Someone in Metropolis
had decided that copyright infringement of hippies in Texas was
justifiable and now every other person wandering around the city was
wearing a "Keep Metropolis Weird" shirt.
It was a pointless
rabble-rousing because Metropolis had never been normal a day in its
existence and Lex Luthor thoroughly disapproved of the entire campaign.
He'd gone so far as to smilingly make it a point to say that due to tax
benefits provided to all small business owners in Metropolis, made
possible by generosity and good budgeting, there were few conglomerates
to speak of, and that the city was eclectic and alive and diverse.
Mostly, he just hated the obnoxious font that spelled out the message.
However, the shirts
did come in a very fetching shade of fatigue green, which was why Conner
was shelling out eight dollars to buy one off of a street corner near
city hall. He'd take crap for it later that night, because his father
would know he'd purchased it--of course Lex would know that Conner had
purchased it--but it would be worth the minor victory of seeing his
father roll his eyes every time Conner wore it thereafter. Having
shared living space with one of the ten most powerful men in the world
for fifteen years and counting, Conner had learned the fine art of being
content with small successes.
"I just need four
Conner glanced up,
folding his two dollars and shoving them into his pocket as he scanned
the steps of the Howard J. Aycock building. There was the usual
smattering of battered-looking metro reporters from the local papers,
and one nervous-looking kid who looked like he'd just fallen out of a
two o'clock class at MetU, clutching a reporter's notebook and looking
"How about three? I
talk very fast, Mr. Luthor."
And, there: Lois
She was wearing low,
black leather heels with points that could gut a man and a pantsuit
Conner had seen in the display window of one of the row stores on Harden
Avenue. Her hair was curlier than Conner had last seen it and she
looked flushed, excited, too-thrilled to be covering a council-meeting,
and too happy to be badgering Conner's dad.
The thought made
Conner break out into a huge grin, turning away from the vendor and
tugging the Keep Metropolis Weird tee over his gray, long-sleeved,
St. Ann's Academy shirt with the fraying cuffs. He shrugged on his
messenger bag and tugged at his beltloops for a second, straightening
his clothes out in a way that Geoffrey said was slightly gay. (Conner
generally disregarded any derisive comments Geoffrey made about Conner's
vaguely homosexual tendencies, writing them off on either his upbringing
or the fact that Geoffrey inhaled a lot of paint fumes.) His dad said
the outfit made him look like a work-study hipster, which always made
Clark say that Conner's dad was an asshole.
Conner jogged up the
street a little and stood on the sidewalk in front of the building,
smirking as Lois walked down the steps backward, trying to shove a voice
recorder in Lex's face, achieving only marginal success in either. That
was Conner's favorite thing about Lois: she was reckless. Plus, she'd
been his first girlfriend.
"I'm sorry to say I
only have two and a half--and I think following me down the steps just
concluded our time together for the afternoon, Ms. Lane," Conner's dad
said, politely and totally infuriatingly, the same way he dismissed
Conner's spirited appeal to be allowed to go to public high school.
Lois Lane scowled.
"Lex, come on. You know this'll take you three seconds." She rested
her manicured hands on Conner's dad's chest and smiled sweetly. "I'll
make it worth your while."
Lex raised one dark
auburn brow at her and said, "Lois? Off the record?"
Her breath hitched,
torn between juicy details and a byline. "Yes?"
"I have enough
Daily Planet t-shirts, mugs, travel mugs, mousepads, pens, and
post-it pads to last me several lifetimes," Lex said wryly. "In fact,
I'd give serious consideration to having Clark brought up on official
misconduct for blatantly looting Metropolis Communications' office
Lois started to glare
and stopped three steps from the bottom of the enormous, granite
stairway that led up to the Greek revival building, which Conner's dad
always claimed had been designed during a particularly bad acid trip.
"Why, if I was his
employer," Lex went on cheerfully, "I'd have him in stocks in the public
"You were always a
little medieval," Lois muttered.
"Ah, your bias is
showing, Ms. Lane," Conner's dad laughed, side-stepped her easily, and
said over his shoulder, "I look forward to our next meeting."
Conner leaned against
a brass elephant set out on the street as part of Metropolis' latest
community revival project and smirked. His mom always said that the
expression creeped him out, reminding Clark entirely too much of Lex,
but then Conner really couldn't do much to tone it down, as he had both
nature and nurture working against any and all placid facial
expressions: the combination of Lex's expressiveness and Clark's total
inability to lie or fake it was really working against Conner's dream of
being a hustler for a living.
His dad hit the
sidewalk and acknowledged Conner with a tilt of his head.
"I think the kitschy
hipster look went out of style a few months ago, Conner," he said.
"Dad, you've got to start being less cool. It's beginning to embarrass
Lex laughed, and
Conner swore he saw one of the reporters--one of the newer ones--raise
his eyebrows in disbelief, like they'd never heard Lex Luthor laugh
before, and it made Conner feel suddenly, unexpectedly proud to have
"Come on, I'll give
you a ride home," Conner's dad said, and cocking his brow, added, "Nice
Conner had no great
inclination to drive, a truth that alternately comforted and perplexed
his father, and one which the Luthor household simply accepted. Being a
city-boy at heart--despite his grandfather's valiant efforts to
indoctrinate him in the ways of pick-up trucks and "feeling the dirt
under his nails"--Conner saw no reason to waste the effort involved in
learning to drive when he'd been free and mobile since he was nine and
figured out the Metropolis bus system.
So Lex always drove
and Conner sat in the side seat, elbow hanging out of the window with
the glass rolled down, letting the snapping, blue oxygen of fall pour
into the windows and ruffle his hair.
"How was the
meeting?" Conner asked over the roar of the city.
His dad, smirking
behind his thousand-dollar sunglasses, said, "Predictably pointless. If
you ever aspire to political office, Conner, decide to start larger than
city council. It's mind numbing."
stuff," Conner argued.
Clark had spent a
great deal of time explaining to Conner the import of local politics,
while his father had spent a great deal of time explaining the import of
manipulating local politics. Years of warping left Conner civic-minded
with a distinct streak of self-interest; he'd looked up the agenda for
that week and the Kansas state senate was voting on the public works
budget soon, which was not as boring as his father characterized it.
"It was a committee
meeting," his father replied, laughing. "Nothing gets decided in
committee. Things only toddle off to die in committee."
"Dad, did you just
say 'toddle'?" Conner asked seriously.
They turned the
corner, and the brick, eclectic charm of the city fell away to sheer
walls of expensive buildings, multi-billion dollar investments, and the
streets and sky seemed to turn gunmetal, as if they understood the
wealth and power concentrated here.
"I'm not the one who
calls Clark 'mom,'" his father shot back.
"I only did it once!"
Conner argued, flushing and hoping desperately that his father didn't
realize that Conner had pretty much resigned himself to thinking of
Clark as his mom years ago and saw no hope of ever changing his pronouns
around in order not to emasculate his mother. And, when the thought
passed through his mind, he despaired, observing that he'd just done it
His father appeared
sympathetic. "I understand. Clark is very feminine."
The car whispered
into an underground parking lot, and Conner glared as the engine purred
to a stop, his father stroking the steering wheel like an attentive
"How long are you
going to hold that over my head?" Conner snapped.
Content that the car
was placated, his father took off his driving gloves and folded them
into the glove compartment, slipped out of the car like water, and
locked it, making all the lights flicker and security systems beep
before beaming over the low, sporty roof to say, "I'm sure your mother
is flattered that you recognize what a woman she is."
Conner narrowed his
eyes, stalking off to the elevator, saying over his shoulder, "Yeah?
Well, Your car looks like a ho. And? Its hood is flat."
As the elevator doors
closed behind him, he heard a gasp of horror from his father.
thought. Sometimes, it was just so easy.
His mom, who had
really bizarre hours, was in the penthouse when Conner got there.
Conner had now had a
mother for four years, though they were fairly rocky ones.
The first one was
spent watching his mom and dad have epic battles the likes of which only
children of very messy divorces knew. The second one his dad kept
having some sort of allergic reaction to there being another person in
the house, somebody else Conner spoke to about his problems, the natural
result of which led to more chaos and instability in the universe. (The
downside, Conner reflected glumly sometimes, when your mother was
Superman and your father owned a fairly significant percentage of the
world, was that when they fought, the entire galaxy felt it--literally.)
The third year,
they'd started sneaking around behind Conner's back.
It'd been the subject
of much speculation for both Conner and Geoffrey, and not until they'd
conspired to set up a security camera did they realize that there were
some things more horrifying than watching a sixty year old nun teach
them the breaststroke--and that was watching Conner's parents making
So far, he hadn't
found the appropriate time to say, "Hey, Dad, Clark, I know that you're
doing it. You don't have to pretend anymore." Some deeply selfish part
of himself felt that he should never say it, and then they'd
never, ever have to talk about sex, why Conner knew about sex, what his
dad and his mom were doing when they were having sex, or when they
did--which Conner hoped sincerely was "when we are far away."
The point was despite
the fact that Conner threatened to stab himself in the face a lot, he
had no real desire to do it, but if he had to sit down and talk to his
parents about their illicit sex life, he'd really have to die.
At the moment, his
mom was sitting in the living room, eating potato chips and watching
Pride and Prejudice on the projection screen television. Mr. Darcy
was huge. Clark didn't seem to mind.
Conner dropped on the
couch next to his mom, and sticking his hand in the bag of chips, he
said, "Don't you work today?"
Clark shrugged, and
distracted, leaned over to drop a kiss to Conner's perpetually ruffled
hair. Conner had stopped accepting expressions of physical affection
two years ago, so the fact that his dad still hugged him and kissed his
temple and Clark still kissed the top of his head meant that he just
didn't have the resources to enforce the law. It was frustrating, but
at least it was private.
"That's the good
thing about news--sometimes, it just doesn't happen," Clark murmured,
and pointed at the television. "Why didn't anybody tell me that Jane
Austen movies were this cool?"
"No clue," Conner
replied. He heard the elevator doors open to the apartment and craned
his neck to say, "Hey, Dad. Took you long enough."
"I had to comfort the
car," his father said sarcastically, dropping his keys on the counter
and walking over to the couch, contributing to Conner's unfortunate hair
situation by ruffling it. Conner saw out of the corner of his eye that
his father's hand deftly swept the hair at Clark's temples, and that
Clark closed his eyes at that. It was only a second, but it felt very
kind, and Conner was grateful for that.
Somewhere, in between
Conner groaning and putting a pillow over his head to deafen the sounds
of the yelling and the sullen silences that reigned the next day, Conner
hadn't really noticed but Clark had effectively started living there.
He went home in the evenings but dropped by in the afternoons, and
occasionally, Clark would pick him up from school or take him out for
the weekend. Slowly, so slowly Conner had stopped being surprised at
Clark's being there, his mom had somehow started occupying space Conner
had shared so long with just his father, and it was nice, it was
comforting, it was as if it wasn't so lonely, anymore.
"She felt she wasn't
good enough for me anymore. I had to disabuse her of the idea," his
father added, disappearing down the hallway toward his wing while
pulling off his jacket. And when he returned, Elizabeth was telling Mr.
Darcy how she'd never marry him, and Clark was enraptured.
Lex scowled. "I
never should have bought that," he muttered.
Conner's dad said
that about every movie Clark liked watching, but it never stopped him
from obsessively ordering things from Amazon.com--two days ago, his dad
had purchased the box-set of the Kill Bill movies, even though he had
them individually. Conner thought maybe it was a nervous tick,
something to do with having a traumatic childhood or whatever.
Conner quipped, grinning at Clark's heartbroken face as Mr. Darcy left.
"It's rot," Lex said,
but affectionately, and asked, "Half day?"
suspected that it said a lot about him that his parents never thought
that he was skipping class, only that school was let out early or that
it was a vacation. Sure, Conner enjoyed school to a fairly unnatural
degree, but he liked to say that it was only because he liked how the
nuns were so endearingly well-intentioned, and not because he was a
nerd. Plus, the fact that his best friend was there helped.
"The sprinklers went
haywire. They had the church van drop a bunch of us off downtown and
the rest of the kids had to wait for their parents," Conner explained,
stuffing some chips into his mouth.
His father, though
completely anal retentive about everything else had never seen it fit to
be too concerned about Conner's eating habits, choosing instead to
mutter about how if everything else bizarre about his son was genetic,
then he probably got the metabolism, too. That translated to Conner
eating as much food as he wanted whenever he wanted and still having
visible ribs, which distressed his grandmother and led to widespread
guilt on the parts of his mom and dad, which was always fun.
"That school is
seriously falling apart," his dad murmured thoughtfully.
"It's fine," Conner
answered. He narrowed his eyes. "Stop giving the school money."
"I just figure maybe
you'll spend less time in Saturday detention," his father shot back
"I," Conner said
dramatically, "will never spend less time in Saturday detention.
And the nuns already think you're trying to bribe them."
"I am trying
to bribe them," his dad said easily. Clark started to say something
that sounded vaguely like a reprimand but was too involved with the
television to give it much attention.
"Stop being so
obvious about it!" Conner whined. "You're getting me into trouble."
The episode on the
television ended with a crescendo, and Clark sighed, relaxing back into
the couch like he was finally satisfied--seeing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy
at an impossible standstill, with Jane in London and Charlotte
cheerfully and badly married. Sometimes, it was really horrifying the
amount of plot you could pick up from watching A&E specials with Clark.
"How's Dr. Liebhart?"
Clark asked, turning around on the couch and grinning at Lex.
deadpanned. He looked at Conner and asked, "Are you heading out or is
Geoffrey coming over today?"
Conner pushed off of
the couch and started toward the kitchen, calling over his shoulder,
"He's coming over."
"How're the party
plans going?" his mom asked.
Conner admitted. The problem wasn't going to be with the party itself,
it was going to be with the fact that Geoffrey hated surprise parties.
"But I kind of get the feeling he's going to be wicked pissed with me
when he finds out that I helped everybody plan this."
"He'll be so busy
having a great time he won't even notice he's getting older," Clark
"That's what you
think," Conner muttered, rifling around in the refrigerator until he
found an orange. "Geoffrey's deranged."
Geoffrey was the only
person Conner knew who had started to agonize about his birthdays the
day he turned eleven. Nobody else spent their twelfth birthday party
drinking punch like it was whiskey and moaning about how so much of his
life had already passed--like fog or mist or other intangible, ephemeral
things. And since Conner was Geoffrey's best friend, he was honor-bound
to humor Geoffrey the entire week before and the entire week after
Geoffrey's birthday; the former of which left Geoffrey annoyed and
irritable, the latter of which made him melancholy and fingerpainting
vast canvases in black.
"I could spike the
punch," Lex offered, wandering into the kitchen to grab one of his
bottles of clear dirt water.
From the living room,
Clark yelled, "I heard that!"
Lex rolled his eyes
and Conner just sighed, continuing to peel the orange.
"He's probably a
depressive drunk, too," Conner muttered. "Maybe I can just give him a
here, have a concussion," Lex said, grinning.
Conner laughed and
handed his father a quarter of the orange. "You're joking but I'm not."
oranges. The year his father had gotten it into his mind that perhaps
it would be a good, parental thing to take Conner to Disneyworld
("Disneyland is a cheap, Pacific coast backwater--we're going to Florida
or bust."), Conner had gotten lost in an orange grove and spent half the
day with migrant workers, speaking what little Spanish he knew and
eating orange-red slices of fruit until he was sweet with it and sticky
all over. By the time Superman found him, Conner had picked up a far
more elastic Spanish vocabulary which alternately scandalized and amused
his father and a serious bias when it came to fruit.
"What are you getting
him?" Lex asked, popping an orange slice into his mouth.
Conner shrugged. "He
has everything he wants," he said. "And Mister Archer's buying him a
new computer that's all tricked out with some serious graphic arts
stuff, so that's off the list."
"Maybe I should buy him a hooker."
"I heard that!"
"You better not be
doing anything for my birthday," Geoffrey warned. He waved a knife for
Conner rolled his
eyes and continued to chop tomatoes. "Everybody knows you hate your
birthday. Guam knows you hate your birthday. Why would we celebrate
something you loathe with the fiery passion of a thousand furious suns?"
Tenth grade at St.
Ann's Academy for Children came with a host of indignities, not the
least of which was home economics. The school was exclusive enough
so that children entered the school and continued on through their
twelve years of primary education with the same fifteen to twenty-five
odd children they'd met in kindergarten. By the ninth grade,
everybody already knew everybody else enough to know that nobody in
their classes could cook; Conner had once tried to make instant macaroni
and cheese on his own, but been thoroughly chastised by Mrs. Banner when
she'd seen him lurking around the microwave. He couldn't really
blame her, considering during his younger, more irresponsible years,
he'd been known to explode kitchen appliances for the hell of it.
That day, class A was
tackling spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Conner had taken one
look at the recipe and delegated meatballs to Geoffrey while he took to
mangling tomatoes, which would all get cooked down anyway, so appearance
was hardly paramount. It wouldn't do, however, for their final meal to
turn out as spaghetti and meatblobs, which if Conner was left to shape
them was depressingly likely.
"I just don't like to
be reminded that I'm inching ever closer to middle-age," Geoffrey
muttered. He poured some canola oil into a saucepan and set it on
the range, turning the heat to high before he glanced at Conner, saying,
"Sixteen is almost twenty."
Conner used every
ounce of strength he had in his soul not to stab himself in the eye.
Instead, he cupped his hands around the last few stray cubes of tomato
and dropped them into the already-bubbling pot. It smelled good, like
the bay leaf he'd dropped in there a few minutes ago, oregano, salt, and
faintly of black pepper. If he could ever convince Mrs. Banner to let
him use the kitchen at home, he felt he might have a good thing going.
"And twenty is almost
post-mortem," Conner deadpanned.
"So you see where I'm
going with this," Geoffrey explained, and used a spoon to set the
meatballs into the sizzling oil, the golden-brown smell filling their
Conner said bitterly, glaring and stirring the sauce.
They were knocking
elbows in front of the stovetop, but they were already used to doing
that from ninth grade Biology, so it mostly only bothered Julie, who
pointed out three times that if Geoffrey just angled his body or
Conner moved a little they could avoid all that unnecessary
"Next, they'll tell
me I have prostate cancer," Geoffrey reported sadly.
"Okay," Conner said
seriously, "I am very close to killing you with this spoon."
At the end of the
period, Conner and Geoffrey found that theirs was one of the only meals
that was edible, and so spent their lunch hour defending it from hungry
bystanders, who wanted to know where in the hell they found freshly made
It was Thursday,
which meant Geoffrey and Eve went off to one of the local after-school
centers to provide hours of entertainment for bored children who were
not artistically talented, despite Geoffrey's very best efforts to will
them so. Conner once offered to try and make them do it, but Geoffrey
had given him a withering look and said, "You can't just control
everybody with your mind, Conner. I know that sounds retarded but with
you--it's a distinct possibility."
Conner frowned at the
memory. So Geoffrey was right, it didn't mean he had to be such a
jackass about it; Conner was only offering to help.
And anyway, it wasn't
even guaranteed to work.
Ever since that day
at the Metropolis Museum of Art when he'd discovered Kryptonite,
Geoffrey's heartbeat, and his mom's night-job, he'd spent a ridiculous
amount of time trying to harness his telekinesis. Ordinary
fifteen-year-olds worried about getting a blowjob before their other
friends and whether or not their clothes looked cool; Conner worried
about keeping his temper in check so he wouldn't accidentally fling a
car through the side of a building. It hadn't happened yet, but that
time he'd heard somebody from the Inquisitor calling his dad a
filthy faggot had led to some pretty terrifying levitation, and only
Clark's iron grip on his shoulder had brought him back to the moment
soon enough that the armored truck had simply crashed the three feet
back to asphalt.
The point was, it was
Thursday evening, and his father had a determined expression on his
face. His mom was out stalking the governor and Mrs. Banner had gone
home for the night; there was no forthcoming rescue and Conner felt more
than a little trapped.
"Dad, shouldn't I,
you know, study for my SATs or something?" Conner asked, desperate.
Even the hideous Princeton Review crapfest that was Ten Real SATs
seemed a better alternative than dealing with his father in full
fifteen, more than old enough to learn to control your powers--"
Conner insisted. "In the singular."
it's volatile and is reactive to your moods I'd think you'd want
"It doesn't even work
all the time," Conner muttered sullenly.
"--be able to avoid
hurting people with it," his father plowed on reasonably.
Conner rolled his
eyes. His dad had the best intentions, but Conner had more than a
passing suspicion that Lex's investment in understanding Conner's powers
were more than just for Conner's benefit. He wasn't, despite Julie's
not-so-affectionate nickname for him, a total moron, and he'd seen his
father around experiments and test tubes enough to know that his dad
looked at the whole thing like the best Christmas present ever. Conner
used to try to deflect his dad's attention to his mom's powers, which
had led to a lot of uncomfortable snickering on his mom's part and his
dad saying, "Conner, please don't be slow," which Conner figured meant
"been there, done that" in Lex-ese.
