Summary: How does it feel to lose something you never really had?
Warnings: Rated PG-13. m/m
There's a sparrow I've been watching out the window all summer, alone at first, then with a mate, making a nest in the old hawthorn tree, one bit of straw, one stray twig at a time. Before long, the nest was full, a constant flash of wings as the grown birds came and went, bringing food for the little ones. The babies could only keen in the beginning, desperate little feeding noise, but as the days grew heavy with sunshine, their sounds turned expressive, a whole language of cheeps and chirps and finally song. It was a lush and noisy few months, and it made me smile every morning as I drank my tea, all that urgent life.
It's quiet out my window now. First, the babies left, one by one, their grand adventure into the world. Then the shadows started to pool on the lawn in the afternoons, and the wind changed, and the whole flock headed south. Even the nest has started to blow away. All that energy poured into the act of becoming, and not even a hint of it left behind.
Carlotta has me tucked under an afghan on the sofa. The weather hasn't turned decisively yet, but my dear Carlotta likes to do things on a strict schedule. In comes fall, out come the blankets.
If she thinks it's strange that I would return here after so many years, she doesn't let on. Carlotta is a comfort that way; nothing ever surprises her. I was happy not to have to explain. I can hardly understand it myself, this need to see Smallville again. So much of my life was built on escaping it, the most important decisions. Even now, I like to be reminded that I don't have to stay. Every day I tell Carlotta that we'll most likely go back to Paris soon. She nods and says, "Yes, Mrs. Luthor." And I can breathe again.
The buzzer sounds from the front gate, and I glance over at the monitor. They used to come looking for me at my house in the Rue le St. Paul, armed with the same old questions, but I hardly expected anyone to track me out here to the mansion. It's a young woman, small, dark hair, wearing glasses. She doesn't realize anyone is watching and nervously picks at her clothes, straightening her skirt, smoothing her collar. There's an odd note of vulnerability to her fidgeting that catches my attention. I haven't seen anything so honest in a long time.
Carlotta appears. "There's a person here to speak with you." The corners of her mouth turn down like she's bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. Carlotta doesn't care for uninvited visitors, nosy ones least of all.
"Show her in."
It's not as if I have to let the girl stay if she's too much trouble.
She's breathless when she comes through the door, eyes bright, hair a flyaway mess. "Thank you so much for seeing me, Mrs. Luthor," she says, gushing. And then realizes she hasn't properly introduced herself. "Cassidy James." She holds out her hand. "So nice to meet you."
I smile. "Please. Sit down." I look to Carlotta. "Would you bring us some tea?"
Carlotta goes, taking her time, persnickety that way, and the girl jiggles her leg nervously as we wait. When I was younger, I would have made conversation, eased the way, duty of a hostess, but I've grown comfortable with quiet as an old woman, learned to rely more on simple observation.
The girl, Cassidy, reminds me a little of Chloe, at least in the early days. There's a picture of her I keep in my bedside drawer; she's behind her desk in the Torch office, making a face because she didn't want me pointing the camera at her. Whenever I get it out to remember, the first thing I always notice is the light of young enthusiasm in her eyes, and I see it now in this girl.
I missed it when Chloe lost that bright-eyed quality. She was so different after she went to New York. It was hard to stay in touch, she worked such crazy hours, and even when we did talk, I could tell she wasn't really listening, all the important parts of her focused on the story of the moment. The last time I saw her, for lunch during one of my trips to the city, she could barely sit still. She picked at her salad and gulped her coffee, flashed that smile as she got up to go, "Sorry! It's just-- I've got this thing."
If I'd known where each step was leading her, I would have made her sit back down, stay there forever, talking about inconsequential things, perfectly safe over endless cups of afternoon coffee. But I didn't know. So I just smiled. "See you soon, Chloe."
Carlotta returns at last, and she makes a production out of it, setting the tray down with a thump, pouring the tea with a sharp snap of her wrist, handing the girl her cup with a look so icy it makes her flinch. Carlotta likes these unwanted guests to feel the intrusion.
The girl sips at her tea, almost timidly, and I nod at Carlotta. She turns on her heel, the rigid line of her back like a reproof as she walks across the floor.
"So," I say to Cassidy, "who do you write for?"
She pauses awkwardly, a mouthful of cookies, and when she's finished chewing tells me, "Metropolis Magazine."
"Oh, Genine Richards sent you?"
The girl bites her lip, pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. "Well...not exactly."
I tilt my head, inviting her to explain, and she shifts restlessly, looking rather miserable. Finally, she just blurts it out, "Okay, I don't work for Metropolis Magazine." She hurries to add, "Yet. If I could just get a break..." She meets my eye, very earnestly, "I need this story, Mrs. Luthor."
She doesn't look away, and I suddenly wonder how long it's been since I wanted anything that badly.
