Spoilers: post-Exodus, pre-Third Season. Summary: Alone they are weak, but together they are powerful. Can you crack their story? Disclaimer: Until the day I own DC comics and the WB, I am but a poor fanatic drunk on too much time.
People are afraid to merge.
- 'Less Than Zero' by Bret Easton Ellis
"We go forward," Chloe mumbled as she scrolled the long list of 'Luthor' search results at the Daily Planet website archive and fought the urge to yawn. It had been after midnight three cups of coffee ago and her eyes could barely keep open to read every single article title that scrolled by her. She just wanted to get to the end of the page so she could save the list and call it a night. After all, there was tomorrow to peruse the documented life of the Luthor family for the past twenty-three years. Chloe was nearing the bottom of the page when a four letter 'B' word in bold capitals shot out at her from the gossip columns circa 1980. "And we go back," she said as she sat up with renewed interest and clicked on the Luthor headline. Her eyes widened at the article that popped up and she proceeded to read eight months of similarly related articles, fueled straight into the early morning hours only by her reporter's drive to get to the bottom of one of the greatest mysteries of her lifetime: the tragedy of Lionel Luthor.
"Sorry I'm late," he said upon entering the room, his tie already loose around the collar as he strode over to his wife and brushed a kiss onto her cheek. "I had some things to take care of."
Sitting before a dark cherry wood vanity dressed in a lovely black evening gown, she stared at the reflection of him standing beside her in the mirror. His proud mane of hair was casually swept back and feral traces on his face betrayed a fresh business kill of some sort. "Things?" she asked suspiciously.
He returned her gaze in the mirror and his face became as blank a mask as her own. "Things," he replied flatly. She knew there was no budging when it came to these 'things,' but she glared at him anyway.
"Fine," she drawled, looking away. "Are we still on for dinner?"
"Yes," he replied simply and disappeared into the walk-in closet at the far end of the room. Filled with desire not to be in the same room as the presently intolerable man, she finished with her hair quickly and escaped to the lobby. She sat on the hall bench with her coat ready in her lap, his coat placed neatly beside her, and relished the silence as she waited. Her husband appeared a few minutes later wearing a fresh Armani and she got up to give him his coat. He put it on and she handed him her coat to hold up for her. She moved towards the door after her arm slipped into the second sleeve, but he grabbed her wrist and held it firmly.
"Lillian," he cautioned in the deep, raspy voice that she had once found so intoxicating, "whatever you think 'it' is - it isn't."
She flashed him an annoyed look and tugged her arm away. Lionel released her and lead the way out the door.
At the restaurant, he watched her poke at the uneaten food on her plate for the hundredth time that evening. She must have been starving, but either the seafood or his company was not agreeing with her tonight. Lionel had a sneaking suspicion it was the latter.
From the corner of her eye, Lillian watched him put down his fork and fold his hands neatly on the table. "Is something the matter, Lillian?" he asked on cue, just like she knew he would.
"I don't know," she sighed and stole an uneasy glance his way. His eyes narrowed in that calculated manner she recognized as his focusing his complete attention on her. Lillian bowed her head and felt her cheeks burn a pinkish-red. She inwardly berated herself for not being able to prevent herself from turning into a gushing 16-year old every time he turned his intensely critical eyes her way, even after all these years. He stood up and walked around to her. The look on his face was unreadable, dark and foreboding. Lillian closed her eyes as he bent down to her, fully expecting another ambiguous warning.
"Dance with me," his hoarse whisper was almost a growl in her ears. Her eyes fluttered open and when she looked up at him, her heart skipped a beat. He didn't wait for a response as he took both her hands into his and pulled her to her feet. One arm slipped around her waist and onto the small of her back while the other held her hand up to his chest, keeping her close. "Lionel," she hissed, glancing nervously around the restaurant as eyes began to fix on them. Dancing in the middle of an aisle to a slow piano waltz, a couple - a Luthor couple! - was definitely hard to miss.
"Let them look," he whispered and the assurance in his voice along with the confidence of his lead calmed her. The restaurant around them gradually receded into darkness until all Lillian could see was Lionel and all she could hear was the waltz. She closed her eyes and craned her head back, allowing a pleasant lightheadedness course through her.
"Lillian," he whispered again, and she opened her eyes to see his emotionally charged pair focused on her again. Always her. A sharp intake of breath and she shuddered at the intense devotion radiating from his gaze. She was taken by how, after all these years, he still managed to surprise her so. A frown developed on Lionel's brow and marred his handsome face, and she knew he'd misinterpreted her reaction. Gently, Lillian pushed back the dark curls from his face and resisted the urge to tangle her fingers in the sinfully silky hair. She bit her lower lip and thought, perhaps later tonight. Her hand brushed against the side of his cheek instead and she smiled when Lionel closed his eyes and allowed himself a small sigh. She adorned the marks of concern at the corner of each eye with a kiss.
