Chapter One: Red Cars and Black Leather
The silence in the Aston Martin was awkward. Nothing new about this; with so many topics to avoid (Clark's road trip, Lex's aborted honeymoon, the hole in the ground at the Kent farm, and all the usual secrets and lies) it was amazing they talked at all. But Lex had invited Clark to drive to Metropolis for a movie anyway, and with the help of a good CD collection and an action-adventure double feature, they'd made it most of the way through the trip without remembering that they didn't trust each other.
"It wasn't Chloe," Clark said. Again.
Lex sighed. "I didn't say it was. I said it looked like her car--"
"Like she drives the only VW Bug in Kansas."
Lex said nothing.
"I talked to her this morning. She didn't say anything about going to Metropolis today."
The tone of his voice warned Lex that this wouldn't be the best time to point out that Clark and Chloe hadn't been close confidantes lately.
"She's been weird lately, anyway."
"Haven't we all?" Lex's voice was sharper than he'd intended.
Clark fell silent again. Lex sighed and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
About ten miles from town, Clark piped up again. "You know what we need?"
Lex brushed away the first few responses that came to mind. "What do we need?"
"At eleven at night?"
"Because we want to sleep tonight?"
"Oh, come on. You never sleep anyway." Clark cleared his throat. "Let's not go home just yet."
Lex looked over. He stared until Clark squirmed.
"Shouldn't you be watching the road?"
"I know the road. Do you want to talk about it, Clark?"
Clark jerked his gaze to the passenger window. "No. If I have to talk about it, I have to think about it."
"Just take me home, that's fine."
Lex rubbed his eyes. He reminded himself to take a deep breath. "Coffee sounds great," he said. "I don't know why I didn't think of it. Where should we go?"
"You have a key to the Talon, right?"
"It's either that or the Gas-N-Go on Route 8." Clark's voice was amused. "I don't think they grind their own beans."
"The Talon it is."
Chloe waited until the back door of the Talon closed behind her before she groped for a light switch. The last thing she needed was someone seeing a light when there shouldn't be one and asking Lana about it the next day.
Time to get dressed and get home. The second-to-last thing she needed was Lex realizing that he'd passed her on the way home and having a talk with her dad. She needed to be in bed faking sleep before Dad's regular 2 A.M. 'fridge raid.
She had the back cupboard open and her duffel bag out when she heard voices in the front room. She froze. Please, God, let someone be robbing the place.
"Oh no," she whispered.
"And there's a light under the door."
"Clark, maybe you shouldn't--"
She dropped the bag and dove for the back door. If she could just get- -
The door behind her opened. Chloe froze, her hand on the knob. The other hand came up to cover her eyes, even though they weren't really what needed covering.
It was so quiet, the silence broken only by the sound of two men sucking in their breath.
"Chloe?" Clark squeaked.
She turned slowly. "Hey, Clark. Lex. What a...surprise to see you two here!"
Clark's mouth was still open. Lex, however, recovered faster.
"I think it's mutual, Chloe." One eyebrow lifted. "Nice dress."
"You don't believe me."
Clark loaded his voice with sarcasm. "Well, I know I always wear leather undercover."
Chloe shifted in her chair--completely out of sight of any of the Talon's windows, in case anyone happened to walk by--and glared at Clark and Lex. "I had to fit in."
"Fit in," Lex said slowly. He scanned her head-to-toe in the casually offensive manner only he could pull off. She was wearing a black dress--a black leather dress--with no sleeves. It came to barely mid-thigh. Clark stared at her arms a lot, to keep from staring at the breasts the dress cupped tight or her thighs--Chloe never even wore shorts, she hated her legs. Clark didn't know why she hated them. They were gorgeous. And when she crossed her legs, bringing those knee-high boots into his line of sight--Clark swallowed hard.
"I hate to ask where that guarantees you'll fit in," he said.
Chloe looked down. "Um. The Demon's Den?"
Lex shot to his feet so fast that only Clark's reflexes saved the table from tipping over. "The hell y--" He cut himself off. Clark watched, fascinated, as Lex balled his hands into fists and loomed over Chloe.
"Tell me," Lex said, a harsh edge in his voice," that you have not gone into the Demon's Den by yourself, wearing...that."
Chloe's gaze stayed riveted to the floor.
"Lex," Clark said quietly.
Lex took a step back and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Tell me, Chloe, that you're not using my place of business to sneak around, lie to your father, break several state laws, and go to one of the most notorious clubs in Metropolis, I repeat, wearing that."
"I didn't lie to my father," Chloe said sullenly. "I just didn't tell him. And I kept my stuff here because if I left it in the car, Lana or Pete might see it and ask questions."
"This does not reassure me."
"Lex," Clark said again. "Sit down."
Both Lex and Chloe looked curiously at him, but Lex finally sat down.
Clark turned his attention back to Chloe. It was difficult, as his attention kept wandering back down to her knees. "I assume this is about a story?"
"Of course! What, you think I'd just go somewhere like that?"
"Right now I'm not ruling anything out," Clark said dryly. "Talk to me, Chloe."
"I got this really big break a couple of months ago," she said. She looked nervously over to Lex and back to Clark again. "A chance to maybe write for the Planet. It was--I mean--the chance of a lifetime, Clark!"
"But I was afraid it would fall through. I knew my first story had to be really, really good."
"What's it on?"
"It was supposed to be on underage drinking. Here." She dug into her purse. Clark realized that while her eyes were heavily lined and mascara-ed, she'd chewed off all her lipstick. Dammit, if he couldn't look at her face or her knees without getting turned on, what was he supposed to do? He concentrated on her left ear.
"I made up this really awful fake ID on my printer, right?"
Lex made a tsking sound when she pulled it out.
"I know, it's supposed to look this bad. The plan was to take it to a whole bunch of places and see how many of them would serve me."
Clark never got hot, but there was sweat on the back of his neck. He wasn't sure if it was from Chloe's appearance, or from the impending sense of doom her story gave him. He rubbed the base of his neck. "All right."
"The first time I tried The Demon's Den, well, I wasn't wearing this." Chloe laughed. "The bouncer didn't even check my ID. One look at my outfit, and he kicked me out of line."
"And instead of turning around," Lex said, "you..."
"Snuck around the back."
"Oh, Chloe," Clark groaned.
"I thought I'd get a look at the place from the back window. See what clothes I needed. Then I could try again another time." Chloe's face darkened. "I saw the clothes, but..."
"You're going to get mad. And I know it sounds bad, but really, I'm fine, and you don't have to yell, and especially don't tell me not to go back because I have to and--"
"Chloe." Clark waited until she'd closed her mouth. "But. What?" he asked slowly.
"I saw something else." She swallowed hard. "I saw a body."
Chapter Two: Punk Pixie Dust
"A body," Clark repeated.
Chloe eyed him. He folded his arms over his chest and stared back. Oh, she was so screwed.
Beside him, Lex sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "She saw a body."
Clark leaned over. "Do you think she called the cops?" he asked, not taking his eyes off her.
Lex mimicked his lean. "Do you think she ran like hell?"
"Or," Clark said as if it had just occurred to him, "do you think she stuck around and investigated like an idiot?"
They sat there, heads nearly touching, and gave her identical mocking looks.
"Look, The Demon's Den is not in the best part of Metropolis. I figured by the time I found a cop and brought him back, all the evidence would be gone."
"Evidence?" they said in incredulous unison.
"She thinks she's Joe Friday," Clark said.
"She thinks she's Nancy Drew," Lex corrected.
"She thinks she's a reporter! And if you don't shut up and stop making fun of me, I'm leaving."
"I don't think so," Clark said, and there was nothing amused in his tone. "Making fun of you keeps me from locking you in that back room and calling your dad."
"Don't push me, Chloe." His eyes dropped to her legs. "Especially not wearing that."
She jammed her legs under the table. "You overbearing, hypocritical, holier-than-thou son of a--"
"I'm not saying you're wrong," Lex said smoothly, "but let's not go into that just now." He gave Clark a meaningful look, and Clark stopped sputtering--or at least, he brought it down to a barely audible level. "So there was a body," Lex prompted wearily.
Chloe took a deep breath. "I was around back, and when I heard people coming, I--well, I was only there to observe, and all right, it made me nervous."
She remembered the shifting lights in the alley, and the way she'd clung to her camera to remind her she was there on a story.
"There was a dumpster back there. I kind of ducked behind it, just until they left." Oh! "I thought I'd bumped something." *Sorry! Are you okay?* "And then I realized I'd bumped someone. He looked like he'd passed out." Uh, hey. Hello? Oh, God. "But I figured out pretty quick that he wasn't breathing."
She came back from her mental visit to the alley to find Clark and Lex both watching her with concern. She smiled hastily. "I'm okay!"
Clark just got to his feet and scooped her into a hug. She squeezed back, not even embarrassed when her dress squeaked against him. "I'm okay, really," she said. She blinked hard, waiting for the tickle in the back of her throat to go away.
Lex watched Clark set Chloe down. She rubbed her eyes, then frowned down at the mascara on her fingers.
"What did he look like?" he asked.
She pulled a quarter sheet of photo paper out of her purse. Lex sighed; of course she'd taken photos. He examined it. Clark looked over his shoulder.
The young man's face was hard to make out clearly in the dim light, but he looked to be somewhere between Clark's age and Lex's. He had shaggy brown hair--or maybe dark blond--and pale skin. He wore black leather pants and a red shirt open to the waist. No socks or shoes.
"There's no blood," Lex said absently as he tilted the photo.
"No, I couldn't see any. I didn't look under him, but there wasn't any on the ground at all. He'd thrown up, though." He could hear the grimace in her voice.
"Hm. What are these flecks on him?" They caught the light even in the picture, looking oddly ethereal against the leather.
"I don't know. There's a lot more than you can see in the picture--he was just covered in them. Like punk pixie dust."
"Not glitter?" Clark asked.
Chloe shook her head. "Too big. And where did you learn about glitter, Clark Kent?"
"The same place you did. VH-1."
"I don't suppose you got a sample of it?" Lex asked.
"I thought about it," Chloe said with such enthusiasm that Lex smiled. "But I didn't really have anything I could use as a container. And then I heard more people coming, so I thought I should get out of there while I could."
The reminder wiped the smile from Lex's face. "You know how dangerous- -"
"Contrary to popular belief, I am neither stupid nor five years old. But what kind of reporter would I be if I ran away from something like that without investigating first?"
