It had been three days since the funeral, give or take. Past counting the minutes sliding by, past counting the hours; almost past counting the days. The shimmers at the edges of his vision were familiar companions by now, friendly phantoms; and every step he took seemed over an abyss, uncertain if his foot would fall on solid floor or empty space.
"You know, even you have to sleep sometime, Lex," Mercy had reminded him, before she had beat a reluctant and necessary retreat. Three days was her limit. Two hairs had escaped her plait by then, blonde strands hanging over her face. If she didn't eschew makeup she could have hidden the bags under her bloodshot eyes. "Get me when you're ready to head home, got it?" and she had put her hand on his shoulder, which he had shrugged off before it occurred to him what an atypical gesture it was from his bodyguard.
But Mercy hadn't said anything else, had just gone down to crash in the break room on the floor below, leaving him alone in his penthouse office with no company but the latest cup of coffee, now standing empty on the corner of his desk. Too much to do, as always. He had deals to approve, negotiations to advance, appointments to meet, plots to plan.
Though there were gaps in his agenda, the public one and the secret one; hours blocked out for encounters scheduled months in advance, now free. More vacation than he had seen in a decade. The missile hijacking he had been orchestrating for weeks, scheduled for today, was cancelled instead. What a performance it would have been, but the show was over now, the final curtain call three days passed, and he was standing on the darkened stage, alone.
"Aren't you done yet, Lex? Ready to go home?" but no, there was no time to waste. He had a city to rebuild after Doomday's rampage. To say nothing of the memorial dedications, charity banquets In Honor Of, a dozen other obligations. His secretary had forwarded him the most significant invites before leaving for the evening.
The words of the emails were trembling on the computer screen like leaves in a breeze. His hands over the keyboard were shaking, too. Too much caffeine. It was a delicate balance. Lex got up from his desk, went to the bottles standing on the open cabinet shelf and poured a double scotch, neat. The decanter was two-thirds empty. Mercy's doing, probably, that it hadn't been refilled. "You shouldn't drink so much, Lex," but Mercy wouldn't say that, not so directly; and it wasn't Mercy's voice in his head.
He tipped back the glass, drained it in one long untasting swallow and poured a second. Went back to his desk, but stopped before he sat down. Beyond the picture window, the sinking sun was level with the tops of the tallest buildings, striking sparks of gold off Metropolis's steel and glass turrets. In the daytime the city was polished and bright as a cut diamond; at night it danced and sparkled to outshine the stars; but now it was on fire. His eyes stun from the burning of it, that anything could be so beautiful.
To that beauty he raised his glass, amber liquid catching amber light, empty skies reflected in the curve of crystal.
Before he could say anything, if he could find anything to say, he heard the click of the office door opening, and then a cough, too gruff and embarrassed to be Mercy. "Sorry, Mr. Luthor, sir," mumbled the intruder, in custodial blues, LexCorp employee tags hanging off one front pocket. "Didn't realize anyone was still up here, this late today—"
"It's no trouble. Come in." Lex beckoned him inside with the hand not holding the scotch.
The man hesitantly wheeled in his cart of buckets and spray bottles. "It's okay, sir, I can finish once you're gone—I was just trying to get done early, make the evening service."
"That's quite all right," Lex squinted at the employee badge, "Mr. Souder." He indicated his glass in hand. "You're hardly disturbing anything important. Would you care for some yourself?"
Souder blinked at him. "Um, no, thanks, Mr. Luthor. Not on a Sunday before church."
"Ah, of course not. Excuse me." Souder, Richard, read the tag. Lex searched his memory. There were a couple Souders in his employ, and at least one with ties to more than LexCorp, but whether that was this man, or another...he couldn't recall the name. Richard, Robert, Roger...
"Forget it, sir. Um." The man picked up a rag and a blue spray bottle and then stood there looking at Lex helplessly, like a student in the back row unexpectedly called on by the teacher. "So, uh...you're not going to any services today?" Then he shook his head, mumbled, "No, I mean, I don't mean anything, not trying to pry, wouldn't dream—"
Lex realized the man was unnerved by his employer's steady gaze. He looked away instead, to the tumbler in his hand, the play of setting sunlight on the liquor. "No," he said, "I'm not going to any services."
It came out bitter, only a hint, not enough for anyone to think it rude; such a slight suggestion that it might only be imagined, but he let more slip out, a trickle of acerbic expression flavoring the bland words. "As touching and inspiring as the memorial service was, I felt myself fulfilled without the need to prolong it."
"I heard you speak at the funeral, Mr. Luthor. It was awfully inspiring," Souder said. Crouched before the desk to polish the onyx front to a black mirror finish, he sounded more comfortable, being busy and mostly out of Lex's line of sight. "The wife says it's reopening the wound, having more services today. But it is the first Sunday after..."
"People need the chance to deal with their grief, naturally," Lex said.
"People just need to deal. For him to be gone, just like that—can't get over that myself. Didn't think it could be possible, for something to just kill him, easy as any of us."
"It's amazing how easily people accept the impossibility of immortality," Lex said. "Show the masses a flying man fallen from the stars, and they'll believe in anything." He set the glass down on the desk, crystal chiming against the black surface, the undrunk scotch splashing inside. "Dress up a myth in bright colors and positive press, and no one will even think to doubt it. And now the nation, the world, is in paroxysms of grief for the death of a legend. It's not the hero they're mourning; they're crying for their lost innocence, the shattered illusion of invulnerability, of absolute protection. Children wailing because their mother has left them alone."
