The power returned as suddenly as it had gone out, and Lex Luthor screamed through the mouthpiece like a tortured animal as electricity poured between the electrodes on his temples. Dr. Vargas scrambled for the controls, shutting off the ECT equipment. His heart pounded rapidly. He’d turned the voltmeter to its highest setting in efforts to get the machine to work, when the power had cut out. The younger Luthor had just received a dosage forty times the seizure threshold. Five times the threshold was the standard rate.
“Again.”Dr. Vargas lifted his horrified gaze from the twitching body on the table. Again? They couldn’t do it again without the patient suffering repercussions. The patient would have heavy side-effects as it was, from the first extreme dosage. Dr. Vargas wasn’t about to say that he’d made an error, though. “But, sir, the way this equipment is working, we should wait.”
Lionel Luthor’s sharp look felt like a knife pressed to his jugular. “Do it again.”
Dr. Vargas gulped and turned to the controls. He adjusted the dial to the lowest setting and flipped the switch.
Lex shrieked and the tempered glass wall of the medical theater room shattered. Dr. Vargas threw up his hands in protection from the glass splinters. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lionel fly across the room, smash into the back wall, and collapse onto the floor like a rag doll.
Lex’s body spasmed on the table in seizure, with a broken scream. Dr. Vargas jerked in fright when he was lifted off the ground, coming face-to-face with a wild-eyed young man. “Turn it off! Now!”
Dr. Vargas nodded quickly and was released. He slapped at the control panel and the machine went quiet. Lex’s body fell still.
“Lex? Lex?” Glass shards dropped from the young man’s messy, dark hair and shoulders as he leaned over Lex. Unmarred hands shook as he cupped Lex’s cheek. “Lex, wake up? Can you hear me?”
“ECT patients are usually unconscious for a time after treatment,” Dr. Vargas said cautiously. He almost wet himself when he was suddenly in the air again, dangling helplessly by the obscenely strong grip around his neck.
“You’d better be right,” the young man snarled, eyes glittering like red-hued diamonds. “Or I'll come back and fry your brain.”
Dr. Vargas wheezed and whimpered. He glanced at the camera mounted in the corner. Where was security?
Lionel made a sound and Dr. Vargas went flying through the air. His breath whooshed from his lungs and stars exploded in his vision when he hit the wall. The last thing he saw was the young man breaking the table restraints and the gentleness with which he picked up Lex Luthor before they both vanished in a blink.Security arrived, finally, just as Dr. Vargas’s world faded to black.
Clark Kent hurried up the steps to the loft and set Lex on the ratty sofa. The pale glow of the lamplight hollowed Lex’s slackened features. Twin smudges marred his temples where the electrodes had been, his skin branded with Clark's failure.
Clark’s knees thumped on the wood floor as he dropped beside the sofa. “Lex, wake up. You can wake up now. You’re safe.” He slapped Lex’s cheek lightly, and then harder in desperation. “Come on, Lex. This isn’t funny. Wake up.”Lex lay unresponsive, pink blooming on his cheeks where Clark hit him. Clark pressed his lips together and blinked hard against the sting in his eyes. He rubbed his thumb against the mark on Lex’s temple, fear and self-loathing leaving a vile taste in his mouth. If only he’d gone sooner, if only he’d kept his promise to help Lex.
The sight of Lex’s body jerking on the ECT table with his father standing there, watching impassively was etched into Clark’s mind, cementing his hatred for Lionel Luthor. Clark hadn’t thought, he’d reacted, breaking the glass, throwing Lionel into the wall, and forcing the doctor to stop the machine. He’d rescued Lex from that place of horror, but were his actions too little too late?
He wanted to get his parents, to have his mom tell him everything would be all right, but he knew he couldn’t and that was why he was in the loft instead of the house. A line had been drawn between them regarding Lex. They hadn’t wanted Clark to help Lex to begin with, let alone do anything to free him from Belle Reve. Clark had made his choice and would stick with it. He’d already run away from Lex once; he wouldn’t ever do it again.
That didn’t mean he knew what to do next. Lex was free and safe, but Clark had failed to prevent him from being hurt. Panic bled through him and he fumbled for the cell phone he’d shoved in his backpack. Chloe answered on the first ring. “Clark?”
“What were the side-effects again?”
Chloe caught on right away, with a gasp of sympathy. “You were too late?”
“Yes.” Clark closed his eyes and curled his free hand into a fist. On the backs of his eyelids, he could still see Lex being shocked.
“Oh no, Clark…”
“The side-effects, Chloe. What are the side-effects?”
“Memory loss is a given,” Chloe said, her voice slightly thickened with emotion. “Then there are nightmares, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, seizures, confusion, learning disabilities, EEG abnormalities, brain hemorrhages, comas, becoming a vegetable, and the possibility of brain death.”
Clark sank down onto the edge of the couch and placed his hand on Lex’s chest. He could feel Lex’s heart beating steadily beneath his palm. “How will we know which he’s got?”
“The doctors will probably monitor him at Belle Reve,” Chloe replied.
“He’s not at Belle Reve.”
“You broke him out?”
“I couldn’t just leave him there, Chloe.”
“But you said you were too late.”
“It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t going to leave him in the hands of his father.”
“Clark, they’re going to come after you. Lionel Luthor isn’t going to let you take his son and then not do anything about it, especially after all the effort he went through to commit Lex to begin with.”
“What was I supposed to do? They were frying Lex’s brain!”
“Clark, Lionel’s dangerous. You either have to give Lex back—”
“—or hide,” Chloe said. “You’re at home, right? You can’t stay there. That’s the first place he’ll look.”
She was right. How could he have been so stupid? Clark glanced anxiously at the wall of the barn, triggered his x-ray vision, and searched outside for approaching vehicles. “I didn’t think about it.”
“Well, you should have,” Chloe said.
“I was a little too occupied with getting to Lex before they shocked him, Chloe.”
“Which you didn’t do.”
“I know.” Clark clenched his jaw against the sharp spike of guilt. “Now, I owe it to Lex even more to protect him.”
“Then, you’d better run and hide, because Lionel’s not going to stop until he gets what he’s after.”
“That’s reassuring,” Clark muttered.
“It’s not meant to be,” Chloe said bluntly. “Lionel Luthor is rich, powerful, and ruthless. He went to extreme lengths to ensure the truth behind his parents’ deaths wouldn’t be credibly exposed. He’s not going to let you run off freely with a potential witness.”
“Where am I supposed to go?”
“Somewhere far away from Smallville and Metropolis. Lionel owns too many people around here.” Chloe took an audible breath. “And don’t tell me where you go. In fact, don’t call me or contact me in any way.”
Clark’s brow furrowed. “Why not?”
“I can’t help Lionel if I don’t know anything,” Chloe said.
“Why would you help Lionel?”
“I’m just making sure that I can’t,” Chloe said. “Now, go already. Stay safe. Get Lex checked out by a doctor if you can. I’ll throw out some false leads on your whereabouts.”
“Thanks, Chloe,” Clark said. “Tell Pete that I had to do this. I don’t think he’ll understand, but he should at least know the truth.”
“Will do. Good luck, Clark.”
“Bye.” Clark terminated the call and stared blankly at the cell phone in his hand. Where the heck was he going to go? He didn’t have much money. There was cash hidden in his dresser drawer in the house and some bills in his wallet. Undoubtedly, Lex had a bunch of cash at the castle, but Clark didn’t know where, nor could he leave Lex alone while he ransacked the place.The slight creak of barn door drew Clark’s head up sharply. He switched to x-ray vision and panic fluttered in his chest. He saw four skeletons holding guns, two creeping into the barn and the other two circling around the building.
Clark shoved the cell phone into his pocket, scooped Lex up off the couch, and ran.
Clark had only reached Wichita when he realized he'd left his parents defenseless against four armed people. A new strain of fear drove his steps to a cheap motel off the highway, next door to a bar with a parking lot full of pickup trucks, rusty old cars, and big rigs. The owner passed a curious glance over Lex, as Clark shifted him in his arms in order to pay for a room. “Too much next door,” Clark mumbled.
The owner smiled with yellowed teeth. “Means good business for me.”
The January cold bit at Clark’s exposed skin as he traversed the broken sidewalk in front of the motel to his assigned room. The blanket from the loft provided minimal protection for Lex at normal speed. Headlights cut past Clark while he fumbled to unlock the motel room door. Another eighteen-wheeled truck rumbled past, pulling off the highway at the bar.
Inside the room, Clark flicked on the bare overhead light and grimaced. Stained carpeting that once might have been gold-colored spread across the cramped quarters. The sparse furnishings included double bed with a faded fuchsia and gold-patterned bedspread; a night table with phone, phone book, and a Bible; and a television chained to a short chest of drawers.
With minimal jostling and a judicious use of superspeed, Clark laid Lex on the bed beneath the covers. He doubled the bedspread and placed the blanket from home on top of Lex for warmth. Lex didn’t rouse the entire time.
Clark brushed his fingers across Lex’s brow. “Why aren’t you waking up?” he whispered. Lex remained unresponsive.
Pensive lines cut Clark’s features as he moved to call his parents. He rubbed his hand anxiously against his thigh, listening to the line ring over the cell phone.
Clark was relieved to hear her voice, but that didn’t mean she was necessarily safe. “Mom—”
“Clark, where are you?” The demand was heavy with fear, more so than would be normal if he hadn’t run away last summer. “We’ve been calling all over—”
“Mom,” Clark interrupted, digging his fingernails into his palm to fight against the guilt for worrying her again, “I need you to answer yes or no. Are you and Dad being held hostage?”
“Mom, yes or no?”
“No, of course not. Clark, what’s going—”
“I’m going to hang up and I want you to call the Sheriff,” Clark spoke over her. “Tell them you saw four prowlers on the property. Lock the doors until the Sheriff gets there. You’d better have Dad get his shotgun out. Call me back on the cell phone once the Sheriff is underway. Bye.”
Clark disconnected before she could question him further. He sank onto the bed and cradled his head in his hands, the cell phone pressed uncomfortably against his temple. Behind him, Lex was silent. He waited.
The cell phone rang less than a minute later. “Mom?”
“The Sheriff is on her way,” Martha said. “What’s going on? You saw prowlers? Where are you?”
“Um, Wichita,” Clark said. “I was in the loft a few minutes ago and saw people with guns.”
“Guns? Clark, why in the world—”
“I broke Lex out of Belle Reve.”
Martha’s surprised silence wasn’t long lasting. “You what?”
Clark swallowed and blundered on. “I had to save him from that place, Mom. He didn’t belong there. They were hurting him.”
“You don’t know that,” Martha censured sharply. “Lex wouldn’t have been placed there without reason. I can’t believe you abused your powers like this. What if someone saw you?”
“They were hurting him!” Clark exclaimed. “God, haven’t you listened to anything I’ve said for the past month? Lionel drugged Lex, making him seem like he was crazy, so Lionel could literally get away with murder. Lex is as sane as I am, or at least he was, until Lionel cooked his brain.”
“What does that mean?” Martha said.
“Lionel forced unnecessary shock treatment on Lex.”
“I’m sure the doctors—”
“Were paid off by Lionel to do this to Lex. I was there, Mom. I saw Lionel in the room, watching as his own son was electrocuted.” Clark clenched his fist, helpless in his fury with Lionel. “I was too late.”
“But you still broke him out?”
“Of course I did,” Clark snapped. “I should’ve done it sooner, too, but you guys wouldn’t listen and I was freaked about Lex finding out that I’m not human. I let my fear control my actions, when I should have been keeping my word to Lex.”
“You can’t just go taking things into your own hands.”
“Well, nobody else would help him, so I did what I had to do.”
”And now there are people here with guns looking for you.”
“That’s why I called to warn you,” Clark said. “Lionel will be searching for us. You and Dad need to be careful.”
“We won’t be worried about ourselves, we’ll be worried about you,” Martha said over the line. “We can’t protect you if you’re not here. Come home and we’ll deal with this as a family.”
Clark steeled himself against the urge to do just that. “No. It’s too risky. I need to keep Lex out of Lionel’s reach.”
Martha’s sigh was nearly inaudible. “Do you have a plan?”
“Uh… to lie low, I guess,” Clark said, feeling relieved by her support, reluctant or not. “Once Lex wakes up, he’ll know what to do.”
“He’s unconscious from the shock treatment.” Clark cast a worried glance at Lex. “The doctor said it’s normal.”
“Are you sure Lex doesn’t need to be in a hospital? Not Belle Reve,” Martha hastened to add, “but a regular one?”
“I want to wait and see if he wakes on his own,” Clark said. “I, um, could use some money, though.”
“If I say no?” Martha asked seriously.
Clark tensed, his hand tightening around the phone. “Don’t make me choose again, Mom.”
Martha was quiet a moment. “How much do you need?”
Clark didn’t know long he lay in bed, staring at the dark ceiling, but when he woke the next morning, he was in the same position, still no closer to a plan and wondering if he should go home. He was someone who reacted to situations and lied about them afterwards. Plotting out a course of action, especially a potentially long-term one, required thought about the details and consequences of any moves he made. It was like playing chess, a game he never excelled at because it was boring.Lex excelled at chess, though. He could probably map out a dozen sets of moves that would all result in checkmate in a blink of an eye. Clark would happily dump the problem in Lex’s lap as soon as possible.
Clark turned his head on the pillow to look at the man in question and sat up abruptly. Lex’s eyes were open.
“Lex! You’re awake! It’s about time. Geez, you had me worried there…,” Clark trailed off when Lex didn’t make any indication he was listening. Clark leaned closer, the bed depressing under his weight. “Lex?”Lex laid still, his mouth slightly open and eyes staring towards the ceiling. Clark waved his hand in front of Lex’s face. “Lex, are you all right?” he asked, tension coiling in his gut. He snapped his fingers in front of Lex’s nose. Lex didn’t react.
“Come on. This isn’t funny.” Clark shook Lex by the shoulder, lightly at first, then harder when Lex continued to lie there. “Lex, stop it. We’re in deep trouble here. It’s no time to joke around.”
Lex's head rolled on the pillow from Clark’s shaking and Clark sucked in a sharp breath. Lex’s blue eyes were completely vacant, like a dead person.
“No,” Clark whispered, a keen rising in the back of his throat. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no…” He knelt up and over Lex quickly, put a hand on Lex’s forehead and one under his chin, and listened for breathing. He’d successfully given Lex CPR before and he’d do it again. He wouldn’t allow Lex to die. He couldn’t lose his best friend, the person he—Lex was breathing. Clark felt the warm gust against the shell of his ear, heard the soft exhale. He shifted his hand from beneath Lex’s chin to his neck and reveled in the steady thrum of a pulse beneath his fingertips. Lex wasn’t dead.
Clark closed his eyes briefly, calming his own racing heart before he drew back. Lex’s empty eyes stared eerily in Clark’s direction. Clark waved his hand in front of Lex’s face and faked like he was going to poke Lex in the eye. “Lex? Anyone home in there?”
Lex didn’t flinch or respond. His eyes didn’t follow Clark’s movement. He blinked, though, at six-second intervals, something Clark knew happened unconsciously. Was Lex still unconscious then, only his eyes had somehow fallen open?
“That sounds ridiculous,” Clark murmured, frowning at Lex. He had heard of people who slept with their eyes open. Maybe Lex was a heavy sleeper and Clark needed to do something more drastic to wake him. Perhaps dumping cold water on his head?
It was as good an idea as any. Clark shook Lex by the shoulders again, but when he didn’t stir, climbed out of bed. He slipped an arm under Lex’s shoulders, another under his knees, and stopped mid-lift when his eyes and nose simultaneously registered the damp patch at Lex’s groin.
Mortified on his friend’s behalf, Clark lifted Lex completely. A wet spot soaked the bed where he’d lain. Clark looked swiftly at Lex. No redness from embarrassment tinged Lex’s cheeks or bald head. Eyes blank and mouth slack, he hung limply in Clark’s arms. He wasn’t conscious at all.
Clark bit his lower lip, unsure of what to do. When he’d gone to rescue Lex from Belle Reve, he never expected Lex to be unconscious, let alone so out of it he’d piss in his pants. He knew he couldn’t leave him wearing wet scrubs, but he didn’t have any other clothes. Leaving him in a towel wasn’t an option, either, because checkout was at noon, unless Clark planned to pay for another night.
“Money,” Clark remembered out loud. His parents were going to wire him money first thing this morning to the Western Union that Clark had found listed in the phone book.
Clark carried Lex around the bed and laid him on the other, dry side. He glanced at his watch. The money should’ve been wired by now. If he went fast, he could stop and buy Lex some clothes before checkout. He didn’t really want to stay at the motel for another night, especially with a wet mattress.
“I’ll be back soon,” Clark told Lex. He hesitated. If Lex woke up while Clark was gone, he might freak at the unfamiliar place and phone someone, or he may just leave. Neither option sat well with Clark. Clark didn’t have a pen to leave a note, though. But he did have a flannel shirt.
He left the shirt piled on the nightstand with his library card on top. Lex would know, then, that he wasn’t alone and would hopefully wait until Clark returned before doing anything.
Clark zipped through the late January morning, outpacing the cars driving on the slushy streets. He’d memorized the map from the phone book and managed to find the Western Union located in a Paycheck-To-Cash business. A few cars were parked along the road. Remnants of the New Year's celebration hung from lampposts, colorful city banners flicking in the wind.
The place was empty of customers, save him. A lone clerk stood behind a counter with a bulletproof glass window stretching to the ceiling. A speaker was set into the glass. A depression in the counter that was barely wide enough to fit a hand dipped under the window. Clark gave the clerk a polite smile. “Hi. Uh, I’m supposed to pick up money that was wired to me.”
The clerk’s tinny voice came through the speaker. “Identification, please.”
Clark passed over his driver’s license. The clerk typed on the computer located behind the counter. “Four hundred dollars to Mr. Clark Kent,” the clerk read. “How would you like that?”
“Er, what?” Clark said, confused.
“How would you like your money?” the clerk said. “In twenties, fifties, or hundred dollar bills?”
“Fifties, I guess,” Clark replied. He wasn’t comfortable using hundred dollar bills.
The clerk opened a drawer, pulled out a stack of fifties, and counted them out loud as he placed each bill on the counter. Clark watched and took the stack of $400.00 when it was slid under the window.
A short buzzer sounded and the door opened. Clark glanced over his shoulder as two uniformed police officers entered the establishment. For some reason, Clark felt a flutter of anxiety. The officers couldn’t be there for him, though. No one but his parents knew he was in Wichita with Lex.
Clark shoved the money into his pocket, mumbled thanks to the clerk, and affected a casual stroll towards the door, gaze lowered. One of the officers stepped in his path and Clark brought his head up. “Mr. Kent, we’d like a word.”
Clark panicked. They were there for him! He glanced at the other officer, who had his hand on his holstered gun, and didn’t wait any longer. He shoved past the officer blocking his path, ran out the door, and burst into high speed, their shouts vanishing into the wind.
“Lex!” Clark yelled as he opened the motel room door seconds later. Lex was lying on the bed exactly where Clark had left him, staring blankly at the ceiling.
Quickly, Clark donned his flannel, stuck his library card in his pocket, and tossed the room key on the nightstand. He wrapped Lex in the blanket taken from home and fled the motel.
He didn’t stop until they reached Omaha, Nebraska, a city he was familiar with from his farming-related trips with his father. He started to go to the same motel they usually stayed at, but thought better of it. He found another relatively cheap motel and used the same excuse of drunken Lex when questioned as he secured a room.
The motel room appeared identical to the prior one, only done in pea green and gold rather than fuchsia. Clark bypassed the bed and deposited Lex gently in the cracked bathtub in the washroom to keep the new mattress from being soiled. He then put down the toilet cover, sat on the edge, and called his mom.
“They found us,” Clark told her after assuring her he was okay still. “The police showed up at the Western Union. Lionel must have people watching you guys.”
“You’re all over the news, Clark.” Martha’s worry came clearly over the line. “They’re calling it a kidnapping.”
“Damn.” Clark pressed his thumb and forefinger against his closed eyes. He should’ve realized something like this would happen.
“Maybe you should bring Lex back.”
“No.” The response came immediately to Clark’s tongue, despite his earlier misgivings. “We’re not coming back until Lex says we are.” Once he woke up, that was.
“You know how your father and I feel about this,” Martha said.
“I left him to Lionel’s mercy once, Mom. I’m not going to do it again.”
“What about school?”
Clark shrugged, even though she couldn’t see it. “I guess I’ll be missing it.”
“Mom, we talked about this last night. I’m not changing my mind,” Clark said. “I’ll keep in touch by phone, okay?”
“It’s not okay, but we’ll deal with it,” Martha said. “Be careful.”
“I will. Bye.” Clark terminated the call and set the cell phone on the sink. He looked at Lex, lying unmoving in the tub. His mind spun. Kidnapping. He’d have to get a newspaper and see how far the story had spread. Obviously, law enforcement in Kansas was on the lookout for them. He’d have to be careful to avoid the police no matter where they went.
They should be safe for now. Being an alien had its advantages sometimes. He’d gone hundreds of miles in a flash while the Wichita police would only think he could’ve gotten so far traveling with Lex, with normal human limitations. He and Lex shouldn’t stay more than a night in one place, though, not until Lex woke up and squirreled them away to one of the safe houses he probably had all over the world. In the meantime, however, the cheap motel room in Omaha was their home until the morning, and Lex needed clean pants.
“I bet you can’t wait to get out of those,” Clark commented, shedding his winter coat. He climbed into the tub, straddling Lex’s legs. Leaving Lex wearing a towel in bed while Clark ran out for new clothes was the best option. The other choice was to leave Lex in the tub, but that made Clark uncomfortable.
Clark wadded the blanket and cushioned it behind Lex’s head and shoulders for protection against the hard porcelain. He looked down at Lex, slumped helplessly in the tub. His own modesty stretched to include Lex. He really didn’t want to undress Lex – it felt too intimate. It was gross for Lex to remain in wet pants, though.Clark forced himself to be clinical and peeled off Lex’s damp scrubs and briefs with as minimal of jostling as possible. “This is not how I imagined seeing you naked,” he mumbled. Lex didn’t respond and the heated blush faded from Clark’s cheeks. Lex wasn’t well enough to care that Clark had stripped him. In fact, he’d be grateful, even in his embarrassment, that Clark hadn’t left him displaying his loss of control.
Clark didn’t think he could wash Lex, though. The eyeful he’d gotten stirred things inappropriately enough without adding touching. Clark fetched a towel, draped it over Lex’s waist, and lifted him from the tub. Lex’s head lolled over Clark’s arm, as Clark carried him into the other room. He’d put Lex to bed first, and then—
BAM. BAM. BAM. “Police! Open up!”
Clark froze mid-step as the motel room door splintered open. He stared like a deer in the headlights as armed police officers poured into the room, guns aimed at Clark. One of the officers barked, “Put Mr. Luthor down and place your hands on top of your head.”
At the sound of Lex’s name, Clark lowered his gaze to the man in his arms. His fear for Lex’s safety overpowered the reflexive fear of using his powers in front of witnesses. He hesitated no longer and disappeared with Lex in a burst of speed.
A towel fluttered to the floor in the empty spot where he had been.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Clark paced the blue-carpeted room, cursing out loud. Lex was on the bed behind him, covered by the sheets. They were in Wyoming at a hotel from a large chain. Clark had broken into an unoccupied room far from the lobby. He didn’t dare check in and make a record of his name. He needed to be invisible to keep Lex safe.
Clark punched his fist into his palm, angry with himself. There were two ways the Omaha police could have found them: by the motel clerk, or because he’d called his mom. He knew they’d been watching his parents by the police showing up at the Western Union in Wichita. Undoubtedly, the Kent phone had been tapped, because while Clark hadn’t told his mom that he was in Omaha, they’d still found him, and he knew cell phones could be traced.
But using the cell phone didn’t matter any longer, as it was sitting on the sink in the Omaha motel room. Clark’s coat was gone, too, as well as the blanket from home. And Lex had no pants.
Clark sank onto the end of the bed and buried his face in his hands. This definitely wasn’t how he’d imagined the rescue going.
But sitting and brooding wouldn’t fix things. Clark growled, pulled at his hair, and clapped his hands on his thighs. Lex needed clothes, the sooner the better, in case they had to run again.Clark was anxious about Lex being alone while he went to the store, notwithstanding having welded the door shut. He didn’t like leaving Lex so vulnerable. If only Lex would regain consciousness already…
The door to the Casper Wal-Mart whooshed open and Clark kept his head down as he walked past the greeter. The men’s clothes were past customer service on the left. A few employees in bright blue vests worked the area. A mother with two yelling boys pushed a shopping cart between the racks of shirts.
Clark turned in small circle, wondering what to get. Jeans? Khakis? Sweats? Something warm, since it was January. And socks and underwear. He didn’t know Lex’s exact size – Lex appeared thin, but was actually quite muscular – however, he was smaller than Clark. If Clark bought things in his own size, they’d work for the time being. Lex would have to suffer not being a fashion plate.
Clark grabbed a few changes of clothes for himself, too, and a deep messenger bag to carry everything. It still cost him over $100.00 in spite of buying the cheapest stuff. No wonder his mom disliked clothes shopping. It was a good thing he wouldn’t be paying for the hotel room.
Lex hadn’t moved an inch while Clark was gone, his blank gaze directed towards the stippled ceiling. Clark sighed heavily and dumped his purchases on the floor. It would’ve been nice to find Lex awake and demanding to know why he was half-naked in a strange hotel room. Imagining the conversation flashed a smile across Clark’s face and made dressing Lex easier.
After clothing Lex, including exchanging the scrub shirt for a Hanes blue t-shirt and a blue plaid flannel, Clark took the small pad of paper and complimentary hotel pen to the round table at one side of the room and tried to outline their situation and figure out what to do next.
Got Lex out of Belle Reve – Lionel knows it was me – calling it kidnapping – in the news: how far does it carry? Get newspapers/watch evening news.Ways Lionel is trying to get Lex back
-Tapped phone lines = must not call parents from where staying
Clark’s shoulders tensed, his pen poised on the dot of the question mark of the last point. He wouldn’t put it past Lionel to hold Clark’s parents hostage and exchange them for Lex. He closed his eyes a moment as fear and guilt swamped him. He’d put them in danger by his actions. Worse was knowing that if he were forced to choose, he wouldn’t choose them.
Warn Mom and Dad about possible threats from Lionel. Tell them that I might not be able to help them.
Clark rubbed his chest where it hurt and then continued writing.How to keep Lex safe until the jerk finally wakes up
-Don’t stay more than a day in one place
-Don’t check in – better to use bigger hotels to avoid getting caught
-Don’t call anyone from where we’re at
-Avoid being outside except when necessary – check news!
Clark tapped his pen on the paper, unable to think of anything else. He left space under the last point in case he wanted to add to the list. He glanced over his shoulder at the comatose Lex and wrote a few more thoughts onto the paper.
Lex is still unconscious. It will be 24 hours at around 10:00 PM tonight. I don’t know how long “normal” means, according to the Belle Reve doctor. It’s creepy, seeing Lex just lying there. His eyes are open, but they’re completely blank. I don’t like it at all.
Why won’t Lex wake up?
Clark didn’t find a mention of them in the major Casper, Wyoming, newspaper, but the television news had a report, complete with pictures. Clark watched with trepidation.
“Lex Luthor, son of industrialist Lionel Luthor, was kidnapped from Belle Reve Mental Institution in Metropolis, Kansas late Tuesday night.” Clark’s high school yearbook picture appeared beside Lex’s LuthorCorp PR picture on screen. “Clark Kent has been named as the prime suspect in the abduction. He is to be considered armed and dangerous, and is not to be approached. Contact the police if you see either Kent or Luthor, immediately.
“A substantial reward has been offered for information that leads to the apprehension of the kidnapper or the victim. Clark Kent is seventeen years old with black hair and green eyes. Lex Luthor is bald with blue eyes and may be suffering from a mental condition. Both were last seen in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Governor Greg Wallace was in attendance at the Cheyenne—”
Clark clicked off the television and swore avidly. Great. People knew what he looked like now and would be watching out for him because of the reward. He would definitely have to stay indoors.
