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What You Sow

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Prologue

For all intents and purposes, he should have died. That's what the doctor told him, second day in, when Lex was loosing his mind trapped in the narrow hospital bed, deprived of the use of his cell, deprived of an aide who knew what the hell was going on and how to take proper measures to handle it.

The doctor should have known better, having treated Lex for other various life-threatening injuries over the years and witnessed miraculous recovery. Should have expected Lex to be up, by the end of that second day, despite the aches and pains and lingering faint headedness of severe blood loss, and wanting out.

He should have stayed there.

He came to that conclusion rather quickly, when the federal agents descended. When he discovered the military had cordoned off the dam site, and all the sodden secrets within. And Smallville law was clamoring after him, on the heels of the federal government, claiming something about finding Lana's journal, and the incriminating evidence there in. But they didn't stand a chance at staking their claim when there were charges being leveled on a Federal level, the least of which were illegal human experimentation, misappropriation of military personal and federal funding and the worst being possible treasonous acts.

It became surreal, on a certain level.

Lex was inherently a multi-tasker, tremendous pressure was a fact of life. He had learned to deal under the harshest of circumstances, but things were veering out of his control. Personal impacts had shattered his calm, and continued battering hindered him from piecing it back together. Part of his brain - - part that could have been put to better use dealing with lawyers and endless questions, the answers to which needed to be meticulously worded - - seemed stuck, much as it had in years past, in the mire of Clark Kent.

He hadn't seen Clark since he'd picked him up, half-dead, off the side of the road, after the entity had been at him. At least he thought it had been Clark. The real Clark, not something masquerading in his body. And that had been the crux of the problem, of the questions he couldn't shake, how Clark had come out without a mark when no one else that had ever had that close a contact with the thing ever had? Well, other than him - - and he certainly hadn't come out unscathed.

He'd dredged up every scrap of information they'd gathered on the entity while he'd been lying in the hospital bed, or sitting in federal custody waiting to be questioned - - or hell, being questioned - - and there was simply no recorded evidence to support what had happened. And if the thing had left Clark, where was it? The fact that it might be running around free somewhere, with its new mentality to mask its old taste for blood - - was chilling.

It was easy enough to admit that he was afraid of it. He hadn't been particularly before, more interested in what the properties of its biological make up could provide him, but it had been decisively good at instilling fear. He would hunt it down regardless, if it was still out there, because fear or not, he had a personal score to settle, and left uncollected those sort of debts could cripple a man.

It had worn Clark's face so well. He could still see that smile, and hear the tone of his voice while it had been hurting him in ways inconsistent with the methods Clark used to inflict pain. He would have given a good portion of his fortune for a chance to get Clark alone in a room and willing to answer questions.

As it turned out that was a sacrifice he'd be forced to make regardless.

"Lex?"

It was close to 1a.m. and the offices of LuthorCorp tower were dark, devoid of the usual scurry of personal. It had been eight days since the calamity. Eight days since Lana's death. Eight days since the thing had stolen Clark's body and wrecked vengeance on him, the result of some unspecified threat against his father. Eight days since he'd had more than an hour's sleep not interrupted by anxiety driven nightmares.

Lex was not at his best. There was only so much caffeine and amphetamines could do to keep a sleep-deprived mind alert. But it was better than the nightmares. Things he couldn't remember, and likely was lucky not to.

Lionel paused at the doors to his office, crisp, clean suit, bright eyed and focused like he was walking into a mid-day meeting instead of intruding on a midnight soliloquy. His bruises were fading slower by far than the deeper one's Lex had sported, but he carried them well, like battle scars to be proud of. Supposedly he'd been there when Lana's car exploded - - tossed aside by the ferociousness of the blast. How apt, since it had been his hand pulling the strings behind her acceptance of vows.

"Get out." There was a gun in Lex's desk. He was of a mind to pull it out - - of a mind to give the vultures on his doorstep something deliciously solid to rip into.

"You look appalling, Lex." Lionel strode in, a folder in hand. "You should have stayed in the hospital. You're always so eager to put your health at risk."

"Its mine to risk." He wasn't feeling eloquent. He'd been eloquent all day in the face of government bureaucracy. "Would you have had me stay put while they pulled the company down around us."

"Around us?" Lionel laughed. "If the company comes down, it will be because of your actions son. Your obsessive pursuit of ridiculous fancy, when you should have been focusing your efforts on growth and expansion. And it's not the company they're after, Lex. It's you."

Lex rose, fighting back an instinctive snarl. "Don't lecture me. You lost that right a long time ago. I'm dealing with this and I don't need your input or your help."

"You're not getting out of this, son. You've made enemies in high places. You've been so busy feeding your own paranoia that you've forgotten the politics of negotiation. You've been sloppy. How many bodies did they pull out of your project at the dam? Personal that even your appropriations committee puppets didn't know about. And let's not forget about your little disagreement with Senator Burke before his untimely death. That was a rash move. Smacks of desperation and desperation is the herald of failure.