It was a pretty speech, one intended for a different audience than a lone janitor. Souder had sat up to stare at him over the top of the desk, heavy eyebrows climbed high into his thatch of brown hair.
Lex could hear the echo of his own voice, the cool resonance of it, mannered veneer just smoothed over a supercilious arrogance. Children, emphasized just so; nothing overt, of course, nothing that could be quoted against him; but it would fall on the few ears tuned to that particular frequency of pride and ambiguity. A speech over dinner, perhaps, timed in the right lull of conversation to carry; and afterwards one or two people would approach him. They would cast their inquiry between subtle barbs or flirtatious wit, verifying that Lex Luthor was not as non-partisan about the superhero phenomenon as his company's press implied. And he would take them into his confidence, gain their trust, learn their secrets...
They had had the idea for years—only a notion, not a plan, nothing serious, not when he wouldn't go along with it—It's not worth it, Lex; for it to work I'd need to stay out of sight for days, and what good could I do then?
The Death of Superman. Just an idea they had idly batted about, that Lex had kept bringing up now and again. Maybe he could plant a rumor during a long off-world mission. It wouldn't have to be definite. No dramatic faked catastrophe; rumor alone would suffice. Turn off the light and see what snuck in under the cover of darkness, what emerged with the hero gone.
Lex had imagined a few conversations, composed a few speeches. The drama was too good not to contemplate.
Just an idea; never a real plan. This wasn't planned, not scheduled on any agenda, even the most private and secret. There were no secrets here; no hoax to monitor, no gossip to channel. Just the bare stark facts open to everyone. Dozens of TV cameras had been aimed over the city that day a week ago; the images were caught on video and film and indelibly fixed in the minds' eye of hundreds of witnesses. Printed on millions of pages of newsprint around the world, broadcast on never-ending loops and downloaded in streams of terabytes a second.
Lex didn't need to watch the news, didn't need to pick up a paper. With his eyes closed or his eyes open, he saw blood, the broken body and bruised and battered face.
"Mr. Luthor?" The custodian had stood, rag forgotten in one hand, staring at him. "What you were saying just now..."
Souder, who might be a plant, hired eyes of one of half a dozen organizations. In that case, this was an important performance, giving proof that Lex Luthor had not forgotten his true goals no matter what appropriate face he put on for the media. His widely broadcast memorial speech would have disturbed some of his less savvy associates, who might mistake bombastic sentimentalism for genuine sentiment.
Or else Souder was only a janitor, now confused, maybe suspicious; Richard Souder, who hadn't even thought his employer would be here tonight, trying to finish early to band with the rest of the city for a final fling of grief, before they set aside the fairy tale and went on with their lives.
Two options, and simple enough to play to either of them. A few words to establish his role, benevolent businessman or confident criminal. Usually he wouldn't even have to think about it.
But there was nothing in his mind now but white noise. Game over, and he was tired of playing it. Maybe he had been tired of it for years and hadn't noticed, too caught up in the rush.
He felt like he was falling, a nauseating swoop of dizziness. He had lived with that vertigo for more than three days now, but this was the first time he had lost his balance, and he flailed, reaching for an anchor, illusory stability when everything was tumbling down with him anyway.
His hand slammed down on the desktop harder than he intended, but the impact caught his stumble, jarred him awake. Souder jumped at the slap. Lex gave him an apologetic smile, tilted his head toward the glass of scotch. The obvious explanation, a classic excuse, and Souder's face cleared, understanding overwriting his puzzled expression.
Convenient. The man could report back to his other employers, or share with his friends, 'Yeah, Mr. Luthor, he's as human as the next man, when he has a few in him.' The businessman's reputation would need that humanizing element, after skipping the services today.
"Mr. Souder," Lex said, "why don't you hold off and just finish up here tomorrow? I won't tell anyone. If you head home now, you should be able to make the eight o'clock vigil outside St. Mark's." Nearest to the memorial, it would be the largest in the city.
Souder blinked at him. Lex nodded, and the man hurriedly returned his rag and bottle to his cart. "Uh, okay. Thank you, sir. Very much."
He pushed his cleaning cart out, only to stop in the office doorway and look back. "Um, Mr. Luthor? What you were, uh, saying before, and the..." He motioned vaguely at the scotch. "All this, I won't be talking about it with anybody. It's like you say, everybody needs the chance to deal. It's hard for everyone now. And you'd actually met him before. I mean, to most of us, he was the hero, we loved him, but he wasn't real to us, not exactly. But you knew him."
"Only a passing acquaintance," Lex said. Thought he said: he could feel his tongue shape the words; could feel the vibration of his voice in his throat, calmly cool without catching or breaking, the assurance of a lifetime's practiced control.
He could hear nothing. Not his own voice. Just the blood rushing in his ears, like the roar of wind when you were falling.
No one to catch him, if he fell. But he had no plans to fall.
No plans now, just a schedule already rewritten.
Souder was saying something; Lex saw his mouth move. Actor on a stage too far away for the sound to carry, but he could read his lips. "I understand, sir."
What do you understand, Souder?
Lex stopped himself in time, before it slipped out, unintended, unscripted. Not the line of any role, businessman or criminal. Instead he said, "Excuse me, Mr. Souder. As you say, it's...been a difficult time."