"Come on, is this
really necessary?" Conner asked. He said the last word in his best
bargaining voice, but his dad shot it down with his best You're Clearly
Out Of Your Mind face, which trumped Conner's whining any day.
They were in Lex's
office. His father was still in his five thousand dollar suit but his
one thousand dollar tie was loose around his neck, and he was talking
with his hands, which was something Lex had picked up when Conner was in
the sixth grade, and Lex's frustration had exceeded his considerable
vocabulary. Conner was wearing the detritus of his school uniform, and
was rumpled, untucked, wrinkled, and poorly-kempt all around.
"Clark told me about
the armored car," his dad said evenly.
"Uh, that totally
never happened," Conner said quickly, promising hideous fates for his
mother in return his evil, narcing ways. "Mom hallucinated it. He was
on the crack, Dad."
Lex cocked an
eyebrow. "One, you've really got to stop calling him that," he
said gently, "and two, you're a terrible liar and prone to levitating
things with your mind when you're angry. I have a responsibility to
society not to let this go unchecked."
"You just want me to
do stupid human tricks," Conner muttered.
"That, too," Lex said
smoothly, and stood up. "Come on, I've got a machine that detects
wavelengths somewhere around here."
"I hate you," Conner
moaned, letting his face fall into his hands. "I hate the whole world."
"That's very sad for
you," his dad said, distracted and searching around his office.
(singular) seemed to be the only thing left over that made him
different. All of the strength and speed that he had when he was
younger had sputtered out of him, disappeared--by his fourteenth
birthday, in the early stages of puberty, the last whispers of his
mother's alien traits had disappeared. What remained was an equally
intriguing, much more difficult to master telekinesis, which had, in the
early days, been cool, then terrifying, and now merely a chore.
For the next hour,
Lex told Conner to focus on one of the Daily Planet mugs that
they had laying around the house, telling him to try and move it one way
or another. From a ten foot distance, cardinal directions were easy for
Conner, just a nudge one or two inches back and forth, left or right.
He had to be at least four feet closer before up and down came easily,
and even then there was a little wobble, close calls, and the mug had
fallen down and thudded on the lush carpet more than once.
"I suck at this,"
"It's not always
going to be this hard," his dad reassured him, putting away his
machinery and filing away the lab notebook where he kept all
documentation of his and Conner's experiments.
"And if it is, I'm
sure you'll just fix it for me," Conner said tartly, grinning.
There was a long
pause before Conner caught his dad's expression, which was strangely
detached. Conner could read his father like a book, all the tiny ticks
of punctuation, dashes and broader words and things jotted in the
margins. For so long the only person he really had to look at all the
time was his father, and Conner had never really minded, because his
father had a handsome face and bright, smart eyes, and a kind smile--at
least for Conner.
He felt something in
his chest contract, but before he could ask what was wrong, Lex said:
"That's a terrible
philosophy," in a harsher tone than Conner had heard in years.
Conner gaped for a
second, but stammered, "I was just--"
"It's is not a joke,
Conner," Lex snapped. "I can't clean up your messes for the rest of
His father looked
seriously pissed, eyes grayer than blue and it made Conner feel small.
"Sorry," Conner said
lamely. "I didn't mean it that way."
Lex rubbed his face,
and said after a moment, "I know." He glanced over at Conner with a
wane smile. "I've had a long day. I didn't mean to snap at you."
"Hey, that's what I'm
here for," Conner said encouragingly. "I can also provide a legitimate
reason for you to be really angry with me, if you feel the urge one
day. I could burn down the library."
"I don't think
that'll be necessary," Lex said.
"I could hit on a
"Go to bed," Lex
instructed, but he was grinning.
"Maybe I could streak
"Leave now." Lex
pointed at the door.
At half past two in
the morning, Conner's cell phone started shrieking a slow version of
REWRITE, which he'd thought was cool the last time he'd rewatched
Full Metal Alchemist but was now reconsidering because it was
"Oh my God, what
now?" he moaned, flipping open the phone and pressing it to his ear.
"Conner, I've been
thinking," Geoffrey said solemnly.
Conner flopped on his
stomach in the tangled mess of his covers and planned Geoffrey's slow,
agonizing death. He kept his eyes closed and thought Vulcan Death Grip
as hard as possible.
"I mean--I'm turning
sixteen this year. A lot of people die with they're sixteen," Geoffrey
when they call people at two thirty in the morning to moan about it,"
Conner supplied hoarsely. "Seriously, Geoffrey, what have I ever done
do you? Did I pillage your village? Did I rape your family's prized
goat? Why me?"
"I just wanted you to
know that if anything happens to me, I want you to take care of my dad."
Conner opened his
eyes to glare at the side of his nightstand, hair falling into his eyes.
"And if you have
time, check in on Eve. She might be a little upset," Geoffrey went on
philosophically. "She's a really good girl, Conner. You should give
her a chance."
"I'm just saying.
She's nicer than she acts around you sometimes. And when she calls you
a moron, I'm pretty sure she's just joking. Really--you'll like her.
You know. After."
Conner said desperately, on the edge of hysterical laughter now.
said, ignoring Conner's tone, "I know that first time we cracked into my
dad's liquor cabinet we made that stupid promise about our gay
virginity, but in case I don't live long enough to pop your ass
Archer," Conner said, enunciating every single syllable, "I swear to
God, when I learn to kill people with my mind you are the very first
one on the list."
"You really don't
have to bother," Geoffrey said sadly. "I'll probably be dead by then."
"I'm hanging up on
you," Conner promised fiercely, completely awake, "right now."
There was a long
pause. "Hey, so I'll be at your place in forty minutes alright?"
"You better bring
kugel," Conner ordered, and hung up.
Geoffrey was under
the impression that his two-month-old relationship with Eve Anthony was
a secret. The only real secret was that everybody was taking pity on
Geoffrey's naturally reticent personality and allowing him to keep up
the act. The day Geoffrey had first kissed her, Eve had all but posted
fliers in every girl's bathroom declaring that Geoffrey was taken and
everybody else had better step off or she'd strangle them with her
Conner tried not to
take it personally that for the first since they'd met one another,
Geoffrey was choosing somebody over Conner. Intellectually, he
understood it; in passing, in the hallway, when he saw Geoffrey leaning
against Eve's locker and grinning at her, he still wanted to throw one
of his gym shoes at her stupid, curly, shiny hair.
It didn't seem fair
that of all the boys at St. Ann's, Eve would hijack Conner's best
friend, but he was a mature, supportive friend, and he would not use his
powers for evil. Or something.
So as much as he
wanted to beat Geoffrey with a tire iron for this entire past week,
Conner had to admit he was a little bit gratified that it was nearly
three in the morning, and Geoffrey was bearing kugel and headed toward
Conner's house--not Eve's. They were still best friends, Conner
figured, just different now that Geoffrey had a girlfriend.
He yawned hugely and
scrabbled at his hair--it really was getting long, but damned if he was
going to admit his dad was right and get it cut--padding out into the
hallway and toward the kitchen. The third time he knocked into a wall,
he just muttered under his breath, tugged the rainbow wristband off of
his wrist, and tied what hair he could back in a high ponytail. He
looked like a total retard but it was his house and his best friend
There was light,
diffuse and soft, smoothing along the lines of the wall, spilling out of
the kitchen. Conner frowned.
--and apparently his
father, sitting at the kitchen counter, staring at a cabinet.
Conner paused, a hand
on the wall, frowning at his dad's profile. Lex looked pale, washed-out
and more tired than usual. The deep lavender circles under his eyes
made him look old in the overhead light of the kitchen, and in Lex's
long fingers, he loosely held a mug of what looked to be cold coffee.
Lex had neither his cell phone, his Palm Pilot, or his pager on the
counter next to his still hands.
"Dad?" Conner asked
It seemed to break
the moment, enough so that Conner saw his dad blink in surprise a
second, before he turned to Conner.
"Conner," Lex said
dumbly, and blinking, said, "Hey. What's up?"
furrowed, and he opened his mouth to ask, "What the hell is going on
with you?" but ended up saying, "Geoffrey's just having his annual
It made his father
laugh, and that seemed to lighten the atmosphere, and when Conner
blinked and looked at Lex again, he was blue-eyed and smooth again, pale
and well-composed, the guy who owned LexCorp and made Conner feel wanted
and had the highest score on LexCorp's personal Counterstrike server.
"It's so out of
character for him," Lex mused. "He's usually so mellow."
grumbled, stepping onto the freezing tile floor of the kitchen and
wincing, "I think he gets all his freak yahoos out once a year, and I'm
lucky bachelorette number one."
His father chuckled,
and tightened his hand around the coffee cup, shoulders relaxing a
little, eyes tracking Conner as he moved around the kitchen, first to
the cabinets to pull out two dishes, and then the silver drawer to find
"So I see he's
bringing kugel again," Lex said, amused.
"I'm no cheap date,"
Conner muttered darkly, and when his dad laughed, Conner added, "One
day, I will cure him. I swear to God. If I have to lobotomize him, I
don't care. I would rather swab his freaking drool than listen to him
tell me to take care of his girlfriend for him after he dies in some
"At least he's
planning ahead," Lex said diplomatically, voice softer. "Not a terrible
Conner stared at his
dad in horror, fingers frozen around the handle of the refrigerator
this behavior?" Conner asked.
"Well, if it gets me
kugel from that place on Yeomen street," Lex said.
hissed, and rooted around the refrigerator for Sunkist. "I'll carry
this wrong against me to my grave."
"Hm," his father said
philosophically, and slid out off of the kitchen stool, saying
distantly, "Save some for me and Clark for breakfast, okay?"
"Got it," Conner
said, watching his father head back to his bedroom, not a little bit
It wasn't like the
idea of Clark spending the night was such a foreign one. The walls of
the penthouse were very well soundproofed--thank God, Conner
frequently reflected--but Clark wasn't exactly inconspicuous, and the
"Oh, Clark dropped by for breakfast" excuse was probably the worst one
in the history of time. All in all, Conner was glad that his parents
were getting along, or getting together, or getting laid, whatever they
did when they weren't having huge arguments or sniping at one another
But the fact of the
matter was that Conner still had no idea when his dad and mom had
started spending the night together again, and it was in no small part
due to his dad's furious belief in discretion. The fact that his dad
had just said, "for me and Clark" was nearly a blatant admission that
Clark was there, and that he would be there.
It gave Conner a
weird pause, and he collated the information for the day and tried to
make some sort of logical conclusion out of it, only to hear Geoffrey
letting himself into the penthouse, saying, "So I saw Judy the she-male
hooker again. She says that the discount she offered you still stands,"
and his dad's weird behavior was the last of Conner's list of woes.
thirty-fifth birthday, Lex had gotten him a waffle iron.
"What the hell is
this?" Clark had asked.
honey," Lex had said indulgently, smirking.
Conner had yelled, and rushed to the kitchen to plug it in while his
parents scowled at one another. A few minutes later, there'd been a
small electrical fire, so Lex had ordered a new waffle iron for Clark
and given Conner an hour lecture about his problems with arson.
However, once the new waffle iron arrived, Clark just brought it over to
the penthouse and left it--in retrospect, Conner should have noted that
as the first big clue that his parents were together, but at the time,
he'd been suffering the not-insignificant self-involved angst of all
eleven-year-olds and incapable of bothering.
It had turned out for
the best after all, because even though Conner was no longer allowed to
touch the waffle iron, Geoffrey was--and Geoffrey was very good at
making Conner waffles.
"I'm surprised you
didn't go to Eve's," Conner said, a little bit meaner than he'd
intended to sound, but when he caught Geoffrey's mostly-amused
expression, he figured that it was all right.
Geoffrey just poured
milk and eggs and things into a bowl and stirred it with a big fork,
saying mildly, "Weirdly, I don't think Mr. Martinez would appreciate it
much if his daughter's boyfriend--who she isn't supposed to have--showed
up at their doorstep--at an address I'm probably not supposed to know."
"You're way too zen
about this," Conner complained. "If my girlfriend denied my existence,
I'd be pissed. I mean, what's she got to be ashamed about? You're not
deformed or anything."
"I stand by my
point," Conner insisted.
"And you're looking
at this all wrong," Geoffrey said, grinning, pointing the batter-covered
fork at Conner. "Her family's Catholic. Not Catholic like most
Catholic people are--really Catholic. She likes me enough to go
behind her dad's back, right? I think that's kind of nice." He
smirked. "Kind of hot, actually, if you think about it, naughty little
Conner warned, flushing, "finish that line of thought."
"You're such a prude,
Conner," Geoffrey chided, but gently.
"Which is something
that you claim, I dispute, and we have decided not to argue over anymore
because neither of us can throw a punch to save our lives," Conner
finished, looking out the kitchen window and seeing night still cloaking
the city in deep, midnight blues.
Conner had his
own--what he felt were very good--reasons not to want to broach the
subject of Eve and Geoffrey and what exactly constituted a hot girl, but
mostly they revolved around the fact that he was starting to get the
impression he'd never been and never would be interested in girls,
period. Also, the fact that he ended up surfing more gay than straight
porn tipped the scales a little bit. It was not, he thought strangely,
too weird a concept; if sexuality were genetic, he was kind of a sure
It was something to
be discussed at length--with somebody else, Conner decided, because if
he could tell Geoffrey most everything, Conner figured that liking boys
was a fair caveat.
"Also, I figured it's
kind of tradition at this point," Geoffrey said brightly. "I am
realistic about my imminent mortality, and you tell me what a moron I
am. I bring pastries to placate your dad and we eat waffles."
"You're such a
goddamn drama queen," Conner muttered into his forearm, watching
Geoffrey putter around the kitchen through half-lidded eyes. "Nobody
else does this."
"You're really the
last person on the earth who can call anybody a drama queen, Conner,"
Geoffrey shot back, stirring a bowlful of waffle batter.
"Full of shit,"
Conner murmured darkly. "Full of vile and unending shit."
"Says you," Geoffrey
snapped back. He cast Conner a speculative expression. "What would you
do if I died?"
Conner lifted his
head, giving Geoffrey his most poisonous expression.
Geoffrey said darkly. He set down the batter and looked at Conner with
solemn eyes; it made Conner sit up straight in the kitchen stool.
"You're not going to
die," Conner insisted.
There was no way of
predicting it, but occasionally, Geoffrey went into a quiet, thoughtful
mood, and the way he looked at Conner made Conner's stomach go into
knots, made him feel flushed, made him wonder if maybe there wasn't
something Geoffrey was keeping from him--a lot of somethings. Mostly,
it just made Conner nervous.
"That wasn't the
question, though," Geoffrey replied, and Conner silently cursed
Geoffrey's three week tenure in Lincoln-Douglas debate for turning him
into an insurmountable verbal enemy.
Conner rolled his
eyes and propped his head up on his palms, elbows on the countertop,
watching Geoffrey spooning out batter onto a sizzling waffle iron,
watching him not setting anything on fire, watching him be Geoffrey.
The same Geoffrey that Conner had known what felt like every day of his
life, or most of what he remembered, at least; the Geoffrey Conner
seemed to be able to get along with whether or not he was in a good
mood, seemed to be able to fight with and be all right with and be upset
with. What would Conner do if Geoffrey died, Geoffrey asked, Conner
"I'd laugh and dance
on your grave," Conner finally snapped, scowling, "now make our freaking
waffles and stop being such a jackass."
Geoffrey grinned, and
the seriousness of the moment evaporated.
"That's what I
figured," he said demurely, and made his freaking waffles.
At some point, they
relocated to Conner's bedroom, where Conner laid on his bed and
pretended to listen to Geoffrey talk about how many diseases to which he
could fall victim now that he was sixteen, how teenaged death rates were
skyrocketing due to cars, and how there were always freak accidents,
too. Then, Geoffrey started in on how much of his meager existence he'd
already wasted and what would he do when he looked up one day and he was
suddenly forty-five and had never made anything of himself.
Conner for the most
part ate his waffle, and then drifted in and out of consciousness until
he heard the shuffling sounds of human activity outside of his closed
bedroom door. He blinked three times, saw that sun was streaming in
through his window, and that it was half past ten in the morning. Also,
Geoffrey was asleep, drooling on the foot of Conner's bed, body twisted
into a weird L-shape to accommodate where Conner had passed out
face-down in his pillows. At some point, somebody had come in a thrown
a blanket over them both.
It'd be kind of
sweet--if they didn't end up doing this every year the night before
Conner picked his way
around Geoffrey and out of bed, spent a good five minutes digging a
piece of ground-in waffle out of his rug, and went to the bathroom.
When he stepped out, Geoffrey was sitting up in bed, cracking his neck,
and grumbling, "We really have to stop doing that. I'm going to end up
"'S your fault,"
Conner said hoarsely.
Geoffrey made an
indistinct noise and rolled off of the bed, yawning hugely and trudging
into Conner's bathroom, kicking the door shut behind him.
"At least you did it
on a Friday this time," Conner muttered, and stumbled out into the
hallway and toward the kitchen, where if he got there at just the right
time, there would be coffee and no disapproving glances from the adults
in the household.
The coffee argument
was old. Conner said that if he wanted to drink it, he didn't see any
problems with drinking it; Lex said that the same argument could be made
about alcohol or acid or blood, which was about the point where Conner
and Clark both rolled their eyes and then it became a whole different
argument altogether. The first time Conner had tried to convince his
father that drinking coffee was perfectly normal and fine for a
then-twelve year old kid, he'd said, "But Lois does it!" which was the
worst argument ever. At least he hadn't followed it up with, "But Lois
always lets me drink it when we hang out together!" which would have
gotten him locked up in a high tower in a Scottish castle waiting for
his prince(ss) charming.
But it was a Saturday
morning, which in recent years meant his father slept in, his mother had
slept over, and that Conner had the kitchen to himself, since Mrs.
Banner had smirked and said that she felt the Luthor household could
function just fine over the weekend without her German efficiency.
Aside from some hums
and creaks of the penthouse, it seemed all quiet.
reached around the organic, fairly-traded, shade-grown by small
cooperative farmers Breakfast Blend coffee, grabbed the grey Tupperware
container behind it, and tipped out some of the French roasted beans his
dad had flown in once a week into the coffee grinder. Conner figured
that if his dad hid the stuff, then it was practically an engraved
invitation for Conner to find it and pillage ruthlessly. Whenever he
said stuff like that out loud, his mom always muttered about how it
wasn't his genes or anything.
A few minutes later,
the smell of fresh coffee was filling the penthouse, and it seemed to
lure Geoffrey out of the bathroom. He flopped down tousle-haired in
yesterday's clothes and muttered something about orange juice into the
"People on the edge
of death don't need food," Conner said, mostly to be mean.
"I'll kill you,"
Geoffrey managed, but fell mostly-silent, making sad, desperate sounds.
nothing more than the rub Geoffrey's face in the fact that prior to
noon, he was incapable of avoiding a parked bus. A snotty voice in his
head pointed out that it was also really cool that Eve definitely didn't
know that about her little boyfriend. The thought was a little jarring,
so Conner shook his head and made up a bowl of Cheerios, stuck a spoon
in it, and put it within easy reach of where Geoffrey had collapsed on
Conner then made
himself some toast, poured a mug of coffee, stirred in some creamer, and
had finished half of it before he narrowed his eyes at where Geoffrey
seemed to have fallen asleep on the counter again.
"Geoffrey," he said,
and when that garnered no response, Conner sighed and punched Geoffrey
hard in the shoulder, which made his head shoot up, his eyes dart about
wildly until they landed on the Cheerios, at which point Geoffrey fell
upon the bowl like the ravenous teenaged boy he was and seemed to be at
least somewhat awake.
There was a short
silence before Conner said, "So I'm kind of worried about my dad."
and said, "Yeah?"
"A little, yeah,"
Conner mused. "He's been looking really tired recently."
"Maybe that just
means your mom and dad have been getting along real well," Geoffrey
Geoffrey with his mug. "I will seriously kill you with this."
Geoffrey cocked his
eyebrow. "Your dad's a CEO, Conner. He's not going to be fresh as a
daisy all the time, you know. Have you been checking out the business
"'Fresh as a daisy'?"
Conner asked, a little bit horrified.
"I repeat: have you
been checking out the business section lately?"
The guilty thought
that flashed through Conner's mind must have flashed across his face at
the same time, because Geoffrey said, "See, you don't even know what's
really going on, and you're all paranoid already." He smiled broadly.
"Go read the paper, call up the Wicked Witch of the West--"
"Lois is not the
Wicked Witch of the West," Conner interrupted, frowning.
"--and bring me more
Cheerios," Geoffrey finished.
"You know," Conner
said, annoyed, "I'm thinking of rescinding the offer of my ass cherry."
Geoffrey deadpanned, holding out his cereal bowl expectantly.
