Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein do not belong to me. They belong to WB, DC Comics, Miller/Gough Inc., etc. I'm making no money off them.
Author's note: This story was written previous to the episode Crush. Spoilers suggested that Lex's mother died in 1996, making Lex 15. The episode aired with the date 1993, which made Lex 12, and in my opinion, unable to formulate the plan he does in this story. So consider this an AU.
Quid Pro Quo
Scotch neat on top of yet another concussion. Lex swirled the drink in his hand gently, watching the amber liquid roll against the crystal.
Another surprise, another betrayal, another lie. It was getting pretty old.
Lex upended the glass, letting the drink numb a path straight to his stomach. He set the glass on the end table with a firm clunk and reached for the phone. His thumb found the numbers automatically, dialing from something deeper than memory.
"Alfred!" Jovial. Falsely so. "This is Lex Luthor."
"Ah, Mr. Luthor. I trust you are well?"
"Quite well, thank you. Master Bruce is overseas…expanding his education. Allow me to convey the number of his cellular telephone."
"Thank you." Lex waited for Alfred's recital and committed the number to memory. He briefly wondered whether Alfred knew why Bruce Wayne left instructions to make himself available to Lex Luthor whenever the latter might call, then decided he didn't want to know. He thanked Alfred once more before clicking the phone off and dialing the new number.
China, Alfred had said. Lex wondered what time it was in China. Four a.m. he realized, as he listened to the phone ring. Well, at least Bruce should be home. How late did clubs stay open in China?
"Bruce Wayne." The voice was as clear and crisp as if the owner had been sitting in his own armchair, waiting for the call.
"Bruce. Lex Luthor." Lex paused and let a slow smile curl across his face. "I'm calling in my debt."
There are no secrets in high school. If more than one person knows something, it soon becomes common knowledge. And fourteen other boys watched as Lex Luthor was pulled out of chemistry class one week and three days ago.
So it was pretty common knowledge that Lex's mother had died.
One week ago, yesterday. The funeral, two days ago.
Now Lex was back.
Lex Luthor trudged across campus, his scarf pulled up over his mouth. Students glanced at him as he passed, but they looked away more quickly than usual. Lex was used to being stared at. After all, there weren't a whole lot of bald fifteen-year-olds in the world, and strangely enough, no others in the dreary English boarding school that was Lex's home away from home. Add to that a scientific mind sharp enough to challenge the professors and an American accent, and it wasn't surprising that Lex was used to the stares of the other boys. Sometimes they were curious, sometimes they were envious, sometimes they were just nasty. Good thing he didn't care. He was a Luthor and far beyond such things. Even now, when the stares meant so much more. Meant that Lex was now half an orphan--that he no longer had a mother. Meant that everyone felt a certain selfish kind of pity for him--a pity tainted by the relief that it had been his mother and not the mother of whoever was doing the staring. There was guilt in those stares. They should go talk to him. Extend their sympathy. Offer their condolences. Express appropriate empathy as they'd all been instructed. But they'd never talked to him before and to start now would be admitting their own mortality, and that of their parents. Even the people he knew, or knew as well as he knew anyone, even they kept their distance. And it didn't matter. Because he was a Luthor and far beyond such things. Except.
Except the weight of one stare, devoid of obvious emotion but peeling away his outer casings, looking for something, for some sort of answer deep, deep inside him.
If anyone was more distant, more of an outcast than Lex, it was Bruce Wayne. Two years too young, two years too smart, a full-orphan possessing the same American accent as Lex. He spoke to few as if he were hoping to blend in to the woodwork as best as a thirteen-year-old genius who held the fourth greatest fortune in America could. People whispered about how sad he always seemed, but Lex never noticed. Bruce seemed to go out of his way to avoid Lex, as though he knew he might see Lex again, sometime in the far future, and didn't want him to know too much.
But right now, Bruce Wayne was staring at him.
Lex glanced over at him as he passed, unconsciously tugging his gray wool coat closer around his body. Bruce's gaze was still and cool, and sent a chill through him. On an ordinary day, on a day when stares only meant that Lex was bald, and rich and foreign, he might have stalked up to the smaller boy, demanded an explanation, or maybe issued a snide remark. He might even have laid a rough hand on the youngster, intimidating him into his dark corner again.
But today, Lex ignored him, heading back to his room where more than a week's worth of work waited for him. It wasn't that anything about the stare creeped him out or made him want to retreat someplace warm. It was just that Lex's father had made clear that all missed schoolwork was to be made up immediately and without error. There would be no slacking, despite the unfortunate circumstances.
Biology, Chemistry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus. Three days worth.