Souder nodded, brushed his fingers to his hairline in a sketch of a salute. "'Evening, Mr. Luthor. I'll be back to finish up here first thing tomorrow. And thank you, sir."
The door shut behind him as the janitor left. Convinced, or else only confused. But then, Souder was grieving; he wouldn't be thinking clearly. Emotions running high, more likely to accuse but more likely to forgive as well. He would be sympathetic to a man who seemingly shared his feelings; the whole city, the whole world, was bonding over their common tragedy. Putting aside their differences to wallow together in mutual loss.
Not a dry eye in the house. The world was draped in sackcloth black, and the city was crying.
Lex understood now. Always the hero—that was why you wouldn't do this, wouldn't ever consider this plan. You wouldn't betray their trust, wouldn't willingly invoke such pain. Couldn't do this to your fans.
The sun outside the window was almost down to the horizon, the clouds blazing. The sky over Metropolis was empty. Filled with brilliant colors, violets and oranges, but there was no flutter of clashing scarlet red between the skyscrapers.
His hand was shaking again as he picked up the scotch glass from the desk. Sleep deprivation was taking its toll. He couldn't stop those tremors, even when he closed his eyes and drew a breath.
Souder had turned down his offer of a drink, but others wouldn't be as respectful; many glasses would be raised tonight. He had invitations more private than anything on his computer or in his mail. At the memorial service Bobby Feretti had winked at him in full view of half a dozen reporters—Feretti always had been an idiot. Even if everyone had been too tear-blinded to notice anyway.
There would be more services tonight than the public, politically correct events. Feretti would be making toasts, triumphant, and he wouldn't be the only one at those exclusive celebrations. Not everyone wore black sincerely, and some of the tears so generously shed of late were from suppressed laughter.
Lex should put in an appearance. He had fulfilled the capitalist benefactor's duties to the city; he had other responsibilities to meet. Roles to play. Lex Luthor had his own followers, sycophants and allies who were expecting something of him in this victorious moment. A more fitting memorial than his public grandstanding. They were waiting for it, waiting to follow his lead; surprising honor among thieves, and worse criminals.
If nothing like the hero's most loyal supporters. It took a greater power than money or influence to gain such believers as those fools who cried that the vigils were too soon, that the hero might still return, that they would never be abandoned.
You couldn't do this to them. Wouldn't ever.
The tumbler cracked against the window pane without marking the bulletproof window, unsatisfyingly. Shards of expensive crystal littered the carpet and the scotch splattered on the clear pane dripped down, rivulets cast into molten gold by the setting sunlight. Something more for Souder to clean up tomorrow. Another story for him to tell.
Unplanned, but Lex had no plans. The game was over, and what was he doing now? Solitaire, self-indulgence. The scotch continued to drip, puddling on the carpet, and Lex stared through that amber film to the sunset. His eyes ached from the force of the light. They were dry, when he blinked. No tears need be shed for the casual acquaintance. None needed for the defeated enemy, either.
He left the broken glass, returned to the liquor cabinet. He was reaching for a new tumbler when he saw it, red and yellow refracted in the crystal facets of the waiting glasses.
Lex pushed aside the clinking tumblers. The shot glass was much shorter than the glassware around it, placed in the far back so as not to be visible until a few glasses were lifted away. Pouring drinks for a couple of his late-night, off-the-books visitors, he would have found it; probably not before.
Lex picked up the shot glass, turned it around in his hand. He had never seen it before. It was a novelty piece, a couple bucks' worth of cheap molded glass hidden among hundred-dollar crystalware, printed with paint that would peel after a few washes. A tourist's souvenir of Metropolis's most famous icon.
A collector's piece now; they weren't on sale anymore. Nothing this vulgar would sell in the current climate of mourning.
This must have been bought a week or two ago. It couldn't have been here much longer than that, or he would have found it already. The trap had probably been set for Lex's clandestine meeting with Samson Edge, one of his least reputable acquaintances. He was supposed to have come yesterday, at midnight; one of a dozen cancelled appointments, but Lex knew how it would have happened. "May I get you something to drink, gentlemen?" and then Lex would have been looking at Superman's crest, stamped in tacky red and yellow.
He would have looked at the shot glass, and known that Clark was hovering outside the window, just out of sight, waiting for the moment his trap was sprung. Would have been able to feel Clark's eyes on him, feel his smile through the night's dark. The hero would have grinned invisibly, as Lex Luthor swallowed and went on maintaining the proper demeanor before Edge and his men. He was the villain of the piece, regardless of what ridiculous mementos had been planted among his props.
This was the game, always the game—only a game, and Clark would never let him forget that, no matter how deep they both had to play it.
Oh, the payback he would have had coming after this—if Clark had thought the Kryptonian cloth-eating bacteria were problematic...
In his mind's eye he could see Clark's fingers clasped around this little glass, deftly reaching over the tumblers to place it so carefully out of sight, a touch of superspeed in a moment Lex's back was turned. Nine days ago, Clark had stood in his office, in full costume—not an official visit, no audience, just dropping by, he had said. Had given Lex a smile Lex hadn't been able to interpret, that he only understood now.
