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Protection

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Protection

by Bagheera


1

Clark couldn't quite tear himself away from the farm just yet. The decision was made; he would go to the Fortress and finish his Kryptonian education. Actually, it had been made for months, ever since he met Raya and finally understood that he had to learn what Jor-El had to offer if he wanted to be able to protect Earth any longer. And how scary was that? For years his hands had been full just from protecting Smallville and his own secret, but now that didn't count any longer. Now the stakes had changed. There were aliens, from outer space, attacking Earth, and no matter how much Clark hated it, he was the one who had to fight them. Not Ollie, not Arthur, not Victor, not Bart. It simply wasn't fair to them, who were despite their powers and abilities only human, to stay here in Smallville and hide. He had only procrastinated by waiting until all the Zoners were defeated. Now it was time.

People Clark loved would get hurt if he didn't do everything he could to be able to protect them and if it meant going to the Fortress and having Jor-El turn him into a real Kryptonian, then Clark had to do that.

Even his Mom, who had always been afraid of losing him to his birth parents' legacy, had agreed that it was necessary.

There wasn't really anything left to do. There tools were all in their places, the stables repaired, he'd even gone through the barn with a broom for a second time. He was setting himself ultimatums, he would go by noon, then by sundown, then, when the sun was starting to set, once he'd said goodbye to his Mom one last time, once she came home from Metropolis.

The car driving up to the house didn't sound like hers.

Clark dusted off his hands and went outside, where the evening smelled of golden sunlight and summer. It was a black sports car, driven by someone reckless, and Clark had a feeling that it wasn't Ollie come for a last visit before returning to Star City.

The licence plate confirmed that it was Lex. Clark frowned. Lex hadn't been by the farm for almost a year now.

The car was parked with a squeal of tires and the door jumped open. Lex rose slowly from it, slowly in contrast to the earlier haste, and stood motionlessly by the driver's side for a moment before slamming the door shut. He carried a steel suitcase and wore a black overcoat that was entirely too long and warm for July.

Clark crossed his arms and waited for Lex to come to him. He could see as Lex came closer that his walk was strangely stiff and that he wore black leather driving gloves. Indeed there was a faint sheen of perspiration on his face, but he looked pale and clammy rather than hot.

"Clark," Lex said, but it wasn't a greeting or an acknowledgement of Clark's person. It was nothing, said tonelessly like a word without meaning. "We've got to talk."

Lex walked past him without invitation, into the tidy barn and straight to the cleaned-up work table by the old tractor. Clark followed him, part indignant and part wary at the unexpected intrusion. Lex sat the steel suitcase onto the table and opened the locks with a complicated combination. Inside was a laptop.

"What do you want, Lex?" Clark demanded.

Lex didn't turn around, instead he went on setting up the laptop. "I'm going to show you something." That same inflectionless voice, like a robot, like a man on auto-pilot. Clark started to worry, but he wasn't sure whether he worried because of Lex or about him.

From close up, Lex smelled of sharp alcohol. That was odd. Lex drank too much, but he never smelled of it whenever they had one of their recently rare meetings - usually clashes and arguments.

Lex also smelled faintly of something else beneath the alcohol. Antiseptics and blood and something sweet - but Clark was distracted by something on the laptop screen.

A video was running. Then another. Then a graphic, then an audio tape. Photographs.

Clark, there in one moment, gone in another. Clark, lifting a car in the aftermath of Zod's devastation of Metropolis the summer before. Clark, in an elevator car, shooting his heat-vision at one surveillance camera, but missing the other one. An image of the spaceship from the year before. An image full of black blots - DNA analysed and not found human.

Clark backed one step away.

Lex turned around, without any expression at all. Fearless. Bloodless. "Before you make any rash decisions, Clark, I'm going to give you a fair warning. There are copies of all this stored in places you will never find, which will be sent to some very interested parties in case I should pass away in an accident or simply vanish. I'll do the same if you decide to vanish, of course. It'll have most unfortunate consequences - not just for you."

A finger on the keyboard, and the footage switched to the Green Arrow, taking his hood off to reveal Oliver Queen. Another switch and the images became blue, underwater, showing someone swimming at inhuman speed, then stop - Arthur Curry.

"There's more, of course. You won't believe the dirt I've been able to dig up on Chloe. Very ruthless when it comes to getting information, your friend. And her cousin is following nicely in her steps."

Clark stared, at Lex and at the evidence and at nothing at all, for some time. Lex just stood there, as if he was only bodily here.

He never thought Lex would go this far and now, that seemed incredibly stupid. Hadn't he known that the Daily Planet could be bugged, that there were security cameras everywhere in Lex's house, that all Lex had to do was to pick up a stray hair to examine Clark's DNA?

He had known, but he hadn't fully believed yet.

"You can't do that," Clark said. "You'd ruin all of our lives. Mine, my Mom's, Chloe's - she's Lana's best friend, Lex!"

Lex breathed calmly, as if he hadn't heard Clark at all. Then he said: "Lana is dead. It doesn't matter."

Clark's eyes widened in horror. "You - "

"She died giving birth, last night," Lex replied, like it was a story someone had told him. "They saved the child, but there wasn't anything that could be done for her."

Clark felt weak in the knees, more from shock than from anything else. It wasn't real, just - he had to sit down, on the stairs up to the loft and try and breathe.

"How could this happen? She was perfectly healthy - "

"She was," Lex said. "I had the best care for her that money can afford. It wasn't enough."

It was far, far too much for Clark. This morning. Why hadn't anyone told him? Did anyone besides Lex even know about it?

And Lex just stood there, dark and pale, with the evidence of Clark's secret in his hands, waiting.

It all made sense now, the smell of blood and alcohol, of hospitals. He even smelled of Lana, just the tiniest bit. And the rings under his eyes, and the red around them - exhaustion.

"You're not thinking straight," Clark said, because it was easier to deal with Lex than with - the rest. "Whatever you think you're doing, Lex, don't. You're in shock - "

"I was," Lex said, matter-of-factly. "I'm dealing now. Taking the necessary steps. I thought I had taken them before, but obviously I was still too... reluctant. Now that we've settled that, let's get to business." He tapped the suitcase. "You understand what this means?"

Clark couldn't do anything but nod, but Lex appeared satisfied - if that blank expression could be called satisfied. "I'm pretty sure that no prison on Earth could hold you, Clark. I'm not threatening you with any physical harm. You can flee, I'm sure of that, but you will hurt the ones closest to you and you will never have a normal life again."

"What do you want?" Clark asked tightly. Jesus, once again he'd messed up by not going to the Fortress. If he had done that, he'd be there now, or he'd be back already, strong and smart enough to do something about this. But he hadn't. He was still just his stupid old self and Lex... Lex was apparently completely crazy.

"You're going to tell me the truth."

"How can you even think about that now?" Clark shouted.

"Are there any others?" Lex asked unrelentingly.

Others. Like him, presumably. There weren't, as far as Clark knew, since he and his super-powered friends had taken care of the Zoners by now. Clark was breathing hard, as if there was anything on Earth that could exert him.

"No. I'm the last."

For the first time since he had arrived, Lex gave him a look that was fully there. "You shouldn't lie to me," he said softly.

Clark squared his jaw. "I'm not. There aren't any others I know of. The ones that came... I took care of them."

"Good," Lex said unexpectedly. "My other questions can wait. Now to the second thing you're going to do."

"I'm not going to do anything for you, Lex."

"You're going to work for me. You know the alternative, Clark."

God, he did. But the things Lex might ask of him - what if he wanted him to steal, like Morgan Edge? What if -

"I'm not going to hurt anyone." And he was going to find a way out of this. Somehow. Lex might be smarter and better prepared than Edge, but so was Clark, by now. Older. And he had allies.

"You are, if they're going to try and hurt me or my daughter. I'm sure protecting a newborn child isn't a task you'll find too distasteful, Clark."

Protect? "What the - ?"

"I'm sure that with your unique talents and your inclination towards playing the saviour, you'll make a formidable bodyguard. I might require some other services, but this is going to be your primary focus," Lex explained crisply and then turned around. "We'll discuss further details in the car."

He followed him numbly. All he could think was that Lex was either so completely out of his mind that Clark couldn't even rightfully blame him for anything, or this was some sort of mind game, Lex pretending to want something relatively harmless from Clark when what he really wanted was much more sinister.

Clark selfishly hoped that it was the first as he got into Lex's car. The windows were tinted, and the inside was wintry cool. Clark sat stiffly in the co-driver's seat and didn't bother with a seatbelt as they drove off the farm. He would have insisted on writing his Mom a note if he had known what to write. Maybe it was a good thing that she knew he was going to go to the Fortress tonight. She would worry when he didn't come back, but not as badly as she would if she knew about this. And he'd sort this out and then he'd come back. Somehow.

Maybe he should start with trying to get at least some reason into Lex. "You know that this isn't going to bring her back."

"I know. This isn't about Lana. This is about me and Lena and doing the best I can to protect us," Lex replied as if by rote.

Lena. Somehow that name made the baby more real. And Lex... Lex really should be the one to take care of a child. During the pregnancy, Clark had sometimes hoped that, maybe, being a father would change Lex for the better, but that clearly wasn't the case. "Shouldn't you be with the baby instead of... doing this?" Clark reproachfully asked him.

There was a beat of silence, maybe surprise, as Lex considered that. When he answered, he sounded almost bewildered. "She's at the hospital... I called this morning, she's fine... six pounds, the doctor said."

Clark blinked and felt something inside him give. The suitcase with the blackmail material still between them, he couldn't help but feel that even if Lex was a bad man, worse even than Clark thought, and even if this was terrible betrayal, there was still some hope for Lex.

"That's good, isn't it?"

Lex turned and frowned at Clark for a second, questioningly, and then glanced down at the suitcase and finally back at the road. "It's normal weight for a newborn."

"Maybe you should go and see her. I'm sure she needs that more than whatever you're trying to do to protect her."

"I didn't hire you to give me advice."

Clark shook his head at Lex.

"You didn't hire me."

*

Surprisingly, after a long, mostly silent drive they ended up at Davis Clinic in Metropolis. Clark felt hollow, unable to think about what had happened or what was going to happen to him until he recognised the hospital building and realised that for some reason, Lex had done as he suggested.

Lex parked the black car and paused a long moment, staring up at the hospital before pulling the keys and getting out of the car. Clark followed him up the steps, wondering. This was the first time in two years that Lex had listened to any advice Clark had given and that was just... weird. He'd blackmailed and threatened Clark a mere two hours ago and now... now he was distant, but civil and not doing anything remotely evil.

Clark hated that Lex could never make anything easy. Clark hated that Lex could be good but wasn't.

Clark realised that this was the place where Lana had died. He kept seeing her dead body before him, how he pulled her out of that car and held her and how he begged Jor-El for her life. All for nothing, now.

He wondered darkly whether his father would still live if he hadn't made that decision. Wondered what decision he'd have made if he had known that he'd kill his father in exchange for only a year and a half of Lana's life.

Lex was talking to a doctor and then they followed a nurse, Clark always one step behind, blind to the bright, friendly hospital floors. They went into the maternity ward, and only then Clark realised that Lex was entirely serious about wanting to protect his daughter. There was security detail in front of a newborn's station. How paranoid was that?

The nurse led them to a tiny bed with a baby that didn't look much different than any other tiny baby. Fair skin, puffy eyes closed, a dusting of dark red hair on her big head. Lex stood by the bed, stiff and without response to anything the nurse said, so she finally left them alone. Clark was going to wait for Lex to do anything, touch his daughter, lift her up, at least say something, but nothing came. When he couldn't bear it anymore he stepped up to the bed and laid a hand on the edge.

Lana's child and Lex's child. She was innocent. She wouldn't ever have been born if Clark hadn't made that choice and asked Jor-El for Lana's life. She didn't deserve what life handed her - life as a Luthor, without a mother. Clark could see it now: she'd grow up like Lex used to be, lonely and vulnerable and needy and without a person in the world to trust.

Clark couldn't save Lex, but he could save her.

"Can I touch her?" he asked softly, so as not to disturb the baby's sleep. Lex looked up, startled, but nodded. His eyes followed almost hungrily as Clark reached into the bed and touched her cheek with the back of a finger. She was warm, incredibly soft, as breakable as any human and as worthy of protection.

She made a wet noise between a gurgle and a wail and opened her eyes - baby blue, of course and only small slits framed by the tiniest of red lashes. Clark smiled, and without much thought, he lifted her up and out of the bed. He'd handled a baby only once before, but he remembered to support the head, remembered how it felt to hold a human being that fit into the crook of his arm.

He smiled. The baby fixed on his smile with an open mouth and then suddenly returned a content smile of her own.

Clark looked up at Lex, who was staring at them with the look of a parched wanderer within sight of the holy grail but already too weak to raise a hand and touch.

It had been a long, long time since Lex at Clark like that. In any other situation, Clark would have been suspicious of that look. Someone like Lex shouldn't bee able to be that way. But this was...

"Do you want to hold her?"

Lex frowned and swallowed, then said distantly, "Lena seems to like you. That's good. We will have a wet nurse, of course, and a nanny - "

Clark sighed and simple gave her to Lex, who took his daughter like the fragile being she was and held her awkwardly, imitating Clark's pose. She didn't smile yet, and while her father's face was clearly of interest, her eyes kept slipping shut until she was asleep in less than a minute.

"I didn't think she would look so much like Julian," Lex said in choked voice.

"I think newborns all look a bit alike, Lex. She's a healthy baby."

"Julian was healthy, too, but - " Lex stopped and suddenly seemed to remember who he was talking to. His mouth set in a thin line and he looked away from Clark. "This time it's going to be different."

He set her down in her bed gently enough not to wake her up again and then left the room with brisk steps. The nurse was waiting outside - clearly, this was an expensive private hospital, because in any other hospital Clark had ever been to, nurses and doctors were always busy - and nodded to everything Lex said to her, which was quite a lot. Clark looked back into the room where Lena lay, and felt exhausted.

Lana was dead. Lex was out of his mind and blackmailing him. Lex knew his secret, for that matter. And Lex had a daughter and now Clark felt responsible for her, too.

Why did it always end up with him having to save the world?

*

From the hospital, they drove to LuthorCorp. For the first time, Clark was just one of the people Lex ordered around, and once he ignored the bristle of anger, it was weirdly relaxing to just let go and do as he was told - it felt safe, like it felt safe to have his Dad telling him what to do even if Clark didn't like it... but that was wrong. There were good reasons why Clark didn't like Lex ordering him around, one of them being that Lex was bound to give bad orders eventually.

For the present, however, Lex was only leading him up to the penthouse above his office. He took of his coat and deposited the suitcase in a safe, then he turned to Clark. "You have a way to find bugs and security cameras, don't you?"

Clark could lie, but maybe this was a trick question. Maybe Lex already had evidence of the x-ray vision. What would he do if Clark tried to lie? He didn't have to blow off all his blackmail material at once. He could do it bit by bit, keeping Clark's secret an ace up his sleeve while he got Clark's friends into trouble.

Clark wasn't sure if Lex would really give away Clark's secret - he was obsessed with it, after all - but he knew that Lex had no problem at all with hurting Ollie or Arthur or Victor.

"I can see through solid objects," Clark said. It was horrible, like confessing a crush for the first time, only without any hope of a positive outcome.

"Do it, then."

Clark raised his brows at the new levels of paranoia revealed to him, but then, this was probably a legitimate worry. Lex had been bugged before. He looked around the large apartment, room for room, and did so partly in his own interest - he didn't want anyone else to find out about his secret.

"The place is clean," he finally reported.

"Do this every time you enter, the same with my office and my cars."

Jesus, Lex was really getting into this habit of ordering Clark around. But as long as it wasn't anything worse than sweeping for bugs, Clark wouldn't complain.

Lex went into the main living room, so Clark followed. The penthouse was quite a bit different from the mansion in style and feel. Everything here had a cool, modern edge to it, like something straight out of an interior designer's fantasy. There were windows going from ceiling to floor, taking up two sides of the room, and the panorama of Metropolis at night was quite breathtaking.

Clark wondered how somebody with a fear of heights could ever feel truly comfortable up here. But probably that wasn't the point, anyway.

"I'm giving up the mansion," Lex said abruptly as he sat down on a long leather couch with a glass of scotch.

Clark considered sitting down somewhere but didn't. Help didn't sit down with you, not even bodyguards. That was something he had learned from Lex and he remembered it now. He wasn't going to let Lex pretend that this was anything it wasn't.

His strategy seemed successful, because after a gloomy moment of silence, Lex ordered him to sit. "Tell me about yourself."

"You already know everything," Clark said stubbornly.

"I presume you came with the first meteor shower."

Yeah, and if it had happened differently, Clark would apologize now. But they were even.

"Were you alone?"

He hated to be quizzed like this. Chloe and Pete had asked a lot of questions, too, but they'd never asked them like an interrogation, like Clark was the enemy.

"My birth parents sent me as baby in a spaceship. I was supposed to be the last survivor of our planet."

"Do you remember anything?"

Clark shook his head mutely, but then suddenly realised the opportunity this represented. He looked at Lex and at the same time reached into his memory for a story his Mom had told him once. At the time, it had fascinated him, and if he knew Lex at all, this was going to get at him, too.

Clark hated to use it like this, but Lex was playing a far dirtier game.

"My parents found me and my ship during the meteor shower. My Mom didn't want to leave me alone in the field, so they put the ship into the back of the truck and a tarp on top and drove back to Smallville. But on the way, they were stopped by your Dad. He was trying to get help for you." And clearly, it was working. Lex was listening with bright, incredulous eyes. "My Dad went into the field and carried you to the car. They drove you to the hospital. Your Dad was the one who made it possible for them to adopt me without any papers."

Lex stared, then downed his glass. "And you've known this since before we first met. When I hit you with my car, I mean."

Clark gave a sudden, harsh laugh. How the hell could Lex still feel betrayed after everything he'd said to Clark today? "I didn't even know I was an alien, then. My parents only told me after... you hit me with your car, because I asked them why I didn't get hurt."

Lex filled his glass again, and downed it in two large gulps. "This wasn't how I planned this to go," he said bitterly. "Tell me another story, Scheherazade."

Clark stumbled over that name, then recognised it. The girl who staved off execution by telling the king another fairy-tale each night.

"I'm telling the truth."

Lex laughed darkly and a bit drunk. "It makes too much sense for that."

Clark leaned back into the soft, cool leather of the sofa. He knew what the penthouse reminded him of now: the apartments he used to live in during that summer in Metropolis, high and burning on red kryptonite. Oh, and wasn't that a bad thing to think of now. If he had that ring now, he wouldn't care about anything...

Clark wondered what he'd do to Lex right now if he wore that ring. Lex, who sat sprawled on his own couch, his head thrown back and his throat bared, drinking liquor like water and still thinking he could give Clark orders... but he could.

He licked his lips and thought of a story, one that might stave off his execution a little while longer. "After the tornadoes, we had lost the spaceship. One day, Pete found it in a field and wanted to sell it. I tried to convince him not to, but in the end, the only way I could stop him was to tell him the truth about me - "

And Clark slipped into the story. He hadn't known he could tell stories like this because he had always just listened to other people's stories, but it was a bit like writing an article in the Torch about something that really interested him. The words made shapes and feelings, and Clark understood what Lex meant when he said they made too much sense.

Lex listened and drank and rarely asked questions. He got quieter and quieter all night, and by the end, close to three a.m., his eyes were rimmed red and shining too bright in the lamp-light, but he made no sound other than to order Clark to find a room to sleep in.

*

Clark chose the smaller of two guest rooms - which was still about the size of a big hotel suite. There was a bed, some dark wardrobes and an adjoining bathroom. Each room had security cameras hidden in the walls, which made Clark hesitate to take a shower, but since he would have to eventually, he simply squared his jaw and undressed to have a long, ice-cold shower.

By the time he lay down on the bed in his rumpled old clothes from the day before - work clothes, still smelling of straw and dust - it was close to morning. Through the large windows, he could watch the sun setting, the golden rays turning skyscraper after skyscraper into a pillar of fire. It was just as well that Clark could go without sleep for days, even weeks if he wanted to, because he wouldn't have been able to sleep if he tried.

Lex rose surprisingly early for a man who had gotten so thoroughly drunk the night before. Clark listened to him taking a short shower and dressing for the day without feeling any guilt at invading Lex's privacy. When Lex went into what, from the sounds of coffee being made, had to be the kitchen, Clark got up as well and put on his boots.

He found Lex in the middle of the kitchen, a coffee cup in one hand, a handheld in the other, talking into a headset. There was no trace of a hangover on him, Lex looked like neither a man who had lost his lover the day before nor like a man losing any sleep over blackmailing a former friend.

Lex acknowledged Clark's presence with only a short glance, then turned back to the conversation he was having with some underling. Clark set out to have breakfast, but the fridge was almost empty - unused, like the rest of the gleaming kitchen - and Lex seemed live on coffee and fresh air.

Of course, it was possible that he was trying to starve Clark, but such pointless cruelty seemed unlikely even for Lex. Probably the penthouse was just ill-equipped because Lex usually didn't live here.

In between two calls, Lex unexpectedly stopped pacing and said, "There should be a change of clothes for you in the hall."

Clark frowned. "I've got my own clothes."

"You're officially my new personal assistant, so you need professional clothing," Lex said and with that, the conversation was finished because Lex was already dressing down the next employee.