"I don't think I want
Conner whipped around
to see Clark watching them from kitchen doorway, eyebrows nearly
touching his hairline. Conner felt all the blood in his body rush to
his face immediately, and he had just enough time to scowl at Geoffrey,
who looked nearly as red as Conner felt, before Clark said, "I'm going
to pretend that I primped in the dining room mirror, and that I totally
just missed that last part of the conversation, all right?"
furiously, trying to simultaneously will time to reverse as well as to
banish the image of Clark primping. "Yes, all right. This is a
"I am one hundred
percent behind that, Mr. Kent," Geoffrey agreed.
Clark smirked, and
clearing his throat, he said, "Good morning, Conner. I see you're
eating a wholesome, complete breakfast and--" Clark laughed "--stealing
Lex's coffee again."
"I just wanted it
more," Conner said, feeling the last, jittering remnants of
embarrassment knock around his chest--not in the least alleviated by the
speculative glance that his mom gave him, one that was lingering and
thoughtful and not a little bit nervous. Inside Conner's head, a voice
that sounded a lot like his own shouted, "Shit!"
Geoffrey," Clark said, stepping into the kitchen and heading straight
for the coffee. Conner figured that the caffeine addiction was genetic,
"Morning, Mr. Kent,"
"Excited about your
birthday?" Clark asked innocently. Conner nearly choked on his toast,
and covered his laugh by coughing very loudly while Geoffrey scowled.
"Nearly peeing my
pants," Geoffrey muttered darkly, and studying the expressions on Conner
and Clark's faces, his frown deepened, and he said, "I don't see how
everybody can be so happy about the yearly marker of your
"And I see Geoffrey's
awake and aware of his age," Lex said, weary but amused, striding into
the kitchen. Conner was forced to cover his mouth this time around he
was laughing so hard, and Geoffrey mouthed something that looked
distinctly like, "I hate you" in Conner's general direction.
"Morning, Mr. Luthor,"
Geoffrey said resentfully at his still-empty cereal bowl.
"I see we're as
upbeat as usual about our slow shuffle off this mortal coil," Lex said
Conner narrowed his
eyes at his parents for a moment before he realized what seemed so very
off about the picture. It was a Saturday morning, his mom and dad were
both in their pajamas, lounging around the kitchen picking on
Geoffrey--clearly unconcerned with what their impressionable, teenaged
son thought of their already-questionable relationship. Conner barely
kept the triumphant smile from curling across his mouth.
"Oh yeah," Geoffrey
muttered, "Hamlet has nothing on me."
Geoffrey," Lex said tolerantly, and smiled at Conner. "Morning."
Conner chirped, and because he had a truly negligible amount of
self-control, a wide, horrible smile spread across his face. "So, I
guess Clark got here extra early, huh?" he asked, wide-eyed and bland.
Clark and Lex both
went blank for a second and Geoffrey respectfully became fascinated by a
fern that was sitting next to the French doors in the breakfast area,
basking in the morning sunshine on the balcony. Conner, because he was
their spawn, felt no such compunction, and continued to stare at his
parents, both of whom were dressed in t-shirts and pajama pants and
looked married, which would be a nice change of pace from their normal
duck-and-cover sexual antics. Conner was as open-minded as any
test-tube baby made from the DNA of a man and a male alien could be, but
everybody had their limits, and he could only handle his dad and mom
having sex if they were going to be committed about it.
"Yeah, super early--"
Clark started desperately.
"Clark stayed in the
guest room last night, Conner," Lex interrupted gently, cocking his
brow. But even as he said it, Lex's hand was on Clark's elbow, and his
fingers looked white and smooth against Clark's golden-brown skin.
Conner was fascinated by that contact: out in the open, nobody's big
secret, more real--right in the middle of another lie. "You can knock
that idea right out of your wicked little mind."
Clark's face closed
over, and Conner's grin fell.
Conner had harbored
suspicions about his parents since before he'd met his mother face to
face for the first time. When he'd been nine, and started his noble
quest to root out his genetic origins, he'd entertained--very
briefly--the idea of his dad and mom getting married after Conner sorted
everything out and they shook hands and agreed to play nice. In
retrospect, Conner admitted that it had been childish and the result of
having watched the Lindsey Lohan version of The Parent Trap a
truly obscene number of times.
But since Clark had
become such a huge part of his life, Conner couldn't help but note how
the circles under his father's eyes had lightened, that Lex tore himself
away from work on Saturday mornings more and more frequently. And,
Conner noted most happily, how when his dad laughed, the ghosts that had
been in his eyes seemed to have disappeared, fading into the black
corona around his father's blue, blue irises.
Conner didn't kid
himself that it was because his father's nearly-weekly trips to
parent/teacher conferences had ended along with Conner's
Clark was funny and
surprising; he knew everything there was to know about Metropolis local
politics and business, and nothing about ancient Etruscans. Clark
laughed at Lex's nerd-jokes and knew to buy Conner's dad Warrior Angel
memorabilia in mint condition so that it could be locked away in a glass
case and stared at in admiration. Clark knew Lex took two sugars and no
cream in his strong, black coffee, and let himself get hustled at pool
every time, even though Conner figured by now Clark probably knew
better. Clark worried that Conner didn't get to spend enough time with
family and worried about the untoward influences of being around nuns
all day, but he still came to Conner's school activities with a shy,
hopeful grin on his face. Clark took Conner to lame movies Lex wouldn't
be caught dead watching, and when Conner wandered into the Daily
Planet newsroom, Clark taught Conner the keystroke shortcuts in
QuarkXPress and what a graf was, and they made up stupid headlines for
It was, Conner
admitted, a little hurtful, in a distant, detached way to think
that after all of these years, it'd taken somebody other than himself to
make his father better, to put things right. But in a very selectively
Machiavellian way, Conner could focus on the larger issues at hand,
because it was difficult to feel sullen and unimportant when your father
smiled more, seemed to sleep better, looked at you with the sort of
comfortable fondness that made Conner long for home whenever things
weren't going his way.
Things had been
better since Conner found Clark.
"It'd--I mean, it'd
be okay. If you guys were going out, I mean," Conner said, half out of
Lex looked placid.
"I understand what you're trying to do, Conner, but--"
"We're not," Clark
interrupted softly, and smiled apologetically at Conner, lying through
his big, white teeth. He reached out a hand and dropped it onto
Conner's mop of hair. "We don't have to be together to be your mom and
dad, you know."
Conner stared at them
for a second, and tried not to seethe. When that failed, he cleared his
mind, and forced himself to say, "Yeah. Hey, sorry. I was just
For a second, Conner
thought his mom looked apologetic.
"Anyway," Lex said,
"I called a board meeting--"
"On a Saturday?"
Clark asked, narrow-eyed.
"--and it wouldn't do
to be late for my own party," Lex finished, ignoring Conner's mom. He
smiled wanly at Conner and nodded at Geoffrey before he disappeared
toward his bedroom again.
A few awkward seconds
later, Clark smiled and said, "I'm going to head out, too."
Two changes of
clothes, some shuffling, and a pair of strangely distant goodbyes later,
Conner was left alone with Geoffrey in the kitchen, trying to blow the
window out of its frame because he had to direct his rage somewhere, and
there wasn't really a profitable outlet anywhere near him.
His hands were tight
around his coffee cup, and it seemed like a long time passed before he
felt Geoffrey's hand on his wrist, fingers gentle. It broke his
concentration just enough so that he caught Geoffrey's eyes as they
flickered down at the mug, and when Conner looked down, he noted that
the coffee had boiled down to nothing, just a brown rim at the bottom of
the cup--that was when he noticed the ceramic was hot.
Then, Conner dropped
the mug to stare at his bright red palms, pain starting to register.
Geoffrey yelled, scrambled down from the kitchen stool, nearly leaped
over the counter, grabbed Conner's hands by the wrists, and shoved him
toward the sink, where Geoffrey made Conner hold his hands under a
stream of cold water.
"Ow," Conner finally
said, staring at his hands, which were starting to blister. "Oh," he
said again, eyes widening. "Oh, ow! Shit! Ow!"
Geoffrey looked at
him reproachfully, smoothing his thumb carefully over the curve of flesh
where Conner's thumb met his palm in a way that technically should have
been painful--considering the third-degree burns Conner had just managed
to inflict on himself--but was actually kind of nice, in a thoroughly
"You're such a
moron," Geoffrey muttered under his breath, squinting at Conner's hands.
Conner just didn't
have the strength of mind not to perve on his best friend and take his
hand away like a good boy, so he sulked and watched the water roll off
his palms, which were now mottled red and white and hideous.
"I can't believe they
just lied to my face like that," Conner muttered, staring at the
stainless steel of the sink and ignoring his hands. "God, that really
Geoffrey's mask of
irritation was starting to slip. "Maybe we should go to the hospital."
"Hey, Doctor," Conner
said, mock-happy, "my parents are lying to me about fucking--"
Geoffrey said warningly, the same way he did every time he sensed that
Conner was just working himself up for the sake of working himself up.
It was, aside from practical and well-intentioned, totally annoying.
slumped accordingly and he said, barely intelligible, "I'm just
"I got that,"
Geoffrey said gently, and let go of Conner's hands, which led to Conner
viciously quashing the tiny note of regret that resonated in his head.
"I'll clean up the broken pieces--you stay here and don't destroy
anything with your mind," Geoffrey instructed, grinning.
Conner watched the
water running over his hands and did the exact opposite.
Since the tides of
Geoffrey's temporary emotional breakdown over his birthday were
well-documented, Conner, Mr. Archer, and Eve had had planned around
them. It was pretty easy to keep Geoffrey distracted, considering the
week leading up to his birthday he spent most of the time moping and
surfing the web, looking up freak diseases that afflicted sixteen year
olds and sighing at the accomplishments of other, younger people.
So while Eve and Mr.
Archer were decorating the third floor of the warm, narrow-roomed
brownstone on Alston Avenue, Conner and Geoffrey were ten blocks and
four cross-streets away at Metropolis General.
"This is so
humiliating," Conner muttered. "I had plans, too."
"I think this is
pretty fitting, all things considered," Geoffrey said philosophically,
leaning back against the medicine-green walls of the emergency room.
Across the room,
there was a mom scowling at her son, who had three fingers jammed into
the mouth of a handheld vacuum, some people with profusely bleeding
gashes, and one person who was squirming uncomfortably in his seat, but
who aside from his nearly tomato-red face, seemed totally well. Conner
figured it was better not to know.
birthday, I was going to do best friend stuff," Conner argued.
said reasonably, "on the day everybody I know officially marks my
inching ever closer to death--" he made a broad hand motion "--is there
really a better place to showcase what birthdays really are than
"I would hit you,"
Conner promised, "but it would actually hurt me more than you."
which was disturbingly cute, so Conner looked away and stared at the
squirming, blushing guy, who seemed to be eyeing Geoffrey with abnormal
interest. Narrowing his eyes, Conner leaned to his left, until his and
Geoffrey's arms were pressed together in what he hoped was a clear
signal that people blushing and squirming in the ER weren't going to
have anything to do with Conner's best friend. The man gave Conner a
once-over, rolled his eyes, and resumed fidgeting in his seat.
Torn between feeling
insulted and disgusted on Geoffrey's behalf, Conner said, "So you know
all the doctor's going to do is clean this in the most painful way
"And possibly some
other things that they learned in school," Geoffrey said glancing at his
Conner looked, too,
eyes widening as he realized that it was nearly two, which was when Eve
had made a date to meet Geoffrey at a bookstore to keep him distracted
while Conner went to pick up Geoffrey's birthday present.
"You don't have to
wait around," Conner said earnestly. "Seriously--they're going to
call me in any minute. They'll ask me how I'm such a moron.
I'll say something about trying to make breakfast. Go--you have a
date with Eve, right?"
Geoffrey gave him a
strange look. "How do you know that?"
"She told me when I
was curling her hair," Conner said sarcastically.
He was doing a quick
mental calculation: Geoffrey would be about ten, fifteen minutes late,
but would arrive grinning and blushing and explaining how he'd had to
schlep Conner to the ER. Eve would smirk, and distract Geoffrey with the
architecture section in CitiBooks until five. (There'd probably be some
inappropriate giggling and touching in there somewhere, but Conner found
it was better for his blood pressure if he didn't think about it.) At
some point, Conner would to do that thing where he bought a present. He
was starting to debate the relative merits of writing "IOU YOU ANNOYING
BASTARD" on a piece of cardboard and gift-wrapping it.
"Go on. You've been
looking at your watch." Conner grinned, self-deprecating. "You know
she'll have your balls for breakfast if you don't show up."
Geoffrey made a face,
but got up anyway. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay?" Geoffrey
asked uncertainly. "Because I could just run outside and call her."
"And get me lynched
Monday? No thanks," Conner laughed. He waved Geoffrey off with one
sore hand. "Go on, get out of here."
It took another five
minutes of placating and bargaining and promises he'd get his hands
looked at before Geoffrey finally managed to leave, and five more before
Conner got called. Predictably, a doctor who didn't look much older
than Conner asked questions about how Conner had managed to burn himself
so badly and proceeded to clean out the wound in as painful a way as
possible. Then, there was some goo and bandages.
While Conner did not,
actually, have third-degree burns, just a few really uncomfortable spots
which required lancing, everybody was making a big deal out of it.
"I should call your
parents," Dr. Dougie said with all the uncertainty of a third year med
Conner made a sincere
face. "I don't think that's a very good idea."
The doctor frowned.
"You're underage, Mr. Luthor."
"My dad's in a board
meeting," Conner said, and figured there was about a fifty-fifty chance
he was actually telling the truth. "Nothing annoys LexCorp shareholders
more than having their annual report held up because of something
totally inane, you know."
"LexCorp?" the doctor
squeaked, and looked at Conner's chart again.
By the time Conner
was pounding the pavement, feet tapping the rusted stairs down into the
nearest subway station, he had only an hour and a half left before Eve
ushered Geoffrey back home and their entire class popped out from behind
It took him thirty
minutes and four close calls to reach the build site. There, he thanked
Jesus ("Hay-SEUS--not--oh, nevermind.") the foreman who spoke perfect,
Castilian Spanish--and who was horrified that Conner did not--for
hanging around and letting him in, bolted into the main trailer/office,
grabbed a gray and purple hardhat and a metal lunchbox and headed back
toward Metropolis proper, checking his watch compulsively.
It was four
fifty-three when he finally hit the back steps of Geoffrey's brownstone,
and by the time he got into the living room after depositing Geoffrey's
gift on the kitchen table, Conner flopped down onto the ground, heaving
for breath like a dying fish as all the lights in the room went out and
Mr. Archer hushed everyone.
Garrison, who seemed
more lucid than usual, was sprawled out next to Conner on the carpet,
whispered, "Hey, what happened to your hands?" just as Conner heard the
high, lilting curl of Eve's laughter at the front door as it opened with
The party was,
predictably, a disastrously good time. Geoffrey spent the whole time
mortified and trying to get five minutes alone with his father so he
could strangle the man; everybody else had fun. Class A was in full
representation, which meant that Julie was directing, Garrison was
making everybody in the room laugh, Randall was inspecting all of the
food for whether or not it had any hydrogenated anything, and Conner was
playing Metal Gear Solid with Mr. Archer.
would have one arm around Geoffrey's shoulders and be harassing him
about how he always had such a dire outlook about everything, but today,
Geoffrey had both arms around Eve, and Conner was beating the shit out
of Major Raikov, despite potential later consequences. As soon as
Raikov was appropriately stuffed into a locker, Conner passed the
controller back to Mr. Archer, who regarded him with a raised eyebrow,
but didn't ask.
Which made Mr. Archer
grin, because Conner had said the same thing when he'd been convincing
Mr. Archer to buy Geoffrey Grand Theft Auto 6. "You're in a snit."
Mr. Archer was the
only person in the world who still talked like that, which also
explained why Geoffrey said things like 'fresh as a daisy,' But Conner
was determinedly not thinking about Geoffrey at the moment.
"Yeah, well," Conner
"Sharing your best
friend is a pretty rough deal," Mr. Archer said earnestly, which made
Conner cast a sharp him a sharp expression. "The first girlfriend is
always hard, Conner."
"It is totally
freaky," Conner said hotly, "how you do that."
"So how long have
they been dating?" Mr. Archer asked casually, leaning back to peer
through the doorway of the media room.
Conner gave him a
Look. The thing about Mr. Archer was that he a Kansas Supreme Court
Justice, and none of his questions ever really came out sounding
casual. On the one hand, it made otherwise potentially lame field trips
to the courthouse seem cool--on the other, it made other, potentially
cool fieldtrips to places that shouldn't have been politicized lame.
And then on the third, invisible hand, it made Mr. Archer really bad at
"About two months
now," Conner said finally, taking pity.
Mr. Archer glanced
through the doorway into the family room again, where Geoffrey was
letting Eve play with his fingers while everybody was gathered around
the big screen TV that was showing Old School. Conner tried not
to think about how Eve was probably practically in Geoffrey's lap at
this point, which may have been the whole idea behind the movie,
anyway. When Geoffrey had proposed which movie to watch, Conner had
rolled his eyes and volunteered to distract Mr. Archer, which was why he
was here, watching Snake sneak around a Russian military base and--
"Is--is that man
grabbing me in the crotch?" Mr. Archer asked, horrified, hands frozen on
the PS3 controller.
Conner winced. He'd
forgotten about this part. "Um. Maybe he missed your hand?" he tried.
Mr. Archer cocked an
eyebrow. "Right," he deadpanned.
"Or maybe," Conner
said, knowing that there was a reason Geoffrey couldn't lie worth shit,
"that big, electric Russian guy is Major Raikov's boyfriend. And maybe
he's angry about us stealing Raikov's uniform and wearing his face and
jamming his nude body into a locker."
"I'd say that was
warranted," Mr. Archer said philosophically.
"Yeah, we're total
jerks, really," Conner agreed.
They watched The Boss
come in and beat the living crap out of Snake on the screen, and after a
few seconds of that, Mr. Archer said, flat out, "So how bad is this
movie--if you volunteered to distract me this time?"
Conner winced again.
"I've said it before
and I'll say it again, Conner," Mr. Archer said, grinning, "they didn't
let me become a judge because I was the dullest crayon in the box."
"I'm starting to get
that," Conner admitted, and added, "It's not that bad. Just a lot of
really misogynist humor and this hazing thing that goes really horribly
wrong. It involves penises and a rope and some rocks, so, yeah."
This time, Mr. Archer
winced. "Glad I'm not there to see it."
Conner thought about
Geoffrey curling, blond hair, and Eve's white fingers, stroking through
"Me, too," Conner
The party started to
wrap itself up toward eleven, which was six more hours than Julie and
Garrison had been in a room together of their own volition for years.
(Privately, Geoffrey and Conner had a running bet that those two were
going to end up married.) Their classmates all said their goodbyes and
disappeared into the sleepy, October-blue night, and Conner, about to
begin the traditional post-party clean-up and presentation of his gift,
realized that Geoffrey was talking to his dad about taking Eve to a
movie at the all-night theater.
"Did you even get
Geoff a gift?" Eve asked in what was probably a normal voice. Conner
thought it sounded like the agonized shrieking of a thousand wailing
souls in hell--just how many sacrifices was he going to have to make so
Geoffrey and Eve could slobber all over one another in private?
begged, "never call him that again--ever."
Eve rolled her huge,
deep-green eyes at Conner, which reminded him yet again how undeniably
pretty she was, which only seemed to make him even more irritable.
"Honestly, Conner, Geoff doesn't mind it--why should you?"
hideous," Conner retorted, feeling a flush in his cheeks. They were
standing on the sidewalk outside of the brownstone; Conner was--in
theory--about to head home, and Eve was waiting for her date. "Because
it's hideous and unacceptable and wrong. That's why."
Eve arched one dark
eyebrow. "You're such a moron, Conner."
"So you've told me,"
Conner said darkly, "many, many times in the past, Evelyn Agatha."
One thing that Conner
tended to forget about Eve was that even though she looked soft all
over--and she did, which was one of the things that Geoffrey raved
about--she was scary as shit and could totally kill Conner with her bare
Not that Conner was
going to let on that he was afraid of her or anything, so when she got
right in his face, eyes narrowed so that in the twilight all Conner
could really see was a dark fringe of thick lashes, he put his pride to
the sticking place and glared right back.
"You know, Conner, I
promised Geoffrey I'd try to get along with you--"
"You're doing an
awesome job," Conner ridiculed. "I'm feeling all close to you, really."
Technically, it was
true--there couldn't have been more than two inches between their faces.
"--But I think
considering your truly awe-inspiring depths of stupidity--"
"Don't be a bitch,
Agatha," Conner snapped, "I'm still making the toast at your wedding as
soon as you trick him into marrying you."
"--I'd be more than
forgiven for kicking you as hard as possible between the--"
"Hey, are we all
Conner felt a tiny
flicker of triumph when Eve jumped a foot in the air, eyes growing round
in surprise, whipping around to see Geoffrey on the steps of the
brownstone. Conner waited half a beat before he leaned back, looking
innocently at Geoffrey, who was frowning at him, one hand on Eve's
"We're fine," Conner
said, just as Eve yelled, "Conner's being a moron!"