"One with a healthy sense of self-preservation," Lex suggested. He held up a hand when she started to protest. "All right. All right. What happened next?"
"I called the police. I did," she said to Clark's skeptical look. "Then I snuck back to get photos of the cops in action. But by the time I got there, the body was gone."
"Somebody moved it?" Clark asked.
"I guess." She spread her hands wide. "It wasn't anywhere near there. I looked as long as I could, but I didn't see anything."
Lex hesitated. "Maybe he was just passed out, or really sick, and he woke up after you left."
"No. No. He was not breathing. I know he was dead. And I think that club had something to do with it."
"So you got a tight dress and that crappy ID and went in to prove it." Clark shook his head. "Dammit, Chloe..."
She leaned forward and shot him a smoldering look. Lex heard a choking sound next to him that he suspected was Clark swallowing his own tongue.
"Clark, baby, this dress is all the ID I need."
"You're awfully quiet," Lex said as they drove away from the Talon.
Clark was afraid that if he opened his mouth, the only word that would come out would be the one currently dominating his brain, which was "breasts." So he just shrugged.
"We have to do something," Lex said. "She can't just wander around Metropolis in those--"
Clark nodded emphatically.
"Attractive as they are," Lex added absently.
Clark gaped at him. "You noticed? But you were so--so--"
"Of course I noticed." Lex smiled wryly. "What's the saying? I'm married, not dead."
"Uh." Clark stared out the window. "Yeah. How's that going?"
"My next meeting with the PI is tomorrow."
"She's pretty well hidden."
"She has a lot of money to hide behind." Lex's voice was flat. "But she's forgotten that I have more."
"Do you know what you're going to do when you find her?"
A slight pause. "Yes."
"Are you going to tell me?"
No hesitation at all. "No."
A year ago, Clark would have known when to push. Six months ago, he would have pushed anyway, and he and Lex would have argued it out. Now...he kept his eyes turned away. "So what are we going to do about Chloe?"
"We could tell her father."
"Yeah, if we want her to kill us."
"It would stop her."
"Yes, but did you hear the part about her killing us?"
"Do you have a better suggestion?"
"I thought not."
Clark had a sudden urge to focus his heat vision on Lex's zillion dollar shoes. "We could help."
Lex brought the car to a screeching halt.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Lex, we're in the middle of the--"
"Tell me you're kidding."
"Yes! Yes, I'm kidding. Now can we go?"
Lex hit the gas. "Don't say things like that while I'm driving."
"You're the one who--fine. Whatever."
They drove in a mutually irritated silence until they reached the farmhouse. Lex peeled away almost before the passenger door closed.
Clark waited at the front door until Lex's taillights disappeared. Then he took his hand off the screen door and trudged over to the barn.
The loft was a little more crowded since it held clothing (usefully categorized with old feed boxes) and a bookshelf from his room, but with the window open, it was still as spacious as he needed it to be. He dropped onto the couch and checked the alarm clock. Ack. One a.m. He set the alarm for 4:30 anyway. With a judicious application of speed, he could have his chores done and be back to sleep before his dad even woke up.
It was his third week straight of no parental communication. He sighed and rolled over on the couch. Maybe he would be so tired he wouldn't dream.
He did, of course, but tonight crashing trucks and bleeding babies and crying mothers were interwoven with Chloe's breasts and Lex, dead, in leather and glitter.
When the alarm clock went off the next morning, it sounded like a scream. He slammed it across the room, where it went flying over the stair railing, narrowly missing Lex's head.
"Wha--Lex?" Clark blinked, trying to find reality. "Lex?"
Lex's face was drawn. "Chloe's missing, Clark."
Chapter Three: Domestic Dramas
Clark's mind zinged back and forth between the time, Lex's presence in his loft, and that one word. None of it computed. "I don't--how-- missing?"
Lex looked around. "Why are all your clothes here?"
"None of your business. It's 4:30, how do you know she's missing?"
"Her father called me half an hour ago. She wasn't in bed when Gabe woke up in the middle of the night, and he's been turning Smallville inside out ever since."
"How does that turn into calling his boss?"
"Her car is still outside the Talon. The back door is unlocked. Lana didn't know anything about it, and he hoped I did."
The fog in Clark's brain was starting to clear, which was disappointing. "But she was getting in the car when we left."
"For obvious reasons, I didn't tell Gabe that. Come on, we need to help look for her."
"Right. Yeah, of course. Can I--I need to get dressed."
Lex's look spoke volumes, but he just said, "I'll wait downstairs."
Unfortunately, Lex would notice if he dressed with too much speed, so Clark threw things on as (humanly) fast as possible and hoped his dad wouldn't--
"Lex? What are you doing here?"
--be early. "Dammit," Clark muttered, and yanked the lace straight out of his shoe.
"I just got a call from Gabe Sullivan," Lex was saying.
"Is Chloe all right?"
"I'm sure she's fine, Mr. Kent. She didn't come home last night. Clark and I are going to track her down and bring her home so Mr. Sullivan can ground her."
"Oh," Dad said. "Should I--"
Clark deliberately clattered down the stairs, and his dad's head snapped up. Clark looked through him and continued past Lex toward the driveway. "Well, good luck," his father said behind him.
Clark already had his seatbelt on when Lex climbed into the car--one of the Ferraris, today.
"What was the silent treatment about?"
"Where are we headed first, the Talon?"
"I saw your mom right before they released her from the hospital. She- -"
"Lex!" Clark said with such force, he was surprised the car windows didn't rattle. "If we're comparing domestic dramas, I don't think I win. So shut up."
Lex, to his credit, did not give in to his first impulse, which was to stop the car and kick Clark repeatedly until he chose to stop being such an ass. But he made a mental note to do it in the very near future.
They pulled up in front of the Talon. "First things first," Lex said as they headed for the front door. "I'll distract Gabe; you check in the back room where she left her bag. If it's gone, we'll know--"
"Lex!" Lana pushed open the front door. Both Lex and Clark stopped short.
Lana showed every sign of having been dragged out of bed far too early. Her jeans and shirt were neat enough, but she wore no makeup, and her hair was coming out of its thick braid. She shot Clark one stricken look, which he returned. Then she turned back to Lex.
"I'm so glad you're here. Mr. Sullivan's going crazy. The sheriff is being--" She made a face. "Let's say difficult. And they keep asking me. Like anyone tells me anything."
Lex put an arm around Lana's shoulders. "Okay. Where's Gabe?"
"In back, tearing Chloe's car apart."
He guided her through the back, pointing Clark toward the back cupboard when she wasn't looking. "Let's see if we can calm him down first. Then we'll tackle our friend the Sheriff."
Chloe's father was half-buried in the trunk of her VW. Lex thought wryly of Chloe's reaction to the rearrangement of her carefully ordered disorder.
"Lex! Oh, I'm so sorry. I realized after I hung up the phone that I shouldn't have called you so early. But the Talon, and the door, and Sheriff Adams said--"
"Gabe, it's all right." Lex let go of Lana; he might need his hands free to keep Gabe upright. "I don't mind."
"I keep trying to think of reasons--but none of them make sense." Gabe raked a hand through his hair. "Dammit, maybe she'd break curfew. But she would call, or leave a note, or tell Lana if she couldn't get back this late. Even if she was afraid I wouldn't approve--she would have-- "
"You know what you need here?" Lex said. "A fresh pair of eyes. Lana, why don't you and Mr. Sullivan go inside and rest--just for a minute," he added when Gabe began to protest. "Clark and I will look around out here." He gestured them both toward the door.
Clark was just coming out; he caught Lex's eye and shook his head fractionally. "We'll be right in," Lex said, and whispered "Feed him" to Lana as she walked past. She nodded and even mustered a small smile.
Clark looked disgruntled when he reached the car. Probably because of the smile. "No bag?" Lex asked.
"Nope. So we know she went back in."
"The question is, what happened when she came out?"
Clark scanned first the car, then the alley with that oddly intense stare that always aroused Lex's suspicions. He stopped on the nearest dumpster and glanced back at Lex before moving "casually" that way. It would have been funny, if not for Chloe's recent dumpster discovery.
"What is it?"
Clark fished around in the muck and came up with something. "Chloe's keys."
"Her keys?" Lex rubbed his head. "That makes as much sense as anything, I guess. She waited for us to leave, went back to the Talon, got her bag--"
"She had her keys with her to lock the door," Clark said.
"Right. Then somehow, the door is unlocked, the keys end up behind the dumpster, and the bag is--where?"
"Not in the car?"
"No, I think her father would have mentioned that." Lex looked around. "Where is she?"
"I don't know!" Chloe said for the twelfth, if not hundredth, time. "I swear I don't."
"You have a picture of him," the guy said. He grabbed her shoulders.
"Ow! Could you at least grab someplace else? Spread the bruises out?"
"What happened to him?"
"I don't know! I told you that. I told you everything. I don't know how he died; I don't know who did it; I don't know what they did with him. I don't even know his name."
He let go of her and paced away, swearing not quite under his breath.
Chloe took a deep breath. She rubbed her shoulders--bruises were already starting to form--and looked around. Four walls, a door (with a kidnapper between her and it), a boarded-up window, and random falling apart furniture. Yeah, your average abandoned shack. Nothing new since the first time she'd looked hours ago; nothing she could use to get out of there.
"How'd you find me?"
"Well, I live a long way from the club," she said reasonably. "Did you follow me?"
"The way you drive? I don't think so." He snorted, and Chloe wondered if there was really much to be afraid of. Okay, he'd kidnapped her, and she might have permanent muscle damage from the repeated grabbing. But then, she was from Smallville. She had a high tolerance for these things.
"Okay, then how--"
"Your license plate."
"What? Oh, damn!" She slapped herself on the forehead. "Some investigative reporter I am."
"You're a reporter?"
"I told you that."
"I know." He sat on the only other chair in the room. "I may be starting to believe you."
"I'm thrilled. And I already know who you are."
"John Doe's brother. You look like him. Same hair, same facial features...older, right?"
"I'm sorry. When I--" She swallowed. "When I found him, he was already. Um."
"You're sure he was dead?"
"I am, yeah. I'm really sorry."
There was a long silence.
"So," he said finally. "If you didn't kill him--"
"Which I didn't."
"Maybe one of the other hookers did."
Chapter Four: Complications
There was a short, deadly silence.
