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Breathing Water

by Shrift

NOTES: Thanks to: the DRV girls and the PPO for commentary, Nestra for judo-chop beta. Much love to Swa for tapes. Summary quoted from Augustine of Hippo, "Confessions".


"Smallville," Lex says. He doesn't say, "You're joking."

Lionel Luthor is not legendary for his sense of humor.

Lionel tosses a portfolio across the dinner table. "Plant No. 3. It's now yours to run into the ground."

Lex puts down his scotch. "The crap factory, Dad? I'm touched."

Lionel smiles widely, leaning back in his chair. "Report to work tomorrow. I've made all the necessary arrangements."

Lex knows that if Lionel has made the arrangements, his life in Metropolis and New Haven will not welcome him come Monday morning. Lionel has a way with the liberal application of both monetary funds and unpleasant ultimatums.

He plays games with his father, certainly yes, but Lex rarely defies Lionel outright.

Lex is not in a position of power, and until he knows what's going on, he won't recognize what might give him the upper hand.

He picks up the portfolio.


A professor accuses Lex of cheating during his freshman year at Metropolis University because Lex's scores are nearly perfect despite the fact that he has a ten percent attendance rate in class.

Lex asks Professor Gage to meet him for a drink. The good professor refuses Lex's clumsy bribe to drop the charge, and the university expels Lex after one academic semester.

The admissions department at Princeton University doesn't seem to mind the accusation. Princeton has better sushi, and he is twelve hundred miles out from under legs of his Colossus father.

He makes sure to send Professor Gage his senior thesis on the spectroscopic analysis of biomacromolecules, a study that undermines all the theoretical underpinnings of Gage's own research.

Lex also sends copies to the Dean of the Metropolis University Biochemistry department, the Provost, the university President, and an assorted laundry list of academic journals.

Lex hates it when people think he is incompetent, even if it is just a means to an end.


Smallville is larger than Lex's memories. It has changed so much in twelve years that the scenes in his brain feel more like deja vu than reality, but his bare scalp is a very tangible reminder that he has indeed been here before. He drives through the center of town but doesn't stop, glancing at the brick buildings and dusty pick-up trucks. A pretty woman with red hair lugs a wooden crate from the bed of a blue truck as he passes her on the street.

He doesn't know what his father expects him to do here in this overgrown farming town, and that's probably the point. He has never bothered to learn the skill of blending in, and Lex is accustomed to the double-takes at both his cars and his baldness.

Lex believes that the trick Lionel wants him to learn is how to be an arrogant, fudge-packing freak and still get what he wants, even in a place like Smallville.

Lex turns right at a rusty stop sign and heads to Plant No. 3. He has a first impression to make.


His shirt sticks to him like he has been caught outside in the rain without an umbrella.

"Pressure, man," Toby says. "Keep pressure on it."

Lex gasps. It sounds wet. His chest aches where he thinks his heart should be.

He smells like money. Rusty money. Blood money.

He smells coppery like his mother's hair.

"Aw, man," Toby groans. "Do you know how hard it is to get blood out of the 'Stang's leather seats?"

I didn't even get to finish my drink, he thinks. Then he feels muscles clench in his back, and his spine is arching, and there is a high sound coming from the back of his throat. His face stings as Toby slaps him alive.

Lex is eighteen and he is hemorrhaging.

He will not die tonight. But he will come very close.


Gabe Sullivan looks at him like a man in mortal fear of losing his job to the whims of the boss's prodigal son. From Gabe's tie spotted with green day-glo monkeys, Lex figures his foreman has kids and a mortgage. The kind of man who works hard, but doesn't save well due to circumstances he believes are beyond his control. Carrying extra weight around his middle, and utterly lacking a lean and hungry look.

He's perfect.

Lex decides he likes him.

"Relax," Lex says, shaking Gabe's hand. "I was trained at the Centaur's School for Future Industrial Tyrants."

Gabe's laugh stutters like he's not sure it's a joke. "Mr. Luthor."

"Call me Lex," he says, smiling. "I looked over the reports from the last four financial quarters last night."

Gabe winces.


A reporter ambushes Lex at his mother's grave on a cool, gray day that reminds him of the country he has left behind.

"My name is Andrea Starr, and I work for the Metropolis Post," she says. The reporter talks rapidly and passes him a British tabloid. The headline screams, "Long Distance Fizzles Affair," and underneath is a grainy stock photograph.

"No comment," Lex says, and hands the paper back.

