SMALLVILLE: THE BLACK RIDER
EPISODE FIVE: LESSONS IN FRIENDSHIP
Lex Luthor hadn't thought he'd find a kindred spirit when he'd been relegated to Smallville.
The twenty-one year old was in the gym at the mansion, running on the treadmill. Mirrors stretched along the wall in front of him, reflecting his own image back to him: lean face and body, bald head, sharp blue eyes, his skin flushed from exertion. His white t-shirt clung to him with sweat. His defined calves flexed and stretched, visible beneath his black, knee-length running shorts.
The gym held nautilus machines, free weights, and fitness balls. A punching bag was suspended from the ceiling. Music pumped from the recessed speakers. A small refrigerator containing bottled water, juice, and Gatorade was plugged in next to the door. A television was set up to play yoga and aerobic DVDs near open floor space. And in that floor space, balancing on one foot on top of a blue yoga ball like a circus performer, was Clark Kent.
Clark was seventeen, with broad shoulders, tall frame, and a perfect physique. He had a model's face: sharp cheekbones, plump lips, lush eyelashes, and chiseled jaw. His dark, shaggy hair hung over his brow, his hazel eyes downturn as he read another chapter in the Kansas Statue book held in his large hands. He stood perfectly still, with no wobble as he maintained his position. His other leg was lifted like a flamingo's, his heel tucked up against his sculpted ass. He reminded Lex of a marble statue carved by the greats.
Lex was jealous that Clark didn't have to do a thing to maintain his appearance, whereas Lex had to work out daily, especially with his cook, Gertrude, trying to fatten him up. Clark was naturally fit, extraordinarily strong and fast, and as healthy as Lex. He had taken to training with a dedication that reminded Lex of himself and Bruce Wayne, Lex's best friend from boarding school.
When Lex was nine, he was caught in a meteorite shower that resulted in him gaining the ability to rapidly heal from anything, even death. It had also left him permanently bald and gave him night terrors as a child. His father, with his caring and loving nature, had shipped Lex off to boarding school so as not to have to deal with him. Lex ended up with a roommate who also had night terrors, a transfer student named Bruce Wayne whose parents had been murdered in front of him. They'd formed a bond with their sleepless misery and shared secrets about Lex's abilities and Bruce's unwavering desire to seek revenge on his parents' killer. They'd made a pact, as children were wont to do, that they would eradicate crime when they grew up. They were a pair of the few adults who'd followed through on their childish wishes.
And now Lex was expanding on that pact, training Clark to follow in his footsteps. Lex had switched up his routine to accommodate Clark. He did half his work out in the morning and half in the evening, when Clark was able to come to the mansion. While Clark didn't need any physical fitness exercise - the first day he'd shown up, he'd lifted the entire nautilus machine with one hand as if it weighed no more than a feather - he needed guidance in how to fight and how to work within the parameters of the law.
Clark glanced up from the book, caught Lex's eye in the mirror, and smiled brightly. He hopped to his other foot without teetering or the ball wobbling. "Show off," Lex said.
"Maybe," Clark said, and snickered. He motioned to the book. "How much more of this do I have to read?"
"Until you finish it," Lex said, not breaking stride on the treadmill. "And then there's several chapters of civil law you need to learn, too."
Lex grinned. "I told you fighting crime was boring."
Clark sighed overdramatically and made a show of returning to reading the book. He peered at Lex from beneath his lashes with puppy-dog entreaty.
Lex glanced at the mileage on the treadmill. "Three more miles, and then we'll do something else."
Clark pumped his fist. "Yes!"
Lex chuckled and returned to the Zen of his run. His cell phone rang when he was finishing his cool down. It sat on the small refrigerator, and Lex walked over and looked at the display. Bruce Wayne.
"Hello, Bruce," Lex said, answering the call. He picked up a towel and swiped it over his face. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I have the rudimentary modification done on the search engine," Bruce said. "It's limited in range, though."
"Ship it to me and I'll try it out," Lex said, bending to take a bottled water from the refrigerator.
"I'll send it in the morning," Bruce said. "How is training going with Mr. Kent?"
"Pretty good. I think I've disabused him of the notion that what we do is glamorous," Lex said. Clark glanced over at Lex and grinned. "I'm planning to reinforce it by taking him on a stakeout soon."
"Isn't that a little too dangerous?" Bruce said.
"He'll be fine," Lex said. "Besides, isn't it better he be with someone who has experience than be fumbling around on his own?"
Bruce's disapproval was audible, even though he didn't say anything specific about it. "Be careful."
"I will. I won't let anything happen to him," Lex said.
"Don't let anything happen to yourself, either."
"I won't," Lex promised.
Bruce said more with one word than orators with soliloquies. Lex disconnected with warmth in his chest. His friendship with Bruce was one of those rare things, especially considering his last name was Luthor. It wasn't something he took for granted.
He turned his attention to Clark. "Ready to do something else?"
"I'm always ready," Clark answered with a cheeky grin.
December brought holiday decorations, Salvation Army bell ringers, and a foot of snow to Smallville. It was a time for office parties, for bonus checks, and for general merriment as the year wound to a close. People donated money, volunteered, and shopped for gifts until their wallets ran dry. The high school football season had ended and girls volleyball became the sport to support until basketball started in January.
