Tess Mercer decides that Kryptonians are probably the most stubborn species in the galaxy. Either that, or Clark Kent thinks she’s an idiot.
She doesn’t buy his story about the plane crash, of course, and she almost feels like laughing as he explains that he’d only found one parachute in the cabin. He seems simultaneously at home and completely out of place in the Luthor mansion, the professionalism of an outfit he probably only owns thanks to Lois Lane at odds with a nervous demeanor as he subconsciously steps back whenever she approaches past a certain distance.
Having seen the parachutes for herself, his explanation is as much of a confirmation that he’d saved her with superpowers as if she’d actually been awake at the time. The inconvenient part is that if she hadn’t been unconscious, he wouldn’t be able to deny everything.
“I don’t usually open up about myself to, well, to anyone, really.” She smiles softly as she reminds him of their conversation on the plane, of everything she’d shared in an attempt to create trust.
She’s never been all that good at humanizing herself in other peoples’ eyes.
It scares her that Clark makes her want to, but she’s decided to use it to her advantage - she seems to do that with everything, now - and she’d hoped that confiding in him would lead to reciprocal faith.
Apparently, it still isn’t.
She sighs inwardly as he mentions that he should probably be getting back to the Daily Planet. She’d been as obvious as she could in implying that he was the Blur, but either he’s oblivious or he knows she knows and just refuses to admit it anyway.
Sometimes she asks herself why she doesn’t just confront him outright.
She tells herself it’s because she doesn’t want to scare him away or make him confrontational, but more than anything, she wants him to confide in her himself.
As he walks toward the door, she abruptly turns and calls after him, her dress flowing in a spinning echo of her own movement and catching the light pouring in from the stained glass windows.
“Clark -” she pauses, and tries to put as much truth and feeling into her words as she can. “I may run his company, and I may live in his mansion, but I’m not Lex. You can trust me.”
Despite wanting to believe her own assurances, she feels the hollowness of her words reverberating in her soul. She is like Lex. She manipulates, she lies, and if that isn’t Luthor behavior she doesn’t know what is.
It doesn’t occur to her until after he is gone that maybe Clark is smarter than she gives him credit for. Maybe he can see her lies when even she herself cannot.
Maybe if he trusts her, she’ll hurt him.
She just doesn’t know anymore.
Sleeping with Zod is very likely the most dangerous thing she has ever done, and is also the only way she could think of to protect herself. She’d been too bold, she’d revealed that she could hurt him despite his powers, and if he had any sense he would kill her before she could turn on him.
Tess only has two factors keeping her alive, now - her knowledge of kryptonite, and their ‘relationship,’ if you could call it that. It’s a tenuous connection to life, at best.
So she lies. She always lies, to Zod. She tells him she agrees with his cause, that she can help him, that she would betray Clark for him. If she hadn’t seen the future he plans to create, she would almost believe her own words.
They both imply threats, they both give false assurances, they both dance in circles of a power play that spirals toward only one possible ending.
Ticking time bombs.
She kisses him with poison words and he kisses back with embers that threaten to turn into flames. She wonders how long it will take before she’s lost amongst the ashes, and she can’t remember how long it’s been since her truth was louder than her lies.
Tess had never thought about it before, but as they’re both trapped in Watchtower, waiting either to suffocate or be captured by Checkmate, she realizes that Chloe Sullivan has about as much capacity for trust left as Tess does herself.
“This entire building was programmed to prevent anyone from getting close to you,” she tells her, and she can see Chloe’s expression switch from confusion to recognition to pain.
“Yeah, I guess I lost my faith in people a long time ago too,” she says quietly, and Tess is surprised by the ache her heart feels in an echoing response.
When she first met Chloe, her impression had been of someone who was genuinely good, like Clark. She’d tried to convince Chloe to help her hack an alien computer, having known about her powers from Black Creek, but Chloe turned her down immediately - it was obvious that her first loyalty was to Clark, and that would never be shaken. Over time, without recognizing it, she’d begun to see that Chloe’s morality came second to her loyalty. And when Tess discovered that she was Watchtower, everything made sense. Chloe spies, she manipulates, she controls everyone around her, she’s reluctant to let anyone in - out of everyone on Clark’s team, she is the only one Tess believes she truly understands.
