The Little Princess

The Luthor townhouse is very elegant. Lana stands on her tiptoes in the hall and pretends she's wearing heels, like Aunt Nell. Hers are higher, though; she's excellent at balancing on the balls of her feet. Besides, she needs the height.

Upstairs, Aunt Nell and Mr. Luthor and all the other fancily dressed, important guests are laughing and talking. Lana hears the clink of champagne glasses.

She sighs. "This is boring," she mutters. Aren't riding contests supposed to be fun? Not that this one won't be; she's very good at what she does. Horses love her.

Everyone loves her. And no one does.

Look at the way Aunt Nell is carrying on with Mr. Luthor. Lana decides she doesn't want to know. Grown-ups are so weird.

There are strange pictures on the walls—men on horseback, waving swords and shouting; a huge building that looks too tall to be allowed. Lana weaves a story about them in her head, but there aren't any pictures of princesses or sorceresses on the walls, and all those battles are boring.

She thinks about trying to find the kitchen, but Aunt Nell hates it when her party dresses get dirty. They have to be cleaned specially, not like ordinary things.

She wanders down the hall, and into a study. It has books and a huge mahogany desk and a marble statue of a man's head. The whole effect is a little frightening, if she's honest.

She notices a set of glass doors behind the desk. Curious, she opens one (unlocked; that's odd) and steps outside. The night air is warm, but it doesn't stick to her skin. She breathes deeply, enjoying herself. Out here, she feels like a witch.

On her own, prowling the night…

Her fantasy is broken when she hears laughter and splashing a few feet away. She squints through an ornamental bush.

Yes—there's a pool over there, looking delightfully cool and marvelous. Her eyes narrow, because at first she can't reconcile what she sees into coherent shapes.

Then she can, and involuntarily she gasps. There's a boy and a girl, and, unless she's really, really wrong, they're both naked.

The girl has blonde hair and a wide smile, and much more of a figure than Lana—who doesn't have much and suspects she never will, having seen pictures of her mom. The boy is completely bald. He's got his back to Lana, but she can hear his voice, saying something low and fast and probably wicked. The girl giggles.

"Beat you to the bushes!" she shouts, and dives through the water. The boy follows, but Lana's too mesmerized to move.

"Hah!" the girl shrieks triumphantly, and turns around, inches from Lana, hands on her hips. "Got ya!"

The boy dives under the water near the girl, and Lana can't see what happens next, but this time the girl's shriek is wordless, with a hint of a laugh at the end of it.

Lana starts to back away, aware she's intruding and a little scared.

She doesn't step on a twig, because this ornamental place has nothing so plebeian, but she does twist her ankle on a rock. Involuntarily, she lets out a small mew of pain.

"What was that?" the boy asks.

"Stray cat?" the girl suggests disinterestedly.

"No," the boy says shortly. Lana bites her lip and doesn't move, even though she wants to burst out crying. Aunt Nell wouldn't hear her from down here, anyway. She can't help thinking that her real mom would, if only she…

There're a few rustling sounds, and then the boy comes out from behind the bushes, wearing a towel around his waist. Water streams down his head and chest, and Lana stares, fascinated. He really has no hair on his head. The good news is, he's got eyelashes and eyebrows and the tiniest bit of red hair on his chest, so he's not a total freak.

"Who are you?" he asks, a little rudely.

Lana stands as straight as she can without putting weight on her sprained left ankle. "I'm Lana Lang," she says proudly. Then, petulantly, "My foot hurts."

"Let me see," he says at once, kneeling beside her unselfconsciously. "I'm Lex, by the way," he adds as an afterthought.

"Le-ex…" whines the girl from in the pool.

"I'll be back in a bit," he calls back, and then turns to Lana. "I can't see properly out here; I'm going to have to take you inside. Is it okay if I carry you?"

Lana looks at him. He's probably strong enough to lift her, and this way she won't have to walk on her ankle, but he's going to get her dress all wet.

She sighs. "Okay," she agrees, like a queen bestowing a favor on a lowly courtier.

Lex picks her up and carries her back into the study. He sits her down in a convenient armchair and gently removes her left Mary-Jane and pink sock.

"What were you doing with that girl?" Lana asks suspiciously, watching him.

Lex doesn't answer; he's busy gently examining her foot.

"Wriggle your toes," he tells her. Scowling, she does.

"Ow!"

"Yes, but you can still move them…" Lex says, almost to himself. Then he looks at her. "I don't think your ankle's broken," he assures her solemnly. "But you might want a doctor to take a look."

"No," pouts Lana. "I hate doctors!"

Lex laughs. "Me, too. Well, maybe we can just sneak you an icepack from the kitchens, and you'll be all right."

Lana grins. "Okay!" She tries to stand, and falls against Lex, who quickly sets her upright.

"I'll get it," he tells her, with a wary eye on her left ankle.

"And leave me all alone?" she protests, making her eyes wide and innocent.

He sighs. "Fine. Just let me get some clothes on." He ducks back outside, and Lana can hear him muttering irritably to the girl, who's complaining rather shrilly. Lana allows herself a small moment of triumph. Lex is going to help her, not that silly blonde girl in the pool.