He made short work of them, piling the books to the side in favor of his current assignment. He'd been given a week and a half to turn in the make-up work--a day for each one he'd missed, with the addendum that if needed more time, he had only to alert the professor--but he wouldn't need that long. He was determined not to need that long.
English Lit had other ideas, though. He'd been unable to comprehend Macbeth through the sudden glaze in his eyes and was attempting to break down Macbeth's motivations from his first reading of the play.
Maybe he'd do French homework, instead.
Maybe...his eyes scanned the room, looking for anything chemical that could be broken down into enough components to make a satisfying noise when ignited, but before he found what he wanted, someone knocked at the door.
Lex paused and looked at the entrance to the room. Boys didn't knock. If they didn't just wander in, the knock was cursory and accompanied by some shouting or at the very least, the door bouncing against the opposite wall soon after. But not this time. Maybe a professor? Someone's parent, lost?
"Come in," he called, deciding to look like he was concentrating on his English Lit essay.
The door opened slowly and deliberately--no extraneous motion--and Bruce Wayne stepped across the threshold. He closed the door behind him and stood there looking at Lex.
"Bruce. What are you doing here?"
"I came to offer my condolences," Bruce said stiffly, and of course he could offer condolences. His parents were already dead. There was no fear of Lex's curse touching him, because everyone he had was gone and dead, in a blood-splashed alleyway if Lex remembered his Wayne family history correctly.
"Well, thanks," Lex said shortly, turning back to his work. "Nice of you to stop by."
"I had a question," Bruce added, immobile. He appeared ready to stand there forever if that was what it took to get his answer.
"So ask it."
"Do you feel…" Bruce paused, his blue eyes measuring Lex, "…empty? Or so full, you're choking?"
Lex would come off the chair and throw that cheeky little boy out of his room. He would, he swore to himself, as soon as he could move again. How dare Bruce ask about his…feelings? Lex's breath came quick and hard, through his nose, his hands clenched at his sides.
Or so full, he was choking.
He hadn't expected to answer. He hadn't even known the answer until it left his mouth.
Bruce nodded. "Thank you," he said, and then he was gone. Gone. Just like that.
Lex turned off his desk lamp and rose from his chair. Screw English Lit. He lay down on his bed, fully clothed and turned out the overhead light.
Cheeky little bastard. Cheeky little thirteen-year-old bastard.
Lex would show him.
Lex Because he'd never be Alexander again. Alexander had died one week ago, yesterday. Alexander had been buried with his mother, two days ago.
It was a stupid name anyway--a whimsy of his father's historical obsessions.
Alexander had been loved. By his father, when he had a full head of hair and the potential to lead LuthorCorp on his own. By his mother, who was now dead. By Julian, who hadn't even been old enough to know he'd had a big brother who'd failed to protect him. Alexander had been loved. But Alexander was dead.
Lex turned on his side and stared at the wall for the rest of the night.
Limiting reagents. Baby stuff, but easily the cause of many a chemical disaster. Lex idly scribbled answers in the margin of his notebook while his eyes tracked across the room to where Bruce Wayne sat, dark head bent over his own notebook.
It was common knowledge that Bruce was inordinately intelligent. After all, he was two years ahead; a thirteen-year-old sitting in honors chemistry with a class full of sophomores and juniors. But, Lex noted, he also worked inordinately hard. How much was natural talent and how much could be attributed to long hours under the desk lamp, reading ahead, pencil scratching equations over and over again? Lex was relatively sure he was smarter than Bruce, by way of the world if nothing else, but the boy's effort put his own to shame. What was the point to studying if you already knew the answers? It wasn't as if Lex was trying to skip grades, to get away from school faster.
Although maybe he should, he mused, tuning in briefly to the lecture before finding it dull and distracting. He'd rather think about Bruce.
Bruce had come to his room and asked him the oddest question. Bruce had lost his parents, long ago. Five years? Four? Six? Somewhere around then, Lex figured. He wondered if Bruce was empty or so full he was choking.
Mystery meat, again. Everyone knew better than to actually eat the stuff. Especially if you wanted to be in class that afternoon. The lunchroom was nearly deserted as everyone ran back to their rooms during the break to eat food sent in care packages.
Lex picked at his vegetables and watched Bruce eat his lunch stolidly, his nose buried in a book. He wondered whether the care package his mother had sent six weeks ago would be the last. He pushed his chair away from the table. He wasn't hungry after all.
By the time polo practice was over, Lex had made a decision. He may have been an outcast, but he knew people. There were people who owed him.
His instructions were very precise. He didn't want Bruce to really get hurt, after all. Body blows. Not too hard. No broken bones. No visible bruises. Just scare the kid a little. Shake him up.