What hurts Tess the most is the knowledge that, unlike her, Chloe still has a chance to stay on the light path.
And she knows how it feels to realize that you’ve turned into something you don’t like.
The compassion and regret Tess suddenly recognizes in her own emotions scares her, and she brings up Oliver almost as a defense mechanism. “It’s why you won’t let Oliver get close to you.”
It’s why I won’t let myself get close to anyone.
“And why I can’t blame him when he eventually leaves.”
Chloe’s response surprises her, and she smiles at the painful truth - “He’s not going to leave you,” she says, and she thinks it’s so obvious; it’s so obvious and she says it like it’s the most definitive fact she’s ever heard, because she knows that when Oliver looks at Chloe he sees someone he can save and be saved by and fight with side by side. He sees life and hope and someone who is both broken and put back together in a thousand shattered pieces; he sees sunlight.
Because how could anyone not see that?
“With you he has a purpose,” she continues. And then the lie. “I wish I could have given him that.”
She doesn’t. Not anymore; he’s only her past and she can’t remember why. But it’s easier than saying,
I wish I had made different choices.
I wish I could be trusted.
I wish I had a purpose.
“And it kills me,” she says, feeling something inside her break. “Because you have everything right in front of you, and you can’t even see it.”
Clark and Lois’s engagement party is, mostly, a success. And for once, Tess feels like she belongs in the group, that they actually want her around. Unfortunately, there are still Luthor ghosts flying around her head, whispering doubts and threats in her ear.
She wants to tell them all the truth, and Clark encouraged her to talk to them about it, but she’s still terrified that if the others find out she’s Lionel Luthor’s daughter she’ll lose everything she’s gained over the past few months. She came so close to that when Clark found out that she can’t bring herself to go through it again. It was bad enough discovering the truth herself, and admitting it out loud always feels like she’s purposefully holding her hand over a flame.
When she disengages from a conversation and heads for the table to refill her wine glass, she’s followed by Oliver Queen, of all people. She realizes later that if she had any sense, she would have brought their conversation back to a larger group, but she doesn’t, and she regrets it.
“So, Watchtower seems basically back to normal after the whole evil-Clark incident.”
Tess shrugs. “The repairs went faster than expected. Which is good, since we can’t really have this little gathering of vigilantes out in public with the VRA gaining popularity, can we?”
Oliver laughs. “There are quite a few of us here, aren’t there? Trotter would have a fit if she saw us.”
“I’m not sure who’s going to actually be at the wedding -”
“Yeah, I know. Clark asked me to be the best man; wasn’t expecting that. I just hope I won’t be putting anyone in danger by going.”
Tess hesitates before adding, “I did try to contact - well, any of us I could, and that included…”
“Look, it’s alright, I wasn’t expecting Chloe to show up.”
“I just wanted you to know that I tried.”
Oliver, unsurprisingly, changes the subject. She’d seen him talking to Carter earlier and she could guess what that was about; one discussion of his absent girlfriend was probably plenty for one evening. “You know, you haven’t exactly seemed like yourself lately,” he asks casually, but she tenses noticeably.
“Well, I just mean, you’re even more evasive than normal, and that’s saying something.”
She glares at him and he winces.
“Hey,” he says, “I just assumed that fighting evil Clark Luthor from a parallel Earth together would have resulted in us all trusting each other more, not less.”
“I’m not avoiding anyone,” she snaps, her fears about explaining her Luthor heritage resurfacing. This is the perfect opportunity, the perfect chance to admit to everyone what had been haunting her for weeks, but with Oliver standing right in front of her she knows she can’t do it.
Not when everyone seems happier than they’ve been in a long while.
Not when she could easily lose it all.
