"And sign here on this page and I think we're done," Martha Kent said, as a lock of red hair, loose and thin, swung across Lex's peripheral vision. "Oops, no," she amended, flipping the sheets. "Here, at the bottom of this page too."
He complied without question. "Did Father plan on signing these tonight as well?"
"No." She easily scooped the scattered papers into a neat pile. "He's in bed for the evening, but he didn't want to bother you tomorrow if I could catch you before I left." She smiled at Lex -- a fetching, blue-eyed, crinkle-lidded smile. "And here you are and now we're all done."
Lex leaned back in his chair. He had to force himself not to stare at her too hard. Martha Kent's eyes were the color of cornflowers, he thought. Cornflowers in summer, drooping lazily by the far gate. Pick a bunch and run back to the castle garden where the flowers he wasn't allowed to pluck and play with stood, lined in rows, like goddesses in the Parthenon.
"Thank you, Mrs. Kent." He turned his focus to somewhere beyond her shoulder. "Not only for helping my father, but for ..." He paused. Was it proper to thank employees for their pleasant presence? Perhaps on the occasion of their retirement, but surely not after a single month of employment.
Actually, it had been five weeks and three days, not including overtime, Lex knew. That still wasn't long enough for anything overly personal. "Thank you for everything," he said. He rolled his chair back fractionally, as if he'd come too close to a weakening truth.
"You're very welcome, Lex." She swung her coat up and on with her usual brand of graceful efficiency. "It's always wonderful to feel useful. Sometimes ..." She hesitated then, as if her own dangerous admission was perched on the tip of her tongue. "Sometimes you just don't know where the time goes," she finished cryptically and bent close to retrieve the signed file from Lex's desk. "Goodnight, Lex. Get some sleep tonight, you hear me?"
As she came nearer, the smell of her perfume hit Lex, hard. It smelt of orange blossoms and magnolia, filling the air with tart sweetness -- a no-nonsense beauty of a scent.
The familiarity of it made his senses reel. "Goodnight, Mrs. Kent," he said softly. "And one more thing ... "
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Yes?"
"That's a very beautiful perfume you're wearing. May I ask what it is?"
Her head tilted in confusion. "The perfume?" She thought for a moment, the file held tightly to her chest. "Oh, yes." A light laugh. "I don't know the name of it, but your father insisted I take a bottle from the freebies they were offering to investors at that new department store opening we attended yesterday. Normally I wouldn't have, but the bottle was so beautiful and your father was so insistent ... it's something French, I think."
"Yes. It smells French." Lex grinned tightly. "Whatever it is, it's beautiful. Goodnight again, Mrs. Kent."
"Goodnight, Lex." She waved and slung an oversized purse over her shoulder. "See you on Monday."
Lex waited until he heard the front door close before rising and striding purposefully to the study vault. He yanked the door open impatiently, hitting the hand recognition locks one after the other. He bypassed trays of gold coins and drawers of cash, past the diamonds and the rubies, pushing open a hidden compartment spring, which slid a fake wall back on its silent hinges, revealing a long display cabinet beneath.
It took another minute to slide open the thick glass doors and get to the treasures beneath -- a treasure that consisted of dozens of perfume bottles.
Sculpted glass bottles of every shape and size. Depictions of flowers mostly, some horses and nymphs; all of them cut in a similar fashion, with brilliant, sharp lines, in a rainbow of hues.
The glass was called Lalique by name. Perfume bottles made up the bulk of the collection, some of it just ordinary glasswork, if one could call cherished pieces of art ordinary.
Lex scanned the display quickly and pulled down an empty perfume bottle. He yanked the ornate stopper off and sniffed tentatively at it.
Yes. That was it. That was the perfume Martha Kent was wearing at Lionel's request and at over a thousand dollars a bottle, Lex was quite sure there had been no giveaways at wherever it was his father had dragged her to.
There was nothing accidental about it at all.
For Lalique was the perfume Lionel and Lex bought as a joint gift for Lillian Luthor every birthday for each year of her short life.
It had been their only tradition as father and son. A mutual gift for the person who held the key to the only thing they agreed on -- that they loved her with all of whatever either one of them could call a heart.