I settle back against the cushions. "All right. Ask me your questions."
She looks as if she can't quite believe her luck, but she's smart enough not to let that get in the way. She pulls a pad out of her bag, flips it open and launches right into it, "So, Mrs. Luthor, it's been a very busy year for you. A major fundraising effort to endow a new wing at the Metropolis Children's Hospital. Your first one-woman show in New York."
"And it only took me until I was seventy-eight to do it," I joke.
Cassidy laughs, more relaxed now. "How does it feel to have accomplished so much?"
I say all the things I've said before, in different words, and Cassidy dutifully writes it down. None of this is why she came to see me, of course. But I give her credit for asking. Not everyone takes the time to acknowledge the present.
She purses her lips, trying to think of another question that will flatter me.
"That's all right," I tell her. "You can ask me what you really want to know."
Cassidy looks down at her pad, a little sheepishly, but that doesn't stop her from charging ahead, "Would you tell me the story of how you met your husband?"
I hold back a sigh. I've told it so many times, but they always want to hear it again. "I was ten. My aunt was a friend of the Luthor family, and we went to visit them at their house in Metropolis. Aunt Nell got caught up talking to Lionel, Lex's father, and I got bored, so I went wandering around the house. I happened to find the pool. And Lex. Very naked, tangled around a girl in the hot tub."
Cassidy laughs. "What did he say?"
"He very calmly gave me directions back to the living room."
"You must have made quite an impression."
I laugh. "Not at all. When we met again in Smallville, he didn't recognize me." I smile at the memory. "He looked almost embarrassed when I reminded him. That never happened with Lex, and I enjoyed it." My smile broadens. "A lot, actually. It was several years after that when he asked me to marry him."
"That must have been very romantic," Cassidy says, a little too longingly, although she's trying to be professional about it.
Forty years, and Lex still hasn't lost his touch with women.
"It certainly wasn't like any other proposal I can imagine."
Lex was business-like when I got to the mansion that day, seated behind his desk, hands tented, the way he probably looked during corporate negotiations. I hadn't seen much of him since I'd gone off to college. Even when I came back to Smallville after graduation to take over the Talon, our paths rarely crossed. Before I could ask why he'd wanted me to stop by, he started to lay it out in methodical fashion, everything, parts of the story I'd guessed, things I never could have imagined.
"So you can see the difficulty," he said matter-of-factly. "If I were married, it would naturally help deflect my father's attention. You'd have money. Position. Your freedom, of course. I'd ask only that you be discreet."
All I could do was shake my head. I felt so dizzy, and I couldn't think, couldn't answer. Lex seemed to understand. He didn't try to stop me as I hurried to the door. Just called after me, "I hope you'll give this some serious consideration, Lana. I think we have a lot to offer each other."
I remember how I felt driving away, like something had died, some old, fragile dream. I'd thought so much about the moment when a new life would open up, when I'd finally belong to someone again. The scene in Lex's study kept replaying in my head, his cool voice, the levelness of his gaze, talking about marriage like a tactic. It tied knots in my illusions.
"It must have been a glamorous life," Cassidy prompts.
"It was certainly an adventure," I tell her.
At this distance, I can list reasons why I said yes--I'd been struggling so hard to find my own direction, and Smallville was starting to feel like a prison, and I was ready for a larger existence--but decisions never come so rationally in the moment. I turned it over in my mind for days, fretfully, and then one night, I woke up in a dead sweat, my heart pounding, this thought just thundering in my head: "Nothing is ever going to be different." I went to the mansion the next day and told Lex I'd marry him.
"Your wedding was here, if I remember correctly?" Cassidy says.
Lex was eager to get started once we'd agreed. There was a quiet ceremony, and then we moved to his apartment in Metropolis. As a wedding gift, he'd had a bedroom redone for me, in the pale colors I loved, light, painted furniture that reminded me of France. In some ways, our life together was so normal. We did what married people do, made plans and compared schedules and talked about our day. Some nights, though, I would hear sounds coming from his room, raw, out of control. At breakfast, he would have marks on his neck, dark circles under his eyes, but he'd say Would you pass the coffee, Lana? in such a distantly polite way it was hard to imagine those noises had anything to do with him.
Clark was never there in the morning. He would come at other times, for parties and holidays and quiet dinners, always in the guise of friendship. I liked it best when it was just the three of us, curled up on sofas in the living room, talking. Lex was at ease then, his quick smile that I never saw any other time. Not having to keep secrets gave Clark back his boyish sweetness, a sparkle in his eyes when he made corny jokes, grinning when he could get us to laugh.
There were the odd moments when the awkwardness of the situation would catch up to Clark, and he'd shoot me a glance, burdened with guilt. And I would want to tell him: you haven't taken anything that was ever mine. It always brought to mind those ridiculous misunderstandings we had in high school. If I'd known how to be more direct, understood myself better back then, I would have just told Clark before any of that...whatever it was...started between us, "I don't believe you know what you want. I don't believe this is real."