Clark ground his teeth over his cooling coffee - and Lex was bad at making coffee, too, and it reminded him of how horrible Lana's coffee used to taste before she got the hang of it and he didn't want to think about Lana now - but in the end he went into the hall to find his change of clothes. There wasn't, it turned out, just a change of clothes, but an assistant waiting as well, a cool-faced woman in square glasses who took his measures before Clark could so much as introduce himself or protest and then vanished into the elevator.

If Lex expected him to become one of those wordless, robot-like servants, he was going to wait a long time.

*

The suit wasn't bad in and of itself, but Clark hated it. It reminded him entirely too much of the clothes he had chosen for himself while under the influence of red kryptonite; the colours were less aggressive, but the feel of the clothes on his skin was just the same, dark and sleek and expensive.

Clark hated it because he liked it.

Lex, however, didn't even seem to notice the change, indeed, Clark appeared to be invisible to him until they were in the elevator, going down.

"You've seen bodyguards," he then said, "so you know how this works."

"If you want a bodyguard, Lex, why don't you just take somebody who's trained to do this?" Clark asked sharply.

Lex smiled, bland and untrue. "I'm confident in your abilities, Clark. You saved me so many times, I'm sure you're up to the job."

Clark didn't get it, he thought morosely, as he followed Lex into the LuthorCorp offices. Lex had a super-powered alien at his beck and call, and all he did was give him the job of some random goon? It wasn't as if Clark had any real qualifications, but seriously. Superpowers. Even Clark had better ideas what to do with them.

After about two hours, Clark was sure that being a bodyguard was about the worst job humans had ever invented. All he had to do was stand at the door and stare into space while Lex did his work - which didn't look very interesting to begin with, and certainly wasn't when you had to watch it.

And if there were two things in the world that Clark really didn't want to do right now it was watching Lex and having nothing to do.

Having nothing to do posed the bigger problem, since Clark couldn't help but think. Unlike some people - say, Chloe, or Lex - thinking stuff over was never really productive for Clark. He'd just keep thinking in circles, the same stuff over and over, until everything was horrible and unsolvable in his mind.

Clark wanted to be alone. He wanted to be where no one could see him. He wanted his Mom, too, because maybe then he'd be able to grieve.

He didn't want to have to grieve.

Lex worked without pause. He truly looked as if he had forgotten most things around him, drawn in on himself and without his usual intensity about him. Most of what he did made little sense to Clark, but from time to time he'd catch a fragment of a sentence Lex said on the phone that meant something - he was arranging for interviews with nurses and for Lana's relatives to be contacted and making first plans for a funeral. Clark wouldn't have been able to understand how Lex could do this so calmly if he hadn't seen his Mom after his Dad's death. She'd done all of this, too, because she had to.

Noon passed and Lex ignored it. Clark was beginning to get seriously hungry.

About two p.m., Clark heard low voices from the elevator, and before he could focus on them, Lionel Luthor was breezing through the doors of Lex's office, completely overlooking Clark, as if the suit and tie turned him into a piece of furniture.

Lex looked up from his work. There wasn't any surprise on his face, just weariness and determination.

"Lex! I heard about Miss Lang - "

"And you immediately came to take advantage of my vulnerable state? I have to disappoint you, Dad. You missed the moment."

Lionel drew himself up straight. "Lex. That's callous, even for you."

Lex gave his father a long, even look that chilled Clark to the bone. He had seen Lex in the hospital and the night before, knew it wasn't true, knew that Lex felt something, but he wouldn't believe it from what he now saw.

"I seem to remember you being very busy after Mom passed away, Dad. I'm sure you'll understand that I have matters to take care of. So either leave me alone or tell me why you're really here."

Lionel rubbed his beard. "Mmm. I went to the hospital as soon as I could, of course, but it seems the doctors won't let me see my granddaughter."

"Ah. And it didn't occur to you to check with me before you went to the hospital?" Lex asked politely.

"She's your daughter!" Lionel protested. "All I want is to see my first grandchild!"

"And I'm sure you're delighted at the prospect of another Luthor heir to twist to your liking. Let me say this once and for all, Dad: you won't even try anything with my daughter. If you want to see Lena, you'll do it with my okay, and I'll be there the whole time."

Lionel laughed, startled. "You're paranoid, Lex! What do you think I'd do? Plant the seed of evil in her little head? She's two days old, for God's sake."

"Trust is good, control better," Lex replied serenely.

His father gave an exasperated sigh. "I see. I'll pay you another visit when you're rational again."

He turned on his heels and stopped dead in his tracks when his eyes fell on Clark. Lionel's look of surprise would have been comical if Clark hadn't known what this meant. The matter was out, in some way or other, and his Mom would learn of it, unless Lex had some way to silence his father, too.

"Clark," Lionel said when he recovered from his surprise. "I certainly didn't expect to meet you here." He darted a look back at Lex. Lex, Clark noted, had a suddenly guarded look on his face, not quite guilty, but not nearly as bland as before. Lionel caught it, of course. "You must be paying your condolences, too," he surmised, with the clear insinuation in his voice that he didn't believe that for a second.

Before Clark could decide on an answer, Lex spoke for him. "Clark and I have come to an agreement, but I don't see how it concerns you, Dad. Have a good day."

Lionel didn't take his eyes off Clark. "This is certainly an... unexpected development. But these are difficult times for all of us. I'm glad to see you realised what a... worthwhile ally Mr Kent can be."

Lex's eyes narrowed at that, and Lionel smiled, as if he could see it with the back of his head. "Be sure to give my best to your mother, Clark. I shall be calling her shortly," he said, and then exited with another, almost mocking nod to Lex.

Neither of them said anything until they heard the sound of the elevator going down.

"So that's what you're going to tell people? That we've 'come to an agreement'?" Clark challenged. "I somehow don't think my Mom or Chloe are going to believe that. Or your Dad, for that matter."

Lex toyed with a pen. "No, I don't believe they will. You're free to tell them what our agreement is about, though. I'm sure they'll understand."

Clark wasn't sure they would. Especially Chloe. She'd try to help him and get into trouble. Clark could deal with this, somehow, but he couldn't bear anyone else getting hurt because of him. He left his place by the door and walked over to Lex's desk, putting his hands on it. Lex didn't shrink back, but he stared directly at Clark's eyes like someone who was very well aware what Clark could do.

"Leave them out of it, Lex. I mean it. I'll do what you want me to do, but if you hurt my Mom or Chloe, you'll regret it."

"I understand. I remember you can be quite fierce when it comes to defending the ones closest to you."

Now it was Clark himself drawing back as if burned. Once upon a time, Lex had been one of the people Clark would have defended with his life - would have killed for, would even have exposed his secret for.

And Lex had risked all the same things for Clark.

"Lex -"

"That may never have included me," Lex went on, interrupting Clark, "but I haven't forgotten that this loyalty is one of your most valuable traits. It's why you're here now. Your protection is the best any man could hope for. I would be remiss if I didn't make sure I had it."

Clark stared down at Lex and his perfectly sincere expression, and felt part of himself going mad. What Lex was forcing him to do was really nothing but what Clark would do anyway, it was something Lex didn't even have to ask for.

And how could Lex not know that?

*

They did eventually have lunch brought in by the secretary, although Lex still didn't do much but pick at his salad and down another coffee. It reminded Clark of a lot of lunches he'd had at the mansion, except for the stiff silence between them. They'd had silences before, meaningful ones and companionable ones, and later silences full of secrets and things left unsaid, but never a silence like this, drawn-out and unbalanced, like an unsettling dream.

Lex interviewed a couple of possible nurses for Lena in the afternoon, but he did it listlessly and with apparent dislike for the task. Clark didn't envy him. Having to find a surrogate mother for the baby a mere two days after Lana's death was awful. And he couldn't imagine Lex wanting to have a stranger in his apartment or his life right now, either.

Clark might have been anything but a friend to Lex, but he was also anything but a stranger.

After Lionel's visit, Clark didn't expect any less pleasant visitors for Lex, but just when he was about to wrap up his day at the office, there was a small commotion in the anteroom and a dark-haired woman burst into the office.

Clark almost didn't recognise Nell Lang with her dishevelled hair and hastily applied make-up. She seemed years older, too, than she had the year before, when Clark had seen her when he and Lana were dating.

She walked straight past Clark, up to Lex's desk and slammed her handbag onto it. Lex looked a lot less composed than he had during Lionel's visit.

"You cold bastard son of a bitch," Nell hissed in a thick, venomous tone that made even Clark flinch. "My - Lana is dead and all you do is have some... some underling of yours call me?"

"Mrs Lang -" Lex tried to pacify her, but she didn't let him finish.

"You dragged her into all of this," she said, with a horrible sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. "It was the two of you," and with that she whirled around to point at Clark, whom she clearly had recognized despite his suit. "The two of you, right from the start. You got that crazy idea in her head that she could manage a business on her own - she was just a highschool freshman! If I had known what... what your intentions were -"

"I assure you I never had any indecent intentions towards Lana at that - "

"And to think that I believed it was him you were after - "

Lex had gotten up from behind his desk with the speed of cobra about to strike, but Nell didn't let that stop her. Clark just stood rooted to the spot, shocked by Nell's words, shocked by her view of things, shocked that she included him in her wrath.

But it wasn't entirely untrue. He was the reason Lex had ever noticed Lana at all. Clark was even fairly sure that he was the reason Lex had ever dated her in the first place - as some form of petty revenge to him or something like that.

"I was the only person in that whole damn town who didn't think you were some kind of child-molester. I defended you! And you... you ruined her! She was a happy, sensible girl, and you turned her head with all that money you gave her, made her think she was God knows who, then you made her crazy with all this talk about aliens and spaceships and then finally you got her into your bed. I know you, Lex Luthor and I'm not going to let you raise Lana's daughter. I'm going to file for guardianship in court - "

At that, Lex finally seemed to recover his senses. "I doubt you'll have much chance against my lawyers, Mrs Lang."

She launched at him, reduced to wordless rage. Clark was over at the desk and grasping her shoulder before could even think of it. Surprisingly Nell gave no resistance, but merely collapsed under his touch with a pained, shaky exhalation.

"I won't let you," she whispered.

Clark gentled his touch and led her outside. By the elevator, he released her, taking an awkward step back. He shouldn't be doing this. Nell was a Mom, like Pete's Mom or his own Mom. She'd known him since before he could speak properly!

"I think you're right, Mrs Lang," Clark said softly. "You should file in court."

She frowned, not quite at him, and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief from her handbag. "Then why are you with Luthor?"

"I - " Clark faltered, lacking an answer. He knew why, of course, but he couldn't say that. Couldn't say 'because Lex is blackmailing me with the fact that I'm an alien', but he couldn't just give her some cover story, either.

Her lips twitched and she nodded, stepping into the open elevator. "I wish I had been right about the two of you. You deserve each other," she said coldly, right before the doors slid close.

Clark stared at them for a long moment, then turned back to Lex's office. Anger and discomfort coiled around each other in his chest and he felt like yelling and like hiding at the same time.

"You handled that very well," Lex said as he entered. He stood with his back to Clark, looking out of the windows surveying the city.

Clark crossed his arms. "I man-handled Nell Lang out of your office," he spat.

Lex said nothing for a long time, then rubbed the back of his neck. "She was irrational," he said tiredly.

"I don't know, Lex. Some of the things she said made a lot of sense to me."

Lex laughed, low and mirthless. "Is that so. Which, did you think, made a lot of sense?"

"We were the reason Lana got the Talon and never left Smallville."

"And my intentions? Was I out to ruin the innocent small-town girl?"

Clark came over to the window, fed up with talking to Lex's back. He was fed-up with a lot of things. "I don't know, Lex. You tell me."

Lex turned to give him a long glance. "I'd never have let anything happen until you were of age. Either of you."

Clark felt like he'd swallowed a lump of ice. He suddenly needed to breathe but couldn't. That wasn't the answer he'd been looking for. That wasn't even supposed to be a possible answer.

He hadn't even let himself wonder since the first time he concluded that, no, what people said behind his back wasn't true, not of Lex and not of him, either.

And suddenly, he had the distinct idea that the only one it wasn't true of was Lana.

"Why - "

"You had your secrets and I had mine."

He stepped away from the window with that and retrieved his briefcase from the desk. Once again Clark had nothing left to do but follow him, and he hated that now, because he really wanted to run fast and far and have some time alone.

Up in the penthouse, Lex went straight for the scotch, dropping his briefcase on a couch and taking off his tie as he did so. When he turned around with a glass in hand to find Clark standing in the door, he said, coldly and dismissively, "You're free to go to your room now."

Clark considered it, but he didn't like the idea of giving Lex what he wanted. In fact, he was less and less convinced that he had to play Lex's game at all.

He loosened his own tie and sat down on the couch across from Lex.

He wondered, as Lex gave him a long, thoughtful regard over his glass, whether Lex still looked at him... that way. Clark wasn't even sure what exactly that was. Oh, he knew how Lex used to look at him and how he did now, and the night before, but he didn't know what it meant. Was Lex really attracted to him? It didn't make much sense. Lex dated supermodels. Clark's self-confidence was somewhat stronger than it had been when he had been a highschool freshman, but he knew he was awkward and inexperienced and couldn't move the way Lex's girlfriends could, or dress the way they did, or do the things... they probably could do.

But he rather suspected it didn't matter. Of course it was hard to tell when he couldn't even tell what was true about Lex and what was not, but he was pretty sure he knew those looks meant.

It all boiled down to whether Lex had been in lust, or in love. Whatever passed for that with Lex.

And that was... a surprisingly familiar thought.

Once upon a time, it had simply been a fact that Lex loved him. A strange, amazing, exciting, somewhat frightening fact. An often pleasing fact. But always a fact.

He realised that they had been silent for a long time only when Lex spoke. "Tell me another story, Clark."

The room was golden, like the drink in Lex's glass. Outside, the lower parts of the city were sinking into deep blue shadows while a thousand windows reflected the evening sun. Everything was warm, languid, worn-out like the day.

It was hard to think of a story that hadn't just truth but also meaning. Clark's thoughts were slow, aimless, as he gathered his memories and grasped for what he wanted to say.

"Remember... back in highschool, when I found out that Chloe had a crush on me?"

Lex didn't protest, just took another sip from his glass, so Clark continued. "I went to the dance with her, but I shouldn't have. I just did it because I was... flattered, I guess, and sorta, well, glad that someone at least wanted to go with me. But I didn't get that it meant more to me than to her. I hurt her pretty badly. Things weren't so good between us for a long time after that. Still, Chloe never just left, like Pete did. She stayed, and she found out about my secret, but she never told me until the second meteor shower, when she saw me walking through the cave wall. I had to tell her, then, and she was really cool with it, not like Pete.

"Afterwards, things went really great between us for a year. She kept my secret and it never bothered her that she had to lie for me and she... well, we got really close. Stuff could have happened, but we were friends and it was comfortable and I didn't want to risk it and I don't think Chloe wanted to, either. When that thing with Zod happened and we thought we might not see each other again, she kissed me. Just once."

Lex's expression was indifferent, but he listened. It didn't seem to matter to him very much what Clark told him, as long as it was something.

"The thing is, afterwards, she said it was no big deal and I - I was just stupid. I didn't say then that it was a big deal for me, you know? And then she started dating Jimmy and the whole time I felt like such a moron, because... I hadn't realised what Chloe meant to me, and when I did, I missed the moment to tell her."

"If that's supposed to be a metaphor for anything, Clark, it sucks," Lex drawled.

"It's just what happened. I that bores you - "

Lex laughed darkly. "Oh no, Clark. I missed listening to your teenage angst."

Clark raised his brows sceptically. "You did?"

"No. Maybe. Lana never talked about things like that."

He felt his mouth turn bitter, and frowned. "Don't -"

"Compare you? I do - I did that all the time."

Jesus. Sometimes it was really scary when Lex was honest. He reached for the scotch and poured another glass, obviously intending to get drunk as soon as possible. Clark ran a hand through his hair in frustration. Then he got up and walked into the kitchen, shucking his suit jacket and tie on the way, and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. The fridge was fully stocked by now, so he made himself a couple of sandwiches. Strangely, he felt more at ease doing this here than in the mansion where there the help was always hovering in the kitchen. Maybe it was because he wasn't a guest anymore. He took the plate and a bottle of water back to the living room, keeping the bottle but putting the plate on the table between them.

The look Lex gave the sandwiches was guarded, but it flickered from there to Clark's face and in that moment betrayed a sliver of emotion.

Clark ate while the sunset passed through last stages of tangerine and red and finally subsided under a blanket of grey blue twilight. There weren't any lights on in the penthouse, except where Clark had left them on in the kitchen. The shadows creeping out of the corners had the colour of steel, a hard, lifeless blue grey.

Clark barely noticed what he ate, his mind desperately trying to find a way out of this tangle.

Here was Lex, who had loved him and betrayed him and gathered evidence to Clark's secret - and had apparently known it and kept quiet for months, maybe years, until now.

Here was Lex, who had done horrible things and would go on doing them without the slightest feeling of regret. Deep down, Clark knew him too well to believe that Lex lacked a conscience, therefore, Lex had to be doing this despite his conscience - which made it worse. Probably. Clark didn't know what to think anymore. In the past two years, he'd accepted that Lex had never been a good man, that everything kind and friendly between them had been deception. It was horrible, but at least it seemed to make sense - until now.

But if Lex was capable of love, if he had, in fact, loved Clark, then how did he justify what he was doing?

"Are you doing it now?" Clark asked

Lex looked up, the motion almost sluggish. He'd been drinking steadily since they arrived. "What do you mean?"

"Comparing me and Lana."

Lex sprawled back on the couch, taking another sip with a wide, loose movement. At first he glowered, somewhere past Clark and to the left, but then his expression turned darker, sharper, into smile that raised the hairs on the back of Clark's neck - an outright leer as he fixed Clark.

"Do you think that's disturbing, Clark? Me, comparing you to my girlfriend?" It was a little disturbing, yes, but that was not what Clark meant. He tried to object, but Lex was faster, suddenly leaning forward over the table, his elbows on his knees, his face much closer than before. His teeth and eyes caught what little light there was in the room, casting a dangerous gleam to them.

"Do you want me to say some really disturbing things, Clark?" he asked in low, silky voice. "You're always so tame. Proper. I used to think of it as purity. I used to dream of taking that from you. Do you know how old you were when I first thought about seducing you? Fourteen. You were packing crates of apples on the farmer's market. There wasn't anything like you where I came from."

Clark thought of Lex at twenty-one, smart and sleek and strange and dangerous, with that quicksilver mind and conversations full of traps and subtext, and him, admiring and trusting and so very caught up in that fairy-tale friendship of theirs. If Lex had so much as tried to seduce him... Clark swallowed.

"And then, when I caught on to your lies, I was angry. Do you know how I vented that anger? I had men and women on their knees, right in my office, where you'd stand and smile at me and lie and I let myself imagine that it was you I was fucking."

"You're drunk," Clark managed, but that image was burned into his mind, him on his knees before Lex, like he knelt before Zod in Lex's body, but with the wooden floor of the mansion under him, and Lex -

"Not drunk enough," Lex said, rising suddenly and prowling around the table, only the languid grace of his movements showing that he wasn't sober. "If I were drunk enough, Clark, I would tell you to leave on your shirt," he stood before Clark, so close that Clark needed to lean further back, "and take off your belt," Lex slid forward and down and suddenly he was on Clark, straddling him, warm, hard thighs around Clark's, the seam of his pants grazing Clark's fly and his hands in Clark's hair as he spoke into his ear, "and fuck me."

Clark was utterly still, frozen, but his body was screaming with a billion electrifying touches, betraying him utterly.

"I'd make it an order," Lex growled, hot against Clark's neck, tingling the hairs behind his ear, "make you fuck me, hard - "

Just as suddenly, Clark unfroze, and realised that he was hard. He pushed Lex away, panicked, and lost control for a moment, the push much too powerful, shoving Lex's off him and across the table.

Clark started forward, shocked and afraid that he had seriously hurt Lex. But Lex was already getting off the floor. He clung to the table with one hand and wiped blood off the corner of his mouth with the back of his other hand as he slowly got to his knees.

The blood in Clark's veins curled when Lex chuckled, a low, rough sound in the dark room. He didn't stop, just sat on the floor and laughed, broken and hysterical.

Clark got up and edged away from him, and when he was safely out of range, he fled to his room.

*

It was another sleepless night for Clark. He forced himself not to listen for Lex's movements in the penthouse, but he stayed edgy for hours, unable to relax enough to even take a shower.

It was his own reaction that scared him far more than anything Lex had done or said. The way he couldn't shake the lingering afterimage of Lex's touches, could tell exactly, even hours later, where their bodies had been in contact. The way he'd completely lost control - he hadn't lost control this way since his heat vision developed, a burning red rush shorting out all reason in his brain.

Some hours after midnight, he finally went into the bathroom and peeled off his clothes. Out of the corner of his eyes, Clark could see himself in the mirror above the shiny sink - naked and still flushed, his eyes wide - and he turned away quickly.

Once in the shower, he realised that even the shower gel he used was Lex's - not the same brand, but it belonged to Lex nonetheless, just like the clothes he wore all day, just like the bed he couldn't sleep in.

The thought made him suddenly and painfully hard. Clark groaned, and softly banged his head against the tiles of the shower stall. What kind of perverted freak was he? It was one thing to get a slight hard-on when you were fifteen and riding in a red Ferrari way above speed limit, or when you caught your best friend making out with one of his supermodel girlfriends, but this was just sick.

His body didn't get the message, though, no matter how cold he turned the water. It could have been a tropical rain-shower for all the difference it made. Clark hated his alien body, all the more because he knew that it could stay like this for hours if he didn't find something to take the edge off.