In his mind's eye he could as clearly see Clark's wide grin after Edge was gone and they were alone together. Clark, picking up the absurd trinket from where Lex would have shoved it aside, proffering it to Lex, so their fingers would touch over the cool glass. "It was totally worth it, the look on your face, Lex..."
The shot glass burst against the onyx side of his desk, with not the ring of crystal but the clashing crash of cheap glassware. The tumblers shattered after it, then the decanters, the bottles behind them, splashing the rug with spreading stains, burying the broken pieces of painted red and yellow in sparkling shards.
The chorus of smashing glass stopped when the shelf was empty. Lex found himself breathing hard, staring at the pile of broken crystal and liquor like he couldn't remember where it had come from.
His office door was unlocked, and not all his employees had left for the day. Someone could enter at any moment, and what could he tell them? An accident. My hand slipped. My mask slipped.
He had more than enough he had to do now. People to convince, performances to arrange. The show must go on.
He couldn't stay here any longer. Not with these broken props. Not on this empty stage.
A couple of the bottles had shattered so hard that scattered glass cracked when he took a step back, ground into the rug under his shoes. It would be a difficult job, cleaning up all the pieces.
Mercy had instructed him to get her when he was going home. He wasn't going home. Not back to the penthouse, empty halls, empty bedroom. Empty sky outside the window.
He went to the garage alone, and rolled up the tinted windows so the guard in the booth couldn't see inside when he passed the gate.
He lowered them when he was beyond Metropolis's city limits, out on the open highway and past the worst traffic. He pressed his foot down on the accelerator and let the wind scream in his ears, louder than the deafening rush of blood. Until he was going so fast he might be flying, might be falling, an endlessly long fall through the bottomless Kansas twilight.
But it ended after all, unintended, as unexpected as tumbling off a skyscraper and being swept up in impossibly strong arms. It wasn't a superhero who caught him. Only a yellow farmhouse, with a friendly warm glow shining in the windows, bright gold treasure in the dark fields.
Lex braked in the driveway, blinking at the house, not knowing how he had gotten here. He might have been driving for ten minutes, or ten days. His eyes were dry and gritty from the wind and he was dizzy when he climbed out of the car, lightheaded from sitting too long, leaning on the car door for balance.
He stumbled on the porch steps. Stopped there, halfway up, halfway to the door. Through it he could faintly hear a buzz of sound, the steady stream of vocal noise from a television set.
He had seen the Kents at the memorial service, had seen to it that they were seated in the first row, next to Lois. Representatives of the everyday citizens' grief for their fallen hero. No one need know of their more personal connection. That wasn't about preserving a secret identity, but simple mercy, sparing them from cameras and questions and microphones forced into their faces. Eventually the truth might come out, but it could wait.
He hadn't spoken to Jonathan and Martha then. He had met their eyes once during his speech, when he talked of Superman's humanity for all his alien nature; their reddened eyes and wet faces had said more than all his carefully prepared and canted words. Meant infinitely more than any picture-perfect performance, and what he had felt then was so far beyond guilt that he didn't know the word for it. Remorse for which no penitence could be offered.
After the service it had been no difficulty to avoid the Kents, losing them in the crowd. He had half expected them to come to the LexCorp office afterwards, or to call in the following days. He had felt nothing but relief when they did not.
He worried for them, dealing with the unfathomable pain of losing their child. Now, hearing the lifeless hum of a TV set inside, where usually there would be happy, living voices, the sounds of a family, whole and beautiful—he worried, and yet he had been selfishly grateful not to face them. To avoid that performance. What would they want to see? Should he make a show of mourning, squeeze out a few tears? Would they take comfort in seeing their pain echoed, or would that be an insult to their own honest grief?
Or might it be easier for them to see him as the enemy, in the end; gloating triumph, sparing them any reason to offer him sympathy. For ten years he had played at being their son's lover, but he could tell them now how it had been a game. Could convince them of it, show them how their hard-won trust was undeserved after all. Their anger and hatred might be less painful in the end than their grief. For them. For him.
Lex had no right to be here now. Not to be standing on their porch steps, even now undecided. Pick a direction. Pick a mask. And go with it. For ten years he had played this game; he could keep it up for a little longer.
The evening breeze rustled through the surrounding fields, carrying the pungent scents of fertilizer and hay, earth and green leaves, the smells of growing things. He had last come here a few months ago, when the ground was still frost-bound. He had been with Clark then. Clark had knocked on the door and his mother and father had welcomed them inside, with the same smiles for Lex that they gave their son. "It's good to see you boys," Martha had said; "You should come around more often," Jonathan had said, "the fresh air does everyone good."
He had no right to be here. Not when he lacked the will to climb the last two steps, to knock on the door himself, alone.
It had taken him five years to tell the Kents that he loved their son. It had taken ten years after that to murder their son, and how much longer would it take for him to tell them that?
He had to tell them; he owed them that much. He owed them anything, more than he could ever pay. Than anyone could pay; what price could be put on a mother's child, a father's son? And yet he stood on their porch steps and did not move. Not even afraid. Just weak.
He had always thought himself strong enough to play their game—if Superman could wear a mask, then so could he; but his strength had only been another performance, the mask now smashed and useless. Game over, and no one had won; no one could win, ever again.
The TV was on too loud, and old enough that the hum of its tube was giving Jonathan a headache. He didn't want to say anything, though. Martha wasn't much more for watching television than he was. She wasn't looking to waste time now; she must have another reason. So Jonathan didn't say anything, just turned his head away. Closed his eyes and leaned back on the sofa next to his wife, pretending to doze.