"The military wants a piece of you. The federal government does on quite a few levels. We won't even mention small town law."

"Let's not." Lex suggested coldly. "And let's not forget your hand in that, shall we?"

"Anything I did, was done in the attempts to curb your obsession."

"The hell it was. And my obsession was well placed, don't you think, considering the things we both know as fact. What you seem to know quite a bit more than you're sharing, dad. Did you think I'd forgotten that the thing came to see you?"

Lionel smiled at him. A pitying curve of the lips, like he was delusional and spouting madness. Fuck the coffee, he wanted a drink. He wanted to bash Lionel's head into the glass surface of his desk. He wanted to damage something until it bled. In that respect, he thought he could almost understand the entity's motivation - - if it had been frustrated and hounded.

"Did you know they recovered Lana's journal?" Lionel threw him off guard. He did know, but he had no idea what it contained. His lawyers might have copies by now, if it was to be used as evidence against him, but he'd been too wrapped up in federal problems to deal with insubstantial local ones.

"She was very - - concise - - in her recounting. Quite damning really. I have to even question if it was all true, or some of it merely the venting of a tragically unhappy young woman. You really should have noticed, Lex."

"Like you noticed with mom? Seems to run in the family," he said and was rewarded by a minute flinch and a tightening of his father's mouth. Then Lionel shrugged, a cant of his brow that conceded that Lex had scored a hit.

"If this goes public - - more public than it already has, they'll crucify you, Lex. They're talking congressional hearings to discuss the misappropriation of funds even now, did you know? And when they start digging, they'll uncover your other dirty little secrets and we both know what they entail. You may never see the outside of prison again - - if they're that kind."

"And that would be a coup for you, wouldn't it, dad? Payback." He leaned forward, hands flat on the desk, because otherwise, they might betray him.

"Oh, Lex." Lionel shook his head, the picture of melancholy. "The loyalty of a parent to a child is boundless. I'd sell my soul to keep you safe, son."

"Can't sell what you don't have, dad." Lex laughed, he had to. It came out bitter and cold with the irony.

Lionel laid the folder on the desk, slid it across to rest between Lex's hands. Lex didn't touch it.

"Over the years, son, I've cultivated alliances and gone out of my way to curry favor with men that aspired to power. I've paved the way for political careers and broken the competition of men that might not have achieved their places of power without a nudge of help. If you think simply because I don't sit at the head of this corporation, I don't have power, that's one more miscalculation on your part.

"It's going to all go away, Lex. The federal inquiry, the military investigation. I've called in my markers. Favors from very high up in the food chain and this mess you've created will be buried."

Lex stared at him, waiting to hear the catch. Because there always was one with his father.

"There's a price." Lionel said, tapping the folder.

"Of course." Lex didn't want to open it, but he did.

"The federal government will be levying fines. Against LexCorp. Against you. Quite substantial, but when you're buying off the government, the cost is always high."

Lex stared down at the documents. The neat categorization of agencies from the EPA up, claiming financial toll. He sat down, knees gone a little weak, tallying numbers in his head. Staggering numbers. The corporation was multi-billion dollar, but only a fraction of that was liquid.

"So in return for me putting a dent in the national deficit, I get to avoid the inconvenience of a few hours of congressional bullshit and criminal charges that might or might not stick? I'll take my chances."

Lionel's smile was tight and condescending. "Pass the offer by your lawyers. I built the company from nothing, I trust you can follow in my footsteps and recover from setback that's financially crippling, but not devastating. So you liquidate property and go without a new car for a year or two. I assure you the alternative is considerably worse."

Part One

Lana was dead and Clark felt angry and helpless.

With all his powers, all his unearthly abilities, he was impotent, stymied, because there was no direction for his rage. The sheriff's department and the Lowell county DA and Henry Small and anyone else with the influence to see justice done were spinning their tires, efforts concentrated in the wrong direction - - only casually exploring other avenues in their determination to indict Lex.

Clark might have applauded that sentiment, that dogged resolve, if he didn't grudgingly believe Lex's claim of ignorance in the matter. If he'd believed otherwise, Lex quite possibly would be dead already, victim of Clark's initial rage.

Lex could lie and lie and lie, serpent sly falsehoods slipping off his tongue as calm as smooth silk, but there had been something in his eyes, some spark of honest shock, of ravaged grief in the face of a fear that had nothing to do with Clark's anger. And later, when he'd been on his way to dead, bleeding out in winter dry grasses, victim of that same fear, who'd worn Clark's own vestige and mimicked his powers, Lex had cried innocence again. No artifice. No sleek wordplay. No articulation at all. Just desperate need and Clark accepted it. Deep down, past the surface rage, he'd believed.

He hadn't wanted to, because God knew, Lex was black with blame, but not in this. Not in this last crime against Lana. So Clark had deposited him at the ER and abandoned him, too fast for any human eye to follow, his own body wrung dry from the fight with the phantom that had drawn from his Kryptonian DNA.