Geoffrey opened his
mouth for a second, but shut it, and flashed Conner a pleading
expression, which made Conner see red. He took three deep breaths, and
pasted the worst, most artificial smile he could dig up onto his face
and said, "I'll just get out of here."
"I'll talk to you on
Monday," Geoffrey said, and it meant, "I'm really sorry."
He gave Geoffrey a
bland, blank look, and added, "If you want your gift, your dad can give
it to you later."
The expression of
guilt that stole across Geoffrey's face at the mention of a gift felt
really, really good, especially when Conner realized that Geoffrey had
let go of Eve's wrist, but Conner just smiled, waved, and headed down
the street before Geoffrey could say anything.
It was not, Conner
reflected later, his finest moment.
Nor, Conner thought
darkly, was it his parents'.
He'd gotten three
steps out of the elevator and into the penthouse when he heard them,
angry, tight voices drifting from the kitchen, where a shaft of orange
light spilled through a doorway into the dining room. From the foyer,
Conner could only see the occasional flicker of a shadow when his mother
or father moved across the kitchen floor, burnt sienna shapes, fuzzy on
the walls and the floor.
"I thought we were
going to tell him." Clark sounded hurt.
shot up to his hairline, and he tiptoed forward, around the ultramodern
table and chairs, flattening himself against the wall shared by the
kitchen and dining room, and peered around the corner just enough to see
his mom and dad facing off in front of the sink.
"Something came up,"
Conner's dad said tersely, loosening his tie and looking paler and
thinner than Conner had seen him in a long time.
Clark was still
wearing his sneakers, which meant that either they'd just gotten in, or
Clark was about to leave. Conner was hoping perversely for the first
one; even if it'd been ages since their last knock-down, drag-out fight,
and even if Conner had been grateful for every single day that had
passed without one, fighting was better than suffocating tension that
fell over everything.
discussing it with me before you changed your plans," Clark said
"Let me remind you
that you were starting to deny it, too--granted, poorly--when I
"I was making
a joke," Clark contended.
"I'm really not in
the mood for this, Clark," Lex muttered.
Clark scowled, and
Conner winced. This was not a good sign. Mom was about to go whiny and
self-righteous and Dad was about to hit full-scale bitter, which were
not their best sides.
"Sorry," Clark said
tersely, "I was under the impression we were in a relationship--"
Holy shit, was all
Conner could think. Holy crap. It was like he could feel the
"--but I see I've
been presumptuous. I guess just because--"
Clark," Lex warned.
"--we fuck it's too
much to hope that--"
"I'm not the one who
left!" Lex exploded, eyes blazing.
It made Conner jump,
but all things considered, nobody heard.
All the blood drained
out of Clark's face.
"I'm not the one who
leaves, Clark!" Lex yelled.
Lex was red-faced and
shaking, and Conner saw his mom taking two steps back.
"I'm not the one who
told lies and I'm not the one who put every single goddamn fucking thing
ahead of making it work out the first time we tried to do this, okay,
bulged. The words 'last time we tried to do this' knocked around in his
head and he slumped against the wall, turning to stare out across the
room, feeling like somebody had just kicked him in the gut.
"And it's gotten six
hundred times more complicated," Lex went on, "and the very last thing I
need to be doing is dragging Conner into something that I'm not sure
"You're not 'sure'
about?" Clark bellowed. "What the hell are you saying?"
Conner shoved away
from the wall and bolted toward the door; as the elevator doors were
closing, the last words he heard were his parents, desperate and angry
and accusatory, saying was that this time around, it wasn't like it was
all those years ago.
would be halfway to Geoffrey's house already. Normally, he'd already
be there, because normally on Geoffrey's birthday Conner spent the
night and they played video games until they were groggy enough to be
Today, he was
standing in the West Gate-Tallaway subway station, staring at the map of
the Metropolis subway system like he was new or something.
What was more
depressing was that he couldn't think of anywhere to go. All of the
coffee shops and bookstores he liked would either already be closed, or
well on their way; going home was the last thing he wanted to do, so
blowing off steam at CitiBooks until one in the morning would only do so
much good when Jerryna the transsexual clerk kicked him out.
His dad wouldn't be
expecting him back until Sunday, so he had a free pass for one night out
in Metropolis--and what was he doing? Standing in the subway station
feeling like a loser.
Conner scowled at the
subway map, with all its numbered lines, 1 going from Garden Row into
Millionaire Mile, 4 from Halloway Mill into Paddington, edging around
West Eden into--Advent Circle. Where Lois lived.
Conner hadn't, he
realized with a sudden shock of guilt, talked to Lois in weeks. Since
school had started and Geoffrey found the allure of females stronger
than his natural lameness, Conner felt like he'd been spending all of
his free time either helping Geoffrey plan how to ask Eve out--or now,
in retrospect, figure out how to convince his mom to run really fast
around the Earth and turn back time so he could undo it and be spared
the indignity of it all.
Then again, Conner
wasn't exactly enchanted with either of his parents at the moment, and
he doubted negotiations would go well if he attempted it. He'd learned
over the years that trying to talk to his mom and dad while he was
infuriated with them--which had, so far, only happened twice--was the
most foolish and totally pointless experience ever. His mother got
standoffish and self-righteous, and was likely to turn on his Superman
voice and lecture; his dad just cocked his eyebrow and had security
escort him out of the room until Conner managed to keep a civil tongue
in his head. Neither of which were conducive to Conner getting his way.
And upon further
consideration, Conner should have been talking to Lois all these
weeks, since she was his best and most reliable source of accurate
information and provided the very best commentary on all of Conner's
problems. Ever since he'd turned twelve and she'd explained how though
she loved him and would forever, it was probably best if they saw other
people, she'd been his second best friend. Had she been aware of the
entire fiasco-in-progress that was Geoffrey and Eve's relationship, she
would have had a few wise words and suggestions, Conner was nearly
sure. Hopefully, they wouldn't be her traditional, "Get him drunk and
never tell your dad what happens afterwards," because all that had come
of that was a wicked hangover and that thing about the ass cherry.
The lady working
night-shift at the information booth was giving him a look that bordered
too close on "interest" for Conner's comfort, so he swiped his farecard
and stepped through the turnstile just as a 4 train roared by. Conner
thanked God under his breath and scrambled on, throwing one worried look
over his shoulder to find the lady in the booth looking disappointed as
the train was pulling out of the station.
Conner shuddered, and
settled against the cold, molded plastic seats in the mostly-deserted
compartment, grateful for the distance.
Recently, more and
more girls were looking at him funny. The same way they'd been looking
at Geoffrey funny since the second grade, when he used to smile and duck
his head, blushing and running his hand through his golden curls.
Conner used to call him Goldilocks--but then Geoffrey had glued Conner's
hands to his face, so the nickname had been retired, not that it wasn't
still appropriate. Now more than ever, Conner thought in annoyance.
The point was, people
were starting to look for looking's sake. Then, there'd been that guy
at the bagel shop who'd asked him if he wanted to take a walk through
the park and thought he'd actually say 'yes,'--as if Conner hadn't gone
to Catholic school his whole life and learned to fend off child
molesters in the second grade.
Conner sighed, and
let his eyes slide shut, letting his head loll back so he felt the cold
plexiglass of the window on his scalp. Dark beneath his eyelids, he
could still see the irritating, fluorescent glare of the overhead
lighting, the occasional flashes of burnt orange, the passages of
darkness, where something blinked. And in his head, it was quiet and
still the way it never was when he paid attention--the way it never was
when he let himself notice things and react.
He wasn't dumb enough
to believe that everything had ever really been simple, but they'd been
simpler before. Before the telekinesis had started to manifest, before
he'd realized that he probably liked guys more than girls, before he was
smart enough to figure out that Clark wasn't just "really fond of Mrs.
Banner's poached eggs."
And now, even though
he held his head above water pretty well on a normal basis, when he
really thought about it, Conner always felt a crushing weight on his
shoulders, a sort of exhaustion he didn't know what to do with.
Conner opened his
eyes slowly, hearing the recorded announcer's voice say, "Next stop,
Advent Circle, with transfers to lines 2, 7, and 13."
He shouldered his
messenger bag and pulled his coat tighter around him, one hand catching
onto a metal railing just as the train slowed to a stop.
Lois had a
brick-faced walk-up with a wrought-iron fence that blocked off about two
square feet of bright green weeds on either side of the steps. She also
had a flowerbox which always seemed to be blooming with violets, but was
barren in one circular area on the left where Lois liked to smoke,
leaning out of her window and snubbing cigarettes out into the potting
Conner had only ever
seen it from the outside when he and Lois had gone out on dates--which
Lex had never known about because of Conner's careful negotiations with
Hope, who seemed far more supportive of Conner's romantic quests than
Mercy ever was--and she'd let him walk her home. When he'd gotten tall
enough, she'd let him loop his arm with hers, and she'd kiss him on the
cheek before she stepped inside and waved goodbye as the door swung
Lois, Conner thought
with a wild grin, was perfect. She was beautiful and funny and
whip-smart, mean to just about everybody, plus she was smooth and
well-moisturized. She listened to Conner and perved out on Stone
Phillips, who Conner had to agree was kind of smoking, despite
contending that broadcast news was a cancer upon the world.
The steps leading out
the Advent Circle station were crappy, and more than one person had
stubbed a toe on the bolts which stuck out and tripped others when they
were clattering down in the mornings, rushing for their train. Conner
had taken them up and down enough that he knew them mostly from sense
memory, even if he still ended up banging the head of his sneakers into
the uneven edge of the topmost step.
Emerging out of the
subway and into Advent Circle was like stepping out into a different
world--the whole thing was lit up like Las Vegas, bright with wine bars
and nice restaurants, art galleries and all-night cafes. And in between
all of these were small apartment buildings, walk-ups like Lois' or
tiny, ten unit places, where people still sat on their fire escapes and
talked while smoking clove cigarettes. There were jazz clubs and book
stores and an organic food cooperative that Grandpa Jon drove crates of
produce to, twice a week.
Then there was that
bead store next to GayMart USA.
He was standing at
her house--number 436, in faded, brass numbers on the door--when he
realized it was pushing one in the morning and he had no idea if she was
at home, whether she was still awake, or if there was company.
Conner scowled at the
idea of 'company,' since Lois had a penchant for dating total morons.
She said they were interesting, Conner said they were genetic
throwbacks; it was a difference of opinion they couldn't seem to settle,
and usually they resorted to making popcorn and watching Master and
Commander again. Lois had a crush on Stephen; Conner just liked the
He waffled a bit,
standing on her front stoop, until he nearly jumped out of his skin when
he saw Lois stick her dark head out of her front window and say,
"Conner, what the hell are you doing out there?"
Her hair was up and
she was wearing a black tank-top and Conner could see down the front of
it since she was leaning over. Lois was impressively endowed, but she
had told him that she also had nice breasts, which was as
important as size. If nothing else, Conner had an aesthetic
appreciation of the view.
"Um," he said, eyes
huge with surprise. "I was--I didn't know if you were up. Hi."
Lois laughed, and
glanced up and down the block, which was on one of the quieter cross
"You're lucky David's
not here this weekend, Conner," she laughed, turning back to him.
Conner scowled. "You
told him I was fifteen, right? Like, last time?"
Lois leaned back,
face darkening into the shadows of her house, and she waved one arm,
saying, "As if that would stop him--come on, let me unlock that door for
When he stepped in,
the apartment was mostly dark, and smelled like clovers and honey, which
Conner knew was because Lois spent an obscene amount of money on air
fresheners, given that she never really knew when her father might drop
by for one of his surprise visits.
"I've been trying to
quit," she used to say.
"You've been trying
to quite since you were sixteen," Conner had argued, and flushed her
cigarettes down the toilet.
When Conner peeled
off his coat and dropped it on a peg near the door, he looked up to see
Lois grinning at him, wide and brassy and trademark Lane. Closer up,
Conner could see that she was wearing gray sweatpants, that her hair was
a wreck, how she was barefoot and seemed to only have three of her ten
toes painted-in--and she still looked gorgeous. He sighed a little at
"Hey stranger," Lois
said, looking him up and down. "You still look like you robbed a YMCA."
"Beat up a homeless
guy and everything," Conner said earnestly.
incorrigible," Lois said, pleased. "What happened to your hands?"
Conner glanced down
at his bandaged palms. "Burned 'em being a moron."
commended, and asked, "What brings you to Casa de Lane?"
"Geoffrey's a bitch," he muttered, and after a pause added, "also,
there's some stuff about my dad which I probably shouldn't tell you
"That just means it's
juicy and I want to know," Lois retorted. She cocked her head. "Kind
of late, though--do you need to hit home anytime soon?"
Conner shook his
head, pulling his messenger back over his shoulder and dropping it on
the floor under his coat, stretching his arms over his head, he said,
"Dad thinks I'm crashing at Geoffrey's." At Lois' raised eyebrow,
Conner put on his sweetest smile and asked, "I was kind of hoping you'd
do me the honor of allowing me a night in your presence."
Lois narrowed her
eyes and pointed at him. "It's creepy when you do that," she reported.
"It's creepy because that's your dad's personality on E."
"What's E?" Conner
"Nothing," Lois said
quickly, ruffled. "Come on--bedroom it is, then."
It was a nice
apartment, all pink and tan and pale green, with a large, sleigh bed
where Lois smoothed out a quilt she said her grandmother had made for
her when she was going to college. Conner kicked off his shoes, and
when he climbed onto the bed, he nearly groaned, sinking into the
pillowtop mattress with an exhalation, feeling all the tension that had
knotted up in his shoulders. He blinked his eyes open sleepily when he
felt the mattress depress next to him, and saw Lois' thigh next to his
"You have a nice
bed," he mumbled.
"You sound beat,
sweetheart," Lois said, more nicely than most people in the world had
ever heard her speak, Conner bet. That was one of the many things he
liked about her.
Conner rolled over
until he was on his stomach, and turned his face so he was looking at
Lois, where she was lounged out beside him, propped up on her right
side, hand cupping her face.
He reached over and
tugged until his face was pillowed on her arm, turning to nose into her
shoulder. Lois was soft, and she smelled like expensive perfume, the
kind Conner got a whiff of occasionally when he was walking through his
dad's office, soft and subtle and classic.
"Hey," Lois asked
gently, smoothing a hand over his hair. "Are you all right?"
"I think I had a
fight with Geoffrey," Conner murmured.
"Goldilocks is a
bitch," Lois said instantly, which made Conner start to laugh
helplessly, and he eventually pulled away enough to see Lois smiling
down at him, hand still smoothing the hopeless curls on the back of his
head. "What did you guys fight about?"
Conner sighed and
leaned against Lois' shoulder.
"So about two months
ago, Geoffrey asked Eve out officially," Conner started.
"Took him long
enough," Lois muttered, and rearranged her legs on the bed so that they
were both staring at her ceiling fan, which was spinning, hypnotically
slow on the lowest setting. Lois liked moving air in her rooms, she
kept her windows open a crack even in the dead of winter, her ceiling
fans going year-round. "I still say you should charge him for all the
whining you had to listen to while he was getting up the balls to do
"He really wasn't
that bad," Conner said diplomatically.
"You don't have to
defend your little boyfriend, Conner--I like you way better," Lois said
soothingly, petting him gently. "Go on, sweetie."
Conner rolled his
eyes dramatically. "So ever since, it's been Eve, Eve, Eve, all the
time, twenty-four hours a day. Which--" Conner paused "--I mean, I get,
because she's his girlfriend, right? But then, tonight, his birthday,
we're supposed to spend the night, he gets his present, and that's our
thing, right? It's tradition."
important," Lois agreed pleasantly.
"Right," Conner said,
waving his hands, "and what does he do? He ditches me, without
any forward notice, to take Eve to the movies. I mean, he doesn't even
tell me first. I have to overhear him telling his dad he'll be out
late--what the hell is that?"
Lois laughed, and
Conner twisted around to watch her eyes shining as she said, "Conner,
I'm going to break some really sad news to you, okay?"
Conner narrowed his
eyes, nothing good could possibly come of this.
being very, very, very pretty," Lois said slowly, "he is actually
a boy. And as I have told you many, many times in the past--all men are
bastards." Conner opened his mouth to protest when Lois cut him off,
saying, "Except for you, because I've raised you well."
Conner turned to
scowl at the ceiling fan again, feeling a little bit doomed and militant
"I get that he likes
her, you know?" he said after a beat.
"You're a smart kid,"
Lois said approvingly. "You get stuff like that."
Conner let himself
sulk a few more minutes before muttering, "Whatever. All men are
"I knew you'd see it
my way," Lois crowed, delighted. "Now," she said, leaning over him and
pinning him with her gaze, "what's this about your dad?"
Conner blinked his
eyes hugely. "I'm an orphan," he said seriously.
"Conner," she said warningly.
"My parents died in a
freak weed-whacking accident when I was seven," he went on sorrowfully.
"I don't like to talk about it--every time I see crabgrass, I cry."
Lois smothered him
with a pillow, which meant Conner was forced to retaliate by tugging at
the elastic of her sweatpants, which made Lois shriek and crush the
pillow down on his head harder. The end result was that they were
sprawled out, heads at the foot of the bed, gasping for breath.
compromised, "off the record."
"This would be so
much easier," Conner gasped, "if we didn't have to do that every single
time before you agreed."
"What's the fun in
that?" Lois asked, and turned to grin at him. "Spill."
"My dad is in this
weird relationship," Conner admitted. He reached one hand up toward the
ceiling, watching the blades spin through his spread-opened fingers, one
eye squeezed shut, focusing on the pinpoints of light. "And I know
he's with this person, but he totally refuses to cop to it--and it's
driving me totally crazy."
"Is your father
cheating on Clark?" Lois asked importantly, eyes flashing. "I'll kill
"No!" Conner said
urgently. "No! And I didn't say it was Clark!"
Lois made a
dismissive noise. "Please, Conner, don't insult my intelligence.
Clark's emotions are a Dick and Jane book, okay? Everybody can read,
ages three and up."
Conner damned his
mother's transparency, because even if his dad didn't have any official
family party lines about what not to say, Conner had enough common sense
that certain pieces of information were kept private. The fact that his
father was sleeping with a man, the fact that said man was Conner's
mother, etc. etc., that thing about the missiles that were mounted in
"The point is,"
Conner went on hurriedly, "they're just not admitting to being
together. Even though I know it's true--I mean, I live there, I can
tell. I'm not brain damaged or anything."
Lois squirmed a
little at that. "Of course not," she said. "I mean, okay, from their
perspective, maybe they're not very committed about it yet. Maybe they
don't want you to get all invested in something that may not last.
That's pretty fair, right?"
"Is Clark cheating on
my dad?" Conner exploded, scrambling out of Lois' hold to glare down at
her. "I'll kill him!"
Lois snorted. "Clark
couldn't cheat on anybody, he's not clever enough," she reassured him.
"Look, all I'm saying is that maybe they're not ready to tell you about
it yet, okay? Don't freak out about it. It's not really your business
and you're giving yourself ulcers for nothing."
Conner made a
disgruntled noise, and glared at Lois' aloe plant, which seemed to wilt
a little under his scowl.
"And besides," Lois
added, "it's Saturday, David's not perving on your ass, and here we are,
our very own sleepover while Goldilocks and his little bear are trekking
through a thunderstorm."
glanced out the window, and realized for the first time since stepping
inside that it'd started pouring. Rain slapped against the half-closed
window and drizzled in a metal slither of sound down tin gutters, making
the sidewalks slick and shine, puddling up in greasy black wells along
the asphalt. From the window, Advent Circle looked like the set of a
film noir detective flick, like Dick Tracy and a girl Friday could show
out up of anywhere, all curious reporter instincts like Lois on an
It suddenly seemed
small and stupid to be so irritated. Conner was curled up on Lois' bed,
and should he lay back down, it was a fair bet that she'd start stroking
his hair again. At some point, they'd probably eat Fudge Rounds.
"I hate it when
you're reasonable," Conner muttered, flopping back down onto the bed.
She laughed, and it
bounced off the walls of the room. Lois had a great laugh, it was
booming and unafraid and warm, and Conner loved watching her when she
laughed, her eyes crinkling shut and her curving, pink mouth opening.
"Come on," she said,
and her smile was light again, "you've had a long night."
Conner blinked in
surprise. "Are we going to sleep?"
Lois rolled her
eyes. "Not a chance." She pointed at a row of DVDs that were on the
shelf next to the bedroom television. "Pick something to watch. I'm
going to go make some popcorn and grab my nail polish."
picking through the collection for a bit before he came across a box
set, and as he heard Lois padding back into the room, he turned to ask,
"Hey, what's Queer As Folk about?"
"I like Michael
better," Conner mumbled around the end of the nail file in his mouth.
"You're out of your
mind," Lois retorted, rearranging a few fingers. "Clearly, Justin is the
hottest piece of ass ever."