“I’m fine,” she says, and it’s so clearly a lie and she’s desperately hoping that he doesn’t see through it. “I’ve just been really busy with the Watchtower repairs.”
She does the best she can to lead him back over to where Clark and Lois and Emil are discussing wedding locations, and tries to ignore the doubts buzzing in her head.
The truth comes out eventually, with help from probably the last person she would have expected. Apparently, when you’re in hiding from the VRA with someone for long enough, it’s difficult to keep secrets, and he hears you wake up from your nightmares - and there’s something about Emil Hamilton that encourages her to trust him with something close to honesty. And it surprises her that this, even more than Clark’s reassurances, makes her feel not quite so alone.
“Do you dream?”
“Nothing so far, no.”
She does, of course. But she can’t acknowledge them as such - holograms, you see, don’t dream.
Tess asks herself a hundred times a day if this is really better than being trapped in Lex’s mind, or even being dead. In regard to Lex’s consciousness, the answer is always yes; here, at least, she can interact with everyone again. She can contribute something to the team, as the actual consciousness behind Watchtower’s artificial intelligence.
As to the other question, the answer varies.
She isn’t all that sure if she’s even alive in the first place.
When she erased Lex’s memory, she expected to die, and waking up with a joint consciousness with her just-as-evil-as-ever half-brother was a painful surprise. And they found her, they rescued her, but now she exists as computerized data and holographic illusions and she’s wanted to scream ever since she woke up but she can’t find the words.
So Emil asks her if she dreams, and she denies it, and she can’t tell him why because the words catch and shatter and disappear into dust.
No God, only data.
I don’t want to be alone!
Tess can’t breathe and in some rational part of her mind she knows she doesn’t need to breathe anymore but the shock and fear and panic is overwhelming and she can only watch him die and she doesn’t know what to do.
No no no no no no no --
Emil Hamilton can’t die, he can’t. And there he is, bleeding, dying, and for the first time since she woke up as part of Watchtower, Tess feels like she must be alive, because how could she be falling apart inside if there was nothing in her heart to begin with?
She reaches out for any way to contact the outside world, to get help, but something’s jamming every signal out of S.T.A.R. labs --
Tess feels a surge of white-hot anger. Lex is doing this, Lex is taking away the one thing she can’t lose and he doesn’t even know it. He must have raided S.T.A.R in search of information from the crash or maybe even the ship itself, and one of his soldiers shot Emil; before she realizes what she’s doing, Tess has taken control of one of the robots in the lab. She’ll stop Lex. She has to stop Lex.
She’s deactivated the device blocking emergency signals and she’s standing, virtually, in front of Lex, the robot’s arm lifting him off the ground.
“Do it!” he shouts, and she realizes she can’t.
She disengages from the machine and flickers back into life in Watchtower, her head spinning, and waits in hopeful fear for news of Emil’s condition.
“I do dream, you know.”
She’s talking to Emil in Watchtower and she’s so, so grateful that she can, and it’s the next day even, and he’s okay, he’s okay, he’s going to be okay.
So she tells him the truth.
“It’s why I didn’t kill Lex. Not because he was afraid, which he was, or pathetic, which he was.”
He waits, patient as ever, as she tries to find the words.
“I don’t know why I dream. Or how. Or what it means. But the sheer fact that I do… that has to count for something. And if this is ‘Tess two-point-oh,’ if I’m still her, just different, then… I don’t want blood on my hands, or black on my heart.”
He smiles. “Or any reasonable facsimile thereof,” he adds, recalling yesterday’s conversation.
“Or any reasonable facsimile thereof,” she echoes, feeling happier than she has in a long time.
I’m still human.
“And, Tess,” he adds, “I’ve said this already, I know, but, thank you. For saving my life. And, well, everything.”
“I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” she says quietly, and she makes a silent promise that she’ll find a way back someday, she won’t be trapped here in Watchtower’s cyberspace forever, and she knows he’s made the same promise for her.
And she tells him this, because he has brought her back from nothing, and honesty is all she has left.