Thanks to LaT for betaing and Wendy for sniffling.
When Cynthia buzzed to tell him that Lex was waiting to see him, Lionel sighed and tapped his pen against the table, wondering what further sort of trouble Lex could possibly have gotten himself into in a place like Smallville. He hadn't even been there two months and already he had nearly killed himself in an auto accident and openly defied Lionel's wishes in a business matter, but half the point of sending him out to Fertilizer Plant Number Three was the limited opportunities for amusement its surroundings would offer Lex. Yet there he was, unexpected, unsummoned, and that could only mean one thing: more trouble, and of a grave kind.
"Send him in," Lionel said, and automatically straightened up, checking his desk for any signs of disorder. Always seem well-organized in public, no matter what the reality might be.
Lex was dressed casually, in a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans, which was puzzling for a workday. He looked tired; there was a faint puffiness around his eyes, glaringly obvious against that smooth skin, that Lionel could not remember seeing before. He kept his own face impassive, however: he needed to hold the advantage Lex's appearance gave him. "Hello, Lex," he greeted him as Lex stood uneasily in front of his desk. Another oddity. Normally Lex radiated an aggressive comfort in his own skin. "I don't have you down for a meeting in my schedule."
"I'm not here on business. I just thought I might come up to town for the holiday. Assuming I'm invited, of course."
Lex had not spent a single major holiday with his father since he'd gone off to Princeton. "Certainly, you're invited, Lex. But why waste the time on the sort of gathering you've told me more than once is too tedious for words? Why not just tell me what's wrong now?"
"Wrong?" Lex managed to look wounded and bored at the same time. "Does something have to be wrong for me to want to spend the holidays with my only family?"
Lionel felt a familiar acid burn in his stomach. Lex had never been shy about informing him of his latest difficulties before--in fact, one could almost say that the boy took gleeful pleasure in doing so. If he couldn't even say what was wrong, having to resort first to pathetic attempts at softening Lionel up like spending Thanksgiving in Metropolis, the problem must be catastrophic. However, if Lex wanted to play this game, he could return serve. "Of course not. I'll tell Mrs. Martin you'll be joining us. It's a small gathering this year: just the van Wycks and the Loebs. Cocktails at six-thirty, dinner at seven. Will you have a guest?"
Lex shook his head. "No. No guest."
"Very well, then. Since you're here, I'd like to go over some of your quarterly projections with you."
Lex started. Lionel would have called it guilt in anyone else, but he was sure Lex was beyond such blatantly obvious manifestations of it, at least. "Actually, I've got plans," he said quickly.
"Starting the holiday a little early? You'll never get ahead if you're not willing to work harder than your competitor, Lex."
That brought such a bitter smile to Lex's face that Lionel almost stared to see it. "I know, Dad. I know."
He left in haste, almost as if he was running away, and Lionel let the stare develop itself into a full-blown gaze after him. For a full five minutes. Then the phone rang, and he had other matters to worry about.
"He didn't go out at all?" Lionel asked his head of security in disbelief late the next evening.
Brian shook his head. "No, sir. He stayed in his room all last night."
"Did he have company?"
"But today. I didn't see him until dinner. He went out today?"
"No. He spent the entire day in the library."
"Was he drunk? Or high?"
"I didn't test him, sir," Brian said, with his usual careful precision, "but no one reports any indications of that."
"And where is he now?"
"The library again."
Lionel shook his head. It made no sense. Normally, when Lex visited, Lionel didn't see him at all because he was too busy patronizing Metropolis's hottest hot spots. Not because he was keeping quietly to himself in the house.
The only time he'd seen him was when he'd come to dinner, and Lionel didn't know what could explain dinner. One thing about Lex that you could always count on was his charm, though whether he would choose to use it as a weapon or for more useful social purposes was always uncertain. Alicia van Wyck, the van Wycks' only child, had been there; she'd always risen to the challenge Lex represented, and Lex had usually gotten some amusement from responding. That night, though, he'd barely seemed to be there, toying with his silverware instead of eating, scarcely bothering to acknowledge the conversation she directed to him, excusing himself before the pie. He'd been positively listless--no, not listless, he couldn't be listless. Preoccupied.
Whatever he was hiding from must be spectacularly bad.
"I want you to send someone to Smallville, Brian," he said, leaning forward. "No--better. I want you to go yourself. Find out what went wrong with him there, before whatever it may be lands on our heads."
"And then deal with it?"
"It'd be better if you called me first. It's likely to be a very delicate matter."
"Very well, sir." Brian gathered up his folder. "I'll leave tonight."
Lionel smiled. Brian was always so dedicated and reliable. If only Lex had learned by his example.
Sitting for hours in the library. Only Lex could find a way to make that unsettling behavior.
Three days later, Brian sat in front of him again. "I couldn't find anything in Smallville, sir."
"Nothing?" It was impossible to accept. It was Sunday night, and Lex had made no apparent motion towards returning to Smallville. You'd think he was terrified to set foot into town.
