him again," Gibbs said, suddenly exhausted, and burdened with an abrupt and inexpressible sadness. "Ducky." He didn't know what he wanted from his older friend, but he knew this was the only place he'd find the honesty he needed.
"You know that boy would do anything for you, don't you?" Ducky asked gently.
"Except work with me," Gibbs pointed out. "What happened? How did I miss this?"
"You've missed it for a very long time," Ducky chided him.
"Missed what?" Gibbs said, exasperated.
"How much you mean to him."
"He has a funny way of showing it," Gibbs said, thinking of chain locks, and a damn chair placed in front of the door to keep him out. Him! Somehow, Gibbs had always counted on Tony being the one, when push came to shove, that would be standing at his side. That was, Gibbs thought to himself with a discouraged epiphany, part of what the sadness was about.
It sank in after a while that Ducky wasn't saying anything.
Gibbs lifted his eyes to his old friend. "What?"
"I owe you an apology, Jethro."
"That I didn't bring attention to your behavior in time to stop this from happening. I suppose I was reluctant to put myself in the line of fire, though it shames me to say it." He smiled sadly. "Tony seems so resilient all the time, doesn't he? Someone you can push and push and push against, and he'll stay standing, like a solid oak tree."
"With tinsel and mistletoe all over it," Gibbs added, even if he found Ducky's description apt. "I'm guessing from your apology that the answer to my question is yes. That I am that big of an asshole?"
"To Tony you more often than not show your more surly side," Ducky said. "You weren't always that way, but you've changed in your behavior toward him slowly over the last couple of years. There are occasional times when you two seem as close as ever, but the next moment there seems to be a tension between you, a literal divide, as it were."
"When did it happen?"
"I'm not sure, exactly. Perhaps when you came back from Mexico and took the team back. He'd done a fine job in your absence, and perhaps it was difficult for him to have to work under you again. Perhaps it was the undercover work the director had him doing. I'm not sure if he started it, or you did, but as neither of you are particularly adept at communication, I suspect that in time it was both of you, responding negatively to the other, until, well, until now."
"I suck at communicating," Gibbs agreed wearily. Then, more defensively, he said, "And I shouldn't have to worry about that with one of my employees. You don't see Ziva or McGee bitching about how I don't pay attention to them. They're professionals." Damn it all to hell, he thought to himself.
"If a ranch hand treated a high-strung racehorse the same way he treated the draft horses," Ducky said, "I suspect he'd be fired."
"I don't have time for high-strung racehorses," Gibbs snapped out.
"Then perhaps it is best that Tony has chosen not to work here anymore," Ducky said with some bite. "We are not all the same. If you treated Abby the way you treated Tony on some of your less than stellar days, I suspect she'd have given her notice as well."
"I would never treat Abby--" Gibbs stopped himself. "Shit." He let out a sigh.
"To finish my analogy," Ducky said, "it might be easier on the ranch hand if all he had to care for were draft horses, but then he'd lose the chance to watch his racehorse run and win the Kentucky Derby."
"Ziva and Tim are hardly plodding draft horses."
"No, that's true, but there is something special about Tony. Much like there is something special about Abby. When he goes racing around the track, hooves thundering, tail and mane flying, muscles bunching and releasing--"
"Are we still talking about DiNozzo?" Gibbs interrupted him.
"Ah, I do love a good horse race," Ducky said wistfully.
There were words in Gibbs' mouth that wanted to come out. Words like: he didn't want to do this without Tony, or how was he supposed to get through the day without Tony's stupid jokes? He bit down on his lips hard. Instead he asked, "Will you talk to him?" He felt the coward for asking but, after last night, he needed an advance guard to get to Tony.
Ducky nodded. "I will. In fact, I'll call him as soon as I finish up with Lieutenant Abrahms, here." He gestured toward the body lying on one of the autopsy tables. "Jethro."
"My words may make no difference. He may not be willing to come back to the same situation he left."
For a moment Gibbs thought it might be easier to let DiNozzo go. Ducky’s analogy was remarkably on target, and in many ways Tony was a high-strung race horse. Gibbs expended more energy on him than everyone else on the team combined. Lately, Gibbs found he didn't have the energy he once had. Whether it was due to Tony, or to Gibbs growing older, or to the job growing stale, Gibbs didn't know.
He tried to think of a message he could pass along to Tony through Ducky, but everything sounded trite, or insipid, or too superficial, and he sure as hell wasn't going to send along a message better said to Tony's face, if said at all.
"Is there something you'd like me to tell him?" Ducky asked kindly, his eyes altogether too shrewd, and Gibbs wished he could get a peek inside his friend's head in hopes of figuring out what was going on in his own.
Gibbs shook his head.
Ducky looked momentarily disappointed, but then he covered it well. "I'll let you know how it goes. Are you going to tell the others?"
"As far as anyone knows, Tony's on vacation." Tony had thrown that back in his face, but Gibbs could get away with it for a few days. For one long, paralyzing, moment, he imagined coming into this place, day after day, without having Tony to look forward to. "Tell him I want him back," he blurted out. "Ask him what I need to do."
That got an approving look. "I'll do my best."
That was all Gibbs could ask. He turned smartly, and headed back up to the bullpen.
Friday 7:30 am:
It had been three days since Lex had heard from Clark, and he wasn't sure what to think about that. He'd called the phone number on Clark's new cell, but all he kept getting was a message saying the party he was trying to reach was not available.
He dialed Clark's home number, hoping to reach him before he left for school, his finger hovering over the send button. Finally, saying, "Fuck it," he pushed the button.
"Kent residence," came Martha Kent's voice.
Thankful it was Clark's mom and not his dad, he said, "Mrs. Kent, it's Lex Luthor. I was wondering if Clark was around."
"No, Lex, he's not," she said. There was a small hitch in her voice.
"Give me that phone," Jonathan Kent said loudly enough for Lex to hear. "I told you not to call here," he snapped into the phone. "Clark doesn't want to speak with you. He's done. We're done."
"Jonathan," cried Martha in the background.
"Don't call this number again." The phone disconnected.
Lex stared at his phone, wondering what had happened. Had someone else shown up sniffing around, someone Jonathan Kent had just assumed Lex was responsible for? Surely Clark would have called to let him defend himself. He almost wished he hadn't had that conversation with Clark the other day. It had made him feel that they could stay friends, that their friendship was as important to Clark as it was to him. It had gotten his hopes up.