It was harder to close his ears, however, as Martha flipped through the channels. There were commercials, and a few specials, dramatic family shows, dumb cartoons. The usual. But most of the channels were playing the news now, and the news was all about Metropolis's candlelight vigils, and the other special services and events all over the world. One vigil was on Smallville's main street. He was glad they lived too far away to see any of its light.
Jonathan thought that maybe he was an ungrateful son of a bitch, that when he saw these services, all the tear-streaked faces of strangers lit by wavering yellow flames, he felt sick with a burning, resentful ache in the pit of his stomach. He should be honored, shouldn't he; touched by the displays. Instead he wanted to scream at them, all of the millions—billions—who were in mourning, without even knowing who they were really mourning for.
That's my son, he wanted to scream. His son, who they had never met. Maybe they had seen him on TV or in the papers, but they hadn't really ever looked at him, just the costume. Just the hero, not the man.
Billions of mourners, but only a few of them had ever truly known Clark. Yet there were black banners all over Smallville—Jonathan hadn't expected that. Superman had been sighted in the area a few times, but not enough to really stand out, not enough for anyone to make the connection. But he had made a difference, and that was what counted.
He hadn't expected it, and hadn't expected how difficult it was to hear his neighbors talking about Superman's loss, without being able to say anything. After thirty years of lying, it should have gotten easier. Not worse.
No one had asked them about Clark yet, but Jonathan was sure that was only a matter of time. Clark Kent was something of a minor celebrity in town, the Metropolis reporter, Superman's personal friend. Lois had been telling some story or other about where her coworker was—Jonathan hadn't been paying attention to the details, some kind of emergency trip to Africa, or Asia, or somewhere. A trip he might not come back from.
They would have to have a funeral for Clark, eventually. But Jonathan couldn't think of that. Not now, only three days after the other memorial service.
He wondered if he would ever be able to think of it. If it would stop hurting this much.
The current reporter's grating male voice was almost loud enough for him to miss Martha's soft sigh. Jonathan opened his eyes, looked over and his wife was crying, tears running down her cheeks, even as she leaned forward, still watching the television with the remote in hand. The screen showed banners held over chanting crowds, not black, but red and blue with yellow block letters: 'Keep the faith,' 'He will return,' 'Superman will always save us!'
Clark, Jonathan wanted to tell them. His name wasn't Superman. It was Clark.
"Martha," he said, helplessly, put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her against his side. "Martha, sweetie, turn that off, we don't need to watch this..."
Instead she changed the channel, to a minister addressing another crowd, thousands of white candles burning around his stage. "—not grieve for our abandonment, but be grateful that he came to us—" The mayor of Metropolis was standing next to the man, along with two state senators. It must be great publicity. The thought made Jonathan sicker. He hated thinking so cynically but he knew politicians too well.
"He's not there," Martha said, her voice thick with more tears. "After his speech at the memorial, I thought he'd be at one of the vigils, but he's not. They'd be showing him, if he were there."
"Who?" and then he got it. "You mean, Lex?" Jonathan glanced at the TV again. No, Lex Luthor hadn't been making a spectacle at any of the events shown thus far. He would be on every channel, if he wanted to be seen. "He probably had something else to do tonight."
Privately he wondered if Lex might be as disturbed as Jonathan himself was by these displays. Not that Lex would admit it, and not that he would let it stop him; but there had been something...off about him, at the memorial service. His speech had been fine enough, but lacking. Cold, really; so damn formal. It hadn't surprised anyone else, of course; the papers had all praised his eloquence. Lex Luthor, Metropolis's mogul prince, had been chosen to speak because he was one of the city's most influential representatives, not because of any personal ties to Superman.
Maybe it had thrown Jonathan because he had expected more, had thought grief might jar a little genuine humanity out of Lex's facade. He should have known better. In the last ten years he couldn't once recall seeing Lex's mask slip in public. Hell, it had taken long enough for him to drop it around them, and more than once Jonathan wondered if he wasn't just putting on yet another show for their benefit.
"We should've gone to him after the memorial, Jonathan," Martha said. "He could have come back with us and Lois."
"He'll call us when he's ready, Martha. He's got to be busy now," Jonathan told her, as he had been telling himself.
It was an excuse. Truth be told, he had no desire to see Lex Luthor now. LexCorp's CEO wasn't any particular friend of theirs, and the supervillain even less; neither was a man he would willingly invite into his home.
And the other man, the man hidden behind those two infamous performances—Lex Luthor, his son's best friend, his partner in every way that implied...it was terrible of Jonathan, selfish as anything, but seeing Lex alone would underline everything missing, for Martha and for himself. An undeniable reminder, proof of their loss, when they had never met that hidden Lex without Clark beside him.
If that Lex even still existed; if he had ever been anything more than another performance, put on for Clark.
"He might need us," Martha said. "Lex is part of our family, we can't forget that now."
Clark had always insisted that Lex's acts were just that, acts. Costumes, as much as the cape and tights were for Clark. But Clark had always been so eager to accept any explanation, so anxious to see the best of anyone. Even when it was risking himself, putting his heart on the line if not his invulnerable body, he hadn't hesitated to forgive, to love. Jonathan wished he could take credit for it, but he knew himself too well. That generosity came from the example of Martha's beautiful heart, and the amazing spirit Clark had been born with.