Lex sat squashed on the packed bleachers inside the Smallville High School gymnasium. Clark Kent and Chloe Sullivan were on his right, and Deputy Oscar Campell and his wife Nina sat to Lex's left. The noise was overwhelming, with people cheering, stomping, and conversing at the same time. The Smallville Crows girls volleyball team was currently in the lead by two points over the Parsons Vikings.
Lex ate a handful of popcorn, watching as a spike was countered. Overhead, championship banners and jerseys fluttered with the rotation of the ceiling fans which were unsuccessfully cooling the gym. Sweat stuck Lex's pearl gray v-neck shirt to his spine and darkened under his arms. He kept having to blot his bare scalp with a handkerchief. He wasn't sure how Nina was standing it, but the extremely pregnant Hispanic young woman seemed perfectly comfortable. Her husband, on the other hand, looked like he might melt at any second.
Clark was another one who appeared unaffected by the temperature created by all the bodies in the gym. He leaned closer to Lex, still fresh as a daisy, and spoke near Lex's ear. "There he is, walking in now."
Lex turned his attention to the open gym doors. A teen with Slavic features, grungy chin-length black hair, and a lanky body shuffled into the gym. He wore a battered jean jacket over a gray hoodie. His stooped shoulders and hands shoved into his pockets were an affect to help him go unnoticed, but there was a slightly arrogant tilt in his chin that drew a trained eye.
Clark and Chloe had been investigating rumors of an underground gambling ring within the high school for The Torch. Sportsbooks - where a gambler can wager on races or games - were only legal in four states and Kansas wasn't one of them. The legal gambling age was also eighteen and Chloe had ferreted information that minors were placing bets. She and Clark had narrowed down the ringleader as Mikhail Mxyzptlk, a foreign exchange student - who had just entered the gym.
Lex nodded to Clark and leaned closer to Oscar. "He's here. Kid in the jean jacket with black hair, walking toward the concession stand," Lex said.
Oscar scanned the area, locating Mxyzptlk. "I got him."
"Good luck," Lex said, as Oscar rose. The Deputy was out of uniform, wearing a red Smallville High School t-shirt and backwards baseball cap. He was slightly older than Lex, but with his lean Hispanic build and smooth baby-face, he looked like he was still in high school.
Clark practically vibrated beside Lex with anticipation, as Oscar made his way down the bleachers, heading after Mxyzptlk. "I wish I could go with him," Clark said.
"Me, too," Chloe chimed in. She fanned herself with a program, her bare shoulders beneath her layered yellow and light blue tank tops glistening with perspiration. Her short, blonde hair frizzed at the ends. "I'd love to get pictures."
"You'll have the exclusive scoop as to how the bust went down," Lex said.
"It would still be better with pictures."
Lex didn't argue with her, seeing as she wasn't running off to snap them. Clark's first criminal arrest, with assistance from Lex and Chloe, would be over shortly.
"I'm proud of you," Lex whispered to Clark, eliciting a beaming smile in return. Clark had proven that he had what it took to be a good crime fighter. He'd learned about a crime being committed, had followed up on it to determine if it were true, and then had turned his findings over to the police at Lex's direction. There was no need for flashy action to arrest the criminal.
A minute later, Oscar was leading Mxyzptlk in handcuffs out of the gymnasium and to the patrol officer who'd be waiting outside. Chloe snapped a picture from the bleachers.
"I'm going to upload this and get the article online tonight, before the Ledger scoops me," Chloe said, getting to her feet. "Coming, Clark?"
Clark glanced at Lex. "Um... okay."
Lex gave Clark a pat on his jeans-clad knee. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Clark brightened. "Okay. See you." He stood and followed Chloe down the bleachers. The space that they'd vacated was immediately filled in by a couple who'd been cramped in the row behind.
Lex ate another handful of popcorn and went back to watching the game.
Lex pulled into the driveway to an unwelcome sight: a black Lincoln Continental with tinted windows and Metropolis plates parked in front of the mansion. Cursing up a storm, Lex maneuvered his Porsche around the car and headed for the garage.
Exterior security lights lit up the auctioned ancestral estate, creating deep pockets of shadows in corners and under eaves. The hedges surrounding the mansion rustled as nocturnal animals scurried beneath. Little illumination shone in the arched and stained glassed windows, giving the mansion an empty, haunted feeling. Gargoyles watched from above, their stone mouths open in laughter, as Lex locked up and went inside.
Gertrude Donovan was a retired middle school cafeteria worker, with steel gray hair and an equally steely attitude. Her small frame was engulfed by a yellow sweatshirt with a John Deere tractor emblazoned on the front. She was Lex's cook, and she wasn't pleased. Her lips were pressed thin and she banged dishes like she wanted to bang someone's head.
"Where is he?" Lex asked, coming into the kitchen through the mudroom attached to the garage. He hadn't removed his hickory colored, buttery leather three-quarter jacket. The sweat stains on his shirt from being at the game would be perceived as a weakness.
"In the dining room, eating your dinner," Gertrude said, smacking another bowl into its spot in the cabinet. "The impertinence of that man, the utter contempt he shows - if he were forty years younger, I'd cuff him around the ears!"
"I'll take care of him," Lex said, bracing himself to enter the lion's den. His Dad could be charming when he wanted to be, or a real son-of-a-bitch. It appeared he'd been the latter towards Gertrude. Lex shoved open the swinging door between the kitchen and dining room. "Dad, so nice of you to drop by without calling first."