He thought the thing was gone. He hoped it was. It had happened very fast at the end, the power of the crystal rupturing through the thing, like it had pierced Lex when Zod had worn his body - - ripping the intruder violently out. Only there'd been no body this time in the aftermath, no shell drained of alien consciousness and it was entirely possible it had fled, mortally injured or just injured, to lick its wounds.

Regardless, there had been no sign or word of it in three weeks. And life returned to normal - - or as normal as life in Smallville ever got. Chloe revived from her coma two weeks after the fact. Lois published her story about illicit LexCorp projects, but all she had was speculation. She'd never gotten to the guts of it, and the military had come in a day after the dam broke and staked claim to the area. They'd cleaned everything out, despite LexCorp protest.

Quite a lot of protest, according to what Clark heard from Lionel. But the matter had serious federal attention, spurred on by powerful interests that sensed the chink in LexCorp/LuthorCorp armor and were eager to dive in for the kill.

And Lana was dead. Flesh scorched away, bones shattered so badly from a blast centered under the driver's seat that there hadn't even been enough left of her for dental identification. Someone had been needlessly thorough. He'd seen the vehicle, in the police compound at night, and gone over it with his enhanced vision for a clue, for a particle of anything that might give him answers, but there was nothing left but a ravaged mess. The police had already retrieved what fragments were left of the device and from what he'd overheard, from what Lionel had been able to find out for him, all they knew was that it had been no simple, jury rigged bomb. There had been artistry behind it and that probably meant that whoever had done it might have been targeting Lana to get at Lex.

If only they'd waited a few hours, they might not have needed her death to get at him. The phantom had triggered enough of a landslide to near drown him.

And that first week, Lex was attacked from all sides, damaged from the assault of the phantom, diverted by accusations of Lana's murder and the murder itself and he just let it happen. Clark heard gleeful reports from Lois, things she'd gleaned from sources linked to her father, to old contacts she'd gained during her stint as his mother's aide de camp, of all manner of charges leveled, of possible congressional hearings, of assets seized.

And then, they evaporated. The charges, the federal involvement, the military presence in Smallville. It wasn't Lex's doing. It was Lionel's. Lionel's maneuvering, and Lionel calling in favors that went up so high in the federal government, a simple man could get nosebleed dwelling on it. It hadn't been Scott free, not even close. There were fines involved. Huge federal fines levied against LexCorp. Considerably more money, according to the associated press than LexCorp had liquid access to.

There were reports of bankruptcy of the smaller LexCorp and a great deal of reorganization of its larger brethren. And maybe that had worked out to Lionel's benefit, humbling Lex. Having Lex in his debt, dubious as the favor was. Clark couldn't guess the workings of the Luthor mind. Not Lex, and certainly not Lionel, who claimed to channel his birth father, and most likely did. But, honestly, Lionel Luthor had been as manipulative a soul as ever existed without the added benefit of Jor-el's own brand of machinations adding a new twist to the works. It was a frightening combination and not one Clark particularly trusted. The Lowell county DA was still investigating the murder, still had Lex in their sights, prime suspect. Lionel's maneuverings couldn't erase that suspicion and maybe Lionel hadn't even tried. Maybe Lionel didn't really believe Lex was innocent of those charges. It was hard to tell, because Lionel liked his wordplay and Lionel liked his subtle insinuations.

So the only one looking outside Lex for the people responsible - - other than Clark and his confidants - - was Lex. And even distracted by corporate disruption he had better resources than they did.

And Clark was drifting. Lost in three weeks worth of stagnancy - - three weeks of denial, of looking for someone to blame, of blaming himself, of blaming her for ever getting herself tangled up in Lex's world to begin with, of hating the world at large for the unfairness of it all.

He needed something solid to sink his teeth into. Going to Metropolis at night, playing midnight vigilante to exercise his frustrations could only relieve so much of the pressure. He almost wished that the phantom would show up again, or some other uniquely dangerous threat, so he could really work out his rage. So he wouldn't have to hold back when he felt the need for violence.

He wanted to know what Lex had uncovered. He needed to know it. He didn't want to see Lex. He had avoided Lex since he'd found him by the old dirt road that bisected route 619.

It didn't matter that it hadn't been Lex's hand that had forced her into the marriage. Lex was still the catalyst that made Clark's teeth ache when he dwelled on the months she'd worn the band that declared her a Luthor. Lex had pursued her. Lex had asked her. And that was enough of a treason to make Clark see red.

He didn't want to see Lex, but he had to, to find out what he'd uncovered.

So he drove to the mansion, late enough to qualify as rude. There was frost on the ground, frost on the windshield before the heat of the cab melted it away. Winter rolling in early, before fall could officially resign its office. It was colder out here, in the country than it was in the city - - at least that was what Clark heard. He never felt the extremes anymore. It was only ingrained habit that reminded him to don cold weather clothes at all, to avoid curious looks from the rest of the world, shivering behind their gloves and hats and winter coats.