Clark, who had risked his body, too, for the world he loved as much as he loved any one soul. And he hadn't been invulnerable. A billion candles lit around the world tonight gave testament to that.
Jonathan felt his throat close over, as it had so many times in the last week, leaned his head against his wife's and shut his eyes. It wasn't that he was embarrassed to cry; no man should feel shame, crying for his son. But how many tears could you cry before it stopped being about your loved one, and became about yourself?
If Clark could have been that generous—too generous—his father could be no less. "Martha," Jonathan said, clearing his throat, "I'm going to go make sure everything's set for the night. And then we can try to get hold of Lex, if he's letting any calls through."
Martha nodded, wiped her own eyes and raised the remote to click off the television. "Good," she said, and touched his face, her fingers to his lips. "Thank you."
Jonathan almost managed to smile, leaned in to kiss his wife, taking comfort in her familiar warmth. "I love you," he told her.
"Love you, too," she answered, and she was strong enough give him a real smile back, even though her cheeks were streaked with shining tracks.
He went out the back door, walked through the barn forcing himself not to linger. The animals were all settled—Clemens and his boys were trustworthy hands, even if the three of them would never equal one Clark. Jonathan made sure the door was latched, dusted off his hands and started back for the house.
He only just noticed the car in the driveway, parked in the shadows behind their truck, a low, sleek vehicle that hadn't been there when he had gone in for dinner. But he hadn't heard anyone pull up when he was in the barn. Frowning, Jonathan made his way around front.
No need to wonder whose car it could be; in all his years in Smallville only one man had ever driven anything like that Ferrari. Yet Jonathan still was taken aback somehow to see the figure sitting on the porch steps, wrapped in a black coat and his head dropped down, the front light shining over his bare scalp.
Lex didn't move, not until Jonathan was standing on the bottom step, repeating, "Lex? What're you doing out here?"
Then his shoulders jerked, like someone startled awake, and his head came up. He squinted at Jonathan, swallowed and asked, "Jonathan?" Blinking, he struggled to his feet. Jonathan extended a hand toward him but Lex didn't take it, grabbing for the porch railing instead to pull himself upright. "My apologies," he said, "I didn't hear you—"
"Lex," Jonathan cut him off, "how long have you been out here? Why the heck didn't you just knock?"
"I'm not sure," Lex said. The angle of the porch light made the shadows under his eyes look dark as bruises. His voice was as composed as ever, though, all sophisticated confidence. "To be honest, I wasn't intending to stay, I only—"
He took a step down but stumbled; Jonathan couldn't see what Lex tripped on, but saw him start to fall and moved to steady him. To catch him; Lex swayed, then sagged, most of his weight on Jonathan for a moment, before he caught himself and straightened up.
"Lex?" Jonathan asked, keeping his arm around Lex's shoulders. "Are you drunk?"
Lex's eyes, half-closed, were bloodshot; but he smelled more of cologne and asphalt than scotch. "Not exactly," he said, smooth and unslurred. "I'm sorry, I'm fine, I assure you. I'll just be going—"
"You're not going anywhere," Jonathan told him. He didn't let go when Lex tried to pull away, instead prodded him up the rest of the steps, raising his voice to call inside, "Martha! We don't need to make that call after all, look what the cat dragged in."
Martha opened the door for them and helped tug Lex inside. He was too well-mannered to resist—or else too tired. In brighter light, the dark circles under his eyes were more pronounced, but it went deeper than that, or his wan face. His cheeks were hollowed, like someone starving, and there was a feverish glitter to his gray eyes that made Jonathan want to check his temperature.
Martha didn't resist that impulse; she pressed her hand to his forehead, asked anxiously, "Lex, are you all right? Are you ill?"
"I'm fine," Lex said again. "No need to concern yourself—"
"We're already concerned," Jonathan said. The sick feeling in his stomach now wasn't resentment but guilt. Martha had been right; they should have tried to get in touch with him sooner. "You look like hell. What have you been doing to yourself?"
Lex's eyes flashed like silver coins turned toward light. His tone stayed even, though. "You shouldn't be bothering with me; there's other—"
"When's the last time you slept?" Martha asked over him. "Or had a decent meal? Sit down, I'm going to go heat you some leftovers. I know you never eat right."
She pushed him down onto the couch and bustled off to the kitchen, leaving it to Jonathan to hold him in place. Not that Lex looked like he would be standing again anytime soon. A stiff breeze could have knocked him down and kept him there as easily. The look he gave Jonathan was less assured businessman, more hapless prisoner. Trapped.
"Give it up," Jonathan advised him. "You're going to get taken care of whether you like it or not. You should've known that before you came."
"I'm quite capable of taking care of myself," Lex said, too coolly to be affronted.
"That's not what Clark tells us," Jonathan said without thinking, and immediately regretted it twice over. Once because of the crush of grief gripped around his own heart, and he could only hope Martha hadn't overheard.
Twice because Lex went white like he had been poisoned. His lips moved for a moment without a sound; then he lurched to his feet. "I should being going. Please give my apologies to Martha."
"No. And sit back down before you fall down," Jonathan told him, catching Lex's arm as he staggered, forcing him sitting again.
Lex stared at him blankly. His voice was low and expressionless. "I can't be here."