The reporter narrows her eyes. "There were rumors of an engagement --"

Lex smiles and slides his hands into his pockets. "I'm seventeen years old, Ms. Starr. There are parental consent laws for a reason."

"Do you deny the allegations that the real cause of your break-up was your infidelity with Miss Hardwick's former fiance, and not your enrollment at Met U?"

The urge to respond is nearly overwhelming, but Lionel never reacts well to Lex's bad press. Lex walks away. Over his shoulder, he says, "Pardon me. I have class."


He takes a tour of the plant and the resentment from his new employees rises in waves as palpable as the overwhelming aroma of processed shit.

He smiles and shakes hands all the same.

Lex works through lunch, killing a pot of cheap coffee all by himself. Accounting spreadsheets litter his desk and Lex has the entire contents of the plant's financial records room in boxes on his office floor.

Daily operations are inefficient, the equipment outdated, and the office smells like the manager Lex displaced bathed liberally in Brut cologne.

He entertains himself by making a list of people to fire on the pad of paper next to his phone.


On his sixteenth birthday, Lex sleeps with a boy named Simon. Simon takes pictures with a tripod and claims he wants to be a photographer. When the pictures develop, Lex admits that the contrast of their skin against skin in bed is beautiful. They look like a natural photographic negative, their bodies lean and their scalps smooth. Simon shaves his head and it is considered fashionable, while Lex still hears "freak" and "chemo".

He has his favorite photograph framed and mails it to his father.

Two days later, Lionel is waiting for him in the Headmaster's office. There are two cut glasses on the desk blotter, but no Headmaster in sight. Lionel runs his thumb over the lip of his glass and sets it down with exactly as much force as necessary.

Lionel's hair still brushes the collar of his suit jacket. Lex always wonders if his father is trying to prove something by it. One day he will ask. He will not receive a satisfactory answer.

"I didn't send you to the most prestigious private school in England to learn the fine art of sodomy, Lex," Lionel says. His thumb strokes down his beard.

"Of course not," Lex says easily. He picks up the second glance and drains the contents despite the smudges indicating the Headmaster has already used it. Scotch. Lagavulin, and a particularly good year. "After all," he continues, "It's not like 'English boarding school' is cultural shorthand for gay, dad."

Lex has a destiny.

Simon is quietly urged to complete his education elsewhere. He will never show his photographs in a gallery of any repute.

Lex will remember him fondly, if at all.


Lex has come to the conclusion that there are no worthy radio stations within signal distance of Smallville. He wants to apologize to his Porsche for subjecting it to the insipid alternative rock currently playing on his stereo system.

He wants to apologize to himself for needing something to fill the silence.

Rushing wind and the engine aren't enough to occupy his brain while he drives home on the flat, barren road leading to the Luthor castle. He calls it home, but it isn't. His mother never lived there.

Lex turns the dial again, passing over a country station only to discover the same alt rock song is playing on the new frequency.

It's easier to hate the music.


His eyes aren't focusing correctly, this much he knows. He remembers darkness, running, cold air in his throat. Falling, pavement cutting into his knees and palms, but he doesn't hurt. Not yet.

He remembers banging on the steering wheel of a car because he couldn't find his keys, although now he's fairly certain it wasn't his car. He's too young to drive.

Lex remembers listening to the Sirens because he wants something beautiful.

He only has himself, and Lex is not beautiful.

He remembers a sense of urgency. Go home. Go home and show daddy what you did.

"He's on something again, I assume?"

Lionel's voice and Lionel's foot next to Lex's head on the carpet. Lex is hearing things underwater, waves lapping at Lionel's Ferrogamo loafers. Father seems unconcerned that Lex is breathing water.

Lex wonders if Lionel ever notices he only pulls this sort of thing while on holiday in Metropolis.

Of course Lionel notices; he always does.

He just won't ever give Lex the satisfaction of saying so.


Lex's cell phone rings inside his jacket. He steers with his left hand and digs for the phone. When he looks at the caller ID, he grimaces. The knuckles on his left hand whiten where they are exposed through his black leather driving gloves.

Lex arrived in Smallville nine hours ago, and Lionel is already calling to see if he has gone astray.

Frankly, Lex is surprised his father waited this long. He has learned not to underestimate his father's capacity for micromanagement.

Lex looks up at the road. Sunlight glints off metal.

He drops the phone.