Brian had already
seduced an unsuspecting and married client in the men's room before Lois
had blinked, glanced at Conner's glazed expression, and reassessed her
current company. She'd paused the video and said, "Are you old enough
to be watching this?" to which Conner had gurgled in reply and motioned
rapidly toward the remote control. She'd shrugged her shoulders and hit
play. It wasn't that Lois didn't have any concept of age-appropriate
television, just that her moral dipstick hadn't given her any accurate
readings since she'd gone to that one indie music club in Chapel Hill
during college when she was supposed to be at a journalism seminar.
"And what's wrong
with Michael?" Conner protested, pulling the nail file out of his mouth
and attacking Lois' ragged thumbnail. He'd told her that if she was
going to destroy her cuticles on purpose, he wasn't going to play
manicurist, but then she'd smiled and stroked his neck, and Conner's
personal dignity had flushed itself down the toilet.
"What, aside from the
fact that he's short, neurotic, and dorky?" Lois shot back.
Conner scowled at the
television, where Justin was being a filthy, blond slut. He wasn't sure
what bothered him more, the fact that Justin was so pretty or that Lois
"But he's Brian's
best friend!" Conner argued. "He's put up with him since high school!
That needs to count for something."
"Okay," Lois said
patiently, "I thought we agreed not to project here, Conner."
He pointed the nail
file at Lois. "I am not projecting."
"Whatever," Lois said
dismissively, and added, "Hey! Look, nudity!"
Conner glazed over
again, nail file going slack in his hands. "Is this really what gay
people do all the time?" he asked, watching Brian shove somebody into an
"God," Lois said,
moaning around a Sno-ball, "I hope so."
Conner's hands were
sore by the time he'd finished up Lois' manicure, so he'd let her rub
sweet-smelling lotion into his palms until he was practically groaning
from it. By then, they'd finished the third episode of Queer as Folk
and Conner was fighting for consciousness, and when Lois noted his
drooping lids, she'd turned off the lights and the television and
dragged him under the quilt, saying, "Come on, everything will be better
in the morning."
He'd nodded and
curled up next to her, because Lois never lied to him.
And sleep was soft,
floating him upward and holding him suspended. Conner had never slept
very deeply, and sometimes, he surfaced enough to hear the sound of rain
still tapping on the ground, rolling down the windowpanes, washing out
Metropolis. Mostly, he heard Lois' breathing, deep and even in her
chest, which was warm next to his half-curled fist.
it was quiet and
warm, and Conner didn't dream, because there was finally, finally
Lois' telephone was
shrill and shrieking and right next to Conner's ear, which was why he
moaned and buried his face in his pillow as Lois reached over his
shoulder, and fumbled with the handset, dragging the curly cord over
Her voice was husky
as she said, "Yeah, Lane--"
The shrieking in the
phone was louder than the ringer and it made Conner's eyes snap open in
"What the hell are
you doing to my son?"
"OhGod," Lois said,
eyes opening wide and scooting up in the bed. "Lex?"
Conner just stared in
horrified silence, frozen under the sheets.
"What have you done
to him? He's only fifteen! I haven't given him the talk yet!"
Lois' eyes bulged,
and she held the phone a little away from her ear, staring in blank
horror at Conner, who tried very hard to suffocate himself with a
pillow. He didn't know what was worse, having his father bust in on his
sleepover with a much older woman, or--actually, Conner figured it
didn't get much worse than that.
"I--what are you
talking about?" Lois shouted hotly. "He just spent the night!"
"He's been there
all night?" Conner heard his father yell. "Oh my God!"
"Bad move, Lois,"
Conner muttered and covered his face with his hands. Clearly, this was
one of those situations that called for seppuku. Lois never cooked but
she had to own at least one knife. Or, he could just use a pair of her
Jimmy Choos, though she'd never forgive him for getting entrails on her
"Freak much, Lex?"
Lois demanded, sitting up in bed, scowling into the air. "We watched a
movie! He told me about his day! Which, from what I hear, is more than
"'Watched a movie'?"
his dad bellowed, "What is that--code?"
"Yeah!" Lois yelled
back, "For you're batshit insane!"
experienced many, many moments when the situation spiraled so far out of
control that really, the only option was to look at it subjectively and
laugh, because clearly, the universe was out to get him, and there was
really nothing he could do about it anyway.
"Conner! Can you
hear me? Are you still a virgin?" Lex said loudly through the line.
Lois took one look at
his laughing face, slapped a hand over the receiver and hissed, "Conner
Clark Luthor, if you say one word--"
"It--" Conner gasped,
laughing so hard his stomach hurt, "it was really--" he wiped at his
tears "--special, Dad. She said I'm the prettiest Catholic schoolboy
shrieked, nearing hysteria.
little shit!" Lois said, dropping the phone and tackling him into
the mattress, which made the springs squeak significantly, pushing his
father that much closer to the very edge of sanity, Conner assumed.
Still, Lois was straddling his chest, shoving one of her purple throw
pillows into his face and yelling for him to take it back, and his dad's
disembodied voice yelling from the phone was really of lesser
"Don't deny our
love," Conner yelled, gasping for breath as Lois started beating him in
the face with the pillow, using her weight to hold him down.
Lois let out a shrill
scream that melted out into a laugh, and she said, "Conner, you
Conner let out of a
huff of air and said, "Okay--now it's war," and reached for her wrists--
Which was when they
both felt the blast of freezing wind in the room.
"What the hell?" Lois
asked, turning slowly, knees digging into Conner's ribcage.
From his vantage
point, flat on his back in a rumpled bed, with Lois practically sitting
in his lap, Conner had just enough time to register his mom's horrified
face and a red cape waving behind a very familiar blue uniform.
The trip home was
Clark said vaguely.
supportively. "Dad was being loud," he answered meekly.
"I heard the yelling
Bolivia," Clark said, voice strange.
compromised, looking down over his mom's shoulder, at the city like an
ocean of flickering lights, "you are super."
There was a long
pause, where the only sound was the wind shrieking past Conner's frozen
ears. Being flown around by Superman was undeniably cool, but altitudes
were not necessarily temperate, and even with his very warm coat, Conner
was feeling the chill, especially with his mom speeding toward West Eden
like a proverbial bat out of hell.
Clark asked again, giving Conner his evil eye.
When Lois had finally
realized that the Man of Steel was staring while she was, essentially,
mounting an underaged boy, she'd removed herself from the position so
quickly she'd nearly fallen off of the bed. The following explanations
and hand motions made by both Lois and Conner would probably be very
good comedic fodder, if both parties hadn't been convinced they were
about to be lasered into oblivion.
So now, three angry
phone calls from Lex to Conner's cell phone to complain about Superman's
customer service and threaten Conner's continued exposure to the outside
world, Clark and Conner were on their way to the penthouse.
Conner rolled his
eyes. "She gave me a manicure and we watched TV, seriously, Clark."
Clark's narrowed eyes
thinned to slits. "This is Lois." Pause. "And you're a teenaged boy."
television," Conner said again, looking his mom in the eye.
loosened, and Conner grinned: triumph.
After a beat, Clark
asked suspiciously, "She gave you a manicure?"
"Yeah," Conner said
eagerly, holding out a hand for Clark to inspect. "Looks pretty good,
"Dear God," Clark
muttered, and started dropping altitude, approaching the roof of the
building, where Conner could see his father waiting, a poisonous
expression on his darkened face.
accusations and shouting and a lot of pointing fingers once Conner and
his mom touched down. Then, Conner played his trump card and yelled
about how he had come home, and found his parents fighting, which
was why he'd left again. Predictably, it threw his mom and dad for a
loop, and Conner saw them looking stunned and silent before he huffed
off to his room, shutting his door and throwing himself down in bed,
feeling jittery all over, fingers itching to call somebody.
He thought about the
Rialto's midnight matinee, about Eve and Geoffrey, and about them
exchanging fluids, and decided against calling anybody.
But Lois was right,
though, and by the time Conner woke up for the second time that day,
everything seemed better. Afternoon sunlight was golden and arcing all
through his room, pouring through the enormous porthole window over his
desk and making everything gleam.
Later, in the shower,
leaning against the tiled wall, Conner decided that it had been an
extraordinarily uneven two days, with alternately awesome and truly
horrible moments, and that on Monday, everything would look
up--everything would be better.
"It'll be fine," he
told himself, and shut off the water.
It was raining Monday
morning, the sort of downpour that had settled over Metropolis that
Saturday night and lingered in sporadic drizzles throughout Sunday
afternoon. The tension that had blanketed the penthouse all throughout
Sunday had not dissipated, and since he had inherited the
passive-aggressiveness that his dad furiously denied, he'd spent Sunday
at the Carmichael Library, going through old microfilm of Metropolis'
newspaper of record.
He'd snuck around
looking for stuff about his dad's past before, he'd just never bothered
to read the society pages, which meant he'd found a birth announcement,
several articles that mentioned Lex Luthor offhand, and then an
explosion of reporting after his dad had turned twenty-one and
ambitious, or at least the paramour of many, many psychotic murderers.
Also, there were about a million car accidents, which may or may not
have affected Conner's ambivalence toward driving, but definitely made
him go home and clutch his dad's arm for an hour when he was ten.
On Sunday, sulking
and prickly and sleep-deprived, he'd gone straight for the lifestyle
section, and looked on, horrified, as his dad dated what looked like
every attractive woman in a four-state radius. Lex wore good tuxedos
and smooth suits and looked like a billion dollars, with a girl on his
arm every time with dark hair, great skin, and wide, luminous eyes. He
had a thing for brunettes and curves, and Conner had tried not to read
the sketchier stuff, because there was a limit to the things he could
handle, and reading about public speculation on his father's sex life
was one of those.
When Conner had been
about negative eleven years old, though, the pictures and articles
stopped. The society pages became preoccupied with somebody else for a
change, and for months and months worth of microfilm, Conner had only
seen blather about other people.
It had made the
sudden, renewed explosion of articles a dead shock, especially when it
came with blurry photographs of a dark-haired man, seen laughing at
Lex's side. That photograph was like a still capture of Conner's many
memories, an image stolen straight out of his head, where those profiles
were as familiar as the Metropolitan streets and comforting as the 5
line, circuiting the city. Those big, bright smiles that came through
the pictures like light, as if the moment was porous, like it was about
to come right off of the page.
Which had gotten
Conner kicked out of the library when he shouted, "Oh, no, you two
bastards did not!" loudly enough that it echoed throughout the
entire reference section.
It had only deepened
Conner's gloom for the evening, and by the time he'd gotten home, his
dad was presumably at work--there wasn't a note anywhere--so he'd made a
sandwich and stubbornly forced himself to watch hardcore porn for the
rest of the night. Partially to distract himself, partially because he
knew that if his father knew, he'd just die.
But because Conner
was almost as much of a wuss as he was a moron, he'd stopped the video
and turned off his computer monitor when he'd heard his dad's footsteps
coming down the hall.
"You're up late," Lex
had said, voice soft, leaning in Conner's doorway.
"You were out late,"
Conner had said back, because he know a level tone of voice would make
that more damning than any amount of shouting he could do. It was true,
though. Since Friday, Conner had barely seen his dad, whether by fate
or friction or just because this whole weekend was supremely fucked up.
Conner was too tired to ask.
The slump in Lex's
shoulders had been exhausting just to watch, and Conner had turned
sharply to his father, noted with renewed distress the dark circles
under Lex's eyes, the pronounced paleness of his skin, the way he looked
like he'd lost ten pounds in three days. It made Conner jittery,
scared, worried, because Lex had looked like that for three business
crises to date, and Conner had hated it, every single minute. If his
dad was calling Saturday board meetings and pulling all-day office
junkets Sundays and not answering Conner's phone calls, then Conner
wanted to know what was wrong, and go into the office and do his
father's Xeroxing for him, because at least that way, he could interrupt
every few hours, and make his dad eat something.
"I haven't been a
very good parent a lot of times, Conner," Lex had said, tired-sounding,
and after a pause, he'd started down the hallway, throwing over his
shoulder, "I'm sorry I didn't say anything about Clark earlier."
But by the time
Conner gotten over the dumb shock and darted into the hall, the bedroom
door had already closed with a 'snick' and Conner had only stared with
his mouth agape.
Which brought him to
Monday, and rain, and Geoffrey looking hopeful and sorry in the hallway,
when really all Conner wanted was a shot of that goddamn whiskey which
had made him promise Geoffrey his ass cherry in the first place and to
go to sleep for about a hundred years.
"I loved your
present," Geoffrey started brightly, eyes huge.
Conner rifled through
his locker, looking for his Algebra II book. It was green. He hated
"Thanks," he said
"It was perfect,"
Geoffrey said. "It must have taken a lot of planning."
Conner usually got
Geoffrey two gifts: one he came up with over the course of weeks and
weeks and took a lot of organization to pull off, and one he picked up
at a store to hand Geoffrey during the party. It was tradition. So
while he told his mom and dad about not knowing what to buy Geoffrey,
the whole week leading up to the big day, Conner was usually making last
minute phone calls to architectural firms and asking weird questions or
ordering stuff from the art store over the internet. But this year,
everything was about busting tradition to pieces, apparently, so Conner
had foregone the face-value gift and had slapped the hard hat and the
metal lunchbox with the ID tag in it he'd spent three weeks wheedling
out of the site manager at LexCorp's latest building project onto the
kitchen table and hadn't said a word.
"I thought of it at
the last minute," Conner said sourly.
"Oh," Geoffrey said
awkwardly. "I--I went and visited on Sunday. It was really neat--I
mean, watching them put up the frame of the building like that."
Conner finally found
the Algebra book. It was underneath his wadded-up gym pants. He
grabbed it and shoved it into his half-opened backpack, hanging from his
shoulder by one strap. There were students milling all around them,
making the hallways claustrophobic, and it was moments like these that
made Conner think that the school couldn't possibly be exclusive
enough--not if there were that many people shoving around a small,
Conner said flatly. "We're going to be late for class."
"You're still mad,"
Conner turned around
to stare at him, mouth opened to say that yes, yes he was, why, what a
huge surprise that he'd be angry that his best friend ditched him. But
then he saw the mouth-shaped bruise on Geoffrey's collarbone, where his
tie was loose enough that the white wingtip collar opened and let it
peek out, damning and purple against Geoffrey's pale skin.
"I--that's a hickey,"
he said stupidly.
Geoffrey's eyes got
huge, and he slapped his hand over the left side of his neck, which only
made Conner's eyes bulge as he hissed, "Your collarbone, you moron! How
many do you have?"
His mind suddenly
filled with horrifying images of Geoffrey and Eve holed up in Geoffrey's
bedroom, which was still decorated to look like a sailor's cabin because
Geoffrey was a loser. Conner tried not to claw at his eyes, but
it was very hard, what with the thought of Eve flopping around
horrifyingly naked and pawed at in Geoffrey's sheets, with all the
little model boats in glass bottles shaking on his nightstand. He
covered his face with his hands instead.
stuttered, struggling with his tie, "look, I get that you're pissed."
"Who says I'm
pissed," Conner demanded, whipping up to glare at Geoffrey. "I am not
pissed. I am a paragon of calm acceptance."
Conner slammed his locker shut and started down the hall, and he felt
several pairs of familiar eyes on him as he stalked toward classroom
103, people who knew him well enough to read the knot in his shoulders,
to recognize the way that Geoffrey was shuffling behind him as a sign of
Bad Things To Come.
"You've been very
patient," Geoffrey agreed.
"I was, in fact,"
Conner continued, ducking into the classroom and stomping to his seat
toward the back, "contacted by the Vatican last week and informed that
though the traditional process to be sainted requires about a hundred
years, they're giving me a rush job." He turned to scowl at Geoffrey,
who looked a little hamstrung. "Who can be pissed when they're about to
Geoffrey snapped, eyes flashing, "you. You're out of line, Conner."
Conner threw his
bookbag down on the ground and leaned over the desk.
"Reassess this week
and tell me if I'm out of line, or if you're out of line," Conner
They glared at one
another over their desks, pushed together into pairs and set into long
aisles, the way it'd been since kindergarten, and listened to everybody
in the classroom hold their breath.
Sister Hyacinth, who
was somehow still alive, shuffled into the room at that moment,
though, and Conner spent the next hour ignoring Geoffrey and staring at
his math book, watching all the numbers blur together in front of his
tired eyes. It was only at the end of the period that he realized there
was a stack of photocopies in front of his face, and that the top line
on them read, "PSATs FRIDAY--HOW TO PREPARE." When Conner numbly took a
copy for himself and passed the stack to Geoffrey, his best friend
caught his wrist.
Geoffrey looked at
Conner hard, fingers tight around Conner's pulse-point, like he was
trying to regulate Conner's wild heartbeat, shattering out of his chest.
"I can't always pick
you, Conner," Geoffrey said precisely.
He didn't sound
particularly sorry about it.
"That's fine," Conner
bit out, because it hurt a little to breathe at that exact moment, "I
was getting sick of picking you anyway."
It turned out to be
the worst five days of his life to date. Clark was evasive on the phone
and finally poured out a lame excuse about a First Amendment conference
in New York City, disappearing into the proverbial ether. He and
Geoffrey were still passing one another arctic glances and being
ridiculously polite, which made the nuns nervous and their classmates
subdued, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. His father was
basically absent the entire time, disappearing early in the morning and
returning late into the night--if he came home at all. Charity refused
to patch Conner through and nobody in the offices had anything helpful
at all to say about what the hell was happening. Mrs. Banner, for all
her best efforts and her sublime pumpkin pie, could do nothing to
alleviate the situation.
So when Conner found
his father in the apartment Friday afternoon, weary and thin and sallow
but smiling, he nearly cried with relief.
"Hey," his dad said
hoarsely. "You look like you had a bad week."
"It ate shit," Conner said, not bothering to cover his language.
"Where've you been?"
His dad shook his
head, palms flat on the kitchen counter. "Nowhere good," he said
mildly. "I hear you had your PSATs today."
Conner sighed. "I
think I flunked them," he muttered.
"We should toast to
that," Lex said, weirdly upbeat, a little wild around the eyes. He
walked to the refrigerator, footsteps slow but even, saying, "How about
this: I get orange soda and order pizza, you set up the Xbox, and we
play until all four of our eyeballs fall out of their sockets."
Conner dropped his
backpack. "For serious?" he breathed.
"For serious," Lex
said, smiling. "It's been a while since I kicked your ass."
"You wait here,"
Conner said urgently, grinning hugely, holding up his open hands in the
'stop' gesture, "I'll go get changed. When I come back, we're
going to be really unhealthy pop culture addicts together--and if you
get really lucky, I might even let you win a game."
He heard his dad
laughing all the way into his bedroom. Conner thrashed around a little,
looking for jeans and a tshirt and throwing a hoodie over all of it, and
he was still tugging it on when he re-emerged into the living room to
find the apartment silent and deserted.
He'd only been gone
five minutes, and it took that long for Conner to find Lex where he was
passed out on the kitchen floor, body shaking and sweating with fever so
high that Conner felt his skin burn all over again when he touched his
fingers to his father's forehead.
remember dialing 911, or hitting the panic button in the apartment to
null the security so that the EMS could come up the elevator. He
remembered running back to the kitchen floor and falling to his knees,
digging ice out of the refrigerator and wrapping it in a dish towel,
pressing it to his father's neck, his forehead, to his hands, which were
hot and shaking. Conner remembered saying, "Please, please, please,"
over and over again, watching his dad's face pale as death but his skin
burning up, like he was immolating, inside out.
When Conner heard the
elevator open and Mercy and Hope rush into the room flanking an EMS
crew, he started shouting, "Over here!" and then there was a flurry of
hands, of bodies, but mostly Conner saw his dad, shaking on the gurney,
being strapped in, his vitals measured while Hope kept one hand on
Conner's shoulder, one eye on the elevator door, as if anything that
could possibly happen to them now could be worse.
Conner kept asking, but nobody had the time to answer any questions
before he and the EMS crew jammed themselves into the elevator. Mercy
stayed to secure the penthouse, and Hope nodded and entered a security
key, putting the building at high alert lockdown. These were all
familiar to Conner, from so many drills when he was younger--he just
never thought he'd have to know them, remember them by sense as he did.
His dad was still
shaking in the gurney, eyes closed fitfully and tight, lids sweating and
purpling and sick. Conner didn't know what to do--this wasn't like last
time. Superman wouldn't come to save them, there was no green dragon,
and if there was, it was somewhere inside, where nobody could aim and
Conner couldn't see.
Conner grabbed onto
his father's hand, the few free fingers that weren't pressed down along
with Lex's palms to the flat, cushioned surface of the gurney, and he
tried not to listen to the medics and their gibberish, the big words
that only made him more frightened with every extra syllable.
"Dad, come on,"
Conner said desperately, seeing the numbers on the digital readout scale
down. "Dad, please wake up. This isn't funny."