"Tough," Jonathan said. "You're in no condition to drive." It was a miracle he had made it here from Metropolis intact without running anyone over on the way. Jonathan lowered his voice. Martha was clattering pots and dishes in the kitchen; she might not hear. "Seriously, Lex, have you slept since the memorial service?"
Lex didn't answer, just looked at him. Jonathan ran his hand over his face. "Jesus, have you slept at all since...since that day?"
At that, Jonathan saw Lex's gray eyes change, become a different man's. It was spooky how he could do that, like Clark putting on his glasses, only with Lex it was nothing so tangible, if just as obvious. "I have too many important things to do to be wasting time now—elsewhere, or here," Lex said, his calm cool freezing to hard ice. "Beyond the damage dealt by Doomsday, Metropolis is still reeling from Superman's death. I'd be amiss if I didn't take advantage of that."
It wasn't just the villain's words, the villain's cold tone; it was the way he spoke without hesitation. Everyone else paused, as if afraid saying death would make it even more true; but Lex Luthor said it like it meant nothing. Like he felt nothing.
All the anger in Jonathan should have flared up at that moment, should have exploded out. A welcome release of the shouts and rages he had been bottling up for days, and his target would have deserved anything thrown at him, words or fists.
Instead, looking at Lex, at Lex's gray, composed face; and the way he had folded his hands together to hide how they were shaking, Jonathan felt it all leave him. He was too tired to be angry, almost too tired to cry. Almost as exhausted as Lex looked. "Not Superman," Jonathan said quietly, as he had been needing to say for days. "Clark's death. The memorial service was for Superman, but it was Clark we buried. Our son, not just some famous hero no one really knew. Not just a costume and a symbol. Clark."
He was crying again, felt the tears trickling down without shame.
Lex wasn't. "Regardless, I can't be wasting my time here," he said again, like he hadn't heard a word, or cared if he had, with his eyes glittering hard and dry.
"This is right where you should be," Jonathan told him. "Martha needs you—she needs someone else to take care of, because that's easier on her than taking care of herself. And you need taking care of—damn it, Lex, you think Clark would forgive us, if we let you do this to yourself?"
"Forgive you?" Lex laughed. It was a terrible, terrifying sound, because it sounded real, as real as anything. Like he was genuinely amused. Entertained by Jonathan's sympathy. "As if he could ever forgive me, for doing this to you."
"And what are you doing to us? We can spare some leftovers."
"I lost him." Lex pushed away, pushed himself again to his feet, then swung around to lean down towards Jonathan. "Superman, Clark, your son," he said, precisely and without hesitation. "Whatever you want to call him. I murdered him. Doomsday might have dealt the final blow, but it was me behind it."
Jonathan blinked, clearing his eyes to see Lex's face. There was no apology in his voice, and the smile contorting his lips was frighteningly triumphant. The villain, come here to gloat over the hero's defeat.
It looked real. Convincing. But Jonathan knew better. Maybe five or ten years ago he would have bought it, but Clark had known better, and so did he. "It wasn't your plan, Lex," Jonathan said with certainty. "Clark would've told us, if you had been planning something like this with him."
"So it wasn't our plan—wasn't mine—what does that matter? It was our game." Lex laughed again. "My game—my victory. I'm the winner, you know. The one left standing. If he'd never played—just imagine if he'd listened to you, instead of to me, when I told him to play it, to put on that costume, to act as the hero—"
"If you'd never asked Clark to become a superhero, he still would have become one." Martha was standing in the doorway. She put the tray she was carrying down on the coffee table and faced Lex, looked the villain in the eye, sad but unafraid. "Maybe there wouldn't have been a Superman, without your game, but that just means he would have been called something else. And when Doomsday came," Martha swallowed, "whenever he came, wherever he came from, Clark would've fought him. You know that, Lex, honey. Because you knew Clark as well as we did. Whatever games you played with him, whatever games you have to keep playing now—what you had with him, that was real."
"Real?" Lex took a stumbling step back, away from both of them. Then he drew himself up and his expression twisted into a parody of a smirk, his voice a parody of cruel condescension. "You honestly think any of it was real—do you think I even know what real means anymore? You actually believe I meant it when I told your son I loved him? I haven't cried for him, you know. I haven't shed a single real tear—"
"You know what's real, son," Jonathan said, not taking a step forward, not taking a step back, either. Not chasing him, not running away; this wasn't the time for games. Not anymore. "You wouldn't be here, if you didn't."
"I can't be here." Lex looked to Jonathan, to Martha. The trapped look was back in his eyes, a hunted desperation. "I can't—" His voice cracked.
"You can go, if you want to," Jonathan said, still not moving. "Or you can stay. Whatever you want—whatever you really want."
Something changed in Lex's eyes, broke apart, broke open. If Lex were wearing any mask now, then it was shattering before Jonathan's eyes. If he were wearing no mask... "I don't want..." Lex's voice was so hoarse it was barely a whisper. "I can't stop playing—"
"You don't have to, Lex," Martha told him softly. "Just take a break. For a little while."
Jonathan saw Lex's legs buckle, but his wife was closer, and moved faster. She caught him, sank with him to the floor, kneeling with her arms around him.
Lex was shuddering, his head down. "I can't stop—I don't want—can't let this be real..."