There was guard at the gate, but he was snug in his little house, watching a tiny portable TV, so Clark go out and walked up, tapping on the glass and startling the man.

"Is Mr. Luthor home?" 'Mr. Luthor' sounded like he was asking after Lionel.

The gate guard cast a meaningful glance at his watch, then got on the phone. After a few minutes, he hung up and gave Clark a smug look.

"He's not receiving guests. Try coming back in the daylight, next time."

Clark didn't know whether the suggestion came from the guard or had filtered down from Lex on the other end. It was irritating either way and Clark stood there a moment, staring past the bars of the gate at the distant silhouette of the estate and regretted not simply bypassing legitimate routes of entry altogether.

He stomped back towards the truck, slammed the door shut with more force than needed and turned the ignition. The flare of the headlights caught the guard trotting towards him from the little house.

"He'll see you." The guy said, not so smug anymore, when Clark cracked the window, then went back to the guardhouse and triggered the gates open. They used to be open all the time. There used to be no guard at the gatehouse, or more than domestic staff at the mansion. Things changed.

It was a long drive, past hedges and manicured lawn. He pulled up in front of the portico, the only vehicle out front. A man that Clark wasn't familiar with opened the door, neutral face showing no opinion of the late visit.

"Mr. Luthor is in the study."

"I know the way," Clark said, and moved past, rubber-soled boots making muffled thumps on the marble.

The fire was crackling in the hearth when Clark walked in, but he recalled Lex saying once, that even with the fire, and electric heat, the castle never quite lost its chill, especially in colder months. Lex had never liked the cold.

Clark didn't see him in the room, and stood there in the center, debating a penetrating visual search of the surrounding rooms. Lex spoke to him from above. "What do you want, Clark? Come to gloat. To see the mighty fallen?"

Lex liked to make an entrance, even when he wasn't the one doing the entering. He stood on the balcony library overlooking the study, one hand on the railing, the other holding a tumbler of amber liquid. There was something in the careful way he held his body, in the loose set of his mouth that suggested that it wasn't the first glass of liquor he'd had tonight.

"Funny, I never saw you as one of the 'mighty'." Clark said, hard eyed, standing tense and wary in a place that had once held such allure for him. "Unless we're talking ego."

Lex lifted a brow, a faint fey look in his eyes. He moved towards the stairs, trailing fingers along the railing. He was slim and shadowy in the wan light of the upper balcony, black pants, charcoal grey, high necked sweater that made the paleness of his skin all the more stark. It was a good look on him, but then Lex wore most everything well, and Clark had to look away, because the days of admiring the way Lex moved and the way he wore his clothing were long past.

"Ah, flattery," Lex finished what was in the tumbler, a wry little smile on his lips that came nowhere near to reaching his eyes.

"And from what I've heard, you haven't fallen. You just got spanked a little when it could have been worse. I can see you've had to make all sorts of sacrifices."

Lex made him tense. Lex's rolling gait down the stairs made him want to turn around and just get the hell out, because Clark instinctually felt that Lex lazy and relaxed, was more dangerous than Lex guarded and hostile.

"Ah, you've been talking to my father. But then, the two of you have developed so many common interests of late, haven't you? Secrets shared, schemes hatched - - and he's always proven so trustworthy - - so noble in his pursuits - - I can see why you might confide in him."

"Lex, I'm not here to talk about your father."

"Are you here to talk about how you escaped unscathed from the entity? I'd love to have that conversation." Lex padded towards the glass-topped bar.

Clark tightened his lips, wondering what it would take to get Lex onto a topic of his choice and off the ones that Clark didn't want to discuss.

"I don't know. Isn't it enough that it's gone?"

"Actually. No." Lex poured more scotch. "Who in their right mind would think that it's enough? The thing is a killing machine, and you'd like me to just thank my lucky stars that it happened to go away - - no reasonable explanation? Do we even live on the same planet? Where's your sense of responsibility, Clark? It's generally so well defined."

"You brought it here." Clark snapped.

"I brought it to 'Smallville'," Lex corrected, liquor sloshing over the edge of the glass onto his clenched fingers. "I didn't bring it here. That happened independent of me. I was simply working to make sure we're prepared to deal with the things that follow in its footsteps."

Clark took a breath, a knot of guilt in his throat. Lex was right on one count. He hadn't brought it to earth. That was Clark's doing. The deaths it had caused were ultimately on his shoulders.

But Lex was staring at the faint patterns of frost on the panes of the stained glass window behind his desk, a frown marring his brow. The liquid in his glass was vibrating, disturbed by the tremors of his hand.

"But maybe I did," he said, voice distant, as if he weren't really talking to Clark at all. "Maybe I did something - - when I wasn't myself - - that brought them here. There's no indication they were here before that. It recognized me, you know?"

"I don't think you did," Clark said carefully. Then. "What?"

Lex turned to look at him, eyes fever bright, cheeks flushed from the booze. "It - - said it recognized the flavor of him - - or whatever he was - - in my blood. How is that possible, if he's gone? Zod."