"No, Mr. Luthor, nothing. Lex has been living very quietly, compared to his time here or in school. He doesn't even have a girlfriend."
So there was no scandal. Yet Lex was still in the library, and Lionel didn't know what should be done. He knew the traditional signs of Lex in trouble: late-night summons from the police, phone calls from the hospital, visits from unsavory characters or aggrieved property-owners. Infuriating, though he'd never admit that to the boy, but manageable with lawyers and money and threats. Now Lex was sending up distress signals by sitting in the library and doing nothing at all. He should be grateful; it wasn't costing him anything, not time or money or even aggravation, really--nothing he hadn't sought out himself. But he didn't know how to manage it. He hadn't an inkling. That was more disturbing than any threat of legal action could ever be.
"All right, Brian. Keep someone there, looking."
"Yes, sir." Brian laid a folder in front of him. "I have a timeline of his actions for the last few days before he left. Perhaps there's something here that would be suggestive to you."
He flipped it open at once. "Thank you. Keep me informed."
Brian, who knew how to recognize a dismissal, vanished from the room at once. Lionel went to the last entries first. Evidence of preparations for an abrupt departure--but half-hearted ones, in no way adequate. If Lex was expecting the plant to run itself while he sat in Metropolis, he had not made sufficient provision for it. Lionel skimmed his finger up the page. A visit to a nursing home caught his eye. Odd. A woman had died--
Alarm bells went off in his head.
--But, no, it had been a heart attack, unquestionably. She had...she had died sitting in her own chair. While Lex was there.
Lionel's initial relief vanished immediately. Murder would have been undesirable, but that...that might even be worse. He made himself continue reading upwards, looking for other, more palatable explanations for Lex's behavior. Thoroughness in all things. However, he reached the beginning of the file without having found any.
This would have to be dealt with at once. Lionel snapped the file shut and rose. Time to pay a visit to the library.
Lex was sitting at the far end of the room, in one of the window seats, curled up with his arms wrapped around his legs and his head resting on his knees. The image matched so perfectly to one of six years earlier, of a Lex called home from school abruptly in mid-term, that Lionel knew he must be right. It was that image that made him decide, though, to give the boy one last chance before coming down on him.
"Lex," he said, crossing the room to him, "are you planning to go back to Smallville anytime soon?"
Lex kept his gaze fixed on the window. "I've toyed with the idea."
"The plant can't run indefinitely without you, you know. You have a job to do there."
"Yes, I do, don't I? A job that will lead to greater things."
His voice was hollow. All right, if he wanted to make a mockery of his responsibilities--"You can't run away every time a woman dies in your presence, Lex. It's an embarrassing show of weakness."
That brought his head around. "You think that's what this is about?" he asked sharply.
"I know all about Cassandra, Lex."
"I don't care about Cassandra," he said. At Lionel's skeptical expression, he added, "All right, fine. I didn't really enjoy seeing her die right in front of me. Yes, it reminded me of Mom, and, no, I know you don't want me to ever think about her--"
Genuinely startled, Lionel interrupted. "You think that's what I want?"
"I think you've made your wishes on that pretty clear."
"Don't be absurd, Lex. Not a day goes by when I don't think of your mother, and, of course, you would, too. But she's gone. She's of the past. We have to live for the future."
"The future." Lex threw his head back and laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes, the future. It was my future that killed Cassandra."
Under other circumstances, it might have been a relief to drop the earlier subject. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing." In an instant, he was gone, withdrawn behind a sullen mask. "You wouldn't understand."
"Lex, are you all right?"
"Oh, I'm fine. Just your average twenty-one-year-old with a future so horrifying it stops the heart of little old ladies."
Lionel felt a real clutch of fear at his own heart. This was how "sensitive" children were bound to end up, no matter how hard you tried to train them out of it. The taint from Lily's side of the family, breaking out at last.
"You didn't kill her. She had a heart attack."
"So they all say."
"I...think you should go to bed, Lex."
"Fine. Whatever." He shrugged and hopped down, but Lionel could see the way his shoulders sagged as he headed for the door.
Who ever would have thought that it would be a bad sign that Lex would go to bed when asked?
Two days later, Lex had not moved an inch, and Lionel had decided nothing. Avoidance of difficult issues was not one of his traits; it was a luxury he couldn't afford. He wondered, again, at Lex's ability to make everything so much more complicated than it had to be, apparently out of the sheer perverse joy of it. What did the boy think he would accomplish, coming back to Metropolis to flaunt his...his moping in Lionel's face, the way he used to do his partying? If it was moping, and not something worse. Lionel had not returned to the subject of Cassandra with Lex. He hadn't wanted to hear any more. Avoidance compounding avoidance. Pitiful.
When he found that he'd been staring at the computer screen for a full thirty minutes without reading a word of the report, Lionel decided to call it a day. No need to add unproductiveness to the rest of his shortcomings in the situation. He was just coming in the front door when Heike strode out into the hall with her sabre, her golden hair twisted in a severe knot at the back of her neck, her face full of contempt. She caught sight of Lionel, but did not attempt to conceal her expression. "You're tolerating this?"