He'd give Clark until the end of the week; surely there was a reason Clark hadn't called. Lex shook his head at his inability to just let Clark go. There was no way this was going to end up with him getting what he wanted.
Forcing himself back to his overloaded desk, he shuffled through the mail. There was a plain white envelope in the pile, made of heavy vellum. It was addressed to him with no return address. Lex didn’t need to open it; he already knew what it was. It was an invitation to a very private auction that only a select few received.
He'd obtained one of his cars through the auction, as well as Alexander's breast plate. Right before he'd been banished to Smallville, he'd bid and won a night with two Geishas. It had been a remarkable night; the memories still strong enough to stir his blood. It had almost made him consider moving to Japan.
He didn't always win the items he wanted; it was a rich man's hobby, sometimes too rich for his blood. At least it had been when all he had to his name was LexCorp. Now he suspected there was little he couldn't afford, and he was tempted to attend. It would be a welcome distraction from Clark.
He slit the envelope open and pulled out the invitation. He frowned when he saw a very obscure description of what was being auctioned off. That usually meant it wasn't exactly legal. Either the article they were selling had no provenance, usually because it had been illegally obtained, something that didn't bother Lex unduly, or they were auctioning someone who wasn't willing, something that did bother Lex.
This was the part of the world he lived in that Jonathan Kent had reason to hate. Money and power were heady bedfellows and, over time, people could be twisted by them and lose part of their humanity. Lex had been on that path himself before he'd run a young farm boy off the road.
He read the description again, words jumping out at him. One of a kind, never before seen, one time only. Whatever it was, Lex had no doubt it would measure up. Only the best was put on the block by this particular auctioneer.
When the invitations had first started coming to Lex, they'd been to sell legitimate objects: art with all provenances in place, or historical artifacts with certificates of authenticity. Once Lex had participated several times and proven himself discreet, he'd been invited to the next inner circle. Over time, questionnaires were sent to inquire as to exactly what sort of items Lex might specifically be interested in buying. The questionnaire made it clear that any fantasy Lex's dark heart desired could be made into reality over time. He suspected his list paled in comparison to the lists of some.
He seldom went when the description was so vague. He'd gone twice. Once he'd bought a piece of art that he had locked up in a room along with anything else that curious eyes had no business seeing. The other time he'd had to leave, sickened at the sight of the young Indian girl bound and gagged.
Lex had kept his mouth shut. It was subtle, but the threats were clear, and he had no wish to have his life ended prematurely. The rules, while never spoken out loud were clear: speak and die. Go after something you did not win and die. Reveal the location of the auction and die. Reveal the identity of anyone else you recognized at the auction and die.
He slid the invitation back into the envelope and threw it in the bin to be shredded.
Friday 9 am:
Two hours later, sick of seeing Ziva and McGee exchange worried looks, Gibbs headed back downstairs.
"Well?" he asked Ducky.
When Ducky took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes, Gibbs knew in his gut he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.
"I'm afraid he's gone."
"What? What does that mean? Gone where? When will he be back?"
"He wasn't particularly forthcoming. I gave him your message, and all he said was that he was done, and he was heading out of town to visit his cousin, Martha."
"Martha? Since when does he have a cousin Martha?" Gibbs asked indignantly. "Where does she live?" He was ignoring Tony's comment about being done. Tony might think that, but Gibbs wasn't going to accept it.
"He wouldn't say, Jethro. I suspect he thought you might try to follow him there. He simply said he wasn't sure when he'd be back." Ducky opened his mouth to say something else, but then he shut it.
Ducky sighed. "He said it had been a pleasure working with me." His lips tightened. "I do believe he means not to come back."
That was unacceptable. Furious, he stalked to Abby's lab. "I need you to find someone for me," he snapped out.
"I'm your girl," she said, a little cautiously. "Who is it?"
"Yes. And find his cousin Martha."
"His cousin Martha."
"Are you a parrot all of a sudden?"
Abby glared at him. "Does Martha have a last name?"
"I'm sure she does, but I don't know it."
"Do you know where she lives?"
Abby considered him. "Gibbs."
"Just do your best."
"Did he really quit?"
"He's taking a vacation," Gibbs said, wincing at how unbelievable he'd made that sound.
"Didn't you go over there last night to try to change his mind?"
In retrospect, Gibbs probably should have sent Abby over. "Yes."
She slumped down into a chair. "How are we going to do this without him? He's like the only really fun thing here."
"Just find him, Abs."
"Right," she said. "And his cousin Martha. Do we know if she lives in the United States?"
"He's going to visit her. Find him, you'll find her."
She stood, looking motivated. "Right. I'm on your six, Gibbs." Then, her face wilting, she added, "This place is gonna suck without him."
Gibbs couldn't agree more and suspected it was all over his face. Deciding there was nothing more to be accomplished by hanging around, he headed, once more, back to the bullpen.
Friday 11:30 pm:
Tony knew he should have called first, but he'd had to get out of DC before Gibbs was pounding on his door again. He appreciated Ducky calling, had actually been glad to have the opportunity to tell him what a pleasure it had been to work with him, but he didn't want to talk to anyone else. They’d all know soon enough. Tony had already turned his badge in, and right before he left his apartment, he'd e-mailed his resignation to Vance.
It was just before noon when he pulled into the driveway toward the yellow farmhouse, hoping he wasn't coming at a bad time. There hadn't really been time to call; the phone call with Ducky had almost made him late for his flight.
The last time he'd spoken to Martha had been a year ago, and the last time he'd been here, Clark had been twelve and freakishly strong. He'd almost broken Tony's fingers with a handshake. Martha had sent pictures not that long ago, and Clark was taller than Tony now, and gorgeous.
Not that Tony was looking. Jeez, the kid was his nephew in an honorary way. But there was no denying the fact that he was a good-looking kid.
He got out of his car and walked up the steps, knocking on the door.
Martha answered the door, and one look at her face told Tony that something bad was going on. "What is it?" he asked her tear-stained face. "What's happened?"
"Clark's missing," she said on a sob. She moved against him, crying for real now, and Tony's arms went around her, pulling her close. He looked up to see Jonathan standing in the kitchen, looking as helpless as Tony had ever seen him. Usually Jonathan was the most grounded and capable person Tony had ever met. He was sort of like Gibbs that way. Tony pushed the thought of Gibbs away; now was not the time.
"When?" he asked Jonathan.