The rumble of his stomach reminded him that he still needed to eat. He could zip in and out of a food store without being seen, leaving money at the register. He looked at Lex. Lex hadn’t eaten, either. Could an unconscious person get hungry? And how would Clark feed him?
Clark decided to wait on feeding Lex – sleeping people didn’t eat, he knew – and seared the hotel room door shut on his way out. He slipped into superspeed, heading for a convenience store.
One of the interesting things he found when going so fast was that everything looked normal. The world wasn’t blurred to him. Objects in motion appeared as still as statutes, frozen in spot, as he jogged past them. Buildings lined the snowy streets. People bundled in heavy coats stood motionless in odd positions, opening their car doors, bending over to pick things up, or talking on their cell phones. He sometimes felt as if he weren’t going very fast, at all, but the feel of his hair raised by the windspeed indicated how swiftly he was actually moving.
Automatic doors also reminded him and he’d crashed into a few before he'd learned that the sensors didn’t pick him up at superspeed. He stopped long enough for the door's sensor to register and open, and then started running again.
Twenty dollars filled barely a single plastic bag, but Clark wasn’t willing to spend a lot. He might need the money he had left for something more important than food and he wouldn’t ask his parents for additional funds. He left the $20.00 bill in an open register drawer, being careful not to bump into the motionless clerk, who was in the middle of ringing up a customer. He made for the door, remembering to stop for the sensors.
The sound of his name caught his attention in the brief wait and his head whipped in the direction it came from. He saw a television set behind the register counter with his face plastered across the screen.
“—at Wal-Mart in Casper. Casper residents are asked if they see this man to contact the police immediately—”
The clerk and the customer both turned at his curse. Their eyes widened simultaneously. Clark’s own eyes widened when he saw their recognition. He ran.
Back at the hotel, he gathered everything he’d bought, the pad of paper with his notes, and the pen, and stuffed the messenger bag full. He hooked the bag crosswise over his chest, slid his arms under Lex, and let out a small cry when he discovered Lex was wet again. Biting the inside of his cheek, Clark lifted Lex and carried him out into the dark Wyoming evening.
Clark lifted Lex as the shallow bath water drained and began drying him with a towel. Lex’s arm jerked, thumping against Clark’s chest. Instead of feeling elated, Clark’s depression grew. After the tenth time it had happened, Clark had realized Lex’s muscles were only spasming. Lex was still out of it.
Four days had passed since Clark had rescued Lex from Belle Reve and Lex had yet to show signs of regaining consciousness. Exhaustion, depression, and tautly stretched nerves were Clark’s waking companions. Staying in constant hiding took its toll; it was much more difficult in practice than in theory. The walls closed in as the days went by and watching television had gotten old fast.
Lex leaned partially over Clark’s shoulder like a dead weight, as Clark ran the towel up and down his legs. Puddles of water dampened the knees of Clark’s jeans. His fear for Lex was nearing the breaking point. Lex’s eyes remained open during the day and closed at night like he was sleeping, but he showed no signs of being aware. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything, and urinating hadn’t been the only thing he’d done in his pants.
That problem had seemingly gone away, though, which was more worrying than relieving since it was a natural part of living. Lex wasn’t looking too well, either. His eyes and cheeks had hollowed, his lips had cracked and peeled, and his skin had become flaky. Clark gave him baths to try and moisturize his skin, but he ended up looking more like one of the unwrapped mummies on Elvira’s Up-All-Night Horror-thon than getting better.
Clark was going to have to take him to a hospital. He was scared by Lex’s continued unconsciousness, especially when his eyes were open. He knew a person could go just so long without liquid and Lex had choked the one time Clark attempted pouring water down his throat. He couldn’t allow Lex to be harmed further by his inaction, when he’d wanted to protect Lex by rescuing him from Belle Reve.
Clark left the towel on the floor and carried Lex out of the bathroom. He set Lex down on the hotel bed and dressed him in clean clothes. Clark hadn’t thought to get Depends for Lex until he’d seen a commercial, and consequently, they’d left a trail of pants, underwear, and wet beds behind.
His discomfort with touching Lex’s genitals had been overridden by the need to take care of him. Clark felt an overwhelming desire to cry, though, each time he bathed Lex. Instead, he sublimated his tears into anger against Lionel and the resolve not to let Lex fall back into that man’s grasp.
But how could he keep Lionel from finding Lex at a hospital? The further west they ran, the less they were mentioned on the news. Clark felt bad hoping for some sort of disaster that would shift the focus completely from them.
Clark pulled the covers over Lex, dug out his notes and pen from the messenger bag, and stretched out on the bed beside Lex. He glanced at the door, double-checking the locks on the illegally occupied hotel room, and started working on a way to get Lex help without getting caught. If ever he needed to pre-plan, it would be now.
He needed to find a hospital that wouldn’t recognize them off the bat, or better: at all. He also needed one that wouldn’t blink at a lack of information. Clark couldn’t waltz in and tell the hospital staff that Lex had received ECT; he might as well hand Lex over to Lionel on a silver platter. He’d have to come up with a story, too, then, of what caused Lex’s comatose state, sticking as close to the truth as possible for an accurate diagnosis. It wouldn’t help for Lex to be treated for a bump on the head when his brain had been cooked.
And what about payment? How was Clark going to pay for the hospital visit? It wasn’t as if they had insurance. He didn’t have that much cash and it wasn’t like he could put it on Lex’s credit card (which he didn’t have, anyway). There had to be hospitals that treated people without payment. After all, poor people got sick and injured, too.
Perhaps that was the answer, to go somewhere poor people went. Somewhere that saw poor people that didn’t want to be questioned, especially if it led to police involvement. Somewhere Clark could lie through his teeth and still get Lex helped.
The doors banged open and EMTs almost sideswiped Clark, as they rushed into South Central Los Angeles Medical Center pushing a charred body on a gurney. Clark shifted Lex in his arms, holding him tighter, and aimed for the open area counter with hospital staff rushing around behind it. The hanging florescent lights flickered, casting a strobe effect on the dirty, pale green walls and scuffed tile floor. Rows of cracked plastic chairs filled one side of the emergency room waiting area, populated by Latinos and African Americans clutching broken bones or blood-drenched rags to their heads. People stared at Clark as if they knew he was an alien. Tension strained the air, ratcheting a notch when a man wearing a Raiders football coat and hat stumbled through the doors and collapsed.
Men and women in various colored scrubs, most stained with blood, vomit, or other unidentifiable splotches, didn’t break into a panic. Three rounded the counter with a seemingly silent signal, one grabbing a gurney, the other two rushing over to the fallen man’s side. They had him on the gurney, heading back to the emergency operating rooms with a clank of the wheels. It felt like controlled chaos.
A tall black woman in pink scrubs didn’t look up from her chart when Clark stopped in front of the counter. “Nature of your emergency?” she said.
Clark glanced left and right, and then over his shoulder, making sure she was addressing him. “Um, my brother was electrocuted.”
The woman looked up. “I need a gurney!” she called after one glance at Lex, heading around the counter. She tucked the chart in a standing rack of them and unwrapped the stethoscope from around her neck.
One of the men in scrubs grabbed a gurney from the line against the wall and wheeled it over. She indicated for Clark to put Lex down on it, popped the stethoscope earpieces in her ears, and pushed the disk end under the collar of Lex’s flannel shirt. “When did it happen?”
“Five days ago,” Clark said.
“Why did you wait so long to bring him in?” She unclipped a penlight from her collar and shined it in Lex’s eyes.
“He seemed to be fine, other than not waking up.” Clark shuffled his feet and tried to look like a poor farm hick. “We don’t have any money either…”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” she said, checking the fingers of both of Lex’s hands. “No exit wounds on the fingers. How did he get electrocuted?”
Clark darted glances towards the waiting area, affecting a nervous stance. He needed to be completely convincing if his lie was going to work. “He, uh, had something put on his head. On his temples. They—” Clark tensed his shoulders, bit his lower lip hard, and flicked another look towards the waiting area, as if fearing someone would be there. He finished in a whisper. “They turned on the power twice before they let him go, but by then he was unconscious.”
“He needs an IV push, get a blood sample to tox to see if he’s caught anything, and check his stats,” she told the nurse, who nodded. She turned to Clark again. “Try not to worry anymore, sir. You’re brother is in good hands now.”
“Okay,” Clark said, his relief not faked. “Thanks.”
“Follow me, sir,” Rodney, the nurse said, and he started pushing the gurney. “What’s your brother’s name?”
“Les. Lester Clark,” Clark said. “I’m Jon, but people usually call me by my last name.”
“All right, Mr. Clark.”
“Just ‘Clark’ is fine.”
Rodney wheeled the gurney around a corner, where curtained rows lined both sides of a room. Three-quarters of the divided areas held gurneys with people in various states of pain. Metal drawers, IV poles, and wire-strung machines stood near the head of each gurney. Rodney pushed Lex into an empty slot.
“Where’re you boys from?” Rodney asked, putting a clear IV bag on a pole.
“Indiana.” The lies rolled off Clark’s tongue. “We were just coming to see the ocean, and then Les got off the highway because of the traffic backup and the tire blew and, uh…” He crossed his arms, adopting a self-protective stance. “My brother doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”
“I have a brother like that.” Rodney shook his head, as he expertly inserted the IV into Lex’s arm. “Damn mouth got him into more scrapes than out of them.”
Lex’s leg spasmed on the bed and Clark’s face fell into misery. He wrapped his hand over Lex’s sock-clad foot.
Rodney checked Lex’s temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, took two vials of blood, and then adjusted the privacy curtain. “I’ll be back shortly to take a medical history.” Rodney gave Clark a reassuring smile. “Hang in there, Clark. Your brother is in great hands.”
Rodney left, and Clark exhaled the breath he’d been holding. “So far, so good,” he whispered, squeezing Lex’s toes. “The doctors will fix you soon and then we can figure a way out of the mess I’ve made.”
Clark stood numbly at the edge of the hospital roof for a long time, his hands wrapped around the rusty railing topping the low retention wall. South Central Los Angeles spread around him, angry and depressed. Sounds of the city rose from the streets; horns, music, shouts, sirens, and screams that bled together into chaotic background noise. The wind buffeted against Clark, whipping the tails of his unbuttoned flannel shirt. Cigarette butts littered the ground around his feet, remnants of others who’d stood there trying to accept devastating news.
“Les is in what’s most familiarly known as a ‘vegetative state’.” Dr. Brinkman, one of the worn-looking, older attending physicians, gave the diagnosis without softening the blow. “It is characterized by regular sleep-wake cycles with autonomic functions preserved, but there is no evidence of cognitive awareness or localized motor responses.”
Clark tightly gripped the back of the chair beside Lex’s hospital bed. “Will he wake up?”
“Adults have about a fifty-percent likelihood of regaining interactive consciousness in the first six months after the traumatic injury,” Dr. Brinkman said. “After six months, regaining consciousness is unlikely, and if it does occur, the patient will have permanent brain disability and be unable to sufficiently care for himself.”
Dr. Brinkman looked at Clark with sympathy for the first time. “I’m afraid that the reality of the situation is not good. It’s been eleven days since the initial trauma and the prognosis for recovery drops dramatically with each day that passes. You should prepare yourself for the possibility that your brother may never wake.”
Clark stared blankly over the city, his chest locked in a vice. Lex might never wake up. Anguish clawed at his throat, threatening to burst free. It couldn’t be real. There had to be a mistake.
A tear escaped the corner of his eye and curved along the side of his cheek. If only he hadn’t hesitated in rescuing Lex, if only he’d kept his promise to help, then Lionel wouldn’t have had the chance to hurt Lex so badly. It was Clark’s fault as much as Lionel’s, and guilt and grief threatened to overwhelm him. The day Lex had returned from the grave, alive and beautiful and whole, Clark had held him in his arms and had sworn that he’d never let anything happen to Lex again. He’d failed horrifically.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the wind, another tear sliding down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Lex.”
The door to the roof clanked open and Clark scrubbed at his face. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, walked past the new person who’d come to grieve, and returned downstairs to the ICU.
“Mr. Clark.” A young woman in a navy business suit, wearing a hospital ID badge, rose from the chair beside Lex’s bed. She extended her hand. “I’m Peggy Weiss with Adult Protective Services.”
Clark tensed and shook her hand warily. “Hi.” He quickly x-rayed beyond the walls of the shared hospital room, but didn’t see anyone that might be police or investigators with handcuffs or guns lurking in the halls.
“I’m sorry for your situation,” Ms. Weiss said, caringly. “I know this is a difficult time, but we need to discuss the options for Les’s further care.”
“What do you mean?”
Ms. Weiss opened the folder that had been tucked beneath her arm. “Because Les has no insurance, the hospital can only allow him to stay a certain number of days beyond necessary emergency medical treatment. After that, he will need to be released into a private long-term nursing care facility, a state-run facility, or into family home care. It is my job to ensure that Les will receive the care he needs after he is discharged.”
Clark hadn’t planned anything beyond Lex getting help at the hospital. He’d thought Lex would get better and would tell him what to do next. “I don’t… I…”
“It’s okay, Mr. Clark. You don’t have to give an answer today.” Ms. Weiss handed him a sheet of paper from the folder. “This outlines your options in more detail. I’ll stop by in a couple of days for your answer. If you have any questions, my office is up on the fourth floor.”
“Okay.” Clark gave her a wan smile. “Thanks.”
Ms. Weiss left and Clark sank into the chair beside Lex’s bed. Monitor wires and a fluid IV hooked under Lex’s pale green hospital gown. A catheter bag hung half-full from the side of the bed. Lex’s skin had flaked off in patches on his bare head, but the elasticity had returned with re-hydration. His blue eyes were vacant, staring blankly at the privacy curtain above Clark’s seat.
Other visiting patients shuffled past, quiet conversations floating above the privacy curtains in the multi-bedded room. Clark leaned forward and dabbed at the drool coming from the corner of Lex’s parted lips, using the hand-towel left for that purpose. He brushed his thumb along Lex’s jaw afterwards, his own jaw trembling. He tried to suppress his grief, but it felt like Lex had died all over again.
Clark dropped the paper Ms. Weiss gave him, kicked the messenger bag further under Lex’s bed, and rushed out of the hospital. Away from the main doors, he burst into a run, pushing as fast as he could go. He was scared to leave Lex alone for too long, but he couldn’t be there any longer. He didn’t stop running until he hit the Atlantic Ocean, splashing into the storming sea with a howl of anguish. Falling to his knees, he pounded the sand beneath the water, raging like the surf. His salty tears mixed with the salt of the ocean. The waves crashed against him, drowning his sorrow.
Clark sucked in a lung-full of water and coughed hard. He dragged himself from the surf and collapsed onto the beach. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he stared miserably towards the horizon, the winter wind freezing his wet clothes and hair.
What was he going to do now? Should he bring Lex home? Should he allow Lionel to get his hands on Lex, so Lex could receive the most expensive care? Lex was no longer a threat to Lionel, but would he be seen as a burden and be taken care of in a completely different way?
The thought made Clark shiver when the cold had not. There was no way Clark could let Lionel near Lex. That man did not love his son in any way.
Clark loved Lex, though, fiercely and frighteningly so. The remnants of his rampage through Metropolis had made headlines across the state the day Lex had been pronounced dead last summer. The adage of not knowing what you had until it was gone had proved true.
But then Lex had come back, and while Clark had been ecstatic, it also made things complicated. The realization that he was in love with his best friend had made hanging out with Lex feel bittersweet. It wasn’t as if Clark could admit his feelings; Lex had had two wives and a number of lovers who were all quite female. There was no indication of Lex being receptive to men. The looks Clark used to get from Lex, like he'd been the last piece of homemade fudge in the Tupperware container, had dwindled to nothing and Clark had chalked them up to Lex playing worldly games like he did with his peers, until he'd learned that he didn’t need to do that with Clark. Clark had resigned himself to keeping yet another secret from Lex and went back to chasing Lana in the hopes of being “normal.”
Clark wiped the ice-crystals from his face and rose from the sand. He knew the decision had been made before he’d even questioned it. He loved Lex and would keep him safe from his father forever, if need be. Clark couldn’t go home, anyway, not with kidnapping charges hanging over his head, but that was the least of his worries.
When Clark arrived back at the hospital in L.A., he checked on Lex before taking the messenger bag down a level to the staff locker room. One of the ICU nurses had taken pity on him after hearing their false sob story and had directed him to the showers on his third day at Lex’s bedside. Once the ice melted and he was in dry clothes, he returned to the hospital room and sank into the chair beside Lex.
The paper from Ms. Weiss lay where he had dropped it and he propped his elbow on the bed, cheek resting against his fist as he read it over. He covered Lex’s limp hand with his own, brushing his thumb back and forth over Lex’s chapped knuckles. Of the options laid out, taking care of Lex personally was the only way that would guarantee Lionel wouldn’t get to him. Clark currently didn’t have anywhere to take Lex, though, or have what was needed to care for him. He didn’t even know what was needed.
Ms. Weiss had told him to visit her office if he had any questions. She might have pamphlets or books he could read, on top of any verbal answers. Folding the paper, Clark smiled absently at a few familiar staff faces as he headed upstairs.
“Hi, can you tell me where Ms. Weiss’s office is?” he asked the first nurse he saw on the fourth floor. She pointed him in the right direction.
Clark walked down the uniformly green hall, his sneakers squeaking on the newly cleaned floor. Pastoral scenes hung on the walls between office doors. He found Ms. Weiss’s office near the end of the hall and knocked politely on the partially open door. Ms. Weiss sat behind a desk with neat stacks of files and a computer angled in the corner. Framed degrees and photographs hung on the office wall. A large filing cabinet and bookshelf took up the remainder of the room. “Um, Ms. Weiss? Do you have a minute?”
Ms. Weiss lifted her gaze from her computer and an indiscernible look crossed her face before her lips curved in a strained smile. “Hello again, Mr.-uh, Clark. May I help you with something?” she said, as she clicked her mouse quickly.
The hair on the back of Clark’s neck raised. Something was wrong. “You said to come and talk to you if I had any questions.”
“Of course. Please, sit down.” Ms. Weiss indicated one of the chairs across from her desk. Clark saw her hand shaking slightly and realized she knew who he was.
“That’s okay,” Clark said, trying to calculate how long he had until the authorities arrived. “I just wanted to let you know I’ve decided to take my brother home with me.”
“Are you sure? That’s a lot of responsibility for someone so young. Why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk about it.”
Clark shook his head, already backing out the door. “I’ve made my choice, Ms. Weiss. Thanks.”
Clark strode away from her office quickly, her voice trailing behind him. The moment he hit the stairwell, he shot into superspeed. Papers ruffled and labcoats snapped when he zipped past. He appeared by Lex’s bed, the privacy curtain rattling on its rings. He ignored the gasps of the other family across the room, stuffed the chart hanging off the end of the bed into the messenger bag, and hooked the bag across his chest.
Carefully, he detached the wires and IV lines running to Lex. He pulled the urine drain bag from its slot on the bed and laid it on Lex’s lap. Bundling the sheet and blanket around him, Clark picked up Lex and squinted at the hospital room walls. His x-ray vision pierced through the wood and plaster, down the halls to the automatic doors, as five skeletons with holstered guns, handcuffs, and small badges in their pockets came into the hospital.
Clark blinked his vision back to normal as nurses poured into the room, responding to Lex’s sudden flatlining. He and Lex vanished before any of them could say a word.
Clark sat at the bottom of the stripped bed with his head in his hands, gathering his wits after his flight from the hospital. He’d been lucky Lex had gotten care for six days before they’d been identified. Adult Protective Services probably had an Amber Alert for adults, like the one for missing or abducted children, since Clark and Lex were no longer in the news.
They hadn’t gotten far from Los Angeles. Clark feared exposing Lex to any weather outside until he’d learned more about Lex’s condition. They were holed up in a closed motel in Southern California. The room smelled musty, but it was still partially furnished and had running water, which meant the place had closed only recently. Other squatters occupied several of the rooms on the two floors and he could hear rapid-fire Spanish being spoken through the thin, mud-colored walls.
Clark rubbed his temples and forced himself to think. Things weren’t magically going to be fixed so they could go home, no matter how much he wished it. He needed to figure out how they were going to survive in the long-term while staying safe from Lionel and the authorities.
Clark groped through the messenger bag until he located paper and a pen. He folded over the previous pages of notes he’d made and started a new list.
Things needed in order to keep Lex safe:
-Learn more about vegetative states
-Learn how to take care of a person in a vegetative state
-Find a place to stay for more than a few days
-Food? Clothes? Bathroom stuff?
Clark had less than two dollars left in his wallet, plus a handful of change. His rumbling stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten much over the past few days and Lex didn’t eat normal food anymore. When Clark had shown curiosity and concern, Raleesha, the ICU nurse who’d sympathized with his made-up plight, had explained how to feed Lex by something called a ‘g-tube’, which been surgically inserted into Lex’s stomach and stuck out of his body. It wasn’t just hanging a bag from a pole and letting liquid food slide down the tube. There was aspirating, flushing, cleaning, medicating, and examining involved, as well as charting times and measurements and making sure Lex was staying well-hydrated. Raleesha had also taught Clark somewhat about bedsores, Lex’s urinary catheter, and the necessity of thorough cleaning after bowel movements.
Clark had none of the supplies the hospital had, except for the urine bag, and no money to buy things. He was going to have to steal what Lex needed, once he figured out exactly what that was, and get a minimum of items for himself. His first priority, though, was finding out how to care for Lex before he accidentally hurt Lex any more.
Trying to be more cautious, Clark ran to another state to research Lex's condition. Lionel would've learned Lex's diagnosis from the hospital in L.A. and would be watching for anyone showing an interest in information of that nature. The University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver had a huge medical library full of books that made no sense to someone who didn’t speak Doctor. A single Google search on the library computers gave Clark what he needed, and then some, in words he understood and was able to print for free.
The information was daunting, still. In his vegetative state, Lex was more helpless than a baby, lacking the ability to cry for attention or interact with his caregiver. His higher brain functions were either damaged or had shut down. He was limited to reflex responses, usually prominent ones, like when his arms or legs twitched on their own. He required constant monitoring and assistance with nutrition, hydration, hygiene, physical therapy, and elimination of bodily waste. Without it, he was subject to illness and infection that could lead to death.
Recovery was bleak, but possible, and the better he was taken care of as an invalid, the more quickly he would recuperate after regaining consciousness. Clark swiped supplies from various pharmacies and hospitals on his run back to the motel. He was lucky in that Lex didn’t need any medications, according to the med student he’d conned into “helping with his chart reading homework.” It made sense, since Lex purported never being sick; he just got knocked unconscious a lot, including more than once by Clark.
Clark winced at the memories, wishing he’d taken more care with Lex. Having those extra moments of consciousness could’ve been time spent with Lex that Clark might never get again.
It took several trips to get everything on the list he’d compiled, including a camper’s backpack and frame, until the motel room looked like a hospital storeroom. He pushed the folded wheelchair away from the bed, where it leaned, and located everything required for the artificial feeding and hydration. Lex had been hooked up to a gravity feed four times a day at the hospital. Clark had missed one of the appointed hours and he didn’t want Lex to get dehydrated, like he’d been before Clark had taken him there.
Lex lay bared from the waist up and Clark’s hands shook as he removed the sterile dressing from the tubing. He used the bulb syringe as Raleesha had shown him, depressing the bulb, applying it to the end of the feeding tube, and then releasing it. A small amount of liquid sucked up into the tube and Clark’s eyes snapped up to Lex’s face, afraid he’d hurt Lex, but Lex didn’t react at all.
“Damn it.” Clark splashed the dietary liquid as he opened the bottle and he wiped up the wet spots with his shirtsleeve. He had a hard time not dripping all over as he filled the bulb syringe and put it to the end of the feeding tube. He watched as the liquid ran down the clear tubing, being careful not to squeeze the bulb, counting silently as he had when he’d watched with Raleesha. He calculated the volume of the syringe and how many times to refill it to give Lex the proper amount without overloading his stomach.
When he was done, he flushed the tube with water, cleaned around the base with a q-tip and a saline/peroxide mix, looped the tube and covered it with sterile dressing, taped to Lex’s torso.
Clark fixed Lex’s hospital gown, then went into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. He stared at his shadowed reflection in the mirror, water dripping down his cheeks and off his chin. His chest felt tight.
Using the bottom of his shirt to dry his face, he made a mental note to get towels, left the bathroom, and set about memorizing all the information he’d obtained.
Clark glanced at his watch as voices rose outside the motel room. He finished securing the tab on Lex’s incontinence briefs, double-checked the catheter line, and went over to the window. Peering carefully past the draperies, he saw the same group of Hispanic men he’d seen for the past seven days, squatters like Clark, heading towards the highway. They were dressed similarly in jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and hats on their heads.
Clark let the draperies fall back into place and hurriedly cleaned up after changing Lex. He pulled a ball cap on his head, slipped out of the motel room, but hesitated outside the door. He hadn’t seen any law enforcement or other suspicious persons watching the motel in the week they’d been there. Leaving Lex alone again should be safe.
Clark hesitated still, as pages and pages of information flipped through his mind. Caring for an invalid physically wasn’t as difficult as he’d feared. Emotionally, it was terrible, seeing Lex completely vulnerable and helpless, having to clean, dress, and move him like a rag doll. Clark raged and cried alternately inside, but kept up a happy front for Lex as the care-taking instructions said to do. The instructions also said that he could leave Lex alone, that it was good for him to do so, taking time for himself, but it didn’t erase the feeling that he was abandoning Lex.Clark’s guilt over his thievery was stronger, though, and he seared the lock shut on the motel room door. Clark had no compunction about stealing things needed for Lex, but his father’s lectures boomed in his head about taking something when he was fully able to earn it for himself. It was Jonathan's disapproving voice that had him following the other men down the road.
Off the main highway, the group gathered in a fenced off area that looked like a pigpen. The dew glisten on the weathered fence boards in the morning sun. Clark leaned against a fencepost inside the pen, listening to the conversations in Spanish around him. Cigarette smoke drifted on the cool January breeze.
The men gave him sidelong looks, but otherwise left him alone. They thought he was either a drifter or a runaway, if his high school Spanish was correct. He should’ve taken the time to memorize the whole textbook. None of them recognized him of that he was sure. He hadn’t seen himself or Lex mentioned in the area newspapers in the past several days, either.
A dusty red pickup truck rumbled down the road towards them, from the main highway. The truck came to a stop alongside the pen. Dobson’s Orchards was painted on the driver’s side door. A young man with a ball cap leaned out the open window. “Siete!”
Seven of the group of fifteen men clambered in the back of the pickup. There seemed to be an unspoken code of who went, because there was no fighting. Local ranches and farms picked up cash hands for day labor at many of the pens along the main highway, from what Clark had been able to ascertain. The Dobson’s Orchards pickup drove off.
It wasn’t long before a second pickup stopped. Another orchard, Andrews Oranges, was painted on the side of the mud-spattered blue truck. An older man with a weathered face and a permanent frown called to them. “Todos.”
Clark followed the rest of the men into the bed of the pickup. He leaned against the side of the truck bed as the pickup got underway. His hat shaded his eyes as he watched the scenery pass, memorizing the route. He’d have to run back to the motel midday to feed and check on Lex. He hoped he could slip away, or he might have to forego working. Taking care of Lex was his number one priority.
California was much hillier than Clark had thought it would be. Green trees spread across the rolling countryside. Wood fences hemmed in animals and marked properties. Signs arched over entry drives, like on some of the farms back in Kansas. The pickup turned off the highway and drove under the Andrews Oranges sign. Ripe oranges hung from the tree along one side of the fence, dangling heavy on their branches, their fresh, sharp scent tickling Clark’s nose.
The pickup turned off the main drive and bumped along a dirt road into the orchard field. Clark could see men and women already hard at work down the rows of trees. The pickup pulled to a stop beside another pickup with a bed full of equipment. Another older man stood next to the truck, his gray hair peeking out from under the brim of his straw cowboy hat.
“¿Cualquier persona no sabe escoger naranjas?” he said in a booming voice, as Clark and the other men hopped out of the blue pickup.