At least that's what Lex knew he felt. Of his father's love, for either of them, he was never too sure. Slowly, Lex slid the glass panes shut. Reset the codes and made his way back to his study where the scent of orange blossoms and magnolia still lingered.
It was going to be a long night.
"Slow day today, Lex." His father's voice boomed across the study. It was Saturday morning, too early for global market readings, too late to break arms in the press for favorable Monday reports.
"Saturday's always are, Father." Formal title. It hid much. "Is Mrs. Kent coming in today?"
"No, unfortunately." Lionel settled into one of the luxurious leather chairs placed on each side of Lex's desk. "More's the pity. We could take her to lunch. There's a new restaurant that's opened up downtown, in the city. We have a standing reservation, you know."
"Why would we do that?" Lex asked pointedly. "She's an employee. She comes here to work."
Lionel slid a sightless glance in Lex's direction. "Work isn't always about drudgery, son. I've learned more, made more important decisions over a cup of coffee with her than I have in any board meeting I've ever had the displeasure of attending," he said. "She's an extraordinary woman, Lex. Extraordinary."
Lex bit his lip. He'd heard that description before. "I agree. But she has her own life, a busy one that doesn't allow hours spent hobnobbing with her employers."
Lionel grew impatient. He rapped his walking stick against the floor with two short taps ... thwick, thwick. "As I said, Lex, this isn't about hobnobbing. It's about getting our money's worth and making it pleasant for our employees as well." Thwick, thwick, went the stick again. "Little gestures go a long way and can be used to your advantage. I would think after a year of managing a small town plant you would have understood this by now."
"So is that what buying the perfume for her was? Using the situation to your advantage?" Lex asked. "I usually give the plant workers free donuts and coffee on Fridays. It costs considerably less."
Lionel sat back suddenly, the tapping silenced. "What perfume?"
"Don't play stupid with me, Dad." Lex sneered. "Stores don't give away bottles of Lalique to their first one hundred customers, not unless they want to be out of a hundred thousand dollars. She was wearing it yesterday, and I can't believe you'd think I'd have forgotten what it smelled like. And I don't believe you've forgotten it either."
Lionel sat silently for a long moment, rubbing his thumb over the solid gold lion sitting atop his cane. A smile followed, and it appeared real. "Seems your sense of smell is almost as good as mine now."
He held up his hand to stifle the protest they both knew would follow such a remark. "It's true, Lex. I bought the perfume for Martha, but tell me ... haven't you ever wanted to give something nice to someone who you knew wouldn't take it because they simply didn't accept expensive gifts, especially not from a Luthor? Haven't you ever stretched the truth, just a little, to feel secure in the knowledge that a good person was having a bit of happiness they couldn't have had otherwise because you had the ways and means to give it to them?" He chuckled warmly. "It's just a bottle of perfume, Lex."
"Really? Is that all it is? It didn't used to be," Lex snapped, ignoring the visions of Clark his father's speech roused. He edged his thumb around the corner of his desk, the rounded glass not sharp enough to cut, but he dug his flesh in as far as it would go anyway. "Not when we bought it as a special gift for Mother. Or has your memory gone the way of your sight?"
Lionel seemed genuinely baffled. "Of course I picked the same perfume as we gave your mother, but you can't hold that against me. I'm no expert on ladies' perfumes. All I know is that if your mother liked it, it must be of exceptional quality. Besides, I always liked how it smelled ... didn't you?"
Lex shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Yes, I did. And that's why it's so disconcerting to have it wafting around here again."
"Why? Think of it as a nice memory, like cookies baking or a pine tree at Christmas." Lionel's voice was oddly soft, soothing. "Why not let it bring back some of the good things you've associated with it? That's what our senses are for."
"I find it disconcerting because the person I've associated it with my whole life isn't here anymore," Lex replied sharply. "That's why."
"Then change your associations, Lex. That's all I can tell you," replied Lionel shortly, before rising and inching his way toward the study door. "I'm going to be in my room if you need me. Which I doubt, but hope springs ever eternal doesn't it, son? Like good memories, hope is the one thing we poor mortals can't shake -- lying jade that she is. I'll see you at dinner."