"Four days now. He never showed up for school on Monday. We didn't even think anything was wrong until late Monday night."
"He and Jonathan had a fight," Martha explained in a shaky voice, pulling back from Tony. "We thought Clark was with his friends, avoiding coming home. But then he didn't call, and didn't come home at all, and we called the school, and--" She didn't finish, her fingers pressed against her trembling lips. "He isn't like this. He wouldn't just disappear."
"Do you have any idea where he is? Have you called the cops?"
Martha and Jonathan exchanged troubled looks. Finally, Martha said, "No."
"Why not?" Tony asked, astonished, even angry. "He's still only sixteen; they would have started to look for him as soon as you called. Why haven't you?"
Another look passed between them.
"What's going on?" Tony demanded. "What aren't you telling me?"
It was Martha who made the decision, even though Tony could tell Jonathan wasn't happy about it. She took Tony's arm and dragged him back outside to the storm cellar.
Wordlessly they climbed down the stairs, Martha pulling the string to turn on the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Tony looked around to see what the great mystery was, but all he saw was an empty room.
"Oh, my God," Martha cried, a frantic look on her face. "Jonathan!" she called. "It's gone. Oh, my God."
Jonathan came pounding down the stairs. "What do you mean?" He saw the same empty room Tony was looking at. "Shit. Oh, shit. Martha."
"Someone knows, and they have Clark," she cried, this time burying her face against Jonathan's chest.
"What do they know, and who has Clark? And what's gone?"
"Clark's spaceship," Martha said.
Tony blinked at her. "What?"
"Martha," Jonathan said warningly.
"Jonathan. We need his help. And he can't help us if he doesn't know what's going on." She stumbled up the steps, Jonathan's hands at her waist to keep her steady.
Tony kept turning the word spaceship over and over again in his mind, trying to see if it could mean anything besides the obvious. Maybe it was something Clark built, and maybe it was so advanced the CIA, or the NSA, or Homeland Security decided they needed to put Clark under wraps. As absurd as that theory sounded, it made more sense than Clark actually having a spaceship. From space.
"Clark's not from this world," Martha blurted out, once they were back in the kitchen. "I know that seems inconceivable, but we found him right after a meteor shower, along with a spaceship. We don't know where he's from, but he's not human. He can run really fast, and he's really, really strong."
Tony found himself flexing his right hand, the one Clark had almost pulverized. He really wanted to laugh and not believe a word Martha was saying, but he did. It was the way she was talking, and the tears on her face, and the fact that while Martha was one of the kindest people Tony had ever known, she wasn't much of a jokester.
"And you think someone found out about him?" Tony asked.
"We know someone did," Jonathan said grimly. "I should have killed that asshole when he was here, thrown him into the furnace along with his camera." His eyes grew flintier. "And if Lex Luthor were here right now, I'd put a bullet through his head."
"Lex would help us, Jonathan," Martha said, with the weary tone of someone who had been having the same argument for a long time.
"He's the reason Clark's been taken. If Lex hadn't been nosing around, Nixon wouldn't have ever even noticed Clark."
"All I want is Clark back. And I know you're angry, and I understand why you think Lex is to blame, but Lex would never do anything to hurt Clark."
"I'm not asking," Martha said defiantly. "Not any more. It's been too long. We couldn’t go to the police, but we can go to Lex. He has the money and resources to help us find him." She turned to Tony, pleading. "You'll go with me, right? To talk to Lex?"
Tony scrunched his face up in confusion. "Are we talking about Lex Luthor, billionaire?"
Martha nodded, scurrying around the kitchen, shutting appliances off, ignoring Jonathan's black looks.
"Why exactly are we talking about Lex Luthor, billionaire?" Somehow he couldn't imagine a connection between that kind of money and the Kents.
"He's Clark's best friend."
Tony felt like he'd missed five years of a soap opera. "So, Clark's an alien, with a spaceship, and a billionaire is his best friend. Have I got that right?"
"Let's go," Martha said, tugging on Tony's sleeve.
"Martha," Jonathan tried once more.
She stopped and glared at him. "I should have gone to see Lex as soon as we knew he was gone. If you'd stop being so hateful for one minute, you'd know I was right. We need help." She moved to Jonathan, putting her hands on his chest. "Jonathan. I can't not do something that might help."
"You ask Lex for a favor," Jonathan warned, "and it will be his father all over again. He'll make us pay a thousand times over in blood."
"And I'll happily pay," she said, "if it gets me Clark back." She grabbed her purse and clutched at Tony's arm again. "Let's go."
Tony shot Jonathan a look, but Martha was his family, so he followed Martha outside, watching as she got into the passenger side of his rental. As they drove away, he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Jonathan standing on the porch looking equal parts angry, stubborn, and desolate.
Friday 2:30 pm:
"Excuse me?" Lex said to his secretary, Julia.
"A Martha Kent and Tony DiNozzo are here to see you."
Lex had no idea who Tony DiNozzo was, but he certainly knew who the other unexpected visitor was, and he couldn't imagine why she was dropping by unannounced. Had she discovered the cell phone he'd sent Clark? Even so, this seemed excessive to yell at him in person. "Show them in." Despite the fact that this conversation would no doubt be painful, he was too curious to turn his visitors away.
One look at Martha had Lex on his feet. "What is it? What's wrong?" He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and led her to the couch. "Can I get you something? Tea? Something stronger?"
He let his eyes rest briefly on Tony DiNozzo, seeing a tall, very handsome, well-built man, but then his attention was back on Martha.
"It's Clark," she choked out.
Lex's stomach lurched. "What happened?" Please, he begged the capricious lords of the universe, not Clark.
"He's missing. He's been gone since Monday." She started to cry. "I need your help."
"Since Monday? I spoke to him Monday morning."
"He never made it to school. Did he say anything?"
Lex thought she might feel better if Clark had announced to Lex that he was running away from home. "No, in fact, he said he was heading for school when we finished speaking. Have you called the police?"
"That would be me," Tony said. He put out his hand. "Tony DiNozzo. I'm Martha's cousin."
"You're a police officer?" Lex asked, even as he shook Tony's hand.
"Sort of," Tony said with a wince. "Up until yesterday I was an NCIS Special Agent, but I quit. Sort of bad timing."
"Are you armed?"
He nodded. "But I'm not licensed."
"I can take care of that." Lex walked back to his desk and pushed a button. When Julia responded, Lex asked for his head of security to join them.