Clark held up his hand, while everyone else headed right for the equipment truck. He had no idea what the guy had said. “Um, what was the question?”
“I asked if you knew how to pick oranges.” The man squinted at Clark, giving him an once-over. “I take it you don’t speak Spanish.”
“Not really,” Clark said awkwardly. “I don’t know how to pick oranges, either.”
“Have you picked anything before, or are you one of them runaways who’s never worked a day in his life?”
Clark didn’t let himself be offended. “I grew up on a working farm, but we had apples, not oranges.”
“Then, a little back-breaking work shouldn’t kill you.” The man took a canvas sack and a pair of snips from the back of the pickup. The other man who’d driven doled out instructions to the others in Spanish and they started off down a row. “Name’s Davis. If you have to quit, find me and I’ll pay you for the number of boxes you managed to fill. This here’s your equipment.”
Clark took the canvas sack and snips. The sack had a harness that hung crosswise over his shoulder and chest and wire held the sack open under his arm. The snips were six-inches long and had small curved blades “There are ladders out in the field,” Davis said. “Throw one up against a tree, climb up, and cut the stem as close to the orange bud as you can without cutting the bud. Check to make sure the orange is dry before you touch it, or your fingers will leave black spots. Once you fill a bag, dump it in one of the empty boxes stacked down the rows. Everyone fills their own box. Any questions?”
“Not that I can think of,” Clark said, hooking the canvas sack over his shoulder. “Oh, wait – is there a lunch break?”
Davis laughed. “There’s one whenever you want one for as long as you like. You get paid by the box, not the hour. Terrance will drive everyone back when it gets too dark to pick.” He clapped Clark on the shoulder. “Have fun, kid.”
Clark smiled tightly and headed down the row indicated. Fading yellow ladders leaned against the tree trunks or balanced freely on the dirt ground. The workers rocked on the ladders as they snipped oranges with deft fingers, reaching for the plump fruit without over-tipping. Lines of empty boxes stretched down the middle of the row at varied intervals. Clark picked up a ladder and continued further, putting a few trees between himself and the others.
The orange trees had thorny brush that snagged at Clark’s long-sleeved t-shirt. He wondered how normal people managed to hang onto the ladder and keep their balance at the same time, as both hands were needed to snip the oranges without dropping them. Clark had little difficulty balancing, but he had trouble keeping a human pace when picking.
The sun crept higher in the sky and the temperature rose. The trees provided shade, but the smell became sickly sweet after a while. Tiny bugs swarmed annoyingly around Clark’s head. He filled sack after sack, box after box, eyeing the other workers’ progress and adjusting his own to pull only slightly ahead. He did have to show up Davis.
Around mid-afternoon, Clark propped his ladder against a tree, hung his sack from the top, and ran back to the motel when no one was watching. Lex lay in the same position as Clark had settled him that morning. Clark washed up, gathered the feeding supplies, and perched on the wheelchair situated beside the bed.
“Lunch time, Lex,” he said conversationally, as he unbuttoned Lex’s oversized shirt. Everything he’d read said to talk to Lex often, to explain what he was doing each time he assisted Lex with something, and to treat Lex like an adult. No patronizing or baby talk, and he should never complain about helping Lex to Lex himself, or feelings of resentment could fester and exacerbate depression. “I’m going to feed you using your feeding tube, okay?”
Clark removed the dressing from the feeding tube, straightened the line, and used the bulb syringe to aspirate. His hands no longer shook as he did so. “I’m working at an orange grove today, that’s why I smell like I’ve bathed in orange juice. I’ll be going back after you eat. I have to start paying for some of the stuff I need. Don’t worry, I know you’d offer to help if you were up and about, but I should do this on my own.”
He prattled on about picking oranges versus picking apples while he finished feeding Lex and then had a bite of his own. It didn’t take long for him to get ahead again when he returned to the Andrews grove. By the time the shadows lengthened, the sun setting in the distance, Clark had filled sixteen boxes, compared to the average of twelve.
“Not bad, kid,” Davis said, as he walked down the row, paying workers for their boxes as he passed. He glanced at the nearest Hispanics. “Anyone add to your box count? If so, it’s a great thing to have done and you should thank them.”
Clark shook his head. “I picked them all myself. I told you I worked on a farm.”
“That you did.” Davis took three bills from the wad in his hand and gave it to Clark. “Here you go. Drop your snips and sack in the truck on your way out.”
Clark stared at the two single dollar bills and one ten he’d been given. “You only gave me twelve dollars.”
“Rate’s seventy-five cents a box,” Davis said, moving on to the next laborer. “You’d do better if you went back home to your parents.”
Clark looked at the pittance in his hand. Twelve dollars for a day’s worth of work?
He deposited his equipment in one truck and climbed into the bed of the other. Terrance, the guy who’d picked them up that morning, leaned casually against the driver’s side door. Clark watched other workers coming from the field and glanced at the others in the bed of the truck with him. They worked for the cruddy rate of pay on a daily basis. No wonder they were squatting at the motel.
The twelve dollars wouldn’t stretch far, but what else was he to do? Davis didn’t ask for his name or to know anything about him, whereas almost all other places of employment would. It was honest pay, too, even if it was shoddy. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said under his breath, and settled against the side of the truck. He knew he’d be back tomorrow.
Davis was surprised to see him the following morning. “I thought I told you to go home.”
“I don’t have a home,” Clark said, which was semi-true. He and Lex couldn’t return to Smallville and, currently, they didn’t have a permanent place to stay.
Davis’s age-lined face creased in a frown. “Running away is cowardly. A real man meets his problems head-on.”
“How do you know I’m not?” Clark took a canvas sack and snips from the bed of the equipment truck and headed out into the orange grove.
He felt Davis watching him over the next several days. He had to slow his picking under the scrutiny. He knew Davis noted when Clark sneaked off to feed Lex. Clark prepared a response for when he was inevitably asked about it. He also prepared to run, if law enforcement or Child Protection Services showed up.
“Hey, kid,” Davis beckoned one cloudy afternoon, when Clark emerged at a slow jog from between the trees. Beside him stood a man around Jonathan Kent’s age, dressed familiarly in standard farm-gear plus a straw cowboy hat. A dark mustache curved across his upper lip, beneath a prominent nose that looked like it had been broken more than once. Davis introduced them. “This here’s Jim Garner. He owns the horse ranch up the road.”
“Nice to meet you,” Clark said warily, accepting the firm handshake. He glanced at Davis from the corner of his eye. Davis didn’t seem to be awaiting Clark’s arrest, or to be doing something for Clark’s own good.
“Do you have a name, or should I call you ‘kid’, too?” Garner said with a smile in his crinkled blue eyes.
“Kentucky Jones,” Clark gave from his new back-story. He had to be careful. “Call me Kent.”
“Kentucky, huh?” Garner looked even more amused. “I can see why you’d shorten it.”
“Yeah.” Clark stuck his hands in his back pockets and shifted his weight, like his name bothered him. It would make the fictitious one stick in the other men’s minds. “Um, did you want something? I need to get back to work.”
“That’s what I’m here to talk about,” Garner said. “Davis gave me a call. Said he had a good laborer on his hands being wasted picking oranges.”Clark didn’t hide his surprise. Davis shrugged it off gruffly. “You don’t belong here, kid, and since you won’t go home, I had to get rid of you somehow.”
“I told you, I don’t have a home,” Clark said, recovering and baiting Garner. If he were with CPS, Clark would soon know.
“Are you eighteen yet?” Garner asked.
“Yes,” Clark lied. “I turned eighteen in October.”
“Then, where you live is up to you.”
Clark relaxed somewhat. Garner passed his test. He hadn’t offered to give Clark a home.
“I do have a job offer for you, Kent,” Garner said, propping his foot on the edge of an orange box. “Davis said you grew up on a farm?”
“Know anything about horses?”
“We stabled them,” Clark replied. “We mostly had milk cows.”
“As Davis told you, I have a ranch up the road a ways,” Garner said. “I could use another hand that knows his way around horses and doesn’t mind doing manual repair work, fixing fences and the like.”
“Why me?” Clark asked bluntly. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but still – why me?”
“For one thing, you speak English,” Garner said, with a smile. “For another, you obviously work cheap.”
Davis chortled. Clark eyed Garner with consideration. “But you’d make it worth my while?”
“I’m sure we can come to a fair agreement.” Garner extended his hand. “What do you say, Kent?”
Clark hesitated a moment, weighing his options. But was there really that much to weigh? He was being offered a better paying job doing work he knew. Garner seemed to believe he was eighteen and appeared to be an all right guy. Clark decided to chance it and shook Garner’s hand. “Okay. When do I start?”
“Right now, if you’d like.” Garner turned to Davis with an affable jibe. “Pay the kid and I’ll get him out of what’s left of your hair.”
“About time.” Davis peeled a few bills from the wad in his pocket and gave it to Clark with a stern look. “Don’t piss on this job, kid. A lot of these folks would kill to be in your shoes.” He gestured at the other pickers.
“Thanks,” Clark said, sincerely. Sometimes he doubted there were any truly caring people left in the world.
“You can thank me by leaving,” Davis said gruffly, waving them off. “I have work to do.”
“Come on, Kent.” Garner clapped his hand on Clark’s back and urged him walking. They emerged from the row of orange trees and Clark dropped his clippers in Davis’s truck bed before climbing into the cab of Garner’s rusty bronze pickup.
“Do you have transportation?” Garner asked, turning left out of the Andrews' main drive. The radio hummed with classic rock. Papers, maps, gloves, and an empty coffee mug littered the truck's dash.
“I can get where I need to be,” Clark said vaguely. Orange trees curved over the fence alongside the road. “How far is the ranch from here?”
“A few miles,” Garner replied. “Let me tell you a little about where you’ll be working. My wife and I operate a dude ranch, the kind for tourists. The ranch itself is eight thousand acres, bordering the Andrews property, and we currently stable forty-six riding horses and eight that have been put to pasture. There are five full-time ranch hands that live on the property year round and we have six employees that come in to give trail rides and riding lessons.”
“It sounds nice,” Clark said.
“You’ll see for yourself in a couple of minutes,” Garner said. He studied Clark a moment before turning his eyes back to the road. “I don’t suppose my wife should bother having you fill out employment forms.”Clark tensed. “I thought this was a cash job.”
“It is, if that’s how you want it.”
Garner nodded. “It’s not a problem. Just let me know if you change your mind.”
Now, Clark felt disrespectful. He rubbed his palms on the denim of his thighs. “I’m sorry, but I really need it to be a cash job.”
“I said it’s not a problem, Kent,” Garner said, not unkindly. “You don’t have to explain yourself, either. You look like a good kid. As long as you’re willing to work, I’ll pay you.”
Clark gave him a brief smile of thanks. He turned towards the window, watching the scenery pass. The orange grove gave way to regular trees, fenced along the road. He caught glimpses of horses and wildlife between the trees. A solitary bird soared overhead. The mountains rose in the distance, colored in greens and browns.
The pickup turned off the main highway onto a dirt road. They passed under a decorative wood-burned sign arching over the driveway. Pride colored Garner’s voice, as he announced, “Welcome to Haven.”
The dirt road wound through the trees and emerged into a meadow that rose and fell with the rolling countryside. Clark’s heart panged at the sight of a sprawling bright yellow house with white trim and a wraparound porch perched on a slight hill. A couple sat on a porch swing, rocking gently while looking out over the land.
The road forked and curved, circling the house and heading down the hill. Grass gave way to packed dirt and straw. Weathered barns, stables, training rings, and hitching posts came into view. A lesson was being given in one ring, while in another a horse was being trained on a lead. Staff in worn, faded clothes intermingled with guests in brand new, designer cowboy wear. A low bunkhouse stood sentry near a well-maintained multi-car garage, with expensive cars parked inside.
Clark swung out of the cab and followed Garner to a small outbuilding near the large stable. Inside were a row of lockers with tape-written names, a low-bench, a toilet stall, and a shower stall. “This is the staff room. It’s off limits to the guests. Grab a locker and we’ll put your name on it.”
Clark chose an empty one at random and found a key and lock inside. Garner wrote “Kent” on a piece of tape and stuck it to the front. “As you’re a ranch hand, you won’t have much interaction with the guests or the general day staff. I’ll introduce you to Bart, who’ll be your supervisor.”
Maintenance carts were the primary mode of transportation, aside from horses, Garner explained as he drove them out to a worksite. Access roads allowed for pickups to reach some areas of the property. A group of men dressed in jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and ball caps were digging a drainage area under one of the access roads. Garner parked the maintenance cart behind a ratty pickup packed with tools in the bed.
Bart was a bear of a man, older than the others, with squinty eyes and a cleft the size of the Grand Canyon in his stubbled chin. “Grab a shovel, Kent,” he rumbled. “We have a ditch to dig before it rains.”
Garner left Clark with a clap on the shoulder. “Get your hours from Bart. I have the only additional key to the locks in the staff room. I’ll put your daily pay in an envelope inside.”
After Garner left, Clark grabbed a shovel from the back of the pickup. The four men he hadn’t been introduced to stared at him until Bart barked, “Standing around won’t get this ditch dug. Kent, start behind Mitch. The stakes mark how wide we’re making it.”
Mitch, a deeply tanned beanpole with a face like a hockey player’s, gestured to Clark. He spit a wad of something that hit an orange-tipped stake in the ground. “There’s the stake. We’re digging shovel deep.”
“Okay.” Clark stuck his shovel in the ground and started digging.
The tear of the earth and the grunts of effort were the only sounds made. Conversation wasn’t had, just like when he worked with his father. Gabbing is for geese and girls, he remembered Jonathan saying. A pretty sexist remark, now that he thought about it. Still, the lesson behind it was true: work was for working, not talking, and Clark was comfortable with that.
They finished the ditch right as the skies opened up and dumped buckets of water on their heads. Bart and a Hollywood-handsome African American named Antwone got into the cab, while the others climbed into the truck bed. Mitch yanked a tarp over the tools and they rode in the remaining space back to the barns.
Dripping wet, Clark wrung out his shirt like a few of the others, standing in a large maintenance barn. The rain pounded the dirt into mud outside the open barn doors. Draping his wet shirt over his shoulder, he accepted the handshakes of his new coworkers.
“I’m Rich,” the surfer-looking blonde closest to Clark in age introduced himself. His hair hung in a ponytail down his back, under his surf shop ball cap. Antwone shook his hand, too, as did Mitch and Bart. The last man, an older Asian American about Lana’s height, was named Kim. None of them seemed to recognize Clark or his name. It was fool’s luck. Clark should’ve stuck with the full made-up name; he was stupid not to realize Garner would’ve introduced him by “call me Kent.”
“Have you worked on a ranch before?” Kim asked.
Clark shook his head. “Just a farm. I grew up on one.”
“That’s more experience than Mr. Richie Rich had when he started,” Mitch elbowed Rich in the side.
“I used to be a frequent guest before I started working here,” Rich explained at Clark’s questioning lift of his brow. “I knew horses, but otherwise…”
“If you want to work, I’ll put you to work, no matter who you are,” Bart said with a look at Rich. He turned to Clark. “Jim told us he was hiring you as day labor. Day runs from six to six, any day of the week. You show up, I’ll find you something to do.”
Clark juggled Lex’s current schedule in his head. If he got up a little earlier, he should have enough time to feed and tend to Lex’s hygiene. He would have to feed Lex immediately upon getting back to the motel in order to fit a fourth feeding in before he went to sleep, without overloading Lex’s stomach. “Do you have a set lunch hour?”
“Somewhere around noon, depending on what we’re doing,” Bart answered. “Sarah, the cook, feeds the guests and us at the same time.”
That took care of Lex’s lunch. Clark nodded thanks for the information and glanced outside. The rain continued to hammer down. “Are we done for the day?”
Bart laughed. “It’s not six yet, Kent. There’s still plenty to do. You can start by helping Rich unload the truck.”
“Sarah won’t charge you for lunch.”
“What?” Clark looked at Rich, as the pickup bounced along the access road towards the far end of the property. He and Rich were heading out to clear a fallen orange tree that had knocked down part of the fence between Andrews' grove and Haven.
“You always take off at lunchtime. I thought you might not know that the meal is free,” Rich said. “You don’t need to leave to eat.”
“I know. Bart told me.” Clark propped his head against his fist, his elbow on the open window of the passenger door. They drove into the heavily wooded area, crossing over a manmade stream. He saw a line of horses in the distance, in between the trees; a trail ride for the family of six that had arrived two days ago.
“Then, why do you disappear?”
“I have… other obligations.”
Clark liked Rich, he liked all the guys he worked with, but they could be nosey in between tasks. He dodged most questions with ambiguous answers interspersed with vague truths. He chose his response carefully, deciding how much he wanted Rich to know. “We’re not the only ones who need to eat.”
Rich looked bemused. “You have a dog or something?”
“Or something,” Clark said, unhooking his seatbelt. “We’re here.”
Rich parked the truck, and they got to work without further conversation.
Clark threw the two slide-bolts he’d installed on the motel room door and switched on the battery operated camping lantern hanging from a hook beside the bed. He’d duct taped cardboard over the entire window, blacking the light from outside. The bright lantern provided ample lighting for the long evenings.
Clark stepped over the partially completed thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor and tossed his Angel’s baseball cap on the duct tape-repaired lawn chair in the corner. He checked on Lex, lying peacefully on his side with a pillow propping him in position, and then went to take a shower.
His dirty clothes joined the others in the laundry bag, and he noted he’d have to do the wash again. He had enough changes of clothing for a week, same for Lex, and although the Laundromat was costly, the issue of space kept Clark from buying more things to wear. Everything necessary could fit into the camping backpack and Clark had practiced packing it in case they had to flee. Even the wheelchair folded relatively flat and hooked to the frame with metal clamps, to press against Clark’s back when he shouldered the pack.
They hadn’t had to flee yet, however, and Clark was grateful for it. He checked the news religiously up and down the coast, but neither he nor Lex was mentioned. He was careful when he called his parents to reassure them he was okay, phoning only from Canada and keeping the calls very brief. He used the excuse of phone tapping to cover the fact that he was afraid they’d convince him to come home if he stayed on the line too long. It wouldn’t take much convincing.
The motel itself was like a forgotten property, with only the squatters knowing it existed. It made Clark feel marginally better about leaving Lex alone all day. Bending and searing a piece of metal repeatedly over the edge of the doorframe wasn’t the best locking system, but his worry was reduced by lack of traffic at the motel.
Dressed in sweats and a fresh t-shirt, Clark retrieved his logbook and the small medical bag that stored the measuring equipment, and began his evening routine, making sure to tell Lex what he was doing. He checked Lex’s temperature with an ear thermometer, took his blood pressure with a portable gauge, and listened with a stethoscope for crackling or liquid sounds in Lex’s lungs. He counted Lex’s heart rate, measured the level of urine in the bag with a ruler, and wrote down all the information in the logbook. All the measurements fell within the normal range, when compared with the researched list taped to the front flap of the logbook.
Clark noted Lex’s skin wasn’t dry, set the logbook aside, and put away the medical equipment. He checked Lex’s specialized briefs, making sure they were clean, and then moved on to physical therapy. “Arms first, then legs, then torso and neck, same routine as usual, Lex,” Clark said, picking up Lex’s hand. Aside from researching technique, Clark had spied on several physical therapists of comatose patients to learn what needed to be done, so that Lex’s muscles wouldn’t atrophy from disuse.
“Rich asked me where I go for lunch today,” Clark said, starting up a one-sided conversation as he stretched and flexed Lex’s limbs. “That makes four for four: one of them asking me every week that I’ve been there. They’re implying that they’d like me to join them, which is nice, and nothing like school.” He smiled briefly. “That’s one good thing about not going anymore.”
Lex stared blankly at the ceiling, blinking autonomically, as Clark rambled on. “I know, what about Chloe and Pete? Chloe’s always in the Torch office and, unless I want to be put to work, I don’t go there for lunch, and Pete likes to sit with his flavor of the week and the Guy Code says I should make myself scarce. Usually, I end up sitting by myself, doing homework, like thousands of dorks before me.
“I bet you didn’t have that problem, though.” Clark looked thoughtfully at Lex, maneuvering his arm. “Or maybe you did. I don’t know much about your past, do I? Just bits and pieces, most of it about your mom. You really loved her a lot. I wish I could have met her. She must’ve been great.”
Clark’s thoughts drifted to his own mom and he swallowed past the ache of missing her. There was no red kryptonite to hide behind, this time. But though he longed for home, he cared for Lex’s well-being more and hoped both his parents understood.
“You’ll have to tell me more about her sometime.” Clark cleared the roughness from his throat and moved on to Lex’s other arm. “I want to hear about school, too. You went to boarding school, right? What was it like…?”
Raindrops tap-danced on the roof and splashed in the mud puddles outside. A beat up radio hanging from a hook in a support post blared music from the local classic rock station. A tractor engine was strewn in pieces on a tarp on the cement floor of the maintenance barn. Clark worked on one of the parts over by the tool bench, glad that he had a lot of experience in repairing John Deeres. Kim worked the grinder beside the bench, assisting him with the repair. Across the large barn, Mitch and Bart were hammering together several new picnic tables that would replace the ones at the southern picnic area. Rich was helping the other staff in the horse stable.
A truck pulled up outside and laughter accompanied Jim and Jenny Garner as they ran into the shelter of the barn. They threw the rain ponchos they’d been holding over their heads aside and greeted everyone. Jenny brushed the tendrils of damp blonde hair that had escaped her braid off her face. “Don’t mind us, gentlemen. We’ve only come to raid the tools.”
Clark had met Garner’s wife a few times in the month he’d been employed at Haven. Although she was around the same age as his mom, Jenny was nothing like her. Jenny, as she insisted everyone call her, was a short, bubbly, cheerleader-type whose infectious energy made her a great hostess. She’d been a camp counselor before she and Garner had opened the ranch to guests. The ranch hands and staff, Clark included, would have bent over backwards to assist her, but she rarely asked for help.
“Something the matter up at the house?” Bart said. He and Mitch both stopped working, and Kim switched off the grinder. The radio continued to play.
“Nothing we can’t handle with a wrench and judiciously placed buckets,” Jenny said.
“If you need any help—”
“We’ll give you a holler,” Garner said, stacking buckets. Bart walked over to him and started talking quietly.
Jenny wandered over to Clark. “Kent, I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you holding up? Enjoying the job?”
“It’s fine. I like it,” Clark said with a shrug. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kim pretending he wasn’t listening, as he screwed together an engine part further down the table.
“That’s good. I’m glad things are working out.” Jenny looked at him shrewdly, even though she wore a bright smile. “We wouldn’t mind seeing you at lunch, but I hear you have someone waiting for you.”
Clark heard the leading question in her voice and decided
how he wanted to answer. He could
practice more avoidance by changing the subject, or he could tell her he did
have someone to look after, maybe putting a stop to the questions all
together. “It’s not a pet, if that’s
what you’re wondering.”
“It’s not so much wondering as caring,” Jenny said, completely sincere. “If you need any help…”
To Jenny, Clark was practically a stranger, notwithstanding being in her employ. For her to offer anything was extremely nice. “Thanks, but I’ve got it.”Jenny nodded and touched his arm. “All right, but don’t hesitate to ask if you do need help with…”
The prompt was blatant, and Clark had to give a response or be rude. He started to reply, but paused. Telling her it was his brother would be almost an invite for her to ask after Lex. She’d most likely inquire about their relationship if he just said a name. He was wary of putting Lex in a boyfriend role since homophobia was still prevalent, but perhaps that would be to his advantage. If people were uncomfortable, it would deter further conversation. He’d just have to hope it didn’t push him out of a job.
Making up his mind, Clark gave her an answer. “I take care of my, uh… significant other. He’s bedridden.”
Sympathy splashed across Jenny’s features. “Oh, my. Well now, I definitely mean it. If you need anything, you let us know. Okay?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Clark felt embarrassed that he’d believed the worst, when it was obvious Jenny didn’t have a callous bone in her body. “Thanks.”
She gave him a quick, half-armed hug and an encouraging smile and then turned in Garner’s direction. “Jim, are you ready? I don’t want to have to give our guests waders.”
“I think that’s enough firewood,” Antwone said, startling Clark out of his internal berating.
Clark glanced at Antwone and then at the pile of wood he’d cut while his mind had been elsewhere. It stacked waist-high, more than enough to fill the bin out at the picnic site. “Yeah, I guess it is,” he said. He located the ax cover where he’d tossed it, sheathed the sharp edge of the tool, and set it on the seat of the maintenance cart.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Antwone said. Clark nodded in thanks and together they loaded the cut wood into the back of the cart. The February sun peeked through the clouds overhead. The whir of a chainsaw echoed in the distance.
When they’d finished, Antwone slid into the passenger seat, rousing Clark’s curiosity. Refilling the wood box was a one-person job, but Clark didn’t say anything as he got behind the steering wheel and set out for the southern pasture.Clark turned off the access road onto the horse trail, following the dips and bumps of the dirt track. The stalks of wild grass waved in the light wind. Clark’s self-recriminating thoughts returned, destroying the serenity of the view. How could he have gotten aroused while bathing Lex? It was beyond wrong. He shouldn’t have been thinking about Lex in any sort of sexual capacity, even daydreaming about bathing with a conscious and willing partner. He had to touch Lex’s genitals on a regular basis, assisting with hygiene and making sure the new condom catheter stayed in place. How was he supposed to not feel like a pervert now?
“Whatever it is, can’t be that bad,” Antwone said, grabbing Clark’s attention. “Are you having problems with your significant other?”Clark’s head jerked sharply and his shoulders tensed. “How do you know about him?” Antwone hadn’t been at the ranch they day he’d told Jenny about Lex.
“There aren’t many secrets here.” Antwone propped his foot on the dash and looked out over the rolling meadow. “One thing you should learn is that we take care of our own.”
“That’s nice to know,” Clark said slowly, unsure of how to respond.
“You sound worried. Don’t be,” Antwone said. “Haven is like its own world. Bart, Mitch, Kim, myself, and Rich – we all came here for different reasons, but stay because of that. What we bring here stays here, and Jim and Jenny wouldn’t have it any other way. So if there’s trouble, let any of us know and we’ll do our best to help you with it.”
Clark eyed Antwone with bemusement. “Why does it sound like you’ve rehearsed that speech?”
“Probably because I was elected to come and talk to you,” Antwone replied with a Hollywood grin. “A storm cloud’s been hanging over your head all day and Kim and Bart have been fretting like a pair of mother hens, wanting to know what’s wrong. They’ve adopted you like they adopted Rich a few years back, so don’t be surprised if you’re singled out by the others, trying to find out what’s going on.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Clark said wryly.
Antwone replied with another smile. “So, are you going to tell me what’s going on or should I pass you off to the next person?”
Clark chuckled and relaxed somewhat. He was still wary of the offer to talk, but he could really use someone to confide in. Of course, from what Antwone said, if he told one of the ranch hands, he’d told all five and probably the Garners, too. Then, there was Lex’s safety to consider.
“We’re not bigots, if that’s what’s holding you back,” Antwone said. “You’re not the first gay kid to escape to Haven.”
Clark looked at the slightly older man out of the corner of his eye. Antwone seemed at ease and open, not pressuring Clark into speaking. Clark had a feeling Antwone would let the conversation slide, if that’s what Clark wanted.
“Did whoever tell you that my partner is bedridden…?”
Clark glanced at his watch, as he sipped from the can of cold soda. “I have to leave in twenty minutes.”
“Time enough for a hand or two,” Mitch said, kicking out the chair beside him. “Sit.”
“I don’t know how to play,” Clark admitted, even as he sat. The six ranch hands had knocked off work early, having finished a large group project. Clark had been invited in for a drink, which he accepted along with teasing over his choice of drink.
“You don’t know how to play poker?” Mitch stared at him. “Are you even from this planet, Kent?”
Clark’s lips twitched. “Guess not.”
Kim set a bowl of pretzels on the circular wood table and took a seat next to Mitch. “Antwone, deal us in, and let us rectify Mr. Jones’s lack of education.”