Lex paused at the corner of the gym, listening. The sounds of a scuffle. Soft bodies hitting the wall, a grunt of pain and he was on. The world was his stage, he thought as he rounded the corner and took in the scene before him. He dropped his bag, deliberately hanging by his side instead of slung over his shoulder as was customary for him, on the ground and jogged up to the cluster of students shadowed by the portico overhanging the back door of the locker room.
Not what he expected.
Lex paced to halt a few yards away from the altercation, his sharp eyes eating up the sight of three heavy-set boys on the ground, unconscious or incapacitated and quiet little Bruce Wayne brushing lint off his sweater.
"Bruce?" he queried, raising an almost non-existent eyebrow. "Are you all right?"
Bruce tilted his head at him and narrowed his eyes just slightly. Did he suspect? No, how could he? It wasn't as if the boys on the ground were chemistry nerds, or even in the same class.
"Fine," Bruce answered lightly, the blue eyes suddenly blank again. "Guess I got someone mad at me."
"These guys are rugby players," Lex commented, nudging one of them with his toe. "They're not small guys."
"Jujitsu," Bruce explained succinctly. "My…friend taught me."
Bruce just nodded.
The plan was elaborately simple. Ridiculous, really. Bait and switch. Sleight of hand. Lex would be much more sure of its success if he didn't have to do it himself.
The boys weren't permitted to lock the doors to their rooms. Interfered with bedchecks. Not that it mattered. Theft in a school of this reputation resulted in immediate expulsion and familial humiliation.
But Lex wasn't there to take something from Bruce's room. He was there to give Bruce something.
The door crept open silently. The caretakers did a good job keeping the dormitories well-maintained and modern, but an English boarding school was an English boarding school and Lex would have to watch each step. It would have been easier if he'd thought to visit Bruce's room in advance, map out the floorplan, figure out where squeaky boards lay in wait for sneaking feet. A lesson in planning.
Bruce's bag was sitting on the desk chair, ready to go for the next morning. Bruce was all about planning ahead. Lex had counted on it. He crept a few steps closer, glancing over at Bruce's bed, where the boy laid curled around a pillow, and froze. Blue eyes stared back at him, silent and blank in the darkness.
Lex swallowed hard. "Bruce?" he said in barely more than a whisper.
Lex's breath left him in a reverse gasp, the sound echoing loudly in the room. "I was just…just…."
"I know." Bruce still hadn't moved. "I don't understand you, either."
Lex nodded jerkily. "I'm…going now."
Lex backed out of the room, finally hitting that one squeaky board as he stepped over the threshold, into the hallway. He let the door swing closed and walked slowly back to his room. It would have to be tomorrow morning.
He did it at breakfast. Bruce got up to get more tea and Lex dropped a calculator in his bag. It was identical to the one he used in chemistry class, except for one little feature. Lex took the other calculator from the pocket and dropped it in another pouch. It wouldn't do for Bruce to find two--then he'd know something was going on. But he wasn't about to take the calculator himself, even if no one was looking. Because no one would look--he was Lex Luthor, a bald freak to be sure, but now a bald freak without a mother, a virus that could plague anyone who got too close. He turned back to his own table before Bruce returned, brandishing the supposedly dropped napkin. No one seemed to care. Good.
"You will have forty-five minutes to complete the exam," the professor droned on. Lex spun a pencil between his fingertips. It was coming down to a few minutes. "Answers must be written neatly in the box provided. Partial credit will be given, but a question will not be considered complete without the answer in the appropriate box. You may not speak while taking this exam. You may use your calculators, but you may not use pre-programmed equations. I will be walking around, checking calculators as you work. You may turn your test over and begin work, now."
Lex flipped his paper over, scrawling his name on the top, and started sketching out the basic equations. He'd fill in the provided numbers later. What if the professor didn't check Bruce's calculator? What if Bruce had found his real machine? Then there would have to be a Plan C, Lex reminded himself firmly. There was always a Plan C.
It happened during Question Seven.
Lex felt the excitement swell in his chest. Wayne was a tricky bastard, but he had him, he could feel it.
"It seems that Mr. Wayne has 'forgotten' to erase his calculator," the professor announced. "Mr. Wayne, please go to the headmaster's office. This will be dealt with quickly."
"Wait!" Lex was on his feet and his pulse was singing in his ears. "I think this is my fault."
The room fell deathly quiet. Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne, the freaks both getting their due at once. The halls would be abuzz with this news in less than an hour, the boys who were actually in the chemistry class would be instant celebrities.
"Is it. And how might that be, Mr. Luthor?" the professor queried calmly. After all, Lex was his star student. Maybe he couldn't be bothered with paying attention in class, but perfect test scores brought up the class average.
"Bruce and I were studying together last night," Lex said ingenuously, "going over equations and terms and stuff. I cleared out both of our calculators, but I might have gotten them mixed up and cleared one of them twice and the other one not at all."