"I shouldn't have to call to see my own son." Lionel Luthor, in all his hirsute glory, sat at the head of the winged griffin carved mahogany dining table. He was a powerful man in his early fifties, with a full beard and mustache and hair that fell around his shoulders. It was as if he were trying to make up for Lex's baldness.
Lex stopped behind the dining chair to Lionel's left and rested his hands on the carved back. Heavy red wallpaper with gold fleur-de-lis hung on the walls. The dining chairs were upholstered in rose fabric with gold filigree. A mahogany hooded sideboard, china cabinet, and server were carved in the same winged griffin design as the chairs and table. Lionel's Burberry coat was draped over the back of one of the chairs.
"You should fire your cook. She is too uppity for her position," Lionel said.
"You seem to be enjoying her work." Lex gestured to the food remains on the plates in front of Lionel.
"It's barely palatable. Where did you find her, a school cafeteria?" Lionel said, blotting his lips with a napkin.
Lex knew very well that his father had done a background check on Gertrude the moment Lex had hired her. "Upset that she wouldn't take your bribe?"
"Now, Lex, there's no reason to be snippy." Lionel dropped the napkin on top of the plate, pushed back slightly from the table, and crossed one leg over the other. He wore a three piece suit in charcoal with a crisp white shirt and a Cape-knotted solid charcoal tie. "Your staff choices are your own. Although, from the look of the place, you are in sore need of upgrading. I'd be happy to provide you with a new staff, just say the word."
"No, thank you," Lex said. He didn't need an army of Lionel's lackeys stomping daily through his house. He also didn't need Lionel in his house, and wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible. "What are you doing here, Dad?"
"Can't a father want to visit with his own son? Find out how he's doing? What he's been doing?"
Lex snorted indelicately. "Are you that interested in how the Crows are playing volleyball?"
"No. You're right." Lionel shifted from feigned interest to business. "I want another thirty percent of the plant employees gone by Christmas. And I want none of that tomfoolery you did at the bank. Severance pay is for professionals, not hourly drones."
Ouch, Lex winced internally. He knew his friend Gladys Steinholt wouldn't have said anything, but all his transactions at the bank regarding severance had to be approved by the bank manager. He knew his Dad would learn of the transactions. "How do you expect the plant to operate with half its workforce gone?"
"That's up to you to figure out. You are running the plant, after all," Lionel said with a cunning twist of his lips. "Now, tell me about the $25,000 you withdrew from your trust at the end of last month. Did you get some girl pregnant? Are you paying off a reporter? Or perhaps you bought the Kents' son for his services? I believe his name is Cletus?"
Angry heat rushed from beneath Lex's collar and flushed his face. His hands tightened on the back of the chair. "His name is Clark, as you very well know, and he's a friend."
"Yes, a 'friend'." The way Lionel said it made Lex's stomach churn. "Come now, we both know Luthors don't have friends. We have enemies, business acquaintances, and lovers. Never friends. Friends are an antiquated ideal that people can enjoy each other's company without motive. And everyone has a motive, as you well know. Or must I bring up Amanda Rothman?"
Lex was livid. He wanted to grab the steak knife and stab Lionel in the eye. He spun around, stalked to the sideboard, and roughly uncapped a decanter of scotch. The bottle clinked loudly against the glass as he poured the dark amber liquor into it. He belted back a finger full to Lionel's sadistic chuckle.
Lex hated that Lionel could get to him, even after all his years of living with the bastard. Amanda Rothman had befriended Lex his freshman year at Metropolis University, and Lex had fallen in love with her pretty hard. He did everything for her and with her during that first year: taking her to dinners and wealthy parties; buying her expensive things; writing papers for her; only to find out that she'd had a fiancé the entire time and a bet with her sorority as to how well she could string Lex along.
Since then, Lex had figured out that if he wanted to have any real friends he had to keep his money to himself and watch their bank records for bribes from Lionel. Izzy Brown, someone whom Lex lunched with regularly who worked at the orthodontist's office in town, had recently become a member of Lionel's network of spies. It was sad, but not unexpected. Lionel could be very generous with his bribes.
"You still haven't answered about the $25,000, Lex," Lionel said, taking obvious pleasure in Lex's ire.
"I put someone in jail and I'd like to keep her there," Lex said, pouring himself another drink. While what he said was the truth - he had helped put Desireé Adkins in jail and would like her to remain there - it had nothing to do with the money he'd taken from his trust fund. The $25,000 had actually gone to Dr. Steven Hamilton as funding to support his research on blue meteorites. The green and red meteorites lacked consistent results, but the blue had shown promise. Lionel didn't need to know about it, though; in fact, Lex wanted to keep Hamilton's research well away from his father's exploitive hands.
"Hm. An adequate use of funds," Lionel said, buying Lex's story. He rose and picked up his coat. "Thirty percent before Christmas, Lex. No arguments or reprieves."
"Whatever, Dad," Lex muttered and took another swig of scotch.
"Fuck Clark one time for me," Lionel said over his shoulder as he strode out of the dining room.