"I wished you'd called me right away," Lex said with frustration. "So much time has already gone by." At Martha's heart-broken look, he instantly capitulated. "I'm sorry. To be perfectly honest, I'm surprised you came to see me at all. But I'm glad you did." He took her hands. "I'll find him. I promise."
Lex turned to Tony. "He called me from a payphone Monday morning, but I don't know where. Can you trace it? Maybe we'll be lucky and there'll be some video surveillance of the area we can look at."
"Cell phone number?" Tony asked, hoping like hell that when he called Abby that Gibbs wasn't anywhere near the vicinity. "And can I use your phone?"
Lex noticed the cell phone on Tony's belt, decided there was a reason Tony didn't want to use it, rattled off his number, gestured toward the desk giving permission, and then acknowledged his head of security who had just entered the room. "Please obtain a license to carry for Tony DiNozzo immediately."
Mark Hudson nodded, asked Tony for some ID, and when he had it in his hand, left.
Lex caught Tony's appreciative, and somewhat impressed, look. Lex might have said something, except Tony was talking. "Abby?"
Lex could hear some loud excited chatter through the phone.
"Abby, Abby, focus. Gibbs isn't around, is he? Good, write this number down." He repeated Lex's number. "Monday morning," he stopped and looked at Lex.
Lex opened his phone and scrolled through all the received calls. "7:48 am."
Tony nodded, "7:48 am. Someone called that number I just gave you. Can you tell me where the caller was? We think it was a payphone. And hey, don't tell Gibbs." There was some more chatter, and Tony pinched his nose and sighed. "Abs, just run the number, would you? It's important." He stayed on the line, and this time it was Lex's turn to be impressed when less than a minute later, Tony was writing down an address. "Thanks, Abs, you're the greatest, and I promise I’m not disappearing forever. I’ll call you soon."
He read off the address to Martha.
"That's right on the edge of town," she said. "Should we go look? See if anything's there?"
"Yes," Lex said. "I'll have the helicopter readied." He called Julia again and made the request. He got another impressed look from Tony. If Lex weren't consumed with the need to find Clark, he might have been interested in pursuing Tony. Of course, who Lex really wanted in his bed was Clark, but Clark was still sixteen, and men over the age of twenty-one went to jail for things like that.
That was when he had the most horrible thought. Too horrible to even think about, and all he wanted to do was dismiss it. "Fuck," he said.
From Lex's desk, Tony looked up at him, a question in his eyes. Martha was sitting back against the couch, eyes closed, looking twenty years older than the last time Lex had seen her.
Lex took a deep breath, needing to compose himself. He walked back behind his desk and looked at the bin where he'd thrown the invitation, only to find it empty. He closed his eyes and hit the intercom again, forcing himself to remain calm. He found himself striding out of his office, the seconds it was taking Julia to respond much too long.
She looked up at him, surprised, her finger on the intercom button.
"When did you take the paper that needed shredding out of my office?" Lex hadn't even noticed, but he'd spent most of the day in and out of meetings.
"Right before lunch," she said.
"I can't even begin to tell you how important this is, but I need it back. I threw something in there that--" He couldn't imagine the consequences of not finding it. That invitation was the only thing that would get him in the door. There was no one to call to request a replacement. Asking too many questions was a death sentence. He thought of Roger Nixon. Dead. Roger Nixon who'd been sneaking around the Kent farm, perhaps amassing sufficient evidence to make Clark seem like a priceless treasure. "Julia."
Despite the fact that he'd said so little, something on his face, or the tone of his voice, must have told her the seriousness of his request as she was already on the phone stopping any transportation of paper in the entire building, starting with the basement where the giant shredders were located. "Nothing more," she ordered. Glancing up at Lex, she said, "They've already shredded some of it."
Lex felt like throwing up. If the invitation was gone, so was Clark. He knew to the marrow of his bones that it was Clark being auctioned off to the highest bidder, and whoever won him would have the money and power to make sure that he never emerged from whatever cage they'd put him in. He closed his eyes, fighting back the powerful urge to punch his fist through a wall.
Tony watched Lex race from the room and wondered what the hell was going on. He glanced at Martha, only to find that she had finally succumbed to sleep, aided and abetted by Lex's comfortable, soft-as-butter, and no doubt sinfully expensive, leather couch. She looked exhausted, and Tony suspected she hadn't slept for days.
Lex walked back in, and Tony saw fear on his face. "What is it?" he asked softly, wanting Martha to get what sleep she could. "What do you know?" He stood, walking toward Lex. "Talk to me. Was Jonathan right to blame you for this?"
Lex closed his eyes. They were bleak when he reopened them, and Tony saw the same desolation he'd seen in Clark's father's eyes. "Did I set this all in motion?" Lex asked just as softly, his eyes briefly setting on Martha. "Maybe. Is the person who unknowingly sets off an avalanche responsible for all the death it causes? I don't know. What I do know is that I'll get him back. But I need your help."
"Anything," Tony said. There was something else in Lex's eyes, something Tony saw in his own when he looked in a mirror and thought of Gibbs. Love, need, maybe the same addiction that had kept him close to Gibbs for years. Whatever it was, Tony trusted it. Tony would have done anything for Gibbs. Anything. Up until yesterday.
He followed Lex out of his office, and the two of them took the elevator straight down to the basement. On the way, Lex said, "A year ago, my father banished me to Smallville. I was on a one-way road to self-destruction, and I was driving too fast. I hit a roll of baling wire, and drove right off a bridge, hitting, I thought, a young man on the way."
"Imagine my surprise," he continued, "when I found myself alive, having been rescued by this same young man, Clark Kent--if you haven't figured that out--the top of my car having been somehow torn off so Clark could pull me out and start CPR. I wanted to understand why. Clark denied everything, of course, said I didn’t hit him, but I wanted to understand why I was alive. Why I didn't die in that crash. How the roof got torn off. I wanted a reason for being alive when everything in me knew I should be dead. Maybe thought I deserved to die."
"So you hired an investigator," Tony guessed, not really blaming Lex. It wasn't as if Lex could have known what secrets were there for the finding.
"So I hired an investigator," Lex agreed. The doors opened to the basement and a long hallway, and Lex headed down it. "Clark and I may be best friends, but he's never told me anything about himself. I'm not sure what they're hiding, though I have my suspicions, but Clark and his parents have done nothing but lie to me since I met him. If he'd trusted me, I could have protected him, but they told me nothing." Lex's voice sounded bitter.