He's blackmailing you, Clark thought desperately. He's evil.

His cock twitched and Clark quickly closed his eyes as he felt the heat build in them. So much for taking the edge off.

With his eyes still tightly closed and his temple resting against the cool wet tiles, Clark gave in to his body. He shuddered as he wrapped his hand around his dick and flexed and pulled a few times. The tension he had ignored all day suddenly became unbearable. He tried very hard not to think of anything in particular, not to hear anything in his mind except the rush of water, but the more he tried, the clearer became the images in his head.

In the end, Clark came biting his lip and tearing at his hair to keep from making noise, to the thought of Lex pushing his legs apart and fucking him against the wall.

Release was hard, wracking his body like harsh sobs and then he felt slack and drained all of a sudden.

Clark dried off with a large, luxurious towel. He found a bathrobe and expensive looking pyjamas in the wardrobe and quickly put on both, suddenly aware that there were cameras everywhere. At home he'd just wear boxers and an old T-shirt, but although his wardrobes had miraculously been stocked with new shirts and pants and even underwear during the day, nothing in there could be called old or comfortable. Whoever had done it had even taken away Clark's old clothes.

He lay down on top of the covers of his bed and put off the light. It was half past three a.m. and Clark still didn't need sleep, but he was weary enough to just lie there and stare at the ceiling for hours, thankfully not thinking of anything in particular.

*

The next morning should have been awkward. Clark was in the kitchen before Lex this time and made himself breakfast from the newly stocked fridge. Pancakes and jam, a big glass of milk - comfort food that didn't bring comfort in this cold, sterile kitchen.

His senses warned him of Lex's presence and a moment later Lex came in, already fully dressed. He looked tired, worn-out, but there were no bruises anywhere on his face although there should have been. It was as if the night before hadn't happened, and looking at Lex's cool, collected, sober self, Clark could hardly believe it himself.

However, Lex seemed bent on ignoring him, and that was a definite tell. That Lex was at least a little embarrassed by his behaviour finally let Clark feel the righteous anger he hadn't felt the night before and he sat frowning at the kitchen counter, mulling over the apology Lex wasn't going to give.

"I've made a call to the hospital earlier. I'm going to take Lena home today," Lex said into the silence.

Clark looked up at him and still found his expression carefully neutral. "So have you decided for a nurse?"

"I've already told my assistant to give her a call. She'll be there when we get back," Lex replied, and set down his coffee. "Are you done?"

Clark wondered what would happen if he said 'No,' but he nodded and got up instead. He put on his suit jacket on the way out of the door and straightened his tie, feeling ridiculously overdressed to go to a hospital.

"The funeral is going to be tomorrow," Lex informed him in the elevator.

Clark swallowed. "Here in Metropolis?" He remembered Lex's own funeral almost exactly four years ago and the impersonal, pompous graves of the Luthor family.

Lex looked down, loosing a fraction of his polite distance. "In Smallville. I'm sure Lana would have preferred that. There'll be less press there, too."

*

At the hospital, they dutifully listened to a nurse's detailed instructions - although, in Lex's case, with a rather absent expression - and once the paperwork was taken care off and the baby safely put into a carrier, it seemed almost natural that it was Clark who ended up carrying her to the car.

Lena was much less silent than the last time they had seen her. She started crying on the way to the parking lot and still cried when Clark sat down with her in the backseat and tried to figure out how the seatbelt worked together with the baby carrier.

"It needs to be the other way round," suggested Lex, who was still hovering next to the open door.

"Are you sure?" Clark asked, trying to turn the carrier around so it was facing to the rear.

"Yes, Clark, I'm sure. I've lived with a baby before, even if it's been some time."

Clark finally worked it out with a triumphant noise, then gave Lex a sheepish look as he realised that he had been right. Lex smiled softly, right until he caught himself at it and turned around to get into the driver's seat.

Once the doors were shut, it was very loud with a wailing baby in the car.

After a second of hesitating, Lex rubbed his scalp with a tense sigh. "Could you please try to calm her down? I don't think I can concentrate on driving like this."

"Um, I don't know," Clark confessed. "She doesn't need her diaper's changed. Maybe she's hungry."

"Clark." Lex's tone was suddenly dangerously calm. "Are you x-raying my daughter?"

Clark jumped in his seat, nearly banging his head on the ceiling. "No!"

"That's good. We don't know the possible side effects yet."

"I've got a pretty good sense of smell, that's all," Clark explained.

"Another power of yours?"

"I'm not sure."

"You're not sure?" Lex sounded incredulous, almost indignant. "How can you not be sure?"

"Well, Lex, how am I supposed to find out?" Clark bit back. The crying was starting to get on his nerves as well, and so was Lex. "Besides, it's not a very exciting power, you know?"

"Right." Lex sounded slightly amused now. "We're going to test that and find out."

Once again Clark startled. "Test?"

"Yeah, I'm sure there are tests to determine the smelling range of animals. I'll let the R&D people prepare something..."

"You didn't say that testing me was part of our arrangement!"

"Clark, we're going to test your sense of smell. That's no more invasive than a wine tasting."

"I -" Clark started to protest, but then stopped as they both realised that Lena had fallen silent during their argument. She was sucking her tiny thumb, watching Clark with big and - it seemed to him - content blue eyes.

"Excellent," Lex said, and turned the key in the ignition.

*

Clark was pretty sure that every single LuthorCorp employee was staring at him as they walked through the foyer to the elevator.

He wondered if they even knew that Lex had become a father or if they just thought that their boss was now in the business of stealing babies. It was certainly a thing you would easily believe of Lionel...

As Lex had predicted, the new nurse was already waiting for them in the penthouse, together with a woman Clark recognised as Lex's secretary.

Clark remembered her dimly from the day before, she had been one of the less remarkable applicants. He estimated her to be about his own age, maybe younger, with long blonde hair tied back in a pony-tail and a self-confident expression. She was tall and presently dressed in formal white blouse and a knee-length navy skirt and when she got up, Clark could not help but notice her athletic legs in dark stockings.

Lex greeted her with a polite, friendly tone, then laid a hand on Clark's shoulder. "This is my assistant, Clark. He'll be living with us as well. If there are any matters of safety, Miss Lance, or if you need to make a decision concerning Lena that you're not sure of, he is the one you should talk to first."

Clark threw Lex a startled glance, but Lex was still looking straight at the woman.

"Nice to meet you, Clark," she said, her voice clear and melodious. "I'm sure we'll get along fine."

"Um," said Clark. "Hello. Nice to meet you too, Miss Lance."

"Oh, it's Laurel," she said and shook his hand. It seemed to Clark that her grip was surprisingly strong.

*

After conferring for a few minutes with Laurel in matters regarding the baby - she was clearly more competent at this than either Lex or Clark - they left her behind with Lena and Lex's secretary to be shown the penthouse and descended to Lex's office.

Lex looked moderately satisfied, so Clark asked, "Why did you tell her to come to me if there were any decisions to be made?"

"Because I trust your judgement," Lex simply replied, and then, as a quieter afterthought, "but I'm not sure I trust mine."

"You don't seem to have any trouble to make decisions about my life," Clark shot back.

The office doors fell shut behind them, and Lex walked behind his desk, sat down and gave Clark a considering look. "You're not a child anymore, Clark."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I haven't had the best role-models when it comes to parenting," Lex finally said tiredly. "As I'm sure you have noticed." He considered a moment before going on. "I don't think of your parents as the ideals I once used to see in them, but I still believe that they did some things right with you. You have a lot of power. You could have turned out much worse."

There was so much quiet respect and regret in Lex's voice that Clark had no answer but silence. It surprised him, though, that Lex had realised that he might not be the best father for Lena. The Lex Clark used to know never made a secret of how bad his childhood and his relation to his father had been, but lately Lex hadn't been very self-critical.

Clark guessed that the first step was always knowing you had a problem.

*

Lex spent the rest of the day working. It was even less interesting to Clark than the day before, since a lot of the phone calls were held in rapid French and Spanish and what Clark thought was probably Japanese.

Lex finished working at half past five - early, he said - and they retired to the penthouse.

Laurel reported that Lena was sleeping and had generally been agreeable throughout the day. Both nurse and baby seemed to have settled in well. Lex listened with polite interest, then excused himself and left rather abruptly for some other part of the large apartment. Clark stayed behind in the kitchen with Laurel.

"He's taking it pretty hard, isn't he?" she observed quietly.

"Yeah," Clark answered, unable to think of anything else.

She gave him a curious look. "Have you been working for Mr Luthor very long?"

"No." Clark tensed. He wondered how long they'd be able to keep things from her.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't be prying. You just seemed to be pretty familiar with each other, that's all."

Clark wavered between a complete lie and a half-truth. "We've known each other for some years," he finally offered.

For a second, Laurel gave him a sharp look out of piercing blue eyes, but then her face once more showed nothing but friendly professionalism. "Ah. Well, I suppose I'll let you get some rest then, Clark."

*

Left alone in the kitchen, Clark had dinner. He cleaned up after himself afterwards, mostly out of habit, but also so he could have some time to think.

Things were getting more complicated. They had both pretended to ignore the night before, but Clark knew they wouldn't be able to do so indefinitely - and Clark was starting to think that this situation might last longer than he had hoped. He still couldn't think of any way to get out of Lex's control and if he was honest with himself, that wasn't his priority anymore. Before he could try to leave he had things to sort out here.

The difficult part was that he didn't really mind staying with Lex most of the time. That worried Clark. He had gotten used to this awfully fast - Lex made it all too easy. He was polite, and in those moments when he forgot to keep up that polite distance, they both kept slipping into their old, comfortable rhythms.

He treated Clark with respect and Clark hadn't expected that. He didn't know how to deal with it, as it made it impossible not to respond somewhat in kind.

And even now, free to have time to himself, Clark was gravitating to where Lex was. He looked in the living room first, expecting to find Lex drinking as on the two nights before, but found it empty. A short x-ray of the apartment showed Laurel in her room. She was sitting by Lena's bedside, rocking the baby in her arms and singing to her. Clark's hearing kicked in and he caught the sound of her voice, sweet and wordless like birdsong. It made him blink, losing his x-ray focus for a moment.

But now that he was listening, he found Lex's heart-beat. It seemed strangely familiar, as if Clark had unconsciously listened to it many times before. It led him, like a beacon, to the hall, past the elevator and up the small staircase to the roof.

There was a steady breeze up here, cooling the hot evening. Clark suddenly realised that he missed fresh air and open skies and being outside. He missed the smell of animals, of home, of wide free spaces. Here the air smelled only faintly of dust and exhaust, of millions of people living below.

He found Lex standing perilously close to the edge of the roof, clad in a thin black coat and facing east, towards the paling sky.

Clark approached him slowly, suddenly worried. All his focus on Lex, he felt no fear of the immense plunge beside him, as if he himself could not fall.

Despite Clark's attempt at silence, Lex noticed him. "It's strange how used to get to places," he mused. "I'm actually missing all that silence and nothing in Smallville, can you imagine?"

"Is that why you're up here?" Clark asked.

Lex's reply was toneless. "Yeah. I've never been here before. It's nice."

"Aren't you scared of heights? I'm not sure it's safe."

Instead of a reply, Lex asked, out of the blue, "Can you fly, Clark? Lana told me Zod could fly when he was possessing my body."

"I float, sometimes," Clark admitted uncomfortably. "And I, uh... can jump pretty high."

"I don't remember what it feels like - flying."

Clark frowned. Even Lex wasn't usually this cryptic. "Lex?"

Lex turned a little towards him, but his gaze passed over Clark's face only fleetingly. His eyes were all grey shadow. "I know I used to dream about flying all the time after the accident on the bridge. But I can't remember what it felt like. I haven't been able to remember for years."

"You're not thinking about - "

"Jumping? No. That'd be needlessly melodramatic," Lex said darkly. "You wouldn't let me, anyways."

The only time Clark ever felt like he wanted to die, or at least to be dead, was when he tried to blow up the spaceship and his Mom lost the baby. Even in his memory, that horrible moment was now coated into the wild crimson haze of the red kryptonite, but he knew he'd been desperate to undo what he had done - or forget it altogether. Clark thought, not for the first time, that this was what Lex was doing, too: coping badly with something horrible he felt responsible for.

Unlike all the other bad things Lex had done, Clark almost understood why Lex was blackmailing him. He wasn't sure now if it was really about protection, or help, or maybe just distraction, but it certainly wasn't the greed and cold calculation that usually motivated Lex. If that were the case, he'd probably do a lot worse to Clark than he did right now.

Clark was willing to offer distraction.

"I flew once," he said quietly. "But I don't remember it, either."

In Lex tired face sparked interest, but it died just a quickly. "I'd tell you more," Clark offered, "if we could get back inside. I'm not really comfortable so close to the edge."

Lex gave him a twisted smirk. "You're really still afraid of heights?"

"Yes," Clark lied.

"That's ridiculous," Lex said, but he stepped away from the edge of the roof and walked slowly back to the stairs.

Clark followed him, feeling quite disproportionably satisfied with himself. People - especially Chloe - seemed to think that he enjoyed his little feats of heroics, all the fighting and saving the day, but most of the time, Clark didn't. He did what he had to do, because he had the power to do so and often because he was scared, but there were moments, like this one, when a small good deed brought immense satisfaction. It was then that Clark actually felt like it was true what his parents always used to say, that his powers were a gift and not a curse and it was then that Clark thought that, maybe, this was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

It felt even better to be able to do good things without his powers.

"I'm still hungry," he said as they came back into the penthouse, "do you want something?"

Lex didn't answer, but he followed Clark into the kitchen and stood there with a deep frown as Clark set up water to boil and threw in the pasta. Clark wasn't sure what it was now that bothered Lex, but he had no problem ignoring it for the time being.

Pasta with tomato sauce wasn't exactly Lex style and Clark could do better, but Lex didn't complain when Clark put a plate in front of him. After a few listless bites, he actually started to eat with more enthusiasm. Clark didn't think Lex even realised that he had that quietly grateful expression on his face, as if noodles with tomato sauce was the kindest thing anyone had done for him in years. Clark's chest was strangely tight as he watched him.

He wondered if this was Stockholm syndrome.

"So, you still want to hear about the flying?" he asked when Lex was done and leaning back in his chair, looking a little restless once again.

"Go on," Lex said with a wave of his hand.

"Okay." Clark licked his lips. "I was that summer before senior year in highschool - when Lana went to France, and Pete left Smallville and Chloe was in witness protection and we had just...," broken up, Clark wanted to say, but that sounded weird. "I had just found out about that room. I felt like I didn't have any friends left. And then suddenly this strange girl showed up on our farm, claiming to be my biological cousin. Kara had the same powers as I did, even more than I did... and she, um...". Clark blushed.

"Was attractive?" Lex guessed.

"Yeah. She wanted me to go into the caves with her, to find out more about my Kryptonian heritage. Eventually, I did go with her, but my Dad showed up in the last minute and told me that Kara wasn't really from Krypton - she was a girl who vanished in the first meteor shower. My biological father, Jor-El, used her to lure me into the caves." Clark had explained to Lex the caves and Jor-El the first night, but so far, he hadn't talked about what Jor-El wanted him to do.

"But it was too late. I got pulled through a part of the wall and then I don't remember anything after that. I just know what my Mom and Lois told me. I was gone for three months and then I suddenly showed up during a big thunderstorm with no memory of who I was." And no clothes. "Lois found me and brought me to the hospital, where we met my Mom. I didn't recognize her, but she took me home. Then suddenly I started acting all strange and said stuff about Krypton and destiny. And then I just took off the ground, really fast. I think I remember a little about that. Clouds... and feeling really... powerful. I don't know where I actually went."

Lex was frowning. "I think I do."

"What?"

"Go on."

"Well, my Mom eventually managed to get my memory back with black kryptonite." Before Lex could ask anything, Clark added, "Don't ask me how that worked. Anyways, when I was back to being myself, there was this new room in the caves and a crystal that hadn't been there before."

"You stole that from me," Lex said grimly. "Someone managed to steal it from my jet at 20 000 foot. I always knew you took the map, but you took this, too."

"I wasn't myself. And anyways, it's Kryptonian technology so it's really too dangerous to experiment with it," Clark countered.

Lex's eyes became narrow, as if he was suddenly coming to a realisation. "The crystal wasn't the only one. If put together, they were supposed to form a vast library of knowledge. You did that, didn't you?"

Suddenly, Clark's mouth went dry. The Fortress couldn't fall into Lex's hands. But he could see that feverish gleam in Lex's eyes that went beyond fascinated and desirous. It was a mad, ravenous want.

"It didn't work."

The moment he uttered the lie, Clark knew that it was a mistake. Lex stiffened, his expression receding to stony blankness. He pushed back his chair and with a last bitter, contemptuous look, left.

Clark exhaled shakily. Just for a moment, he had been sure that Lex would pull the blackmail card right then and there and threaten one of Clark's friends if he didn't tell him the truth.

But he hadn't. Yet.

Dread like lead deep in his stomach, Clark got up from the table as well and left for his room.

It was going to be a long night.

*

The day of the funeral was grey and humid, oppressively hot already before noon. Dark cloud fronts were building over the horizon as they drove into Smallville. It was the kind of still heat that made the animals nervous and people irritable - a Tornado day.

The silence was heavy and restless in the limousine that took them to the cemetery. Laurel and Lena were with them, but otherwise Clark had no idea who would be there.

They were the last to arrive to the funeral service in the small chapel, and Clark's heart hitched as they walked past the pews to the front: on the left, seated in the front row, were Nell Potter and Henry Small and on Nell's other side, talking softly to her, was Gabe Sullivan.

On the right there was Lionel, in the second row, and next to him Clark's mom. He had his hand on her back and she leaned, ever so slightly, into the touch, nodding to something he said. The first to turn around and notice them was Chloe, seated with Lois in the row behind them - and then Clark's eyes fell on the person to Chloe's right, just as he turned around as well. It was Pete, unmistakably, and yet completely different. Clark hadn't seen him in three years.

It seemed to Clark that everyone turned to stare as they walked past and settled into the front row: Lex like a man carved from cold stone and staring straight ahead, making no eye-contact, Laurel carrying Lena, and Clark, who flanked Lex and wished that he could become a mere accessory like Laurel in her role as a nurse. From the look on his Mom's face, she hadn't known he would be here and Clark realised that Lionel probably hadn't told her that he had seen him at Lex's.

There was a hush, but before there could be whispers, the minister stepped forward and started the service.

The words of the service pearled off Clark like rain. He could do nothing but sit still and ram-rod straight, staring at the casket before him, with Lex at his side like a wall and his mother seated just a pew behind him, all of them forced to sit through the service in silence.

All kinds of thoughts ran around his head, though. Sudden, restless memories of funerals past - too many of them. Holding his Mom's hand all through his Dad's service, hiding at the sidelines at Lex's funeral, running away when Lana spotted him. How he felt awkward and restless all through Whitney's funeral, and full of heavy guilt at Alicia's. The quiet grief of laying Raya to rest at the Fortress, encased in the last remnants of their lost home.

What he felt now was trapped and hollow with fear inside.

There was no eulogy except for the few words the priest said and then immediately followed the procession to the grave. The pallbearers were hired men and they were the first to follow them. Once more Clark had to walk past the pews at Lex's side, staring at his mother and his friends, unable to communicate anything besides his own helplessness.

Outside the church, his Mom finally caught up with them and stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Oh Clark," was all she said before she hugged him, long and tight. She didn't ask questions, didn't say anything about his absence, just hugged him, then gently touched Clark's cheek, brushing hair out of his face.

"I'm sorry," Clark blurted out, but she silenced him with a headshake and another hug, then took him by the arm and followed the rest of the procession. Once again, Chloe was looking at them with a face full of questions as they walked past to take their place at gravesite: somewhat behind Lex, at whose side was now Lionel, trying to talk in a hushed voice to his son.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Martha whispered to him. "This is so horrible."

Clark wondered how she explained to herself that he was here with Lex's family - did she think that he'd gone to Lex on his own terms, that they had forgotten their differences over Lana's death? Lex did nothing to dissuade her from that impression, still staring wordlessly ahead despite Lionel's attempts to talk to him, but Clark caught Laurel watching them. She turned away quickly when he noticed her.

The minister read from the bible and said a last prayer, then the pall-bearers lowered the casket, covered by an arrangement of white roses and violets, into the grave. As people stepped aside to give them room, Clark's gaze fell on the familiar headstone, now bearing Lana's name below her parents and he let go of a painful breath he hadn't known he'd been holding for days.

Something else went with that breath, something Clark had been holding on to for far longer. The notion of what could be, what should be, that was always tied to Lana, the notion of how Clark's life would be if he did it just right. If he were normal. It was more than a notion or dream. It was real, for a few short weeks in summer, two years ago, when he was human and she was his and everything was golden, just right.

There was a moment of silence. A strong breeze picked up, rustling the clothes of the small congregation, then Lex bent down and picked up a handful of soil. He stood with it for a long moment, his fist tight and tense, before letting go. The wind scattered the dust over the flowers.

One by one, the other attendees repeated the gesture and filed away from the grave after paying their last respects. Clark did the same, numbly, and as he stepped away from the grave, Chloe finally hurried over to him, Pete a few steps behind her. Clark could see that she had cried for a long time and probably during the service as well, her eyes were red and her make-up smudged darkly.

"Oh God, Clark, where have you been?" she whispered as she hugged him and he patted her back. "When did you find out?"