Chloe stood. "You know, I was pretty nice about being kidnapped," she said, closing the distance between her chair and his. "Not to mention interrogated and bruised."
He straightened in his chair, eyeing her warily. "You know, maybe I said that--"
She hooked her foot under the bottom rung and sent him flying.
"--wrong," he finished on a grunt. "Damn. My head. Damn."
"I should kick you in the balls while you're down. Son of a--hooker?"
"Wasn't that your undercover, you know, cover?" She pulled her foot back; he curled into a ball. "I guess not."
"Get up," she said. "We're going to have a long talk about The Demon's Den, and prostitution, and your brother, and you."
He didn't move.
"Now," she said with more than a little menace. She had to smirk when he cracked the other side of his head on the chair scrambling to comply.
Lex leaned against the far wall of the Talon and watched Sheriff Adams try to talk with Gabe and Lana. It was obvious from the look on her face that she wasn't getting much information, despite the agitated volume coming from the other side of the table.
Clark came through the back door. "Pete hasn't heard from her," he said before Lex could even ask. "He wanted to help look, but I convinced him to stick by the phone until we knew better where to look. If Chloe can get to a phone, she'll either call Pete or me. Or her dad, but he has his cell phone." And indeed, Gabe was checking it compulsively between bouts of frantic explanation.
"By that logic, shouldn't you be home, too?" Lex asked, just to see the reaction. "Or can you even hear the phone in the barn?"
Clark's shoulders stiffened. "My mother will hear it."
They both stared at the scene in front of them for a while.
"Glad to see the sheriff actually take an interest," Clark said finally.
"Gabe threatened to go to the papers if she kept insinuating that Chloe might have run away."
"Really? I wonder who gave him that idea?"
"I can't imagine."
Another awkward silence. Then Clark said, carefully, "We haven't discussed telling Sheriff Adams where Chloe was last night."
"I think Chloe would prefer we didn't confess on her behalf unless we had to." Clark started to interrupt, but Lex waved him off. "I talked to my investigator while you were gone. He was in Metropolis for our meeting today; I had him do some checking in and around the club."
"Oh. Oh, okay. It was nice of you to pull him off your more important case."
"Temporarily," Lex said, and did his best to ignore Clark's presence for a while.
tap tap tap
Clark looked to the right. Mr. Sullivan was checking his voice mail while Lana played with a probably cold cup of coffee. The sheriff had left a few minutes ago, which had at least quieted the room.
tap tap tap
To the left, just Lex, seriously pissed and not even trying to hide it.
tap tap "Clark?" tap
This time, he could tell that Lex had heard it too. They both looked back at the oblivious pair before them. Then they slipped into the back room.
"Chloe!" She looked rumpled and exhausted, but blessedly alive. He jumped forward to hug her, then stopped himself and ran a quick X-Ray check. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," she said impatiently. "My dad's in there, isn't he? Does he know?"
"He knows you're missing," Lex said. "You just missed the sheriff."
"Oh, shit." She sat down hard behind the manager's desk. "You guys have to help me think of a cover."
"...why?" Clark asked.
"I will tell you everything, I promise. But not in front of my dad. Please?"
"Oh, hell," Clark said. "My life hasn't been complicated enough this summer."
She beamed up at him. Then they both turned to Lex.
They kept staring.
"I didn't agree to anything."
"Come on, Lex," Clark said. "You're more devious than the two of us put together."
Lex made a noncommittal noise and stared at his feet for a moment. When he looked up, there was an all-too-familiar glint in his eye. Both Clark and Chloe leaned back; Clark suddenly remembered their conversation last night about Helen. "You're not going to like it," Lex said, with a grin that suggested it was a selling point for him.
"Chloe--" Clark tried to think of another plan fast.
"Fine," Chloe said.
"If anyone asks, you don't remember a thing," Lex said. He took two quick steps toward her. Clark shifted to see around him, but by the time he moved, Chloe was slumped over the desk.
Lex turned to Clark. "Now we tell--" That was all he got out before Clark had him pinned against the wall.
"What the hell did you do?" he asked, closing one hand around Lex's throat.
Chapter Five: Back Rooms
"Clark," Lex said. He didn't allow himself to struggle. "Clark, I didn't hurt her, I swear."
Clark looked less than convinced. In fact, he looked entirely unconvinced. "What did you do?"
"Special spray. Knockout drops." Lex lifted his hand and covered Clark's. "She'll wake up in twenty minutes and be fine. It'll convince her father that she doesn't know anything. We need to hurry before Gabe or Lana checks--"
"Right." Clark let go; Lex hadn't even realized he was a few inches above the floor until his feet hit it. He tried not to catch his breath obviously. "We will talk later," Clark said as Lex leaned over Chloe.
"Oh, I see several conversations in our future," Lex said grimly. He swing her up into his arms.
"Do you want me to take her?"
Lex glared at Clark. "Just open the damn door. Wait, slam the back door first."
As Clark did so, Lex called out, "Gabe! Lana!" He gestured with Chloe's feet towards the inside door.
He barreled through with Chloe. Behind him, Clark muttered, "He's good."
Lex suppressed a grin.
"Oh, my God." Gabe rushed forward to take his daughter, and the grin faded under a twinge of guilt. "Where did you--what?--"
"Here." Lex handed her over. She smelled rather like sweaty vanilla.
"Her breathing is fine, I'm sure she's fine, but we should take her to the hospital just to make sure."
"Where?" Gabe demanded, cuddling her close.
"Clark heard a car outside. We went out to check, and she was just there on the steps."
"You didn't see anyone?"
"No," Lex answered. He kicked Clark lightly.
"No, I'm sorry," Clark said.
"Who would do something like this?" Lana asked.
Lex could all but feel Clark's glare on the back of his neck.
"More popcorn?" Chloe's dad asked.
"Mm, thanks." She snuggled in closer to him. When Harry Met Sally was just finishing. It was her secret favorite movie. "That was fun."
"We should do it more often." Dad sat up a little straighter. "Chloe, I know I haven't been around much this summer--"
"Dad, I'm fine. They didn't even keep me overnight." She wiggled around to look at him.
"I know, but we still don't know who did this to you or if they'll come back." Chloe's stomach twisted at the fear on her dad's face. "Maybe you should go to work with Lana for a while."
Guilt washed away in shock. "You want me to what?"
"Just until we know for sure that you're not in danger."
"Dad. No. Just--" Yelling at him would be bad, she reminded herself. "I'll stick close to Clark for a while, how does that sound?"
"I didn't think you were getting along with Clark that well."
Better than with Lana. "No, we're okay," she lied. "And nobody will hurt me while I'm with Clark."
"I want to know where you are all the time," he said in his sternest tone. "And be extra careful."
"I promise, Dad." She kissed his cheek. "Don't worry."
"Ha," he said, but he kissed her back. "I had to have a firebreathing, go-getting, fearless daughter."
"You had to raise one," she corrected. "All your fault."
He gave her an extra-hard hug before he went to bed. Chloe was still smiling, until she opened her door and found Lana sitting on her bed.
"What's going on?" Lana said without preamble.
"Hi. Get out of my room."
"No. What's going on? And what does Clark have to do with it?"
Chloe pretended to be looking for something in her closet. "Oh, I'm a hooker, and Clark and Lex are my pimps. Nothing is going on, everything is fine, and get out."
"I was really scared," Lana said.
Chloe dug deeper into her blouses. It would be so easy to be cruel.
"I didn't mean to scare you," she said finally.
There was a sigh from the bed. "I think I miss you more than I miss Clark."
"I--I don't--" Chloe wiped her eyes on a red sleeve before she turned around. "I miss the person I was when you guys were my friends."
Lana really looked too damn beautiful when she cried. Chloe knew she was turning red and blotchy at a record rate. "How do we fix this?"
"Got a time machine? Or a pill to make us all fundamentally open and trusting? Damn it, Lana, do you think I would have spent the last two months avoiding everyone I love if this were fixable?"
Chloe waited until Lana's sobs were muffled by a closed door. Then she closed and quietly locked her own door. It only took a minute to change her pajamas for jeans, and a few more to climb out the window and down the trellis.
Strong hands caught her a few feet from the ground. "I'm fine, Clark," she whispered over her shoulder, but he didn't let go until she was all the way down.
They hurried through her back yard into the alley, where one of Lex's cars was parked a discreet distance away. "Can we make this fast?" she asked as Clark moved around to face her. "You know my dad will be checking on me soon."
Clark and Lex stared her down. Chloe sighed.
"Okay. Here's what happened. Remember John Doe?"
"A bit hard to forget," Lex said.
"His name was Nathan Hughes. It was his brother, Mark, who grabbed me..."
"He thought you were undercover as a hooker?" Clark asked.
"Clark, if you laugh, I will kill you."
"Right." He cleared his throat several times. "Not laughing."
"Kill you dead."
"Where is he now?" Lex asked. "Do I have a body to take care of?"
"No, he was alive and on his way back to Metropolis the last time I saw him."
Lex looked almost convinced. "Fine. Did he explain what he meant?"
"There are some back rooms at The Demon's Den I hadn't gotten into yet. According to Mark, they run a pretty brisk traffic in both prostitution and drugs."
"You're kidding," Clark said.
"You're not surprised," Chloe said to Lex.
"Well, did you think I objected to The Demon's Den because it played the wrong music?" Lex snapped. "What does this have to do with your dead boy? People are killed for drugs and sex every day. They don't usually appear and disappear in a back alley."
"Okay. Mark said--" Chloe's hands became even more animated as she laid the story out. Clark always found himself picturing Chloe's hand movements when he read one of her articles. "Nathan was a regular, um, worker, at the club, but his real money didn't come from hooking. He was apparently some kind of drug runner, and an ambitious one. He had some big plan, Mark says, to get promoted or whatever they call it in crime. The last time Mark saw him--" Chloe scrunched up her face in concentration. "He said something like, 'I'm not going to be a pawn in this game, I'm going to own it.' But he wouldn't be more specific. That was the night I found him."
"Chloe," Clark said, "this is getting immensely complicated and more dangerous. Are you sure--"
"Clark!" He was pretty sure she'd stamped her foot. "You helped me with my dad--"
"You were kidnapped."
"It was a misunderstanding!"
"Yeah, he thought you were a homicidal hooker. Why does that not help?"
"That's enough," Lex said. "Chloe wants to do this, and we agreed to back her up."