And when the doors of
the elevator opened it was to twenty armed guards in dark suits making a
pathway in the lobby of the building, to twenty more making a pathway on
the sidewalk, to the ambulance--to a pulsing ocean of no less than four
news trucks, what felt like hundreds of people, and dozens of reporters,
shoving at one another at the edges of the carefully constricted crowd,
and Conner felt his throat close up in sheer, blind terror.
He tightened his hand
around his dad's and leaned in close to the gurney, ducking his head and
rushing along with the creaking wheels, the shouting medics, his dad who
was still sick and feverish and unmoving, skin clammy now. He
remembered the lessons, from long ago, about what to do when everything
went wrong, because he was a Luthor--and sometimes, he forgot what that
meant, and wasn't that just another gift his father gave him, the luxury
of being ordinary--and that meant whatever went wrong went wrong on
"Duck your head, lose
your pride, keep your nerve," his dad had said, only Conner stared at
his father's face now, closed over and white, tilted now and shadowed as
he was lifted up into the back of the ambulance, and he couldn't see a
trace of the man who'd lectured him so minutes before his first public
He scrambled up into
the back, but hesitated when he heard the shouting, and turned back just
in time to see one of the guards shoved over by the crowd, the surge of
people rushing forward, and his eyes must have grown enormous because he
thought he saw a single breath of pity on the face of a channel 4
reporter before Hope grabbed him by his collar, jerked him into the
ambulance, and they roared off into the city.
There was an
equal-sized throng of people at Metropolis General but no security, and
Conner felt their grabbing hands and microphones pressed against his
arms, to the sides of his face, jabbing at him from every side, because
Hope was only one person, and there were too many cameras around for her
to use any of Mercy's trademarked tricks. But Conner clung onto his
father's hand, followed the jerking gurney and infuriated doctors
through the crowd, shoved people away and yelled "No comment" like an
old pro, and hoped, hoped, hoped that everything was all right, that
everything would be fine, that tomorrow, the last memories of this would
be the news reports.
"I don't understand,"
Conner said dumbly.
Fifteen was a
terrifying age, suspended between being a child and expected to act like
an adult. Nobody really knew what to do with fifteen year olds, least
of all themselves, and Conner sometimes felt like an adult because he
could get where he wanted to go on his own, but then felt like a moron
when his dad told him to fill out his own forms and he had to
triple-check his social security number. He woke up hard like he had
grown-up desires but panicked that one time some girl at a party tried
to kiss him; his life was a huge question mark and Conner was a
moron--an extraordinary moron, Eve said it every damn day.
And he felt like he
was going to throw up, felt the nausea rolling in his stomach and up his
throat and through his skin, pouring off of him, making him as sick and
sallow and pale as his father was, laying in a sterile hospital room in
a private wing with Hope and Mercy guarding the doors.
He couldn't breathe
right, his head was pounding, and he thought he was going to fall down
he was so weak in the knees. But he was family, and nobody else could
be there for this, Conner knew his father wouldn't stand for it.
So Conner was doing
the right thing, he was being the long end of fifteen, standing next to
Lex's hospital bed and clutching one of the iron railings, wobbling back
and forth and trying not to throw up or cry or faint, but he could
barely keep his vision straight, he could barely keep his voice steady.
He didn't know whether his success was zero or marginal or pointless,
anyway, but he was doing it, because his father expected it, expected
"I don't understand,"
he rasped out again.
The doctor looked
down at him, over his arching, Roman nose, and said gently, "Mr. Luthor,
did your father tell you he'd begun undergoing treatment?"
Conner stared at his
dad's hand, which was laying still on the white sheets. There was a
heart monitor somewhere in the room, he could hear it beeping steadily.
"I hadn't--" Conner
started, voice like a high gasp, "I didn't know there was anything--"
But there were signs,
weren't there? That there was something wrong? Lex had been white and
sickly and thinner than usual, short with Conner and angry at Clark and
distressed--that was the word--his father had been distressed. And
Conner hadn't looked, or hadn't looked right, perhaps had never learned
the language as well as he'd thought, never picked up the native tenses,
the slight nuances, all the indications that there was something more
there, something he should have been looking for.
"He was at the office
a lot," he finally whispered. "He said he was at work. I thought he
The doctor sighed.
"He is, Mr. Luthor," he said softly. "Your father is running a fever.
It should break overnight, and there won't be any permanent damage, but
he's exhausted. We'll have to keep him for a few days, to continue the
chemotherapy and monitor his progress."
blinked, felt the lids of his eyes scrape against the lenses, realizing
he'd been staring at his father's hand without blinking for a long time
"How long?" Conner
asked finally. "I mean--how long has he been sick?"
Liebhart, Conner thought dully, the Dr. Liebhart who his father had been
seeing, the one he said was giving him his physical--looked tired,
nearly as tired as Conner thought he must look, small and scrawny and
useless, bracing himself against his father's sickbed.
"We've known for some
time now," Dr. Liebhart admitted.
Conner nodded again,
it seemed to be the only thing he could do.
"What is it?" he
finally asked. "I mean, what does he have?"
Stupid to have waited
so long, after all the flurry and fuss, to hear about side effects being
fevers and doctors who were actually oncologists, to ask what his father
had. It should have been his first question. If Conner were really an
adult, he'd have known to ask it, if he knew what the hell he was doing,
he'd have done it right.
Dr. Liebhart rubbed
the bridge of his nose, and looked a little bit incensed, or so Conner
thought from the corner of his eyes. He still couldn't look away from
his father's still, white hand, which had been moving and alive and
writing things, not very long ago. How could I have missed this, Conner
asked again, feeling a renewed lurch of nausea, how could I have not
ALL--adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia," Dr. Liebhart said.
"That's AALL," Conner
said automatically, felt horrified, and whispered, "Sorry."
"Not at all," Dr.
Liebhart murmured, almost smiling, "it's good that you're staying
"Yeah, I'm good at
making stupid comments," Conner said, sitting down and putting his head
on the edge of the mattress. "What's ALL--I mean, what does it do, how
does it happen?"
"Well," Dr. Liebhart
said, looking like he wanted to sit down, and wasn't sure what to do
about that, "it's a cancer of the blood and bone marrow--"
interrupted hoarsely, talking into the mattress. "Awesome, Dad, you
just have to be a hardass, get cancer in something that's all through
your damn body."
"--and happens when
too many stem cells develop into a certain type of white blood cell,"
the doctor continued smoothly. "Lymphocytes, they're called. With an
overpopulation of them, there isn't enough room for healthy white cells
or red cells. If not treated quickly, ALL can worsen very fast, and can
also spread to the brain and spinal cord--"
Conner's head shot up
at that. So did the lamp, hovering in midair.
taken care to conduct the proper tests and there's no indication of that
in your father's case."
This time, Conner
slumped back into the chair, casting a wary expression at the lamp which
had settled back to the surface of the nightstand before staring at his
father's prone form, wrestling with something that was boiling in the
pit of his stomach.
"As to how it
developed," Dr. Liebhart went on, "your father was exposed to a great
deal of radiation when he was young. As a result, he's always had an
elevated white cell count and--"
"The meteor shower,"
Conner breathed, covering his face with his hands. "Oh, God."
"Yes," Liebhart said,
"the meteor shower. There were initial concerns but no childhood
leukemia developed. I suppose the radiation is one of the influences
that unfortunately caught up with him."
Conner was quiet for
a long time before he said, "Okay. How do we fix this?" like it was
scraped out of his throat, cut from his flesh.
"We've already begun
the first round of chemotherapy," Dr. Liebhart said sympathetically.
"The sickness, the pallor, are likely just side-effects from it. Your
father's been spending a lot of time here when he wasn't feeling up to
It made something
Conner burst open, and he managed, "Can you please go away?"
If the door opened
and closed behind Dr. Liebhart, Conner couldn't hear. He leaned over
his father's bed, clutching at the sheets and sobbed, gasped for breath,
wailed and keened like a mourner, and didn't know what to do, reached
out and found nothing with his empty hands, and felt so young and small
and helpless, as if he was behind the sheer wall of metal again, with
his father on the other side, bleeding out, poisoned, and drowning in
Conner would have
scars later, he supposed, but at the moment the cuts on his palms were
red with new blood and aching.
It was the worst of
his little arsenal of failsafes, tricks he'd accumulated over the
years. They were nearly habit now, fallbacks that he tried not to let
his father know about, lest he forbid Conner from exploiting them when
everything got too noisy in his head. It would always be easier to bite
in the inside of his mouth than to learn how to control his wandering,
wild mind; it would always be faster to stab the webbing between his
thumb and first finger with a pencil. When the sharp prick of pain
wasn't enough to disrupt him, then really, the only option was to draw
blood, and so Conner was, tiny red wells of it, dotting his palms--he'd
regret it later, he wouldn't be able to hide it this time, and everybody
would start to ask questions.
In the seventh grade
Geoffrey had once grabbed Conner's hand to drag him toward a
particularly uninspiring exhibit full of hideous sackcloth onto which
somebody had defecated (Geoffrey maintained that it was unbleached
canvas and brown paint, and that Conner should stop being such a bastard
about Geoffrey's attempts to give him a little culture), and frozen
there, in the underground revolving exhibit of the Rodman Museum of
Modern Art. He'd frozen and then turned and then tugged Conner's hand
to his face and turned it palm-up, and stared with a blank expression at
the moon-shaped scab that was on the inside turn of Conner's wrist.
That was the first
time Conner had ever seen Geoffrey lose his temper, turn so red in the
face Conner thought Geoffrey was going to explode. Geoffrey had dragged
him into the nearest restroom and shoved him into a stall--because
despite all outward influences it was still Geoffrey who was the more
discreet between the two of them--and slammed Conner against the door,
growling, "What did you do?"
In retrospect, not
quite so young and terrified of his powers anymore, Conner saw that the
red-moon scar on his wrist was frightening. He must have known it at
the time, too, for he'd gone out of his way to make certain his cuffs
were buttoned, never to open his palms for his father to see. It must
have seemed like something else entirely--something that was much more
sinister than an attempt to control his electric thoughts. And Conner
was sorry he worried Geoffrey, he'd said as much even then, shoved
against the doorway with his heart shuddering.
Now, there were
eight, nine, ten cuts on his palms, red and welting, skin hurting and
bleeding, blood smeared. He hoped that nobody walked in anytime soon,
before he had time to clean off his palms, before he had a chance to
make himself look respectable again. Most of all, he hoped his father
didn't wake up to see this, as it would only upset him more, and that
was the last--
It was a thought that
stopped Conner in his tracks, froze his whirling doubts and concerns,
made him suddenly forget the ocean of photographers and news vans
outside the hospitals, the televisions mounted at every nurse station
spooling out CNN on mute, with black ribbons at the bottom of the screen
reading LEX LUTHOR HOSPITALIZED.
Once, many years ago,
he'd seen the same thing, in this same hospital, on a different floor.
Mrs. Banner had been
there, then, and the crowd of press at the door had been impressive but
much smaller, scattered to the four corners of a ravaged Metropolis,
torn to pieces and still-burning, a disaster area. Superman was
missing, Conner knew, he'd seen the blood, the trail of it from where
Superman had been thrown into the penthouse apartment, leading to a
broken window. Then, Conner had hoped that Superman was all right,
that wherever he'd gone, it'd been safe and warm and clean, because
Superman had saved them, Conner believed, no matter how much Lex said
that when it came to savior, the only messiah was ones own desire to
Once, many years ago,
Conner had been in a hospital room like this, and his palms had been
bleeding then, too, wrapped in layers of white, gauzy bandage, and he
was pleasantly fuzzy around the edges, shot full of drugs because
everybody said he was in shock.
His father had been
sleeping then, too, his eyes closed and still, dreamless.
monster--Conner never knew what it was, only that its wings were
enormous and leathery, made a horrible noise against the wind, that its
eyes were bright and yellow and that it had come for them --was
dead though, draped in three pieces over the top of their building, body
throwing the observatory into pieces of shattered glass, concrete broken
in rocky chunks, the ceiling punched through from the sheer weight.
But they were alive,
and they would be fine, Conner believed that, because they were in a
hospital now, and Conner could do his own saving, had been practicing
his whole life for a moment like this.
"Metropolis is too
dependent on Superman, Conner," his father had said to him, when he'd
been small and impressionable. "He's just another person--like any of
us. He makes mistakes, he may not even always be around--we can't get
too comfortable and forget how to save ourselves."
And Conner had taken
the lesson to heart, because his father was right, and it'd been cars
and people and doctors and the citizens Metropolis who had pulled the
city upright again after Superman had thrashed the monster into pieces.
It was people that made a city live, Conner knew, not luck or fate or
any benevolent, superhuman being. Conner believed in the persistence of
life, of the desire for better things, in human equilibrium.
Conner would never
intentionally upset his father--not under normal circumstances, not
under most circumstances he could imagine. It was foolish, and cruel
besides. His father was a good father, and even when he wasn't, he
tried very hard to be. Conner firmly believed in grading on effort, and
even when he didn't love his father, he did, because the heart
was a contrary creature.
But Conner had always
loathed secrets, though he had many to keep and contain his entire life,
not by any fault of his own, but by circumstance, the trappings into
which he'd been born. He led a wildly privileged life, had received for
his tenth birthday a twelve day trip around the world which he had taken
with his father and his best friend and seen the edges of the Earth. He
rarely wanted for anything, and was always provided, like he lived a
And still Conner thought privately and selfishly that plenty came with a
certain weight, a heaviness which held him down, pressed into his skin
and his shoulders and locked him in place. It gave him an identity for
which he could take no responsibility, as it was foreign and unknown to
himself, just a face that the fourteenth floor Public Relations Office
had generated for Conner's few and far between appearances for a curious
So there, in the cold
and ever-expanding hospital room, Conner felt as if he was looking at
the hands of a stranger, smeared with very familiar blood, and it made
it easier to be angry.
It was one thing that
his father didn't want to discuss his relationship with Clark, after
all, Lois had been right--as she generally was--that maybe they weren't
that serious, maybe it was some bizarre booty-call thing (which Conner
really didn't want to think about), maybe it was something else
entirely, but mostly, it wasn't his business. Besides, as long as they
were making each other happy, he found he didn't really care. The
Parent Trap was a movie for a reason.
It was another that
he'd lied about this, about being sick, as if Conner was still a baby
and couldn't understand what cancer meant, what AL fucking L meant.
Conner was out of
words, and too tired to shape the thudding in his head into any sort of
coherent thought, so he closed his eyes and fisted his hands and laid
his head down on the edge of his father's bed.
The last thing he saw
before he slipped over the edge into black was gray light swimming
outside the window as rain started to pour down in earnest, shrouding
Metropolis in a cobwebbed veil.
In the aftermath of
Metropolis burning before his eyes, his father had forced Conner to
visit a nice lady, twice a week, for nearly a year. She'd had a soft,
pale green-colored office, and kept a vase of wheat stems on one of her
many, orientally-carved bookshelves which lined the wall. The floors
were dark, rich wood, with deep rugs and large pillows, and she and
Conner sat cross-legged there, facing one another. Every week she
started off their hour together with some new discovery she'd made, and
in turn he told her one of her own. It was pleasant and reasonably
mundane. She smiled at him kindly and she seemed to like him, though
Conner was never really certain if that was genuine or simply out of
She'd asked him about
his dreams, and he'd drawn her pictures, terrible ones, since he was
four and never had Geoffrey's steady hand--and never would, about when
he fell out of bed screaming and pouring sweat, watching the city
crumble to pieces over and over again. They'd been sketchy, waxy black
from exuberant application of crayon, and around the fringes of falling
buildings he'd haloed red and yellow and blue at the hearts of the
flames, just as he remembered in vivid, echoing horror.
It was not, he had
explained to her then, as well as he could in a four year old's words,
that the memories plagued him by day. Conner lived a very normal life,
and when he was upset or discomfited by some memory--an empty lot
undergoing construction where there'd once been a neighborhood, the
barest snippet of a news report before his father firmly changed the
station, a tiny shard of glass the cleaners had missed--he and his
father talked about it, discussed at length how it had happened, and why
it wouldn't again.
Conner believed above
all things in the sincerity of his father's best intentions, and knew
that it was not so much his father's capability that created
masterpieces, but his sheer want of doing so. Lex had wanted Conner to
lead an ordinary life, unplagued by the lacquered, suffocating
expectation that Lex sometimes bitterly spoke of about his own
childhood, and it'd been so. Lex had wanted Conner to excel, and Conner
had, because it pleased his father. Lex generated miracles, lived up to
his namesake, and Conner lived in awe of it all.
So his father's
explanations of the city's new fortifications, the defenses that had
been put into place, the lessons the people of Metropolis had reaped
from the experience had more than placated his four year old heart.
What haunted him and
drug him into the very darker corners of his mind, ones which the lady
in the green room had helped him to organize and box, to put away into a
comfortable, cool space in his head was not the fact that it could
happen again--because Conner knew it wouldn't--it was simply that it had
happened at all.
He woke up to the
sound of shouting in the hallway, and an automatic lurch of nausea came,
a heart-stopping fear that maybe somebody had made it all the way up to
the oncology ward, reached their door, would burst in any moment and
take photos, ask questions, push a microphone in his face. Conner was
afraid of reporters because he knew what it was like to want to know and
be willing to do nearly anything to find out.
But when the door
opened it was Mrs. Banner, hand tight around Clark's wrist, dragging him
into the room through an ocean of security personnel and wary-eyed
doctors. The room was filled with a terrible racket for just a moment
before the door fell shut and everything went silent, Mrs. Banner's hand
dropping from Clark's.
"Conner," she said
red-eyed and silent.
Conner fisted his
hands in the white sheets of the bed again, and asked, with as little
hostility in his voice as possible, "Did you know?"
Clark kept staring,
eyes wide and sinking and dark, heavy with something Conner felt would
be reflected on his own face. He watched, morbidly curious as Clark
stepped away from Mrs. Banner and edged toward the bed, as if he were
afraid the same way that Conner felt afraid.
"He--I asked him why
there were--" Clark started, and his voice seemed to drift away, float
off into the quiet hum of the hospital room like Conner's rational
thoughts, dismissed. "He was always so busy, and he wouldn't tell me
where he was going--I thought--"
Conner turned back to
his father on the bed, watched him and felt everything in his chest
hollow out, echo with it, and suppressed the urge to run from the room,
run as fast as he could, and never come back. He felt too young and
stupid to be standing there between his mother and father who was laying
on a hospital bed, too young and stupid to be the bearer of bad news,
but when Clark asked, "What's wrong? They--they wouldn't tell me
anything. They wouldn't let me come up," Conner said, "He has acute
lymphoblastic leukemia. That's where he's been," as if his heart wasn't
racing out of his chest, terrified and shaking like his hands would be
if they weren't knotted in the sheets.
Clark had always been
one of the strongest people Conner had ever known, and watching Clark's
knees give out on him, watching Mrs. Banner reach for his shoulder, grab
his arm to hold him up made Conner's chest turn inside out.
But today was all
about inversion, Conner though wildly, because his father was laying
comatose on a hospital bed, defeated by something as commonplace as
cancer, and his mother was barely standing, eyes huge and red and
frightened--frightened the way that Lex never let Conner see when he was
younger, because children can know the contents of a parent's heart.
And when he was much
younger, Conner remembered asking his father if he was ever sad, and
Lex's strong face smiling as he had regarded Conner with amused
affection, saying, "If I was, Conner--I'd never let you see."
But that, like many
things, Conner was realizing, was a kind-hearted lie, and he felt dozens
of them closing around him like the teeth of a trap, metal digging into
The thing was, Conner
initially had no intention of starting a fight in his father's hospital
room, not in the least because of the fact that there were reporters
twelve deep around the building, or that there was security four deep
around the ward.
But also there was
something frightening and simmering, just beneath the surface of skin
holding it all inside. He could feel the heavy crawl of something
moving and struggling, and he knew that if there was an argument, it'd
be one he could never take back, one during which he'd say things that
he'd mean--and that was what made its possibility so dangerous.
He'd learned the fine and dangerous art of words from his father, who
always spoke with an elegant reluctance, talking in beautiful circles
but never really saying anything. And he'd learned from his father also
how words, unlike physical wounds, exist on a frictionless plane, and
they return over and over again--so Conner has always been very careful.
So Conner had
continued to stare at the place where his cut-up hand was knotted in his
father's white sheets, and didn't speak, listened to Clark breath from
the other corner of the room where his mother was perched in a plastic
chair, awkward and huge in the room.
He was sore from
sitting and the pain in his hand had lessened to a dull throb. The
swirling in his head had stilled to a slow, sickening sweep every few
moments and Conner realized with a horror that he could time the
distinct darkening and lightening of the room to it, from the motion of
the gray clouds outside the window to the sunset that stained the room
orange. There was a perverse irony in all of this, in the place where
Conner's unbridled abilities intersected with what seemed to be his
control over the weather.
So he just laid his
head down and pressed his cheek over the back of his father's hand and
stared at a wall, seeing Clark's profile out of the corner of his eye.
"You should go home."
It took him nearly a
minute to process that.
asked, and when he realized Conner was blinking at him with a detached
sort of amazement, he said again, "You should go home."