"The day after," Clark admitted, waiting anxiously for the implications to settle in. And indeed Chloe looked up startled and searched his face for an explanation. Her eyes darted towards Lex, who was still standing like a statue by the graveside. "You came here with Lex, didn't you?"

Clark nodded.

"Are you - did you - are the two of you okay again?" she asked incredulously. "Why didn't you at least phone anyone?"

Clark glanced over to where his Mom was giving her condolences to Lex and wondered why she hadn't asked that question as well.

So. Why didn't he phone? Not because he couldn't, because Lex had told him that he could...

"I didn't know what to say." Clark glanced over Chloe's shoulder at Pete, who looked at once curious and distanced.

"But you're coming home now, aren't you?" Chloe asked like she was afraid he wouldn't. "You're not going to run away again?"

That irritated Clark, for a second, that she'd assume he'd run away, but then he realised that it wasn't completely without reason. He had run away before - and he felt very much like doing so now.

"I can't. Go home." Clark squared his jaw. "I'm sorry, Chloe. It's just complicated."

"Complicated?" Chloe sobbed. "I know you're feeling awful, Clark, but please, this won't make it any better -"

Pete stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. He'd only grown a few inches, but he looked a lot different, no longer like a teenager. "Come on, Chloe," he said softly, "I don't think it's any use."

At this Clark could no longer stay silent. "I'm not running away," he said loudly. "I'm just going back to Metropolis."

Chloe stared at him, baffled, but Pete frowned and gave Clark a stiff nod and a very polite, "Clark," before turning and trying to pull her away. She was still looking over her shoulder and within earshot, though, as Lex and the nurse walked by Clark.

All Lex said was, "Clark," but the tone was unmistakably a command, not a request. Clark saw Chloe's reddened eyes go wide with horrified understanding. He was almost glad that he had to follow Lex and couldn't stay to explain.

*

The silence in the car on the drive back to Metropolis was if possible even less comfortable than on the drive to Smallville. Lex still had that blank, frozen expression, but he radiated tension in a way that made Clark want to seek cover.

Halfway through the drive, Lena started crying and wouldn't stop despite Laurel's best attempts. Once in the penthouse, Lex went away to lock himself in his study and Laurel excused herself into Lena's room.

Clark tried to while away the afternoon, but there was very little to do in the penthouse. Everything was clean and tidy, and it lacked the extensive library of the mansion. He ended up in front of the TV with the sound turned off, staring mindlessly at the candy-coloured images while the sky blackened outside and finally broke into a storm, pelting the windows with rain.

*

The next morning, Clark came into the kitchen and found that Lex's mood had apparently changed over night. Everything about him was sharp, quick, determined - his voice on the phone, the bites he took off the apple he was having for breakfast, the hard slap of the Daily Planet issue he placed in front of Clark.

Clark glanced down at the newspaper.

It was open on the front page, folded so he could see the lower half.

'Daily Planet junior reporter arrested' the headline of the small article in the right corner said. 'After being reported to the police for breaking and entering and data theft by LuthorCorp, junior Daily Planet reporter C. Sullivan has been arrested by the MPD yesterday in the evening hours - '

Clark stared up at Lex, who was watching him coldly. "You did that."

"No, Clark," Lex said, raising his brows. "What I did was hold back evidence and refrain from reporting you or your friends to the police for years. I assure you that all the charges are perfectly legitimate."

Clark couldn't take the cold condescension any longer. He was up, throwing back the chair so it fell noisily to the floor and seized Lex by the collar. Lex stumbled a few steps back, but caught himself at the kitchen counter and straightened with a haughty expression. "How can you do this?" Clark yelled. "What did Chloe ever do to you except to help you to get your father into prison?"

"This isn't about Chloe," Lex retorted. "I told you I wanted the truth from you, Clark. Now release me before I must conclude that you still haven't understood how serious I am about that."

Clark's fists tightened on Lex's shirt, he could feel the silk stretch and tear. Then, finally he let go, still panting. Lex took a step back and straightened his ruined shirt. He gave Clark a clinical once-over.

"I take it you understood."

"I can't believe I was starting to think we might be friends again," Clark pressed through his clenched teeth.

The grim half-smile on Lex's face died as he went suddenly very still. "You didn't think that," he told Clark softly. "You lied to me."

Clark wanted to yell back that he had been right to lie to Lex, but staring back at him out of Lex's blue eyes was the exact same hurt and disappointment that he felt - that and desperation, drowning everything else.

They were both in a corner, but Clark wasn't sure who had driven who, or if they had driven each other, or had run from the same invisible enemy.

There was a soft noise by the door. Laurel had entered, carrying Lena and rocking her softly. "Is everything alright? I thought I heard noise." She glanced down at the fallen chair.

Lex turned away, hiding the evidence of his ruined shirt, and said, "Yes, quite. We were just about to leave for work."

Clark quickly picked up the chair and put it back into its place. "I, uh, tripped."

It was a pretty stupid excuse and while Laurel's face showed no immediate reaction, Lex gave a low, bitter huff and said, "Yeah. Clark is a bit clumsy sometimes."

*

A few minutes later they were in the elevator together, Lex in a different shirt and Clark still trying frantically to think of a way out of this that didn't include him showing Lex the Fortress. But there wasn't one, Lex was too smart, Lex would know if Clark lied.

And Clark had to call Chloe, or his Mom. He needed to know if Chloe was alright, needed to apologize.

"I want you to show me the alien technology," Lex said.

"Now?" Clark asked, which Lex didn't deign with an answer. "We'd have to go to Smallville."

Clark didn't tell Lex to get warm clothes, because if Lex was cold, there was some chance that they wouldn't be in the Fortress long enough for Lex to learn anything substantial and then Clark would get a reprieve and time to think of a way out of this. Hopefully.

They didn't stop at the office, going straight down to the LuthorCorp parking lot. Lex placed a call telling his assistant - the real one, who did actual work and wasn't just dragged around as Lex's personal alien entertainment centre - to cancel all appointments today.

They took one of Lex's cars, a silver Spider that wasn't at all meant for jammed Metropolis streets. Once on the road to Smallville, Lex speeded in a way that made Clark want to put on a seatbelt even though he was invulnerable. Once upon a time, he would have enjoyed this ride, but there was nothing enjoyable about Lex's grim, purposeful frown.

Lex didn't have to be told to drive to the caves. He barely slowed down on the last bit of dirt road and finally parked with a protesting squeal of tires. It was sunny today, but the ground was still wet from the rain the night before.

"I need to get something," Clark said and ran off at full speed before Lex could say anything.

He ran so fast that no one would see him, but the farm seemed deserted anyway. He wondered how his Mom managed without him. They'd sold a lot of the life stock, but there was still a lot of work just keeping everything together. Clark zipped up the stairs to the loft and picked up the octagonal key from its hiding place. If Lex wanted to confiscate that, then Clark would have to let him, but at least Lex had had the key before and hadn't been able to find out anything then either.

Back at the caves Lex was leaning against his car, hands in his pockets and a thoughtful frown on his face. When Clark appeared before him with a rush of air, he did seem mildly impressed. Clark realised that it was the first time he had used any of his more visible powers in front of Lex and wondered why Lex hadn't asked for a demonstration of his strength or heat-vision yet.

They went down into the caves together, their expensive shoes soft on the ground, through shadows and dusty shafts of light and into the main chamber. Out of the silent darkness loomed the cave paintings and for once, Clark saw them as what they truly were - monsters and watchmen, warnings from the past.

As they stepped into the smaller chamber with the table Clark could sense Lex thrumming with excitement despite his attempt at inscrutability. His eyes lit up in recognition as Clark pulled the key from his pocket and he watched fearlessly as Clark put it into its slit on the table.

Blazing light spilled forth from the small octagonal disk, engulfing them both, pulling them in and dissolving them. There was a moment of freeing nothingness followed by the shock of passage from damp warm cave-air to the ice-cold clarity and brightness of the Arctic ice. Before them rose the Fortress into the blue sky, a thousand reflections of sunlight on each crystal spire. It seemed large as a city, not so much alien as unearthly, like something out of fairy-tale.

Lex stumbled from the shock of the sudden change in temperature, his breath fogging in small clouds as he stared up at the Fortress. For the first time Clark understood that there was a reason the Fortress was so large - it was meant to be imposing to the humans Clark was sent to rule.

But Lex drew himself up again, hugging his arms around himself to keep warm and scanned the horizon critically.

"Where are we?"

"The Arctic," Clark said, because he didn't know exactly. The Fortress wasn't visible from space (Chloe had tried to find it when she had access to Ollie's surveillance satellite the other year, but they had both been relieved to find out that it didn't show up on any images) and Clark had only a vague idea that it was somewhere north of Alaska.

He made his way up the ice towards the Fortress, Lex following him some steps behind. This had to be uncomfortable for a human in just a thin summer coat and leather shoes meant for city streets and office towers, but Clark didn't care much. It wasn't as if Lex would get sick or anything.

"How long has this been here?" Lex called breathlessly from behind him.

"Since the second meteor shower."

There weren't any more questions, because then they had reached the Fortress and stepped inside through an archway of crystals, into an alien world of light and silence. Lex kept close to Clark, so close Clark could feel the warmth of his body escaping into the cold, and stared at everything with wide eyes. He was stunned wordless. For once there was no frown on his face, no intent in his bright eyes, nothing but wonder, as if it was all he wanted, all he needed to live, just to see this.

Clark waited for Lex to ask questions, or demand to be shown some alien technology, something he might exploit, but nothing came. Lex just kept turning around, walking a few steps in one direction, then the other, reached out in awed respect to touch some of the crystals and quickly drew back when his fingers threatened to stick to the cold surface.

"This looks almost organic," he said softly, still marvelling at the crystals.

"It sort of grew out of the ground when the three crystals were put together," Clark explained.

"So this is what your homeworld looked like?"

Clark nodded, remembering the few bits and pieces Raya had told him about Krypton. "It was pretty cold there. They had a red sun. It's the yellow sunlight that gives me my powers here."

Lex looked at Clark with a very different expression now, almost like he looked at the Fortress, as if trying to find something alien in him. What he would see was something untouched by the cold, not shivering like he now was. His lips were turning blue and there were tiny ice-crystals forming on his lashes and all over his coat, but he didn't seem to notice it, still entranced by the alienness all around him.

He tried to touch the crystals again, even though they burned him with their coldness each time. It was as if he couldn't help it. "I didn't think it would be beautiful," he murmured to himself. "The spaceship wasn't like this."

Lex glanced up to where the spires reached for the sun. His teeth were chattering badly now. "So you get your powers from the sun - did you know that that's how most meteor mutants get theirs, too? It's like the mutation enables our cells to do some form of very effective photosynthesis..."

His babble about mutations and sunlight and power became nearly unintelligible after that and Clark felt the last vestiges of anger slip from him.

He'd been wrong, from the start. He should never have lied to Lex, never have tried to keep him away from knowledge. Nothing would ever stop Lex's search. There was nothing Lex wouldn't risk for the truth, his own life included. It was possible that if Clark didn't take him back now, Lex would stay here and soak in this revelation until it killed him.

What Clark should have done, if he had had more smarts and courage, was to tell Lex the truth and protect both of them from its temptation. That would have made him a real hero instead of fighting monsters and saving the day.

But fighting monsters was so easy compared to this.

"You'll catch your death if we stay here any longer," he said resolutely. Jesus, Lex shoulder was like a block of ice under his touch.

"I d-don't get sick -" Lex shivered.

"You want to risk that? You've got a family to take care of," Clark scolded.

Lex blinked, as if he had forgotten, and then gave in to Clark's touch almost demurely. Clark led him over to the crystal console that lit up as he approached, and pulled one of the crystals out from it. "Take us back to the cave," he shouted at the Fortress and it followed his order, bathing them in light and sending them home.

Lex didn't stop shivering by the time they got back to the car, so Clark put him in the front passenger's seat and took the driver's seat himself. Since Lex still seemed too dazed to object, Clark decided to make some things clear right then and there.

"The Fortress isn't just a piece of technology. It's the last that remains of Krypton. It's the only thing I have left of my people - my parents. Besides, Jor-El's memory is in there - and he's got his own will. He won't let you use the Fortress. He won't even let me know what the Fortress can do until I've finished my Kryptonian education. It's possible that he might hurt you if you tried." Clark didn't know that, but it seemed like a good thing to say. You never knew with Jor-El. "Jor-El doesn't care a lot about humans."

Clark considered telling Lex about the real reason his Dad had died, but that would mean telling him about the other timeline where Lana had died in a car accident and then Lex would know what the Fortress really do - and it was just too big a temptation.

So instead, he told him this. "You remember what happened to your Dad during the second meteor shower? Kryptonian technology did that to him. Jor-El used him as some sort of... mortal hull for his consciousness all year long."

"An avatar," Lex said numbly. "Clarke's law. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

"Right," Clark said, raising his brows. "So you get that it's too powerful for you to mess with?"

"Hubris," Lex agreed in a dreamy tone. "Part of any good tragedy."

"This isn't some story, Lex! It's real. It's dangerous."

"You can never get anywhere without taking risks."

Instinctively, Clark wanted to disagree, but he stayed silent when he remembered that Lex was right. You had to take risks, or else you'd just stay a coward, hiding all life.

"Acceptable risks. But you've got responsibilities, Lex. What do you think would happen to Lena if Jor-El did something to you?"

Lex stared at the road before them. His shivers had subsided, and he was very still now. "My Dad would try to get custody. And he'd succeed."

As much as Clark was wary of Lex raising a child, he was perfectly certain that Lionel would be worse. He nodded. "He probably would. I don't think there's much I or Nell could do about that. Your Dad knows about my secret, too. I don't think even my Mom could influence him a lot."

There was some silence, then Lex said in an oddly plaintive tone, "I never got that - your Mom and my Dad."

Clark shrugged. He was driving slower than Lex, enjoying that for once, he was the one determining their speed and direction. "I guess she must see something in him."

Lex snorted softly. "The devil has his charms, too."

"Maybe she thinks she can change him."

"Like you did, when we were friends?"

What was Clark supposed to say to that? It was true, he had thought he was changing Lex. Back then, Lex had said as much! "I don't think it works that way," he said softly. "You have to be able to do the right thing on your own."

"You don't always do the right thing," said Lex, the accusation almost gentle.

"I guess no one can always do the right thing," Clark replied tightly. "But I try."

"And when you don't," Lex prodded carefully, as if he were afraid of the answer, "people are supposed to forgive?"

There were things, Clark thought, that couldn't be forgiven, but... "Yeah. I guess so."

*

When they came back to the penthouse - Clark was almost starting to think of it has home - Lex went straight for Lena's room. Laurel greeted them. She had been singing in that strong, eerie voice of hers and Lena was sleeping peacefully in her bed. The curtains were half drawn, shutting out the bright afternoon light.

"Give us a minute," Lex said softly and she left. Clark hesitated, not sure if he was included in the 'us', but the door shut behind her, so he stayed.

Lex sat down in the chair Laurel had vacated and looked down at the bed. He touched the colorful blanket with almost the same reverence he had shown for the crystals in the Fortress.

"I picked that together with Lana," he whispered.

Clark came closer so he wouldn't have to talk loudly. Lena slept with three fingers at once in her mouth, nuzzling at them from time to time. "Did you look forward a lot to having a baby?"

Lex stared down at his daughter, his face cast in soft shadows. "I thought I would make it perfect. I'd give her the family I never had. I - I didn't think I'd have to make all my decisions alone." He sounded broken, lost, almost angry at himself. "I thought we had a balance... I would protect them from the world, and they'd protect me from myself. From being a bad father. But Lena is just a baby - she isn't supposed to protect anyone from anything."

And just like that, Clark had insight that made his chest tight with sudden understanding. All the times Lex had claimed that he needed Clark for protection, this was what he really meant. He didn't even know it, because he was rationalizing things, Lex always did, but what Lex was scared of wasn't kidnappers or car crashes or meteor freaks out to get him.

Lex was scared of doing this on his own. Lex was scared of losing that balance he thought he needed.

And Clark knew how to protect Lex from everything in the world - but he didn't know how to protect Lex from himself. If he did, they wouldn't be here now, not like this.

Clark took a deep breath. He didn't know how to do this.

So he'd just have to make it up as he went along.

*

Lex retired to his study after their return from the Fortress, allegedly to catch up on work. That left Clark to worry about Chloe.

He searched for the Daily Planet edition with the article Lex had showed him, but he couldn't find it. Probably the help had already thrown it away. So Clark didn't know how bad things were. If LuthorCorp sued and Chloe was convicted for the charges she'd be lucky to end up having to pay a large fine - which the Sullivans were unlikely to be able to pay.

Clark knew he should try to call her or his Mom. But he wasn't even sure if Chloe had told his Mom about what she'd witnessed during the funeral - and he'd just left his Mom behind there without saying anything. In any case, he'd have to explain about the blackmail. And it wouldn't help anybody.

He spent the whole night mulling over this. A few times he almost called home, but each time he picked up the phone, his courage left him as he thought of Chloe, crying as she had done at the funeral. Clark bet that half of the things Chloe was in trouble for now were things he had asked her to do for him.

By morning, Clark felt genuinely tired for the first time. Five sleepless nights in a row and constant stress eventually wore down even the toughest super-powered alien. Even his face in the mirror looked disgruntled and bleary - a novel sight for Clark.

He found Lex in the kitchen with a frown and a cup of coffee, leaning against the counter, the newspaper behind him. He had his phone in one hand and was tapping it impatiently against his thigh.

Clark shuffled past him, feeling very much like Lois before her first cup of coffee. Whatever benevolence he had felt towards Lex the day before was very far away.

"I thought it might interest you that Chloe is out on bail. She has apparently acquired a mysterious benefactor - and a very good lawyer," Lex said, his voice carefully neutral.

Clark stilled in the middle of reaching for a coffee cup. Could it be...? Was Lex making a peace offering?

If so, it was a pretty weird one. Clark turned an annoyed frown on Lex. "You could just drop the charges."

Lex raised his brows, looking genuinely puzzled for moment. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again, his expression turning inscrutable.

But he was watching Clark closely. "That'd be tactical suicide."

Clark ground his teeth in frustration. "Did your Dad tell you that, Lex?" he asked, giving way to some of his exasperation. "I think he'd say that giving Chloe a lawyer at all is tactical suicide."

There it was again, that second where Lex looked completely at a loss, as if Clark's words somehow jibed with the way the world worked according to Lex Luthor. He visibly struggled to adjust. "I reserve the right to disagree with my father," he said, slowly, as if trying the words on for size like an old shirt found at the back of the closet.

It was barely a shadow of that younger Lex who had so vehemently insisted that he was nothing like his father, but the echo was there, however faint and tentative. Clark sighed.

"Then I guess I'm glad you don't."

Whatever Lex's reaction was, he hid it by taking a long sip from his coffee, furtively watching Clark over the rim, then dipping his lashes and looking away.

*

During the next two days, Lex kept himself at a distance, talking to Clark only when it was necessary, avoiding him at all in the penthouse. Clark probably exchanged more words with Laurel than with Lex. But Clark felt watched whenever he turned his back on Lex and instead of relaxing him, it made him nervous.

At work, Lex seemed normal enough, going through the motions of his job as if nothing could touch him. Whatever he felt was hidden deep under rigid composure and Clark wasn't able to tell if Lex ever let go of that at all, even when he was alone in his room. He drank, but so moderately that it could barely affect him, and he never was anything but polite to any of his employees.

On the third morning, Lex dropped another Daily Planet in front of Clark. Clark glanced down only once to find the headline. 'LuthorCorp drops charges, apologizes for mistake.'

Before he could say anything, Lex said, "This is tactical suicide, Clark," as if expecting him to agree.

"It's the right thing to do," Clark replied sternly. He was glad that Chloe was safe, but now that he didn't have to worry anymore, there was a lot more room for anger. "You should never have attacked her in the first place."

And, yeah, now that Lex had taken the threat back, Clark felt a lot safer speaking his mind. Taking the threat back meant that absolute control over Clark couldn't be Lex's primary goal anymore. He wouldn't take it back just to lash out again at the next opportunity.

That realization felt like a stone lifted from Clark's heart.

Infuriatingly, Lex answered with, "It was a strategic mistake. I did something I should have saved as an absolute emergency measure in reaction to a minor obstacle."

"You shouldn't have done it at all!" And damn, but Lex knew this. Clark had no doubt that Lex knew this. If he didn't know that it had been wrong, he wouldn't have taken it back. He was just acting like an asshole out of habit, or whatever it was.

Lex raised his chin, his lips thinning, distancing himself once more from Clark. "I believe this discussion is pointless, as we're talking based on two completely different sets of moral imperatives."

Before Clark could call bullshit, Lex had slipped away from him and started burying himself in work once more. Still angry, Clark stayed behind in the penthouse. He read the article once more. Now that the charges were dropped, the Planet sounded pretty supportive of Chloe, ragging instead on LuthorCorp and other big corporations suppressing the freedom of the press.

That was when Laurel came into the kitchen, her face serious. Something was different about her, but Clark needed some time to place it. It was little things: the fact that she wore comfortable running shoes and a pair of jeans, that her stance was tense and alert, like a football player's on the field...

"Is everything alright?" Clark asked, immediately concerned.

"We should have a talk," she said, and that was another difference - her voice was the same, but her accent harder, less refined. "I've overheard you and Mr Luthor arguing a couple of times."

Instinctively, Clark tried to deflect. "That's nothing unusual between people who've known each other for a long time."

Her frown darkened. "Look, Kent, it's obvious he's threatening you. I've been told to stay away from you because you might be drugged or dangerous, but that's not what I'm seeing."