"And who exactly appointed you God?" Clark asked hotly. "With your private investigators and your knockout drops. Why do you have that stuff anyway?"
"Did you forget there's a woman out there who just tried to kill me? I carry that when my gun isn't practical. And I don't know why I'm explaining myself to you. When have you ever returned the favor?"
"That's not the point."
"What is the point?"
Clark tried to remember. "We shouldn't be doing this. We should have just--"
"Hey!" Clark just about ran Chloe down as she stepped between him and Lex. "Stop it, Clark. Just stop it." Her eyes shone in the dim light from the street. "I'm not giving this up, no matter what you do. So help me, or go back to the farm. Your choice."
"We need a plan," he heard himself say. "And a way into those back rooms."
"I may be able to help in that area," Lex said.
Chapter Six: Leather, Leather, and More Leather
"Dad made me take Lana to the hair appointment while he went--well, he said he was running errands. I bet he was off watching a baseball game in a sports bar," Chloe called through the door.
"I bet that was fun," Clark yelled back.
"She was so happy to help me with my 'new look.' I ask you, what was wrong with my old one?" Chloe didn't mention the hour-long gigglefest that had accompanied the appointment. It had been a girl-day like she hadn't had in a long time, even with the occasional awkward silence.
Then Dad had come back, and after the fifteenth promise that no, she wouldn't go anywhere Clark didn't follow (except, presumably, the bathroom and bedroom) all night, and yes, Lex was happy to let her stay in his penthouse, he and Lana had gone back to Smallville. It had been depressingly easy to convince Dad, who for once considered Metropolis less dangerous. He didn't know that Lex had given everyone the day off as soon as he drove off, and that the promised museum opening was a complete sham.
"Nothing was wrong with it," Lex's patient voice came, reminding Chloe where she was. "But we want you fairly unrecognizable. The extensions and the new clothes should accomplish that."
"It's so straight," she said, fiddling with it.
"Don't pull on them, Chloe."
She made a face and went back to tugging at her clothes. "And the pants are really tight. I don't--what was that, Clark?"
"Sure." She checked to make sure everything was more or less covered. "I'm coming out!" she yelled, and counted to ten just in case.
She was so self-conscious, it took a minute for their appearances to sink in. Once she noticed, though, it was a battle to keep her mouth from falling open.
Clark's outfit was deceptively simple: black leather pants similar to her own and a white T-shirt. Chloe had a sudden urge to sneak into his closet and burn every piece of flannel he owned. She'd known, intellectually, that he was strong, he had muscles, but displayed like this...She dragged her eyes over to Lex, which did not help.
Lex was a dash of color next to her black and Clark's black and white. His leather pants (of course) and silk shirt were blue, a shade brighter than navy. The shirt was untucked, but she could see the low outline of the pants through the thin silk. It was also unbuttoned at the top, displaying a thin gold chain, and at the bottom, displaying more leather, and he'd rolled the sleeves up. He looked all...casual, Chloe told her hindbrain firmly. *That's the word you're looking for.*
He even moved differently. There was still arrogance in every line of his body, but it was more aggressive and predatory somehow.
You've lost your mind, Sullivan, she thought. Then she realized the reason she'd noticed Lex's movements because he was moving in her direction.
"Um, Lex? Why are your hands down my shirt?"
Behind his shoulder, she could see Clark stiffen, but Lex just kept going. "Sorry, Chloe, but you're too demure for a hooker." His fingers brushed against her stomach.
When he lifted his hands, she was left with two buttons still together. She looked down and gave thanks for the new lingerie that had accompanied the clothes. "The bra is supposed to show, right?"
"Lex--" Clark started. Lex waved him off.
"It is. Don't worry. You look beautiful."
She could feel herself blush, so she grinned up at him. "Yeah, we're all sexy tonight, aren't we?"
"So if Chloe's your call girl," Clark asked, "what's my job description, exactly?"
Lex closed his eyes and muttered to himself. Chloe caught the words "young" and "Smallville." "I'll explain on the way over."
Clark was still sputtering halfway there. Once Lex had explained that both Clark and Chloe would be Lex's--er--employees for the evening and Clark recovered from that, it hit him that Lex had said "No one will be surprised if I bring you both in." Which opened up a whole other perspective on his so-called best friend.
Fortunately, Metropolis traffic made the drive from Lex's penthouse to The Demon's Den longer than usual, so Clark had time to deal. Or not deal. Or whatever.
He set that aside after a while to panic over how to behave. Lex and Chloe were sprawled across him in the limo, looking like a pair of sleek, stylish black cats. Chloe had apparently learned all she needed from her earlier visits to the club; Lex was just being Lex, and besides, he wore sex as easily as he wore those leather pants, damn him.
The limo came to a stop and Clark gulped. He might as well have "underage hick" written on his forehead in glowing green ink. He was going to screw up Chloe's story, get Lex arrested, ruin everything.
"Clark?" Lex asked from the limo door.
Time for a semi-extreme measure. Clark closed his eyes and willed up the memory of the red Kryptonite. His stomach lurched with guilt. He pushed it away. The guilt always came afterwards. How had he felt in its grasp during the three weeks he'd been trying to forget?
Powerful. Strong. In control.
Lex's voice came from outside the limo now. "We need to go."
Clark met Lex's gaze steadily for the first time in months. He felt himself smile. Lex's eyes narrowed. "Let's go, then."
He swung himself out of the car with ease. Both Chloe and Lex looked back at him oddly before turning toward the club. The thought of unnerving them solidified the wicked smile. The bouncer hardly glanced at him before waving them all in, with a nod in Lex's direction.
Someone short, blond, and obsequious all but jumped them as soon as they entered the club. "Mr. Luthor, it's good to see you in the Den," he said. "We've missed you."
"I'm sure you have," Lex said, doing that irritating thing where he looked around the room while talking to someone directly in front of him. "How have you been, Jackson?" I couldn't care less, his tone implied. One arm was firmly around Chloe while she leaned against him and pretended to look stupid. The other hand was running up and down Clark's arm, and not in a comforting manner. Clark used some innovative revenge fantasies to keep the easy smile on his face.
"I'm good. I'm good, thank you." There was something too happy about this guy, even for someone trying to chat up a Luthor. "I assume you want a back room?"
"Dancing first. Then privacy."
"What are you doing?" Clark could hear Chloe whisper as they headed for the main floor. "That's the owner. He--"
"I know who he is. Are you going to interview him right here?"
Drinks were at the table almost before they'd seated themselves. "Drink slowly." Lex cautioned in an undertone before tossing his own drink back.
Clark took a sip of his, not that you could make a sip look casual and cool. Chloe was in Lex's lap, coyly offering him the rest of her cocktail, and Clark discovered suddenly that leather had serious drawbacks when it came to being a voyeur. He inched his legs farther under the table and took another drink.
He tried to distract himself by looking around the club. In other circumstances, he would have been wide-eyed; it was nothing like he'd ever seen, all leather and drinks and beautiful bodies and flashing lights and Chloe was kissing Lex! He gulped the rest of his drink, not caring about the glare Lex sent him mid-kiss.
The alcohol was replaced with lightning speed, and Clark reached for his glass, only to be stopped by Lex's hand on his wrist.
"Chloe and I are dancing," Lex said in his ear, clear even over the incredibly loud music. "Behave."
Clark didn't dare answer, but he threw Lex his most challenging look.
The feel of Lex's mouth on his was a shock. It lasted only a second, then Lex was looking down at him again and Clark's smile had faded. "Stay put," Lex said.
Clark licked his lips and tried really hard not to think of anything at all.
The back section of The Demon's Den was a discreetly dark hall with a series of numbered doors leading off it. Lex double-checked his key and opened door 9.
The room smelled like disinfectant and incense; Lex grimaced. Chloe was looking around, probably taking mental notes on the too-large sofa and exceptional number of cushions. Clark was double-checking the lock on the door, not that it would hold against anything stronger than wishful thinking.
"No bed?" Chloe asked, definitely staring at the sofa now.
"When the health inspector comes, these are called 'conversation rooms.' It's a polite fiction, and the bribe Jackson pays through his security staff backs it up."
"I wouldn't sit on it." He scrutinized the walls carefully. "I don't see any security cameras. Do...either of you?"
"No," Chloe said. "But they could be well hidden."
Clark's look took more time. "No, I don't see anything," he said more slowly, and Lex relaxed.
"Now what?" Chloe asked.
"We give it a few minutes, and then we find their computer room. When I--when I knew this place, the drugs dealt out of here were done on an entrepreneurial basis." He shook off memories of one "entrepreneur" in particular and continued. "Jackson was very good at keeping the club and any back room activities separate, in part because I gave him advice on the topic. If he's involved, I'll be able to tell."
"Sounds good," Clark said.
There was an awkward silence. Then Chloe looked over at Clark.
"In the meantime, maybe we can find out why Mr. Kent here is so good at being a boy-toy."
Clark rolled his eyes. "Give me a break. You did it too."
"Yeah, but we know where I learned it. Come on, Clark, what were you really doing in Metropolis last month?" Her tone was facetious. Her eyes were not.
"Nothing. None of your business. Shut up." Were Clark's hands shaking?
"Right. Nothing. Did you know your dad called me every day, asking if I'd heard from you? I could hardly tell him I was the last person you'd confide in. And the whole time, your mom--"
"Shut up!" They were nose to nose now. "Shut up about my mom. You don't--"
Lex risked touching the sofa to step in front of it and grab each of them by an arm.
"Clark. Chloe. Has it occurred to either of you that this is not the best time to open old--"
Clark's head jerked up. "Do you hear that?"
"What?" Chloe asked.
Lex listened. He could just barely make out the scraping sound of a key turning in the lock.
Chapter Seven: Letters to Playgirl
Lex took only a second to bemoan his lack of contingency plans before creating one. He fell backwards onto the sofa, catching Chloe with one hand and hooking a foot around the back of Clark's knee.
They landed with a three-part thump on the sofa. Lex grunted.
Fortunately, both Clark and Chloe were bright enough to catch on. Clark hesitated briefly; then, under the pressure of Lex's hand in his hair, he dropped his head to Lex's stomach.
Chloe, meanwhile, had claimed the upper half of Lex's body. She ran her hands down the silk over his arms, then slipped them underneath his sleeves. He moved the hand that wasn't guiding Clark to her breast almost automatically. He felt the two fastened buttons give.