In my heart, I must have always realized that Clark wasn't mine, either.
"Did you and your husband have a good relationship?" Cassidy asks.
I smile at the innocent irony of the question. "Being married to Lex...it helped me come into my own."
I wasn't sure at first if I was giving up too much, if my husband loving someone else would cut me in ways I hadn't expected. But it came to feel natural, that separate life. Oh, I think Lex would have played the husband behind closed doors if I'd wanted--blurred lines never bothered him--but I preferred the clarity of a simple arrangement. I had lovers over the years, but my life wasn't with any of them. It was with Lex, and he didn't want my heart. I never completely belonged to anyone but myself. I would have expected that to be lonely, and it was at times, but it also made me feel unfettered, something I'd never experienced before, something I've never been willing to give up since.
Cassidy clears her throat. "Mrs. Luthor?"
I snap back to the present, wonder how long she's been trying to get my attention.
"I lose myself in memories these days."
The girl returns my smile, rather nervously. The old make everyone uncomfortable. "Are you okay to keep going?" she asks reluctantly.
I wave my hand in the air.
Cassidy's features sharpen with curiosity. "There are a lot of stories about your husband, innuendo if no actual evidence, that he was involved in some pretty shady dealings. On the other hand, he also did more for philanthropic causes than any other person of his generation. How do you reconcile the contradiction?"
I sigh, growing impatient. "Reconcile it? What's to reconcile? Lex was a man. Not a saint, certainly. There were times when his judgment was questionable. Like all ambitious men, he could lose sight of consequences. But he was no monster, whatever stories you might have heard, Miss James."
I set my teacup down on the table with emphasis, square my shoulders. Lex is mine, at least in the eyes of the world, and I defend what's mine. It's something I've learned as a Luthor.
And anyway, being the madman of the family was always Lionel's job. I never knew all of it, of course. Lex did his best to keep ugliness out of our lives, but I would overhear things, Lex talking heatedly into the phone, trying to head off some atrocity or other his father was planning.
Most insane of all was Lionel's obsession with Superman, one of those facts that falls between the chinks of history books. Clark and Lex would hole up in the study for hours, devising counter-strategies. When they'd come out at last, Lex would always have this look on his face, relief that at least Clark Kent didn't hold any interest for Lionel, with his coffee-stained suits and his workaday job, no reason to believe he was anything more than an old friend of Lex's wife.
"You must admit that your husband's relationship to Superman was rather famous for its antagonism."
"Infamous, don't you mean?" I say archly.
But Cassidy refuses to be derailed. "If your husband wasn't involved in criminal dealings, why all the drama, Mrs. Luthor?"
Whenever someone shows up at my door, I wonder if this will be the time I finally lay down the burden of the past, if this will be the person I can trust, at last, to truly understand. But as I scrutinize Cassidy more closely, I see she doesn't really remind me of Chloe after all, and the well-worn lies form so naturally in my mouth.
"Great men often define themselves through opposition. Superman and Lex were the two powers of Metropolis. That they would clash was inevitable."
Perhaps it was also inevitable that Lex's carefully choreographed defenses would come crashing down one day, ultimately futile. I remember how he looked when he came home that night, his expression as bleak as a February morning. I tried to ask him what was wrong--if anything had happened to Clark--but he just shook his head, shut himself up in his office. I hesitated out in the hall, not sure what to do, and then I heard the French doors open from the terrace, the low throb of voices, a tense back and forth. I refused to be an eavesdropper in my own house, so I went back to the living room, pulled out the plans I'd been working on for the investors party Lex had wanted me to organize, tried to concentrate. Tried not to think about the decisions being made only a few rooms away.
It was hours later when they finally came to find me. Lex headed straight for the Scotch. Clark sat down heavily, looking defeated.
I put away my sketches and waited, and at last Lex turned around, broke the news in a flat, tired voice, "My father and his merry gang of accomplices have figured out Clark's identity. The sources I have inside their group tell me they're also very close to finishing a weapon that intensifies the effects of Kryptonite and," he let out a heavy sigh, "we haven't been able to find a way to counteract it."
"But..." It was the kind of shock to the heart you would feel if someone told you the world was about to end. I looked to Clark, back to Lex, desperately. "There has to be something you can do."
It was the wrong thing to say, I realized it the second it came out of my mouth. Lex stared angrily into space, his jaw tense, no doubt replaying all the opportunities he'd had over the years to put a final end to his father's demented gamesmanship.
"I never wanted that, Lex," Clark quietly reminded him.
"What happens now?" I needed to know.
There was a beat of silence, and it felt like the whole universe was contained there, in that pause.
"There's nowhere on Earth that Clark will ever be safe now," Lex said at last.