Antwone dealt around the table. Rich stumbled out of the hallway, coming from the bathroom, knocking against the wall as he buckled his belt. He grabbed a seat across from Clark. It was warm in the living area bunkhouse and Clark shed his outer-shirt, draping it over the back of his chair. The bunkhouse was roomier than he’d thought it would be. The living area was set up with worn couches and chairs angled in front of a good-sized television. Magazines and books were scattered on small side tables and stacked on the throw rug in front of the seating. The circular table bordered the kitchenette, whose main feature was a large refrigerator stocked with beer.
“All right, Kent,” Kim said. “There are nine types of hands that you’re trying to obtain in poker: two of a kind, two pairs, three of a kind, straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, straight flush, and royal flush. Each of those hands has a higher value over another, with royal flush being the highest.”
Bart came inside, carrying a large Tupperware container. He handed it to Clark, who looked at it questioningly. “Dinner, from Sarah,” Bart said, as he took his seat at the table. “She says to throw it in the microwave for two minutes and you’re good to go.”
“I don’t have a microwave,” Clark said absently, leaning to put the container on the floor by his chair. That was very nice of Sarah. He’d have to thank her before he left.
“Use the stove then.”
“I don’t have one of those, either,” Clark said before he thought about it. From the looks he received, he should’ve thought first. It wasn’t like he could say he’d use his heat vision. “I live in a motel,” he attempted covering. “I have a, uh, hot plate thing.”
Bart, Kim, Antwone, Mitch and Rich continued to stare at him. “What?” he said, defensively.
“Nothing, Kent,” Bart said, picking up his cards. “Let’s play poker.”
Clark trudged to the staff locker room shortly after knocking off work for the day. He pulled off his A’s ball cap and dragged a weary hand through his hair. He was bone tired, had been for days, an inexplicable feeling considering physical work took little effort on his part, with his alien strength and stamina. He wanted to go back to the motel, crawl into bed, and sleep until the next ice age.
But he couldn’t. He had Lex’s physical therapy to take care of, then he needed to make the rounds of newsstands, shower because he stank to high heaven and didn’t have enough time in the morning to do so, unless he wanted to get up even earlier, and finally, he had to feed Lex his evening meal and grab a bite himself before he’d be able to go to bed.
The prospect of his evening was daunting and his shoulders slumped with fatigue. He wished Lex could be ignored, just for one night. Immediately, guilt set in for even thinking it. Lex needed him, relied on him wholly and completely. Clark could no more disregard him than he could toss a baby to the side of the road. If only dealing with Lex’s needs weren’t so tedious. It was the same thing day after day after day, with Lex lying unresponsive, the occasional spasm of his limbs taunting Clark. Clark was starting to resent Lex for not waking up. It wasn’t Lex’s fault, though, and Clark would do well to remember that and who, precisely, was to blame.
Clark pushed open the door to the staff locker room and pulled up short when he saw Garner leaning against the lockers. “Mr. Garner, hi.”
“Kent, just the man I’ve been waiting for,” Garner said, and Clark filled with anxiety. Had he done something wrong? Was he going to be fired?
“Sir, I’m sure I can explain whatever it is I’ve done—”
Garner laughed and held up his hands. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.”
The door swung shut behind Clark and he put his ball cap back on, as if it would offer him some protection. “Is there a different problem, then?” he asked warily.
“That, there most certainly is,” Garner said, immediately serious. “Jenny tells me you’ve been living in a motel and that’s not something we can allow.”
“I don’t have much of a choice,” Clark said defensively.
“That’s where you’re wrong, son. Jenny and I want to hire you on full-time, and that includes room and board.” Garner gave him a measured look. “It can stay cash only, so don’t let that hold you back. What do you say?”
Clark dropped his eyes, feeling confused, cared for, and slightly angry all at once. The other ranch hands had blabbed about his living arrangements the night he learned to play poker. Whether he was happy or upset that they’d told Jenny, who had naturally told Garner, didn’t matter, though. “I can’t.”
“It’s not just me,” Clark explained, hearing the question why in Garner’s voice. “I’m sure you’ve heard, I take care of my partner—”
“We’ve taken that into account, Kent,” Garner interrupted with a compassionate smile. “The overseer’s bedroom is big enough for two. We’ve talked with the other hands and they’ve agreed to invite you on full-time, including all that entails.”
Clark was struck speechless. Garner drew a set of keys out of his pocket. “You can use one of the ranch trucks to move your belongings. Unless you need a hand?”
Clark shook his head and hesitantly took the keys. “I, um… are you sure?”
“Wouldn’t have asked otherwise.” Garner clapped Clark on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you moved. Sarah’s been cooking up a welcome feast and we don’t want to face her wrath if it gets cold.”
Clark walked along in a daze, finding it hard to comprehend the kindness of the Garners. People simply didn’t make offers like this anymore, taking in virtual strangers without demanding identification and a page full of references. He was shocked by the acceptance of the ranch hands, too. Antwone purported no one was bigoted, but saying that and having two men sharing a bedroom in the same bunkhouse as the others were two different things.
Clark waved off Garner’s question of assistance and climbed into the truck. Animals’ eyes gleamed alongside the road from the headlights as he turned out of the driveway. He used the drive to the motel to think and gather his composure. Appearing misty-eyed in front of his coworkers would be embarrassing. He needed to be prepared to deal with their reactions to Lex and have lies set up to answer their questions.
Fingers tightening on the wheel, Clark’s anxiety returned full force. A made-up backstory was well and good, but what if someone recognized Lex? It had been weeks since they’d last been in the news, yet had it been long enough for people to forget their faces? None of them seemed to recognize Clark, but Lex had very distinctive looks. Would that be their downfall?
Clark weighed his options. Everything stacked against moving to the ranch. Yet, the pull to do just that was stronger than his fears. Being at Haven was close to the feeling of being at home, the reason he chanced staying in one spot for so long. He decided it was worth the risk to hold onto that feeling a bit longer. He and Lex could flee in a blink of an eye if it became necessary.
Parking in front of the door, Clark greeted Lex with a note of strained cheer. “Guess what? We’re moving! It may be a double move, though; we’ll see. I’ll pack our stuff first, then we’ll get cleaned up before heading out.”
Lex was curled on his side, a pillow between his knees, one against his stomach, and one behind his back, keeping him in position. He stared sightlessly at the doorway to the bathroom.
Clark gathered things in a whirlwind, stuffing it all into either the camping backpack or a trash bag. “I think you’ll like it there, if we stay,” he said, putting the bags by the door. “Everyone’s really nice. Didn’t you tell me you and your mom used to spend time at a ranch in Montana? Haven’s a horse ranch, too. Maybe it’ll bring back good memories for you.”
Maybe it would make Lex wake up, Clark added silently, as he prepared Lex for travel. Their routine was thrown off because of the move, but as long as Clark did the measurements sometime before bed and Lex was fed at the regular time, they could skip physical therapy for one night.
Clark showered quickly and changed into fresh clothes. He dressed Lex in drawstring track pants, making sure the catheter line wasn’t pinched. Shirts with buttons, Clark found, were much easier to get on and off, and he slid a pale violet one onto Lex. Fresh socks went on Lex’s feet, and they were ready to go.
Clark seat-belted Lex into the passenger side of the truck. It took a little thought to adjust Lex so he wouldn’t be leaning forward against the belt. Clark put their gear into the back of the truck and with a final check of the motel room they left their temporary sanctuary behind.
The headlights of the truck illuminated the bunkhouse as Clark pulled up. Bart, Kim, Rich, Mitch, Antwone, the Garners, and Sarah, the blonde cook who looked more like a pro-wrestler than the kitchen help, sat on deck chairs or perched on the rail of the narrow porch. A few bugs danced in front of the porch light next to the door. A wave of shyness washed over Clark as he looked at their expectant, welcoming faces. “Here we go,” he murmured.
Taking a fortifying breath, he climbed out of the cab and raised a hand in greeting as he rounded the truck. Bart, Kim, and Garner came down, and Clark gave over the keys. “Anything we can carry?” Bart said.
“Sure.” Clark lifted out the camping backpack and handed it over to Bart. “The other bag has trash in it. I didn’t want to leave a mess behind.”
“I got it,” Kim said, pulling the large black trashbag out of the bed of the truck.
“Is that everything?” Garner said.
“Yeah.” Clark noticed the looks being exchanged at his answer, but didn’t comment. He took Lex’s wheelchair and set it up beside the passenger side door. He could feel curious eyes on him as he carefully lifted Lex from the truck and settled him into the wheelchair. The specialized chair he’d obtained had a harness, which buckled over Lex’s sternum, keeping him seated upright. The urine bag slipped under the arm of the chair and beneath the seat, into an attached pouch designed for that purpose. Lex’s lower calves rested against the padded pieces fastened to the footrests and he strapped Lex’s legs to them.
Folding Lex’s hands comfortably in his lap, Clark moved behind the wheelchair and faced it towards his audience. “Um, everyone? This is Xavier. Call him X, for short.”
No one reacted like they recognized Lex, but Rich smothered a bark of laughter. Clark’s lips curved in a practiced dry smile. “Yes, Rich, like Professor X of the X-Men. The irony does not escape either of us.”
“What happened?” Jenny asked, distraught. “You said you took care of someone, but none of us thought…” She gestured helplessly at Lex.
“Car accident,” Clark said. He curled his hand over Lex’s shoulder, giving him a half-hug from behind the chair, as an ache for Lex settled in his chest. “He’s in a persistent vegetative state, or is what you guys know as a ‘vegetable.’ Doctors say he may or may not wake up. I’m hoping he will. He’s pretty resilient.”
A heavy silence settled. Clark studied their faces, gauging their reactions. Awkwardness and sympathy radiated from them all. Sarah looked ready to squash Clark in a hug and Jenny was surreptitiously wiping her eyes.
Bart spoke first, in a gruffer than usual voice. “Our food’s getting cold and I’m sure Kent wants to get X settled before we eat. Rich, get your butt down here and help Kent up the steps.”
Rich vaulted over the porch rail and the discomfited silence broke. Kim left with the trash and Garner squeezed Clark’s shoulder before going to move the truck. Jenny directed Sarah and the others to head to the main house. Rich assisted Clark backing the wheelchair up the two porch stairs and Bart shooed him off before following Clark into the bunkhouse.
Bart leaned the backpack against the dresser in Clark’s new room. “Come and join us up at the house when you’re done. Unless you need a hand?”
“I got it,” Clark said, maneuvering Lex’s wheelchair beside the bed. He knelt in front of the chair and unbuckled the leg straps.
Bart nodded and started to leave. He paused in the doorway. “You’re a good kid, Kent. I hope X knows how lucky he is.”
Clark reached up and lightly touched Lex’s cheek. “You don’t stop loving someone just because they’re hurt.”
Clark could feel Bart’s eyes on the two of them, glanced over his shoulder, and gave a brief smile. “I’ll be up in a few minutes. It won’t take me long to get L— X settled.”
“We’ll wait for you to start eating,” Bart said, and left.
Clark turned back to Lex. He brushed away the drool at the corner of Lex’s mouth with a sad sigh. “I do love you, you know. I only wish you were awake to hear it, even if I have to pretend it’s just a best friend’s love because you’re straight. You deserve to know someone in this world cares for you without question.”
Lex didn’t wake up suddenly and respond, and despite what Clark said to the others, he was losing hope that Lex would regain consciousness. Clark sighed again, unbuckled the harness, and went about transferring Lex to the bed.
Clark winced, his hand tightening on the receiver. He hadn’t expected his father to pick up the phone. Jonathan rarely answered calls at home. “Hi, Dad,” he said warily.
“Clark.” Jonathan’s flat tone carried censure and Clark hunched defensively.
“I’m just calling to check in,” Clark mumbled. Snow flaked off the overhang and dropped down the collar of his t-shirt. Canadians bundled in thick winter coats and boots eyed him strangely as they passed.
“And I’m ordering you to come home, right now.”
“No pleas, no excuses,” Jonathan snapped over the line. “After what your mother went through last summer, how could you do this again? It’s selfish and inconsiderate, and I won’t stand for it anymore. Get your butt home now.”
“What did you say?”
“I said no,” Clark repeated, squaring his shoulders. “I’m sorry if I’m hurting Mom’s feelings, but this is something I have to do.”
“I’m your father and you don’t do anything unless I say you can.”
“Like you did everything your father said?”
“Don’t you smart mouth me.”
“Then, stop treating me like a kid.”
“Maybe if you weren’t behaving like one, I would.”
Clark clenched his teeth. “Have you punched any relatives lately?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, my choices have value and I won’t be abandoning Lex anytime soon.”
“No, Dad,” Clark cut him off. “I love you both, but Lex comes first and you’ll just have to deal. If you can’t… well, don’t answer the phone anymore, then.”
Jonathan’s anger and displeasure could be felt a thousand miles away. “Let the Luthors handle their own problems. You should stay out of it.”
“How? How can I stay out of it? Lionel nearly killed his own son—”
“You don’t know that.”
“I was there! I heard Lionel tell the doctor to shock Lex a second time, when it wasn’t necessary to begin with!”
“The doctors at Belle Reve wouldn’t have stood by—”
Clark laughed derisively, catching a mother’s attention. She gripped her child tighter by the hand and hurried her step past the phone carrel. “This is Lionel Luthor we’re talking about, Dad. Think about it.”
“You’ve proved my point,” Jonathan said. “Getting yourself involved with the Luthors is foolish, and dangerous.”
“We all do stupid things for love.”
Jonathan inhaled sharply. “Clark…”
“Tell Mom we’re doing fine,” Clark said, wanting to end the call. He wasn’t worried about it being traced, since he always called from Canada, but those listening to the tap he knew was on the line had gotten more than plenty. “We have a roof over our heads and plenty of food. I’ll call again in a few weeks.”
“Okay, son. Have it your way,” Jonathan said resignedly, but Clark could tell the argument would continue between his parents instead. “I still think you should come home, where you belong.”
“That’s just it, Dad,” Clark said. “I am where I belong. Goodbye.”
Clark started to hang up, then hesitated and returned the receiver to his ear. “Dad?” The other end of the line was silent. Good. “Phone-tappers, I know you’re still listening. Tell Lionel to leave us alone. The proof died with Edge and Lionel made sure no one could speak to Lex again. You won, you murdering, manipulative, abusive son-of-a-bitch. I hope you’re happy.”
The receiver cracked as he slammed the phone on its hooks. He rested his forehead against the back of his hand, with his eyes shut, until the urge to rip Lionel into pieces had passed.
Jenny perched on the porch rail beside the back steps, returning greetings as the ranch hands passed her on their way inside the main house for dinner. She snagged Clark before he could go by. “Kent, I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up, but you seem afraid to overstep, so I thought I’d approach you. X is welcome to join us for meals. Sarah arranged for the extra space at the kitchen table specifically for X’s wheelchair.”
Clark stared at her in confusion. “Why would I bring X?”
In the porch light, Jenny’s frown was clear to see. “Because he’s a part of the Haven family, just like you. The house is wheelchair accessible and Bart built the ramp at the end of the bunkhouse porch for him. He doesn’t need to hide away because of his impairments.”
“X isn’t conscious,” Clark said, still confused.
“I’ve explained what PVS entails to everyone,” Jenny said. “Don’t worry that he would be treated inconsiderately, and I’m sure he would appreciate being included.”
Clark was struck suddenly with dismay, as it dawned on him that he was the one behaving inconsiderately towards Lex. All the literature said that he was to treat Lex as normally as possible and he’d kept Lex locked in the bedroom like a dirty secret. Why had he bothered to steal the wheelchair if it wasn’t going to be used?
“I’ll go and get him,” Clark told Jenny, feeling ashamed.
Crickets chirped in the dusk. The bunkhouse was outlined against the dim sky under a full moon. Clark’s steps slowed on his way down the well-trod path. Lex might be welcome in his condition, but would he want to be seen? Lex hated not being in control, hated being viewed as weak and having his vulnerabilities exposed. Harnessing him to a chair that had a special pouch for a piss bag invited stares and he had no sharp tongue for protection. Lex might feel humiliated for being put in such a position.
But Lex wasn’t able to say what he felt and Clark had to be the one to make the decision. He pushed aside his feelings for Lex and any thoughts of what Lex’s opinion might be, and put on his caregiver’s cap. It would be best, therapeutically speaking, if Lex interacted with others, had a variety of stimuli, and got out of the bed. According to what Clark had read, being confined to bed led to depression, and depression hampered efforts for getting well, both on the patient’s and the caretaker’s parts. Lex had the advantage over many PVS patients in that he wasn’t hooked to any monitors or life-giving equipment and thus was mobile. Clark just had to make sure Lex was in a position that didn’t strain his muscles, the condom catheter stayed in place, and that he didn’t get chilled.
It still felt awkward, though, when Clark wheeled Lex up the rear ramp and into the house. Clark paused to wipe his feet in the mudroom situated off the kitchen. The large blue and white kitchen held state-of-the-art appliances mixed with old-fashioned cabinetry. The scent of a home-cooked meal drew Clark past his nervousness and he joined the group gathered around the long, family-style table.
“Sit,” Sarah ordered, setting a platter of barbeque chicken in between dishes of vegetables, boiled potatoes, and a basket of cornbread. “It’s no good cold.”
“Except between two slices of bread, with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise,” Rich said with a grin, earning a light swat from her.
Clark set the brake on Lex’s wheelchair and took the seat beside him. Dinner for the ranch hands was served after the guests had been fed in the informal dining room. Clark had gotten a tour on a day there had been no guests and was awed by the size of the house. It rivaled something Lex would own, yet had a comfortable atmosphere, like home.
But it was the people that filled the kitchen that impressed Clark the most. Between bites of delicious food, conversation revolved around work that had been done that day and work to be done tomorrow. Rich fought good-naturedly with Antwone over what “crap television show” they’d be watching. Sarah and Jenny conspired, with conspicuous glances at Kim, whose birthday was coming up. No one commented when Clark wiped the drool from Lex’s chin or at how anxious he seemed. Garner, Bart, and Kim launched into a debate on tractor repair. Mitch ate nonstop, sharing a crooked smile with Clark across the table when the ladies at the corner broke into snickers.
As the days slid by, Clark slowly relaxed and Lex’s presence became routine. Mealtimes stretched into other times with Lex joining them in his wheelchair, and Clark felt happier than he’d been in a while, adjusting to the inclusion of both himself and Lex.
“Let X stay and keep me company,” Sarah would say sometimes after dinner, or insisted that he visit with her in the afternoon. “The rest of you boys go ahead and get lost.”
“Kent, get your ass over here!” Rich bellowed.
“Just a second.” Clark adjusted the blanket on Lex’s lap and jogged off the bunkhouse porch in time to catch the football.
“You said it was X’s birthday, so of course we got him something,” Jenny said, holding the soft blue Oxford up to Lex’s chest. “Just as I’d hoped, it matches his eyes.”
“A hustler is what you are.” Mitch threw his poker cards onto the table and glanced in X’s direction. “I bet X is the one who taught you how to be such a card shark.”
“No, X would’ve taught me who invented poker, where, and when,” Clark said, collecting the pot. “Then he would’ve told me his father forced him to play to learn how to read people in order to take advantage of them.”
He raised his eyes to find the others staring at him. Antwone whistled. Kim shook his head. “It sounds like X’s father is a real piece of work.”
Clark smiled tightly. “You have no idea.”
“‘I can’t fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can’t do it again. Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to think for the both of us, for all of us.”
“All right, I will. Here’s looking at you, kid.’”
The movie flickered on the screen. Clark finished his popcorn, wiped his palm on his thigh, and reached over the arm of Lex’s wheelchair to hold his hand.
“‘I wish I didn’t love you so much.’”
“Hmm, your intake is good, but Kim noticed you’re looking a little dry around the ears,” Clark said, reviewing Lex’s monitoring logbook. “I’ll up your hydration some, but maybe we should change moisturizer, too.”
“Jenny’s gone insane,” Antwone declared, as he passed out the orchestra concert tickets she’d delivered, including tucking one in the pocket of Lex’s shirt. “Says she expects all of us to be dressed and ready to go by seven.”
“I hope you like it here as much as I do,” Clark said, cradling Lex to his chest, as he leaned against the trunk of a tree. The horses grazed nearby, one of them wearing the special saddle for the physically disabled. He had the afternoon off while the others ran into town for supplies and he and Lex took advantage of the nice weather. He sighed contentedly and pressed a kiss to Lex’s head. “I could get used to this.”
“It’s not creepy, is it?” Clark said, sitting between Bart and Lex on the bunkhouse porch. They were watching Rich flirt with the spring break coeds near the horse barn. The coeds were wealthy high school girls around Clark’s age, but he didn’t have much interest in joining Rich.
“No,” Bart said, sipping his beer. “When other people see X, they have sympathy for you and pity for him. Whereas us and the day staff are so used to X, that we just see him.”
Clark reached over and smoothed Lex’s collar. He understood what Bart meant. His viewpoint of Lex’s condition had changed, too, and he finally accepted Lex as he was, not as Clark wished him to be.
“Okay, I think you’ve got both of us wet enough for one morning,” Clark said, lifting Lex from the tub. The ranch hands showered at night, giving Clark ample time for Lex’s bath in the morning. Lex’s damp skin was warm against Clark’s bare chest, as he carried him from the bathroom to their bedroom, where several thick towels waited at the ready. After kicking the door shut behind them, Clark laid Lex down on the two towels spread to keep the bed dry and used a third to wipe off his arms, chest, and the drips on his boxers and thighs before starting on Lex.
Clark had butted the double bed against two walls, giving him more room to maneuver on Lex’s side. A sealed trash container, single nightstand and dresser were the only other furnishings. Their dirty clothes filled a mesh bag hanging on the back of the door. Lex’s wheelchair was folded out of the way and the camping backpack had been stored in the front closet of the bunkhouse.The nightstand doubled as Lex’s medicine chest. Supplies were refilled as they depleted, since Clark had stopped worrying about having to flee suddenly. He rubbed the towel over Lex, drying him and checking him over simultaneously. “No bed sores,” he said, rolling Lex gently onto his side to get at his back. “You’re butt’s looking a little pinker than normal, though. I’ll put some rash cream on you.” Clark threw the towel over his shoulder, got the tube from the drawer, and squirted a line of the thick white substance onto his fingertips. Bending closer, he parted Lex’s buttcheeks and smeared the cream over Lex’s reddened skin. “Hmm, I don’t think it’ll develop into a rash this time,” he said thankfully. The first horrid rash caused by Lex having body waste in incontinence briefs too long had taught Clark to be very careful.
Clark hardly registered where he was touching since it had become routine. He lifted Lex’s leg and smoothed the cream between his thighs, just in case. “That should do it. Let me wash my hands and then I’ll finish getting you dressed.”
While in the bathroom, Clark did a quick clean up from the bath and made sure that the orange bio-disposal bag was securely tied. The bag went into the trash container in the bedroom for later disposal and Clark hung the used towel on the doorknob. “Purple today, or blue?” Clark said, opening the dresser drawer that held Lex’s clothes. “I think it’s a purple day. I picked up some new socks for you, so you don’t have to wear the pink ones anymore. And don’t worry, I know not to wash reds with whites anymore.”
Clark tossed Lex’s clothes onto the end of the bed, changed his boxers, and slid on a pair of jeans. Drawing a bright yellow shirt over his head, Clark tucked it in as he returned to Lex’s side. He slid the towels from under Lex and rolled him onto his back. “I’ll be in the west field all day, repairing the fence. That new horse, Risky, did the damage. He’s a real wild one.” Clark took a new condom catheter from the drawer, rolled it onto Lex’s penis, and secured it with specialized tape. He attached the tube for the urine bag to it. “Rich wants the chance to break him, but I think it’s Rich’s bones that are going to get broken.”
Clark drew on Lex’s briefs, socks, and track pants, then wound Lex’s feeding tube and secured it to his stomach. “I think Garner will probably let Rich try, even though we have a trainer on the day staff,” he said. “Rich has a scary love affair with horses. I’d be worried if I hadn’t met his current girlfriend. Let me sit you up.” Clark held Lex in a sitting position while he put on Lex’s shirt with a judicious use of superspeed. He lowered Lex down again and fetched the wheelchair.
“Ready? Up you go.” Clark lifted Lex from the bed and transferred him to the wheelchair. He secured the harness and crouched to secure the leg straps. “You’re stuck watching television today. There’s a mess of people checking in, so things are going to be too busy for you up at the main house. I might be able to knock off early today, though. Maybe we can go for a ride. What do you say?” Clark said, looking up at Lex. His smile froze and his heart stopped beating in his chest.
Lex was looking back at him.
“Lex?” Clark said Lex’s name and watched as Lex’s eyes darted back and forth before focusing on Clark again. His head hung forward, his body limp against the harness, unchanged.
Clark’s hand trembled visibly as he raised it. His cupped Lex’s cheek, fear and hope fighting inside of him. “Lex?” he said again. “Are you awake?”
A pressure so slight that it wouldn’t have been noticed if he hadn’t been an alien was felt against his palm.
“Oh, god,” Clark breathed, swamped with emotion. He rose up and engulfed Lex in a hug, along with part of the wheelchair. “Oh, God, thank you, thank you, thank you!” He closed his eyes tightly as something shook apart inside him. His voice cracked when he spoke. “Lex. Oh, god, Lex. You’re awake. You’re really awake.”
Clark heard Lex’s throat click like he was trying to speak and he laughed with a hysterical edge. He pulled back and touched Lex’s face and head, as if Lex would suddenly vanish. He was afraid that Lex might. “Oh, shit, Lex. You’re awake. You- I don’t- I- you—” He gave up trying to speak, laughed again, and wiped his wet eyes.
Lex’s throat clicked again and his right hand spasmed in his lap. Clark crouched in front of Lex again, took his hands, and gave him a watery smile. “I can’t believe you’re actually conscious. The doctor said…,” he trailed off and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, because they were wrong. I’m so glad they were wrong.”
Lex clicked and stared at him, otherwise unmoving. Clark sifted through the giddiness, trying to remember what else the doctor had said, or what he’d learned, that could be wrong. His mind was a complete blank, though. He was too happy to think.
Lex’s eyes shifted back and forth and he clicked, and Clark caught on that he couldn’t speak. “Shit, sorry, um, you probably have a ton of questions.” Clark cleared his roughened throat and tried to think what a coma patient would ask when they regained consciousness. “Uh, where are you? You’re at Haven Ranch in Southern California. What happened? You got electroshocked and it sent you into a coma. You’ve been unconscious for about five months now, but you’re not anymore, and—oh, god, Lex.” Clark squeezed Lex’s hands and tried not to burst. “I can’t believe you’re awake.”
Seeing Lex looking back at him, the clear consciousness reflected in his eyes, was nearly as great of a gift as the day Lex returned from the dead. Clark could tell Lex was getting agitated, which only made his heart lift. Lex was awake and aware, after Clark had accepted that it would never happen, and he was going to cherish every little thing about it.
Clark watched Lex stare at the ceiling in the dark bedroom and reminded himself that Lex could really see it. Agitation rolled from Lex in waves and Clark kept check not to reach out for him. Night had fallen before Lex was able to make voluntary vocalization, but that was little more than hum. The rest of his body was still offline.
Lying on his side beside Lex, Clark could see the fair fan of lashes when Lex blinked. The double bed seemed much smaller, with the wall at Clark’s back, especially as Lex was now aware of sharing such an intimate space. He’d explained to Lex, once they were alone, about hiding from Lionel and the need for the pretense of a relationship. Lex had become more agitated at that point and it made Clark wonder which it was that bothered him.
Clark sighed quietly. He supposed he’d find out once Lex could talk again. According to the information he had, recovery of awareness came first, then recovery of function, in patients who awoke from comas. That was, if recovery of function came at all. Lex had regained consciousness under the six-month mark the doctor had warned him about, granting him a higher chance of functional recovery, but there was still the strong chance Lex would be disabled in some way. The worst-case scenario would be Lex not regaining any of his faculties, other than being conscious.
No, that wasn’t true. Lex was awake; the worst had ended. Clark smiled as hugely as he’d been smiling that morning, which had caused everyone else to smile, too. The others had been up, drinking coffee, when Clark had wheeled Lex into the living area. Backslapping and grins abound followed introductions to a conscious Lex. Not two minutes after they left for work, Jenny and Sarah had arrived with equally big smiles.