He knew in some dim part of his brain that he was supposed to be listening for something, but he couldn't quite remember what. It was easier to concentrate on Chloe's mouth moving against his, and Clark's hair under his fingers. He stroked through the thick curls, smoothing his palm over the scalp beneath. Clark grabbed his legs, in warning or--something, Lex wasn't sure. And then what little thought he had left fled as Clark nosed his shirt up and began licking long stripes from the edge of Lex's pants up to his navel.
Lex moaned. He slipped his thumb inside Chloe's bra; she leaned harder into him and bit his bottom lip. He tugged at her now-loose shirt. The skin under it was warm and smooth.
One of Clark's hands inched between Lex's legs. At the first tentative stroke, Lex tightened his grip on both Clark's head and Chloe's arm.
Lex shoved them both away so fast that Clark lost his balance and landed almost flat on the floor.
They stared at each other--Lex, still reclining on the sofa; Chloe, leaning over with her shirt most of the way off; Clark, looking up at them both from the floor. All three were breathing hard. And if Lex looked anything like the other two, they all had stunned expressions.
Denial. That's what we need right now. And a distraction... Lex finally remembered to check the door. "They're gone," he said into the empty air. "They brought, ah, refreshments." There was a tray with several bottles of alcohol, as well as Lex's favorite brand of barbiturate entertainment.
"Oh. Uh. Good," Clark said.
Chloe was busy trying to button her shirt back together. It wasn't working.
Lex looked down, realized where he was, and leapt off the couch. "My head was on that!" He brushed at his scalp.
"Like you've never done that before," Clark said, then appeared to realize what he was saying and shut his mouth firmly.
Clark and Chloe exchanged glances. Chloe gave up on her shirt and tied it in a knot beneath her breasts. Lex tugged his clothes back into place, not allowing his hand to linger on his moist stomach.
"All right. Let's go."
Chloe kept forgetting her assignment, which was to keep an eye on one end of the hall. Lex was picking the lock on the manager's office, and his hands were--well, his hands had just been--if her stupid arm hadn't still hurt, his hands might have--well.
She wondered if she should start her writing career with Playgirl instead of the Planet. It wasn't quite as prestigious, but...She snuck another look at his hands. She was willing to make some sacrifices.
"I'm in," Lex said.
Chloe suppressed several responses and followed him into a room bigger than her living room at home. A top-of-the-line Power Mac G5 was on one side of the room, next to several screens that looked like security monitors. The other half of the room contained another "conversation" area. Lex grabbed something off the arm of the couch and handed it to her.
"Put this on."
Chloe gave it a dubious look. It was a black sweater. A tiny one. "I think this is too small."
"Just do it."
"Fine," she said, stripping out of her ruined shirt and putting it where the sweater had been. Its former owner probably wouldn't even notice. "You're all about dressing me tonight," she said, wriggling into the--ooh, cashmere. "What's with that?"
Lex was already seated in front of the computer. "I may need your help to get into this," he said. "I helped set the system up, but that was five years and two computers ago."
"Sure." She leaned over the desk. Clark had taken up a position near the door. "What are we after?"
"First, security, to see if he's dumb enough to have kept the video files from the other night. Then his accounting program."
Time inched by as Lex worked his way into the system with occasional input from Chloe. Finally, he made a satisfied sound and hit three last keys. The screens flickered to life. Chloe muffled a gasp.
"Sorry," Lex said. The screens died again. "All right. Files for...dammit."
Lex nodded. He scanned through several directories. "I wonder..." he began, but before he had a chance to finish, the screen began flashing. "Shit."
Clark was staring at the ceiling. "What the hell?"
The last thing Chloe noticed before everything got really, really shiny was something floating around her. Something that looked a lot like...
"Punk pixie dust," she heard herself say. "Cool."
Both Lex and Chloe started grinning stupidly almost immediately. *This is not good,* Clark thought. Chloe started tugging at the hem of her sweater, and Clark rushed to grab her hand while upgrading their status to really not good.
"I think we better go, you guys," he said. "Lex, can you log off?"
"Because it's time to go."
Clark gave serious thought to knocking Lex unconscious. Again. But Lex shrugged and turned back to the computer.
A quick X-ray check showed people milling around the corridors, behaving exactly like Clark's two companions. He corralled Chloe and Lex--both more interested in tasting the odd flakes on their clothes than in actually walking--and dragged them to the door. They blended into the crazy crowd.
People were bumping into walls, laughing at thin air, and fondling each other. Clark wove his way through, trying to look high while still working his way to what he hoped was the back door.
Not far from his goal, he saw some of the bouncers heading his way. He narrowed his eyes. They didn't seem affected by the glitter, either. Which meant if they noticed his sober state...
Clark stopped, pushed Chloe against the wall, and kissed her, making sure to keep one hand firmly around Lex's wrist.
Chloe kissed him back enthusiastically if sloppily. He would have enjoyed it, but he was too worried. Lex was watching them curiously when he lifted his head. The bouncers were facing the other way.
"...so cool..." he heard someone say behind him. "Love it when this happens."
Clark made it to the door without incident. Unless you counted the location of Chloe's hand an incident. The limo was where Lex had ordered it to be, only a block away. Clark pulled the other two in with him. "Back to the penthouse," he told the driver, and hit the switch for the privacy glass.
Then he looked across to the other seat. What he saw there nearly sent him through the roof (more literal for him than for some).
"What?" Lex stopped unhooking Chloe's bra. Her sweater was already on the limo floor; damn, he was fast.
Chloe moaned. "Lex..." She pulled on his ears.
The bra landed on top of the sweater. Clark averted his eyes. "Lex. Chloe. This is a really bad idea."
"Not from where I'm...mmm...lying. Oh, that feels--" Chloe broke off to make more of those moaning noises. Clark ordered himself not to look. His eyes disobeyed.
The glitter was being transferred to Chloe's bare skin from Lex's shirt as they rubbed against each other. Lex was sucking steadily at her breast in time with the stroke of his hands down her sides. He pushed one hand between their bodies, and Clark fought the impulse to use Xray vision to see where, exactly, it had gone.
Look away, he told himself as Chloe called Lex's name. Stop them, he thought as she clenched fistfuls of silk. Do something.
Chloe's hair was long enough to spill almost to the floor of the limo as she cried out and convulsed in Lex's arms. There was no chance of looking away now.
She opened her eyes and they settled vaguely on Clark. "Hey," she said. "That was so cool. You've got to try it." Clark wasn't sure if he was more disturbed by her dazed look or the fact that she'd said exactly the same thing in eighth grade when she'd talked him into testing the Pop Rocks and Coke urban legend.
"Yeah, Clark," Lex said. "You've got to."
"I. Um. Oh, thank God. I mean, we're here," Clark blurted as he felt the limo stop. He threw Chloe's sweater at her. "Better get dressed."
She just stared at him. Lex's head was still cushioned comfortably between her breasts. "Why?"
Clark got them dressed, apart, and into the elevator, but it wasn't easy. He breathed a huge sigh of relief when it hit the top floor. He stepped out, checking just in case some of Lex's staff had come back unexpectedly--
--and stopped short.
There was a large man with a gun standing by Lex's penthouse door.
In front of him was Helen.
Chapter Eight: Barenaked Ladies
Clark stepped back into the elevator opening, running solidly into Lex. "What the hell are you doing here?" he snarled at Helen.
"I'm trying to get out of the elevator. Move." Lex poked him in the back.
"Not you. Just...stay put for a second, all right?"
"Lex?" Helen's voice was high.
The man behind her poked her with his gun. "Shut up. Is Luthor with you?"
"Why?" Clark asked warily.
There was a giggle behind him, and a familiar black sweater flew over his shoulder. Clark closed his eyes. *God, I know we haven't talked much since I found out I was an alien, mostly because I wasn't sure about the soul thing. But if you could find a way to help me out here...*
He opened his eyes. The gun, the sweater, and the homicidal bride were all still there. Thanks for nothing.
"I was promised a million dollars if I brought her in alive," the guy said. Clark focused on the person behind the gun. He was lanky and lean, chewing gum and managing to look blase and deadly at the same time. "I've got the girl. Where's my million?"
"A million dollars?" Chloe said behind him. "I want a million dollars!"
"Okay. Okay," Clark said. He tried desperately to think. "Let's go inside and make arrangements, okay?" Lex would kill him if Helen saw him like this. Of course, he'd also kill him if Helen got away.
"Isn't that Luthor behind you?"
"Yes, but he's--indisposed."
Lex laughed loudly.
"He's high," Helen said with disgust.
"It was an accident," Clark said, and winced. "Never mind. Just--" Keys. Keys. In his hand, because he'd taken them from Lex earlier. He went to the door, stopping to scoop up Chloe's sweater. "Keep her back."
Lex and Chloe stumbled out of the elevator. With her extensions and lack of clothing, Chloe looked like some random druggie. Clark hoped Helen wouldn't look too closely.
Time to herd everyone. Clark pointed Helen's captor to the living room. "Don't let her move," he said. Then he dragged the other two into the adjoining library.
"Stay here," he told them firmly. "Don't leave, and don't have sex."
"Why?" they asked together. Chloe was pouting.
"Because...because you wanted me to try it next, right? So you need to wait for me."
"Oh, fine," Chloe said. "Hey, Lex, are you really going to give that guy a million dollars?"
"Probably." He spun her around in a circle. "I really hate Helen. I should tell her that." He started for the door.
"No, wait! Give me a minute, Lex. Then you can tell her." Clark stepped out, closed the door, and leaned back against it. Through the thick wood, he could Chloe singing the first verse of "If I Had a Million Dollars," and...yes, that was Lex chiming in.
Clark smiled weakly at the guy with the gun. "I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?"
"Hicks. Do I get my million or not?"
Helen had taken a seat on one of the couches and was looking nervously at the library door.
"You will. But not tonight."
"Buy you a green dress," Chloe sang.
"But not a real green dress, that's cruel," Lex replied.
"Well, I'm not letting her out of my sight until I get my cash."
Helen looked at Hicks for the first time. "Of course not, you mercenary, abusive bastard."
"That's fine with me, Mr. Hicks," Clark said. "Would you like to tie her to something? I'm sure Lex wouldn't mind. In fact, you might get a bonus for it."
"Haven't you always wanted a monKEY!" Lex shrieked.
Chloe was having a good time. Green dresses and Dijon ketchup and occasionally Lex would just swoop in and kiss her, which was way too much fun.