"I love you," Lillian confessed, caught in the moment, and pulled away just enough to show him the sincerity in her eyes. "I do."
Something flickered and changed suddenly. The enchanted dance came to an abrupt halt and the restaurant materialized once more around them. A grim expression had fallen over Lionel's features and it was like a punch in the guts to Lillian. "Right then," she chuckled nervously in an attempt to drown out the hushed murmurs that only intensified when he dropped his hands from her and backed away. Humiliated and rejected, she abandoned her brave face and turned swiftly towards the restaurant doors. Her heels connected loudly with the sidewalk outside just as she found it impossible to see through the glassy haze her vision had become. The restaurant doors opened behind her. "Go away," she said, fighting back a sob.
"I'm not like other men, Lillian," he spoke gravely.
A sudden urge to slap him caused her to spin angrily at him. "I knew that LONG before I married you, Lionel! What's your point?"
"Lillian, I can't..." He began to explain, but thought better of it. His jaw tightened and his lips became a grim line on his face. He stuffed his hands customarily into his pockets. "I'll stay at the hotel tonight."
He's closed himself off again, she thought. Her eyes narrowed and she bit her lip to refrain from an angry verbal response. *So be it. *Lillian turned her back on him and climbed into the waiting limousine.
Her stomach was still churning with hatred when she entered their master bedroom. To think that she was taken by how, after all these years, he still managed to surprise her. Oh please! She kicked her shoes off and for the eleventh time that week, she toyed with the idea of leaving him. A wave of dizziness suddenly overwhelmed her and she grasped the edge of a counter top to keep from falling. She had managed to get both hands on the table when it dawned on her that she truly was physically ill. Somehow, she managed to stumble into the bathroom and collapse before the toilet bowl. The retching began as soon a she leaned over the bowl, and Lillian had the distinct feeling that she was throwing up more than just food. After a minute of it, she pushed her hair back from her sweaty forehead and took a much needed gasp of air. Tears of exhaustion stained her cheeks and she felt sickeningly hollow and barren inside - yet she knew beyond a doubt that the opposite was true. She crawled back into the room for the purse she had thrown on the bed on her way in and pulled out a cell phone. Curled up on the floor against the emperor-sized bed, she dialed his number with trembling fingers. What happened earlier at the restaurant no longer mattered. She needed him.
The phone rang only once before he answered. "Lillian?"
Though aware that after the evening's events she would be the only one he'd expect to get such a late call from, the instant concern in his voice took her by surprise and touched her so deeply she burst into tears.
"Lillian, what's happened?" he asked again, and through the phone she heard the click of a door closing. The thought that he was already making his way over provoked more wracking sobs.
"Lionel," she managed to croak between cries, "Lionel, I'm scared!"
She heard the ding of an elevator and the accompanying sound of doors opening - or were they closing? "I'll be there soon," he said, and in her mind she saw him reach to turn off his cell phone as the elevator descended.
"No, Lionel! Don't hang up!" she cried desperately, gripping tightly with both hands to the phone that had become her lifeline. "Don't leave me."
Static rippled through the connection and for a second, she thought she'd lost him. Then a deep, calming voice that always managed to soothe her crackled through the noise. "Never, Lillian." And though they do not speak for the half hour it takes him to burst into the room and kneel by her side so she could bury herself into his arms, he holds the connection.
Luthor Mansion, Present Day.
It was silly and clich, but she had insisted on seeing him home. Lana Lang, the most interesting combination of fragility and strength he had ever known, had insisted on seeing a grown-man home. When their cars pulled up the driveway of the lonely mansion, Lex insisted that she come in and have some tea. It seemed fair enough; a polite gesture for a polite gesture. He let her into his study before heading to the kitchen to prepare the tea. While she waited, Lana wandered upstairs to examine his library. She sat in a plush but musty armchair and picked up the hardcover book resting on the coffee table before her.
"The Price of Greatness by Arnold Ludwig," she read with a bemused smile as she traced her fingers over the cover's inscription. She opened the book and found a short note written in elegantly long script on the first page. The line read simply, 'You can't fly that close to the sun without getting singed.' Lana frowned at the ominous warning and continued to flip through the book.
"Dedication to persevere leads to the real price of greatness," Lex recited as he climbed up the stairs with two cups in his hands. "Not madness, but a trail of family fallouts and domestic destruction." He grinned and handed her a cup.
Lana accepted the steaming hot tea and shook her head. "Do you really believe that?"