It was stupid, but
Conner hadn't thought of that. He'd thought that he was so tired he
could cry and that he was going to cry and that he couldn't do
it--which only made him angrier and more frustrated and more grossly
fifteen, which was becoming an ever more abominable age to be if one's
father were to suddenly develop some sort of life-threatening cancer and
decide not to tell anybody about it.
Home sounded good,
and home sounded warm--and Conner was sort of losing feeling in his
fingers, but that happened, he supposed, when you bled a lot and never
unclenched your hand. But home, Conner remembered with a shock of
discomfort, was out of sight, and what would Conner do if he couldn't
watch over his father? Lex had always watched over Conner, with the
sort of benevolent omniscience of a father and mother and the world's
best spy technology combined, and Conner, though he was a poor
substitute, would like to try and do the same for his father.
He shook his head, "I
want to stay."
Clark sighed and
straightened in his chair, and Conner heard the creaking of the
furniture and the cracking of Clark's back from a long time in the same
place, the same position. Conner wondered what his fingers would sound
like when they finally uncurled from the sheet, when he finally let go.
Conner wondered above all when his father would finally wake up, because
even if the doctor had reassured Conner over and over again that it was
only exhaustion and medication taking their toll, Conner thought that
the way his father's face was lined and pallid in the hospital light
looked too much like dead. The thought made his stomach roll because he
hadn't even touched the possibility, not in a tangible sense, since he'd
found Lex on the kitchen floor.
knew he must have been thinking it since the first moment, but the words
had never crossed his mind. Death was a huge thought, an
intangible one because it was not a structured concept like medicine
seemed to think, but the vast and surprising lack of something which had
always been there, and Conner tried to imagine what it'd be like to be
around but without the presence of his father, to exist in a world where
his dad didn't.
There was a logical
flaw in that, some sort of breakdown in the laws of the universe,
because it wouldn't work that way, how could it possibly? What
would Metropolis do? What would LexCorp do? What would the hundreds of
thousands of employees in dozens of countries do? What would Conner
do? He'd make a terrible orphan, and he'd miss his father so much that
the suggestion of it trilled up his spine like claws and he felt his
head go hot and furiously frightened for a moment before he felt Clark's
hand on his shoulder, shaking him hard.
"Close your eyes,
Conner," Clark said, and his voice was terrible and still and firm. He
sounded more like Superman than Conner's mother, so Conner closed his
eyes, and took a shuddering breath. "Good," Clark said again. "And now
I want you to let out a deep breath, just feel everything in your chest
He tried, and he
tried very hard, but he knew there would be casualties, because the last
time that Clark had to talk him down was the time he'd accidentally
smashed all the glass in the conservatory, when he'd heard that his
grandmother had been in a car accident.
Clark instructed. "Just listen to my voice, and let it go, okay?"
So Conner did, seeing
knots in his head, tangled, rotting rope and he picked at it with
shaking fingers, hands still oozing blood from the cuts, and it made
dark spots on the ropes, which he found appropriate as he pulled at
them. It took him one minute, two, onto four and five and six but he
finally felt the pressure in his chest lessen, the weight on his neck
disappear, and then he pulled apart the last two strings and heard a
soft thud, felt the legs of his chair settle back onto the ground,
before his eyes flew open in horror.
All the furniture in
the room was out of place, like everything had been tossed up and then
landed, luckily on its feet on the right sides. The machinery was not
much better, and Clark was holding some of them in his arms like
featherweights, carrying them with a sad, resigned expression on his
face that said that Clark was as tired as Conner was.
It took a full minute
to process what had just happened.
And then several
things happened very quickly, in confusing succession.
Conner said, "Oh,
God," and jerked his hand away from the bed, as if he was afraid that by
touching anything near his father he was going to do it again, let it
all get out of control and float everything in the room to the ceiling,
kill his dad, burn down the hospital, ruin his whole life.
And then Clark gasped
or hissed or something and rushed over in a way that only Superman could
and jerked Conner's hand away from where it was clasped on his thigh,
shaking, and stared in blank-faced horror at his palm, and all of its
scarred-up, half-closed cuts. Conner wanted to say how it wasn't as bad
as it looked, but it looked really horrible, and not as bad was still
"What did you do?"
Clark asked, voice hushed and frightened.
Conner tried to say, and he didn't bother to pull his hand away, because
Superman had been his mother long enough for Conner to know that it was
useless. "I just--I didn't want to do anything stupid," he babbled.
"It distracts me. I know it's bad. I never do it unless--"
Clark shouted, and Conner felt a flare of anger in his chest, separated
it into four boxes, put it away in opposite corners and left them
impotent and harmless there, apart like chemicals in storage.
"Unless I have to!"
Conner said back, humiliated and caught. He'd never wanted anybody to
see this, it was bad enough that Geoffrey had seen it, that it'd scared
him and that he'd been so upset with Conner that he'd left bruises. "I
don't do it unless I have to, okay?"
It seemed to rock
Clark back--and it may have ended it there if Clark hadn't seen the
blood stain on Lex's sheets, dark and messy and damning.
That's how the fight
started, Conner realized later.
He didn't, actually,
remember what he said during the fight. But he knew he ended up crying
and screaming about on what grounds did Clark and Lex have to get angry
with him about keeping secrets, about hurting himself, when all that
they ever did was lie to him and think it would be okay. Conner had a
place, carefully set aside in the furthest back corner of his mind where
he pushed all of the things in his head when the noise got too much, and
he felt a roar of nausea as he realized all the doors in his head had
unlocked, and the complex series of checks and balances, locks and ropes
and pretend he used to separate his explosive thoughts had come undone.
And he screamed at
Clark's white face about how they'd been fucking--and Conner actually
said the word fucking, here--for months and never said a word, about how
they'd never mentioned that they'd been together before, about why was
Conner never told anything, as if he didn't warrant the attention or
hadn't earned the trust.
But mostly Conner
remembered screaming about how he was furious and fucked up and sick
because his father was dying, he was dying, and nobody, nobody,
could do anything about it at all.
It was inevitable that he would get kicked out of the hospital, because
there was only so much any oncology ward with reporters hovering in the
corners could bear, and so Conner was rushed through the heaving mass by
doctors and nurses and Mrs. Banner, who clutched his shoulder tightly
enough to hurt. And he wound down twisted stairwells and shuttered
though the back hallways of the hospital until they burst out into the
mid-dawn light, when the sky was gray and pink and deserted, cloudless
He got home an hour later, and when he did, he crawled onto his father's
bed, laid in the center of it and stared out the window at the morning,
where the light was going golden and soaking into the edges of
And then Conner's aching hands felt so empty and small that the only
thing he could do was curl into a ball, draw himself in as tightly as
possible, plunge his mind into black and cry and cry and cry.
At some point, Conner realized that his father had never bothered to
have a locked liquor cabinet, and Jaegermeister, Conner found, did
fantastically well for dulling his senses, and he woke up the morning
afterward too fucked up to care. And this went on for the three days
that Mrs. Banner drifted in and out of the penthouse like a ghost, and
she must have seen--she must have seen him--nursing the bottle but she
never stopped him. She was angry with him, he could tell, he'd known her
all of his life, but she was also scared of him--had she seen the
hospital room? God, Conner hoped she hadn't seen the hospital room--and
that cut like a ragged edge, wore at him. He didn't blame her, he was
scared of himself.
And when he woke up on the fourth day hung over and sick and stared at
himself in the mirror, a disgusting mess and incapable of taking care of
himself--much less his father--he threw up again.
It occurred to him somewhere in between wiping up his own puke and
avoiding Mrs. Banner's pitying gaze that he didn't have the luxury of
being normal anymore, that though it was earlier than expected, he was
going to have to be an adult.
He tried calling Geoffrey three times, but he never managed to dial the
last number, and so he dialed another number instead, and by
mid-afternoon, the finest home care provider in Metropolis was showing
Conner how to take care of a patient undergoing chemotherapy and
radiation, how to deal with the side-effects of medications. He was also
showing Conner some neat tricks to deal with the side-effects of
On the fifth day his father came home, and Conner was ready.
It was quiet, it was civil, and Conner said none of the things he'd said
to Clark--who looked red-eyed and hollowed out at Lex's side, watching
Conner like a hawk, waiting for the explosion that wouldn't be
coming--but Conner kept his distance, didn't reach out like his shaking
hands wanted to and latch onto his father's thin chest, to hold him
"I helped the nurse set up your stuff," he explained. "You don't have to
do that at the office, you know? You'll be more comfortable here."
Lex looked at him, tired and sad and guilty. "Thank you, Conner."
"It's fine," Conner said shortly. "I learned how to give a shot."
He pulled down on his sleeve as he said this, and he noted that Clark
noticed it, and didn't care if his mother x-rayed his clothes to see the
needle marks from where he'd practiced all of Thursday, so hung over he
could barely breathe.
His father looked like he was going to vomit. "Conner--"
"I've got to go to school," Conner interrupted, brisk and efficient.
"I'll be home by three o'clock, though. I quit the literary magazine,"
he explained, "it'll free up more time in case you need me here." He
checked his watch and didn't see any of the numbers. He'd be early and
he'd have to see Geoffrey and Conner had no idea what to do.
But it was better than being inside the house, and so he left with a
forced smile, and didn't look back when he felt the air move around
Lex's seeking hand, reaching out to him.
He had made it all the way out to the nearest subway stop before he
dropped down to a squat and forced himself to breathe normally, forcing
air into his constricted lungs.
Conner had made it
twenty-eight steps out of West Eden station before he had a total
When he looked up
half an hour later, he was sitting in a dimly lit bathroom in the
boulangerie six blocks away from campus, three cross streets away from
the sprawling holdings of St. Ann's. Conner surveyed the room for any
notable damage, put away a few items that had been tossed roughly around
the room, and hoped that nobody would notice that he'd added another
crack to the already lined glass. But after he washed his hands and
splashed some cold water on his face and ventured out into the store
again, the fortysomething French baker gave him a cup of hot tea with
lemon and a pastry on the house, and forced him to sit by the window,
where he inspected Conner warily.
"I'm fine," Conner
started, and the baker narrowed his eyes.
"No, really!" Conner
insisted, and took a large bite out of the pastry to prove it. "See?" he
said through a mouthful of crumbs.
The baker pointed at
Conner's uniform, which was in worse condition than usual, and then
motioned out the window to the left, where Conner would have walked to
reach his school if he could possibly force himself to go. He swallowed
the bite of pastry, which tasted like rancid sawdust.
"It's closed today?"
At that exact moment,
three girls from two grades below rushed past, shrieking, "We're going
to be so late!" their navy, pleated skirts flapping.
what the hell?" Conner said while the baker snorted, straightening and
pointing to the doorway with a veiled sort of threat that made Conner
pick up his backpack and surrender himself to the possibility that maybe
there were things aside from forces of nature and his father which were
utterly, painfully unavoidable.
"Thanks for the
pastry," he said sourly, and the baker said something French in reply
that sounded hugely insulting, waving his big, brown hands at Conner and
then the door.
All in all, it took
five more minutes for Conner to force himself out of the pastry shop,
but when he stepped out onto the street he realized in quick succession
that he was in no shape to go to school that day, that the last place he
wanted to be was home, and that in front of him, standing at the steps
of the West Eden subway station looking sallow and heartbroken and weary
The heart of the
matter was a matter of the heart, Conner had known for a long time, and
whether or not he was in love with Geoffrey as he was beginning to
become afraid he was, he'd always loved Geoffrey, with a wild sort of
protectiveness that made Conner feel like he could be dangerous long
before he really was.
They'd met when they
were barely children, just babies who'd learned to talk and sound out
large words from their very smart fathers and very good teachers. They'd
shared band-aids and stories and disjointed lives until they'd been able
to outline them all in good, grammatically-sound English and found
themselves best friends. They'd worn down one another's edges and hurt
each other and Conner had, though he'd promised never, ever to tell
anybody about it, helped Geoffrey measure his penis once because he'd
been desperately curious and neither of them had been able to
guesstimate--"It's a weird angle!" and "Oh my God, this is so
wrong."--whether or not his dick had been the typical length while
Over the years,
Conner learned how to wipe Geoffrey's tears and tie his tie and Geoffrey
learned how to make Conner's favorite waffles and how to distract Conner
from the fact that his life was a bona fide freak show. They had a
living history between them, and Conner knew enough about investment and
capital and profits to know that their friendship was a struggling
enterprise, that it needed more, always more from them, to grow to fit
their relative ages.
It was hard and hurt
and sometimes not worth the effort and agony and when Geoffrey jerked
him around the corner and said, "Oh God, I've been so worried. I'm so
sorry--I'm so so sorry, Conner," and pulled Conner into his chest,
wrapped his long arms around Conner's shoulders, it felt like the world
was shaking apart at Conner's feet.
But it was all
right--Conner had put so much of himself into Geoffrey over their years
that Geoffrey would know where to place all the mixed-up shards when
Conner was done falling apart, with nothing out of place.
"I almost called
you," Conner said awkwardly, words muffled into Geoffrey's shoulder. He
couldn't get his fingers to release Geoffrey's shirt.
"I should have come
over," Geoffrey said, quietly furious. "I didn't know what to say. I'm
so sorry. I'm so sorry."
Conner thought about
Geoffrey pacing his small, crowded bedroom, still plastered with
pictures of sailboats and dressed as it had been when Geoffrey was five
and nearly smiled. But his father still had cancer and Conner was still
losing his mind so he didn't, and just closed his eyes, breathed into
Geoffrey's neck and said, "I don't think I can go to school today."
"You shouldn't even
be here," Geoffrey murmured, finally pulling away enough so that he
could peer at Conner's face, worried. "Are you okay? You look like
"I feel like shit,"
Conner admitted, and made himself let go of Geoffrey's shirt, because
the last thing he needed to add to his list of reasons this was a bad
week was being strangled to death by Eve's school tie.
"Can we go
somewhere?" he asked, feeling desperate and stupid. "I just--I don't
want to deal with everybody today, you know?"
So Geoffrey made a
face that meant his heart was breaking and took Conner to the art
museum, where they looked at rotting wood panels ripped from the walls
of medieval houses and Conner let Geoffrey explain to him why they were
"Art was expensive
back then, prohibitive to most people," Geoffrey said, "let's not even
talk about books. So the fact that these people had these panels in
their house, and they show a love story instead of just a religious text
means they valued it, and I'm telling you about it because--"
"This shit is just as
ugly now as it was that time we were almost killed here," Conner
complained, thinking that being shot by incompetent art thieves might be
a welcome distraction to his very own personal Art History 101 lecture.
"--I love you,"
Geoffrey said, rapidly changing tracks, shocking Conner enough to make
his breathing hitch a moment, "it means that I love you and that you're
my best friend and I'm a moron. I'm a total fucking moron and I'm so
Conner swallowed hard
around the ball lodged in his throat. He said, "Okay."
croaked again. "I like you a lot, too, Geoffrey," he managed.
And later, when
Geoffrey and Conner were waiting for Mercy to pick Conner up from
Geoffrey's house, late in the afternoon when the sun was a melting red
in the orange sky, Conner thought that if everything was going to go
straight to hell, he was glad that Geoffrey would be there to see it all
fall down with him.
"I should," Geoffrey
said faintly as they watched Mercy's dark Benz roll up to the curb.
"What?" Conner asked
distractedly, shouldering his backpack.
"I don't always pick
you," Geoffrey murmured again, some of the words distorting around the
sound of the doorbell, "maybe I should."
Conner thought about
that all the way home.
But home smelled like
sickness and Conner found his father sleeping feverishly, so he put away
his things and spent the night at his bedside, checking his temperature
and making frantic phone calls to Carl, who'd taught Conner how to give
shots and not drink Jaegermeister ever again just to make sure his
father was actually okay.
"But he's hot!"
Conner whispered, agitated.
"How hot is he?" Carl
asked patiently and then sighed when Conner set the phone down on the
ground to tiptoe back into his father's room and check.
Conner touched his
father's forehead again, very lightly, edged away from the bed and
sneaked out of the room again, picking up the phone to admit, "Well,
not--um, really at all. But--"
"No buts, Conner,"
Carl interrupted, affectionate if homicidal, "and I love you, kid, but
my wife is gonna rip you a new one if you don't stop calling."
When Conner hung up
the phone for the fifth and final time that night, it was half past one
in the morning and he figured there was a sixty/forty chance that his
father was actually awake and either humoring him or doing that thing
where it was easier to fake it than to deal with a problem that appeared
insurmountable at the moment. But Conner was nearly as good as his
father when it came to calculated denial so Conner called Geoffrey,
because he was allowed to do that again, and God, it felt so good to
dial the last four numbers to Geoffrey's personal line.
Halfway through the
first ring Geoffrey picked up.
Geoffrey's answer. He sounded totally awake. "What's up?"
Conner was silent for
a moment, because all he heard was echoing reality in his head and he
could barely stand the thought that if Geoffrey didn't fill up the space
with his voice he'd have to sit in his huge empty apartment and think
about his father.
"Tell me about art,"
"You hate art,"
Geoffrey reminded him gently. Conner could hear the sheets rustling and
thought about Geoffrey's dark blue comforter bunched up around
Geoffrey's feet, the way light fell into Geoffrey's bedroom in
silver-blue stripes through the always-opened blinds.
Lex had always told
Conner about the knowledge of the privileged in a snide, educational way
that had infiltrated as a suggestion even very early in his childhood.
His father spoke of the unspoken bonds that formed between two people
when they shared what were not necessarily secrets, but honesty, candor,
pieces of themselves. So Conner had learned to keep his father's secrets
early, things about his girlfriends when Conner had been younger and
things about his mother when he'd been older.
And Conner thought
about Geoffrey's bedroom, about silver-blue stripes of light through
always-opened blinds and realized with a sudden pang that Eve must know
about it now, too, that it was no longer just Conner's privilege in
knowledge--that they shared something Conner had never known would split
"Then tell me about
Eve," he said, desperate.
It made Geoffrey
laugh, wild and young and like somebody who had completely forgotten
that the walls to the 1925 Brownstone in which he lived were paper-thin
and that his father was right next door. Conner and Geoffrey had been
banished to the cellar enough times for both of them to know when Mr.
Archer was waking up at that exact moment.
"Wow--the one thing
you hate more than art," Geoffrey said, a smile in his voice.
"I'm desperate, man,"
Conner snapped, irate.
"Then I'll tell you
about art," Geoffrey settled.
Sometime in the sixth
grade, Geoffrey had been so fed up by Conner's greater appreciation of
the artist of Full Metal Alchemist than Monet that he'd started
something called Better Living Through Stop Being Such An Uncultured
Moron And Look At The Goddamn Painting, Conner, an enterprise of which
Lex had wholeheartedly approved. So far, their only real success had
been Conner's continued fascination with Chagall, both his famous works
and his hundreds of scrawls and sketches, which had a discontinuous,
emotional staccato which had captured Conner's attention.
"Do you remember when
my mom died?" Geoffrey started, very carefully, because he had to know
what dangerous ground he walked on, with Conner sitting in the hallway
outside of Lex's room and talking about dead parents.
"Yes," Conner said
Of course Conner
remembered when Geoffrey's mother had died. It'd been the single most
terrifying memory of his young life prior to this whole living
Conner had never met
Geoffrey's mother, they having only been friends several short months
before she passed away after collapsing in a grocery store, her weak
heart failing her after a lifetime of high blood pressure and the
devastating effects of a turbulent pregnancy. Geoffrey had been six and
Conner had been five and Geoffrey had stayed with the Luthors for nearly
a week after her passing, Mr. Archer being too shattered to do much more
than let his relatives force him to eat and not die along with her. And
in those days Conner had seen Geoffrey, who was always smiling and
easygoing and kind and funny disappear, crawl somewhere deep inside his
own head and miss his mother terribly, yearn for her so much that even
at five Conner had held Geoffrey's hand tightly when they'd gone onto
the roof for things, afraid in the marrow of his bones that Geoffrey
would try to fly and catch his mother's hand where she was probably
waiting to steal Geoffrey away. Conner, because he'd never really felt
loss, feared it immensely; it was uncharted territory, and there might
"I remember it was
going to be her birthday soon, and so I wanted to draw her a nice
picture." Geoffrey paused to laugh, because it had been nine years and
the deep, cruel cuts his mother's death had left on him had closed over,
to scar tissue that Conner knew with a great intimacy, like the skin on
the palm of his own hand, marked with half-moon scabs.
"My hands were really
shaky back then, I couldn't draw a straight line to save my life, but I
had this sixty-four color box of Crayola crayons, and I colored
everything as carefully as I could. I couldn't wait to give it to her,"
Geoffrey said, with the affectionate tone of a boy who still loved his
mother, as best as he could with his cobweb memories of her.
"So I didn't, and
like, three weeks early, I slid it to her at breakfast and--"
There was a hitch of
breath that knocked something loose in Conner's head, and it was
probably a combination of desperation, boredom, and teenaged hormones
that made Conner wonder what it would be like to draw that hitch of
breath out of Geoffrey with his teeth.