The sound of the name on Lex's tongue made Clark's heart pound a little faster. "He's gone, Lex. It's - - it's been over a year. He's gone."

"How could you possibly know that? How could you possibly know half the things you claim as gospel? I have nightmares five days out of seven about Dark Thursday - - about Fine. About what I did when Zod was inside me. About what he did to me."

"You remember?" Clark asked, fighting for calm. Trying to decipher the range of emotion flittering behind Lex's eyes. Lex was never so open nowadays, never showed show much - -not unless there were great quantities of alcohol involved - - or equal amounts of blood lost.

Lex laughed and swallowed the scotch in one long swig. "Not a damned thing. It's all a big blank, but what the mind knows and what the subconscious knows are two different things. It seems my subconscious is in on secrets that it's not sharing with my mind."

It was a dangerous topic. A loaded one and Lex was the last person on earth that he wanted to dredge up memories of it with.

"Lex, I have nightmares about that day sometimes. Everybody who was impacted by it probably does now and then."

"Do you want to know what I've been feeling, ever since that fucking thing that wore your face, brought the subject up?" Lex hissed, a moment of flash flood anger. "That there is something left inside. Like the tip of a lizard's tail that breaks off and lays there, still wriggling, amputated from its body - - but still fucking wriggling. I can't get the image out of my mind."

The glass hit the wall behind Clark, raining fine crystal on the carpet. It was unsettling, the words and the images and the possibilities and it occurred to him that none of them in the know had ever bothered to do Lex the simple courtesy of letting him know that Zod had been banished permanently. And he'd been obsessing about it, one way or another for a year or more. Fortifying because of it - - building armies.

Fuck.

Clark didn't know how to go about it now. Didn't know how to explain without going into his own involvement. Couldn't explain about the phantoms for the same reason. All this time, he'd been so busy being pissed off at Lex, that he hadn't realized that underneath the cool, and the arrogance and the machinations, lay fear.

Even if he tried to come up with a neutral explanation, a carefully worded, carefully edited account that dabbed at the edges of the greater truth, he doubted Lex would want to hear it from him. Lex was far past blithely accepting fanciful tales from him and Clark was past the point where he felt the need to spin them.

But it bothered him, Lex's fears about Zod.

What if it were possible, that something had been left behind? Not a comforting thought. He'd ask J'onn about it, next time he saw him. He hesitated at the notion of inquiring of Lionel, because if Lionel were channeling Jor'el, he knew very well what his birth father's thoughts were on anything Zod related.

"Did you ever - - talk to Lana - - about the nightmares?" He didn't like contemplating Lex and Lana's private moments. He didn't like to think about them intimate. Even though he'd had nightmares about them together, disturbing ones that he didn't like to dwell on, that involved naked bodies, writhing under sweat soaked sheets, Lex's pale skin against Lana's golden flesh. And him sweeping down in a rage, flinging Lex off of her, pushing him down when he rose to protest - - holding him down, pinning him, slick skin under Clark's hands . . . and the rest inevitably turned nightmarish, because more often than not, Lana wasn't there anymore and there was just him feeding his anger towards Lex . . .

"She has her - - had - - her own about that time. No need to burden her with mine." Lex moved towards the fire, a hint of a waver in his walk. He leaned there, hands against the mantle and the glow turned slacks and sweater orange where it touched.

"She's why you've come, isn't she? And I diverted your train of thought." Lex said turning off one subject and onto another as easy as changing lanes in traffic. "Have you changed your mind about me? Swayed by the dogged determination of Smallville's finest?"

"What makes you think I ever doubted you didn't have a hand?" Clark asked stiffly.

Lex looked at him over his shoulder, a cruel twist on his lips. "I'm standing here aren't I? I'd be either dead in the dam or dead in the field if you truly believed otherwise, wouldn't I?"

Clark swallowed, the truth of that statement a painful acknowledgement - -at least in the dam, when the grief had been fresh. He didn't think he could have left Lex bleeding to death in the field either way. He hoped he couldn't have.

"Yeah. She's why I came. I know you're investigating. I want to know what you've found out."

"Your interest in my wife - -"

"Lex." Clark cut him off before he could get onto that particular tirade. "You're drunk. I'm tired. Can we not pretend that you had a happy marriage and I that don't have a right to know what happened to her and why? What's the point anymore?"

Lex tightened his fingers on the stone of the mantel, staring down into the fire.

"This has been a remarkably civilized conversation. I can't recall the last time you and I spoke so - - rationally." He said softly, slowly choosing words. "Lex, don't play games with me on this. What have you found out?"

"That she was considerably more - - devious - - than I gave her credit for," Lex said softly, an ironic wisp to his voice.

"What?"

"Did you know what my father did? No. You couldn't have. You lie as much as the rest of us - - me, her, my father - - but you've never been cruel about it. An honest liar." Lex laughed at the contradiction and Clark had to wonder if he wasn't on the verge of falling down drunk, just hiding it well.