He sat on the coffee table directly in front of her and leaned forward to rest his elbow on his knees. His fingers brushed lightly against the side of her knee and Lana tried not to feel too aware of their close proximity. Lex stared at her for a long moment. "I believe in things I've been denying my whole life," he spoke slowly, cautiously. "I believe in the dark Luthor mystique my father has foreordained for me." He paused to take a sip of his drink. "And I'm afraid that one day, I won't be able to resist it...and he'll win." He put the cup down beside him and Lana had never felt such a powerful silence. His eyes took on a wide, faraway look and he seemed to contract before her eyes onto some inner revelation. "I thought I could stop it. I thought that with Helen--"
Lana's eyes went wide. Lex stood up immediately and leaned against the balcony overlooking the study, effectively turning his back on her. He had never spoken her name until now. All the thoughts and memories of her that he had locked up in the dark corner of his mind since the crash suddenly flooded out. Lex had been burned more times than he'd like to admit, but Helen...ahh, Helen. He chuckled bitterly.
Lana studied him from her seat. She had been too stunned to move and now his rigid posture was unnerving her. Lex was not meant to be rigid. The hands that clenched the railing were ghostly white and were just-barely visibly shaking. She got up slowly and walked over to stand beside him. Her hand lifted, hovered indecisively for a moment over his shoulder, and fell back to her side. Lana shifted uneasily on her feet and bowed her head. "You can't fly that close to the sun without getting singed," she quoted in a low voice.
His muscles twitched, but only for a second as the rigidity melted from his posture and he began to relax. She sighed in relief, knowing she had spoken the right words. Their eyes met and she saw the quiet gratitude in his eyes. She saw the sadness as well. She reached out and put her hand over his on the balcony railing. She wanted him to know she would always be there for him if he needed her. It was something she knew could never be spoken out loud with Lex. He was a man for whom actions always spoke louder than words, and in that moment, they understood each other perfectly.
Lex wanted to smile, wanted to show her how much her small gesture meant to him, but his mouth had momentarily forgotten how. He sighed in frustration and turned the hand that gripped the balcony under hers over. He wanted to feel the reassuring warmth of her touch in the palm of his hand. Their fingers intertwined and he gave a light squeeze. She squeezed back. Once again they stood silently, content in the safe harbor of each other's company. Lana watched Lex's profile as the faraway look returned to his eyes. "On the night my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, she'd been thinking of leaving my father." She felt him squeeze her hand again, stronger this time. "She'd thought about it before, of course, but on that night she'd actually been prepared to do it. Then I came along and she never considered the thought again." His lips pursed into a bitter line. Lana felt that she should say something and opened her mouth to do so, but neither voice nor words came to her. Lex turned and cast his ever-imploring eyes on her. "Do you believe that there is only one person in the world that's right for you?"
"Yes," she answered confidently, and though Lana was still determined to be angry with Clark, his face drifted traitorously into her mind.
"So did my mother," Lex nodded. "And in a way, my father as well." He turned away from the balcony and his hand slipped from hers as he returned to the table and retrieved his drink. "But not me." The two deep gulps he took made Lana realize that it was not tea in his cup.
"Are you sure you're well enough to be drinking again?" she asked, troubled.
"No," he said matter-of-factly as he placed the now empty cup back on the table. "And I'd appreciate it if you not mention this to Dr. McMurphy when he arrives tomorrow."
"Because it helps make things bearable," said Lex. He pulled on his sleeve to reveal the red skin of his arm. "This." He gestured to the room around them as he looked out the window in the direction of Smallville. "Here." He returned his gaze slowly back to Lana and the way he looked at her made her feel like he was going to burn a hole through her. "Now."
She blinked and swallowed hard, faintly wondering when her throat had gotten so dry. Despite his heated glare, Lana shivered at the cold implication of his words. It was expected that Lex would be hurting emotionally as much as he was physically, but the tone in his voice hinted at psychological wounds that ran much deeper than anyone ever expected. "And if this," her eyes dared to meet his. "Here," she braved a step towards him. "Now," she reached out and touched his exposed arm. He winced and Lana tried not to let it dishearten her. "If it's so unbearable, why did you come back at all?"
The expression on Lex's face then was dark, foreboding, and impossible to interpret. "My parents did not stay together because of me," he said as he picked up the book from the table. "Ultimately, my mother stuck by him because despite all his faults, all his secrets, she loved him. She loved him unconditionally, and she died believing my father had been 'the one.' Deep down, I think my father believed, too." Lex turned to the shelf behind him and slipped the book in with the others, but let his fingers linger on the shelf because he could not bring himself to face her with what he had to say next. What his soul desperately needed to say. "I believed Helen was the one." He paused and gulped painfully. Dramatically. "A part of me always will. Which is why I have to believe in the possibility that there's more than one right person in the world. I'll never get a chance at what they had, otherwise."
Lana frowned and took an unsure step forward. Did he not despise his father? Said his mother had thought of leaving him? How could Lex envy such a troubled relationship? "I don't understand," she whispered honestly.
Lex craned his head back at her, saw her determination to grasp the cryptic meaning of his words struggle against her confusion, and he stepped away from the shelf. He took both her hands and cupped them in his, stroking the fair skin under his calloused thumbs gently. "For your sake, I hope you never do."
_Part Three: Strengths and Weaknesses_
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