Tony understood the pain of being left out of things long past the point when you should. "The investigator found out things?" Tony asked.
"His name was Roger Nixon, and yes, he found out things," Lex agreed. "Odd things. Things that were leading him back to Clark, and when I realized that, I fired him. I told him to leave it alone. I thought I was persuasive."
Tony could make a guess as to just how persuasive Lex could be. On the other hand, apparently it wasn't persuasive enough. "He didn't stop."
"He didn't stop. And now Roger Nixon is dead, along with several other men, Clark is missing, and--" he cut off when he entered a large room where there were several large bins filled with paper, and a huge shredder with bits of paper hanging off its teeth. There were over a dozen people there ready to help.
"We're looking for something that feels like a wedding invitation," Lex said. "Heavy paper, pearl white. Just my name and address on the cover. Ten thousand dollars to the person who finds it."
People dove in, literally. The bins fit two or three people each, hands fumbling through paper. Lex chose one and hoisted himself up and in. Tony followed him. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'm hoping that there'll be one person in the Kent family tree who doesn't think I'm Satan's spawn."
"Clark doesn't feel that way, does he?"
It was amazing to watch the shift of expressions on Lex's face, how they softened when Tony mentioned his name. "No. No, he doesn't feel that way. And I don't blame him for not telling me. He was just doing what his family, his father, insisted on. Jonathan Kent and my father had some unpleasant history."
Tony wanted to hear more, but he glanced down at all the paper. "What is this thing we're looking for?" Tony asked. Lex shot him a look that sent a trickle of dread down Tony's spine.
"It's an invitation to an auction," Lex said slowly. "By special invitation only. People with money and questionable ethics only need attend."
Tony stared at Lex, bewildered at first by Lex's answer, but then his mind stuttered over the frightening implications of his words, especially given the information Martha had thrown at him earlier. "Oh, fuck. Clark?"
Nodding grimly, Lex thrust his hands down into the paper they were standing in. "I don't know for sure, but too many things add up."
"And if you can't find it?"
Lex's voice was so implacably sure that Tony had no choice but to believe him. The next few minutes were tense, the room silent other than the sound of crinkled paper and a few whispers here and there. Lex's face was growing grimmer, and his eyes more shadowed, as the minutes ticked by.
"I found it, I think!" a man yelled, holding it up.
Lex leapt out of the dumpster he was in, yanking it out of the man's hand. The look of relief on Lex's face told Tony it was what Lex had been looking for.
"Julia, write that man a check, and give everyone here two thousand dollar bonuses for helping."
"Yes, sir," Julia said.
"And that includes you," Lex said.
She grinned at him.
Lex strode out of the room and Tony trotted along side of him. Lex was a couple inches shorter than him, but he could really move.
Tony didn't like the look on Lex's face. "This is good news, right? We found it?"
Lex reopened the envelope to take another look at the invitation. "Fuck. It's tomorrow night."
"But that's good," Tony said. "We go get him, and we're done."
"The only way we're getting him," Lex said tightly, "is if we win the auction."
"But you're rich, right?"
"Yes, I am, but most of my money is tied up in assets. I don't exactly have a billion dollars in a savings account I can write out a check for."
"A billion dollars?"
Lex stopped and spun to look at Tony. "What is he? Tell me."
Tony shook his head. "It's not my secret to tell."
"I need to know what I'm up against. I need to know what kind of bidding war there will be. If it's just that he's a gorgeous man, I can win that kind of bidding. If it's because he's got some powers because of the meteor rocks, I might be able to pull that much cash together. But if he's more. If he's what I suspect. Can you imagine what people would pay to have control over something like that? I need to know."
With every word, Tony's stomach churned. And he agreed with Lex; he did need to know. Martha might never speak to him again, but Lex had to know. "He's an alien. They have his spaceship, too. He came in it when he was just a kid."
"Fuck," Lex said, punching a wall. He closed his eyes, his hands resting on the wall, the hand he'd used to punch it spotted with blood seeping from bruised knuckles. "How will I ever…fuck. An alien." He turned to look at Tony. "The people who come to this auction, they covet things. Things that no one else has. How the fuck am I going to come up with that kind of cash between now and then?" He glanced at his watch. "Today is almost over, and tomorrow is Saturday."
"You really think you're talking a billion dollars?"
"More. See this mark?" He held up the invitation.
Tony saw a small D. "The D?"
"That tells me that the bidding starts at five hundred million." Tony gaped at him. When he looked like he might speak again, Lex put up his hand. "Let me think for a minute."
Tony had to say it. "Can't we break him out? Once we know he's there, can't we go with enough manpower to take him with us?"
That was unhelpfully succinct. "Why not?"
"He chooses his locations well. He has all the surrounding property under surveillance." Lex showed him a few numbers on the invitation. "This is telling me the exact time I have to be at a prearranged meeting place that I will be told once I log into an encrypted site exactly one hour before I am expected to be there. Once I arrive, I am transferred to an unmarked sedan, and then I am taken to the venue chosen for the night's entertainment. I am let in a door and taken to a waiting room. When it is time, I am taken to a soundproof, bulletproof room that I can see out of, but no one can see into, although it also is under surveillance. My voice is camouflaged and we are given a number to use as identification for bidding. The goods being auctioned are displayed below us on a stage we can all see but not get to. If he suspects anything, he has a dozen escape routes to use, and Clark will be taken away to be re-auctioned on another night to a completely different group of interested bidders."
Tony stared at him, impressed despite the horrifying situation. "So you don't know where it is?"
"Not until I arrive. And before the sedan leaves, I am patted down and monitored for a wire and any tracing or recording equipment."
"Crap." Tony didn't even think Gibbs could figure out how to crash this party. Not that he didn't wish Gibbs was right there to help them brainstorm. "Can you take a bodyguard?"
"Yes," Lex said. "One, and he, or she, can be armed."
"Let me come with you."
"You do anything to get Clark hurt or taken away, and I'll kill you," Lex said calmly.
"Ditto," Tony said back.
"Just so we understand each other."
Tony grinned at him.
Lex let out a short breath of a laugh. "I need to get some money."
"How are you going to do that?"
"See how fast I can sell everything I own in the next," he glanced at his watch, "twenty-four hours."
Tony stared at Lex.
"I'd give it all up to get Clark back," Lex snarled, as if he thought Tony didn't believe him. “I can make money again."
"How can I help?"