Clark clenched his jaw, because he did know what Lionel had done - - now. And it still made red crowd in along the edges of his vision, no matter Lionel's claim of necessity.

"Do you know why they're so intent on investigating me?" Lex asked. "Because she paved the way. She was subtly crying foul weeks before it happened. Dropping hints that, if I were optimistic, I'd suppose she thought she might use in divorce proceedings, to make her case against me. If I weren't - - " he trailed off, eyes distant, caught in some dark musing.

"Are you saying," Clark said tightly, angry that the words were even leaving his lips. "That she set you up?" The desire to hurt Lex stirred.

Lex looked up at him, eyes dark, pupils kissed by the glow of the fire. "I didn't say that. You did."

"Fuck you. She would never - - her mind didn't work that way."

"No. Your mind doesn't work that way. Don't assume everyone shares your particular rustic sense of honor. Most of us don't. Most of us can't afford it."

He'd known in his gut, it was a mistake coming here. That Lex would twist words in his gut like a knife.

He took a step towards Lex, fists clenched, maybe something of violence in his eye and Lex flinched. Minutely, but it was there all the same. A flash of something in his eyes that he couldn't control before he straightened and shoved it aside - - A ghost of fear. And Clark recalled that a few weeks past, something that wore his face had come close to killing Lex. Had tortured and toyed with him, and just like the incident with Zod, no one had bothered to tell him that it hadn't actually been Clark - - not his body, not his mind hidden beneath the consciousness of an alien invader.

And if Lex thought some part of Zod was still in him, what was to stop him from assuming that some part of the phantom might still lurk within Clark - - ready to leap forward and take up where it had left off?

Guilt trumped anger. He loosened his fists, taking a breath, wondering why the hell somebody hadn't tried to pick him up and try to find out for certain about what he might play host to or how he'd survived it. Lex had never hesitated before with anything involving the phantom. Lex had never hesitated in a lot of things. And yet, no one had ever come for Clark.

"If I discover something relevant," Lex said, sliding his hands in his pockets, a casual movement meant to reinforce the illusion of control - but Clark heard the rapid patter of his heart. "I assure you, I won't keep it private. Good night, Clark."

Part Two

Lex woke with the echo of his own cry ringing in his ears, half out of bed, heart pounding so hard it hurt. A panic fogged mind sought out threat in the shadows of the room. But the room only stared back at him, unmalignant and cool. Devoid of blame.

He took a breath, gathering scattered wits, the images, as always, fading as soon as his conscious mind stirred. Leaving him with nothing but the surety that they had been appalling. The nightmare could have been anything - - so many things to choose from now to torment the subconscious. New nightscares to compete with the old and he didn't know which he preferred. At least with the old one's he'd been able to recall a thing or two.

He looked for the bedside clock and it wasn't there. He remembered that this wasn't the master bedroom. He hadn't slept there in close to a month. He ought to move his things, if he were going to avoid it. He ought to have hers removed - - those things the police hadn't already taken in their quest for evidence. He didn't want it anymore. Didn't need reminders.

He wondered idly, forcing himself to lie back and settle into the comfort of the guest bed again, if he ought to offer her belongings to Clark. A morbid little collection for him to build a shrine around. He could worship at the alter of her personal artifacts like a man seeking to revive an old religion and maybe it would keep him out of Lex's business.

He looked at his watch, unable to find sleep after the turbulence of the nightmare - - 5:19. He had an appointment in Metropolis at ten. Another round of board advisory meetings overseeing the liquidation of assets. LexCorp stock was suicidal at the moment, and LuthorCorp values were dropping.

Distance LexCorp from LuthorCorp his lawyers, his board, every business advisor he had preached. Let Lionel take a public role as spokesman for LuthorCorp dealings and hope he could re-instill lost confidence.

It was like pulling teeth, considering it. Considering stepping back until this blew over and giving his father even the illusion of power. But, it would be foolish not to bow to the inevitable. Stupid to hold out until the board voted him down, just like they'd voted Lionel down three years ago when he'd been defamed and defrocked. Better to step into the shadows willingly and let his father do what he did best. Charm and maneuver and fool everyone into thinking he was the second coming. And meanwhile Lex's name would still on all the company charters.

No reason, since he was awake and not likely to find sleep again, not to get a head start. There were a few other things in Metropolis he might use the time to take advantage of. Give him a chance to get out of the country for the morning, maybe he'd even spend the night in the city.

So he showered and dressed and by time he was downstairs someone on his domestic staff must have realized he was up, because there was fresh coffee in the pot, and sliced fruit on a cold trey under glass on the island where he took quick breakfast.

The staff was very quiet nowadays. Diligent in their jobs, but furtive almost. Perhaps they were respectful of his space, grieving husband that he ought to be - - or perhaps, like the rest of Smallville, they thought he'd had a hand in her death. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he caught the occasional accusatory glance or two, as his back was turning.