A rush of panic made Clark flush. The last thing he needed was the police getting involved in this. "It's not - "

She made an exasperated noise and pushed her blonde hair back. "Alright. I shouldn't be telling you this, but you've obviously got trust issues. The cameras are off at the moment, so you needn't hold back. My name's Dinah, I'm a friend of Oliver Queen and I'm here undercover to find out about LuthorCorp's secret mutant research."

Clark gawked. "You're a friend of Ollie's?"

She grinned. "And old friend." And from inside her pocket, she pulled a small metal triangle - the tip of an arrow. Clark gulped. He hadn't known that anyone besides him and their mutual super-powered friends knew about the Green Arrow's secret identity.

She put the arrow back into her pocket. "Actually, I was supposed to apply as a nanny later on, but we changed the plan when Luthor's girlfriend died."

Luthor's girlfriend. That was all Lana was to Ollie. "Why didn't he tell me about this?"

Laurel - Dinah - shrugged. "No idea. I didn't hatch this plan. All I know is that Ollie's convinced you've switched sides for some reason or other. From what I heard about your powers, I sure hope you haven't."

Clark's eyes widened as he heard that Ollie had told a stranger, someone Clark had never even heard of before, about Clark's powers. And then he'd sent her to insinuate herself into Lex's family and spy on him. Ollie meant well, and it was Clark who'd told him about Lex's illegal research, but sometimes, his methods were so ruthless that he seemed barely better than the criminals he fought.

Dinah seemed to misinterpret his shocked impression. "Yeah, sorry. I've seen that you're a good guy. So what's Luthor got on you?"

Clark almost said 'nothing', but that wasn't fair to Ollie or his other friends. "Lex knows about the Green Arrow. And he's threatening Bart, Arthur and Victor."

Dinah scowled. "Bastard. That means we've got serious problems. But you've got much better access to Luthor's work. You follow him around all day. There must be something you could dig up on him."

"It's too dangerous."

It was only half of the truth. Clark really did think that it was too dangerous - for Dinah, for him, for everybody Lex threatened, but also for Lena. This woman wasn't who she said she was, and the way she talked about Lex sounded almost as extreme as Ollie's opinions. Even if she was one of the good guys, Clark knew that he wouldn't be able to leave her alone with the baby from now on without worrying. But aside from that, working together with Dinah meant that whatever little chance there was of coming to a peaceful solution with Lex would be gone. Lex had already shown some positive progress. He'd dropped the charges against Chloe. He had agreed not to try and exploit the Fortress for the time being.

There was hope, and Clark couldn't let it go.

"I'm sorry, I can't work with you."

"So, you're just going to let him walk all over you, Powerboy?"

"No." Clark crossed his arms, trying to make it clear that his mind was made-up. That gesture worked surprisingly well with people who didn't know him - not so well with his Mom, or Chloe. "I'm doing this my own way. You're only putting everybody at risk with what you're doing."

Dinah didn't seem terribly impressed, but her expression hardened in understanding. "So Ollie was right. Again. I shouldn't have given you a heads-up."

"You shouldn't have done this at all. I know Ollie believes in vigilantism, but there's a difference between stopping a mugging on the street and spying on people in their homes," Clark added, not wavering in his resolved stance. Why did Ollie always have to do so damn risky stuff? Money seriously screwed people up, even more so than super-powers.

"I'll make sure to tell him that. Can I count on you giving me a couple of hours before Luthor finds out about this?"

"I'm not going to - "

Dinah held up a hand, shutting him up. "I blew my cover. You're not going to help me. It doesn't matter what you say you will or won't do, I'm getting out of here. So, do I have a couple of hours?"

Clark nodded. She gave him a tight smile and turned around, doing something with her wristwatch. "Well, at least I'll get to wear proper clothes now. I never want to see a navy skirt in my life again," she muttered as she left the kitchen.

This was so surreal. Luckily, it'd be hours yet before Lex would get back from work and notice that their nurse was gone and by then, Dinah had said she would be okay. Clark stayed where he was until he heard the elevator doors open and close, then he went into Lena's room to check on her.

The room looked the same as before. Dinah hadn't taken any of her stuff with her - upon closer examination, most of it looked as new and impersonal as the things in Clark's room. None of it was really hers.

Lena was awake, lying in her bed, and Clark gently picked her up. She made a gurgling noise, grabbing for him with a tiny hand and closing her fingers around a piece of his white shirt. It made him angry that she was just a week old and people were already using her as a pawn.

Clark carried her around for a while, taking her with him to the kitchen and the living room, talking to her like his Mom sometimes talked to Shelby - little nonsense things, whatever came into his head. It was strangely relaxing. After a while, his subjects became less meaningless and he told Lena about Lana. It wasn't as if she understood anything he said, so he could pour out the whole flood of little memories that had accumulated in his mind over the last days.

About an hour after Dinah had left, Clark put Lena back to bed and called the help. Unlike at the mansion, here you had to call for it with a little phone, like room service in a hotel, and some time later some manservant would appear from the depths of LuthorCorp and do your bidding. Clark hadn't actually tried it before, but his request for breast-milk formula was followed promptly and without questioning.

Whiling the afternoon away like this, Clark eventually ended up in an armchair in Lena's room, feeling safe and content enough for the first time in a week to truly find rest. He didn't quite fall asleep, but he dozed, lazy as a cat in the sun, even though the sun wasn't shining, it was raining outside...

"Clark?"

Lex startled voice abruptly woke Clark from his slumber. He was standing in the doorway, still in his suit and tie, looking somewhat puzzled. Clark wasn't the only one roused by Lex's arrival - Lena started crying louder than she had all day.

"Where is Ms Lance?" Lex inquired.

Clark got up, regretting the loss of comfort. He walked over to the baby's bed and picked her up, trying to calm her by patting her back and rocking her, but it was to no use. A glance at the watch told him that she might be hungry again.

"I'll explain if you could hold her for a minute," Clark said. Lex frowned in mute disapproval, but he took the crying baby from Clark and held her while following Clark to the kitchen. As soon as Lex had the baby, Clark realized that it was a great tactic - as long as he held Lena, Lex wasn't able to do anything drastic when Clark told him about Dinah. Putting water on the stove to warm the infant formula, Clark felt cunning.

"Well?" Lex prodded, shifting Lena from one arm to the other.

"She left and I don't think we'll be seeing her again," Clark stated.

"Her employment contract clearly states - " Oh yeah, the baby distraction tactic worked, Clark thought. Lex still hadn't caught on to anything.

"That won't be an issue, Lex. She was - is working for someone else."

"My father?" Lex asked, enraged but partly drowned out by his daughter's crying. Of course Lex would think that first.

"No. Someone who is investigating your illegal research." Clark wouldn't drop Ollie's name - it was a sure thing that Lex would react by releasing the info on Green Arrow to the press.

"Who?" Lex demanded.

Clark stared down at the heating water and the small plastic bottle of baby formula and thanked God for wailing infants. "Not the police, I think."

Lex was quiet for a moment and it sent hot and cold fear down Clark's back. But then Lex asked, "She didn't do anything to Lena, did she?"

"No," Clark breathed in relief. "Nothing like that, Lex."

"How did you find out?"

Clark fished the bottle from the pot and turned around. "Um, could you test that? I'm not sure if I can tell whether it's too hot or not."

Lex looked irritated at not getting his answer, but he shifted Lena against his shoulder so he could take the bottle from Clark. "Infant formula is inferior to breast-milk," he said absently. "You didn't use tap water for this, did you?"

"No, your help sent sterile water with the formula," Clark said patiently.

It was actually quite funny to watch Lex try and figure out the proper way to feed a baby with the expression of someone conducting a particularly volatile chemical experiment. Once she started drinking though, the frown of concentration loosened and he seemed completely absorbed in the process. Clark looked on, unwilling to disturb the moment of bonding, until Lex glanced up.

"So?"

"She approached me this morning after you left because she'd figured out that you're blackmailing me." Clark said it in a deliberately challenging way and noted with satisfaction the tiny moment of discomfort passing over Lex's face. It was the first time since that very first evening that he showed any kind of guilt for what he'd done. "She explained what she was here for and suggested that we work together."

He expected Lex to be angry that Clark had let her go, but Lex just stared at Clark as if Clark was making no sense, and Lex didn't like things that made no sense. Clark could see the disbelief and questions building up inside him, but the wave broke in silence and all Lex did was close his eyes for a second, as if someone had pulled the ground from under his feet and the world was spinning for him.

Lena hiccupped and spit a mouthful of milk onto Lex's Armani suited shoulder. Suddenly Clark couldn't suppress a grin. Lex looked helpless and miserable in his ruined suit and ruffled tie, having a baby drooling on his shoulder when Clark had expected him to be plotting revenge by now.

After a moment or two, it got a bit weird to be stared at by Lex like this, so Clark took the empty baby bottle from him and put it into the dishwasher. Behind him, Lex muttered something about background checks.

"This kind of thing would happen much less often if you didn't do so much bad stuff that makes people try to get revenge on you," Clark said.

Lex didn't even debate that he was doing evil things. "I got attacked even when the worst thing I did was drive above speed limit."

Clark shook his head as he took Lena from Lex to bring her back to her room. "Half of the time you got attacked because of something your father did. You remember Level Three? Rachel Dunleavy? Lucas? Do you want Lena to grow up like that? One day she'll ask questions, Lex. What are you going to do if she asks you whether you're experimenting on people in secret labs?"

"I -" Lex began, but he didn't finish as he followed Clark into Lena's room.

"Or are you going tell her that there are no secret labs?" Clark prodded once he had laid her down on the changing table.

Lex's expression tightened and he turned away from Clark, so that all Clark could see was his profile, and the raindrops running down the windowpane reflected on his skin. He waited for an answer. It was a long time before Lex said, "I'm not going to lie to my daughter."

"Then you'll have to explain."

"I'll explain to her why research is necessary," Lex said, louder this time, but less convinced. "We need progress, Clark. We need to understand how the world works in order to survive. There are beings like Zod out there and we need to be able to defend ourselves. Sacrifices sometimes need to be made for that."

"I know," Clark replied calmly, because this was an argument he could win. "A week ago I was ready to go to the Fortress and finish my Kryptonian education. I'm not sure if I'll still be the same person if I do that, but I know I have to so I can protect Earth."

Lex turned his head. "You agree with me?"

"No. What you're saying is not that we need to make sacrifices, but that the end justifies the means. If I agreed with that, you'd be dead."

Lex sucked in a sharp breath, then let it go in a shallow huff of laughter. "I guess I would be."

"I'm not talking about now," Clark sighed. "I'm talking about when Zod possessed you. Didn't Lana tell you that I was going to kill you?"

"No." Lex walked over to the armchair Clark had dozed in during the afternoon, then made a detour for the desk and took off his ruined suit jacket. He folded it on the desk and leaned against it. "All Lana told me was that she almost killed me. She didn't want to talk about what happened with Zod."

"What do you remember?" Clark asked as he changed Lena's nappies. He'd done it twice before that day, and was getting quite good at it.

"I was assaulted by Milton Fine and he injected me with a powerful vaccine. The next day, I started hearing some sort of noise - "

"Shrill and really loud?" Clark interrupted.

Lex frowned suspiciously. "Yeah. How did you know?"

"I think it might be the same noise that the key and the spaceship used to call me. Huh. I guess it's some sort of Kryptonian thing."

Lex took a moment to process this, then went on. "It felt as if my head was going to burst if I didn't get out the castle. I drove into a field outside Smallville... then it gets confused. Lana was there, and Fine, too."

"Lana said it looked like you were abducting by aliens," Clark took over. He told Lex how she had confided in Chloe and Chloe had told him and they had figured out it had to do with Zod. "Before the spaceship vanished, Fine tried to use me as a vessel for Zod, but I defeated him. I thought he was gone, but then your father started writing down all these Kryptonian messages that said Zod was coming. So I went to the Fortress and Jor-El said it was true. Fine was trying to create a human vessel for Zod. He said I could only stop it by killing the vessel and he gave a dagger."

"A dagger," Lex echoed incredulously.

Clark shrugged. He'd sat down with Lena in the armchair, holding her as she fell asleep. "It was some kinda crystal. Anyways, you reappeared later that day and hurt your Dad pretty badly. Then Fine did something with the computer in your office that caused a complete blackout all over the globe - but you know about that."

They both knew what horrible things had happened on that day without power. They had rebuild Metropolis afterwards, Lex very publicly and Clark in secret, but both driven by guilt.

"You showed up in my barn and you had the same powers as I do. You said some things... I'm not sure how much of that was really you."

"What did I say?" Lex demanded.

"You said... you said that I was only ever your friend because I liked to think that I could save you. And that you only were my friend because you envied me the life and the family I had."

"I did envy you," Lex said. He looked down. "I've never envied anyone as much as I envied you. You had the family I always wanted, you were in love with the right girl, you always saved the day. That's what it looked like to me. That's what I wanted to see. But that wasn't why I wanted to be friends with you."

Clark sensed that they had gotten to a dangerously emotional subject. Lex had that sincere expression on his face that meant that he was flaying himself open, desperate to be believed. And Clark believed him. What Lex had said about envying him... Clark had known that. It wasn't very hard to miss when you saw how Lex used to act around his parents or listened to the things he said. Knowing the things he now knew, Lex probably realized that Clark's life wasn't nearly as simple or perfect as it might look. But Lex said that wasn't the reason he wanted to be friends with Clark, so...

Suddenly, Clark remembered that Lex had wanted Clark. That he'd been in love with him. Clark had done very well suppressing that knowledge, but now it was there, back in the open, just as raw.

"So why did you want to be friends with me?" Clark asked nervously. They were both talking very softly now - because of the baby, but also because every step in this conversation might hurt. Would hurt, almost certainly.

Lex looked pained, but he didn't waver. "I liked you, Clark. It wasn't all that hard not to. And I thought you liked me. That doesn't happen a lot."

It was such a simple, obvious answer. Nothing dark or nefarious. Clark swallowed.

"What about you, Clark?" Lex asked, barely a whisper.

"I don't know. I just... you were a nice guy, back then, Lex. A bit weird.. but cool. And it was pretty hard to say no to you. And then we were just friends - Jesus, Lex, you can't explain friendship. It's just there. You like someone because of who they are. You like to spend time with them. It wasn't about saving you. There were a lot of people I saved but didn't become friends with." Clark stopped because he had been getting louder the more agitated he got.

He decided to take a break and got up carefully, placing Lena in her bed. "It's probably going to be a long night. I'm going to eat something."

Lex remained silent and Clark was almost out of the room before he said, "I'd like some take-out right now."

Lex fished for his phone in the discarded suit jacket, but Clark decided to go for a run instead.

Not quite ten minutes later, as he returned with two plastic bags of Thai food from a couple of blocks away, Clark decided that take-out was a great idea. He was feeling seriously hungry after all that baby-feeding.

Lex had migrated into the living room. He looked like he was brooding, leaning with his elbows on his knees, nursing a glass of scotch. But when Clark appeared with a rush of air, he looked at him with quiet awe.

"You didn't actually run to Thailand, did you?" he asked as Clark unpacked the boxes and chopsticks and fetched himself some water and a spoon. He never managed the high art of chop sticks, no matter how much Lana and Chloe tried.

"Baker Street," Clark clarified. "Near MetU."

"Could you run to Thailand? You should be fast enough to run over water."

"I know a guy who - " Clark fell silent. He never accidentally blurted out any secret information before, but he'd gotten so used to Lex knowing about his powers that he'd forgotten secrecy.

"Bart Allen," Lex guessed. Then, curiously, "How did he get his powers?"

Clark took a deep breath. "I don't think he'd want me to tell you."

Lex paused, his chopsticks in hand, and gave Clark a long, level glance. Then he nodded. "Alright."

Clark blinked. Then he smiled. Then his smile fell as he realized that maybe, years ago, it'd have been that easy. He could just have admitted that he had a secret and told Lex that his parents didn't want him to tell. If Lex could accept that much now, wouldn't he have accepted it then?

Clark finished his fried rice in record time, then offered, "You still want to know the rest about Zod?"

Lex wasn't done, but he sat back on the couch and nodded.

"So you showed up in the barn. We had that talk, and then we had a fight - well, a pretty short one. I pinned you down and pulled the dagger, but you... didn't fight back and I didn't want to do it. Fine showed up to taunt me, so I threw the dagger at him instead. That's what opened the portal for Zod."

"Portal?"

"He was imprisoned in another dimension. A place called the Phantom Zone. Fine somehow used the crystal from the dagger to open a portal, and Zod came through. He possessed your body and told me he was there for revenge because my father had locked him up in the Phantom Zone. Zod said that he'd destroy Earth and hurt everyone I loved unless I joined him."

"Joined him doing what?"

Clark shrugged. Zod hadn't elaborated. "Ruling Earth, I guess. I didn't find out because I said no."

Lex licked his lips, then narrowed his eyes at Clark. "You realize that he used essentially the same threat against you as I did?"

Clark hesitated a second, because he hadn't thought of it that way before. "No. It wasn't the same. Zod already destroyed one planet. If you met him you'd know that I couldn't have joined him."

"I haven't been known to lay waste to entire worlds, no," Lex mused. "So you escaped Zod?"

"Eventually. But first he imprisoned me in the Phantom Zone." Clark related meeting Raja and the phantoms. Lex seemed way more interested in whether the Phantom Zone was actually another dimension and how it felt to be two-dimensional, but eventually Clark managed to get to the part of how he'd gotten back and found Zod in the mansion, about to kill Lana.

"Zod attacked me, and this time I was the one who lost the fight. It was still your body, but Zod knew how to fly and he was stronger than I was. I'd have lost - but then he repeated his offer to join him. He must have been really eager for tha"

"Any man would be foolish not to want you as an ally," Lex said, as if it was the most normal and obvious thing in the world.

"There are nicer ways of asking than telling me to kneel, though," Clark said pointedly.

It wasn't often that you saw Lex baffled. "What?"

"Zod," Clark reminded him. "Zod told me to kneel. I did. He bought it, and when he offered me his hand, I pressed the crystal Raya gave me into his palm and it sucked Zod right out of your body."

Lex stared down at his palm - the right one - and then at Clark. "I had a slight burn there when I woke in the hospital. A pentagonal shape."

"Raya told me it's the crest of the House of El."

Lex looked as if he loved and hated the idea at the same time and he examined his palm as if he might find the mark there, hidden in the lines of his skin.

Without having to talk about it, they both stayed up most of that night, taking care of Lena whenever she woke up. Whenever she slept, Clark continued telling Lex more, about the Zoners he had defeated, about Raya's death, until their conversation changed its direction and Clark talked about other things, college, family, that time he and Lana raised the fast-aging mutant. It were all things that didn't matter much, that Clark just talked about because he wanted to, not to convey some important message. It was just to stay awake, because somehow, that had gotten awfully hard. Clark wasn't just tired any longer, he could barely keep open his eyes. The dark behind his eyes was gentle and peaceful, so tempting...

There was another disruption, Lena cried, and Lex went to take care of her. Clark curled up against the arm of the couch and decided that now, he would sleep. He hadn't slept in days, but now he felt like he could. Like it was safe to do so.

Dimly, he still heard Lex coming back, pacing the room. Clark wished he'd just settle down and buried his face deeper in the crook of his arm.

"Clark, I - " Lex began, but Clark just muttered, "Sleeping."

The last, soft sound he heard was the click of a light-switch.

*

Clark slept. He didn't dream, or stir, or notice the sunrise, he just slept, way past morning and into noon. When he woke, the day was bright outside and the penthouse quiet. Clark was hungry.

The table next to the couch was still littered with the remainders of their late take-out dinner, which was odd. According to Clark's watch, the housekeeper should already have gone through the penthouse. Clark went over to Lena's room first, but on the way there he bumped into a middle-aged lady from Lex's staff who Clark thought was the cook - he wasn't sure, since they had lived out of the fridge for the past week.

She had that piercing, judging look of elderly ladies. Usually, Clark did well under such examination, but either the lack of flannel or the fact that he'd slept-in on the sofa and probably smelled of Thai food kept her from losing her critical expression.

"Mr Kent, I assume. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Clark vaguely pointed past her. "I was just going to see if Lena's alright?"

"Oh, the baby is fine. I'm going to take care of her until Mr Luthor finds a suitable replacement for the young lady who left so suddenly," she said. Clark hoped that the disapproval in her voice was directed towards Dinah Lance and not him. "Poor thing, she's sleeping."

"Did Lex leave already?"

"Mr Luthor," she said pointedly, "left for work at eight, as he usually does. He asked not to disturb you and to accommodate any of your needs before you left."

"I think there's been a misunderstanding," Clark said. "I won't be leaving. Unless you mean he said I should catch up with him at work?"

"He didn't mention it. I assumed you were a guest, actually."

Oh. Now Clark got why she was looking at him like that. He blushed and excused himself, fleeing for his room, where he took a quick shower and put on fresh clothes while trying to make sense of Lex's behavior. Eventually, he concluded that Lex probably wanted him to stay here and have an eye on the housekeeper. After what happened with Dinah, Lex's paranoid streak could only have gotten worse.

But if he didn't trust her, why was she taking care of Lena at all? Lex could just have told Clark to take care of Lena if that were the problem.

Maybe Lex was doing something he didn't want Clark to be present for. That thought made Clark stop and close his eyes to concentrate on his hearing. It was hard with so many people in the building, but eventually, Clark found Lex's heart-beat. It was slow and even. Clark decided that it didn't sound as if Lex was doing anything dangerous or secret.