"Keep Mrs. Kent busy and out of my way. I don't want her to know what's going on."
"I can do that." Tony put his hand on Lex's shoulder. "And I don't think you're Satan spawn, and I don't think this was your fault, and I do think we're damn lucky to have you on our side."
Lex looked away for a moment, and he swallowed. Then, looking back at Tony, he smiled wryly. "Don't thank me yet. Once word gets out that I'm liquefying all my assets, it will be like a garage sale."
"Then don't let it get out," Tony said.
Mark Hudson suddenly appeared and he handed Tony his ID back as well as a brand new license to carry, and a new ID proclaiming him as part of Lex Luthor's personal security staff. "Wow," Tony said. "That was fast." Even Abby wasn't that fast. When he looked up again, Hudson was gone. He showed them to Lex. "Now I have ID for tomorrow night."
"They'll check you as soon as I tell them you're coming, and they'll find out you were an NCIS agent up until yesterday. That won't predispose them to trust you. Come up with a good story."
"I will." In this particular situation, ironically, the truth would do just fine.
They were back in the elevator, and Lex put in a keycard and hit the button for the second to top floor. "You can take Mrs. Kent up to the penthouse," Lex suggested. "She can't stay in my office."
"I'll take care of Martha," Tony said.
Lex strode into his offices and threw out a list of names for Julia to contact to have them join Lex in the conference room. "Oh, and get some food and drinks. We won't be coming out for a while." With that, he grabbed his laptop, stalked into the conference room, and shut the door.
Tony blinked. The kid, and he was a kid, despite the fact that he had more aplomb than most anyone Tony had ever met, was a force of nature. For some reason, he could totally understand why Clark, struggling with who he was, would latch onto Lex. He just came across as someone who could fix anything. Tony sure as hell hoped he could fix this.
Friday 3:00 pm
"What do you mean, Tony called?" Gibbs snapped at Abby.
"I wasn't supposed to tell you," she wailed. "He asked me not to."
"You didn't tell me," Gibbs said. "You told McGee. I overheard. Where is he? What did he want?"
Abby let out a long beleaguered sigh. "Gibbs."
"He called me to trace a number made from a payphone. I traced it to Smallville."
"He's in a place called Smallville?"
"All I know is that he left his car at Ronald Reagan, and got a ticket to Wichita. I don't know if he went to Smallville, I just know that's where the call came from."
"But we know he's in Kansas."
"I know he flew into Kansas. I'm still trying to track down his rental. He didn't use his phone to call me, so I'm guessing he's doesn't want to be found."
"Show me the area."
Abby put up a map on the screen. She pointed at a small dot at the east end of the state. "That's Smallville. I pulled up everyone by the name of Martha who lives in Smallville and came up with five. None of them have the last name DiNozzo, and none of them, from what I could see, have any connection to Tony. I don't know what else to do."
"Who was on the other end of the phone?"
Abby held up her finger, "Give me a minute." Her fingers flew over the keyboard. A minute later, she said, "That can't be right."
"Who is it?"
"The Lex Luthor?" Gibbs couldn't even begin to imagine what business Tony had with Lex Luthor.
Abby hit some more keys. "Yup. That Lex Luthor." She let out a dreamy sigh. "Now that's one sexy man. And him and Tony?" She fanned herself.
"What do you mean?" Gibbs asked sharply.
She opened her mouth to answer, then her eyes widened and she clamped down on her lips. "Never mind," she mumbled through her closed lips.
"You have to pretend I didn't say that, Gibbs. Tony will kill me."
Gibbs let the conversation replay in his head. Clearly Abby thought she'd said something that was giving away Tony's secrets. What had she said? A jolt of something unpleasant shot through him. "Tony and Lex Luthor? Tony's gay?"
"You've seen him with women, boss. He's ambi-sexual. And if you say anything mean to him about this, I'll never forgive you."
The only mean thing Gibbs was going to say to Tony when he saw him next was why the fuck he hadn't told Gibbs he was ambi-sexual, to quote Abby. Gibbs needed to know these things. He might have actually carried through on a few of those fantasies about Tony he only pulled out during the worst nights when Gibbs couldn't stop his mind thinking about everything in his life he'd fucked up.
When he next looked up at the screen there was a picture of Lex Luthor up there. Bald wasn't a look that turned Gibbs on, but there was something compelling about the man, and god damn it, he could see how attractive a pair he and Tony would be. "I don't buy it."
"If Tony knew Lex Luthor, we'd know all about it." Tony would never let the opportunity pass to crow about something like that.
"Maybe it was a long time ago," Abby mused.
"Why did he want the number?"
"It was actually to see where the person who called Lex was. He didn't really stay on long," she added apologetically. "You're gonna get him back, right?"
"He's on vacation, Abs."
"Cynthia said the Director got his formal resignation first thing this morning."
Gibbs lips tightened. He'd known that, but he'd hoped the Director's secretary would practice some restraint and keep her mouth shut.
"I'm working on it, okay? I need to find him first."
She shot him one of her puppy dog looks, the one where she clearly expected him to fix things, and seeing as it looked as though he was the one who broke things to begin with, Gibbs felt an unaccustomed stab of guilt. "Let me know if he calls again." With that he stalked out of the lab.
When he got back up to the bullpen, he snarled, "I'm going for coffee," and aimed for the elevator.
Tim and Ziva watched as the elevator opened then shut, and both said at the same time, "Abby." They got up and headed to forensics.
Ducky had just put Ensign Douglas back in his drawer when Abby, Tim and Ziva entered the morgue. "Ah," he said. He'd been expecting Abby, but wasn't surprised to see the other two. He assumed that the rumors were already circulating about Tony's official resignation. "Tea?"
He got three head shakes.
"Ducky, spill," Abby said. "What do you know about Tony?"
"I assume you've all heard the rumors?"
This time he got three head nods.
"I spoke with Tony earlier today, and he seems quite committed to leaving."
"He can't," Abby wailed. "He's the only one who makes this place fun." At looks from Ziva and McGee, she backtracked. "I mean, not the only one, but you gotta admit things are more fun when he's around."
"And more annoying," Tim said.
"And more distracting," Ziva added.
"Although," Tim said, "when he was out with the plague, it was bad."
"What do you mean?" Ziva asked.
"It was boring," Tim admitted, "and Gibbs was worse than usual." He touched the back of his head as if remembering extra head slaps.