When he comes back, he's got on jeans and an orange sweatshirt with 'Princeton' scrawled across it in fancy black letters. He's still barefoot, though. "Come on, princess," he says, giving her party dress an ironical once-over. "Let's go get you some ice."

Lana finds she can walk, if she clings tightly to Lex's hand and doesn't go too fast. She's abandoned her Mary-Janes in the study, and she quickly got tired of wearing only one sock. The other one is lying at the foot of the sweeping staircase. Lana amuses herself picturing Prince Charming tracing her all the way back to Smallville, with her pink sock on a silken pillow. She considers whether or not Prince Charming has Lex's face.

When they're near the kitchen, Lex places a finger across his lips. "Shh…" he says conspiratorially. Lana almost giggles, but then stops herself. She can hear noises from behind the door. Probably someone cooking.

"Okay," whispers Lex. "I'm going to do this part on my own, all right?"

"But—" Lana protests.

"You don't want to know everything that goes on in this house," Lex tells her firmly. "Trust me."

Lana nods. Of course she trusts him. He's nice, and he tells her things. He treats her like an equal.

He steals softly to the door, pushes it open a little way, and darts inside. Curious, Lana steps closer to the crack between the door and the wall.

She winces a bit as her ankle sends a sharp twinge upward, but she's determined.

"—do you mind?" A wry voice; Lana thinks it's Mr. Luthor's.

"No," Lex says, in a voice that makes shivers run up Lana's spine. She leans closer to the door, bracing herself with one hand against the wall.

There's the sound of a door opening, and then giggling and loud kissing. Lana frowns. Everyone is stealing off into dark corners, or swimming pools, or kitchens, to be alone with people. It must be something in the air of this place.

Although Lana's practical mind rejects the suggestion that the kitchen is actually so empty—isn't there some huge dinner party going on upstairs? The kind she's not allowed at yet? Do grown-ups not eat food at parties?

The thought is almost enough to make her glad she's stuck down here, with a twisted ankle and that nice boy Lex, instead of upstairs wowing everyone with her pretty dress and princess smile.

"Have fuh-uhn!" giggles Nell, from behind the door, and Lana freezes.

"Luthors never cringe, Lex," reprimands Mr. Luthor. "Nor steal out of a room like a petty thief."

"You could never be petty, Lionel!" laughs Nell, and there's the clink of champagne glasses.

"To us," says Mr. Luthor, almost like he might be smiling.

Lex whirls around the door, edges it closed with one bare foot, and hoists Lana into his arms. She shivers, cold ice tickling her skin and cold anger gripping her heart. "I got it, let's go!" Lex says hurriedly.

He's carried her all the way back to the study and deposited her in the oldest, most comfortable chair before Lana gets her breath back.

She doesn't speak when Lex fashions her an icepack and holds it to her ankle. He sits at her feet, as patient as if he's forgotten all about the blonde girl in the pool.

Lana doesn't move. Her anger at Nell's betrayal is so all-consuming that her throbbing ankle, Lex, the icepack, and the elegant study fade into the corners of her awareness.

Nell has not only abandoned her; Nell has abandoned her for Mr. Luthor. Nell didn't even notice Lana hiding behind the door. Nell doesn't care if Lana is hurt. Nell didn't take Lana here for the horse show. She came for Mr. Luthor. She's betrayed Lana.

Lana's real mother would never treat her like this.

But she's gone.

A bit of the ice seems to have gotten lodged in Lana's spine. She sits as straight as a princess on a throne.

Lana decides, right then and there, that she can never trust again. Because she'll always be at the end of Nell's long list of priorities. And if even her aunt doesn't care about her, how can she expect anyone else to?

She's alone.

"How does it feel now?" Lex asks, and Lana is brought back to the present. She looks down in vague surprise. Lex's fingers are red with cold, where he's holding the icepack. He smiles up at her. "Better?"

Lana nods, surprised to find that, like the rest of her, her ankle is numb.

"Good." Lex sets the icepack down on a priceless coffee table, and pulls a book from one of the shelves. "Have you ever read A Tale of Two Cities?"

Lana shakes her head.

Lex opens the book to the first page. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"

Lana sits still and listens. Lex has read the first chapter before the blonde girl from the pool storms in, inexpertly wrapped in a towel and hair dripping, and sneers, "Robbing the cradle now, are you, Lex?" She flounces upstairs.

Lex's voice never falters; but, eventually, Lana's eyelids waver. Just before she falls asleep, she decides she'll allow him in her new world—the one without parental figures who betray you, and rocks that twist your ankle—because he's kind, and he does read well.

--

Lex tucks a one-of-a-kind Persian shawl hand-embroidered by nuns around the little girl. Sleeping, she looks innocent.

Restless, Lex paces the room, wondering when he turned into a babysitter for little girls whose mothers—or is it aunt?—are his father's latest paramours.

He scowls, considering going after Pat and picking up where they left off in the pool—but he can't leave little Lana Lang alone.

With a sigh, he flings himself onto the sofa with some alcohol pilfered from his father's cellars and the Princeton course catalogue.

Lana Lang will get her beauty rest, even if the whole household traipses through the study. Lex will make sure of it.