"You think so?" the professor asked. "Let me see your calculator, Mr. Luthor."
Lex handed it over obligingly and waited as the professor called up the program screen and examined the contents. He could feel Bruce's eyes on him, curious, accusing, betrayed.
"Very well," the professor decreed. "Mr. Luthor, you will accompany Mr. Wayne and myself to see the headmaster. In the meanwhile, I want you both to wait in the empty classroom next door while I continue to proctor this exam. You will both take another version when this has been worked out."
He opened the door and waited as Bruce and Lex collected their things, the eyes of their classmates burning on both their backs. The door closed behind them and Lex could feel the emptiness of the hallway and Bruce hovering beside him. The classroom to the right seemed to be used by a group singing Broadway classics in French, so Lex turned to the left, sauntering into the empty room and tossing his bag carelessly into a chair.
Bruce walked in behind him, more slowly, stiff with restrained rage. He closed the door and set down his bag, crossing his arms across his chest as Lex closed the distance between them.
"You owe me," Lex informed Bruce, staring him down with cold eyes from his slightly superior height.
"You set me up," Bruce countered stiffly. "I don't owe you anything."
"You think so? You think you could have gotten out of this one on your own?" Lex asked, rocking back on his heels.
"You aren't the only one in America with a rich family," Bruce pointed out.
"Who were you going to pay off?" Lex wanted to know. "The professor? The headmaster? The entire class? Word can get around, Bruce. If you got kicked out of here for cheating, well…" He paused to let Bruce imagine all the horrors such a fate would entail. "Everyone would know, Bruce. Do you really think you could run a company with a reputation tarnished by a blemish this severe?"
"You set me up," Bruce repeated. "What would happen if I told them the truth? What makes you think they'll believe you over me?"
Lex's eyes widened with his smile.
"My father, Bruce. Do you really think Lionel Luthor would allow an orphan upstart to drag the reputation of his only son, his only child, and the Luthor name through the mud? My father would vouch for me, Bruce. Do you have anyone to speak up for you?"
"Fine." The word was clipped and Lex wondered if he was the first to teach Bruce about betrayal. But then again, there wasn't really much to teach Bruce. His eyes seemed to have seen everything, already. "What do you want?"
"On your knees," Lex instructed, not caring how it sounded.
Bruce sank slowly to his knees, watching Lex the way a mongoose watches a cobra. He leaned back onto his heels when his knees touched the floor, eyes narrowing into dark slits.
Lex took a step closer and Bruce swayed back imperceptibly. Lex dropped to his knees in front of Bruce and braced his hands on his own thighs, hunching his shoulders forward.
"My mother had red hair," he announced.
Bruce blinked at him, not surprised, not exactly, but less wary than before. He absorbed the pause and Lex's expectant stare, then replied, "My mother's hair was dark."
"Mine had red hair," Lex repeated. "And blue eyes."
"My mother had blue eyes, too."
"My mother's name was Lillian."
"Her name was Martha," Bruce answered softly.
"Her favorite flower was the lilac. Everyone thought it was the lily, because of her name, but she liked the lilac better. She liked the color."
"My mother liked…" Bruce thought for a moment, his eyes widening in fear as he begged his memory for an answer. "…chrysanthemums. She liked fall flowers. Gold and orange."
"My mother liked poetry. She read Whitman and Emerson and Langston Hughes. She loved Leaves of Grass. She liked Shakespeare, but not the ones my father liked. She liked Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew. She liked happy endings."
"My mother liked old mysteries. Dashiell Hammett and Chandler and she liked F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, too. I--I think she liked the tragedies. Romeo and Juliet."
"My mother smelled like honeysuckle and lilacs and fresh clean sheets. And I miss her."
"Mine…I don't remember what she smelled like," Bruce admitted brokenly. "She wore pearls. And I miss her, too."
"Listen to me," Lex instructed. "Remember everything I told you about my mother. That's what you owe me. If I ever start to forget her, I'm going to call you and you're going to tell me everything about her, understand?"
Bruce nodded, recognizing the implicit promise of reciprocity.
Stormy gray eyes matched up with deep blue.
"Don't forget. Don't ever forget."
"I'm calling in my debt," Lex announced.
There was a pause at the other end of the line and then the deep calm voice began reciting those comforting words from long ago.
"Your mother had red hair," Bruce began. "Red hair and blue eyes. Her name was Lillian and everyone thought that the lily should be her favorite flower, but she preferred the lilac. She liked poetry. She read Whitman and Emerson…."
Lex closed his eye and let Bruce's voice and old memories wash over him like the last warm wind from an Indian summer.
And maybe, just maybe, it would be enough to save his soul for one more day.