“This is wonderful, Kent,” Jenny had said, hugging Clark. Clark lifted her up and spun her around in laughter. He’d then lifted Sarah and spun her, too, earning a squawk and a swat and a smile.
“Take as much time as you need,” Garner had told him, when he’d also stopped by. “And don’t forget to let us know if there’s something we can do for you.”
But Clark didn’t know if there was something anyone could do, because he didn’t know what came next. All the information he’d gathered had been on how to care for a PVS patient and the signs of regaining consciousness. What happened after the person woke up he hadn’t researched. He’d been more worried about making sure Lex didn’t wind up in the hospital again.
Clark knew what he wished would happen, but that had already not come true. Lex didn’t snap back to his old self, full of piss and vinegar for his father and reassurance that he’d clear Clark’s name. Clark would have to run to the library in the morning and learn what to reasonably expect.
He had a feeling there’d be a long, hard road ahead of them.
“Lex,” Clark perched on the edge of a folding chair beside the bed and turned Lex’s head on the pillow so their eyes could meet, “we need to talk.”
The pink tinge had faded from Lex’s face. Clark hadn’t thought anything about the mess in Lex’s incontinence briefs in the morning, as it was expected, but it was the first time for Lex since he’d become conscious. Clark had fumbled when he saw the flush of embarrassment and humiliation splash across Lex’s face and bare scalp and had awkwardly tried to reassure Lex that it was nothing before shutting up. He’d vanished after their morning routine had been completed to give them both the time to recuperate.
While he was gone, he'd run to the library and had done the research on post-coma treatment. What he’d discovered was not encouraging in their situation. Spying on physical therapists and working from books wasn’t going to cut it, though Clark would try his best. It wasn’t just his decision any longer, however, and sitting next to Lex in the bedroom, Clark explained what he'd learned.
“I need to know what you want to do next,” Clark said, clasping his hands between his knees. He watched Lex carefully, attempting to judge his response to the conversation. “What happened this morning happens every day and it may not change anytime soon, but I don’t know that for sure because I’m not a doctor. I’m not a physical therapist, either, and for you to regain any mobility you’ll need intensive physical therapy. I’ll do what I can, but it might not be enough.”
Clark dropped his gaze, looking at the clasped hands that had taken care of Lex for so long but were inadequate now. “Your best bet would be a rehabilitation center. They’d be able to get you on your feet again in no time. In fact, it’s where you should go, but…” He lifted his eyes again, his body tensing as he continued. “But your father will find out where you are. There’s no question about that. I would still be able to monitor you and make sure he didn’t try to lock you away or hurt you while you’re there, but he’d still have access to you and your care.”
“Uhhhk,” Lex said, and his lips twitched slightly. He’d been working at speaking since he woke, until the embarrassment had set in. “Arrrhhk.”
“I know. Shit.” Clark rubbed his forehead in anxiety. “None of this would’ve happened if I’d just gotten you out of Belle Reve right away. Or if I hadn’t freaked when you found out I was an alien. But no, I had to listen to my parents and then I was too late. Stupid, stupid me.” He smacked his forehead a couple times with the heel of his palm.
“Cuhlarrk.” Lex managed to form the word even though his mouth and jaw didn’t move.
A smile immediately tugged at Clark’s mouth. He pushed aside his self-recrimination and clasped Lex’s limp hand. “Hey, real words. That’s great! You need to call me ‘Kent’, though, remember?”
Lex might not be fully verbal, but he spoke volumes with his eyes. It took him a moment, but he managed to accuse, “An… Rossesser… Xaeerr.”Clark faked defensiveness. “‘X’ is close enough to your name that it would cover in case I slipped, and it also makes people think of the X-Men when they see you and not Lex Luthor, kidnapped billionaire’s son.”
Lex’s gaze darkened and his hand jerked under Clark’s. “I cuheer.”
It took a moment for Clark to translate and he shook his head. “Don’t worry about it for now. Let’s concentrate on helping you; which brings us back to the question of a rehabilitation center—”
The answer was firm, but Clark was hesitant still. “You should take some time to think about it. A rehab center would—”
“Ndoh Cuhlark,” Lex interrupted with a heavy exhalation. He blinked slowly, as if it was getting too tiring to speak. “Thing sonthing… elsss.”
“Okay, we’ll think of something else,” Clark said. He squeezed Lex’s hand and released it. “Why don’t you take a nap? I’m gonna grab some late breakfast and make sure I’m not needed around the ranch.”
“‘Kay.” Lex seemed to melt into the bed, even though he didn’t move. The tiredness, according to what Clark’d read, was typical.
Clark flipped the edge of the sheet over Lex and grabbed the logbook from the nightstand. He wanted to note down Lex’s speaking and apparent comprehension. Communication meant that area of the brain hadn’t been damaged, thankfully.
Clark turned back on his way to the door. Lex peered at him through half-lidded eyes from the bed. “Alien?”
Clark tried to hide his instinctive flinch. “Uh, yeah.”
Lex’s eyelids fell shut. “Knew reason… so annorally… dirtuous.”
The bark of laughter surprised Clark as much as Lex, but he was sure he saw a corner of Lex’s mouth pull up in a smirk.
It wasn’t long before Lex was speaking normally, with only the occasional slurring of his words, as if his jaw got stuck. But it was what he didn’t say that carved a hole in Clark’s heart.
“I knew what you were doing,” Lex said, looking at Clark from the corner of his eye. His head hung forward, still unable to hold himself upright. The wheelchair was pushed up to the table next to Clark. Clark had the notepad from the first hotel in front of him, making a new list of things required now that Lex was awake. “But it was like watching you take care of someone else.”
“I heard you, too. It was… reassuring.” Lex hesitated, as if confessing was difficult. “I appreciate everything you’ve done.”
“Anyone would’ve done the same,” Clark said.
“You know that’s not true,” Lex said. “You’re a good friend.”
Clark’s fingers tightened on the pen. Lex had heard everything, but Clark was still just a good friend. “Always, Lex,” he said, as he boxed up his hopes and dreams and locked them in a dark corner of his mind.
He could feel Lex’s weighty stare as he jotted another point on his list. He flashed Lex a quick, false smile and picked up the notepad. “Okay, the first thing we need to do is get you checked out by a doctor. We probably should’ve done that immediately, but, uh…” Clark shrugged awkwardly. He hadn’t actually thought about it in the overwhelming deluge of emotions and adjusting to Lex being conscious. The research he’d done served mainly to make him panic over everything he couldn’t do for Lex.
In reality, Clark was floundering. The comfortable routine he’d fallen into with Lex at the ranch had been disrupted. The others were giving them space and Sarah sent down food rather than insisting Clark and Lex join them. Clark felt cut off and like a loafer for not putting in a full day’s work. If he wasn’t shooed off altogether, he was given only a few tasks to do before Bart insisted he wasn’t needed.
He knew they were doing it because they thought he and Lex were in a relationship and would want the time together. The lie perpetuated Clark’s silence and he thought it was for the better, anyway. They might have to leave Haven in order to take care of Lex’s rehabilitation and severing his attachment to the place would be easier with a few days' grace.
“Eel call Dohey.” Lex glowered, opened and closed his mouth widely a few times, and tried again. “We’ll call Toby.”
“Toby.” Clark remembered the stoned-looking doctor who’d stitched up Kyle Tippet and didn’t want him anywhere near Lex. “I think we should find someone more… trained in handling post-coma patients.”
On side of Lex’s mouth quirked mockingly. “Toby is a graduate of Harvard Medical School with a trauma specialty.”
Clark stared at him in disbelief. “You’re kidding.”
“He’s the on-call physician for the Metropolis area’s Hell’s Angels.” Lex’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Not all doctors wear white lab coats, Clark.”
“Not all doctors use their drugs on themselves, either.”
“You’d be surprised.”
Clark snorted softly and wrote Toby’s name on the notepad. “How do I get in touch with him?”
“He has an answering service that will page him.” Lex rattled off the phone number. “Don’t leave a message, just the number where he can call you back. It’s safer that way.”
The reminder about their situation cast a somber cloud overhead. Clark colored in one of the letters on the paper. “You seem to be taking this very well.”
“I’m away from my father and that… place. As long as we keep it that way, everything else should de dine.”
Clark saw Lex’s grimace at the catch of his words, and his gaze traveled downward, taking in the paralyzed body strapped into the wheelchair. He didn’t know how fine things were actually going to be. It seemed it hadn’t fully hit Lex the extent of the damage he may have suffered because of the coma. Clark knew Lex professed having an accelerated healing ability, but he’d been unconscious for five months, so Clark didn’t know how accurate the claim could be.
They’d have a better estimate, though, once Lex was checked over, and Clark pushed the chair back from the table. “I’d better go give him a call. I’m going to, um…” It felt weird being able to tell Lex exactly what he planned. “I’m going to call from Canada, just in case he’s been tapped.”
Lex’s eyes widened a fraction, almost unnoticeable if one didn’t have alien abilities. “Canada,” he said without inflection.
“Yeah.” Clark shifted awkwardly. “I’ll only be gone a few minutes, depending on how long it takes Toby to answer the page.”
“Can you fly?”Clark shook his head. “No. Run.”
“Ah.” Lex seemed disappointed, which made laughter bubble in Clark’s chest.
“I can shoot fire out of my eyes, though,” Clark said casually. “And I can see through things.”
“Like Captain Tenacious?” Lex perked immediately and Clark gave in to his chuckles. He recognized the name from the Warrior Angel comics both Ryan and Lex had made him read. For someone who his parents professed would treat Clark like a lab rat, Lex was acting like a comic book reader whose superhero had come to life.
“Kind of,” Clark said. “My sight is more like an x-ray.”
Lex stared at him with fascination. “What else can you do?”
“Let me call Toby first, then I’ll tell you about Clark, the Teenage Space Alien, okay?”
Clark knocked on the kitchen door as he entered the main house. “Hi, Sarah,” he said with a wan smile. “Is Jenny or Mr. Garner around?”
“Jenny’s making up the guest rooms.” Sarah, her blond hair pulled up in a high ponytail, pointed at the ceiling with her spatula. A row of muffin tins was spread across the counter in front of her half-filled with batter. She stuck the spatula in the bowl held in the crook of her elbow, grabbed a fresh muffin from a cooling tray on the stove, and tossed it at him. “Sit. Eat that. You look like you could use it.”
“Thanks.” Clark sank into a chair at the kitchen table, knowing he’d get yelled at if he hovered. He played with the ridged paper wrapper around the muffin base, after Sarah had gone to fetch Jenny.
“Don’t play. Eat,” Sarah said upon returning. Jenny entered through the swinging door behind her, concern marring her normally smiling features.Clark broke off a piece of muffin from the top and popped it into his mouth. It tasted delicious, but was still hard to choke down past the worry and tension clogging his throat.
Jenny sat in the chair beside him and immediately laid a hand on his arm. “What’s wrong?”
Clark shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to tell you that X’s doctor is coming today.”
“That’s fine.” Jenny studied him. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, I guess. We’ll know for sure once Toby checks him over.”
“But what?” Clark said. Sarah clinked quietly in the background, filling muffin tins.
“You seem troubled,” Jenny said. “I’ll listen, if you want to talk.”
Her tone of voice made Clark ache for his mother. He tore the paper wrapper into tiny pieces. “It’s nothing.”
“If it were nothing, you wouldn’t look so unhappy,” Jenny said. She squeezed his arm. “Did you and X have a fight?”
“No,” Clark replied. “In fact, X is more cheerful and agreeable than he’s been in all the time I’ve known him. That’s the problem.”
Clark sighed, blowing the bits of paper across the table, which should’ve been amusing but he was having a hard time feeling anything but foreboding and unease. He scooped the paper shreds back into a pile. “I think X thinks Toby is going to give him a pill and he’ll immediately be better again. Except for getting embarrassed when I have to bathe him, he acts like there’s nothing wrong with him. I know it didn’t take long for him to talk, but…”
“But it will take time for other things,” Jenny completed with understanding. “If other things can be ‘fixed’ at all.”
“Yeah,” Clark said dejectedly.
“There’s nothing you can do, other than be there for him when the bubble pops,” Jenny told him compassionately. “A lot of post-trauma victims have a period of denial until they’ve exhausted all medical avenues. Today will be the first time he’s seen a doctor. He’ll hold onto his hope as hard as he can until your Dr. Toby arrives. After that, the veil will be lifted and– I don’t want to scare you, but things will go downhill from there, possibly very fast. We had a meeting at dinner the other night and I explained the changes X being conscious would bring, so we’re all prepared.”
“Prepared?” Clark looked at her. “You think it’s going to be that bad?”
Jenny shook her head. “No, but X will be angry and resentful at times. You will get angry, too, and frustrated that you can’t help more. Both of you could become depressed because the relationship that you had is no longer the same. You might feel neglected and hurt that he’ll want to do things on his own, after you took care of him for so long.”Clark’s despondency grew with each thing she listed. He’d read all of this at the library after Lex had regained consciousness, but hearing it made it seem that much more disheartening. He had to deal with the guilt of not preventing Lex’s condition, too. And then there was the fear that Toby could be followed and Lex would be taken, or they’d have to flee Haven.
“Just try and remember we all care about you, Kent,” Jenny said. Sarah made affirmative noises over by the stove. “I dusted off my clinical psychologist diploma if you really need to talk or want more knowledgeable answers. Bart will adjust the schedule to fit around you. Don’t let money become an issue, either. We’ve set up working loans before, so tell me or Jim if you need it.”
Jenny held up her hand. “No protesting. Family helps family, and that’s that. Now, eat your muffin before Sarah thinks you don’t like it.”
Clark swallowed the lump in his throat, broke off a piece of muffin, and stuffed it in his mouth before he gave in to the urge to hug her and never let go.
Lex was staring at his crotch. At first, Clark thought it was merely the position of Lex’s head and his limited movement, but then Lex’s eyes would follow Clark’s hands or drop down to foot level before returning to his crotch. Clark would’ve felt a stirring of hope, amongst other stirrings, if Lex’s expression were one of lust and not contemplation. Finally, after the tenth checking of his zipper, Clark couldn’t take it any longer. “Is my fly open or something?”
Lex’s gaze swept upward, confusion evident. “What?”
“You keep looking at my zipper. Is it undone?” Clark checked again, to be sure.
“No. I—” Lex appeared sheepish for a moment, before his brow furrowed again. “You look so human.”
Clark leaned against the table strewn with the remains of his lunch, delivered by Sarah while they waited for Toby to arrive. He’d been cleaning up after himself when the staring had begun. Folding his arms, his lips twitched with bemusement. “The tentacle only comes out during sex.”
The expression on Lex’s face was priceless. Clark burst out laughing. “I’m kidding.”
Clark snickered. “You stepped right into that one.”
“I was being serious,” Lex said, though a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Your physical appearance is amazingly human-like.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Clark said, all traces of humor gone. He fought the instinct to defend his normalcy. Lex wasn’t looking at him like he was a freak, like Pete had when he’d learned the truth. “If all life begins the same way, wouldn’t it make sense it develops the same way, too?”
“It’s a statistical improbability.” Clark could practically see the gears whirring in Lex’s mind. “Taking into account the Butterfly Effect, Darwin’s theories on evolution, astronomical data on our sun, the rotation of the planet, the shape of our galaxy—”
“Bullets bounce off me, Lex,” Clark interrupted, before the conversation went over his head. “I’m different enough.”
“Bullets…” Lex’s eyes became unfocused, as his thoughts turned inward. “I held a gun on you. I thought you were in collusion with Edge.”
“You didn’t shoot me,” Clark assured him quickly. He kept silent about the horrible night Lex had shot him while under Rickman’s control. “Don’t you remember what happened?”
Lex went silent, thinking. Clark didn’t press and returned to cleaning up his lunch dishes. “It’s not very clear,” Lex said eventually. “I know what you told me, but I can’t recall exactly what occurred.”
Clark could see him withdrawing. He stopped what he was doing and laid a hand on Lex’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It’s over. You’re out of Belle Reve and you’ll be on your feet again before you know it.”
Lex didn’t respond and Clark wanted to kick himself. Lex had been drugged and had had severe head trauma; of course his memory would be foggy. Before he could reassure Lex again, a rumble snagged his attention and he turned towards the window. The noise grew steadily louder. “Sounds like Toby’s arrived,” Lex said.
“Good.” Clark gave Lex’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze and went outside to meet Toby.
The May sun warmed Clark’s skin as he shielded his eyes with his hand. He stood at the curve of the driveway, gaping at the dozen-plus motorcycles driving up the lane. Bikers in sleeveless leather vests, heavy beards, and mirrored sunglasses slowed as they approached. One of the doubled-up riders pulled ahead and came to a stop in front of Clark.
Toby clapped the driver on the back and climbed off the bike. He detached a satchel from its straps and swung it over his shoulder. A gray braid hung down the center of his back, over the battered logo of the Metropolis Hell’s Angels on his short-sleeved jacket. He grinned at Clark with teeth yellowed from cigarettes, as the motorcycles made a u-turn on the driveway and headed out.
“Good to see you, kid,” Toby said, accepting Clark’s handshake. “I’ve been waiting for your call. Where’s Chicken Little?”
“This way.” Clark glanced in the direction the bikers had gone before they cut across the manicured lawn in the direction of the bunkhouse. He raised his hand in acknowledgement to Garner, who’d emerged from the main house, indicating everything was okay. It was a lie, because with Toby’s arrival, Clark's anxiety heightened. Their sanctuary was at risk, despite the precautions taken to keep Toby’s destination under wraps.
“Lex, you shit, what have you done to yourself this time?” Toby said the moment he laid eyes on Lex. Lex’s wheelchair was angled beside the kitchen table. A lightweight blanket draped on his lap, as the air conditioner had been turned on already.
“Rebelled too much,” Lex replied dryly.
“I’ll say.” Toby dropped his satchel on the table, opened it up, and dug out a penlight. He crouched beside Lex’s chair and flashed the light across both eyes. “When I heard you’d disappeared with the kid here, I tried to get my hands on your medical files. No luck. The old bastard has eyes and ears all over.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“No.” Toby pulled out a stethoscope next. “But it leaves me in the dark as to what you need.”
“He regained consciousness from a vegetative state a few days ago.” Clark picked up the logbook from the table, half-hidden under the flap of Toby’s satchel. He passed it over Lex’s shoulder to Toby. “I recorded his medical and nutritional stats since January and I have his chart from the hospital in L.A.”
Toby thumbed through the logbook. “I’m impressed. You finally picked a good one, Lex.”
“I know,” Lex said.
Clark ducked his head at the sincerity he heard. “I’ll go get the chart.”
When Clark returned from the bedroom, Toby was poking Lex’s sock-clad foot with a pencil. “Feel that?” Toby said.
“Yes.” Lex’s brow creased with frustration. “I can feel everywhere, I just can’t move.”
“Don’t get your nuts in a knot; that’s a good thing.” Toby took the chart from Clark. “Means your brain knows your limbs are there.”
It was the first time Clark saw Lex reacting to his condition. Clark felt a little relieved by it. Denial wouldn’t help Lex get better.
“I need to be on my feet, Toby,” Lex said. “I can’t deal with my father like this.”
“That’s why I’m here.” Toby dropped the chart on the table, leaned forward, and looked Lex dead in the eyes. “It’s not gonna be tomorrow, though, understand? You really fucked yourself up this time. Your whacked-out healing ability is probably the only reason you regained consciousness at all. Don’t be expecting to tilt at windmills right away.”
Lex was unhappy. “Just do what you need to do to get me moving again.”
Toby nodded and straightened on the chair. “Got a phone book, kid?” he said to Clark.
“Sure.” Clark fetched the one kept under the phone. Toby flipped through the local yellow pages to the medical listings, then pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. He caught Clark’s worried look and waved him off.
“It’s a pre-paid phone. I bought it when I got here,” Toby said. He ran his finger down the listings and stopped on the Oncology section.
“What’s oncology?” Clark asked.Toby dialed a number listed. “Cancer specialist. Best way to hide baldy here is to go to a hospital where it’s common.”
Lex scowled. Clark thought it was a stroke of genius.
“Administrator’s office, please,” Toby said into the receiver. He crossed his booted foot over his knee and laid the chart on the crook of his leg. He flipped through it as he waited to be connected. “Hello. This is Dr. Tobias Kowalski, license number one-five-one-one-nine. I have a homebound chronic lymphoblastic leukemia patient I’d like to bring in for a full remission workup. I’ll need blood tests, urinalysis, and throat cultures, a Swallow test, diagnostic, therapeutic, and physical assessments, an MRI, and I may need to schedule a surgery to have a g-tube removed…”
Banished from the hospital (“They’re watching for a bald guy and a kid, not an old fart and his CLL patient.”), Clark sat on a hillock behind the gleaming white building, overlooking the main driveway. Forearms propped on his bent knees, he tore blades of grass into miniscule pieces as he kept an eye out for the police or FBI. At times, he would suddenly hear Lex’s voice or the steady beat of his heart, but it would fade quickly. He wondered if it was a new ability, to locate Lex when they were apart. He doubted it, but a small part of him could enjoy the somewhat sappy thought.
When Toby eventually appeared, carrying a tray with dinner, Clark didn’t know whether to be worried or relieved. His conflicting emotions must have been plain on his face. “No worries, kid. Lex is wowing everyone, as usual,” Toby said, taking a seat in the grass beside him.
Clark set the tray he’d been given on the other side of him and picked up the bottle of juice. “He’s okay, then?” he asked.
“Better than, considering,” Toby said. “The blood tests we’ve gotten back so far are negative for infection or illness, which isn’t surprising. He’s got full feeling in his body and is already re-recognizing the signs that he’s got to hit the head, so you’ll be out of the diaper business soon.”
Toby grinned. Clark didn’t find it amusing. “What about his not being able to move?”
“Physical therapist’s finishing up with the evaluation now,” Toby said. “The other evaluations came up roses. His reading is a little dicey, but nothing that sets off alarms. No problems with speech or memory, either, other than what he told me after the test: that there are blank spots surrounding how he got confined at Belle Reve.”
“He was heavily drugged,” Clark said, turning the juice bottle over in his hands, watching the liquid slosh inside the plastic container. “Lionel had something put in the scotch, to make Lex paranoid and out of control, so he’d get locked up and no one would believe what he said.”
“They probably drugged him at Belle Reve, too, until Lex came enough out of the fog to start cheeking the pills,” Toby said. He shook his head with pity. “The things that man does to his own son.”
“Yeah.” Clark clenched his jaw and tried not to crush the juice bottle. “Father of the year.”
Toby pulled a pack of cigarettes from his borrowed lab coat pocket and lit one. The acrid scent curled past Clark’s nose. “The MRI showed some scarred spots from the ECT, but nothing to the extent that would cause permanent impairment.”
“But…?” Clark prompted, as a sickening feeling settled in his stomach.
“But nothing.” Toby shrugged. “From what I could see, Lex shouldn’t have been in a coma at all, which actually means his brain was really fucked up by the ECT and his body shut itself down so it could work on fixing the damage.” He took a drag from his cigarette and exhaled towards the sky. “Chicken Little is damn lucky the sky fell on him that day when he was a kid, blessing him with a super-healing ability, or else we wouldn’t be sitting at this hospital with Lex schmoozing the staff.”
Clark had never thought his arrival on earth was a blessing before, considering the death and destruction the meteorites had wrought on Smallville. No one had had a positive mutation caused by the kryptonite that he knew of – until now. “So, you think he’ll fully recover?” Clark asked.
“Yep.” Toby took the orange juice from Clark, opened the bottle, and gulped down half the contents before handing it back. “The physical stuff’s mostly from disuse. The g-tube can come out today – you’ll still have to feed him until he gets his hands and arms working again, but he says he doesn’t mind and that you wouldn’t either.”
“Not at all,” Clark said immediately.
“That’s what I like to hear.” Toby clapped him on the knee, dropping ash on the calf of his jeans. “Friends like you are hard to come by, especially for someone who’s scared to death of letting anyone get close.”
“We’re a lot alike,” Clark said, one of the reasons they’d remained friends for so long. It was something most people couldn’t see, or chose not to, because of their last names.
“Then you know what to expect over the next several weeks,” Toby said. “Lex isn’t used to not being able to do things. Most likely, he’ll push himself too hard and end up being set back because of it. Regardless, he’ll be an ornery SOB—,” Toby smiled knowingly at Clark, “—but I don’t doubt you’ll care for him just the same.”
Clark couldn’t sleep. He sat in his boxers and a t-shirt at the table, playing solitaire. A plate of uneaten cookies and a half-empty glass of milk stood by his elbow. Lex had crashed before they’d even left the hospital parking lot and Toby had been openly granted a spare room in the bunkhouse. The ranch hands had long since gone to bed. The green numbers of the microwave clock taunted Clark, another hour passing with malicious glee.
He wished he could sleep. He was strung out from worrying all day about Lex and about being found by the authorities. His mind refused to settle, though, with the new concerns plaguing him. It was certain now that Lex would need more help than Clark could give him. Toby would be staying just long enough to be sure Lex’s nutrition intake remained stable. He reminded Clark that he needed to get back to Metropolis to set up the siphoned payments through a friend for Lex’s medical bills, to establish Toby’s cover story. The reminder about Lionel further weighed on his thoughts, keeping him awake, making him again question the wisdom in contacting Toby and wondering how he could keep Lex’s further care off the radar.
“Now what is it?”
Clark jumped in his seat, startled by Mitch’s voice. He hadn’t heard anyone come into the main living area. “What?” he said, confused, as Mitch ambled past him, over to the fridge, and took out a Tupperware container of leftover chicken.
“You’re sitting out here in the middle of the night, looking like the world’s about to end once again.” Dressed in a pair of sweats, Mitch straddled the chair across from Clark, plunking the chicken on the table. “Most people’d be happy if their significant others woke from a coma, but these past few days, you’ve been more miserable than when you first got here. What gives?”
“Um…” Clark didn’t know how to answer. Did he really seem miserable? Lex waking up was great news, even though it made things more complicated.
Mitch shook his head. “Never mind. Whatever it is, you’re wrong, stop worrying, Jenny will fix it, Jim will pay for it, and the rest of us have been through something similar, so don’t think you’re anything special.”
A smile spread involuntarily across Clark’s lips. “I’m nothing special, huh?”
“Nope.” Mitch chose a chicken wing and offered the container to Clark. “You’re just another stray that found his way to Haven. It’s pretty common. Must be something about the food.”
Clark took a drumstick with a chuckle. “Must be.”
“So, you done being depressed?”
“For tonight,” Clark answered cheekily. “I’m sure I’ll think of something to be depressed about again tomorrow.”
Mitch snorted and bit into his chicken. They finished the food in the Tupperware container in companionable silence.
“This is dumb,” Clark declared, pushing his chair back from the table. Toby stopped mid-argument with Lex to look at him questioningly. “We’re going to talk to Jenny.”
“We shouldn’t involve anyone else,” Lex began, but Clark cut him off.
“Jenny is already involved.” Clark released the brakes on Lex’s wheelchair and aimed for the door. Toby followed. The Garners and everyone else on the ranch had been telling him repeatedly that they were willing to help. It was time for him to put aside his pride and ask for it. “Someone either has to come here or we have to take the truck every day. We don’t have any other option.”
“I’ll have Toby purchase a vehicle—”
“With what money?”
“He has money in the account I set up for him a long time ago—”
“That’s being used to pay for your trip to the hospital yesterday.” Clark glanced at Toby, who nodded. Toby wore a highly amused grin, as he walked beside them from the bunkhouse to the main house. “And if your father knows about the account, we want him only to trace it to Toby’s friend and not some car dealer.”
Lex went quiet a minute. “He probably does know about it,” he muttered finally, in a disgusted tone.
“So we have to make sure we continue to fly under the radar,” Clark said. He leaned closer to Lex and spoke quietly by his ear. “I’ve kept you safe this long. Trust me when I make a decision.”
Lex pursed his lips, but said nothing more.