"Whoa," she said after a particularly good swoop. "You made the room spin, Lex."
"Can I do it again?" He reached for her, but she stepped back.
"Oh. Really spinning. Ick. Why won't it stop?"
She puked on his boots.
"Clark!" she heard him yell, but she was too busy looking for a place to lie down to care.
The room was a blur of moving and shaking and people calling her name. Chloe shut her eyes and curled into a ball.
She heard another voice and it confused her, because it was a girl, so it couldn't be Clark or Lex. "Did she overdose?"
"Get her out of here!" That was Clark.
"What did she take?"
"Helen?" That was Lex. "Why is Chloe sick? What happened?"
"No!" There were a lot of grunting sounds, and Chloe wanted to look but her stomach hurt too much.
"Let me go!"
"Don't touch her!" Clark's voice was getting farther away, and Chloe felt herself start to cry.
"What did she take?" the girl asked. "How long ago? How much?" Chloe thought she sounded an awful lot like a doctor.
"Hold her," she heard Clark say, and then his hands were on her face. "We don't know. This weird glitter stuff fell from the ceiling. But everyone there was just high. I didn't see anyone get sick."
Chloe retched again.
"Some people react more strongly than others. Is that it on her skin?"
"Oh, God. She got more than Lex. Should I wash it off?"
"Yes. Lex, too."
He picked her up. "Stop!" she whimpered as her stomach lurched. She shoved her face into his chest. He didn't go very far, and then she heard water running. He carried her into the shower.
The water on her skin wasn't better or worse, it was just wet, although it made her pants squish. She let Clark peel her away from him.
"Good thing my shower's big." Lex's voice bounced off the walls.
"How are you feeling?" Clark asked him.
"Still high. Not sick. Kind of sleepy."
"Okay. Help me wash her off."
She was stripped and scrubbed. After a while, she even leaned against the shower wall on her own, although she still didn't dare open her eyes.
"Better yet, Chlo?" Clark asked.
"Um. Uh-huh." He was washing her arms. "This would have been really sexy an hour ago, huh?"
He laughed. She opened her eyes, pushing away the hair plastered to her cheeks, and smiled at him. "Wash Lex, too."
Clark left them long enough to find dry clothes. He dressed her in her pajamas, then picked her up.
Chloe had her eyes open for the ride this time.
He stopped in the living room. "Is it safe to let them sleep?"
Chloe blinked. Why was Helen here? She almost asked Lex, but he looked really confused and she didn't want to bother him.
"Yes, but they should be observed."
"I'll take care of that." He turned to the man sitting across from her. "She needs to be here in the morning. If you get tired--"
"--Come get me." He started for the hall door.
"Clark," Helen said.
He stopped but didn't turn around. Chloe peeked over his shoulder. Lex and Helen were staring at each other. "What?"
"You didn't react to that drug."
"Good thing I didn't."
"You think Lex won't realize it when he sobers up?"
"Helen?" Lex said.
She jumped a little. "Lex?"
Chloe giggled into Clark's shoulder.
Lex walked past them. "That's what I wanted to say!" she heard him say as he opened the door. "I've been trying to remember."
Lex didn't remember his bed being so soft. He climbed in and looked up at Clark, who was still holding Chloe. "It's a big bed. We'll all fit." He yawned.
Clark put Chloe on the other side. Lex helped tuck her in. Then Clark sat in the only chair, which put his knees right by Lex's head.
"You too," Lex said.
"I'm not tired yet."
"Oh." Lex enjoyed the soft bed for a minute. "Clark? Why is Helen here?"
"We'll talk about it in the morning."
"I hate her, you know."
"You told me." Clark's eyes seemed very dark. "I hate her too."
"You could always save me from everything except my family."
"I don't mind the plane crash so much. I saved myself," Lex said proudly. "But I should have known before. When you weren't at the wedding." He moved forward on the pillow, but Clark's face was still shadowed. "I should have known."
Clark was quiet for so long that Lex almost fell asleep. "I wasn't psychic, or even a good judge of character," he said finally. "I was too busy destroying my family to come to your wedding."
"Clark, you didn't--"
"Don't. Don't tell me it's not my fault. Everyone says that. Even my dad said it when he came to Metropolis. I went home with him because he said it wasn't my fault, but every time I look at my mom, I know he was wrong."
Lex tried to think through the fog in his brain. "Well, it was your fault," he said reasonably. "But you didn't mean to."
"You don't know what I meant."
"Clark. Be serious. Knowing you, you were trying to save the world and it backfired."
"Well. Not the world."
A flash of movement, and Clark was kneeling on the ground. Lex blinked. His eyes weren't shadowed anymore, but a vivid green. "But what do I do?"
Lex squinted at something on the pillow in front of him. It was Clark's hand. He took it in his and wiggled it back and forth for a moment. Then he tucked their joined hands under his head. "You have warm hands."
"What? Oh. Well, it's simple, Clark. You don't fuck up next time."
But Lex was too sleepy to respond.
When he opened his eyes, bright sunlight was pouring over the bed. A blonde head was occupying most of his stomach. And the memory of the night before was waiting to hit.
All of it.
"No," he said to the ceiling. "It was a hallucination." He hadn't-- and then--and Clark had--
He deposited Chloe gently on the bed and hurried for the door. If Helen was in his living room, it was real.
He almost hoped the living room was empty.
Chapter Nine: You Crazy Kids
Chloe stumbled to the doorway. "Hey!" she shouted. The screaming people in the living room stopped and stared at her. "Do you mind? Some of us are trying to be hung over here."
Lex stopped shaking his wife long enough to go to the bar in one corner of the room. He rummaged around and handed her a bottle of water and two pills.
"Demerol?" she asked hopefully.
"No. Advil." She noticed that he'd taken time to shower and put on a full suit, including a tie. Armani armor.
She tossed the pills back and chased them with about half the water. When she lowered the bottle, Lex raised a brow. She smiled. "This is your brain on pixie dust."
Clark looked over from where he was looming over Helen. "How are you?"
"Sadly, alive. Did I really throw up on the carpet last night?"
"My carpet, my couch, and my boots," Lex said helpfully.
The corners of his mouth tilted up. "Don't worry about it."
"Lex--" Helen began. Chloe saw a muscle twitch in Lex's jaw. Her arms went around his waist before she'd even thought about it.
"Lex," she whispered, and when he leaned down she kissed him.
He responded automatically, but she could feel the confusion radiating off him. Then Helen said, "Lex!" in a horrified tone, and he got it. His arms came around her and he relaxed a little.
It was an okay kiss, but it held none of the previous evening's fireworks. Maybe it was the lack of leather.
Or the completely sober audience.
"What are you doing?" Clark's agitated whisper came from right next to Lex.
Lex pulled back but kept one hand on Chloe's waist. "Having a little fun."
"Fucking with Helen," Chloe clarified.
"Oh. Oh." Clark looked over at Helen's pinched face. "Cool."
Lex shook his head. He didn't say "you crazy kids," but it was plain on his face. Then Clark caught his eyes. Chloe watched, fascinated, as the smiles faded from both faces.
"Let me help," Clark said slowly.
Lex's hand clenched once, then released, against Chloe. "Clark--"
Being kissed by Chloe had been amusing, pleasant, and just a little wicked.
Being kissed by Clark was none of these things.
It was tentative. It was nerve-wracking. And then Lex felt Clark's tongue brush his scar, and his eyes closed without his permission. This was Clark.
He opened his mouth, and Clark took it as the invitation it might have been and deepened the kiss. One large, warm hand came up to cup Lex's cheek; the other came around his waist and pulled him closer.
Lex realized he was still holding on to Chloe. He left his hand where it was to remind himself that he and Clark were in front of a very interested audience. This is a show for Helen, he tried to tell himself. But the slide of Clark's tongue said otherwise.
When they broke apart, Lex couldn't help licking his lips. They tasted like Scope. He kept his gaze low. He wasn't sure he wanted to see the look in Clark's eyes right now, and he knew damn sure he didn't want anyone to see what was in his.
A shout from across the room grabbed everyone's attention. "Goddammit," Hicks was saying.
"You son of a bitch!" Helen screamed. Lex had seen her angry, afraid, and in tears before; he had never seen this passionate mixture of all three. "You presumptuous, arrogant ass! You want to know why? Clark fucking Jerome fucking Kent, that's why!"
"You know," Chloe said from a spot just to Lex's left, "I don't think she likes you, Clark."
"You might be right," Clark said dryly from Lex's other side.
Lex managed to look faintly amused instead of completely surprised. The feeling of working as a team was...gratifying. Precarious, but gratifying. He gave Helen the smirk that had driven her crazy even before she'd been actively trying to kill him. "See where jealousy leads you? Conspiracy. Murder. Being tracked down by the gracious and charming Mr. Hicks. Being bribed by my father." He shook his head.
"Your father?" She let out a hysterical shrill of laughter. "Your father didn't know what hit him. He thought he was paying me to keep you out of the way so he could close some damn deal involving the caves."
"Congratulations," Lex said. He fixed the smirk back on his face. He'd deal with this revelation later--assuming she was telling the truth. "You've joined a very exclusive club: people stupid enough to fuck with both my father and me."
She stumbled back too fast, collided with Hicks, and landed on the floor in front of the sofa. "Don't threaten me, Lex. You wouldn't know moral high ground if you were buried in it." Her gaze flicked back over his shoulder to Clark, and Lex felt a surge of panic.
"Careful, Mrs. Luthor." A few quick steps, and he crouched down by her. He watched her try not to flinch. "Not too many members of that club are still living."
"You know better. Quit while you still have a bargaining chip, Helen."
Lex stood slowly, never breaking eye contact. He reached into his jacket--Clark braced himself--and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to Hicks. "Thank you for your services," he said. He was still staring at Helen. "If you'd drop her off at the Hyde Street police station, I would appreciate it. Detective Davison is expecting her."
Clark expected Helen to protest, but after a long, charged moment, she nodded and turned away.
As soon as the penthouse door closed, Lex's shoulders slumped. He rubbed a hand hard over his head.
"Lex?" Clark said. "Do I want to ask what her bargaining chip is?"
"I don't know," Lex said without turning around. "Do I want to ask why you didn't get high last night?"
This would be the definition of an awkward silence, Clark thought. Chloe broke it hesitantly. "Why did Helen let you send her to jail?"