"He wouldn't practice?"
"No. And he wouldn't give me a reason, either." She shrugged. "If he doesn't want to learn, I have no wish to make him."
"Lex hasn't been feeling well the past few days, Heike."
"He looked fine to me, sitting on his backside in the library."
"It's a..." Lionel felt a brief surge of hatred for Lex, putting him in situations like this. "It's not a physical problem."
"Ah. His delicate sensibility has been offended by the Smallville atmosphere, and he's been incapacitated. You tell Lex, Mr. Luthor, that he has no need to make pitiful excuses not to train. He's an adult. He either trains, or he doesn't. It's up to him. But he cannot waste my time dithering about it."
He reached to stop her as she went past. "It wasn't the atmosphere. Someone died."
"That crazy old fortune teller?" She snorted. "That's what's been bothering him?"
He stared at her. "Fortune teller?"
"Yes, I heard some people talking about it in Smallville. An old woman famous for her powers of foresight."
"But that's nonsense."
"Probably. I never determined for myself. I can't fathom why Lex would care."
It was beginning to dawn on Lionel, however. "Yes, well, he's always been a little...eccentric. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep all this to yourself, Heike."
"As if I had time for gossiping. Good day, Mr. Luthor."
Heike swept by him determinedly. He heard the door close behind her a minute later. He put his hand on the stair railing and found that he was gripping it so tightly it hurt. The son and heir of the Luthor fortune, with the finest education that money could buy, rattled by the claims of some conniving little backwoods gypsy. It was the crowning ludicrous touch to the whole ludicrous situation.
Lex was closing his eyes again.
Lionel abruptly found that he had decided. He started climbing the stairs to his office.
When he came into the library several hours later, Lex was stretched out on the rug before the fire, head lying on his arm, tracing a pattern in the rug with his finger over and over again. He gave his father an indifferent glance with dull eyes and then dropped his gaze back to the rug.
Lionel did not allow himself to be provoked. It was essential to be calm here, to not allow Lex to think there was anything he could reach to get himself out of the situation. "So, Lex," he said conversationally, "still here?"
"It does look like it."
"With no intention of going back?"
"Well, I had my concerns before, but now I think you're right. You shouldn't go back to Smallville."
There was a wary flash of white from below Lex's lids. "I...shouldn't."
"No. If you take that fortune-teller seriously, Lex, you're obviously very ill. You should go on medical leave. Paid, of course. I've arranged for your admission at St. Isidore's."
Lex was on his feet in an instant, unsteady. "You wouldn't."
Lionel suppressed a smile. "Of course I would. It's all taken care of. They're expecting you."
"I won't go to a hospital." His hands were clenched, just as they had been when he was a little boy throwing a tantrum over the same subject. "I don't need to. I just..." He turned away. "I just need..." He swallowed. "How can you do this?"
"Lex," Lionel said clearly and distinctly, "if I am forced to choose between my son's being ill and his being a credulous ninny on a truly appalling scale, I will take the first one."
Lex turned his head slowly to stare at him. "Of course you would."
"On the other hand, if he is meeting his responsibilities, as opposed to staging a breakdown on my library carpet, I have no need to choose. That much would seem to be obvious even to the average mind."
"I suppose I have to make some allowances for your illness, so I'm going to overlook that remark."
There was desperation in Lex's eyes. "I'm not ill! You can't send me back to--to--"
"Really, Lex. You'd think I was talking about some kind of Third World clinic, not the finest medical care available for someone in your condition. Your dislike of hospitals has always been so irrational. Childish, even. Perhaps they can work on that, too. Why don't you go pack, and I'll call you a car?"
Lex pressed his hands over his eyes and made a noise that was just short of a growl. Lionel waited calmly; he could let him have a couple of minutes, but not more. Finally, Lex dropped his hands and looked up, smoothing out his expression, straightening up his posture. "I'm not going. I mean, I'm going back to Smallville."
Lionel couldn't help but press, just a little. "Are you sure? They're more than happy to have you at St. Isidore's."
"Oh, I'm sure. Really sure." Lex started for the door. "I suppose my future will find me wherever I am, anyway. I hope you can live with yourself."
"What was that, Lex?"
"Nothing," he said quickly. "Nothing."
"Good. Because talk like that remark I thought I just heard..."
"I get it, dad. I get it. No crazy talk about my future. No matter what it might be." Lex looked at him, and it was the same look he'd given him at Lily's graveside, begging for some kind of rescue that Lionel could not provide. He steeled himself not to respond. This was the only kind of help that could do the boy good. Then the look was gone. "Don't expect me at Christmas." Lex slammed the door behind him.
Problem managed, Lionel thought. Lex would do fine, once he got into the saddle again. He just needed a little impetus, and what good father wouldn't have provided that?
He only wished he could get the image of the boy curled up in what a sentimental man might call despair out of his mind. It felt too much like an accusation, and his conscience was clear.
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