Sarah’s surprise was replaced by genuine happiness in seeing Lex in her kitchen once more. “I’ve missed having you sit with me during the day,” she said, startling him with a kiss on the cheek. “How are you doing?”
“As well as can be expected,” Lex said, radiating discomfort to those who knew him. He didn’t like people touching him unless he initiated contact.
Except Clark had invaded Lex’s space since day one and Lex had never seemed uncomfortable with it. Clark knew not to pin his hopes on that tidbit of a reminder from Sarah. Friendship, for Lex, probably included the permission for such intimacies in his mind. Clark knew for a fact that Lex didn’t think like normal people, but that’s one of the reasons Clark liked him.
“I’ve got pie leftover from yesterday’s dessert, if you gentlemen want a piece,” Sarah said, already taking it out of the fridge. “Or I could whip you up some lunch early. I’m making tuna salad today.”
“That’s okay, Sarah,” Clark said. “We just came up to talk to Jenny, if she’s around.”
“Speak for yourself, kid.” Toby beamed at Sarah. “I’d be delighted to have a piece of that pie.”
Lex gave Clark a look that spoke volumes, after Clark took the chair beside him at the kitchen table. Clark gazed steadily back, responding in kind. He knew what Lex was telling him: that he didn’t want to do this, that it was a mistake, that he would come up with another way, but Clark felt it was necessary if Lex wanted to be physically independent again.
He said as much to Jenny, in so many words, when she joined them in the kitchen. “X needs daily physical therapy, but we can’t figure how to make it happen.”
“You know that the truck is available for you to use,” Jenny said. Toby straddled the chair beside her, devouring his pie.
“We’re talking several hours a day, Jenny,” Clark said. “Then, there’s all the time I’d miss from work taking him and Bart probably has a list a mile long for me to do already.”
“You know that won’t be a problem,” Jenny said, “but if you’re that concerned about it, either Jim, Sarah, or I could always take him.”
“Thanks, but…” Clark glanced at Lex, wondering how to explain the need to run if the authorities showed up. “Uh…”
“There are issues involving our parents that you’re not aware of,” Lex took over, thankfully. “Problems may arise that would make it prudent for Kent to be present.”
“Issues?” Jenny said with gentle concern.
“My father doesn’t believe Kent can provide adequate care for me and will interfere in any way possible,” Lex said.
“You’re of age and have regained consciousness,” Jenny said. “The law says you’re in control of your own medical care.Clark smiled without humor. “The law also says bribery and blackmail are illegal.”
Sarah made a sound of disbelief, as she set a cup of coffee in front of Toby. “The kid’s not lying,” Toby said. “Daddy’s a real piece of work.”
“Is that why you two left home?” Jenny asked Clark.
“Yeah,” Clark said, accepting the mug of coffee Sarah held out.
“Homosexual partners don’t have the same rights as married couples,” Lex said. “None of this would be an issue if Kent were my spouse.”
“It’s an unfair world,” Jenny agreed. Clark ducked his head, avoiding the sympathy in her eyes. He felt guilty enough about the lie of their relationship without her wanting to give them a wedding if she could.
“The boys would be safest staying put,” Toby spoke up, scraping his plate with his fork. “I know a guy who does in-home PT. Brings his own equipment. All he needs is a place to set it up.”
“Doesn’t Karen Crabtree do in-home rehabilitation, too?” Sarah said to Jenny.
“For bedridden patients,” Jenny said. “I don’t think she handles cases like X’s.”
“Would Toby’s friend be allowed to come?” Clark said. He glanced at Toby. “He wouldn’t need to stay here, right?”
“Nah. He’d stay in the city,” Toby said. “Treat it as a working vacation.”
“I suppose we could move the furniture out of one of the bedrooms in the bunkhouse,” Jenny said, tapping her fingers on the table. “I’ll need more information about him, though.”
Clark saw Lex starting to droop, which was unsurprising. He tired easily and Toby’d said he’d probably nap every two hours or so for a while. “Toby, why don’t you give her the information she needs, while X and I go take measurements of one of the bedrooms, to make sure there’ll be enough room?” Clark said, making up an excuse for him and Lex to leave. Lex would be horrifically embarrassed if he fell asleep in front of Jenny and Sarah.
“Good idea,” Toby said. Clark could see he noticed Lex’s sudden fatigue, too. “Bring up my bag when you come back.”
“Make sure you’re back in time for lunch,” Sarah said. “I’ll make you something special, X.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Lex said, and Clark wheeled him out the door.
Outside, the late morning sun streamed through the white clouds drifting across the sky, cutting across the tops of the mountains in the distance. The buzz of a weed-whacker faded on their way down the hill. “Do you want to come up for lunch?” Clark asked, avoiding a divot on the path. He made a mental note to fill it before the end of the day.
“Yes, if you could get me those specialized straws Toby mentioned,” Lex replied. “I know he’ll tell Sarah to make me soup of some sort.”
“No problem. I’ll pick up some along with those nutrition shakes Toby wants you on.”
“You’ll have to borrow money from Toby to pay for it,” Lex said, sounding unhappy about it. “He can reimburse himself from the medical fund.”
“I have money,” Clark said, pushing him up the ramp to the bunkhouse. “Not enough to pay for your hospital bills, or the PT guy, but I can get the other things you need.”
“I’ll pay you back, too. I don’t like that you’re wasting your money on me.”
“You’re not a waste, Lex,” Clark said. “You never will be.”
Lex went on as if he didn’t hear Clark, which meant he was bashfully pleased by what was said. “I brought up a good point before: if we were married, we wouldn’t be having as many problems.”
“True,” Clark said, feeling a pang in his chest.
“I’d marry you right now if it were possible, to give us some legal protection and you the authority over my care and access to my bank accounts,” Lex went on, unknowingly twisting the knife in Clark. Lex’s voice colored with humor. “There’s the added bonus of having a spouse that isn’t trying to kill me, too.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Clark kept his tone light. “Give me a few more days.”
Lex laughed openly, and Clark was glad he was behind the wheelchair, enabling him to hide his aching heart.
John Smith, Toby’s physical therapist friend who had served with him in Vietnam, looked like Ming the Merciless from that Flash Gordon movie Clark’s mom would watch, with a flush to her cheeks, every time Dad went out of town. John’s whipcord thin mustache dangled on either side of his mouth like catfish whiskers. He was as bald as Lex, though the slight discoloration of his scalp showed that he shaved it. Despite his wiry build and short stature, he had no trouble lifting Lex from his wheelchair and threw Clark out five minutes after the first PT session began.
Toby left two days later, with the plan to pay John through the local friend to continue the CLL remission ruse. “Good luck, kid,” Toby said with a clap on Clark’s shoulder, as the same group of bikers that had dropped him off roared up Haven’s drive. “Lex is damn fortunate to have someone like you.”
“I’m doing what any friend would do,” Clark demurred.
Toby laughed. “You keep telling yourself that, Clark. The world needs more people like you.”
Clark pushed open the door and walked quietly into the bedroom. Sunlight peeked through the drawn drapes covering the window. He’d come to wake Lex for lunch, only to find Lex staring at the ceiling with a scowl on his face. “Hey,” Clark said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “Did you just wake up?”
“Were you too sore to sleep?” Clark asked, having been warned about the possibility. “I have that liniment—”
“How can I be sore when I can’t move anything?”
Clark winced internally at the clipped response. “It’s barely been a week,” he tried soothing. Lex’s expression only became darker.
“I had my arm broken in three places and I could use it within a week.” Lex closed his eyes, his jaw tense. “I’m tired. I’d like to take a nap, if you don’t mind.”
Clark held back further attempts at comfort and rose. “I can give you another hour, but then you really need to eat.”
“I’m perfectly capable of deciding when I do or do not need to eat.”
“Toby said you can’t skip any meals,” Clark said. “I’ll be back in an hour. Try and get some sleep.”
Closing the door behind him, Clark stood in the hallway a moment, listening to Lex’s vitriolic mutter about being an invalid. Tucking his hands in his jeans pockets, Clark strolled a few doors down the hall and entered the open bedroom that had been converted into Lex’s rehabilitation room. An exercise machine that utilized tension bands, with a foldable bench, stood prominently in the room. Parallel bars rested against the back wall, unused. Lidded, clear plastic crates held balls of various colors and sizes, weights that strapped to wrists and ankles, and other odd bands and hoops for PT. Free weights in degrees of pounds rested in a pyramid stand. A folded blue gym mat leaned against one of the walls.
John sat in a chair near the door, the desk arm extended, making notes in the black spiral notebook used to chart Lex’s progress. He wore one of his usual faded concert t-shirts and old track pants. He glanced up when Clark entered the room. “Lunchtime already?”
“Yeah.” Clark slouched against the wall and scuffed his toe against the hardwood floor. The Garners had opened their kitchen to John, mainly because they were nice, but also as a way to get to know him better since he was around on a daily basis. From what Clark could tell, John was more laid back than Toby, letting things roll off him like water, which was a good thing when dealing with someone as intense as Lex. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s doing extremely well,” John said with a faint southern drawl, writing as he spoke. “He’s progressing quite a lot faster than normal, but Toby’d said that’s something to be expected.”
“Funny, X doesn’t think he’s making any progress, at all,” Clark said.
“Not the kind he’d notice,” John said. “He’s tightening all the right muscle groups when we work. I can feel it, even if he can’t. It’s just a matter of time and exercise before the muscles build up enough strength for him to move them on his own.”
“Do you have an estimate as to how long that’ll be?”
John’s mustache ends wiggled when he smiled. “X is being testy?”
“Frustrated,” Clark said. “He does better with certainties.”
“With the human body, there are no certainties, Kent,” John said. “If everything went textbook perfect, X could be walking with assistance in eight months to a year.”
“A year?” Toby had forewarned Clark about the possible length of time, but hearing it put it in a whole new light.
“Sounds like forever, don’t it?” John said. “And usually it takes much longer than that.”
“Did you tell X this?”
“First day,” John replied with a nod. “I went over his evaluation and set up some goals with him. I’ll work his whole body, but his priorities are that he can hold his head up and move his hands and arms, so I’m concentrating more on those areas.”
“You can’t do extra PT for his whole body?” Clark said, wanting to help Lex get out of the wheelchair as soon as possible.
John shook his head. “We don’t want to overstress his muscles or exhaust him into illness. Being able to use his hands and arms will give his self-confidence a boost, letting him be more independent in his own care. It’s psychologically debilitating for a man to be completely reliant on another, physically.”
“Yeah, I’ve read that,” Clark said. He’d had some experience with his own dad refusing to stay in bed and let Clark or his mom do things for him whenever he injured himself.
“I have a couple things I want you to do with him, too, starting in the next few days,” John said, closing his notebook.
“Anything,” Clark said, straightening up.
“That’s what I like to hear,” John chuckled, sounding like Toby. “Okay, first off, hold on to your patience with both hands as tightly as you can. I could tell right off X isn’t the kind to bitch to strangers, which means, as his partner, you’re gonna get chewed up and spit out regularly when he works his frustrations out on you.”
Clark knew Lex had a volatile temper and a way to cut a person to ribbons with his words. He just hoped he could keep his temper in return.
“Secondly, when you sit him in his chair, make sure his head is hanging straight. There’s no question that he’ll be trying to lift his head constantly and we want the muscles in his neck to work evenly, not one more than the other like they would if his head is tilted.”
“He’ll need to soak in the bath for at least ten minutes a day,” John continued. “Best if you keep it in the morning with his normal schedule, to ease the soreness that usually develops overnight. Has he complained about that yet?”
“No, but he has been grimacing when I move him,” Clark said.
John opened the notebook again and scribbled something down. “Means he does ache, which means his muscles are definitely getting a workout. You’ll also need to use that liniment I gave you every night right before bed, if possible, but don’t go more than three nights without doing it. Start on his back, neck to feet, and then turn him over to do his quads and arms. Massage it in for about a minute a muscle group. Don’t stop until you’re done, even if he falls asleep. It’ll help reduce the number of knots he’ll have come morning.”
“Okay,” Clark said. “Anything else?”
“Remind him that you love him, still,” John said, and Clark started in surprise. How did he know? Was Clark that obvious? Did Lex know? “Remind him that you’re partners,” John went on, “and that you’re not going to abandon him simply because he’s not the same as he was before. The reassurance will go a long way, even if he dismisses it as pity.”
Clark felt like smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand. Partners loved each other and he and Lex were pretending to be partners. That Clark actually did love Lex was still a secret from him. But Clark could still remind Lex that he was loved as a friend and that Clark wouldn’t abandon him, no matter what. “Okay. I will.”
“Good.” John folded the desk arm and tossed the notebook and pen on the stacked storage crates. “It’s times like these that relationships are truly tested. Just try and remember why you got together to begin with and have faith things will eventually be all right again.”
“What is that?”
Clark stuck the extended straw in the top of the cup. “Strawberry banana. Not your favorite, I know, but we’re out of the other kind and I haven’t had a chance to run to the store.”
“I meant the cup,” Lex said tersely, his normal tone of voice half the time. Dressed in the blue Oxford he’d gotten for his birthday, he sat parked in the wheelchair beside the table with Clark sitting in front of him. The other ranch hands and John had already gone up to the main house for lunch. He’d wheel Lex up to join them after they’d finished the second of five nutritional drinks Lex had to have daily.
“Neat, isn’t it?” Clark lifted the purple cup to eye level for Lex. “It’s one of those kids cups to prevent major spills. You don’t have to worry about trying to hold it on your own—”
“Do you like humiliating me?” Lex interrupted with a glare. “Do you find amusement in treating me like a baby?”
Clark frowned in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“You dress me up, you carry me around, you change my diaper, you give me a bath,” Lex ground out, “and now you feed me from a purple sippy cup.”
“I—” Clark looked at the cup in his hand, seeing it as Lex might, instead of the brilliant idea Clark had thought it would be. “I just thought it’d help.”
“Obviously, thinking isn’t your strong suit.”
Clark tried not to wince and made to stand. “I’ll get you a regular glass.”
“Because that’ll make a difference in the fact that you still feed me,” Lex said.
“It won’t be forever, Lex,” Clark said. “I know you feel like it will—”
“You don’t know how I feel,” Lex said. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like and I don’t appreciate being preached at by a goddamn invulnerable alien.”
Clark did wince, this time. “That’s not fair.”
“Not fair? Not fair?” Lex’s voice rose in anger. “What’s not fair is my being trapped in this wheelchair, unable to move. What’s not fair is that my own father did this to me, after drugging me to make me think I was going crazy. What’s not fair is that I’m stuck in this hovel with nothing but you.”
The words cut like a knife. Clark knew Lex was just lashing out again, but it still hurt to hear. “What do you want me to do, Lex?”
“You can start by taking that fucking cup out of my face.”
“I think I’m most looking forward to the day I can wipe my own ass,” Lex said with a grimace of a smile.
Crouched in front of him, Clark undid the safety belt that buckled across Lex’s arms and chest, keeping him upright on the toilet, and caught him as he fell forward. “As non-bothersome as it is,” Clark said, letting Lex drape partially over his bare shoulder as he used the toilet paper, “I second that. Some things are meant to stay private.”
“To think, there are people who get off on this kind of thing,” Lex said.
“Well, I’m definitely not one of them.” Clark hoisted Lex completely off the toilet and deposited him right into the half-filled bathtub. He settled Lex into the specialty bath seat that prevented him from sliding underwater and adjusted the bath pillow under his head. “Okay?”
“Yes.” The circles under Lex’s eyes from lack of sleep looked like bruises. Clark made a mental note to make him nap extra today. He’d been pushing himself to exhaustion but not giving himself time to sleep. “It could be a little warmer.”
“Sure.” Clark adjusted the tap and kept half an eye on the water level as he took his toothbrush out of the hanging line with the other ranch hands’ toothbrushes.
“This is the most domestic I’ve ever been,” Lex said out of the blue. Adjusting the waistband of his sleep-shorts, Clark looked at him in the reflection of the mirror, working the brush over his teeth. Lex had turned his head on the bath pillow and was watching him in return. “I don’t like sharing a bathroom.”
“‘Ou bin mwawweed twish.”
“I meant, I don’t like using the bathroom at the same time, unless there’s sex involved,” Lex said, appearing amused by Clark’s speaking around the toothbrush. “I find it uncomfortable.”
Clark spat out the toothpaste and quickly rinsed his mouth. He dropped his toothbrush in its slot. “Do you want me to leave? I’ll have to keep an ear on you outside the door, but I think we can leave you alone for ten minutes—”
“No, Clark. It’s fine. You’re fine.” Lex’s lips tugged up on one side. “That’s just it: I don’t mind your being in here at all.”
“Oh. Um…” The admission made Clark feel awkward and, deep down, a bit pleased. He gave Lex a weak grin. “We’re friends. Maybe that’s why.”
“Hmm.” Lex didn’t say anything else, and Clark was very aware of the eyes on him as he washed his face and attempted to tame his bed-head.
“When we get home, I’m firing my masseuse and hiring you.”
Clark smiled as he worked his way down Lex’s back. “You say that every time I do this.”
“Because it’s a promise.” The vanilla smell of the liniment filled the bedroom. Faint moonlight spilled through the gap in the curtains over the window. The glow of the dying camping lantern perched on the dresser cast soft shadows on Lex’s bare skin.
Clark reached the edge of Lex’s overnight incontinence briefs and moved past them, onto his left leg. “Go to sleep, Lex.”
“Don’t know if I can,” Lex said, his voice muffled somewhat by the pillow. “My stomach still hurts.”
“Maybe it’s too soon to have you eating such heavy solids,” Clark said, forehead furrowing with concern. “I’ll ask Sarah to make you soup tomorrow and maybe try a sandwich on Friday.”
“Don’t make me eat soup.
I’m tired of soup. I practically
Clark’s worry washed away at Lex’s whine. “Soup is good for you,” he teased.
“Soup is making me gain weight.”“It’s supposed to.” He pinched Lex’s side, earning a curse word thrown at him. “You could use some fattening up.”
“Oh, I see your plan now,” Lex said with sleepy humor. “You’re one of those kinds of aliens who like to eat humans for lunch.”
Clark snorted in laughter. “Don’t worry, Lex. My kind only eats females. You’re safe.”
“Mmn, I would’ve figured the women were the sex slaves and the men got eaten.”
Clark barely twitched, despite the jolt that went through him at the unintentional mention of one of his masturbating fantasies. Only, it was usually starring Lex as the sex slave. He swallowed and continued massaging Lex’s foot. “You’d be wrong.”
“Would I now?” Lex murmured, sounding too much like liquid seduction to be fair. “Even about Lana?”
Clark did pause, then, as realization set in. “I haven’t thought about Lana for…,” he searched his mind, his tone somewhat stunned, “…since before Christmas.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
“No, it’s true.” Clark moved onto Lex’s other foot, starting the massage up the other leg. “Wow. I mean, I knew things were over between us a long time ago, when I realized—” he caught himself just in time, before he revealed his feelings for Lex, “—when I figured out I didn’t have a romantic interest in her anymore, but she’s still my friend and I forgot about her completely.”
In fact, now that he thought about it, he’d put all of his friends out of his mind. He’d been gone for over six months and had never tried contacting Chloe or Pete. What kind of friend was he?
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Lex said, like he could read Clark’s mind. “When you’re intent on something, you focus entirely on it, sometimes at the expense of other things. Lana, and any of your friends, know that about you.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Chloe did know what really happened and she would’ve explained to Pete. Pete didn’t like Lex, but he understood Clark’s need to use his abilities to help. Clark’s extended silence wouldn’t hurt either of them, and Lana… Clark could honestly admit he didn’t care that much what she thought, which made him also feel guilty, but not enough to do anything about it. “I guess I’ll find out if we ever go home.”
“Try not to worry, Clark,” Lex said sleepily. “No matter what happens, you’ll always have me as a friend.”
Clark wrapped his arms around himself and bit the inside of his cheek, as Lex’s words carved a hole in him.
“I’m sick and tired of seeing pity on your face whenever you look at me. You’re the one who turned me into this useless cripple. You abandoned me to the wolves after you promised to help me. You gave me to my father, wrapped in a strait jacket with a bow. You might as well have plugged me in yourself.”
He tried to remember that Lex didn’t mean it, that he was just frustrated and angry with his body and the slow progress.
It didn’t make it hurt any less.
“Brutus, at least, had the decency to kill Caesar…”
“‘I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a forty-four Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?’”
Clark reached over the arm of Lex’s wheelchair for more popcorn, only to collide with Lex’s fingers over the nearly empty bowl. He turned away from the television when Lex’s hand covered his and lightly squeezed. Lex gestured with his chin, as he popped another kernel of popcorn in his mouth. Clark looked where told and saw that Rich had fallen over the arm of the other chair, sound asleep, his mouth wide open. A visible line of drool dangled towards the floor.
Clark grinned at Rich and then at Lex, before stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth and returning his attention to the movie.
Clark almost asked what Lex was doing when he heard the snore. His features creased with a grin and he tiptoed closer. The wheelchair faced the linen closet at the end of the hall. Lex was sound asleep, snoring quite loudly, his hands still on the wheels. He must’ve nodded off while taking a break between laps up and down the hallway.
Clark suppressed a snicker as another loud snore followed him back down the hall. He’d let Lex sleep for a while longer.
“I told you he would beat the pants off us,” Clark said, tossing his cards down like the others.
Lex stretched against his harness, trying to reach the chips in the middle of the table. “My father provided me with the best players as tutors.”
“Cool. Was it fun playing with them?” Rich asked.
“I didn’t play to have fun. I played to learn how to read people, in order to best take their money from them.”
Bart exchanged a long look with Kim, while Antwone shook his head and Mitch clicked his tongue. “The more I hear about your father, the more I think he’s an asshole,” Mitch said. “Then again, most fathers are.”
“Not Kent’s,” Lex said.
Clark snorted derisively, as he helped Lex gather his winnings. “Who do you think stopped me from helping you for so long, just because of your name?”
“You both have a different family now, so try not to dwell on the past,” Kim said. He shuffled the cards. “Ante up.”
Clark wiped the sweat from his brow and tugged his ball cap lower over his forehead, shading his eyes from the hot sun. Bart had said that it was hotter than usual, but that it was hot at all in October was strange to Clark; he was usually wearing his fall coat by now. He’d also be in school, instead of lazing around in the grass. He couldn’t say he was all that upset about it, other than missing his friends. He wondered if they were enjoying their senior year so far and if they were thinking about him.
Pushing aside the melancholy that thought caused, he glanced over at Lex. Dressed in loose jeans and a plaid summer shirt, Lex sat in his wheelchair in the shade of the tree. Sweat glistened on his head and damp patches blotted the short-sleeved shirt beneath his arms. The pick-up game of kickball the current guests’ children had been playing had long since ended, but Clark felt too wilted to move. It was his day off, so he didn’t have to budge if he didn’t want to, but would if Lex needed to go in.
“You melted yet?” Clark asked, reaching over to swat Lex lightly on the shin. Clark sat in the grass at the top of the gentle hill overlooking the back four thousand. He could see the rolling mountains in the distance, covered in forest green, which never ceased to be beautiful.
“Getting there,” Lex said, with a lazy smile down at Clark. Above the harness, he unbuttoned another shirt button after a bit of struggling and fanned the collar. “If there wasn’t that breeze, I’d have been a puddle long ago.”
“Sarah has some iced tea made, or we could have one of those lemon ice things from the freezer when we get back,” Clark said, plucking a blade of grass. He put it between his thumbs and blew. A high-pitched whistle filled the air.
Lex chuckled. “I remember when someone did that at school once, when I was a kid. I figured out all the science behind it, calculated the numbers, but could never do it myself.”
“You’ve come to the right man, then.” Clark plucked a new piece of grass, stood, and moved behind the wheelchair. He leaned partially over Lex’s shoulder and gave Lex the grass. “Okay. Put the blade between your thumbs, then cup your hands like this.”
Lex did as instructed, the thin blade stretched behind his thumbs, across the small opening left between the two digits. “All right.”
“Now, you want to blow against your thumbs like you’re playing a trumpet.”
“That’ll be difficult, considering I don’t know how to play the trumpet.”Clark bumped into the handle of the wheelchair in his attempt to show Lex what he meant. Lex’s chair rocked and he sent an amused glance at Clark, when he came around the side. “Maybe I’d be safer if you taught me on the ground.”
“You’ll get your jeans dirty,” Clark warned with a teasing grin.
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Lex said. He popped the safety catch on the harness and Clark had to move swiftly to catch him before he flopped forward. The muscles in Lex’s lower back continued to give him problems and he was still unable to support himself if he leaned too far forward or back.
Lex wrapped his arms around Clark shoulders, as Clark ripped open the straps securing Lex’s calves. He moved his hands underneath Lex’s arms and lifted him up. Lex’s lower body dangled helplessly as Clark took a few steps away from the wheelchair. His legs folded like an accordion when he was lowered to the ground.
Lex didn’t let go of Clark like he normally did and Clark had to twist like a pretzel in order to sit. “Lex…?” he said questioningly. Lex embraced Clark tighter in response.
Clark closed his eyes as emotion welled inside him. He brought his arms around Lex and returned the hug, the first Lex had initiated since long before this mess began. “I’m so glad you woke up,” he whispered, soaking in the feeling of holding Lex and being held in return.
Lex pulled back slowly and Clark smiled wobbly as Lex studied his face. The leaves on the tree overhead rustled in the breeze. A bird sang from one of the branches and a reply echoed in the distance. “Would I had hair, I would cut it off if I ever lost you,” Lex said.Clark didn’t understand, but he could tell whatever Lex meant was profound. “You’ll never lose me, Lex,” he said, responding to the part he’d gotten.
“I’ll hold you to that.” Lex gave him a faint smile and removed his arms from around Clark’s shoulders. He held up the blade of grass. “Teach me how to do this.”
“It’s hard to believe there’s actually something you don’t know how to do.” Clark let the solemnity drift away on the breeze and adjusted their positions into a more comfortable arrangement. “I thought you were an expert at everything…”
Clark wiped his face with the hem of his t-shirt as he entered the bunkhouse and made a beeline for the refrigerator. “Hey,” he greeted Lex, who was at the kitchen table, writing on a tablet of paper. Several pages of paper were folded over the top edge of the tablet. “What’cha doing?”
“Trying to come up with a way to deal with my father,” Lex said.
“Oh.” Clark hadn’t actually forgotten about Lionel, but he’d pushed that problem to the recesses of his mind in hopes that it would simply go away. He took a bottle of water from the fridge and twisted off the cap. “Having any luck?”
“I have a few tricks up my sleeve that may work.”
Unease trickled down Clark’s spine. “Do you think you’re ready to stand up to him?”
Lex looked down at his legs, strapped in the wheelchair, then at Clark with a dry smile. “The standing part might be difficult still.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m only getting started, Clark,” Lex reassured. “There’s no need for concern.”
Clark nodded, though a sense of foreboding hovered above his head. “You won’t do anything without telling me first, will you?”
“I’ll keep you apprised of what you need to know,” Lex said.
Clark nodded again and headed back outside into the bright sunshine, where Lionel plagued his thoughts for the rest of the day.
Clark turned at the squeak of a wheel and quickly set down his tools as Lex rolled inside the maintenance barn. “X, what are you doing?! It’s pouring outside.”
Heavy rain beat against the roof like a stampede of horses and splashed in mud puddles forming on the ground outside. Bart, Kim, and the other ranch hands glanced over at Clark’s exclamation. A yellow rain poncho hung over Lex’s shoulders and the back of the chair, keeping him somewhat dry. Droplets of water clung to his face and head.
Clark used the edge of his flannel shirt to wipe Lex’s head. “Why did you come out here? You’re going to get yourself sick.”
Lex batted Clark away. “Stop treating me like an invalid.”
Clark stepped back and folded his arms. “You want me to treat you like an idiot instead?”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing?” Lex pulled a damp sheaf of papers from under the poncho and waved it at Clark. “Do you think you were helping by keeping me in the dark?”