Lex's face twisted, and he spun around and threw his glass against the doorframe leading to the hall. He could hear Lionel's laughter float back to him before the front door closed. Gertrude rushed through the swinging door from the kitchen, concern etched in her aged features. She saw that Lionel had gone, the broken glass on the floor, and Lex panting with spent rage. She laid her hand on Lex's arm. "Are you all right, dear?"
"I hate my father," Lex said in response. He gave her a pinched look. "I'll be in the gym. I'll see you tomorrow."
He left Gertrude in the dining room and ran upstairs to his bedroom. Dark wood and plush umber carpeting decorated the bedroom, with a few framed modern art pieces hanging from the walls. Two oak night stands flanked Lex's antique four poster bed.
His laptop sat on his roll top desk where he'd left it. He had no idea how long Lionel had been in the house before Lex had returned home. It was safer to believe everything was compromised.
Lex called the bug sweeper, offering him a grand to come over immediately. He followed up the call with one to Bruce. "My Dad was here. I'll overnight my laptop to you tomorrow."
"It would be very difficult for him to access your data," Bruce's rumbling voice said over the line.
"I'm not taking any chances," Lex told him. He checked his desk drawers for passbooks and records. Everything was still in place, and he didn't print out anything he didn't want seen. "He thinks I'm sleeping with Clark."
"Are you?" Bruce said.
Lex sputtered with indignation. "No!"
Amusement colored Bruce's tone, and Lex narrowed his eyes. "Are you riling me up on purpose?" Lex said.
"Perhaps," Bruce said, with dry humor. "I am curious about the answer, however."
"He's only seventeen," Lex said.
"That's legal age in Kansas."
Lex scowled. "He's also still in high school, and his parents despise anyone who has money."
"Do you actually care what his parents think?" Bruce said.
"No, but Clark cares," Lex said. He went over to his closet. The massive wardrobe was like a room unto itself, situated next to the en suite bathroom. Clothing was folded neatly on the shelves and hung with color coding on padded hangers. A filled shoe rack stretched to the ceiling. Inset drawers held socks, underwear, and a place for his tie clips. "And that's the kind of trouble I don't want right now."
Bruce cut through Lex's excuses with a single insight. "You care about him a great deal."
Lex found a small, wireless camera snuggled with his t-shirts. He flicked it off, picked it up, and crushed it beneath his heel. "He's a good friend. He doesn't deserve to be inflicted with Luthor family drama."
"What if you change your mind?"
"I won't be around long enough for it to matter," Lex said. "Dad decreed another thirty percent of the plant's employees be laid off before Christmas. With those numbers, the plant will shut down by March at the latest."
"Why doesn't he simply close it now?" Bruce asked.
"And miss out on teaching me a lesson?" Lex said. "Never."
"I do not envy you," Bruce said.
"If only I didn't like being rich," Lex said, and really, that was the sole reason he still put up with Lionel's machinations. He had a hefty trust fund left to him by his mother when she died, but Lionel paid for pretty much everything Lex had and he wanted to stretch that out a while longer. He was only twenty-one, and he'd rather spend Lionel's money on college than his own.
Lex and Bruce chatted for a little while longer before disconnecting. Lex changed into his workout clothes and went down to the gym. He was pleasantly surprised to find a serving tray balanced between the arms of the treadmill, holding an enormous banana split, complete with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream topped with caramel, hot fudge, and strawberry sauce, chopped nuts, and whipped cream. A note was scrawled on a scrap of paper, sitting beside the dish. He picked it up and read it.
Terri Cole had good advice: 'Hating someone makes them important. Forgiving them makes them obsolete.'
I'll see you tomorrow.
Lex smiled, tucked the note in his pocket, and moved the tray to the nautilus bench. Straddling the bench, he picked up his spoon and happily dug in.
Despite what Lionel had said, Lex had at least one true friend.
The first thing Lex did at work the next morning was to promote everyone retroactively to full salaried professionals, enabling Lex to provide them with severance pay. "Take that, Dad," Lex said, hitting the last button on the office computer that saved the changes. Lex loved taking advantage of loopholes. He also took the time to pad his plant manager, Gabe Sullivan's salary, to make up for the money he'd lost in savings to Desireé Adkins. He'd drop word to the accountant about the changes, but otherwise what people didn't know would benefit them.
Firing more employees this go around was going to be a lot more difficult. It was nearly Hanukkah and Christmas, and the sheer amount of layoffs made strictly volunteers impossible. Lex wanted to confer with Gabe, but he thought the best idea would be to narrow the focus of their production to ethanol, since it was Lex's own experiment in profit-making. Fertilizer was a failing business, and Lex didn't care enough about it to think of a solution to save the plant or jobs.
Lex's wheeled chair squealed when he pushed away from the banged up metal desk. The concrete walls of his office had been painted industrial white and a framed picture of the fire evacuation plan hung by the door. Two uncomfortable looking black visitor chairs sat in front of the desk. A three drawer file cabinet stood sentry in the back corner. The wire inbox and outbox on Lex's desk were perpetually full, and his coffee cup had made another brown ring on the green desk blotter.
Lex stood and buttoned his jacket. His Aegean blue single-breasted suit was paired with a white shirt and Aegean blue and slate colored diagonally striped tie. He'd bought the tie at Delilah's Delights, a chic clothing boutique in town owned by his friend Delilah Dupree, and had his tailor craft a suit to match. Taking his coffee with him, Lex went in search of Gabe.