Lex watched as his father retreated to the hallway, then disappeared out of his sight. Lionel was right. Hope was a lying jade ...
It lived in a room filled with liars.
The corner clock ticked away one long minute after the other as Lex thought about longing and duplicity. He had to admit, there was something to be said in favor of Lionel's lecture. Lex had lived alone, in coldness for a very long time. Nothing warmed him anymore, not completely, and besides, the illusion was so close to the lost reality ...
Who cared if it was bought and paid for and presented to him on a perfumed platter?
Who would it hurt? He could pretend again and who would know?
Besides Lionel. But he had his own demons to wrestle with and Lex was sure few of them smelled as sweet. There could be magic in the air and maybe they would take Martha out for lunch ... no, a Sunday brunch. At a fine Metropolis restaurant and show her off to the old society ladies and let them seethe with jealousy as two Luthors attended to one woman, one who'd proved herself worthy of their attentions.
Lex could do that. He could play that game. He could stare at Martha Kent's soft red hair and her cornflower eyes, just like the ones his mother used to have.
Close his eyes and breathe deeply of deception and play all the sweet-scented make-believe in the world.
Who could it hurt?
Monday morning and Martha Kent was there, bright and early at seven-thirty, in the castle kitchen, getting ready for the long day ahead.
She hummed as she took off her coat. Pulling down the electric coffee grinder took a bit of effort, but she managed it and pretty soon there was burbling hot water and the bitter aroma of ground beans in the air. She rattled the pot twice to make sure all the liquid had settled, a habit gleaned from using the ancient coffee-maker at home and poured the black liquid into her mug with a satisfied sigh.
As all the while Lex stood in the kitchen doorway, watching.
"Smells good," he said. "Mind if I partake?"
She jumped at the sound of his voice. "Oh, Lex. Goodness, I didn't see you there," she said, reaching into the cabinet and pulling down another mug. She nodded toward the coffee machine. "How do you like yours?"
"Black is fine."
She poured him a cup and he accepted it. "You're up early this morning."
"I'm up early most mornings," he said. "I'm not the night owl I used to be."
Her face lit with a sweet grin. "I know what that's like. When I was your age, I used to ..." She took an embarrassed sip from her mug. "I mean, it's good your hours are becoming more sensible."
"It's not like I have a choice." He took a quick taste of the coffee and tried desperately not to wince. "Um ... this is a little strong, isn't it?"
Martha glanced at the coffee pot, then back at Lex before shrugging. "If truth be told, I'm not much of a coffee brewer." Blue eyes twinkled at Lex. "But I make a mean muffin. And apple pie. But coffee ... eh, not so good."
Lex had to smile. "I make good coffee. Very good coffee."
"Great." Martha exclaimed warmly. "Consider this your job for the morning. You make the coffee and you never know ... "
She leaned toward him conspiratorially and again, Lex could smell the familiar scent. The one that reminded him of happier times with another red-haired woman whom he'd admired, respected and loved beyond everything else. She could have been there for all he knew; he'd heard the stories, stories of angels filling rooms with their heavenly essence.
"I might bring you something special in return," she said.
The mug was warm in Lex's hand. The scent of magnolia was everywhere. "I think you already do ... Martha." It was the first time he'd called her Martha.
Martha. Mother. Martha.
What difference would it really make?
She didn't seem to mind either. "Thank you, dear." Lovingly, full of a casual familiarity that no employee had ever dared before, but somehow, Lex believed Martha Kent knew she was special.
Special to both Luthors, in deep ... and dark ... ways.
"You're welcome," he said. He held the cup up in salute and she matched his gesture. The mugs clinked together as one and Lex knew.
Knew that hope was a lying jade, but mankind had nothing else.
And she smelled so sweet. Like orange and cedar wood and she was as delicate, as strong, as precious as fine glass and from that day on they'd share mornings and weekends and maybe a birthday where Lex would present her with a new bottle of Lalique and she'd open it, her mouth dropped open in feigned surprise.
There would be the warmth of her embrace then, and oh, it would feel like truth, and lies would smell sweet then ...
As sweet as any perfume.
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