Ducky took a moment to look at the three of them. Abby would probably be largely immune to Gibbs' dark moods, but he suspected Tim and Ziva were in for some rough seas ahead. "Until Tony came along, the only agent who worked with Gibbs for any length of time was Stan Burley."
"I miss Stan," Abby said.
"Do you really?" Ducky asked. Not that Stan wasn't a nice man, he was. And a very hard worker.
Abby pursed her lips, studying Ducky, and Ducky allowed the perusal. He'd rather Abby make his point for him. "I gotcha, Duck," she finally said.
"Well, we don't," Tim complained.
"Imagine if you will," Abby said in a dramatic voice, a hand sweeping in front of her from left to right, "a team composed of Gibbs, the second B is for bastard, and Stan Burley, the most serious and focused NCIS agent in the building."
"Hey," Tim said. "I'm serious and focused."
"You're not listening," Abby scolded him. "Imagine a team with Gibbs and someone who worked the same hours Gibbs did, with the same focus and determination and, just like Gibbs, had no life."
Ziva grimaced, and Ducky smiled to see it. Perhaps a few years ago, Ziva would have welcomed such an environment, but Ducky thought that Tony had done a very good job allowing her to actually have some fun on the job, as well as the opportunity to develop some real friendships.
"Quiet?" Ziva said.
"Like a tomb," Abby said. "Unless Gibbs was mad, in which case he was yelling, and Stan was popping antacids and complaining to Ducky about heart palpitations."
"It was a very healthy decision for him to move on," Ducky said. "I respected Stan very much, but he and Jethro were, well, they tended to have a catalyst effect on each other."
"Gibbs must have loved that," Tim mused.
"Actually," Ducky said, "he gladly accepted Stan's resignation. I think even Jethro understood that the two of them together created a very intimidating environment for other agents. Gibbs kept choosing new agents to work with him and Stan, but they'd only stay their obligatory six months, sometimes not even that, and then they'd quit or request to be transferred to another team."
Abby ticked off on her fingers. "Couldn't stand the stress, couldn't stand the pace, couldn't stand the unremitting focus, and between you and me, couldn't stand Gibbs. You think Gibbs can be grouchy now--" she snickered. "He's totally mellowed."
Both Ziva's and Tim's eyebrows went up at that.
"Jethro got quite a reputation for burning agents out very quickly."
"Like a revolving door." Abby turned to Ducky. "I completely forgot about all of that."
"What changed?" Ziva asked.
"Tony," Abby and Ducky said at the same time.
Tim made a disbelieving face.
"It's true," Abby said. "Really. Tony came on board and from the very beginning he gave Gibbs shit. He fooled around and cracked jokes, and flirted with everything on two legs, and yet just he and Gibbs got everything done that all four of you do now." She shook her head. "I completely forgot about that, too. After Vivian left, it was just Gibbs and Tony for a long time before Gibbs hired Kate."
"There was something about Tony's insouciant air that took a lot of the bite out of Jethro," Ducky said. "He smiled more that first year than he had in a long time."
"He tries to hide it," Abby said, "but if you watch him, he's biting back grins all the time. Tony breaks him up."
"But the most important thing is that once Gibbs started hiring new agents, they stayed. Kate stayed, and would have continued to stay if not for her untimely death. And the two of you have stayed," he said, gesturing at Tim and Ziva.
"That's not because of Tony," Tim protested.
"I suspect you might feel differently in a month," Ducky suggested. "I think you'll be surprised at the amount of work Tony actually accomplished, and also how much of Gibbs' bad temper he directed his way."
"And he keeps things light," Abby continued, "and helps people let off steam when things are rough. Huh. I hadn't really thought about the fact that it wasn't until Tony showed up that Gibbs was able to keep a full team together. Wow." Then she grimaced. "But you better not even think about leaving now that Tony's gone."
"Is he really gone, then?" Ziva asked. "Gibbs is still saying he's on vacation."
"All I know for sure," Ducky said, "is that Tony has left town. I have no idea when, or if, he'll be back."
"We know he flew into Kansas, but that's all I know," Abby added darkly. "Tony shut his phone off. I don't think he wants us to find him."
Ducky wondered how long this team would stay together with Tony gone. He suspected that Gibbs' already short temper would be exacerbated with Tony's absence. And given the unresolved attraction between the two men, Gibbs wouldn't just be missing his amusing and hard working agent. It was never easy to say goodbye to something you'd never worked up the nerve to try for.
Tim let out a sigh. "Well, we better get back upstairs. Gibbs won't be happy if he finds us all down here."
They all looked at the door to the morgue because Gibbs seemed to excel at making an entrance just when a sentence like that was spoken. But there was no sign of him. As there wasn't much more to say, Tim and Ziva headed back upstairs. Abby sat on one of the morgue tables and finished the conversation with a definite, "This sucks."
Gibbs ordered his coffee tersely, handing over his money. With coffee and change in hand, he wandered back outside. He'd walked further than he usually did for coffee but he was in desperate need of clearing his mind.
In his years at NCIS, he'd seen dozens of agents come and go. Every now and then he regretted someone leaving. He'd been sorry to see Stan Burley go, but he hadn't tried to talk him out of it. He'd never tried to talk anyone out of leaving.
When someone thought it was time to go, it was best to let them. There was nothing to be gained by keeping someone beyond when they should have left. So, it would probably make the most sense to let Tony go. He clearly thought it was time to move on, enough that he'd sent his resignation to Vance, going right over Gibbs' head.
Gibbs should just go back in and start looking at files to find a fourth for his team. All he really needed to decide was who would be his senior agent. Should that promotion go to McGee or someone else internal who was a little more seasoned? Maybe there was someone out there with Tony's years of experience who didn't want their own team, and was willing to be bribed away from their own team leader. Gibbs snorted at the idea of anyone's chance of success at luring Tony away over the past few years. Gibbs would have found whoever it was and made sure they understood that Tony belonged to him.
Of course, most people with Tony's years of experience had their own teams. Gibbs knew Tony had been offered teams, several in fact, but he'd always turned them down. Gibbs hadn't ever given a lot of thought to it, but he was always glad when Tony declined yet another offer.
He started walking again, getting back to the issue of a new senior agent. Ziva was out of the question, as she wasn't an NCIS agent, but a Mossad exchange officer. Gibbs trusted her, but too many other people didn't. She also had outside forces focused on her that could leave her compromised. That left McGee. Tony had done a pretty good job toughening Tim up, although some of that was also due to Tim getting older and more experienced.