LuthorCorp Fertilizer Plant Number Three was located near Lex's mansion, in an adjacent property separated by landscaped woods and a pond. The concrete and steel structure of the plant housed large machinery that produced fertilizer and ethanol. The main floor of the facility was where a majority of the work occurred. The center of the plant was open with green rails circling around it on the second and third floors. A break room, restrooms, and storage filled the second floor, while offices made up the third.
Gabe's office was two doors down from Lex's, with a small conference room in between them. It was nearly identical to Lex's, save that Gabe had framed photographs of his daughter and deceased wife on his battered metal desk. However, Gabe wasn't in his office. Lex took advantage of the fresh pot of coffee percolating on a file cabinet in the back corner before continuing his hunt for the plant manager.
Lex poked his head into the bookkeeper's and Administrative Assistant's office, shared a word with the accountant, and stole a gingersnap cookie from the resource officer before heading down the green metal steps to the second floor. Below, employees went about their business, unknowing that Lex would soon be telling them he had to let a large number of them go, once again, and just in time for the holidays. It was depressing. Lex wanted to go back upstairs and filch another cookie.
The door to the break room opened and Gabe and a division supervisor emerged. The division supervisor broke off and went the opposite direction down the metal walkway, while Gabe turned towards Lex. Gabe Sullivan was a plain man in his early forties, with blonde hair and stress circles around his eyes. "Gabe," Lex said, meeting up with him. "If you're free, we need to talk. I had a visit from--"
A violent tremor went through the building, interrupting Lex and sending him and Gabe crashing into the metal guard rail surrounding the second floor walkway. Lex's coffee mug went over the side, spilling coffee as it tumbled end over end until it smashed on the cement floor below. Shouts of fear rose from the main floor, over the din of working heavy machinery. The tremor was over as swiftly as it began.
Gabe's face had blanched and stared at Lex with wide eyes. "What the hell?"
"It could've been an explosion." Lex looked for the nearest fire alarm pull on the second floor. He was surprised it hadn't gone off. "We need to get everyone out--"
Lex didn't get to finish his sentence. Another violent tremor slammed through the building. Lex fell hard against the supply closet door, jamming himself in the gut with the doorknob. Gabe held onto the metal railing for dear life. The shouts below had turned into screams. Ceiling tiles fell and lights shattered, raining debris onto the open main floor. The squeal of straining metal pierced the air.
The tremor lasted longer than the first, and had wrought damage and blind panic. The fire alarm had been set off, as were alarms on the heavy machinery. Lex shouted over the cacophony of noise to Gabe. "Emergency evacuation! Get everyone out of here!"
Gabe indicated that he'd heard and ran for the stairs heading down. Lex went the opposite way, meeting up with the senior staff who were rushing down the steps from the third floor. "Get outside as quickly as you can," Lex urged them. As soon as the stairway was clear, he ran up it. He had to make certain the offices were clear.
The building began shaking again as Lex checked the third office. The metal desk shot across the tiled floor as if it were on greased wheels. It clipped Lex in the thigh as he leapt out of the way. He cursed at the pain, fighting to maintain his balance as the building rocked around him. The office's visitor chairs overturned, pictures crashed to the floor, and ceiling tiles dislodged and dropped onto Lex's head.
Bruises that would fast disappear formed on Lex's scalp. The screeching of metal girders being broken pierced the alarms and screams. The building wasn't going to withstand much more. Fear squeezed Lex's heart, not for himself but for anyone who might be trapped inside when the structure no longer held.
The instant the tremors stopped, Lex vaulted into action again, rushing from office to office as quickly as he was able. Finding them all empty, he flew down the metal steps to the second floor, clasping hard to the handrail as they shifted under his feet, bolts having been shorn. The building started viciously shaking again when he reached the end of the corridor and the last room on that floor. He managed to see that it was empty before he was thrown against the guard rail.
The guard rail shuttered, squealed, and fell away, and Lex went tumbling over the side. The cement floor twenty feet below greeted him with a sickening crunch. The pain was excruciating. As the building twisted and collapsed around him, he caught sight of a single person seizing on the floor between two coating machines before his injuries caused him to black out.
Lex returned to consciousness - possibly to life - surrounded by rubble. He coughed dust and his eyes watered from the overwhelming smell of fertilizer, natural gas and coolant. Shafts of outside light pierced the destroyed building in places, allowing Lex to see the damage as he turned his head. Chunks of cement walls leaned against broken girders. Caustic liquids bled into the spilled guts of smashed machinery. The hiss of a busted hot steam pipe mixed with the occasional crumble of rock.
Lex carefully tested his ability to move. He was prone on the main floor, his front coated with oils and other liquids. His palms crunched broken glass as he pushed upward. Broken ceiling tiles and cement chunks fell from his back. He managed to get to his knees before finding out his calves were trapped. A glance over his shoulder showed the guard rail weighed down on either end by heavy rubble pinning him in place. He was able to feel and move his feet, so he wasn't concerned about having to reattach them.
A girder had fallen in a way that created about four open feet around Lex. Being able to see daylight meant there was air and Lex didn't have to worry about repeated suffocation. He was more concerned that a random spark would ignite him on fire, since he was coated and surrounded by flammable liquids.