"--Conner, her eyes
just lit up, it didn't matter what I'd been trying to draw, she saw
something completely different in it, and I don't know what, but she
said she felt how hard I'd tried, and how much I cared about her, and
that was the best gift of all."
When Conner had been
young, he'd made his share of ugly artwork--far uglier than anything to
which Geoffrey's natural-born talent could aspire despite his gross
embellishment of his own past failures in art lab--macaroni glued onto
sheets of paper, grotesque pots, construction paper tribal masks and one
awful tempura painting of the ocean, which looked more like an ocean of
blue vomit. His father had had all of it tastefully framed and put into
various bathrooms in the penthouse, because no matter how much Conner
was loved, Lex had the entire penthouse color-coordinated, and the neon
green boogie man mask did not match the Chagall in the living room.
"That's why I love
art," Geoffrey finished.
"Because your mom
liked crap you drew when you were six?"
Conner heard the
sound of motion behind his father's bedroom door, and had it been like
any of the other extraordinarily rare occasions when his father had
fallen ill and Conner had accordingly freaked out, he would have opened
the door and scowled into the bedroom until his dad crawled meekly back
into bed. But his hand froze on the wooden surface of the door and his
fingers curled inward, nails scraping against the grain, too afraid to
The real problem
would be talking to his father. Who had, Conner could not help adding,
lied horribly about his illness, deceived his family who loved him,
denied Conner the truth about his present and his past with Clark Kent,
and put his childhood artwork in the bathroom.
"Because it tells
more than just the picture," Geoffrey explained patiently. "I put
everything I wanted to say but couldn't and didn't really know how to
draw into some cruddy scrawls but the message got through. No
long-distance charge or anything."
Conner wanted nothing
more than to scream at his father, "I love you, I love you so much and
you've broken my heart. I'm so scared for you and I'm too young to fix
things. I don't know what to do but I'll try, please don't be sad that
I'm angry with you--I'm just so scared," but he knew it'd come out all
wrong, just like it'd come out all wrong with Clark at the hospital. He
could draw a picture, but where his talent with verbs and adjectives was
becoming enviable, he'd be reduced to scrawling a heart cracked in two
with his clumsy hands, large, comical teardrops and a sun, peering from
behind cartoonish gray clouds, because he wanted his father to know that
there was hope, and that if Lex couldn't find it on his own, Conner
would bring it to him--no matter the cost.
His father had taught
him over the years the value of things, the price of gold and rubies and
a good employee, the amazing worth of friends, and how to be generous,
how to be grateful, to pay in platinum or silver or a pound of flesh for
all of these things. Though Conner didn't know how to stop being angry,
how to stop being fifteen, he knew how to strip himself to bone and give
everything, everything he ever had or wanted or could to his father if
it would help--and it had to, after all, Conner was Lex's miracle, his
penicillin, his saving grace, and Conner would do it again, willfully,
"I kind of get that,"
Conner said hoarsely, which made Geoffrey sigh into the phone and
"I'm really worried
"I'm fine," Conner
It made Conner smile.
"Always with the sea metaphors. Your room looks like that for a reason."
"Yeah, and good thing
you're the only one who sees it," Geoffrey laughed, rumbling and raspy.
It flicked a wavering
switch and Conner felt a lick of heat down his belly and under his skin,
like all the times Geoffrey had put a hand on Conner's back in the
change room before gym, his hands volcanic against Conner's ridged
spine. Conner's mouth went suddenly dry, and he realized with a dumb
horror that his problems were twofold, and that perving out on his best
friend was no longer just an idle distraction.
"I should go to
sleep," Conner said, a little frightened by the sudden realization that
perhaps when he said that Geoffrey was his best friend, he actually
meant that he'd like to stick his hand down Geoffrey's pants and touch
his special places. "Thanks for talking to me," he finished oddly.
agreed. "Will I see you at school tomorrow?"
"I don't know,"
Conner said honestly, shifting on the floor.
"Okay," Geoffrey said
gently. "Night, Conner."
footsteps, soft and fleshy, pad to the door, and wondered if his father
was like him, one hand pressed to the wood and too afraid to push.
Geoffrey," Conner choked out, and hung up the phone.
The footsteps padded
away, and Conner sat in the hallway all night, watching the reflection
of the sunrise in a Degas sketch, framed in heavy gold, which was on the
wall in place of a very poor drawing Conner had done in the second grade
which he'd titled in all capital letters MY FATHER AND ME AND HIS NEW
The last thing Conner
wanted to think about was his father being ill, but that drove his
ever-rumbling mind to the flashing, shaking images of Geoffrey he'd
stored away, pictures of his best friend haloed in rose-gold at the end
of a day, laughing and slapping Conner on the back, his tie flying over
his shoulder. It made him flush and it made him frightened, because for
as long as he could be bothered to remember Geoffrey had been a piece of
him, the keystone which balanced all the precarious, ridiculous things
about himself and made it into one smooth, architecturally-sound curve.
To reshape it, to redesign it was suicide, and Conner didn't want to
lose Geoffrey, not even the safe, beloved version in his own head.
So Conner thought
about his father being sick, and wondered where Clark had gone, and what
he would do if his father died, because it was a thought that refused to
Would they sell the
penthouse? Would he move into Clark's ratty, one-bedroom apartment on
Underwood lane, where the closest Metro stop was nearly twenty minutes
away by foot? Conner loved the penthouse, had always lived there, was
as familiar and comfortable calling the edge of Millionaire Mile his
home as other people were comfortable working there day to day, and he'd
hate it if he lost his father and the home where he and his father had
But mostly, Conner
wondered what would happen then, with a perverse sort of horrified
interest, like those third-person dreams where he had seen himself get
killed, when he'd been having his loud, black nightmares after the green
dragon had burst into his life.
With Lex gone, Conner
couldn't imagine anything else existing, either. How could he possibly
continue to go to school? His father had died, and taken everything
with him, sucked it down into the underworld to serve him in death as it
had in life, and Conner had a passing belief that he'd willingly go,
curl under the dark earth because it would be too hard--far, far too
hard to outline a life without the familiar shape of his father in it;
his hands would trip over the lines and the composition would be skewed.
But that was all
terrified speculation, and there was a part of Conner that was still
disbelieving, incapable of incorporating the idea of his father not
being fine into any possible construct of reality. Lex would survive,
Conner thought, privately and with not a little fear, as if voicing it
out loud even in his head would strike it from possibility. Lex would
be fine and they'd all be fine and it could be as if it'd never
happened. His father and his mother and everybody in the world could
keep their secrets for all Conner was concerned, but there would be
life, and where there was life there was possibility, and perhaps one
day, his parents would want to tell him everything--Conner would be
ready to listen.
And it was thoughts
like those that chased through his head all the time, unendingly,
without rest for the weary or time for sleep and it happened like that
for days, until they melted into weeks and Conner forced himself to go
to school again, even if he spent most of the time staring out a window
and failing all of his classes. Geoffrey had taken to doing his
homework and forging his essays, making Conner eat and fixing his tie
before class, to wearing that scared look on his face all the time, as
if he was watching Conner disappear before his eyes.
It became, after a
He dreamt feverish,
hazy things about Geoffrey and Geoffrey's hands or woke up shaking and
crying from the black images of a funeral, and crawled outside his
father's door, ear pressed against the wood, listening for breath.
During the day, he
went to classes and did remarkably poorly and then appeared at his
father's side when there were radiation or chemotherapy sessions,
listened attentively to the doctor's suggestions, warnings, and
explanations, and made friends with all the nurses in oncology. He
became an overnight expert in ALL and spent a day taking notes off of
government information sites about cancer treatments and side-effects.
He forced himself to be a walking encyclopedia on ways to lessen the
suffering during treatment and made himself forget geometry and science
and English to make room for more important things.
"You've lost a lot of
weight, Conner," Geoffrey said, pushing a pudding cup in front of
"I'm getting plenty
of food and rest," Conner said automatically, even though they both knew
it was a total, filthy lie.
Geoffrey seemed to be
worn thin, too, and Conner had noticed, because he couldn't help
noticing Geoffrey, it seemed, hadn't really been speaking to Eve
recently, and that she'd been seen staring longingly from the other side
of rooms. The old Conner would have cracked a joke about trouble in
paradise, the new Conner ate the pudding cup because he knew otherwise
Geoffrey would harass him all afternoon, and the last thing Conner
needed to do was think about how hot Geoffrey was when concerned.
"Then why have you
lost a lot of weight?" Geoffrey demanded.
Conner sighed. "I
worry I'm not pretty enough for you, Geoffrey," he said, and once upon a
time, that would have been less uncomfortably true.
"Don't break my
heart, Conner," Geoffrey warned.
Conner closed his
eyes and covered his face, whispering, "I'm trying, Geoffrey. Oh my
God, I'm trying."
Conner woke up at six
o'clock in the morning to start laying out his father's medication and
figure out what the hell to do about breakfast. He and Mrs. Banner were
in cahoots; she found strange things in Chinatown and on Reuben street,
and if she was feeling Balkan went down to the one block framed by
Warton, Martin, Chadwick, and Browne streets where Conner found the most
bizarre food ever. Lex was too old to effectively have aversion
therapy, but Conner figured that of seven continents, 1.6 billion (and
counting) people, and all the respective Weird Shit that they ate, he
would be damned if he ruined Ty-Nant and peaches for his father.
At half past six,
when he could hear his father's breaths go unsteady, Conner scrubbed out
one of the bathtubs, rinsed it twice to make sure any skin irritants
were gone, and ran a tepid bath, setting a bar of pure Glycerin soap
he's rinsed off by the tub. There were newly washed towels--all that
time spent in the laundry room was beginning to pay off--set by the
bathtub and a note left on the back of the toilet saying: "Hey! Headed
off for school. Woke up late so can't hang out with you. Left pills/food/mail on the counter. Before you complain, give the stuff a
Conner got Mrs.
Banner to drive him to school, because Lex didn't like anybody to be
there when he was doing his early morning routine, and Conner didn't
want Mercy to see the times he broke down and cried all the way to
He was so tired he
could feel it in his bones, ached the way he thought his father must,
when he came back from his treatments exhausted and miserable and
stubborn and angry. His grades were hopeless and he was sleeping three
or four hours a night, making up the difference with caffeine pills he'd
been buying on the sly and tossing with double-espressos and Jolt Cola
from the shop next to the boulangerie owned by the hostile French baker.
It wasn't always
going to be this bad, the doctors promised, it was only during rounds of
chemo, only during rounds of radiation, only sometimes when they were
adjusting the medication.
Conner didn't really
care about it being this bad--though sometimes it made the idea of
flying off the roof and not yelling for help seem spectacularly
attractive--Conner just hoped it didn't get worse.
It was a manageable
kind of miserable, and even at his very, very best, Conner was only a
filthy rich fifteen year old. He didn't have God on speed dial four.
And over the years,
Conner had realized, neither did his father.
After a while, Conner
wondered where Clark was through all of this, and it turned out the
answer to that question was "getting fired" and "breaking his lease"
because on a Friday afternoon in early November about three weeks after
the sky fell down on Conner's head, Clark was at the penthouse carrying
several large boxes with one hand.
Conner set down his
backpack and stared. "What are you doing?" he asked stupidly.
He'd spent most of
the day in the guidance office, listening to Father Greer offer to
listen to him, but since Conner had been born contrary, he'd remained
silent, and Father Greer had eventually given up, provided Conner with a
mug of coffee, and they'd sat in companionable quiet for the rest of the
day. When the last bell had run, Father Greer had wished him a good
weekend and seen him off, where Geoffrey was waiting for him at the
The ride home had
been surreal, with Geoffrey at the wheel of his father's car and Mr.
Archer clutching a bottle of Xanax and the dashboard while they came to
sudden stops at red lights. It was Geoffrey's first week on road with
his permit, and Conner had appropriately covered his eyes and curled up,
praying for the best from the backseat. Geoffrey, who seemed to have
forgotten the dramatics from his birthday, was upbeat about his driving
skills, even when both Conner and Mr. Archer threw themselves out of the
car as soon as they reached Conner's street and nearly hugged the
ground, unspeakably grateful to have survived.
And Conner had walked
around the building on shaky legs until he'd made it up the elevator and
into his house, which smelled, suddenly, somehow, like his grandmother's
apple pie and newspapers instead of medicine. He'd turned the corner
out of the foyer to find Clark there, looking ragged and dressed down.
His tie was loose and his shirt was untucked and he was covered in dust.
"Your dad would
probably be mad if I put up any Remy Zero posters, huh?" Clark asked,
distracted, concentrating on several other boxes, half-opened on the
ground and filled with what looked like the entire contents of his
bedroom--clothing included. Sometimes, the fact that Clark was, in
fact, neither a mother nor a woman was profoundly underlined in Conner's
"I think so, yes,"
Conner said oddly.
It was the first time
they'd really spoken to one another since Conner had gone ballistic at
the hospital, and he still felt a little awkward about it, unable to
meet Clark's eyes. For days already, he'd agonized over what to say or
how to apologize, though nothing he'd scripted in his head seemed to be
appropriate, and they mostly ended with Clark saying, "I wish I'd never
found a son like you," which wasn't exactly making Conner run for the
"Who's Remy Zero?"
Conner asked, watching his mother.
Clark pulled a face.
"Don't make me feel old, Conner."
"Sorry," Conner said,
and kicked the box closest to his feet. There were pots in it--crappy
pots with the bottoms burned out from when Clark attempted to recreate
Kent family favorites. "If you're finally going to move in," he said
casually, "you could have done without bringing things you know Dad's
just going to throw away anyway."
Conner didn't really
realize that Clark was moving in until he'd said it out loud himself, as
the idea of his small, two-person existence suddenly becoming three had
been overwhelming enough when he was in the fourth grade. Now, he felt
a resigned sort of acceptance pushing aside the jealous, tangible fear
he'd kept to his chest all of these years.
When he'd been young,
the thought of having a mom had been all about himself, the possibility
that having a mother meant dividing his father's attention had not
settled into reality until later. He'd never been wild about the idea
of sharing his father, but he'd seen it when he was young and he saw it
now and knew that his father was happier with Clark than without, and
Conner had done all manner of stupid and ridiculous things in order to
please Lex Luthor. So he'd encouraged their relationship, dropped
not-so-subtle hints that got him grounded and embarrassed his mother,
who still blushed like a little kid.
The mom he'd shouted
horrible things at in a hospital room not too long ago, Conner winced.
"The persistence of
hope, Conner," Clark said lightly, and after a beat, murmured gently,
"You can stop torturing yourself over it--I've said much worse to my
parents in my lifetime."
Conner looked up
hopefully, and found Clark smiling, if weary, standing in front of him.
"Are you really
moving in?" Conner asked, feeling his heart thud.
"Well, I broke the
lease on my apartment," Clark muttered.
"Oh," he said shyly.
"Plus," Clark added
ruefully, "I got fired, so I couldn't afford it anymore, anyway."
He handed Conner a
box filled with stuff Conner had seen on Clark's desk over the years,
ugly paperweights and cheap ballpoint pens, a red, cordless mouse Conner
had purchased him for his birthday last year. It was heavy in his
Clark said, "Can you
go put that in the guest room?"
Conner shouted, "You
Clark sighed. "It's
not a big deal," he promised.
"They fired you
from the Daily Planet?" Conner said, aghast. "For what?"
"I'm going to assume
for gross violation of the conflict of interest policy," Lex said, and
when Conner turned around, Clark's desk in a box still clutched in his
arms, he saw his father dressed in black slacks and a loose,
long-sleeved gray shirt, leaning against the doorway to his study.
He looked better than
he had in days, a little rounder around the edges and less like he was
going to sleep forever. Conner knew his father had been sneaking around
to work, but had hoped Lex would respect his own limits since Conner
couldn't make him do it, and was gratified to see that he had. But for
all his new-again softness, Lex's eyes were hard.
"Sorry, I tried to
keep it from happening," Lex said, apology edged with a sharp edge, as
if he was sorry, but more than that, he was mad.
Clark grinned, wry.
"I appreciate the effort."
Conner argued, whipping back and forth between his mother and father.
"He's never written anything about you! You do the cops beat! If he
was doing business or city council I guess I could--"
interrupted. "It's not a big deal, okay?"
Out of the corner of
his eye, Conner saw his father walk, puzzled and mildly disgusted to the
boxes Clark had dumped all over the floor. Lex poked them with the same
cautious curiosity that adventurers had for new and theretofore unknown
life forms--given Clark's propensity for letting things sit in the
fridge until they became sentient, it wasn't entirely out of the
question that his father's reaction was correct.
"You got fired!"
Conner shouted, furious. "That's a huge deal! Those bastards!
"We write the news,
we don't make the news," Clark said gently, putting a hand on Conner's
shoulder. "It's okay--really."
Conner opened his
mouth to ask, "Really, really really?" but his father beat him to it and
said instead, "In that case, I'll have Mrs. Banner throw out these boxes
of accumulated garbage."
Clark looked up,
startled, hand still on Conner's shoulder. "Lex, those are my clothes."
"Yes, and every
member of the paparazzi and legitimate news alike will thank me for
having them burnt," Lex said easily. He looked at Conner and said,
"What's in that box you're holding?"
Conner clutched the
box close to his chest, because his father's persistent battle against
kitsch and mismatched textiles sometimes felt like a personal vendetta.
Conner had tried to explain once that for some people, matching really
wasn't all that important, at which point his father had just looked
tragically saddened and said, "At least you have a school uniform."
"It's stuff for my
science project," Conner lied easily.
Lex gave him a
narrow-eyed look, but let it pass, turning back to Clark.
"So you're staying?"
"Unless you have any
objections," Clark said demurely, but the way somebody who already knew
the answer would, because he had already started unpacking his
Smallville High School varsity football memorabilia on the coffee table.
Lex smiled, tight and
small, and said, "No," before he turned around and disappeared back into
the study, where Conner heard the clacking of Lex's keyboard for a
moment or two before his father's voice rang through the house intercom
"Thanks to camera
number forty-eight in the living room, I have successfully identified
the box you're holding as Clark's ugly belongings instead of science
project materials, please surrender them to the proper authorities and
get Clark to Horton's to meet a personal shopper."
"Crap," Conner said,
swiveling his head to look for camera forty-eight, because the last time
he'd checked, there'd only been forty-three.
Clark just laughed.
"It's okay," he said, "I know you tried."
It would be better
like this, three instead of two. Conner still felt the bearing weight
of fear, but imagined that now, he did not have to live in a constant
state of fear for his reckless mind, that he wouldn't blow up the
building or tear up his own flesh.
But Conner could feel
the building pressure of disaster in the back of his mind and he was too
busy and too frightened to invest too much time in fixing it. He spent
little time sleeping and no time eating and felt himself start to snap
under his own pressure. He'd always needed to be more careful of
himself than other people, but the effort was starting to grind down on
him, wear him to the bone, and he could feel the uncomfortable scrape
against his throat, along his spine.
Having Clark there
helped, but having Clark there meant having Clark there constantly, no
longer the occasional, comforting presence to which Conner had become
accustomed in the last years, and by the time Geoffrey hared off on his
own to grieve for his mother, Conner was worn to his last, trembling
nerve. He woke up to hear voices in the penthouse talking without him,
fell asleep to people who were concerned with other things, and realized
with a huge, horrifying sort of weight that the visceral fear of being
useless had be gruesomely realized, and no amount of scrubbing the tub
would replace all the adult confidence that Clark had brought into the
picture, having shouting matches with Lex and stealing his office
Maybe he'd never
really realized it before, but fifteen wasn't only helpless and stupid,
it was a child, and he looked down at his own hands to find that
they were small, thin, and smooth. He couldn't move mountains, much
less his father.
So when on no
particular night or morning he saw his mother stroking his father's back
soothingly as Lex gagged into an emesis basin, Conner, instead of
rushing to the bed and being no help at all, walked to the solarium and
blew out every piece of glass in the room, drew up a nor'easter wind and
destroyed everything, felt a blinding, agonizing power behind his eyes,
and finally, finally let it free.
Several hours later,
he woke up to find his hands and knees bandaged, dark red spots seeping
through anyway. He'd been flat on his back in his bed, and Mrs. Banner
had been sitting at his side. The penthouse was quiet.
"You were on your
hands and knees in the glass," he'd hear Mrs. Banner tell him later,
tearful and shaking, stroking his forehead with desperate tenderness.
"Where's my father?
Where's my mom?" Conner croaked. His throat hurt and his head hurt and
something his chest hurt and he wanted his parents and needed them
"Your dad's asleep,"
Mrs. Banner demurred. "Clark's on the phone."
"With who?" he asked
groggily, feeling hollowed out, feeling exhausted. "With who?"
And the only thing
Mrs. Banner would say as she smoothed his hair was "Oh, sweetheart, oh,
sweetheart," and "I'll miss you so much."
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