Maybe Lex just wanted let Clark get some sleep. That'd be nice. Clark went into the kitchen and took his time having a very late breakfast.

*

On the fifth day after the funeral, Lionel called and after a short, terse conversation on the phone, Lex agreed to let him visit and introduce him to his granddaughter. Clark avoided meeting Lionel by staying in his room, but he did listen in on their conversation.

Clark had never heard anyone make more critical noises upon seeing a baby and it annoyed him on Lena's behalf. She was a perfectly fine baby. Done with inspecting Lena, Lionel apparently came to the actual purpose of his visit.

"I had expected to see young Mr Kent around tonight," he remarked. "After all I've been told that the two of you have been practically tied at the wrist for the last week. But then, you suing Miss Sullivan would have disrupted your little... agreement, wouldn't it? And what a crass thing to do that was..."

Lex made an impatient noise. "Crass? Spare me the false concern. You tried to have her murdered."

Lionel gave the least sincere gasp Clark had ever heard. Now wasn't that interesting. Around Clark and his Mom, he always acted like a reformed sinner, to the point where Clark had been willing to believe it. "Murdered? Lex, you shock me. Miss Sullivan and I are on speaking terms, we hardly would be if she believed such a horrible thing of me."

"Is that what you're telling Mrs Kent?"

"Ah, Martha. Now, you see, Lex, I have been wanting to talk to you about this. Martha is very worried about Clark. She seems to believe that he is... not himself. She seems to think that he might be dangerous."

"What the hell are you talking about, Dad? Martha has seen Clark at the funeral."

"We've all seen Clark at the funeral. He was very upset. As I recall he and Miss Lang were once very close. Martha confided in me that Clark has difficulties dealing with loss. Apparently... he has a history of drug abuse. Of course, then I had to tell her what I witnessed in your office a few days ago, although I'm shocked to think that you would exploit a young man's grief like this."

What? His Mom thought he was under the influence of red kryptonite? Okay, he'd try to run away with Lex when he wore the ring that one time, but he was sixteen then!

Lex's voice was cold with fury. "And I assume you twisted the facts to make it appear exactly that way."

Lionel sighed dramatically. "Well, if you insist on being unsubtle... I must admit, I was impressed by your sudden resourcefulness when I found out about your... agreement with Mr Kent. Frankly, I didn't think you had it in you to take that kind of risk. It was a rather impulsive move - not one I would have thought advisable, considering Mr Kent's remarkable assets. But your gambit worked. Congratulations, son. This may be the most important acquirement in the history of LuthorCorp."

Clark's stomach turned at these words and he forgot all about red kryptonite. No, Lionel wasn't here for his Mom at all. He'd called Clark an acquirement... like he was some kind of thing Lex had bought with money.

"This has nothing to do with LuthorCorp. It was an arrangement between me and Clark only," Lex replied, fast and angry.

Lionel chuckled. "You see, this is where I see the weakness in your plan. You have obviously found a way to control a very powerful resource - but control is only half the rent. Now you need a way to exploit it, am I correct?"

"You know what, Dad? This isn't your business at all. I think you should leave."

Lionel's voice lost its playful tone. "I'm here to make you a business offer. I'll give you what you need - a way of turning Mr Kent as susceptible to invasive procedures as a human being, a way of turning him powerless and ensuring your safety in case he should ever not show himself quite so cooperative. In turn, you will make me part of this exciting project."

Oh shit. Lionel knew about kryptonite. Invasive procedures... Clark got up from the chair he had been sitting in, but he was too disoriented to get anywhere fast.

"There is no project," Lex snarled. "Now get out before I call security."

"Are you sure - "

Clark abruptly regained his balance. Lex was saying no to Lionel. Lex was refusing that horrible offer. There wouldn't be any alien autopsies if he acted fast now, before Lionel could say something to change Lex's mind. He zipped out of the room just in time for Lionel to say, in a disapproving tone:

"You're throwing away a great opportunity, Lex."

"I think you're no longer welcome," Clark said firmly, startling both of them. They stood in the hallway before Lena's room. He stared at Lionel, wishing he could just incinerate the man on the spot. He and his Mom had let him into their house, into their family - God, he had to call his Mom and warn her.

"Good evening to you, too," Lionel said, recovering his smile. He reached into his jacket, as if for a cell-phone or a gun. Instead he pulled out something very small - a ring.

The ring had a glowing green stone. Clark staggered backwards and tripped, crumbling to the floor. Lionel sauntered over to him, holding the ring in his open palm, steadily bringing it closer to Clark's face. Clark shrunk back with a groan. He found no purchase on the floor with his limbs like rubber and the kryptonite searing his skin. The wall was next to him, and the room tilted, making it impossible to escape.

"Fuck," someone said.

Lionel turned away and threw the ring at Lex to stop him. "Have fun, son."

With a mocking smile for Clark, Lionel stepped over his body and strolled down the hall. Clark sagged in a pained heap on the floor. Only slowly he managed to opened his eyes again and focus. Lex was still staring at the tiny ring in his hands. He looked spooked by its very existence.

The ring wasn't quite so close anymore, but it was still hurting Clark. A pained gasp as he tried to pull himself away startled Lex out of his daze and he quickly closed his hand around the ring and took a step back, then another. "Are you okay?"

"Rocks," Clark managed breathlessly.

"I know, they hurt your people."

Lex had known? Lex had known about the kryptonite and never once tried to use it or ask Clark about it?

"How - ?"

"I've suspected that they affect you since the very first beginning," Lex admitted, taking another step back. "Your reaction to Lana's necklace was obvious. Last year I tried to threaten Milton Fine with it and he confirmed as much."

Every step Lex took away from Clark lifted a ton from Clark's chest. He could breathe more freely now even though he still felt like he had to puke. "Could you take it to another room?"

Lex glanced at his fist, then nodded and left. The pain was gone as soon as he was out of sight, and Clark felt his strength returning. Very carefully not to upset his stomach, he held onto the wall for support and got back on his feet. His mind was still spinning with all the revelations, though. Lex knew about kryptonite. Lionel knew about kryptonite and Lionel was evil and it all made no sense...

Lex came back and went closer to Clark this time, well into his personal space but without touching him. He looked concerned. "I put it in a lead-lined box in my study."

Clark gave a nod, then asked, "Why did your father just give it to you?"

Lex's expression went grim. He walked past Clark into the living room and poured himself a glass of scotch. Clark sat down on the couch and watched him glare at the drink in his hands.

"He never thought I would accept the offer, Clark. All he wanted was for me to get the ring."

"Why would he want that?"

Lex rubbed the back of his neck. "He doesn't need me to work with him to get what he wants. I suppose he thinks that now that I know about your weakness, I won't be able to resist exploiting it, while he can sit back and wash his hands in innocence." He considered for a moment longer, then added, "My father must have told your Mom that you are too dangerous for her to approach to make sure she comes to him for support and never finds out about his involvement. Divide and conquer. Once it was done to his satisfaction, he'd probably try to neutralize me and get at my results, while you'd suffer a tragic and unexpected demise in one of my labs. This way, he gets the research - and he gets to comfort your mother. It's exactly what he's waited for."

Clark listened to Lex's analysis with wide eyes. "You just guessed all that right now?"

Lex grimaced at his glass. "I was trying to be him for the last three years, Clark. I never got as good at it as he is, but I know how he thinks."

That was scary. Three years... that was all the way back to Clark's senior year in highschool. They'd still been friends back then - or had pretended to be friends. Still, Lex had said he was trying to be Lionel. That meant he didn't anymore.

"But he's wrong," Clark said.

Glancing up from his glass, Lex looked startled. "What do you mean?"

"You're not going to... to do all that, right?"

Lex shook his head slightly, then after a moment said, "Clark... maybe you should call your mother and tell her I'm not drugging you."

It was a distraction tactic, but it didn't matter. Clark really needed to call his Mom. After what he just saw, he didn't want her to be alone with Lionel. Lex was already giving him his mobile, and then stepped out of the room to give him space.

Nervously, Clark dialed the number and waited for her to answer - which she did so quickly that she had to have been sitting next to the phone. "Kent here?"

"Mom, it's me, Clark."

She made a little gasp of surprise. "Clark! Oh dear, I've been so worried about you! Where are you?"

"Metropolis. I'm alright, Mom. I'm sorry I didn't call before, but - "

"Honey, please, just tell me what's going on."

"I'm not wearing any red rocks, I swear. Lionel has been lying to you."

She sucked in a harsh breath and was silent for a moment. "He didn't say exactly that it was red kryptonite... I thought that since you went to the Fortress, it might be about that - "

"No, listen, Mom, Lionel has been lying to all of us. He was just here - at Lex's - and he gave Lex a piece of kryptonite - green kryptonite - so Lex would use it to... to experiment on me. Lex won't use it, but you can't trust Lionel."

"Sweetie, calm down. Why exactly are you still at Lex's?"

Clark took a deep breath. "Lex knows about my secret. He's been blackmailing me with it."

There was dead silence on the other end of the line, then his Mom said slowly, "Chloe said something like that. She's in contact with Oliver Queen. They're going to help you - but what does Lex want from you?"

Clark swallowed. He'd thought that his Mom would panic, but he had been wrong. "He wants me to work as his bodyguard."

"And - ?" she asked carefully.

"That's pretty much it. He made me take him to the Fortress, but I could convince him that the technology is too dangerous for him to mess with. I think - ", Clark stopped, because Lex came back into the room, carrying couple of grey folders with the purple LuthorCorp label on it. He put it softly on the table, gave Clark a passing glance and left just as quietly.

"Clark?" his Mom asked.

"Sorry. I was saying that I think I can convince Lex to stop what he's doing."

"Honey..." she sounded almost pitiful.

"No, look, I know it sounds weird, but I think Lex is sorry for what he did. In any case, I'm alright here for now, but you need to stop trusting Lionel with anything. Maybe you could call Chloe, or Oliver -"

It took a while to convince his Mom that he'd be alright on his own and to get her to acknowledge that she had to take care of herself and not see Lionel. When they finally hung up, Clark promised to call her first thing tomorrow. He was going to call Chloe next, but then his eyes fell on the folders Lex had out on the table, obviously for him to read. He picked one up and glanced inside.

It took him a while to get that he was reading about experiments on humans. It was written in a cold, bureaucratic way, full of science and business terms that were just gibberish to Clark, which made it hard to imagine this as something real, done to real people and not just a bunch of graphs and numbers. That was probably the whole point. Still, what Clark understood was blood-curling enough.

Most, but by far not all of the research seemed to be centered on kryptonite mutations. Some of the subjects - named only with numbers - Clark thought he recognized by the description of their powers as people he had fought in Smallville, others were completely new to him.

He went on to the next folder, and the next. One of them contained contracts with LuthorCorp subsidiaries supplying the laboratories and budget grants for various of these projects. Most of them were signed by Lex, but a few of the older ones were still signed by Lionel - and even the more recent projects had gotten some of their funding from Lionel.

Clark put the folders down when it all became too sickening. Why in the world had Lex wanted to show him this? Clark went in search for him, but Lex wasn't in his study or anywhere else in the apartment. There was only Mrs Jones, just about to bathe Lena and asking him if they still wanted dinner. Clark declined.

After staring with his x-ray vision down the LuthorCorp tower for a long time, Clark concluded that only security personnel and cleaners were still in the building, but no Lex. Clark had Lex's mobile, so he couldn't call him.

Clark didn't know what to do. It was late, verging on nine p.m., and he had no clue where Lex might have gone. Clark hadn't even heard him leave, but he must have, since his keys were gone, too. His keys! Clark quickly went back to tell Mrs Jones that he'd be out, and that he had Lex's phone in case Lex came back, and then took the staircase to zip down to the LuthorCorp garage.

He'd seen all of the cars Lex kept down there and quickly identified the one that was gone - a small two-seater, a midnight blue Spyder if Clark remembered correctly. He'd never seen Lex drive that car, even though it didn't seem to be quite new.

Okay. So he had Metropolis and he had a single car that was fast enough to be just about anywhere in the city by now. Well, that was doable.

Clark couldn't quite run at top speed while he was looking for the Spyder, but considering how fast he had become in the last years, that didn't really matter. He could comb the city block for block in less than three hours.

The sun had just set outside and the sky wasn't even quite dark yet; there were shades of pink and tangerine still in the west, reflected beautifully by the glass and steel facades of the business district. It was warm, the air relatively clean from the rain the day before and it was a Friday night, so the streets were busy. Soon, the sky would be a dark, starless cover over the valleys of light that were the city's big streets, and the sidewalks would teem with colorful nightlife.

Clark loved Metropolis. He hadn't been able to admit that to himself for a long time after that bad summer, but now that he had rebuilt parts of the city with his own hands, he felt a sense of propriety even stronger than what he felt for Smallville.

It was a place where he almost felt as if he didn't have to hide. Metropolis wasn't a fragile porcelain shop like Smallville. It was huge, massive, tall, alive with power. It was big enough to take someone like Clark. And then some.

But it had it's ugly sides, too. It was close to midnight when Clark found the Spyder, parked among also but not quite as expensive cars in one of the parts of the city that Clark had saved for last, because he least wanted to go there. It was a part of the city, down towards riverside, close to the docks, that Clark had spent a lot of time - a lot of nights - in during his summer high on red Kryptonite. There were places that swallowed you, places that you went to when you wanted to leave yourself behind and only be a body.

That Lex was here couldn't mean anything good. It made Clark angry, too, because it wasn't a very safe place for Lex, who got knocked out and shot and kidnapped more than anyone Clark knew even when he just sat at home. Going here all by himself was practically inviting trouble. Just plain irresponsible.

Clark hated irresponsibility. But here, in this place, where the streets and warehouses haunted him with familiarity, he couldn't quite work up a righteous anger. He'd gone here himself. He knew what it was like.

It wasn't all that hard to find the club closest to where the Spyder was parked, following the thrum of a loud bass. Even someone with human hearing would have easily found it. There was a queue, albeit not a long one, waiting to get past the couple of bouncers. Considering that he was wearing business casual, which was decidedly not this club's style, Clark decided to not even try to get in the normal way. Instead he waited for a moment when the there was a gap between the two heavy-built men and the next couple of people let in and just zipped past at high speed.

The inside hit him like a brick wall of sound and bodies. It was dark, too, with strobe-lights moving erratically over a crowded dance-floor. A bar was more brightly lit at the other end of the place, but Clark decided to get a view from above first. He worked his way towards the stairs leading up to the second floor, the tight mass of bodies reducing him to human speed. People bumped at him, a couple of times someone tried to grab him or push him. The stairs were no better, but once he was on top, he managed to get a good look over the crowd on the dance floor.

Lex's bald head should have been easy to find, but Clark didn't actually expect him to be down there. He didn't know if Lex enjoyed dancing. Clark thought he might, considering how smoothly Lex moved. He had seen Lex fencing a lot more gracefully than most of the people dancing down there. But he couldn't imagine Lex being in the mood to throw himself into a crowd like this.

Clark wandered through the upper Level that had tables and chairs and a lot of people just standing or lounging around. There wasn't much point in talking, considering how loud it was, so people were mostly drinking, checking out the crowd, taking a break from dancing. Lex wasn't here, either. So Clark took a place near the wall and started x-raying the place to get an idea of the lay-out. There were, as he had expected, back rooms, some with different music, most of them with a different crowd.

With his inhibitions fully intact, it was a lot more embarrassing to see what was going on in some of them. Clark kept losing his focus as he blushed and shifted in his seat.

He finally found Lex's skeleton, grateful to find him apparently just standing in one of the rooms and talking to some other people.

Clark rose, re-oriented himself with normal vision, and fought his way through the crowd towards the place where he'd spotted Lex. He had to evade a couple of bouncers and dubious offers on the way back there. During his stint in Metropolis, Clark had tried most of anything offered here - anything that didn't require him to take of his shirt and reveal the branding on his chest. Drugs didn't do anything for him at all, even at inhuman doses and Clark quickly lost interest in them as soon as his curiosity was satisfied. Lex, on the other hand, might be here for this. They'd never really talked about it back in Smallville, but Lex had hinted at past excesses and Clark didn't find it all that hard to believe, considering that Lex got drunk quite regularly.

Clark had a few things to say about that.

He all forgot them when, after a narrow flight of stairs and a badly lit hallway, he entered the room he had spotted Lex in. Lighting was spare here, too, only a few spots arranged to obscure rather than brighten the room. To Clark's right, there was a group of people sitting and drinking. One of them, Clark was pretty sure was a dealer. She gave him that sober, assessing glance, then looked away. In the left corner, their bodies only phantoms of bare skin in the twilight, a woman sat on a guy's lap - Clark quickly averted his eyes when he realized that it wasn't just a lap dance.

And then there was Lex and Clark was struck dumb. Lex was leaning against the wall on the right side of the room. He was no longer talking. He still had a glass of something loosely in one hand, and was looking with a dazed expression at the girl who was talking to him, a brunette taller than he was, but he clearly wasn't paying attention to her, because there was another guy attached to his side, sucking and biting at his neck while trying to get his hand down the front of Lex's pants. Lex's dress shirt was unbuttoned, the cuffs hanging loose, the disarray of his clothes more suggestive than if he had been naked.

Lex moved against the man's touch, slow and languid, and gave an empty smile as the other guy pinned one of his hands against the wall and nudged a knee between Lex's. Clark had never seen Lex like this, so unguarded and acquiescing, tolerating other people in his space, letting them take control.

It sent a thrill down Clark's spine, red and hot, want curling around the anger deep in his belly.

The brunette took the glass from Lex's hands and gave him a hard kiss before moving away, back to the sitting group of people. Lex licked his lips, quick and shuddering, and said something before closing his eyes and baring his throat to the other man's mouth once more.

Clark unfroze as suddenly as he had stopped. He crossed the room and pushed the other man aside. Before there could be any protests, Clark said, loud enough to be heard of the heavy beat of the music, "That's enough."

The man didn't look quite sober himself, but he had the presence of mind to notice Clark's grip on his shoulder and the strength behind it. Raising his hands sloppily, he ducked out from under Clark's touch and stole away.

Lex opened his eyes. They were dark, hooded, catching no light at all, and the smile he gave was like a gutting knife, all warm and soft over sharp edges. He pushed off the wall but failed to stand, swaying instead against Clark's shoulder. Lord, Lex was completely out of it, Clark thought. He was soft, warm, pliant where he should have been all tense muscle and sharp bones.

"What do you think you're doing?" Clark demanded, steadying Lex by his shoulders. Lex smelled of sweat that wasn't his own, of sex and stranger's touches, even of smoke.

"Clark." It was inaudible over the music, but Clark recognized his name on Lex's lips. "Shouldn't be here."

"Yes, you shouldn't," Clark agreed, still angry. "You trying to get yourself killed?"

Lex tilted his head to the side, half a head-shake. "No. You. You shouldn't be here." At least that was what it sounded like. Lex swayed forward again, and unless he wanted to push him away, Clark had to let him lean against his chest once more. Lex was hot, Clark could feel it through his thin shirt, hot like fever. Lex took a deep breath against Clark's collarbone. "Don't you get it, Clark?" he murmured, sounding more sober than he looked. "You're free to go. I'm letting you go... letting you lay waste to my..."

Lex trailed off, his forehead pressed against Clark's jugular. Clark stood very still.

Free to go.

But he couldn't bear to be free here, in this dark cave of a room where the noise didn't let him catch a single thought and where there was no space to breathe. Clark grabbed Lex, clutched him close to himself and a moment later, he ran, out of the room, out of the building, through a locked backdoor and down a rickety fire escape.

In the dark of the alley, it was quiet. The distant noises of the city were no louder than the rush of blood in Clark's ears. It smelled of trash and foul water from the river, but Clark took deep, heaving breaths nonetheless.

Then he let go of Lex and let him tumble against the brick wall of the warehouse.

"What do you mean I'm free to go?"

Lex looked disoriented, but unalarmed at the sudden change of scenery. He blinked dizzily. "You know what I mean."

"No, I don't! You didn't say anything. You just gave me those folders and left!" Clark was yelling. He didn't care.

Lex, however, looked pained. "Get it over with," he muttered. Then louder, as if talking to a slow person, "You need to take the things I gave you to the police."

Oh. So that was why Lex had given them to him. If Clark handed those documents over to the police, neither Lex nor Lionel would be free men again. And quite a number of other people as well. Lex wasn't just letting him go, he was giving Clark the means to destroy him. It was a gesture so very typical for Lex in its overboarding grandness that Clark almost smiled, but his mouth turned bitter as he realized that Lex was serious.

And Clark had no desire to destroy Lex.

"I don't want to report you to the police!"

"Then use it as a safety - "

"I don't want to blackmail you, either. Damn it, Lex, what I want is for you to stop being a coward!" Clark was ranting and shaking Lex by the shoulder and Lex just stared at him, wide-eyed and numb. "I don't want to punish you, Lex, I want you to stop all the stuff in those folders you gave me. I want you to be a better man. I'm glad you finally came to your senses, but now you're just giving up?"

Lex looked scared. Truly scared, as if Clark were threatening to kill him. "Clark, I blackmailed you. I threatened your family. Why do you even care?"

Clark let go of his anger in a gush of breath. "Because you're not doing it anymore."

No, that wasn't it. He could see that Lex wasn't believing it either.

"Because I want you to be a good man more than anything else."

That was true, but it wasn't what Clark was trying to say. He didn't even know what he was trying to say, just that Lex was staring at him, frightfully sober and not daring to breathe -

"Because..."