Lex is fourteen when he sees Victoria Hardwick for the first time. He is in the process of growing into his thin body with its knobby knees, ankles and wrists, and he has spent most of the night hiding in the coatroom of the Pryce's palatial estate.

He holds a leather-bound copy of Troilus and Cressida in his lap, filched from the Pryce's lackluster library.

His body is a late bloomer, but not his mind.

Victoria stumbles into the coat room with Paul Von Zedtwitz in tow. Paul is tall and blond, and has red lipstick on his throat. As they advance into the room, Paul lifts his chin slightly and acknowledges Lex's presence. Victoria, seventeen and proudly displaying her perfectly tanned cleavage, allows her eyes to slip off Lex without flickering an eyelid.

Lex hates being ignored.

He will never outgrow this.


The impact stuns him, the car lurching and sinking like a broken roller coaster sliding off its rails.

The water is chilly and turbid, as dark as a storm of topsoil and as suppressive as asthma. Later, he will worry about pesticide and fertilizer run-off, and test the river's water quality himself.

It's very quiet.

He thinks breathing water should hurt more.

It will.


"My father touches me," he tells his therapist. "Down there."

His therapist avidly leans forward in his leather chair, steepling his hands. His fingers are red and stubby. Lex has imagined his therapist's cock is the same way, and has pointedly ogled the man's crotch his last two visits to the dim office. The idea of the man actually taking him up on the tacit invitation vaguely crosses Lex's mind, and he names the possibility a bad thing because he finds his therapist physically unattractive.

Revolting, in fact. An old man with clammy palms, whose sour body odor clings to the office like cigar smoke. Lex's asthma is gone, but his keen nose remains.

He thinks it is an acceptable risk for what he intends to do, and he will be right this time. No heavy body will press him back onto the smooth couch, and he will not leave teeth marks and fingernail scores on the cool leather while attempting to escape.

Lex already knows by now that Lionel will not bother to save him.

"He says now that mommy's gone, I have to help him. He says that he's only doing it because he loves me, and that it hurts because I'm a bad boy."

Lex finds lying as pathology rather appealing at thirteen.

"The object lesson in question: using your sexuality as a weapon," Lionel says when he finds Lex out. His father smiles then from behind his desk, his teeth large and white. "That's a tactic pulled more from a woman's arsenal, wouldn't you say, Lex?"

There is no press, no punishment, and Lex never sees his therapist again. Later, he will understand that he has ruined the man professionally. And later still, it will occur to him that this is wrong for him to have done.


Lex sees an expanse of green fields crisscrossed with rutted roads and electricity poles, spotted with the sagging roofs of red barns. He moves fast through the cloudless blue sky, his shadow trailing along the ground below at a clip that would make Peter Pan green with envy.

There is something he should remember, but it doesn't matter because Lex is flying.

Like a helicopter without the noise, without his father demanding he open his eyes and face his fear.

Lex is flying.

His eyes water and sting from the bright sun.

He tastes silt in his mouth.


Lex is nine, and so the doctors at the hospital like to pretend he isn't there. They say things like "radiation sickness" and "ionization" and "unknown substance" to his mother. She nods her head, long red hair rustling against silk, arms folded tightly across her chest.

Pam leans down to whisper in his ear. "That means they don't know what happened to you, Lex. That's all."

His bare scalp is more sensitive to the cold than he expected, and his head feels lighter on his neck.

The nurses keep offering Lex bright cotton caps to wear. He refuses politely.

The needles hurt and leave dark purple bruises on his arms, arms that are already covered with red welts from corn stalks. Lex keeps pulling the tube from his nose because it itches.

Lionel's visits are always short, and he demands a progress report from the doctors like he owns the hospital.

Pam tells him his father has recently donated enough money to fund a new hospital wing. He curls his fingers around Pam's hand and ignores the bite of the IV.

His father has yet to look at Lex directly or come within touching distance.

Lex will remember this.


Lex opens his eyes believing he is too late.

A boy is looking at him with his hands resting over Lex's heart. He breathes hard, water trickling down his face.

From sky and freedom to a frail body lying on dirt. A stone presses a bruise into the small of his back.

He shouldn't know this boy, but he does. Lex knows he hit him with the Porsche, felt the heavy thud of flesh before the crunching metal scream as they went over the bridge.

The boy should be dead. So should Lex, but it's nothing new. He has been living on borrowed time for twelve years.

Lex coughs, and the boy leans forward like he wants to save Lex again.

Too late, Lex thinks, and doesn't know why.


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