Now that he thought about it, the staff had catered to her like she was some fragile, fractured creature and maybe she had been, drifting through the mansion like a wraith those last months, dissolute in her not so cleverly hidden misery. He'd just chosen not to see it. He considered dismissing them all - bringing in a new staff from the city.

He needed to get out of the mansion.

He drove himself, and at 6 in the morning there was enough frost on the ground, covering fields along the road, tilled bare after the last harvest, that it almost looked like light snow. Traffic was marginal, until he hit the interstate and then the road was one long, grey, empty track and it felt like release to press the pedal to the floor and feel the powerful engine surge to full life.

An hour down the road and traffic picked up, cars feeding onto the highway from exits along the way, all city bound. He still made a three-hour trip in just under two.

The meetings were predictably long, and frustrating. The thought of going out and finding a drink or two, at maybe one of the exclusive clubs on upper Grace, where you needed an 8 digit bank account just to get in, where he'd still be welcomed with open arms, even though LexCorp stock was in the red and they'd set in motion the liquidation of more prime assets than he could name in one breath.

Afterwards, he'd pay a visit to M&C labs on the north side. A discreet visit that he'd put off for weeks, trying to distance himself from anything to do with project Ares. The back up research was there, evidence of a most inflammatory nature if it reached the wrong hands. Things he ought to destroy, facts and file and intimate details - - but he couldn't make himself part with it. He couldn't shake the need to pursue the project - -

He got a call that disrupted his plans. The Smallville DA had come across new evidence in the investigation. Security camera pictures of Lana meeting with an unknown man, five days before her murder. The Smallville authorities wanted him to identify the man, and his lawyers were eager for the possibility of another trail for them to start sniffing down.

He thought about refusing. Telling them they could damn well wait until he was back in town tomorrow - - but he was curious who she'd been meeting with. When Clark had come asking for information, Lex hadn't balked at giving it simply to annoy - - he just didn't have any. He had every resource he could spare looking into her death and they were all drawing blanks. He didn't know if he simply wasn't looking in the right place, or if whoever had done it was so proficient they'd left no trail to follow.

So he agreed. It was 3 o'clock now, and he made tentative arrangements to meet his lawyer at the Smallville Sheriff's office at five. If he was late, they damn well could wait on him.

He made it in reasonable time. By the time he hit rush hour, he was well out of the city and missed the out flux of commuters from Metropolis.

The Smallville Sheriff's station was the next street over from Main, flanked, appropriately enough, by the offices of a local conglomeration of lawyers on one side and a sporting goods store, specializing in the sale of hunting paraphernalia and firearms on the other. For a town that was constantly prepared for nothing, it was an interesting mix of vultures and predators flanking the bastion of local law.

He'd been here enough during his sojourn in Smallville, that he knew the most convenient parking was around back, in the lot where impounded vehicles and defunct sheriff's cruisers were parked. He walked around the building and into the offices and a great deal of the activity stopped, eyes focused on him. He'd learned to ignore the stares early on - - long before notoriety was a factor in the attention he drew. When it had just been who's son he was. Or that he was a bald headed freak at 9. Or the sex and drugs and rebellion before he'd ever reached drinking age - - a paparazzi's wet dream. Government pay offs and murder investigations were only the latest.

His lawyer bustled up, a Metropolis yuppie, barely older than Lex. The man didn't bother with pleasantries, instead launching into a precise explanation of the nature of the new evidence. A restaurant manager in the city, after hearing about the ongoing investigation of Lana Luthor's death, had volunteered security footage taken a week before her demise.

Sheriff Taylor and ADA McMurry sat down with him in one of the little interrogation rooms - - a location, he was sure, that had been calculated to grate his nerves. They'd failed to indict him once, and they were seriously hoping for reaction.

"Was your wife having an affair, Mr. Luthor?"

"It's entirely possible." He answered amenably enough, shuffling through the photos. They were low quality captures, showing her at an outside table, with a man - - maybe forty - forty-five - - graying hair at the temples, smart suit. They never touched in the photos, but it was clear they were having an intense conversation.

"But I doubt it was with this man." He looked up, meeting McMurry's eyes. "Her tastes ran more rural. And prettier."

But there was something about the man in the photos. Something that sparked recognition. Lex had seen him somewhere - - there just hadn't been made enough of an impression made where the occasion or the name stood out.

"So you don't recognize this man? Or find it strange that your wife was meeting with him, behind your back?" The Sheriff asked with the veiled antagonism of a man foiled time and again.

"I find it strange that after four weeks, you're still wasting time and resources harassing me. Meeting for assignation and meeting for lunch are two very different things. I'm sure she ate lunch every day, I didn't always know who with, nor did I require a full list of her acquaintances."

"You don't strike me, Mr. Luthor, as a man that lets much slip his notice. According to your late wife's journal, you were quite - - controlling." The sheriff remarked.

Lex stared back, face neutral, refusing to rise to the bait. He thought maybe he had been - - the nature of the beast brought up to control empires - - hard not to want a hand in the other aspects of his life. And she hadn't been equipped to deal with it, much less counter it in a way that didn't include betrayal. A small town girl that should have married a small town boy with reasonable aspirations. Not a man that occasionally entertained scenarios of ruling the world.