"Hello? Can anyone hear me?" Lex called loudly. He received no response. He looked in the direction of the person he'd seen before he'd lost consciousness, but debris blocked his way.
Lex wiped his oily hand on the seat of his dusty pants before extracting his cell phone from the inner breast pocket of his ruined suit. I liked this suit, he thought, as he examined his phone. The screen was cracked but the phone itself still worked, which was all Lex needed.
Lex knew he should call emergency dispatch, but instead he called Gabe. He needed to know how many people were still trapped in the building. "Gabe, it's Lex," Lex said when Gabe answered the call.
"Lex! Where are you?" Gabe said, anxiety coming over the line in waves.
"Trapped inside," Lex said. At Gabe's panicked gasp, Lex quickly reassured him. "I'm fine. I'm not hurt. Give me a head count."
"Everyone but you and Earl Jenkins have been accounted for," Gabe said. "Well, you're accounted for now."
Lex figured Earl Jenkins must've been the man he saw seizing on the floor. "I think Jenkins may be a casualty. I saw someone before the building collapsed. Let the fire department know that there's flammable liquid spilled on the floor and that I can smell natural gas. I'm somewhat near the center of the main room. Jenkins was between two coating machines."
"Okay. I'll tell them now. Is there anyone you want me to call?" Gabe said.
"The insurance company," Lex said, running his hand over his head. Cement dust showered around his shoulders. "Call the plant's attorney, too. We have no official comment to the press."
Gabe paused before saying, "I meant did you want me to call any family? Or good friends?"
Lex smiled self-deprecatingly in the dim. "No. I despise the former and there's not enough of the latter to bother. Thanks, Gabe. I'll call you back in a bit to see how things are going."
He disconnected, thought about what Gabe had offered, and figured he should at least call Gertrude and let her know that he'd want a big dinner after being trapped all day. Bruce would probably call him once news reached the east coast - Bruce had Smallville and Metropolis on his live feed, just as Lex kept tabs on Gotham. Clark was in class and Lex would probably be free by the time the high school let out. He didn't know who else would qualify as a good friend. Maybe Delilah or Sophie Glass, whom Lex dated on occasion. But they were both at work and Lex didn't want to bother them.
Lex used the display on the phone to gaze around him once more. The destruction looked even worse with the better illumination. He had no idea what had happened. His father was either going to have a fit or rejoice that he had an excuse to close the plant earlier than predicted. Lex would wager on the second.
Lex pulled up the internet on his phone. His stay in Smallville was probably at an end, which meant he could likely return to college beginning second semester in January. He navigated to the Metropolis University course catalog to start picking out classes.
Lex could hear the firemen, now, after a long, sucky day of waiting. He was hungry, tired, and bored out of his mind. Patiently awaiting rescue was a lesson in aggravation. It was his own fault, though. He'd talked to Clark on the phone - Gabe had called Chloe and Chloe had told Clark who in turn had called Lex - and had prevented him from coming to Lex's aid. Lex was in no immediate danger, and it was important that Clark not get involved when professionals were already present. Someone who fought crime from the shadows had to know when to step out of them and when to remain hidden.
Bruce had also called, as Lex had predicted, and had kept Lex entertained for a half-hour. When Lex had touched base with Gabe, Gabe had told him that the local radio station was reporting the incident with live updates, but otherwise the media presence was limited to a Smallville Ledger journalist and photographer. Lex didn't know whether to be relieved or depressed that he didn't warrant a Metropolis news team. He opted to go with relieved, as it meant his father hadn't called to berate him and somehow make this catastrophe Lex's fault.
Lex's legs had fallen asleep on and off throughout the day, and he'd gotten dizzy a few times from the fumes, but otherwise his physical discomfort had been limited. He knew he was lucky; he could've been trapped under one of the girders or heavy concrete wall, continuously being crushed to death and reviving; or he could have no air and repeatedly suffocate. Of course, a normal person would've died from the fall from the second floor walkway, and Earl Jenkins had most likely died, so Lex had nothing to complain about.
Still, when the firemen broke through the final barrier between them, Lex grumbled, "What took you so long?"
"We had to be careful with the gas," Firefighter Porter said. His name was stitched in bold letters on the breast of his dirty yellow and orange fire jacket. A fire helmet was on his head and safety goggles shielded his eyes. He wore an oxygen tank on his back. "We shut it off, but we were concerned about buildup."
Porter passed a small portable oxygen tank with mask through the hole he'd created. "Use this until we can widen the hole and get to you. Are there any new injuries we should be concerned about? How are your legs? Can you move your feet and toes?"
Lex had to stretch to reach the tank. "I'm fine. I can still feel my feet. The rail isn't pressing down that hard, and I kept moving them to keep the circulation going." A truth and a lie in one, as it was a combination of his healing ability and moving his feet that kept his lower legs from dying from loss of blood circulation.
"Good." Porter passed him a bottle of water next, and then used a blindingly bright flashlight to peer into the four foot area where Lex was trapped. He shined the light over the guard rail, girder, and cement surrounding him. "We'll get you out of there as soon as we can."
"As soon as we can" turned out to be another two hours. Because of the potential for sparks, the metal guard rail had to be cut by a hand held pipe cutter. Lex alternately drank water and dutifully used the oxygen mask, even though it wasn't needed. Two fully geared firefighters had squashed themselves into the four foot space with Lex. The rank odor of sweat added to the destruction of his new suit.