Clark kissed him. He pressed his lips on Lex's with his eyes squeezed shut. It was like free fall, for a second, his heart stopped and his chest was all tight, but then the warmth and the taste of Lex caught him and set him ablaze. Lex shivered against him and opened his mouth under Clark's. Their teeth clicked together, then their tongues met hot and wet. Lex's mouth tasted sharply of everything that he had tried to submerge himself in, so Clark pushed deeper, trying to get past the taste to where it was only Lex, cupping Lex's face with both hands.

Lex let him. His hands scrabbled over Clark's chest and held onto his shoulders almost helplessly, but Lex let Clark kiss him breathless and senseless, until he gasped like a drowned man when Clark's mouth parted from his to kiss and suck down his jaw and under his skin. There were bruises there, left by strangers and Clark did something he'd never dared to before and laid his own over them while still holding on tightly to Lex's face to keep him from escaping. Lex groaned something that had only the barest resemblance to Clark's name as his hands slid under Clark's arms and to his back, where he clawed into Clark's shirt and his shoulders.

"Don't," Lex hissed, but in the same breath he bucked against Clark, trying to bring their lower bodies into full contact. "Clark! You're... I don't deserve -"

"Shut up," Clark said, and then, with devious grin because this was just so damn good and he was free, and Lex had bruises the shape of Clark's lips on his neck, "Earn it."

He hadn't meant that quite so literal, but Lex wiggled out of his grasp like a snake and slid to his knees, heedless of the dirty ground. Clark bit his lip. He half-heartedly tried to slow Lex down, but there was only the smooth back of his head, no hair to hold on to, so he ended up stroking the nape of Lex's neck instead, exploring the bumps of Lex's spine under the hot skin.

Lex's fingers were shaky but nimble as he undid Clark's belt and his fly and brushed against the outline of Clark's cock through his underwear once before pulling it out.

Clark couldn't even make a noise. All his willpower went into holding his breath and not coming right then and there. It wasn't as if Lex needed any encouragement, with Clark's rock-hard cock right before him. His fingers found the base, and worked deeper into Clark's boxers to cup his balls. He did a little twist, hard enough to make Clark throw back his head and yell through clenched teeth.

And then Lex's lips closed around the head. There was no clever play of that hard little tongue, no teasing, Lex had to recognize Clark's urgency, because he took him all the way in and then pulled almost off again, sucking hard. Lex put a hand on Clark's hip, thumb stroking over his bare hipbone and into the hollow beside it, but it wasn't there to steady Clark or hold him back. Instead Lex pulled him in, encouraging him to thrust, and Clark gave in and pushed forward. Every muscle in his body was tense as steel chords as he fought to keep control over his thrusts while barely daring to touch Lex's head with his hands. This was what exertion was like, this was how straining against your own body felt.

Clark won the fight even as he came in hard spurts down Lex's throat. For a glorious moment or two, everything tasted of victory. The rush and haze subsided, and Clark could have dropped straight to blissful unconsciousness if he had been lying down anywhere remotely comfortable.

But he was in a dirty Metropolis back alley. Even the balmy summer night felt cool on Clark's wet skin when Lex sat back, taking the wonderful heat with him. Clark's hands were shaking as he let them drop to his side, but there weren't any more bruises on Lex than there had already by been. He tucked himself back in and buttoned his pants.

Lex glanced up at Clark. His pink lips were full and wet and, God, he was licking them furtively - after all they'd just done, that made Clark blush violently. But Lex averted his face, and tried to get back to his feet and away from Clark, so Clark seized him by the shoulder and pulled him up flush against his chest.

It was like all the hugs they had shared. Clark held on tight and at first, Lex's body was still and tense under his touch, and then he let go with an almost inaudible sigh and softened.

"Clark," Lex whispered, broken and hoarse. "I don't know - "

Clark tightened his grip. "I'm feeling good right now," he shushed Lex, saying the first inane thing that came to his mind. "This feels good." Good. Bright. Dizzy.

"I lost my car keys," Lex said in a lost voice.

Clark laughed, startled by the irrelevant comment. "You're not going back in there, Lex," he warned, still laughing.

Lex groaned softly, as if only just now remembering what he'd been doing before Clark came. "I lost my wallet, too."

Clark couldn't stop laughing now. "Someone's going to be very happy."

"Would you lend me your phone so I can call my driver?" Clark still held him, so Lex's polite words tickled against Clark's hair, making him want to rub his head against Lex like a cat.

"It's your phone," Clark said. "And no, I won't."

Lex went stiff against and tried to get out of Clark's hug. "Okay."

Clark stopped giggling and loosened his embrace, but only far enough that he could look at Lex's face. The sight of bruised lips and skin almost made him lose track, but he shook his head to clear it . "I'm taking you home."

Clark gave Lex time to protest as he picked him up to run. Most of the times he'd carried him, Lex had been unconscious or too dazed to comprehend what was going on, but this time he knew and he clung to Clark in mute disbelief. With his arms wrapped around Lex to shield him from the worst of the rush, Clark made his way across the city back to the penthouse. It was pitch dark at the top of the stairs in front of the penthouse as Clark stopped and set Lex down, and he didn't see it coming at all when Lex grabbed his lapels and kissed him fiercely, all reluctance forgotten. Clark let himself be pushed backwards until he hit a wall, happily going along with Lex's enthusiasm.

No one had ever kissed him like this, none of his girlfriends, not even Chloe that one desperate time during the Zod incident. Even when he bit Clark's lower lip so hard his teeth must have hurt, Lex only winced and kissed harder afterwards, carding his hands through Clark's hair. Clark tried to slow him down with gentle touches down his back and sides, sneaking his hands under Lex's still unbuttoned shirt and Lex responded by abandoning Clark's mouth and gasping harshly into the crook of Clark's neck.

"I'll do anything you want. Anything, Clark. Are you sure you want this?"

"Do you want this?"

Lex bit Clark's shoulder, not hard enough to hurt himself this time, and ground his pelvis against Clark's upper thigh. Wow. Clark's eyes snapped open. Lex was hard. Lex's hard-on was rubbing against him, but not where Clark wanted it, so he put his hands on Lex's hips, his fingers splayed over Lex's ass and pulled him closer.

Lex's breath hitched and Clark whimpered. He was having sex. Sex like he could have had on red Kryptonite, but not bad. Not evil. Not selfish. Not at all selfish from the noises Lex tried not to make.

Lex was trying to shrug out of his shirt without letting go of Clark and Clark realized they were still in the hallway and not where he wanted them to be. He wanted a bed. Now.

Clark's fiddling for his key card frustrated Lex and he tugged at Clark's hair, but whisking them inside the penthouse and towards Lex's bedroom seemed to agree with him. The door fell shut behind them and they stood in front of the bed, in Lex's bedroom, where Clark had never been before, but he didn't care about the room, or its cold furniture or the skyline of Metropolis.

He felt giddy, deep in his belly. Clark had never wanted to laugh through sex. It wasn't funny, just so... nice. It felt really, really good touching Lex like this, not having to limit himself to what was appropriate. With Lex, anything was appropriate. They were past appropriate, deep within each other's boundaries. The smile was bubbling in his chest, twitching on his lips as they got their hands on each other once more, opening buttons, pulling off shirts and pants as well as they could in the tangle of limbs and kisses. Tumbling on the bed made Clark grin like an idiot from ear to ear.

His hand on Lex's dick, all of a sudden, and for the first time it flashed through Clark's mind that he wasn't just having sex with Lex, he was having sex with another guy and -

Clark stilled, his fingers still wrapped around the hard shaft, kneeling between Lex's splayed legs. Lex opened his eyes and got a wry expression. "Second thoughts?"

Yeah, but it wasn't Clark who should be having second thoughts.

"I'm an alien," Clark said.

Lex blinked. Very, very slowly, his eyes crinkled. A smile was breaking through, unfolding on his face like a leaf in the morning. "God, Clark," he whispered roughly, but the smile got ever wider, splitting into a grin.

Clark bent his head until it came to rest on Lex's chest. He shivered with pleasure as Lex trailed his fingers from the fine hairs at the nape of his neck down between his shoulders and up again. Clark tightened the grip of his hand and tugged once at the hard cock, feeling the wet tip with his thumb. Lex's inner thighs shuddered against his arm and Clark quickened his pace, feeling every gasp and groan Lex made against his body. Clark was so concentrated on his task that he didn't expect Lex's other hand to sneak between them and squeeze Clark's dick. He yelped and came, just like that, all over their hands and Lex's body and Lex followed suit.

Clark had to drape himself half over Lex to keep him from slipping away afterwards. He could tell that Lex wasn't used to this, that it made him tense, as if he didn't know what to do or expect. As far as Clark was concerned, sleep was the thing to do, at least for Lex. He didn't trust himself to sleep with a human in his arms, but he just wanted to lie there, close like this, sticky and warm under the covers. He wanted to smell Lex and feel his pulse and breathing slow down. As long as there was no distance, Clark wouldn't doubt himself. Tomorrow they'd talk and deal and evaluate, but tonight, Clark just wanted this for himself.

And Lex let him. He didn't sleep either, but he lay quietly in Clark's arms and gave as much of his trust as he could.

*
It was early. Not even five yet - Clark's kept sneaking looks at the clock on Lex's bedside table - but the light of morning was crawling over the ceiling, inch by inch. Soon its golden fingers would reach the far wall. It made Clark restless. He wasn't eager to do what he had decided to do today, but he couldn't bear anticipating it any longer.

He felt there was something they should talk about, but Lex lay still in his arms like a hibernating animal waiting for its cue to wake. He had his eyes closed, but Clark thought he was too still to be fully asleep.

Clark didn't regret the night before. He really didn't want to have to explain it to anyone, but it had been the right thing to do. If they hadn't fallen head first into passion, they would probably never have had the courage to try - and Clark felt that would have been a big mistake. The sex - compared to Clark's rather limited experience - had been great. Of course Clark could have done without being different in yet another way, but liking men was a rather small difference from the norm compared to liking another species. He was probably lucky that he liked humans at all. And Lex... well, Clark was used to having to work hard for a relationship. At least the basic obstacle of having a secret was already overcome.

And he wouldn't let Lex back out of it like Chloe had done the year before. He'd regretted that a lot and learned from it.

"Lex?"

Lex opened his eyes, blinking at the brightness. The sunlight had reached the bed, painting the white sheets the color of honey and giving Lex's lashes a copper hue. He waited for Clark to go on.

"About yesterday...," Clark began awkwardly. He'd never been the one to make the decisions in a relationship before. Lana used to say things like this, all sure of herself and resolved, and Clark had been fine with following her direction as long as they didn't concern his secrets.

But with Lex, it couldn't be that way. With Lex, Clark couldn't be that way.

Lex sat up and turned to see Clark's face, the sheets curling around his waist. He looked stricken. "Clark, I wasn't thinking straight yesterday. I swear I would never have laid a hand on you -"

"Lex. I'm twenty-one. I wanted it to happen." Clark tried for resolve, instead he sounded anxious to himself. "But I think... we should take this slow. There's a lot that happened... you just lost someone."

Lex didn't look relieved. "This?" he breathed. "Clark, I'm not even sure how you can forgive me for the things I did."

Clark leaned back against the headboard and sighed. Yeah. And then there was that. They couldn't pretend that this was just one of the times one of them caught Smallville madness and did bad stuff whilst not themselves. Lex might have been maddened by grief recently, but the two years before that he had done a lot of evil things that wouldn't just cease to matter.

Forgiveness wasn't even the hard part. Clark shrugged. "I'm just glad you're not doing it anymore." The blanket had slipped off his stomach, just barely stopping at his hipbones, but he wasn't as self-conscious as Lex, who was already pulling away.

The hard part would be to find a new balance. Now that Lex wasn't blackmailing him anymore, Clark had no reason to be here. And just dropping by for a visit as he used to would be awkward for a while to come. Would Lex take him into confidence about the things he did, the decisions he made? Or would Clark have to watch him and interfere when Lex did something wrong? That way lay accusations and old bitterness.

"There's stuff I need to do, Lex," Clark explained finally. "I'll drop by the farm and then I'll go to the Fortress to finish what I was about to do last week. I'm not sure what will happen when I do... but I will come back eventually. And then we'll talk about this."

Eventually. That was vague enough to give them time. Clark got up and picked up his clothes. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lex trying not to look. Smiling to himself, Clark guessed that taking it slow probably wouldn't be a problem at least when it came to sex. As long as he kept Lex from getting drunk, that was. Which would be part of his quest to reform Lex, once he got back. No more scotch. Drinking that much had to be part of Lex's problems.

Clark zipped into the bathroom, showering and washing his hair in less than thirty seconds. When he came out at normal speed and freshly dressed, Lex, who was sitting on the edge of the bed with the blanket draped around him, looked slightly awe-struck. And more than slightly lost.

Clark decided to cheer him up. He wasn't sure if Lex would appreciate it, but Lex liked having a mission. "Just in case I should come back bent on world domination, keep that ring Lionel gave you, okay?"

"I'm not sure I would want to stop you," Lex admitted, swallowing.

Clark crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. "You can't be serious."

Lex bent his head, smiling ruefully. "I am, Clark. I love you more than life. But other than that... I'm afraid I have very little sense of right and wrong."

Clark made a step towards him. Every instinct told him to hug Lex, but reason held him back. He didn't know if Lex was capable of being good beyond trying to please Clark. He didn't know if he trusted Lex, if he could trust him, if he should trust him.

Clark could only offer the single most important piece of wisdom, the first thing his parents ever taught him. "Just try not to hurt anyone."

Lex looked up, full of questions, and Clark gave him a last encouraging smile before darting away.

*

Clark swept into the kitchen as if he had only just been out to feed the chickens. Amazingly, everything looked exactly the same as he had left it. Even his Mom was there, sitting at the table with a pot of coffee and breakfast ready, as if waiting for him.

His sudden appearance, however, almost made her drop her cup. She had him wrapped in a hug before he could say a word.

"Oh, Clark. I didn't sleep all night."

"I'm sorry," Clark muttered, patting her back. "Things got busy. Lex let me go. He's no longer blackmailing me. I told you it'd be alright."

She took a step back, wiping her eyes and looking him up and down. Clark felt weird in his expensive dress-shirt and black slacks, like a stranger. At least the loafers were already smudged with farm dirt and chafed from running all over Metropolis the night before.

"I wasn't going to believe it until I saw it myself," she said with a wobbly smile.

"Did you hear from Lionel?"

She sighed. Clark could see that the last days had been hard for her, deepening the lines in her face. For a second, he wavered, thinking it might be better if he didn't go to the Fortress - then he reminded himself of the bad things that happened each time he tried to postpone it.

"He called me," she said quietly. "You were right about him, Clark. You and Jonathan both."

"I'm sorry," Clark said. He understood her better than she probably knew. Two years ago, it had been him in her place, having to listen to people telling him 'I told you so' about Lex.

"I called Chloe and Oliver and told them that you were okay," his Mom went on bravely. "They were very relieved. Oliver told me he had been working on a way to solve the problem, but he'll be glad to hear it won't be necessary..."

"Mom... I still have to go to the Fortress."

"Oh." She pressed her lips together for a moment, then nodded. "I know you do, Clark. Do you want some breakfast first?"

Clark hugged her tightly. "I love you, Mom."

*

The Fortress was still as Clark had last seen it. A huge, bright dome, filled with light but dead. Snow had been carried inside by the wind, covering the floor in a thick layer that crunched under Clark's shoes and icicles hung from the crystal spires like the cobwebs in a long deserted room. It looked majestic, even in this state of neglect.

Clark had changed into his own clothes before coming - a pair of jeans, working boots, a blue T-shirt and his well-worn red jacket. These were the clothes he felt safest in, the clothes that made him feel most like himself. He thought he might need a reminder of who he was after Jor-El was done with him.

Clark took a moment to descend into the deepest part of the Fortress. It lay below ground level, a crystal cavern bathed in deep blue shadows. He had laid Raya to rest here. Her body was frozen now, her hair covered in ice, her lashes thick with it. The cold air was desiccating the body, but much more slowly than a human body would have changed.

She had no more words of encouragement for him. All that was left to do was use the crystal he carried in his hand. His family's crest had become a talisman to Clark over the last year. What he had once rejected in its entirety had become familiar, almost comforting.

Clark approached the crystal console, not quite sure what to do next. The little pentagonal shape fit nowhere. So he just held it out and concentrated on it as he had when he banished Zod, willing it to do something.

And it did. It grew hot in Clark's palm, hotter than anything Clark had ever felt on Earth or elsewhere, until he had to let it go. And then light erupted, like a miniature supernova, spinning towards the console and getting sucked into it. The crystals started to pulsate, beat for beat, quickening until they flashed as quickly as Clark's heart and the brightness rose from the bottom of the Fortress to the highest spire, like a whole city suddenly awakened and brought back to life.

There was a sound like the sigh of a huge animal, and then a voice rang through the room. But it was not Jor-El's voice. It was a voice Clark recalled as the dimmest of dim memories, clear and soft, with a lilt to it that sounded far less human than Jor-El's.

"Kal-El. You have restored your Fortress of Solitude. I welcome you." It was a woman's voice. Clark knew without asking it had to be his mother's.

"What happened to Jor-El?" he called.

"Jor-El's memories are stored within the Fortress, but his personality construct has taken damage from the brain-interactive construct. I am the Fortress's secondary AI, the memory of your mother Lara. I am glad to finally meet you again, my son."

It was awkward. She was his mother and yet not, only a memory of her, an illusion created by some kind of computer of a woman Clark had never met. "I'm, um, glad to meet you, too. I didn't know your memories were in here, I though it was just Jor-El."

"It is traditional for a father to lead his son to adulthood," she replied. "But I will stand in for him if you are ready, Kal-El."

Jor-El had never asked if Clark was ready. He had a feeling that he was going to get along a lot better with Lara than with Jor-El.

"I'm ready," he called. "I've come here to finish my training."

A translucent pillar of light rose from the floor, engulfing Clark without warning. It was warm as sunlight, but prickly, like fizzy lemonade all over his skin, like a million fingers tickling and probing him. Clark shifted uncomfortably, raising his hands to see what was happening to him, but there was only light, all over him, as if he were drenched in it.

"You have already come a long way on your own, Kal-El," his mother's voice came from everywhere, even from deep within him. "You are nearly a man. Receive now the knowledge and wisdom of Krypton, all that was gathered in thousands of years by many generations of our people..."

It bloomed like a flower in the depth of Clark's mind. The first petals were images, thousands, a multitude, like every moment of Clark's life all seen at once. Worlds came into existence within him, faces and families and creatures, stars and planets and moons, cities and foreign landscapes, all grew and turned into dust in the space of a heartbeat. Then there were voices, a rush of them, like the sea, whispering to him of knowledge, of poetry, of history, of tradition, of conflict, of war, of peace, of family, family, family... then there was science, curves and statistics, the motion of stars and of his mind all explained to him, so much understanding, so much suddenly clear and then, in a heartbeat, forgotten again. Finally, at the very core of it all, when the whole had unfolded, there were numbers. Math, deeper than anything else, pure logic, everything in an equation. Vast and tiny, the universe in sparse elegance and beyond that, silent eternity.

*

He woke with his face bedded in snow. The tiny prisms threw light at him in rainbow colors, and like a key, it unlocked explanations of wave lengths, of refraction angles, of red and yellow suns, of cells turning light into power, infinite power. A blink of knowledge each time and then it was sealed again, contained within his mind but not yet fully grasped.

He got off the ground and rose to his feet. The Fortress was quiet around him. Purposefully, he strode towards the opening leading him outside, where the rays of the yellow sun ran all over his skin.

It buzzed under his skin. It filled him with power.

When his feet left the ground there was a second when he was entirely human, his mind reeling, protesting, recoiling in fear, but then he remembered that he was Kal-El of Krypton, and he could do anything.

The crystal Fortress flew past him as he rose higher, light and drifting. He bobbed for a moment when there was a creeping discomfort at the back of his memory... not Kal-El. Clark.

But it was the same. Clark was Clark... and he was flying.

"Great Rao!"

Clark gasped, his lungs filling with air like icy water, and dropped ten feet, then shot up again. He twirled gracelessly, flapping his arms, scrabbling for purchase where there was nothing but air and blue sky like a bottomless sea and the sun, spinning around him, pulling him higher.

There was no down, only up, up, up. Clark was weightless, directionless, breathless, but he knew, as surely as there was a yellow sun in the sky, that he could not be hurt. He could drop down all the way to the white desert beneath him with the tiny twinkling Fortress and not get a single bruise. He could rise all the way into space and live without warmth or oxygen.

Clark was invulnerable and free, freer than any man in the world.

Clark whooped, and thrust a hand forwards, shooting through the clouds in a wide arc. Like sitting on a swing with the strings cut, that perfect moment before you fell down, stretched into forever. All was blue and bright and wide, and the clouds stretched like the whitest of snow, like feathery dreamscapes beneath him.

He soared. He screamed with joy, at the top of his lungs.

Up here, he didn't have to hold back anything. There was nothing in the world to be afraid of.

Clark got faster and faster until he was only a friction blast tearing through a blur of blue and white, and then, for a moment, the world tipped to gold and red and then it was full of stars. Darkness, so gentle that Clark had to stop and take it in. Between the clouds he could glimpse tiny flecks of lights that had to be cities and black expanses of night. But above, there were stars, and their light was enthralling. They looked different than ever before, as if they had depth and colors and finally, Clark realized that it was sounds he was seeing, the sounds of a million stars, singing to him in all wavelengths of radiation.