"She knows it would be too hard to explain if I didn't at least make a show of using the justice system. I'll leave her there for a couple of days. Then I'll give a big speech about misunderstandings and forgiveness and decline to press charges."
"And that's it?" Chloe demanded. "She won't pay?"
"Did I say that?"
Lex sank onto the couch. He rubbed his head again. Clark sucked up his courage and sat next to him. "So. Helen's..." Gone. Surprisingly alive. Scary as hell and in possession of too many secrets. "...gone," he decided. Lex looked over at him. "We should talk about last night."
"We should?" Chloe said weakly.
"I mean, the club. The stuff. The computers! And stuff." Well, at least Lex wasn't upset any more. He was snickering.
"What are you two, twelve?" Chloe rolled her eyes. She plopped down on the nearest chair. "Okay. What do we know?"
What both of you look like naked, Clark thought. "That the pixie dust stuff is real."
Chloe nodded. "Seriously."
"I remember those ceiling panels holding balloons and confetti when I frequented the place." Lex looked thoughtful. "And twenties, on one memorable occasion."
Twenty dollar bills? Huh. "So why fill them with this stuff instead?"
"I can think of two possible reasons. One is the equivalent of a free sample, to attract customers. The second is to distract the club's patrons from something else going on there."
"Last night was, what, a security measure?" Chloe suggested. "When we get too far into the computer systems--or when Nathan Hughes did the same--it triggered the stuff?"
"It makes a warped kind of sense," Clark said. "Everybody gets loopy except the bouncers, who have plenty of time to look for--"
"Wait," Lex said. "What about the bouncers?"
"I saw them when I was--when we were--leaving. They were looking for something, I assume us, and they didn't seem affected at all."
Lex and Chloe gave him identical searching looks, and Clark realized what he'd just implied. He scrambled for a lame explanation, but Lex was already speaking.
"Well, you know what that means," he said to Chloe.
She nodded. "Yeah. Clark needs to break into The Demon's Den."
Chapter Ten: Labyrinthine
Clark lurked in the shadows opposite The Demon's Den and went over the plan again in his head. Lex had put it together, with help from Chloe, so of course it shot straight past complex to labyrinthine. He scowled at nothing. He had above average intelligence. He knew what "labyrinthine" meant, dammit. He should be able to do this.
He dug into his pocket for the cell phone Lex had given him. Maybe if Chloe explained the computer part to him again without the sarcasm, it would make sense.
Jackson came out of the club and passed by the bouncers just as Clark flipped the antenna up. He worked his way through the line, shaking hands and stopping to flirt with anything in a skirt. Clark rolled his eyes.
Then he looked down at the cell phone in his hand. Back up at Jackson. Back down at the phone.
Then he grinned.
Jackson made a surprised sound when the cell phone antenna met the small of his back. Clark leaned in, making sure his jacket hid the "weapon" from sight, and draped a friendly hand across Jackson's shoulder. "No sudden moves," he said in a dangerous tone he'd learned from Lex, "and I won't have to hurt you."
Jackson froze. "How can I help you?" he squeaked. Clark gave him points for quick thought.
"Let's go inside."
Jackson nodded. Clark shifted his grip so that they were walking side by side.
As they passed the bouncers, Jackson drew a breath in. Clark smiled cheerfully and squeezed his shoulder. Hard. Jackson kept moving.
"Does Lex Luthor know what you're doing?" he asked through clenched teeth as they passed through the club.
Clark made himself laugh. "Luthor? He doesn't even know my name. Just my price."
"When he finds out you used him to get into my club, he'll kill you."
Clark clamped down on the grin and turned it into a sneer. This was perfect. "He can try."
They stopped just inside the office. Clark closed and locked the door, thinking fast. The original plan had involved hacking into the computer and restoring the erased files. The original plan hadn't factored in X-Ray vision. Safe behind the bookcase, CDs in the safe. Bingo.
"Open the safe."
Jackson twitched a bit too much as he walked past the desk. "Don't trigger the security," Clark said casually. "You're the only one who'll get high."
"And how exactly did you get your hands on the antidote?"
Um. "Let's just say that not all of your employees are as loyal as you think," Clark said, and watched Jackson stop dead to stare at him. He congratulated himself. Stir up dissension in the ranks. Lex would love it.
"I'm impressed, Clark," Lex said as he flipped through the stack of discs. Chloe tried to grab one out of the stack; he smacked her hand away.
"I just played to my strengths." Clark was trying to look cool and mostly just looking giddy.
"Your strengths involve cell phones?" Chloe asked.
Clark grinned. "Improvisation," he said grandly.
Chloe snickered. She plopped down onto a chair and watched Lex insert the CD he'd chosen into his computer. In the corner of Lex's office, Clark had stacked everything else he'd taken from the safe--three bags of money and several Tupperware containers (Tupperware, unbelievable) of pixie dust. According to him, Jackson still thought the motive was robbery. "Our plan would have worked, too," she said. "For the record."
"Yes, Nancy Drew," Lex said absently.
Clark paced from wall to wall. "Is everything in there? I don't think I'll be able to get back in."
"I don't know yet." A dark but clear image of the alley appeared on the monitor. Lex hit a few keys and it scanned forward. "Sit down. You're popping in and out of my peripheral vision. It's irritating."
Clark floundered around a bit more and finally settled for leaning against the chair Chloe was in.
"So, if I'm Nancy Drew, are you Frank or Joe Hardy?"
"I'm not Ned Nickerson?" He tried a wounded look.
"No," Chloe said firmly.
"Joe was younger," Lex said.
Chloe patted Clark's hand. "I always liked Joe better anyway. He sang on the show, you know."
"Oh." It was more of an exhalation than a word, but both Chloe and Clark jerked to attention.
Chloe opened her mouth to ask--but then she saw Nathan Hughes on the ground, giggling madly and licking the pixie dust off his arm, and there weren't any words.
They watched in silence as two of the club's bouncers came running out after him. As Jackson followed with a vial of something that sparkled. As Nathan accepted and drank it, still laughing.
When they dragged him behind the dumpster, Clark slid down and pulled Chloe onto his lap. She buried her face in his chest, even through there was no movement on screen, and listened to a boy choke to death.
Lex shut it off when Chloe's own voice came over the speakers. She tried to make herself look up, but her muscles refused. "Thank you," she said into Clark's shirt.
Lex rested his chin on his linked hands, which hid the shaking, and played the scene again.
"She's asleep," Clark said from behind him. "Or at least faking it."
Lex nodded and kept watching.
After a few moments, Clark reached in front of him and turned the monitor off. "Lex."
Clark folded himself up into a seated position on the floor and looked up at Lex. "Talk to me."
"I hate them," Lex said simply. "I want them dead." He dared to meet Clark's eyes. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Lex looked away.
"I do," Clark said more sharply. Lex looked back. Clark's face was pale, and his eyes never wavered. "I want to feed them their own drug and watch them laugh themselves to death. I want to bury them beneath that dumpster. I understand."
"But you won't." The rage was a palpable thing, weighing hot behind his eyes. It reminded him of the heat on his hands after he'd shot Roger Nixon. "And I can do all those things with one phone call--but you're going to tell me not to. Aren't you?"
"I'm not going to tell you anything. I'm not your conscience."
Lex's laugh came out more like a growl. "Bullshit."
Their gazes stayed locked in the long silence. Then Clark spoke.
"When I was...gone, after the accident, I was...my dad says I wasn't myself. He says I was crazy." He shrugged briefly, throwing off the words, and took a quick breath. "I did things--I hurt people, and maybe most of them deserved it. At the time, I told myself that they'd done something, some time, to deserve it. I didn't really care. I just wanted to do some damage. But I justified it for that small part of me that knew it was wrong."
"You hurt people," Lex repeated.
Clark looked away for the first time. "I don't think any of them died."
"That's not the point." Clark raised his eyes again, but they only came to Lex's collar. "I'm not sure I know what the point is."
Lex sighed. "Tell me to go to the police, and I will."
"Go to the police. Send them everything Jackson gave me from the safe. And if anyone from The Demon's Den leaves town before the cops come--" Clark raised his eyes the rest of the way, and for a second Lex could swear they glittered red. "I'll help you bring them back."
Chapter Eleven: Status Quo
Lex pushed away from the desk, and Clark found himself holding his breath as Lex knelt before him. "Promise me," he said in a low voice. With Clark's sitting position, they were precisely at eye level with each other.
Maybe the kiss should have been a surprise. But it wasn't. "I believe you," Lex said against his mouth.
Clark's hands flexed and dug into his legs. Lex's eyes were open, challenging him in some way Clark didn't really understand, and he was miserably aware of every awkward move of his tongue and lips. He sucked in a breath and tried again, reaching for that red-Kryptonite feeling of power. But being here with Lex was all the green kind: shakiness and weakness and fear.
Lex broke away and Clark reached for him before he could stop himself. His fingers brushed against silk long enough to feel the muscles beneath contract. He jerked away.
His heartbeat was loud in his ears. He wanted to grab Lex and try again, or at least look him in the eye, but he only got as far as the top button on Lex's shirt before his courage failed him.
"I hated you," Lex said suddenly. "When the plane crashed--"
"I didn't know."
"I told myself that." Lex's chest rose and fell on a half-laugh. "I had a lot of conversations with myself out on the water. Maybe it was the sunstroke, but I really expected you to just drop out of the sky and save me."
He'd been too busy hanging out in clubs and starting fights in alleys. "I wish--"
"Yeah. Well." Lex was on his feet so quickly Clark's gaze stayed fixed at what was now knee level. "It doesn't matter what I expected or what you wished, does it? I'm home. You're home. The very definition of status quo."
"There's nothing status quo about this summer. Or even about the last few days."
Lex's eyes, when Clark could finally meet them, were narrowed. "Are you sure?"
He strode from the room, leaving Clark behind.
One of Lex's "people" had removed the soaked clubwear from the shower, cleaned off the pixie dust, and stacked everything in a corner of the guest room. Chloe sat cross-legged on the floor, fingering the various materials. She drew patterns on the leather.
She heard a noise outside in the hall and froze. The door didn't open, though, and she let herself breathe again.
Her cell phone was partly buried under a shirt; the keys glowed, giving off square green shadows. Chloe picked it up. She'd memorized Mark's number, but it took four tries to punch it in correctly.
It rang twice. The click of someone answering made Chloe's stomach twist. "Hello? Hello? Chloe, is that you? Is--did you find--is it about Nathan?"