Clark took the papers. They were printouts of articles from the office computer, which Lex had gotten permission to use from Garner in his continued search for a way to fix the Lionel problem. On each page was that hated name, in bold: Lionel Luthor. But there was a second name bolded, too – his own. He speed-read through the pages. All of them were about Clark Kent having kidnapped Lex Luthor, the FBI’s involvement, and warrants out for Clark’s arrest.
“I told you we were in hiding,” Clark said, keeping his voice down. He glanced over his shoulder. The others were being obvious in their not listening.
“From my father, not from the FBI,” Lex hissed. “It’s a rather important piece of information that you conveniently left out.”
The music playing from the radio, hanging on a support beam, and the rain helped block his and Lex’s voices, but it would be better if they didn’t have this conversation here. He held out the papers to Lex. “Can we talk about this later?”
“You’d better believe we will.” Lex snatched the pages from Clark’s hand. “You’re lucky I made several duplicates of Edge’s confession and the insurance papers—”
“What?” Clark jerked in alarm. “Are you crazy? You can’t use that information.”
Lex stared at Clark like he was the idiot. “Of course I’m going to use it. It’s the strongest leverage we have.”
“It’s what almost killed you!”
“All the more reason to use it. My father would do anything not to let it get out.”
Clark grabbed the arms of Lex’s wheelchair and thumped the tires on the ground. “Look what he did to you! You’re lucky you’re able to move. You’re lucky you woke up at all.”
“He wouldn’t dare try it again,” Lex said. “Not with the publicity that would surround my return.”
“No, instead he’d have a back room butcher give you a lobotomy and blame it on a relapse.” Clark clenched his hands into fists before he shook Lex. “God, how can you be so stupid?”
Lex glared. “I’ve had years more experience in dealing with my father than you have. I know how to handle him.”
Clark barked a humorless laugh that echoed in the rafters. “And wheelchairs are the new Porsche, I take it?”
“I’m not going to be stuck in this thing forever,” Lex said tightly. “I’m also not the one who’ll go to jail for twenty-to-life.”
“I’d hand myself over to be dissected if it meant keeping you safe from that bastard.” Clark leveled Lex with a look. “I won’t let you get hurt again. Ever. Understand?”
He didn’t wait to see if Lex agreed. He stalked out of the barn into the rain.
It was late when Clark returned. He'd channeled his anger into pounding rocks by the river, but while his ire had dissipated, he now felt powerless. He didn’t know what he could really do to protect Lex. Short of either locking Lex up or murdering Lionel, Clark was helpless to do anything.
Clark was surprised to see Lex sitting on the bunkhouse porch. He had a blanket over his lap and was wearing different clothing. A few bugs flitted against the light next to the door. “You shouldn’t be out here. You’ll catch a cold.”
“I’m fine.” Lex looked him over, concern creasing the corners of his eyes. “Are you okay?”
Clark shrugged and brushed his wet hair back. It curled against his shoulders and dripped onto his soaked clothes. “I can’t get sick.”
Lex didn’t have to say it wasn’t what he meant, because they both knew it. Clark dropped down onto the porch beside Lex’s chair and rested his forearms on his bent knees, staring out into the dark. The rain continued to come down, tinkling against the gutters. “It’s a bad idea,” he said after a few minutes of silence.
“We’ll figure something out, Clark,” Lex said. Clark felt fingers brush against his temple and glanced up at Lex. Lex gave him a faint smile. “Bart and the others have already offered to help.”
Clark worried immediately. “Do they know—?”
Lex shook his head, cutting him off. “Only that my father is the main reason we’re here and that’s something they already knew.”
Clark remembered the half-lie he had told about their parents not believing he could care for Lex properly. Clark sighed and bowed his head. “I don’t want to get them more involved than they already are.”
“Neither do I.” Lex tugged on a lock of Clark’s hair. “Let’s go inside.”
Clark held the door as Lex wheeled inside. Mitch was the only one still up, sitting in front of the television. Clark gave him a half-wave and an apologetic smile as he followed Lex.
“I’m going to take a shower,” Clark said when they got to the bedroom. He stripped off his wet shirts and socks. He’d kicked off his shoes by the front door, but he was sure he’d left damp footprints trailing down the hall.
“Give me a hand, first,” Lex said, tossing the blanket aside. He unhooked the harness and caught his weight with his hands. He lowered himself forward and ripped open the straps securing his legs.
Clark made quick work of assisting Lex in changing for bed. He tried not to get the sheets wet as he settled Lex beneath them. “Okay?” he asked.
“Yes.” Lex reached for the magazine on the nightstand.
Clark turned on the new lamp for him and winced internally when he saw the clock. He hadn’t realized it was that late. “I don’t think I’ll rub you down tonight, if that’s okay. We both should’ve been asleep hours ago.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lex said, shooing him towards the door. “Go and take your shower.”
Clark shut off the overhead light on his way out of the bedroom. In the bathroom, he took a long look at himself in the mirror. He appeared tired and afraid and had a bit of a wild-man thing going with his hair. It was rapidly approaching a year since he’d last cut it.
Rubbing a hand over his face, he got into the shower and washed off the clammy feeling of being in the rain. His thoughts, once again, drifted to the articles Lex had showed him. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he’d broken into Belle Reve in his partially failed attempt to rescue Lex. He’d been worried when Toby and John had come, but it had been months and no one suspicious had shown up at Haven, looking for Clark or Lex.
Since the beginning, he’d expected Lex to figure a way out of the mess, but now that the time was upon him, he was reluctant to let it happen. He liked it at Haven. Life was simple: he enjoyed his work, he had a family built of friends, and he had Lex. His missed his parents, but not in a way that he’d consider being homesick.
Because he was home.
Clark sighed and shut off the shower. Somehow, he always managed to make things more complicated without even trying.
Lex was asleep when Clark returned to the bedroom, his arm hanging over the bed. The magazine pages fanned on the floor. Clark picked the magazine up, put it on the nightstand, and shut off the lamp. Faint light came through the gap in the curtains from the porch light. Clark crawled into bed from the foot and snuggled under the lightweight covers with his back to the wall.
Slipping his arm under the pillow, he found Lex watching him as he settled. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” Clark said. His knee bumped up against the side of Lex’s leg.
“You didn’t,” Lex said. Clark let the lie slide with an amused smile.
The smile faded when Lex reached over and touched his cheek. Lex brushed his thumb lightly over Clark’s skin and Clark’s breath hitched. Lex’s eyes were dark as he stared at Clark across the pillows. Clark’s heart began racing at the shift in the air.
Lex’s gaze flitted to Clark’s lips and returned to Clark’s eyes. Then, they did it again, and Clark felt like invisible arms were tugging him forward, drawing him closer to Lex. His palm sweated where it depressed the pillow. The dim light from the window ghosted over Lex’s pale skin.
Lex tilted his chin and their lips met. A tremor ran through Clark and Lex’s fingertips spasmed against his cheek. He heard Lex draw in a shaky breath and the soft sound their lips made when they parted.Clark searched Lex’s eyes, his heart pounding so hard he thought it might burst from his chest. His throat was too tight to speak. But it didn’t matter, because Lex didn’t want words. He slid his hand into Clark’s damp hair and pulled him into another kiss.
Lex’s lips were chapped and their noses bumped. Clark suddenly remembered that he hadn’t brushed his teeth. His fingernails scratched the pillow beside Lex’s head and bit into the palm of his other hand. He couldn’t recall how to breathe through his nose and kiss. Lex didn’t seem too sure, either, even with all his experience. But then it didn’t matter anymore as the kisses got deeper and thinking vanished under a tidal wave of lust.
Clark shifted over Lex, wanting to get closer, wanting to kiss more intensely, wanting Lex. The erection in his boxers pressed against the one in Lex’s briefs. Harsh moans tore through the room. Clark rocked forward and down, and Lex kissed him fiercely. The bed began creaking and thumping against the wall. Lex grappled, groped, and grasped, and all Clark could do was thrust and thrust and watch Lex shatter with an arch of his throat, his swollen, glistening lips twisted in a feral cry.
The sight drove Clark into frenzy. He snapped his hips harder, faster, Lex wheezing in his face. Lex’s strong hands slipped down Clark's boxers and grabbed his ass, and Clark was coming with a series of dirty grunts that echoed in the bedroom. He half-collapsed, catching himself before he crushed Lex, mouth slack and dry. Lex watched him with glittering eyes and a smug little smile that Clark was forced to kiss away until neither of them could breathe again.
Shifting mostly onto the bed, Clark buried his face in the vee of Lex’s neck and tried to catch his breath, while listening to Lex do the same. He drifted unknowingly to sleep in the sweaty, tacky embrace, not thinking about the morning.
The ninja penguins surrounded him, sausage nunchucks, salami bo sticks, and bologna throwing slices ready to be used if he moved an inch. He centered himself, trying not to panic. He’d been in worse situations before, remembering the heist with the tutu.
The penguins parted and the Godfather entered the ring. “So, Mr. Kent, you thought you could slip the Golden Fish past me,” Marlon Brando said, clasping his hands behind his back.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Clark said. “I only came outside for a breath of fresh air.”
“And is that a fish in your pants, or does fresh air give you a hard-on?”
Clark glanced down. The Golden Fish bulged beneath his tuxedo pants along his inner thigh where he’d stuffed it just before being caught. “It’s all natural,” he replied with a smug little smirk. His fingers moved to the button of his pants. “Would you like to see for yourself?”
“I need to use the restroom,” Marlon said.
Clark frowned. “What?”
“Wake up. I need to use the restroom.”
Clark was dragged out of the dream, becoming aware of Lex shaking him. “Clark, wake up,” Lex sounded frustrated, “or I’m going to piss all over you.”
“Huh?” Clark lifted his head from the pillow and blinked the fuzz from his vision. “What?”
Lex sighed loudly. “Will you just get my chair?”
“Oh.” Clark cracked a yawn, threw aside the covers, and scooted off the end of the bed. Groggily, he moved the chair and transferred Lex into it mechanically. It wasn’t until his eyes caught sight of Lex’s morning hard-on stretching the discolored splotch on his blue briefs that the night before came rushing back to him.Awkwardness hit him like a hammer to the back of the head. He felt his face heat and tried not to look at Lex as he fastened the harness. He opened the door for Lex, futilely attempting to hide his own mostly naked state. Lex wheeled past him without comment, made a three-point turn in the hall, and backed into the bathroom.
Clark thumped his forehead against the edge of the door after Lex shut himself in the bathroom. John had replaced the belt on the toilet with a safety bar, allowing Lex to transfer and support himself (and giving Rich something to play with, Clark was sure). Clark was extremely glad he didn’t have to help Lex in that area any longer, especially after sharing the intimacy that they had last night. His breathing grew panicked even as his cock twitched in remembrance. What had he done? Had Lex really wanted it? What would happen now? How could their friendship survive intact?
The bathroom door opened again and Clark nearly fled. He peered from beneath his lashes, to see grim determination written across Lex’s features. The bottom fell from under his stomach.
Lex wheeled over the threshold and blocked Clark between the chair and the wall next to the door. He grabbed Clark’s wrist and tugged crosswise until Clark got the hint and bent closer. Clark bit the inside of his cheek as he met Lex’s intense gaze, trying not to reveal his broken heart.
But then Lex curved his other hand around the back of Clark’s head and pulled him into a hard, closed-mouthed kiss. “I won’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Lex said fiercely, his minty breath hot against Clark’s lips. “Things will not go back to how they were.”
He kissed Clark again as the words clicked in Clark’s mind: Lex did want this. Happiness bubbled in Clark’s chest and escaped with a laugh against Lex’s mouth. Lex drew his head back, confusion and a bit of hurt coloring his eyes. Clark shook his head, with a huge smile. “I don’t want things to go back, either.”
It was like a light switched on inside Lex, his entire countenance brightening. His lips quivered as he tried, and failed, to prevent a brilliant smile. Clark laughed into another kiss that was more grin than passion, until Lex shoved him playfully away. “My want of you does not include your morning mouth. Go brush your teeth.”
Still grinning like a fool, Clark sidestepped the wheelchair and out of the bedroom. He could hear voices coming from up the hall. Making sure nothing was sticking out of his boxers, he headed in that direction. “Morning,” he greeted, hovering at the entrance to the living area. “I’m going to be late getting started.”
Rich, Antwone, and Kim sat around the kitchen table, empty breakfast plates in front of them. Mitch was over by the counter, pouring himself a cup of coffee. Sitting in the easy chair, Bart lowered his newspaper and gave Clark the Eye. “Make up sex is not an excuse for being late to work.”
Clark’s eyes widened as the others snickered. Rich grabbed the sides of his chair and bounced repeatedly. The chair legs thumped on the floor while he moaned in a falsetto. “Oh yeah- oh yeah- oh- oh- more- more.”
A scarlet flush swept over Clark’s skin from head to foot and he was very aware that he wore nothing but semen-stained boxers. He crossed his hands in front of his crotch and ducked his head in embarrassment. “You guys, um, heard that?” he said.
“You might think of moving the bed away from the wall,” Bart said, raising his newspaper again.
“Oooohhhhhh,” Rich hit a crescendo and Clark practically bolted back down the hallway.
“I used to dream about your mouth,” Lex murmured, his pale skin flushed from orgasm. Post-coital lassitude loosened his tongue.
“Yeah?” Clark kissed the soft swell beneath Lex’s navel and pulled the track pants back over his hips. Shirtless and barefoot, they were in bed again despite the early evening hour. Now that Clark was allowed to touch Lex intimately he couldn’t stop and most of their evenings were spent in the bedroom. “Was my mouth wrapped around your cock?”
“Sometimes.” Lex touched Clark’s lower lip, sloe-eyed in contentment. “Mostly, I’d spend hours just kissing you, sitting in my office or up in your loft.”
Clark kissed Lex’s thumb. “I never knew,” he said, folding his hands on Lex’s belly and resting his chin on them. He lay between Lex’s crooked legs, his boxers damp beneath his jeans, pressing against his skin. “You never treated me any differently.”
“I didn’t know you’d reciprocate.” Lex brushed Clark’s long hair away from his face. He curled a dark lock around his finger, toying with the ragged end. “And we’re both men.”
Clark tilted his head questioningly. “Does that bother you?”
“In Greek and Roman times, it was not uncommon for a man to take a male lover of a lower class.”
Lover. Clark was Lex’s lover. The label stirred his arousal again. “It bothered me for awhile,” Clark admitted, shifting his hips. “I’m different enough without adding being gay to it.”
“It’s a first for me, too,” Lex said slowly, as if he were unsure he wanted to tell Clark. “I’ve never been interested in men before. I had hoped I was confusing hero worship for attraction.”
“What made you change your mind?”
Lex smiled softly and tugged at the lock of hair around his finger. “It’s different when they like you back, remember?”
“Kent, just the man I wanted to see.” John leaned against the open doorway of the bathroom, where Clark was washing up before lunch, a rubberband tying up his hair. “We need to chat.”
Clark shut off the water and reached for the towel. “Is there something wrong with Lex?” he asked immediately.
John chuckled. “Nothing’s wrong with your honey. Meet me in the PT room.”
Clark followed practically on John’s heels. His worry returned the moment John closed the door behind them. “What is it?” he said anxiously.
“Relax, boyo,” John drawled. “It’s a personal talk, not a therapy-related one.”
John leaned against the parallel bars that stretched in front of the storage crates along the side of the room. “X asked me about intercourse today, specifically about having it,” he said without preamble.
Clark’s face flamed in a second and he looked away. “Um… okay?”
“I had assumed you two were already at it again, from the recreation Rich acted for me,” John said, “but X indicates you do everything except that.”
Lex talked to John about their sex life? Clark shifted his weight from one foot to another. He felt as uncomfortable speaking about the subject with John as he did his own father.
“You do know that you can, right? You’ll have to do all the work, but you won’t hurt him.” John studied him with consideration. “Unless you don’t want to, because you’re repulsed—”
“No,” Clark cut him off. “It’s nothing like that. I… it’s…” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, took a fortifying breath, and admitted, “I’m a virgin.”
John was surprised. “You didn’t pork before the accident?”
Clark chuckled awkwardly at the terminology and tried to come up with an excuse. John, like everyone else, believed they were partners before the made-up car accident. “Neither of us have had that kind of sex with another guy before,” he said, which was actually the truth. “We’re kind of scared to.” He looked down at his feet. “At least, I am.”
“Is that all?” When Clark glanced up, John appeared to be choking on a belly laugh. “That explains some of X’s questions. You two just continue fumbling along as you are and ignore this interfering old codger. You’ll know when you’re ready.”
“Okay,” Clark said, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Lex wanted to have sex with him. Sex sex. Anal sex. The thought terrified, embarrassed, and excited him all at once, as he walked down the hall to their bedroom. He gulped and wiped his suddenly sweaty hands on his jeans when he saw Lex propped in bed, reading a magazine with his eyes closed. Lex wanted to have sex with him.
Lex woke from his post-PT doze when Clark shut the bedroom door. He blinked a couple times and yawned. “Time for lunch?”
“You want to have sex?” Clark blurted, and immediately wished the floor would open up under his feet. “Uh, I mean…”
Lex paused, staring at Clark. “You’ve been talking to John.”
“Maybe?” Clark wiped his hands on his jeans again. “But it’s true. Right?”
Lex looked away, focusing on putting the magazine on the nightstand. “I… wouldn’t be averse to it.”
Clark’s feet carried him across the room, which was a good thing because his legs were trembling too much to move. He stopped beside the bed, causing Lex to look up at him. Had Lex always been so hot? “Would I… would you…?” Clark stumbled over the question.
Lex swallowed and color flooded up his neck to stain his cheeks, ears, and the top of his head. “As I have had intercourse before, I would be willing to bottom.”
“Willing? Or want to?” There was a difference and Clark needed to know the answer desperately, even if his cock didn’t care.
“If you would prefer that I topped—”
“Lex,” Clark interrupted, “I want to know what you want.” He cupped Lex’s chin, keeping him from turning away. “Please.”
“I want you to fuck me,” Lex replied bluntly, as if he were challenging Clark. “And I don’t want you to treat me like I’m made of spun glass—”
Hearing enough, Clark tipped him into a ferocious kiss that ended with them both coming in their pants and nowhere close to having actual sex. But that would happen soon enough.
“Hey, Kent,” Kim drew Clark’s attention from the posthole he was digging and nodded towards the other side of the corral. The brim of Clark's A’s ball cap shaded his eyes from the sun as he looked where Kim told him. Lex wheeled alongside the post fence, bumping over the brown-tipped grass and dirt, heading their direction.
Kim took the shovel without being asked and Clark jogged over to meet Lex. He ducked through the divide between the post rails. “You shouldn’t be outside without a coat,” he clucked, earning a dirty look from Lex.
“I’m fine.” Lex tugged at the sleeves of his Royal Order of Water Buffalo sweatshirt Clark had gotten him when the temperature suddenly dropped. It read “Grand Poobah” across the back and made Clark smile every time Lex wore it, which seemed like a lot. “I have something for you.”
Clark noticed the kitchen towel across Lex’s lap. Lex removed it with a flick of his wrist that snapped the end against Clark’s stomach. Clark would’ve pretended it hurt if he hadn’t laid eyes on the pie. The scent of freshly baked rhubarb wafted from the pie tin. Juice ran between the latticework and soaked into the burned edges of the crust.
“You made me pie?” Clark gushed, and he probably sounded like a total girl, but Lex had made him pie.
“Sarah decided that I was bored and put me to work,” Lex said with a shrug. “This is my first effort, which is too burned to serve to the guests, but I didn’t want it to go to waste.”
Clark didn’t buy it for a second, because Sarah never would’ve let the pie burn unless Lex had told her Clark liked it better that way. “You made me pie,” he said, his heart singing. He bent down, cupped Lex’s cheeks, and kissed him long and deep.
Lex’s mouth was swollen when Clark released him and he had a slightly dazed look in his eyes. “What would I have gotten if I had made you muffins?”
Clark grinned, as he picked the pie up off Lex’s lap with more groping than necessary for the fork. “Why don’t you make them and find out?”
“Count on it,” Lex said with a voice that stroked down Clark’s spine. He hid his erection with the towel, pivoted the chair, and wheeled off.
Clark subtly adjusted himself and then carried the pie back over to Kim. “Look. Lex made me pie. Isn’t he the greatest?”
Kim stopped shoveling and gave him a fond look. “Yes. Tastes better than flowers, too.”
“This is your fault,” Lex spat like a wildcat, hissing and digging his nails into Clark’s neck as Clark lifted him from the chair. “If you would do your fucking job, I wouldn’t be in any pain.”
“You’re the one who wanted sex.” Clark practically threw Lex into the bathtub. “Excuse me for falling asleep afterwards like a guy.”
“You knew I had a hard workout with John.”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking about that after I’d had my dick up your ass!”
“Do you not want me to walk again?” Lex narrowed his daggered eyes, his mouth tight in the corners. “You like me helpless and completely reliant on you, don’t you? You enjoy being the savior.”
Clark thrust his hands through his hair and pulled it with a growl. “Of course I want you to walk again. I just forgot.”
Lex snorted derisively. “Right. You forgot.”
“Call me when you’re done,” Clark snapped, and slammed the door on his way out.
“I can’t move.”
“Not this again,” Clark muttered, earning a sideways glare as he pulled off his filthy t-shirt. They’d dredged a portion of the man-made river cutting through the property to install a cleaning pump.
“I’m not complaining. I’m stating a fact,” Lex said. He was prone on the bed, stripped to his briefs by John. Goosebumps dotted his skin where the covers had slipped off. “I wrenched my back during PT.”
“Oh.” Clark was immediately contrite. He shucked his jeans and opened the nightstand drawer. “Do you want me to rub some liniment—?”
“John already did,” Lex said, “and he gave me a few of Toby’s extra strength pain meds. I can’t feel anything below my lips.”
Clark crouched beside the bed, putting him and Lex at eye-level. His hand hovered over Lex, afraid to touch. “Is there anything I can do?”
“You’ll have to feed me lunch.” Lex’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I hate that. I hate this.”
“I know you do.” Clark let his hand drop gently onto Lex’s shoulder. “Try and remember that it won’t be forever.”
“It feels like it already has been.” Lex moved his head on the pillow and closed his eyes with a hiss. Clark fretted silently, wishing he could fix everything. “You’re the only thing keeping me from losing my mind. Again,” Lex murmured, humor laced with pain. He cracked open his eyelids. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Clark moved his hand and brushed his fingers along the curve of Lex’s head. “There’s nowhere else I’d be.”
Clark watched from the shadows of the hallway as Lex stood on trembling legs between the parallel bars. The muscles in Lex’s arms bulged from holding himself upright. Sweat ran down his head and face and soaked his gray t-shirt. The material clung to his torso, outlining the ridges and planes of his body.
“Put your weight on your feet, not your hands,” John instructed. He stood behind Lex, hands resting on Lex’s hips. “One step at a time. You know the drill.”
Lex moved his left foot forward and his features contorted as he struggled to shift his weight. Both knees buckled and Clark barely stopped himself from dashing into the room to catch him. Lex caught himself with the bars and John helped to re-steady him. He cursed pungently, screwed up his mouth, and tried again.
Clark backed away from the door, not knowing whether he felt happy or sad that he didn’t need to catch Lex anymore.
Jenny had made everyone Menorah-shaped reindeer antlers to wear on their heads at Christmas dinner, as not everyone was Christian. Clark ended up with two pairs perched in his shaggy hair and Lex had a lingering red band on his scalp. Squished between Lex and Jenny, Clark ate like a pig and might have gotten a bit tipsy on the wine. Platters and dishes covered the long table filled with meats, potatoes, vegetables, and cranberry sauce. Conversation ebbed and flowed, holiday music tinkling in the background from the radio on the kitchen counter.
“I think I’m going to explode,” Rich said with a belch. Sarah swatted him on the back of the head. “What? It’s the truth. You make such good food, I couldn’t stop eating…”
“…It’s about a six-hour drive,” Antwone was telling Kim. “As long as I leave before eight, I should get there on time, even with the holiday traffic…”
“…The Patriots are going all the way,” Mitch argued with John, both decked out in their holiday-best t-shirts. “Brady’s throwing close to ninety percent…”
“…A marketing push in choice demographics would lead to your highest return.” Lex jotted more notes on a good cloth napkin spread between him and Garner. Bart half-rose from his seat to look across the table at what Lex wrote. “I’d target the wives and mothers, as they’re the most likely to arrange vacation destinations…”
“You look happy,” Jenny said, resting her cheek on her fist, smiling at Clark. “It’s a good look on you.”
“Thanks. I think.” Clark reached for the bottle of wine and topped her glass before refilling his own.
“You were so sad when you first came here.” Jenny brushed Clark’s hair over his shoulder and Clark was reminded of his mom. “It’s been such a joy watching you find yourself again.”
Clark narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t a sneaky way of kicking us out, is it?”
“Of course not,” Jenny said. “You may stay as long as you’d like, and if you do decide to leave, you’ll always be welcome home again.”
Clark hid his suddenly misty eyes in a smothering hug. “I love you, Jenny,” he declared.
“We love you, too, Kent,” Jenny said, patting his back. “And I think that’s enough wine for you.”
Clark let go of Jenny with a sheepish grin and returned to his fourth helping of dinner. He caught Lex looking at him and tilted his head questioningly, shoving a forkful of food into his mouth. “Mwah?”
Lex shook his head, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Nothing.”
Clark shrugged and went back to eating, with Lex’s hand resting on his thigh.
“Something came in the mail for us,” Lex said as he wheeled into the bedroom. He pivoted on the chair and shut the door behind him.
Clark sat shirtless on the end of the bed, pulling off his socks. He was next in line for the shower before dinner. He might not get tired from manual labor, but he certainly became sweaty and smelly like everyone else. He wrinkled his nose at his pungent feet. “I can never remember which one of us is ‘Resident’ and which is ‘Occupant.’”
“It’s from an attorney on my payroll,” Lex said. “We now have everything we need in order to go home again.”
Clark’s joking mood vanished instantly and his stomach knotted. “What did you do?”
“My father involved the FBI by reporting that you’d kidnapped me,” Lex said. “We’re going to use that to our advantage.”
“What did you do, Lex?”
“I gave you voluntary guardianship over me.” Lex pushed himself over to the nightstand and rooted through the drawer. “I had the order dated for the day you took me from Belle Reve, though I made sure Saunders set the filing date back in early December.”
“You what?” Clark turned to stare at the back of Lex’s head. “I don’t understand.”
“You can’t kidnap someone you have guardianship over, Clark.” The scent of brown sugar assailed Clark’s nose as Lex squirted lotion into his hand. “Except for the dates, it’s legal enough that the FBI will be convinced to drop the kidnapping charges.”
“You should be wearing your hat,” Clark chastised absently, as Lex rubbed the lotion onto his winter-chapped scalp. “Why do you think a guardianship will work?”
“Because I’ll pair it with the information from Edge—”
“No!” Clark cut him off, shooting to his feet. “You promised that you wouldn’t use that information!”
“As leverage against my father,” Lex said. “I’m not. I’m giving it to the FBI. What they do with it is up to them.”
“Damn it, Lex.” Clark dragged his hand roughly through his hair, causing the hairband to fling free. “It’s the same thing.”
Lex backed his chair up until he could maneuver it in order to face Clark. “There has to be a reason behind the guardianship for them to believe it. No one voluntarily gives control over themselves to an eighteen-year-old kid.”
“I was still only seventeen last December. They’re gonna see right through it.”
“They won’t. Trust me.”Clark gave Lex an agitated look. “I have no problem trusting you, it’s the people you associate with. They have a tendency to investigate behind your back or commit you to a mental institution.”
“We’re not in Kansas. My father’s reach is long, but not everyone is in his pocket,” Lex said. “We need to do this fast, though. He might have had an eye on Saunders.”
“Are you even listening to yourself? This is crazy.” Clark sank down on the bed and buried his face in his hands. He could think of a million things wrong with the idea and all of them ended up with Lex as a permanent vegetable.
“You could be back home with your parents by New Year’s. I think that would be worth the risk.”
Clark pressed his fingertips against his closed eyelids. Nothing was worth risking Lex’s safety and he was quite content to remain where they were. But he knew once Lex made his mind up there was no changing it. “What do you need me to do?”