It was the most beautiful thing Clark had ever seen and it filled him with quietness.

He could never share this. He was the only one in the world who could see this. Suddenly, Clark could no longer bear being alone. He needed to be around people. He needed to talk to someone about it.

He had no idea where he was.

The solution came to him as he drifted ever higher, until the air got so thin that he held his breath and the Earth became round beneath him, a sphere instead of a flat disk. Clark looked down at the Earth. Really looked. Clouds were no obstruction for him. Seas were no obstruction for him. He could see right to the bottom of fearsome valleys seen by no man before. And he found land, a cost sprinkled with light that looked like the West Coast of the United States - yes, there was California, Mexico, there was the Gulf, up to Florida, the East Coast, the big cities. New York, the most Northern one, dwarfed by its twin Gotham, and to the south and the West, finally, Metropolis.

It was then, for the first time, that Clark thought of Metropolis as home.

And he let himself drop. Willed himself to fall, to gain weight again, to get caught in the pull of gravitation. First there was friction, then a long descent, then a flicker of clouds and finally, rapidly growing, the ground beneath him, pinpricks of light unfolding into a large city. Clark realized that he had to be (as) bright as a shooting star in the night-sky and forced himself to go slower. Coming to a stop was wobbly, but finally, when he could make out single cars in the streets of the city, he floated upright.

But he could not stay. All his senses were wide open, and instead of celestial silence, the city assaulted him with a myriad cries for help until he was dazzled by them and could no longer bear it. In a wild rush, Clark swooped down, carried a body out of car wreck in the Northern suburbs, doused a fire with icy breath in the upper Westside, came to a halt in a dark alley where a mugger scrabbled away in panic at the mere sight of him, while the witness just stared, her mouth round in amazement. And Clark was zipping away, from corner to corner, stopping, helping, saving, seen and unseen, never hesitating until, for a tiny moment, there was a curtain of silence over the city, no a single plea for help.

A glass shattered in the silence and there was a clatter of boots.

Clark turned in slow motion, even as he focused on the voices coming from the highest tower of the city.

"If you touch that phone, Luthor, you'll have an arrow in your chest. You know I don't miss."

"Queen. And Ms Lance. I should have known it was him you were working for," Lex drawled with simmering fury in his voice. "Now that you have changed your... costume, I can see that you're his type."

"Shut up, Lex." Ollie's voice, distorted into Green Arrow's. "The last days have proved that I was right to investigate you."

"Not just the last few," someone injected, and to his surprise Clark recognized Victor Stone. "This guy tried to turn me into some kinda Terminator. You deserve going to prison, Luthor."

"This office is under surveillance," Lex warned.

"Not anymore. Got all the cameras." Bart Allen, cheeky as ever. Had Ollie brought along every super-powered guy they knew?

"You're playing with kids, but you know as well as I how this works, Oliver." Lex sounded collected now, his voice dripping with disdain. "You've got dirt on me, I've got dirt on you. It's a stalemate."

Clark could almost hear Ollie's smirk. "Yes. But we've got a joker."

"Who - " began Lex, startled and furious, and then there was a woman's voice, someone Clark didn't know, low and foreign.

"Xel Rohtul. Ezeerf!"

Clark didn't stop to try and make sense of that. He shot towards LuthorCorp, the air like a wall before him, and crashed through the floor to ceiling windows of the office in a blast of shards.

Slowly, everyone lowered their arms with which they had been shielding themselves, everyone but Lex, who stood in front of his glass desk, frozen on the spot like an ice statue, sweat breaking on his face from the strain of trying to move.

Ollie stood in the centre of the room, with his crossbow trained at Lex and the green hood of his costume down. He wasn't even wearing his sunglasses, giving up all pretense of disguise. Victor stood by his right, and Bart, with a fistful of cut wires in one hand, to the left of the office. Dinah Lance was guarding the door and Clark nearly did a double take at the fishnets, leather-jacket and leotard she wore, but his surprise was nothing compared to the looks on all of their faces: shock and awe, and not a small bit of fear directed at him.

The only one not gaping at Clark, possibly because she was too strange herself to be shocked, was the woman slightly behind Ollie. She wore a stage magician's costume, complete with cylinder and waistcoat, a black bowtie, dark tights and fancy white gloves. She was pretty, with her lush black curls and foreign-looking features, but she could not have been much older than Bart. And yet she seemed entirely unimpressed by Clark's forceful entry.

"What is going on here?" Clark demanded of all of them.

"Woah," Victor said under his breath. "Where the hell did he come from?"

"Dude, he's flying," Bart replied from the other side of the room. "How's that for awesome?"

Ollie, however, had recovered his senses and took a small step towards Clark. "Clark," he said calmly. "I don't know what you think we're doing, but we're here for a peaceful solution. Trust me, no one's going to get hurt."

"Solution to what?" Clark crossed his arms, still floating in the air behind Lex's desk. As long as Ollie still had his bow trained on Lex, he was ready to whisk Lex away at the slightest sign of danger. "My mother already told you that Lex is no longer threatening me."

Ollie frowned, without quite losing his smile. "I have no idea why you believe him after everything he's done, but I don't. And neither does Victor or Bart. Or Arthur, for that matter. We've all had our experiences with Lex."

Dinah had gone back to guarding the hallway and Bart looked disinterested already, playing with the cut wires, but Victor nodded seriously. Ollie didn't take down the crossbow, but with his free hand he indicated the dark haired girl in the magician's outfit.

"This is a friend of mine, Clark. Her name is Zatanna Zatara. She's a stage magician, but she has very real powers. All she has to do is say the words, and Luthor will forget everything. He won't remember ever having known your secret or blackmailed you."

Okay, Clark had met witches. It was possible that what Ollie had said was true. Clark's eyes darted from her to Lex. Lex couldn't speak, but his face was red with exertion from trying to do so. She had to be the one who had frozen him like this.

It was possible. They could erase Lex's memory. It wouldn't be the first time someone conveniently forgot all about Clark, but there was a difference between that just happening accidentally and letting it happen.

That'd be no better than what Lionel had done to Lex in Belle Reve... no, it would be worse, if Lex forgot everything about himself.

"You can't do that!" Clark shouted, shaking off his horror. "You can't just erase a man's whole memory! That'd be like - like murder!"

Ollie opened his mouth to object, but Zatanna laid a white-gloved hand on his shoulder and stepped around him, looking at Clark. Now Clark could see that she didn't actually walk on the ground any more than he did - she floated a few inches above it, walking on the air as if treading on clouds. Did he look as creepy as that?

"It isn't necessary to erase his whole memory," she said. She had a husky, accented voice, maybe Eastern European. "I can take away only the time in which he has known your secrets. It would not harm him."

Clark gaped at her. He understood. The last few years, gone. How far would she have to go back to make Lex forget everything dangerous? All the way back to that first year, probably. And Lex wouldn't know any of the horrible stuff that had happened to him. He wouldn't know about killing Nixon, about Helen's betrayal or the time on the island, about losing Lana. He'd be a happier Lex again, a Lex who believed that he could be good.

Clark and Lex could start over. She could erase all the memory of Smallville from his mind. They'd meet for the first time and this time they would do it right. Slow, and right, and honest.

And Clark would feel guilty forever.

No, he had made that mistake once. He wouldn't be an accessory to this crime again.

"I won't let you do that. You can't reset a person like that."

Ollie waved the crossbow angrily. "And you'll just let Luthor go on? Is his memory worth so much that you want to risk the safety of all of us? Don't you get that as long as he has control over you, he is the most dangerous man on the planet?"

Clark's eyes widened, but even as Ollie said it, he knew it to be true. The knowledge the Fortress had downloaded into his brain was still all confused, but it was true. The others were watching them, and Clark could see that they believed Ollie, too. Clark was...

"As long as I am free, I am the most dangerous man on the planet," Clark retorted, swallowing down his discomfort.

"You're a good guy," Ollie said dismissively.

"There've been times when I wasn't! None of us is perfect!" Clark threw back at him. "Are you going to have her neutralize me, too?"

"No, he isn't," Zatanna spoke up. She turned around to face Ollie. "I owe you a favor, Oliver, but this goes too far. Lex Luthor is one thing, as he has threatened your lives, but I will not erase an innocent's mind."

Floating was still a bit tricky, but Clark got close enough to regain her attention. "Your name is Zatanna, right? Do you trust me?"

"I trust the Green Arrow's word that you're a good person," she replied. Then, a little softer, "And I know that it takes a strong will to resist the kind of power you possess."

"I promise that I will make sure Lex doesn't use what he knows against any of you. I promise that you'll be safe."

"You - " Ollie started loudly, but Bart interrupted him by zipping between them, pointing up at Clark. "I trust him, okay? If Kent says he can do it, then he can do it."

Victor was staring at Lex with a tight expression, but then he shook his head. "Alright, man. I take your word for it, too. This mind-wiping thing is bad business anyways."

Zatanna waited if anyone else would speak. When no one did, she turned fully towards Clark and looked him up and down. "Do you vouch for him?"

Clark didn't have to think about it. Lex was his responsibility. He had been that for a long time. Not wavering under her scrutiny, he held the magician's gaze.

"Yes. I do."

She sealed the deal with a nod of her own, then stepped back and looked at Ollie. "The circumstances have changed. If there is a solution other than magic, then it should always be used. I won't erase this man's mind."

Ollie's lips thinned in a grimace, then he tucked in his chin and sighed. "I still think you're all making a mistake, but I'm obviously in the minority. I'm going to go back home to Star City," he went on, staring straight at Clark with a wholly new look, guarded and tense, "because I think I'm no longer welcome here, but I'll be keeping an eye on things. I'm going to hold you responsible for everything he does from now on."

Clark clenched his jaw. The situation was resolved, but he wasn't happy. He felt as if he had lost a friend just now. "I think you better do," he answered curtly. "I'm going to take care of Metropolis from now on. I'm no longer going to hide in Smallville."

Ollie nodded. His eyes were bright with regret, but his face remained determined as he put the crossbow back on his belt and said to Zatanna, "Let's go."

"Gone already," Bart grinned and vanished in a blur of red before the words rang out. Victor and Dinah moved closer to Ollie and the magician.

Zatanna smiled at Clark. "Thank you for giving us another option. Visit my show the next time we're in Metropolis." She raised a gloved hand in Lex's direction. "Evom niaga, Xel Rohtul! Tropelet!"

In a bright flash, she, Ollie, Victor and Dinah were gone. Lex stumbled forward with a rough gasp and clutched his throat, staring at the spot where they had just stood. Then he whirled around to look at Clark.

"Are you alright?" Clark asked worriedly.

Lex's voice was husky and soft. "You're flying,"

Clark flushed in embarrassment and bobbed down to the floor, just barely missing the chair in front of the desk in the maneuver. "Sorta?"

Lex crossed the distance between them in a single step, grasped Clark's face and pressed a hard kiss on his lips. "You vouched for me," he whispered roughly into Clark's ear. "How are you going to make sure I stay good?"

Clark shivered and ran his hands over Lex's slender waist. No, no, no. He had to stay on track. Take it slow. Take his hands off Lex - well, grasping Lex's upper arms was okay. Arms were safe. A totally friendly gesture.

"I trust you to try," he said, exchanging a sincere look with Lex. They almost slipped into a smile, but then Clark averted his eyes. "And... I couldn't let them do that."

Lex frowned trying to see Clark's face. "Clark?"

"There are people coming," Clark evaded.

"Security," Lex said tonelessly. "It's about time."

"What are they going to do if you're not here in a second?"

"Assume I've been kidnapped."

"Okay," Clark said. "Because I'd really like to go elsewhere right now."

Lex startled when Clark grasped him around the waist and picked him up, and Clark felt him swallow a sound of fear when they took off the ground and shot out of the broken window like a bullet, streaking across the roofs of the city before Clark came to a halt, floating them upright.

Lex wasn't shaking, but only because he was incredibly tense. He had his eyes squeezed shut and was clutching Clark's neck like a vise. For once, he held absolutely nothing back in his embrace.

Then, tentatively, he opened his eyes. He didn't look down. In fact, he rigidly didn't look anywhere but Clark's face.

"They're all scared of you," he whispered. "Because you can do such amazing things."

"Do you think I'm dangerous, too?" Clark asked. The most dangerous man in the world, Ollie's voice rang in his mind. Clark still would give anything for it not to be true.

"You're the most powerful being in the world," Lex replied and closed his eyes before resting his forehead on Clark's shoulder. "It's a good thing, I think. It means I'll have to choose another field of excellence."

"You could be the richest," Clark grinned.

"I could be the smartest," Lex mused. "What do you think about science? Do you think science can explain why you're flying right now?"

"Yeah," Clark answered. "But you won't get me in a lab. I'm scared of needles."

"That's a lame excuse."

"No, it's true."

For a long moment, Lex didn't reply, then he said very softly, "I'm scared all the time. But I'm not sure of what."

Clark held him close. This was going to hurt. "There's something I think I should tell you."

*

Lex didn't look comfortable when Clark landed in front of the barn, giving the yellow farmhouse a furtive look before turning away. Clark ushered him inside the barn and up to the loft, where he lit a small lamp. There was a chance that his Mom would wake up and see it, but Clark had felt the need to have this conversation in his comfort zone.

Lex was growing more and more apprehensive. "I have the feeling I'm not going to like what you're about to say."

"It's... no, I guess you won't," Clark said. "But you'd like it even less if I didn't say anything. Do you want to sit down?"

Lex dragged a hand over his scalp, but he did sit down on the old couch. The intense scrutiny he was giving Clark bore no further procrastination. Clark sat down on the other end of the couch.

"This is about the weeks you forgot after the island," he explained haltingly and as expected, Lex perked up at that, raising his brows.

"Go on."

"You didn't have a psychotic break, Lex. Ollie wasn't the first who tried to erase your memory. Except that your Dad... was successful. And I let him do it."

Lex's expression remained inscrutable throughout Clark's painful explanation of how Lex had found out about Lionel having murdered his parents, how he'd started to investigate Morgan Edge and how finally, he got drugged by Lionel and tracked down Edge. Clark was tormented by doubts, unsure if Lex was furious or shocked or simply indifferent to what he learned.

"I saw you using your powers," was the first thing Lex said when Clark came to that part. Clark nodded.

"And I reacted badly?"

"I'm not even sure," Clark admitted. "You were drugged and I was kind of panicking. I let them take you away and ran."

Lex's expression hardened, but he looked down. The blame Clark had expected didn't come.

Anxiously, Clark told him the rest. He recounted his visit at Belle Reve and finding out about the ECT with Chloe and then, the failed rescue. When he was finished, Lex looked as sickened for a moment as Clark felt, but in the end he glanced up at Clark with eyes full of disbelief.

"I'd still have known your secret if you had rescued me."

"My secret isn't worth anyone getting hurt or dying for it," Clark said immediately. "And I really didn't care at that point. I wish I had gotten you out in time."

"Why didn't you ever tell me afterwards?"

"I thought you would blame me. I waited so long before I got the courage and tried to help you. And... you weren't the same when you came back."

Lex rubbed his forehead, then let himself fall back into the couch, leaning his head onto the backrest. He looked worn-out and deathly pale. Quite some time passed with neither of them saying a word, then Lex spoke again.

"You're right, Clark. I'm not the person I was before. Ever since Belle Reve, I've constantly felt threatened. As if I have to do anything in my power to ensure my safety. I have this horror of being powerless and at the mercy of others that's stronger than anything else."

"Nobody likes being helpless," Clark tried to soothe him. But, yeah, Lex liked it even less than most.

Lex shook his head. "No, Clark, it's more than that. Christmas, two years ago, when I was shot and my father had me transferred to the clinic in Metropolis - I've never been so scared and furious in my life. I thought it was because of the island or because of what Helen did... I never even considered that the psychotic break might not have been real. It explains a lot."

"And now that you know, does it change anything?" Clark wasn't sure if he was asking about Lex or about them.

Lex took a few breaths in contemplative silence, then said, "Fear is a survival instinct, Clark. But now that I know where it comes from, it will be easier to ignore."

"I hate your father," Clark admitted quietly.

Lex turned his head to glance at him and gave a hollow laugh. "But you're not going to let me destroy him, are you? Even though he knows your secret and your weakness."

"I can't. I vouched for you."

Lex smiled resignedly. He sat up, and Clark could see him pulling himself together, pushing the pain to the back and replacing it with a determined vigor. A second later, Lex's smile turned wicked. "And if I find a thoroughly legal and morally sound way to destroy him?"

*

Epilogue

Metropolis, Three weeks later

"I wasn't aware you had acquired a partner. Isn't it rather unusual for a fresh intern to be given such a high profile assignment?" Lex's amused smile stood in stark contrast to the pointed question he directed at Chloe.

Clark had seen him in such high spirits for a long time. Sitting in the chair behind his desk, he was practically brimming with energy. Clark pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and tried to keep from grinning. He liked that mauve shirt. Three weeks weren't really enough time to count as taking it slow - but Clark didn't know how much longer he could stand meeting for dinner with Lex and keeping his hands to himself. On the other hand, Lex really enjoyed flirting. Maybe it was worth to wait just a little while longer...

Chloe's answering smile towards Lex was bright and hostile. "You granted me an exclusive interview, Lex, and the reporter in me cannot decline the offer. But I'm not going to approach you without back-up."

That was what Clark was here for. Chloe's personal bodyguard. Okay, he had just started an internship at the Planet - his Mom's condition about Superman had been that Clark would also have a real job one day - but he didn't delude himself that that was why he was here. If Chloe had needed professional help, she'd have brought Jimmy.

And, well, it filled Chloe with unholy glee to have him around ever since Lois landed the Superman scoop. Being in on the secret was probably the only thing that kept her from being consumed with professional envy.

"Well," Lex said smoothly, "it is quite a scoop for a Junior reporter. I reckon that the 'Superman' craze your cousin started is dying down after a week of non-stop coverage. You might even make front page tomorrow."

It was a good thing he had learned to go under the radar in his days as Lex's bodyguard, because Clark was blushing furiously. He fiddled with his glasses again to hide his embarrassment.

Chloe put the tape recorder down hard on the glass desk, smiling even brighter. "Off the record, Lex? I'm not going to be bribed with favors. But I still expect to get exclusive interviews from you for... oh, the next ten years, maybe? It seems only fair that if Lois gets Superman, I should get Metropolis's second most prominent citizen. Purely as a form of compensation, you understand?"

The tension between them had reached a scary level. Clark couldn't shake the impression that in a vicious way, they were enjoying themselves.

"Oh, I fully understand. Shall we get on with the interview?"

Chloe nodded and pushed the record button on her device. "Mr Luthor, would you like to explain to the public why you have decided to give an exclusive interview now? The records show that the last time you gave the press such insight into your life and work was five years ago at the inception of LexCorp."

"Well, you might consider this an anniversary of sorts, Miss Sullivan. In the last three weeks, LuthorCorp has undergone some fundamental changes in both management and the R&D sector of our company. In a way, it is a wholly new enterprise, resembling LexCorp far more than the old LuthorCorp. In fact, and you're the first to know about this decision, the name LuthorCorp and assorted labels will soon be changed into LexCorp, mirroring the new direction our company has taken."

Chloe kept a perfect poker face, but Clark glanced at Lex in surprise. He hadn't known about the name change, either, even though he had visited Lex the night before and they had talked about Lex's plans for the future of his company.

"Has this decision anything to do with the fact that you bought out your father's LuthorCorp shares, effectively rendering him powerless within the company?" Chloe prodded.

"My father, and the other members of the board who had to step down, represent the old LuthorCorp. They made this company strong, but it is time to look to the future. The world isn't the same today as it was three weeks ago," was Lex's well-practised answer. Both Clark and Chloe knew that the truth was much less printable than that.

"These are some major decisions for a man who has just recently lost his partner and become a father," Chloe stated provocatively.

Lex folded his hands on the table and looked down. The gesture looked as if done for TV, but the emotion behind it seemed real.

"I deal with grief by throwing myself into work, Miss Sullivan. Reminding ourselves of the future is often the best way to survive in this world. And as you said, I am a father now. I cannot but think of the future and of ways to make it better for my daughter and her generation. That is what LexCorp is about: the future."

Chloe was silent for a moment, then gave a small nod, a gesture of acceptance. She took a deep breath, the only tell that she had been nervous as hell about this interview, and asked her last question.

They both avoided looking at Clark. When she and Clark were alone, Chloe wouldn't stop snickering about Superman's costume, but Lex had only given it a smirk when Clark nervously presented it to him. It surprised Clark that they could both keep such straight faces when she asked,

"You mentioned that the last three weeks have changed the world, Mr Luthor. Was this an allusion to Metropolis's newest citizen?"

Lex leaned back in his chair, looking at both of them from across the desk. Framed behind him by the office windows was the golden globe of the Daily Planet.

"Three weeks ago," Lex said, "None of us would have believed that a man could fly. Now we see it happen every day above our streets. Our narrow, self-centered view of the world has been shaken."

He rose, a hand on the back of his chair, and indicated the city and the golden globe with a wide, sweeping gesture. His gaze remained distant for a moment, the look of a conqueror for his future lands, but then Lex glanced down self-deprecatingly and turned to look straight at Clark while finishing his speech.

"Kal-El of Krypton, the man the public has started to call Superman, has brought with him a paradigm shift comparable to the Copernican revolution. Humanity is no longer alone in the universe. For me, that also means that the bar of ambition has now been set much higher for all of us. We need to stop contenting ourselves with protecting what we already have."

Lex smiled. "Now, more than ever, it is time for us to aspire to the stars."