She swallowed hard. "Hi, Mark."
When Chloe fell asleep--much, much later--she was still curled into the pile of clothing.
Lex came awake with a start as the mattress shifted beside him. His instinct to strike out was checked as someone pressed up against him.
As Clark pressed up against him.
What the hell?
Lex opened his mouth to ask exactly that, but Clark's lips were on his and Clark's tongue was exploring his mouth. Lex wondered how his fingers had gotten tangled in Clark's hair. Briefly, he worried that this was just a belated reaction to the pixie dust. Maybe it just took longer to work on Clark than it did on the rest of them? But nobody in the room was laughing.
Rather, Clark seemed to be as serious as Lex had ever known him. His hands were busy tugging away the sheet between them. A quick shift, and then Lex felt the sudden friction of a sweater and jeans against his bare skin. Clark seemed pleased by the results; his hands wandered liberally on their way back up.
Lex pried his hand from Clark's hair and scrabbled for the sweater. He got it as far as he could and shoved Clark up just long enough to peel it off.
Clark smelled like wool and tasted like sweat. Lex had a sudden insane urge to see if every inch of Clark's skin had that exact tang of salt. Collarbone, yes, shoulder, yes, base of throat, yes, but more slippery, and it made Clark jerk and groan. He could feel the bruises forming as Clark's fingers dug into his arms. He didn't care.
He worked his way down Clark's chest, almost lapping in places. Clark's mouth was hot and wet on the top of his head.
Lex ducked down until his mouth was just above the top of Clark's jeans and tortured him with quick bites until he apparently fractured Clark's control. Too fast to follow, Lex found himself back on the bed, his breath hitching as Clark found that exact same spot on him and paid him back.
The ceiling tiles danced above him as Lex fought for control. He needed...he needed to show...Clark wouldn't...
Heated breath was his only warning before Clark's mouth closed over his cock. Maybe Clark would. Maybe he had. Maybe he was really, really good at this.
Lex promised himself he'd learn where Clark would and had, but later.
Right now he was busy. And it didn't seem to matter where Clark had learned his skills, because damn, he was good.
When Lex's eyes uncrossed, Clark was leaning on the pillow next to him with a smug look on his face. Lex had to smile. He looked so impressed with himself.
He reached out for Clark's jeans, but a firm hand on his stopped him.
"Status quo," Clark said, and there was just the slightest edge to his smile now. "Or is it quid pro quo? I can never remember."
Lex just stared at him.
Clark kissed him one more time, hard, and grabbed his sweater on the way out.
"Not status quo," Lex said to the empty doorway. "Definitely not status quo."
Chapter Twelve: Back to the Beginning
The weather forecasters had promised a beautiful sunny Metropolis morning.
Lex pushed his sunglasses back up his face and thought that waiting for late people made a beautiful sunny Metropolis morning feel a lot like a hot muggy Metropolis afternoon. Wait, it was a hot muggy Metropolis afternoon. He checked his watch again. "Damn it..."
"Lex!" Clark hurried around the corner, holding a card in his hand and, as far as Lex could tell, not sweating at all. "I'm here. I got it. Sorry."
"Make the paper yourself, did you?" Lex asked as he took it and pulled out a pen. He could feign normalcy just as well as Clark could. Status quo, he thought grimly.
"Very funny. Come on, write your half before she gets out here."
Lex scribbled a few words on the card and popped the trunk. The card went into one of two white boxes tucked into the corner. He turned back to find Clark staring at him.
"Lex--" he started. Lex braced himself. But Clark broke off, and a moment later Chloe hurried into view.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" She was juggling three bags and her phone, and trying to push her hair away from her face with her shoulder. "Oh, I can't get used to this new hair. Mark called at the last minute, and I couldn't blow him off."
"Did the police get in touch with him already?"
"They did." She started handing over bags. Lex packed them carefully around the boxes she hadn't noticed.
"I sent Hicks in first thing this morning."
"The cops are moving fast on this one."
"Our information was convincing." Hicks had been, as well.
"And you're sure they won't trace it back to you?"
"Chloe, are you worried about me?"
He kissed her cheek. She blushed more. "Well, we have been through a lot together," she said. "I wouldn't want you getting in trouble for-- any of it."
"If you're referring to what I think you're referring to, this would be a good time to start repressing it."
She rolled her eyes at him.
"Ironically, that reminds me: did you call your father to tell him we're on our way back?"
"An hour ago."
Lex raised an eyebrow.
"I know how you drive."
Lex shoved her--gently--into the back seat. "Watch it, Sullivan."
He was still chuckling at her reaction as they left Metropolis behind and headed for Smallville. Chloe made a face when she saw him smiling at her in the rearview mirror. Then she went back to her quiet conversation with Clark; he'd twisted nearly all the way around to talk to her from the passenger seat.
"And one of the weirdest things about all this," she was saying, "is Dad mentioned school shopping on the phone."
"No. Can you believe it's only a couple of weeks?"
"I don't know. It seems like we've lived a couple of lifetimes since May." Out of the corner of his eye, Lex could see Clark fiddling with the side of the seat cover. "I look back at just about everything that's happened, and I can't believe I was ever that...that..."
"Thoughtless?" Chloe offered.
"I was thinking criminally stupid," Clark said without looking up from his hands. "But...yeah."
Chloe's eyes met Lex's in the mirror, and he saw a familiar mix of resentment and amusement in them. Clark really needed to learn how to apologize.
He wondered, briefly, if Clark wanted to apologize for the night before.
"Well, I wouldn't say criminally." Chloe poked Clark in the arm and he grinned at her. Chloe grinned back. But she avoided meeting Lex's eyes in the mirror for the rest of the drive.
Chloe took the last bag from Lex. "Okay, thanks."
"That's not quite everything."
Chloe counted again. "Yes, it is."
Lex handed her two boxes. "Open the top one first. And not when anyone's around," he added quickly as her dad opened the front door.
"Right. Okay." Leave now, Chloe. "Um, you'll call me if you hear anything about--you know?"
Dad squished the boxes between them to hug her. "Hey, sweetie. How was the museum?"
Uh-oh. "Great. I had a great time."
"And there weren't any problems?"
She blinked up at him before remembering her adventure with Mark. "Oh! Nothing at all. I was perfectly safe the whole time."
She saved her giggles until she was safely in her room. "Perfectly safe!" she said out loud, and startled herself into another round.
She finally calmed down and set the two boxes in front of her on the bed.
The smaller box held a wealth of brochures and books about the museum opening. "All right, Lex," Chloe said. "Way to maintain a cover." There was even a tie with...she squinted...some truly hideous painting on it.
Dad would love it.
The green fabric in the second box confused her. She opened the card on top. Inside, in Clark's handwriting: We'd buy you a green dress.
Beneath it, Lex had added, But not a real green dress, that's cruel.
It took a couple of startled moments for it to sink in; then she burst into near-hysterical laughter.
"Oh, my God," she said. "My God, they bought me..." She hugged it and laughed until she cried.
After far too much of that, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Okay, one more thing to do before she could read the brochures and give Dad his tie.
Her computer booted quickly, and she watched the messages pop up on her email screen. Two older messages were still flagged as unread. One, a week old, was from a dailyplanet.com address. The other was over a month old and no one would be able to trace it back to Lionel Luthor.
Chloe stared at the screen for a long time. The green dress was crumpled in her lap.
Just as she reached for the mouse, a knock on the door made her jump. "I made pork chops, and Lana will be home in a few minutes."
"Oh. Great. I'll be down in a sec!"
"Chloe, are you okay?"
"I wish I knew," she said, then more loudly, "Yeah, just unpacking."
She waited to hear him walk away. Then she pulled the keyboard closer and started to type.
Lex stopped the car by the Kent mailbox and they both sat there, staring out their respective windows.
"Helen's being released this afternoon." Clark jerked his head around. Lex's expression was calm. "I finalized the arrangements before we left."
"And what are the arrangements, exactly?"
"She's too valuable to destroy; is that what you want to hear? I think that with the proper incentive she can be useful."
"She tried to kill you."
"To use a phrase you might recall, quid pro quo." Clark tried not to flinch as he remembered the last time he'd used those words. "I wasn't kidding about crossing my father. I'll let his possible reaction sink in. Then I'll impress upon her that I'm the best protection from him she'll find."
"Fine, but that still means she doesn't pay--"
"Clark." Lex laughed. "She hates me. And she'll know that I'm in control of her fate. You don't think that's punishment enough?"
Clark's mind was spinning as Lex continued. "I get the ally I need against my father, and she gets to keep breathing. Quid pro quo."
"And she's still a part of your life," Clark said. "Keep your enemies close, and your wives closer?"
"Sometimes they're one and the same." Lex shrugged. "The only alternative really is to kill her. Or tell my father she's been released, which is the same thing. Which would you prefer, Clark?"
Clark opened his mouth, then closed it again. He wasn't entirely sure which answer he wanted to give.
He looked away. When he looked up, Lex had an all-too-familiar expression on his face. The one he wore when he was pretending he didn't care.
"You need to go now, Clark. Your parents are waiting for you, and I have things to do."
"Lex..." Let me come with you, he thought. Let me explain last night to you. As soon as I figure it out myself. "Lex--"
"Status quo," Lex said, almost to himself.
"No." Clark grabbed Lex's shoulder and didn't let go even when Lex jerked back as far as possible. "No. I don't care if you hate me, that's better than playing this game again."
Kissing Lex would probably end as miserably as it had every other time he tried. But he did it anyway. He pushed Lex back against the driver's door and kissed him as though he'd never get the chance again. Just in case.
Clark pulled back finally. Meeting Lex's eyes was one of the hardest things he'd done in a long time.
Lex just stared at him. Clark realized suddenly that they were breathing in the same harsh rhythm.
"I don't hate you," he said finally.
"Good," Clark said. He grabbed his bag and climbed out of the car. "Good. I guess."
"Clark," Lex said just as the door was about to shut.
Clark jerked it back open. "Yeah?"
"Do you want to go have coffee after I get done at the office?"
Coffee. Clark choked back a laugh.
"Status quo?" he asked.
Lex shook his head. "No. Just coffee."
"Sounds good." Clark stepped back, then stopped as something occurred to him. "Be careful, though. Don't forget what happened the last time we decided to have coffee."
Lex was still laughing as he drove off.