"Oh, honey," Martha murmured, rubbing his back, her cheeks wet again. "Oh, Lex, oh, honey..."
Jonathan crouched beside them, put his arms around his wife, around both of them. He couldn't tell if Lex was actually crying, even now. It didn't matter. His tears and Martha's were real enough for all three of them.
A ringing dissonance jarred Lex back to consciousness. He jerked up, only to be stopped by a hand on his arm. A cool, dry palm, calloused by fieldwork, but a gentle touch. Martha Kent. Her voice was soft, over that intermittent noise. "It's okay, Lex, Jonathan's getting it."
A telephone, Lex finally identified it; the Kents' old cordless, not his cellular. It couldn't be; he had turned it off. It was in his coat pocket, wherever his coat was. Somewhere downstairs. Martha had drawn it off him and taken it away, probably to hang in a closet, before pushing her chicken pot pie on him. She had watched him eat, shades of being ten years old again, with Pamela standing over him at the dinner table. No dessert until he finished his plate; but he stopped only half-done and Martha didn't say anything, not insulted by the rejection of her cooking.
Instead Jonathan had said, "Let's get you to bed, son," and had walked him up the stairs. Not like a child, even; like an invalid, standing close enough to be a crutch when he stumbled.
Lex hadn't said anything, had endured it, because there was nothing else he could do for them. If this was what they wanted, to think they were helping, to find comfort in the comforting of others, then he could give them that much, at least. Make them feel needed; it was an elementary exploitation tactic.
And small matter that the delicious food settled the heaving of his stomach, or that he couldn't have made it up the impossibly steep and tilting stairs without Jonathan's strong arm around him. Even with his eyes closed the room turned circles around him, the bed under him spinning and rocking like a raft adrift, until he thought he might slide off it. Thought he had slid off it, into the sea, a deep ocean, calm under the waves, and he was sinking into those quiet depths when the telephone's bright noise pulled him out.
The room was dark, the lights off and Martha only a shadowy form beside him; but Lex recognized Clark's room. He had been here enough times before, though he had never slept in this bed, too narrow for two. A boy's bed; a boy' room, kept intact for Clark's frequent visits. Now it was a shrine, a memorial. Clark's things surrounded him, his old computer, his old desk; shelves of the various diverse books that had caught Clark's attention of the years. Probably those included a few library books so overdue the record of them had been lost, knowing Clark. Superman's criminal youth.
Clark's pillow, under his head; Clark's sheets pulled over him. "Shh, go back to sleep, honey," Martha said to him, patting his shoulder soothingly. "You need the rest."
Down the hall Lex could hear Jonathan answering the phone, turned his head to listen. "Evening, Kents' resi—what? Mercy? Is that you?"
Martha also looked toward the door. "Yes," Jonathan said. "He's here. Showed up an hour or so. ...No, alone, pretty sure he drove himself. Yeah, we noticed. ...Don't worry, we won't let him have the keys back until tomorrow. Yeah—no, it's no trouble. None at all." Jonathan paused a little longer, then answered, "No, sorry. He's asleep. Yeah, out like a light. We can have him call you back tomorrow, first thing after he's up and eaten. ...Okay. Take care, Mercy. ...Yeah, you, too."
Lex dropped his head down on the pillow again, not closing his eyes, however heavy his lids were. "I'm sorry," he told Martha.
"It's no trouble, Lex," Martha told him. "You're welcome here at any time."
"No." If he closed his eyes he would be falling again. The darkness was pulling him down anyway, a yawning well like a black hole, an extra force of gravity under the bed. But he had to tell them. "No, I'm sorry about Clark. Your son. I shouldn't have come, I only came here to—"
"The only thing you have to apologize for," Martha said, "is not coming sooner. I understand how much you have to do, but you should never be too busy for family."
"Family?" His mind was as dark as the room. He couldn't think, couldn't follow this game. It had been too long since he had played it with his father, the loyalties of blood, filial fealty and betrayal.
"It's not a game. This shouldn't be a game." Clark's bed under him; Clark's arms around him, Clark's voice telling him, "This is family, Lex. I'm your family."
This was family: the Superman shot glass in his office, and shared laughter late at night, when no one would hear it. A superspeed kiss brushed over his lips, standing in the rubble of a building in front of three heroes, but too fast for anyone to see. Knocking on the farmhouse door and the Kents opened it, welcomed them in, smiling at both of them.
Clark holding him, years ago, before the cape, before the plots, before the game—just him and Clark, and Clark wouldn't let him go.
Gone now, lost; all that was left was the blood before his eyes, the image of that bruised and broken body behind his lids.
But there was nothing there now, when his eyes closed. Only darkness.
Martha Kent's voice, already inconceivably gentle, grew gentler still. "This is your home, Lex, now and always. Don't you forget that."
Further away in the blackness, near Martha, Jonathan was saying, "We're here for you, son," and the kindness with which he said it was the understanding he always had given his own son, that Clark had always been blessed with. Even though Clark was gone.
Clark was gone, but Jonathan called him son, as thirty years ago he had decided to call a boy fallen from the stars. Family, still and always. A family couldn't be lost, not forever, not when it could change, could grow and be added to. New parents, new children. New sons.
The game wasn't over, not if he decided it wasn't.
But for now, Lex was taking a break; he was falling, a long, long way into darkness, and while there was no hero to catch him, there yet were people to wake him before he hit bottom.