Eventually, Lex was freed and assisted through the holes made in the minefield of debris. The sunlight bouncing off the snow blinded Lex briefly when he reached outside. The sound of applause and cheering greeted him and he lifted his hand to shade his eyes. Behind wooden barricades stood a throng of people Lex knew: Detective Art Lerner, Delilah Dupree, John and Jodi Melville, Gertrude Donovan, Sophie Glass, Sasha Woodman, Clark Kent, Gladys Steinholt, Gabe and Chloe Sullivan, Jennifer Gaines, Deputy Oscar Campbell, and a slew of others he'd come to know from football games, volleyball games, work, and being around town. Even Bruce Wayne was there, his broad, imposing figure cloaked in Burberry, a relieved breath puffing from his lips.
Warmth bloomed in Lex's chest, as the paramedics descended upon him. There was no reason for any of these people to be here, other than the fact that they cared about Lex. Lex sat on the back of an ambulance, allowing the paramedics to check him out. He had a nearby police officer allow Bruce to pass.
"How long have you been here?" Lex asked, as his blood pressure was taken. A heavy blanket was draped around his dusty shoulders.
"A couple of hours," Bruce said. His ears and cheeks were red from the December cold, and a small breeze ruffled his black, business length hair. His lantern jaw had relaxed and blue eyes conveyed thankfulness that Lex was all right. "I heard that most started arriving shortly after noon, and the kids joined us when school let out." Bruce looked back at the crowd standing behind the barrier. "There are a lot of people in Smallville who are fond of you."
"I can see that," Lex said. A smile blossomed on his lips. He was full of amazed joy and had the sudden desire to hug all of them.
The paramedics had other ideas, though, and Lex needed to keep up appearances that he was normal. "Will you tell them 'thank you' for me?" Lex said to Bruce, as he was urged into a seat. "Gertrude will let you in the house if you're staying."
The ambulance doors were shut, and Lex had a glimpse of Bruce walking towards the crowd through the small rear windows before the ambulance drove away.
Lex sat comfortably on the upraised hospital bed, dressed in a hospital johnny with a blanket over his lap, as he waited for his blood tests to be run. He'd advised the doctor of his high white blood cell count, thus circumventing a visit from the oncologist. His ruined clothing was packed in an orange bio-disposal bag due to the hazardous liquids that had been soaked up. The overhead florescent light washed out the blue curtains separating him from his neighbors in the emergency ward. Unused medical equipment flanked either side of the bed. He'd refused the IV, instead drinking water from a pink plastic pitcher and matching plastic cup.
The police had been by to take an informal statement, to which he'd promise to stop by the station in the morning to sign an official one. The LuthorCorp attorney wasn't pleased when Lex had spoken to her on the phone, but she had thought it prudent to stay on site until Jenkins' body was recovered. A different reporter than the one at the plant had also appeared at Lex's curtain. On record, he thanked the fire department but otherwise had no comment.
Lex scrolled through his email messages on his cell phone, blatantly violating hospital policy. The battery was on its last legs and he needed something to do to kill the time before he was discharged.
"Hello? Lex, are you in here?" Clark peeped through the curtains, and Lex greeted him with a smile.
"Come in. Mi cortina es su cortina," Lex said.
"Huh?" Clark entered the area, carrying a familiar black duffle bag. He popped open the snaps on his red and yellow Smallville High School jacket, revealing a blue t-shirt worn over faded jeans.
"Never mind," Lex said. He gestured to the duffle. "What's in the bag?"
"I volunteered to bring you some clothes," Clark said, setting the duffle on the bed. "You have a really, really big closet."
Lex chuckled, unzipping the duffle to peer inside. "'Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.' Mark Twain." He looked up to find Clark's cheeks pink with his eyes on his feet. It was endearing. "Thank you, Clark."
"Uh... you're welcome," Clark said. He shoved his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat. "Um, when do you think you can go home?"
"Not long," Lex said, moving the duffle to the floor. "You're welcome to stay and keep me company. Unless you have somewhere else to be...?"
"Nah, I'm staying." Clark pulled a set of fancy car keys from his pocket. "I'm your ride. Bruce let me borrow his rental car. It's a Lamborghini."
"Of course it is," Lex said, laughing at Clark's rapturous expression. "He likes his fast, flashy cars."
"He's really nice," Clark said, stuffing the keys back into his pocket.
"I know," Lex said. "He's one of the best."
"He was worried about you." Clark looked down at his feet again. "So was I."
Lex's expression softened. "I was fine. You know I would be."
"I know, but still...," Clark trailed off and shrugged uncomfortably.
"I understand," Lex said, and he did. He knew what it felt like to worry for someone that you cared about, even if it wasn't necessary. "I can probably promise you that I won't let a building fall on me again."
"'Probably'?" Clark looked up at him from under his lashes, a smile hovering on the edges of his lips.
"It's a more common occurrence than you think," Lex said, keeping a straight face. "I'm so utterly handsome, buildings simply can't help but fall for me."
Clark snorted a laugh, and didn't bother to cover it up. He playfully knocked Lex on the arm. "You wish."
Lex gasped with false dismay, putting a hand to his chest. "Are you saying that I'm not handsome?"