He could stand up to Tony now, could dish it out with the best of them. He could gird his loins and take on a political battle, and that whole prison situation showed that Tim could handle extremely difficult and stressful situations and get the job done.
He still couldn't stand up to Gibbs. Every now and then, when forced to, he got past the stuttering and held his ground, but when push came to shove, when Gibbs said jump, Tim jumped. Tony jumped, too, but only to a point. If Tony thought the order to jump was wrong, he'd let Gibbs know. He'd get in Gibbs' face when he was out of line, when he was riding them all too hard, or when Gibbs needed to just lighten up.
Someone who didn't know Tony might not see that. They'd just see Tony acting out, screwing around--not that Tony didn't do that, too--but a good deal of that playing around was to distract Gibbs, either to get Gibbs channeling his annoyance directly at DiNozzo, or to make him laugh.
It worked a good deal of the time. There was no doubt that Gibbs was annoyed with Tony far more often than anyone else. It also worked the other way because Tony was funny. Despite Gibbs' best efforts, small grins kept escaping, and if Gibbs lightened up, everyone lightened up.
Gibbs couldn't see Tim doing that. Not yet, at any rate. He might not be able to do it at all. If Gibbs promoted him, it would be a waiting game to find out whether Tim could handle him. He wondered if he could lure Stan back. At least he could get the job done. But not like Tony. If he had the luxury to choose between the two now, there'd be no contest. In fact, there wasn't anyone he'd choose over Tony.
But now he might have to. Gibbs couldn't imagine this place without him. Gibbs still found his job meaningful, most days, and duty drove him now as much as it ever had. But, sometimes, after a rough night with too little sleep and too many memories, it was the thought of Tony and his goofiness, and the big grin that would be on his face when Gibbs arrived, that got him out of the house.
There was something else Tony brought to the table that Gibbs would miss. Tony paid attention to him. Not his orders, or the case, but Gibbs. Gibbs had never been the recipient of such focus. And even if sometimes it had pissed him off, he felt a real sense of loss at the thought that it might be gone from his life. There had been something affirming in it; like he truly mattered to someone. Somehow, despite how hard Gibbs worked on coming across as needing nothing, something inside had grown dependent on Tony's need of him.
What had Tony called it? Their mutual fuckedupness? Gibbs let out a quiet mirthless laugh. Tony was right to some extent. Gibbs thrived on Tony's attention and had come to expect it.
Taking a sip of coffee, he found himself reluctant to go back to the office. But there was really no point in delaying the inevitable. He'd get used to it eventually, an office without a Tony DiNozzo in it. A morning without that grin, and those looks, that need, in Tony's eyes, and the possibility that that need also meant desire, and anytime Gibbs decided he might want it, Tony would give him anything Gibbs asked for.
And maybe that was it. Maybe that's what sent Tony running. Gibbs knew he owned Tony, and he took regular advantage of it, saying how much, and when, and pushing Tony away whenever he felt like it. A one-sided power trip that, over time, left Tony feeling powerless.
Gibbs hadn't meant for that to happen, but he could see now that it was one possible explanation for why Tony had left. The question was what to do about it. Gibbs had no idea if he could change a habit of eight years. He had no idea what it would look like to give Tony more power, to relinquish some of his own. Oh, he could let Tony lead a case, professionally he had no problem giving Tony a longer leash, but it was the personal stuff that left Gibbs stymied even on a good day, let alone in the middle of a mess he had no idea how to mend.
What he wanted was Tony back, for things to be the way they were. Gibbs didn't want to find a fourth, or train McGee or someone new. He didn't want to deal with his team slowly eroding because no one was there to lighten things up. Abby would try, but she tended to go way overboard, getting more frenetic as the day wore on.
There was only one thing to do, he thought, as he drained the last of his coffee, throwing the empty cup in a trash can and striding back to the office. Once he was back he took the stairs up to Vance's office, nodding to Ziva and McGee as he passed them. Vance's secretary, Cynthia, the one who couldn't keep her mouth shut, told him to go on in.
"I need a week off," Gibbs told him.
"This wouldn't have anything to do with DiNozzo, would it?" Vance asked, leaning back in his chair.
"All I'm asking for is a week off," Gibbs said. "What I want to do with it is my affair."
"Interesting choice of words."
"Are you making accusations?" Gibbs snapped.
"No," Vance said quickly, "no accusations. An observation or two, maybe." His face invited some conversation.
Gibbs was in no mood to talk to Vance. "Do I have your approval?"
Vance sighed, sitting up straighter. "Any open cases?"
"No, we just wrapped it up this morning. They can work on cold cases while I'm gone."
"Will I be able to get a hold of you while you're gone?"
"Assuming my phone works," Gibbs said. "They don't always work for me."
"Convenient," Vance said dryly. "Get out of here."
Gibbs didn't need to be told twice. He jogged back down the steps, feeling lighter than he had since this whole damn thing had started. He was also surprised that it seemed as if Vance thought he and Tony were sleeping together. Maybe they should have been. Maybe if he'd taken Tony to his bed a long time ago, the power thing would have worked itself out.
"I'm taking a week off," he announced, putting on his jacket. He was taking his badge and gun with him.
Tim's eyebrows rose high on his face. "You are?"
"You can work on cold cases, or assist any of the other teams. Or take some time off yourself if you want." Gibbs didn't really care. He just wanted to be on the road. Without waiting to hear what they had to say about his plans, he next went to Abby.
"If you hear from Tony, or figure out where he is," Gibbs told her, "call me. I'm heading to Smallville."
She beamed at him. "You're going to bring him home?"
"I'll give it my best shot," he promised her.
"You're the best." She frowned. "Remember, though, that we're not even sure he's in Smallville."
"Figure it out," he told her. "And let me know."
"You got it. Let me see your phone." He handed it over and she gave it a look, making a few adjustments. "Don't forget to charge it."
"I've got a charger in my car."
"Gibbs, that's like a sixteen hour drive. Nineteen if you end up driving to Metropolis. Why don't you fly?"
"It won't take me that long," Gibbs said. He wanted to drive. It just felt easier to drive than to figure out a commercial flight and then rent a car.
She gave him a hug. "Drive carefully, and bring him home."
"You need to find him first, Abs," he reminded her.
"I'll find him, I promise."
He hoped so, because otherwise he might be taking a ride across several state lines for nothing. "See you in a week." And with that he was off.