The McDonald’s in Sacramento didn’t look any different than the McDonald’s in Smallville. Plastic tables and booths, sticky floors, and the stench of grease greeted Clark as he pushed Lex’s wheelchair through the handicapped accessible door. He glanced down the aisle that led to the restrooms before pushing Lex to the opposite side of the restaurant. He noted the number of people who glanced at them and looked away quickly compared to the ones who stared openly for a moment longer with normal human curiosity.
Agent Conrad Bellar stood when Clark and Lex approached the table. Short and stocky, but with bright blond, spiked hair, he reminded Clark of a Bulldog that had been bred with a Pekinese. He looked to be in his forties, dressed in a dark suit minus the tie with the flag lapel pin they’d been told to search out when they arrived. A gold badge in a display wallet hung from his belt. “Mr. Luthor. Mr. Kent. I’m Agent Bellar with the FBI.”
Lex didn’t move to shake the extended hand, pretending to be more incapable than he was to lull Bellar and the other agents into a false sense of security. Clark and he had planned the meeting down to the bus stop schedule used to mask their vehicle-less arrival. “Agent Bellar, thank you for meeting with us outside of your office.”
“That was one of your stipulations,” Bellar said, as Clark accepted his handshake. He and Clark sat down across from one another with Lex pushed up to the side of the table. Bellar picked up a half-empty cup of coffee and took a sip. He appeared confident, which was what they’d wanted; it would make him more willing to listen if he thought Clark’s arrest was in the bag. They could only hope that Bellar wasn’t corrupt.
“I wanted to be sure we’d be heard instead of having Clark detained upon walking through the doors,” Lex said, as Clark unzipped Lex’s jacket and fixed the collar of his blue Oxford, further strengthening their ruse.
“Why did you think that wouldn’t happen here?” Bellar said.
Lex smirked knowingly. “Cats aren’t the only ones with insatiable curiosity.”
Bellar tipped his cup to Lex. “I suppose you’re right. So satisfy my curiosity.”
“I’ll start with the most important fact: Clark didn’t kidnap me.” While Lex began explaining, Clark pretended to look around casually, when really he was using his x-ray vision to pinpoint the undercover agents in the restaurant. He counted five. “I’m sure your reports allege that my father is a wealthy, concerned parent fearing for his mentally incapacitated only child’s well-being. What they don’t say is that Clark is my legal guardian and Lionel Luthor is the one who perpetrated my ‘mental incapacity.’”
“You have my attention,” Bellar said, interest causing him to shift forward on his seat.
“It’s all right here,” Lex said. Clark took his cue and passed the manila envelope tucked beside Lex to Bellar. “I found out that my father conspired to murder his parents in an insurance scheme. He turned around and blackmailed my psychiatrist into declaring I was crazy so no law enforcement official would believe me.”
Bellar’s brows lifted skeptically, as he pulled papers and a videotape from the envelope. “It sounds farfetched on its own.”
“That supports it all,” Lex said, gesturing with his chin at the paperwork.
“How does Mr. Kent come into the picture?”
“At one of my earlier sessions with Dr. Foster, she mentioned that a voluntary commitment to Belle Reve might be in my best interest,” Lex said, and Clark knew that bit was the truth. What came next was pure fabrication rehearsed between them. “I brought it up to Clark for his opinion and he mentioned that voluntary was better than involuntary, though he didn’t think anything was wrong with me.”
Clark watched Bellar flip through the insurance papers, the guardianship copies, a newspaper printout about Dr. Foster’s death, and the notes he’d made about those few days before Lex was taken and regarding the ECT. “The possibility of an involuntary commitment concerned me,” Lex went on. “A few days after our conversation, I took steps to ensure that someone I trusted would keep tabs on my medical care.”
“I didn’t get the actual guardianship order until almost a month later,” Clark picked up the story, like they’d practiced. His upset over the next part wasn’t feigned. “I managed to convince Dr. Foster that I did have the guardianship before that and cancel the unnecessary shock treatment Lionel had authorized. Two days later, she was dead. A day after that, another doctor, Dr. Vargas, scheduled a shock treatment. He was the one in the room when I finally got to Belle Reve with the paperwork and I heard him tell Lionel that Lex didn’t need to be shocked twice, but Lionel insisted. And the doctor did it.”
Clark balled his hands and stared hard at the table as a swell of rage nearly over-swept him. He was supposed to continue, explaining his panic, breaking the glass, and taking Lex away, but he couldn’t speak through the anger choking him.
“Clark’s only crime was committing property damage in his emotional response to what he’d witnessed and I’m more than willing to pay for the cost of repairs,” Lex said after a moment, when Clark didn’t go on. “I’m sure all of this would’ve been avoided had my father not caused injury to me.”Bellar’s gaze dropped to take in Lex’s wheelchair before tapping the paperwork into a neat pile. “If I assume everything you say is the truth, what is it you’d like me to do?”
“I’d hoped you’d drop the kidnapping charges against Clark. But even if that’s not possible, I’d like you to do your job and investigate.” Lex looked at Bellar challengingly. “It’s nearly impossible to find someone not dancing by my father’s strings. Surprise me.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Bellar said, appearing affronted.
“Good.” Lex turned to Clark. “Clark, I need to use the restroom.” He turned back to Bellar. “Excuse us. We’ll be back to answer any more questions shortly.”
“Sure,” Bellar said.
Clark tamped his anger and stood. He needed to concentrate on the last part of their plan and didn’t want to hurt Lex by accident. Grabbing the wheelchair handles, he maneuvered Lex through McDonald’s, flicking his eyes over the other FBI agents in the restaurant. Two got up, as if to throw away their garbage. He was careful not to pause as he pushed Lex towards the restrooms. If the agents made their move before they got to the restroom, Clark was supposed to just take Lex and run, forgetting the chair and the fact that he’d be seen using his powers.
The agents simply kept a hawk’s eye on them, though, and they entered the bathroom without hassle. As the door started swinging shut behind them, Clark whirled into action, moving so fast that Lex hovered mid-air as he collapsed the wheelchair and strapped it to his back. He slipped an arm under Lex’s knees and the other behind his shoulders, and shot out of the restaurant before the restroom door finished closing. The agents would be left thinking they’d escaped through the small restroom window somehow.
They arrived back at Haven within a few heartbeats and Clark came to a stop at the curve of the driveway. He could see the edge of bright yellow paint on the main house. “I didn’t even know we left the restroom and now we’re here.” Lex’s flushed face and sparkling eyes soothed Clark’s lingering anger.
“Just as quickly as we got to Sacramento.” Clark didn’t feel like relinquishing Lex and left the driveway to sit at the base of a towering tree a short way out of sight. The wheelchair dug into his back, but with a quick twist, he pushed it off to the side.
Lex draped his arms around Clark’s shoulders, allowing himself to be cradled in Clark’s lap. He played with the ponytail at the base of Clark’s neck, searching Clark’s face with question. Sunlight filtered through the branches and danced across Lex’s features. “Everything went as expected, Clark. It shouldn’t be long before we can go home.”
“Yeah.” Clark dropped his forehead to rest against Lex’s and wondered why he felt like he was going to cry. He tilted his chin, pushing the emotion into a kiss. He stroked his hand around down Lex’s back, under the edge of his jacket and shirt. Warm skin greeted his questing fingers. He slid his hand further down beneath Lex’s waistband, and Lex inhaled sharply through his nose.
Clark angled his mouth and slipped his tongue past Lex’s lips. Lex’s fingertips pressed against the back of his head, returning the kiss with breathy sounds. Clark gathered Lex closer, pressing them hip to groin. His cock filled, stiffening beneath his jeans as Lex shifted, trying to get closer still. His free hand moved up Lex’s leg and cupped the answering hardness forming at the vee of Lex’s thighs.
Lex arched into his palm with a muffled moan, his mouth making wet, soft noises as their lips met, parted, and met again. Clark fumbled one-handed with the catch on Lex’s jeans and drew the zipper. He mouthed a blind kiss down Lex’s chin and along his jaw as he tugged Lex’s jeans and briefs past his hips. His heart thumped hard against his breast when he closed his fingers around Lex’s cock.
Lex made a choked sound and thrust reflexively into Clark’s fist. He threw his head back and Clark teethed along the column of his neck. Clark jacked Lex firmly, tightening his grip slightly on the downstroke. Precome slicked his thumb and forefinger. He watched with heavy-lidded eyes, resting his forehead on the crest of Lex’s collarbone, the zipper of the jacket biting ineffectually into him. Sunlight flickered over the darkened head of Lex’s cock, shadowed by the clutch of his hand. He could hear Lex’s blood rushing under his skin, the click of his Adam’s apple when he swallowed. He breathed noisily against Clark’s hair, his hands tightening and releasing against Clark’s head in rhythm with the strokes.
The hitch in breath signaled Lex was going to come. Clark felt Lex tremble, stroked a little faster, and was rewarded with a strangled cry as Lex spilled over Clark’s fist.
Lex slumped boneless against Clark, pushing his hand away with an indistinct murmur. Clark raised his head and leaned it against the rough bark of the tree. He wiped his hand on the tail of his unbuttoned flannel shirt. The branches snapped overhead as the wind kicked up and died down almost immediately. Tall trees stood sentry all around as Clark shifted Lex, fixing his briefs and jeans before laying him onto the fallow ground. A pink flush stained Lex’s pale skin, his hooded gaze drinking in Clark’s features.
Clark removed his flannel and t-shirt, pillowing them under Lex’s head. Stretching out over him, Clark bent his head and initiated another kiss. Lex’s hands stroked up Clark’s bared back, tracing the bumps of his spine and the wings of his shoulder blades. He opened under Clark’s lips, inviting him in with a slide of his tongue. The kiss deepened until they were both gasping for breath.
Clark stared down at Lex’s glistening, swollen lips, his hips rocking against Lex’s pliant form. Desire pooled hotter inside him, an image of those lips stretched wide around his cock. He pushed back, rising onto his knees, and unfastened his jeans under Lex’s heated stare. He freed his cock from the slit in his boxers and fisted its rigid length. Lex licked his lips.
Clark crawled over Lex’s face and sank into the welcoming mouth. He leaned forward on his hands, bracing himself above Lex’s head. Bits of dirt, grass, and leaves pressed into his palms. Dappled sunshine shone through the tree branches. Lex squeezed and caressed Clark’s ass. Clark’s hips bounced, cock stroking into the tight ring of Lex’s mouth, the line of his scar a bright slash in his lips. Arousal ratcheted up with the noisy slurps and sucks. A line of drool escaped the corner of Lex’s mouth and curved down his cheek.
Clark moaned loudly, picking up the pace. The tip of Lex’s nose reddened from the repeated bump of Clark’s jeans. Clark’s fingers sank into the ground, pressure building at the base of his spine. Lex’s lashes fluttered and a look of contentment wrote itself across his face.
Clark came with a wracking shudder, eyes rolling back. Lex swallowed, mouth contracting around him, wringing him dry. He collapsed onto his elbows, heart racing, immediately drained. Lex suckled his spent cock until Clark caught his breath and pulled free. He tucked his cock away and moved until he was cuddled beside Lex. He buried his nose against Lex’s shoulder, his arm wrapped possessively around Lex.
Lex removed the tie and combed his fingers through Clark’s hair. “I don’t think I’ve ever had sex in the woods before.”
“Got to make memories when you can,” Clark murmured, and pretended he didn’t feel like everything was coming to an end.
A year to the day from when Clark rescued Lex from Belle Reve, the news came that they could go home again.
“Kent!” Lex pushed himself from the porch when the maintenance truck came to a stop outside the bunkhouse, discharging passengers. A hard plastic boot had been snapped on over his right foot, holding it immobile from toes to mid-calf. Clark jumped over the edge of the truck bed, landing lightly on the dirt driveway, wearing a scowl.
“You’re supposed to be elevating your foot,” Clark said with frustration. He’d had to listen to Lex bitch about his latest setback while he was stuck in bed during lunch and Clark, being the ever-compassionate partner, ate with him. If Lex would just do what he was told, he’d heal faster and could return to PT.
“You’ll be glad I didn’t.” Lex grabbed a handful of papers tucked in the side of his chair and waved them at Clark. He appeared as giddy as a schoolboy. “Look what was on the front page of today’s Daily Planet.”
Clark took the pages, aware that the other ranch hands lingered on the porch, removing their muddy boots. The printouts were from the Daily Planet website. His eyes widened when he read the headline.
Lionel Luthor Indicted on Murder, Conspiracy, Fraud
METROPOLIS, KS. Lionel Luthor, CEO of LuthorCorp International, was indicted at the Metropolis Federal Court on two counts of murder, conspiracy, and fraud. The FBI detained Luthor, 48, yesterday evening regarding allegations made by former crime syndicate boss Morgan Edge (deceased) via videotape confession and Chloe Sullivan, 18, of Smallville.
FBI Agent Conrad Bellar, on cross-jurisdictional assignment from the Sacramento, CA, bureau, followed up on information supplied to him regarding the deaths of Lachlan and Lorraine Luthor, parents of Lionel Luthor and grandparents of Lex Luthor. “Lionel Luthor, along with Morgan Edge, [allegedly] conspired to murder Luthor’s parents and collect the insurance money from a wrongful death action brought against the city.”
In 1973, Lachlan and Lorraine Luthor perished in a tenement fire in Suicide Slums. Lionel Luthor was awarded a $500,000 settlement from the city in light of the building’s multiple fire code violations. Lionel Luthor invested that money in a fledgling corporation that grew to become an international conglomerate worth an estimated $13.6 billion.
But what lengths would Luthor go to protect that money? “Lionel [allegedly] drugged Lex to make him think he was crazy, so no one would believe him when he reported the insurance scheme,” Sullivan said. She became involved in the investigation through her association with Lex Luthor and Clark Kent. “It worked. Only Clark had faith that Lex was telling the truth and did everything he could to help him.”
Including kidnapping the younger Luthor from Belle Reve Mental Institution, where he had been wrongfully confined by Dr. Claire Foster (dec.). “The kidnapping charges are being dropped in light of special circumstances. We’ve found evidence that Foster was being blackmailed,” Bellar said, “and we are further investigating the circumstances surrounding her fatal car accident.”
“It’s awfully interesting that she died two days after telling Lionel Luthor ‘no’,” Sullivan said. “A lot of people end up dead after crossing Lionel. I’m probably on his hit list, too, but some surprisingly uncorrupt officials have multiple copies of the evidence I gathered to help Clark and Lex, so that the case against Lionel won’t hinge on my testifying.”
Sullivan gave a brief testimony at the indictment hearing on threats made to her person by Luthor. Judge Robert Kingsford set no bond and Luthor will be held at the Federal Penitentiary until trial.
The kidnapping charges against Clark Kent have been officially dropped and the warrant recalled for his arrest.
Clark read the printout again and a third time, but the words didn’t change. “This… it’s…”
“I know.” Lex practically vibrated in his seat with glee. “My dad’s in jail!”
“I see that.” Clark swallowed past the odd lump that formed in his throat, handing the pages back to Lex. “Congratulations.”
“We can finally go home.” Lex read over the article again, grinning like a maniac. “Remind me to buy Chloe something expensive, like Tahiti.”
“Okay.” Clark adjusted his A’s ball cap, pulling it lower over his eyes. “I’m gonna go get cleaned up.”
Lex looked up, his smile fading, but before he could speak Clark was heading for the bunkhouse. He kept his head down, avoiding Mitch, Kim, and Antwone’s gazes as he passed. He left a trail of muddy bootprints that he’d have to clean through the living room and up the hall.
Locking himself in the bathroom, Clark hung his hat from the doorknob and massaged the ache he felt in the center of his chest. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and tried to smile. “You’re going home.”
“Kent?” Lex knocked on the door a few moments later and tried the handle. “Let me in.”
Clark sighed, made a face in the mirror, and opened the door. He stepped back to allow Lex to enter and then leaned past him to shut the door again. “What’s up with you?” Lex asked without beating around the bush.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
Lex gave him a look. “Try it again, with more conviction this time.”
Clark rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m just tired, Lex. Maybe a bit overwhelmed.”
“Suddenly being granted what we desire can lead to fear of that desire.” Lex studied Clark carefully. “You don’t have to worry, though, Clark. My father’s in jail and the charges against you have been dropped. We don’t have to hide anymore.”
“I don’t want them to know,” Clark said immediately, gesturing towards the wall in the direction of the living room. “They opened their home to partners dealing with the fallout of a car accident and that’s how I want it to stay.”
“They don’t need to know the truth,” Lex said. “We left home because my father wouldn’t let you be my caregiver despite us being partners. He’s now incarcerated, so it becomes moot.”
Clark slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. The dismal cloud that had been hanging over his head since the end of December had finally broken, but instead of finding sunshine he felt like he was drowning in a torrential downpour. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow, if possible,” Lex said. “I need to get back to Metropolis. With my dad behind bars, I’ll need to do damage control with LuthorCorp so stock prices don’t drop. The board will need to be reassured in person that I’m alive and not crazy. The press will want interviews, which are better to do while the story is hot and—ow, fuck. I’m firing John and hiring a goddamned competent physical therapist.”
“It’s not his fault,” Clark muttered, to deaf ears. Annoyance flared as Lex continued carping on John. He was not in the mood to listen.
“…Tijuana School of Medicine and Mixed-Drinks. I’m surprised he doesn’t get out a limbo pole and insist it’s the best source of physical therapy—Clark, what—”
Abruptly, Clark opened the door and rolled a startled Lex out of the bathroom.
He slammed the door with satisfaction in Lex’s gaping face.
Lex sat in the bedroom, waiting for him when he got out of the shower. Clark ignored him, dumping his dirty clothes in the laundry bag. He fixed the towel around his waist and opened the top drawer of the dresser. His left hand fisted around the cotton of his boxers when he heard Lex speak quietly behind him. “The Webster’s 1913 unabridged dictionary includes the definition of haven as the rock of love.”
Clark closed his eyes and rested his forehead on the back of his wrist. “Lex…”
“You are my Haven, Clark, not this place,” Lex said. “But you feel differently, don’t you?”
Sighing softly, Clark acknowledged that he did. “What gave it away?”
“I should’ve realized immediately.” Lex closed the distance between them. “Your refuge became much more than a place to hide. I understand why you wouldn’t want to leave.”
“I do want to go home, but…”
“…But you feel like you’re leaving home, too.”
“They say home is where your heart is, Clark.” Lex brushed his knuckles against the side of Clark’s right hand. “I think your heart is big enough that you can make a home of the world.”
Clark turned his head, his damp hair scratching against the back of his wrist, and smiled at Lex. “You can be really sappy sometimes.”
“It’s Toby’s pain meds.” Lex’s lips quirked self-mockingly, but his eyes held sincerity and love. “I hurt myself again, you know.”
“I might have heard that,” Clark said dryly, and leaned down for a kiss. He realized things weren’t ending - they were only changing, except for the one constant, most important part of his life. “And it’s your own fault.”
Lex huffed. “I was only trying to walk, like a normal person.”
“Unsupervised, like a moron.” Clark tugged off his towel and threw it over Lex’s head. “I just can’t leave you alone, can I?”
“Good thing you’re my partner, then.” Lex pulled off the towel and snapped it against Clark’s bare ass as he stepped into his boxers. “I’m not going to let you carry me up and down the stairs, though. We’ll have to remodel the castle.”
“John would probably be the best person to ask what needs to be done. Unless he’s still fired.”
“He should be,” Lex said, and Clark grinned while dressing, listening to him whine. “If he hadn’t been late, I wouldn’t have started without him…”
“We’re leaving.” Clark gave everyone at the dinner table a faint smile. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and rolls had been dished on everyone’s plates in the cheery kitchen. “X and I have decided to go back home.”
Silence greeted his announcement and Clark felt his smile wobble. Lex grasped his hand under the table. “As I’m sure you’ve all heard, my father’s in jail, so we don’t have to worry about him anymore. I know Kent misses his parents and friends, and it’s about time I got back to work. We’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough.”
“Nonsense. You’re not guests, you’re family,” Jenny said immediately, putting her arm around Clark’s shoulder. She gave him a sideways hug. “But we understand if you feel it’s time to leave.”
“When do you think you’ll go?” Sarah said.
“After lunch tomorrow. We’ll help John pack up and have him give us a ride to the airport,” Lex said. Despite his earlier whining, he’d told Clark he’d plan to keep John on. He gave Sarah a smile. “But we won’t leave before we have one last meal.”
“Hate to see you go, Kent,” Bart said, half-rising and reaching across the table to shake Clark’s hand.
“I agree,” Kim said, repeating the handshake. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“You still owe me twenty bucks from the last game,” Mitch said, pointing at Clark with his beer bottle. “Don’t think you’re leaving without paying me.”
Clark felt another smile tug his lips, even if it was filled with melancholy. “I’ll mail you a check.”
“Aw, man. This means I’m going to have to do more work around here,” Rich complained.
“In order to do more, you have to actually start doing work first, instead of flirting with the day staff,” Antwone said. Rich gave him a rude gesture.
“Do you need any money?” Garner asked Lex in an undertone, though Clark could still hear. “I know Clark has some saved up, but there’ll be expenses with living on your own again.”
“We’ll be fine, Jim. Thank you, though, for offering, and for taking in Kent.” Lex flicked a glance at Clark. “Its means a lot to me.”
“At least now we don’t have to listen to you two going at it anymore.” Rich grinned crudely.
“You probably enjoyed it,” Clark said, throwing a roll at him. He leaned against Jenny still, soaking in her presence that reminded him of his mother. His heart ached at the sudden want to go home.
“Hey, now! Food’s for eating, not baseball.” Sarah whapped Rich upside the head. “That’s for your comment.”
“Damn, Sarah. Remind me to ask your brothers if you beat them on a daily basis,” Rich said, rubbing his head.
“Unlike you, they didn’t deserve it daily,” Sarah replied.
Jenny stroked her hand over Clark’s hair. “We’ll miss you,” she said quietly. “Both of you. If you ever need us, we’ll always be here, okay?”
“Poker tonight. You and Jenny want to come down and lose your money to X?” Mitch asked Jim.
“Kim, we’ll bump the east corral project to Friday so we can help the boys pack up,” Bart said. “Make sure to let the day staff know.”
Clark felt Lex looking at him and squeezed his hand. Lex squeezed back, and under the sadness of leaving, Clark knew he would be just fine.
Clark pulled his windblown hair back into its hairband and adjusted the messenger bag hanging across his chest. He’d left Lex at his penthouse in Metropolis on the phone with the remodeling contractors and now stood outside a bright yellow house with a white porch covered in snow. He exhaled an anxious breath, which was visible in the January cold. His work boots crunched on the salted driveway as he walked around the side of the house, to the kitchen door.
He wiped his nervous hands on his jeans, looking through the windowpane. He could see two people sitting at the table, bills and ledgers spread in front of them. The uncertainty of things to come, the fights he knew they’d have about what he he'd done and about who he was now were swept under by a wave of love and longing, and he pushed open the door without further hesitation. Jonathan and Martha Kent both looked up and into his watery smile. “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I’m home.”
“We’re here.” Clark’s heart swelled as they came around the bend in the drive. Perched on a hill, the bright yellow house rose against a blue December sky, with a wraparound porch and cut grass spreading like a blanket across the ground. The manicured lawn blended into wild prairie meadow with the woods barely visible on the vast property. In the distance, mountains rolled in browns and greens. Martha squeezed Clark’s hand and he gave her a brilliant smile. He leaned forward, jostling Lex out of his doze, and told the driver, “Keep to the right and drop us off around back.”
“The sign says the inn entrance is to the left,” Jonathan said, glancing over the front seat.
“Only guests use the front door, Dad,” Clark said with another smile. Excitement rattled inside him and Lex laid a hand on his bouncing knee.
The Cadillac – Lex’s compromise with Jonathon on limousine type – followed the curve in the driveway taking them around to the kitchen entrance. The ramp they’d built for Lex still stood and when Clark looked past Lex, out the side window, he could see the matching one attached to the bunkhouse at the bottom of the hill. Memories flickered through his mind, bringing with them feelings that were also reflected on Lex’s face. Lex caught his eye and smiled softly.
Sarah and Jenny came out the kitchen door as the driver parked, both wearing polite smiles. “Hello. Welcome to Haven,” Jenny’s voice drifted through the open car door as Martha climbed out of the back seat. “It’s a pleasure to have you here, Mr. and Mrs…?”
“Kent,” Clark said, popping out of the car practically on top of his mother. He gave Jenny a toothy grin. “Hi, Jenny.”
“Kent!” Jenny was engulfed in a laughing embrace, as Sarah called into the kitchen, “Guess who finally dragged his ass home?”
Garner, Bart, Kim, Mitch, Antwone, and Rich came outside and Clark stumbled from handshake to strong-armed hugs and good-natured ribbing. “You look like a girl,” Rich crowed, yanking on his nearly waist-length ponytail, tethered by a leather band at the base of his neck.
“Better than looking like you,” Clark said, knocking shoulders with him.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Jenny said to Martha and Jonathan, as Garner shook both their hands. “You have two wonderful boys.”
Jonathan appeared disconcerted by her statement, but Martha replied warmly, “I know. Thank you for looking after them for so long.”
The driver retrieved Lex’s walker from the trunk and Clark released Sarah from her hug to help Lex out of the car. “It doesn’t look like they forgot about you,” Lex teased, as Clark balanced him on his feet. Clark had had to wrestle him into jeans that morning, but then he’d surprised Clark by putting on his “Grand Poobah” sweatshirt on the private plane.
“You still don’t think they’ll be mad we lied about our names?” Clark said.
“I highly doubt it, Clark,” Lex said, using the walker to step away from the car. “Like me, your name isn’t what they fell in love with. Don’t forget to tip the driver.”
“I’ll slip him a fifty for putting up with you,” Clark said, earning an evil eye, to which he grinned unrepentantly.
Lex didn’t get to retort, as he was swallowed up in a series of happy exclamations, handshakes, and hugs when the Haven family saw he was there, too. Clark shut the car door, helped the driver remove the rest of the luggage from the trunk, and paid him, including the standard high tip he’d long since learned would help keep their whereabouts paparazzi-free.
“Jim will take you up to your room and then I hope you’ll join us for lunch,” Jenny was saying to Martha and Jonathan as they gathered their bags. She turned to Clark. “You know where your and X’s—Lex’s room is. The sheets are in the linen closet.”
Clark loved that she didn’t even offer them a room in the main house, though Lex had reserved two under his name. They weren’t guests, after all. “I’ll be right up.”
“I have apples that need coring,” Sarah told Lex, as they headed into the house behind Kim and Antwone. “I’ll expect you at two, as usual…”
“…We’re working on the ridge this afternoon and could use a hand,” Bart called over to Clark. “Bring your gloves…”
“…I guess we’ll find out if all your hours watching World Championship Poker paid off,” Mitch commented to Rich, following Sarah and Lex. “But don’t wear those stupid sunglasses of yours upside down…”
“…We’re up to fifty-three horses since Kent was last here,” Jim said, leading Jonathan and Martha inside. “Eight of our mares had healthy foals…”
“K- Clark.” Jenny stood beside Clark on the driveway, next to his and Lex’s luggage, as the Cadillac pulled away, leaving them alone. Sunlight played in her blond hair and highlighted her gentle smile. “It’s good to have you home.”
“Yeah.” Clark turned in a slow circle, drinking in the familiar sights of the mountains, the California sky, the spread of the land, and the collection of buildings that were more than windows and wood. He made his home in a lot of places: with Lex in the castle or the penthouse in Metropolis; with his parents when Lex was on business trips; at the Fortress in the Arctic when he wanted to be alone; with Chloe and Pete when he was invited to their college dorm rooms for weekend stays; but Haven would always hold an extra-special piece of his heart. “It’s good to be here.”
Jenny picked up one of the suitcases and looped her arm through Clark’s. “Come on. I’ll walk you down and you can tell me all about how you and Lex have been doing this past year.”
Clark hooked his overnight bag over his shoulder, grabbed the other suitcase, and together they started down the hill. “We’ve been doing okay. I haven’t wanted to throttle him in weeks and he’s only fired John twice since Halloween….”