"No, you know you're gorgeous," Clark said before he thought, and Lex got the pleasure of watching a flush of red climb from under Clark's collar, up his neck, and color his face. He ducked his chin again, shuffled, and mumbled, "You know what I mean."
Lex reached out and touched Clark's wrist. "I do."
Clark glanced at him shyly, and Lex realized he might want to be in trouble after all.
Lex was discharged within the hour of Clark's arrival. He changed clothes and pocketed his personal effects. The black Ferragamo loafers were the perfect match for the dove gray cashmere turtleneck and black pressed trousers Clark had brought him. He strongly suspected Bruce packed the duffle.
Clark drove to the mansion with gleeful adoration of the borrowed vehicle. The Lamborghini prowled along the county roads, its low-slung headlights slicing through the night. Darkness had settled around Smallville and the temperature dropped. The December winds kicked up the snow as it blew across the plains.
The main gates to the Luthor estate were always open as Lex had never hired any security personnel. He was still very surprised to find a long row of cars parked along one side of his double driveway when they pulled in. Lights flooded the windows of the first floor of the mansion, making the stone monstrosity appear somewhat homey for once.
"What's going on?" Lex said, counting the number of cars they passed as Clark maneuvered the Lamborghini toward the garage.
"After you were taken by the ambulance, Bruce talked to Gertrude and then invited your friends to come over for hot drinks and food," Clark said. "They're all waiting for you to get home, to make sure you're all right."
For the second time that evening, warmth bloomed in Lex's chest. He wasn't used to this many people caring about him. He should probably be ticked that Bruce had let a horde into his house with his warranted paranoia about his father's spies, but at that moment he mostly wanted to hug his friend.
Lex and Clark came in through the mudroom to bright lights, good smells, and laughter. Lex's kitchen was full of people milling around the large island counter in the center of the room. More people overflowed into the dining room. The swinging door to the dining room had been propped open by a garden rock, allowing for connection between the two areas. Platters of dwindling food spread over the kitchen counters and the dining table. The joviality in the air mixed with the scents of peppermint, chocolate, hot cider, and cinnamon. Christmas music underscored conversation.
Lex's name was chorused joyfully when he stepped into the room. Gladys Steinholt's ten-year-old twins were first to set upon him. "Mr. Luthor! Mr. Luthor!" They began talking over one another.
"Were you scared?"
"Did you get hurt?"
"Will you sue?"
Lex laughed and ruffled their hair. "Yes, no, and maybe."
Gladys came over, shooed her children, and engulfed Lex with her arms. "I'm glad you're all right. We were worried."
Gladys was replaced by Sophie, who hugged Lex hard. "Don't do that again," she said fiercely.
"Your poor suit," Delilah bemoaned as she smothered him in a perfumed embrace. "It matched that tie perfectly. We shall have to seek a replacement, my treat."
"We're so glad you're okay." Jodi, looking healthy and happy, gave him a swift hug, and John shook his hand. Sasha swooped in for a quick, shy hug and ran back to where Chloe and Gladys's older son were gathered.
"Lex, you gave us a good scare." Art pumped Lex's hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. If someone's to blame, we'll find the son-of-a-bitch and throw him in jail." Oscar nodded in agreement.
Dozens more people hugged Lex or shook his hand, repeating sentiments of happiness for his well-being. It was overwhelming. Gertrude swooped in last with a short hug, a spank on his ass, and pressed food into his hands. "Eat. You're skin and bones after that ordeal."
Lex found himself a corner and tucked into his meal with a smile never leaving his face. Around him, his friends continued talking and enjoying each other's company. He lifted a glass of hot cider in a toast of thanks to Bruce when he saw the man across the room. Bruce tipped his glass in return.
Lex didn't know the cause of the building's collapse, what would happen to the plant, or how long he would remain in Smallville. But he did know that, no matter what the future brought, he had made some real friends.
No bugs were found in the mansion the next morning.
The Black Rider adjusted the angle of the security camera so it looked down onto Wade Street and tightened the clamp. The thirty-seven year old was hoping to record footage of gang kids who kept vandalizing the block. Footsteps sounded on the rooftop behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder. "Superman," he greeted solemnly.
"Black Rider," Superman greeted in turn. His red cape swished around his ankles. His blue uniform clung to his muscular body like a second skin. The symbol of the House of El stood out proudly on his chest. "Batman sends his regards."
"What were you doing in Gotham?"
"Bothering Bruce." Clark grinned unrepentantly and leaned against the low brick wall surrounding the roof. A curl had escaped his slicked back hair and dangled over his forehead. "He wants to know if we're coming to the gala."
"I already sent the RSVP," Lex said. Satisfied with the camera angle, he switched on the power and packed up his bag. "I have two more cameras to set, then I'm done for the night."
"I'll do a quick sweep and meet you at home." Clark straightened. "Do you want me to pick up some calzones?"
"Sounds good," Lex said. "I'll see you in a bit."
Superman took flight with a rush of air. The Black Rider picked up his bag and looked out over his city - one of the safest cities in America. Dark skyscrapers reached valiantly for the stars. Family residences were shrouded in sleep. Factories puffed in the industrial center with third shift workers. Club goers danced the remaining hours away. The sounds of traffic, music, and conversation drifted up from below.
Satisfied, the Black Rider turned, headed down the stairs, and disappeared into the night.