I could see it then, in both their faces, the guilt and the resolution. There were so many questions it would have been natural to ask, where are you going and how is that even possible and how long have you been planning for this.
But all I said was, "When?"
"Tonight," Clark answered in a scratchy voice, shock and regret making him sound lost already.
"It'll look like we've had a confrontation, like we've destroyed each other," Lex explained. "There'll be a lot of publicity at first. I'm sorry, Lana. I know it won't be easy for you. But I've made arrangements. You'll be well taken care of."
There was a feeling in the room I'd only noticed before at funerals, the heavy sense of finality, the brutality of things you can't fight or change, that you just need to find a way to accept. It was some time before I could move, the minutes ticking by too loudly on the mantel clock. When I finally got to my feet, Clark did too, and I stood there in front of them, like a guest in a mournful receiving line.
Lex kissed me on the forehead and said, "Thank you."
Clark hugged me, the way people do when someone has died, like there are so few things left to count on and the comfort of shared grief is one of them. "I'll miss you," he told me in a painful rasp.
I couldn't bear to watch them leave, so I was the first to the door. "Goodbye," I said in as firm a voice as I could manage. So they would understand. I was letting them go.
It wasn't the truth, of course, but like all our lies, it was for everyone's protection.
Cassidy frowns at me, tapping her pen impatiently. "There had to be more to it than that."
I give her the smile that people tell me is mysterious. "You wanted my story. And now I've told you."
"But you've raised more questions than you've answered," Cassidy insists. "If your husband wasn't the bad guy he's made out to be, then why such a ferocious war? A simple power struggle doesn't explain it. Tell me the truth, Mrs. Luthor. What were Superman and your husband to each other?"
"Everything," I tell her simply.
Like most people, Cassidy doesn't recognize the truth when she hears it. "Why are you stonewalling me, Mrs. Luthor? What are you keeping from the rest of us? Are they even dead? There are people who question that, you know. Because if Lex Luthor wasn't doing anything illegal and there was no real reason for Superman to be his enemy, then maybe their feud was all a clever smokescreen. Maybe they were working together. Their deaths could have been staged. They could still be out there."
Cassidy watches for a reaction, her eyes as sharp as blades. There are many ways to justify sending her away with nothing, that the true story would make me look faintly ridiculous to the modern way of thinking, that it would stir up that chaos again when all I want is peace. But the real reason is more simple, more fierce, more Luthor. What's mine is mine, and no one is taking it from me.
I give Cassidy the kind of humoring smile you use with children, perfected through much practice. "In my mother's day, they waited for Elvis to come back."
Cassidy leans forward. "You can tell me, Mrs. Luthor," she says, with an earnestness that is almost violent. "Whatever it is."
I take a breath, let it out heavily, sink back against the pillows. "I'm getting tired now, I'm afraid."
"Please!" Cassidy clutches at her notebook. "Just think what this would mean to the world--"
"Carlotta," I call out.
Not that this is really necessary. She's been waiting outside listening for her cue, and her heavy rubber-soled shoes are already making their distinctive squeak-thud across the marble floor.
"I'll show you out," she says to Cassidy, her voice stony, not to be argued with.
The girl rises reluctantly, sets down her teacup. She slips a card out of her bag, leaves it on the table. "Please call me, Mrs. Luthor. When you're ready to tell us what you've been hiding all these years."
I listen to their retreat down the long hall, and when I can't hear their footsteps any more, I close my eyes, let out a breath. It's a few moments before I open my eyes again, and then I turn to look out the window. I used to watch the sky, hoping, half expecting. It wasn't too many years after they'd left when it would have been safe to return, the old threats gone, done in by themselves, each other. I don't know when, or why, I finally came to understand that what they'd done, what they'd chosen was final. Knowing that made it easier in some ways, although even now the sky is never just the sky to me.
Carlotta doesn't take long. When she returns she tucks the afghan more snugly around me, adjusts my pillow.
"There's a nice piece of sole for your dinner and those figs you like."
"Thank you." I pat her hand.
She straightens her shoulders, presses her mouth together. My dear Carlotta doesn't approve of affectionate displays, even if she has been my one, true friend for the past forty years.
She gathers up the tea things, tosses the business card onto the tray. She doesn't need me to tell her it can go in the trash with the crumpled napkins and the cookie crumbs.
"We'll go back to Paris soon, Carlotta," I tell her as she starts for the door.
As always, she doesn't disappoint me, "Yes, Mrs. Luthor."
I pull the blanket up under my chin. Tiredness isn't just an excuse these days, and it seems as if the chill is coming from inside me, not the air. It doesn't matter in the end what Carlotta lets me pretend. I know in my heart that I'll never see Paris again. My life is like that sparrow's nest, and I'm already caught up on the wind. I close my eyes to rest, and I feel very certain. I'm here now, where I belong at last.