Not Clark.

He wasn't sure where that addendum came from - - from what recess of his mind, but he frowned a little at the slip.

His lawyer put an end to the meeting. Lex had answered their questions, claimed ignorance and there was no reason for them to turn a voluntary meeting into an interrogation.

"I want copies of those photos." He told his lawyer on the way out.

"Do you know who he is?"

"Not yet. Make it a priority to find out."

The lawyer nodded, turning about to make requests of the ADA for copies of the information, while Lex stalked out.

The sun sat early this time of year and the shadows were already long, the sky tinted with the rose hues of oncoming dusk. He seldom took the time to notice simple beauties like the broad Kansas sky in the throes of sunset. There were too many other things vying for attention, too many other priorities.

He pulled out his phone, had his thumb on the menu, and got accosted, half way down the steps by the unpleasant voice of Lois Lane.

"So, Lex, you managed to weasel out from under the hand of the law again, I see. Can I get a comment? The average person wants to know how it feels to be above the law. Apparently the price of buying your way out federal prosecution is in the ten figure range, but what's it cost to get away with murdering your wife?"

He snapped his phone shut and tried to ignore her. Lois Lane was an aggravating, persistent pain in the ass. The Inquisitor printed speculative, libelous drivel to start with, but Lois pushed the envelope with her string of poisonous articles. For the past month, she'd been getting print space - - high profile print space in her campaign against him and LexCorp.

Chloe had enough integrity and enough legitimacy to print stories she had the hard evidence to back up - - she also had the sense to know when to back down, but her lamentable cousin lacked all of those attributes. And with the ongoing scandal, the Inquisitor was willing to risk the lawsuits LexCorp Lawyers were threatening, to sell out issues. Suing Lois herself was a lost cause, since she had nothing to lose, and pressuring her with more inventive methods would only egg her on. He knew her type. A loose cannon with a pen and an outlet for publication. All his years of experience with low-rent journalists just like her, said keep his mouth shut and step over her, like any other unsavory obstacle. Anything he said would be twisted regardless.

But she pissed him off. "Don't you have better things to do, Ms. Lane? A follow up article on your Chupacabra piece, perhaps? Your take on Mexican folklore was truly uninspiring."

"So you follow my work?" She paced him, a condescending smirk on her lips that was quietly infuriating. "How about a comment on rumors of LexCorp insolvency in the wake of federal fines? I'll assume a no comment means you're too broken up about it to discuss it."

He scoffed. "You don't really get the concept of 'liable', do you, Lois? And as refreshed and challenged as I am by your constantly unique points of view, you're getting boring." "Yeah, well I haven't killed anybody recently, so I guess I'm pretty low key, compared to you."

If he ran her over in the sheriff station parking lot, there'd be hell to pay. It would almost be worth the risk. He pictured the finer details while she was trailing him, spouting more inflammatory babble, then slowed, noticing, with a rapidly increasing surge of irritation, the group of men loitering by his car. Actually sitting on the hood of his Mercedes.

"Get off my car." He strode towards them, unlocking the car as he walked, noticing letterman jackets on two out of the five, the gaudy mix of red and yellow on men that were at least three or four years out of high school if not more. There were cigarette butts and a six-pack's worth of empty beer cans on the ground. Apparently they'd been here a while, choosing the most expensive car in the lot to lounge about on while they shot the breeze or whatever it was they'd been doing, wasting time on the back lot of the sheriff's station.

"Well if it ain't Lex fucking Luthor himself," one of them sneered, not bothering to rise from his sprawl on the car hood.

"Strutting around town after what you did that sweet thing."

There was belligerence in their eyes, the indignant rancor of men whose initiative was bolstered by the addition of alcohol.

"Get off of my car." Lex repeated, slowly, calmly as if he were speaking to children.

"I dated Lana Lang once." One of the Letterman's claimed, and the man had to be a year or two older than Clark, if not more, which meant a few years ahead of Lana in high school. Football player maybe. He probably had a reputation in a town that idolized its high school players, past and present, but Lex had no notion who he was, having paid little heed to the state of Smallville high school football outside of the brief time Clark had been on the team. Even then, the other faces had been a blur. But if Lana had dated this broad faced hick, he'd have heard about it from Clark.

"I doubt that," he said dryly, pushing past the man blocking the door.

"How come they let you just walk out of there, you piece of shit, when that girl's in the ground?" One of them put a hand on Lex's arm and Lex tensed, cool on the verge of shattering. It had been a long day. It had been a frustrating day. If he did something unexpectedly violent, like slamming this bastard's head into his car window, he wondered how many of the others he might draw blood on before they took him down? Calculating risk-reward ratios was generally not so literal a thing with him.

"That's what I was just asking, boys," Lois hovered a few yards outside the ring of them, a big, nervous smile plastered on her face. "But we can talk about it nice - - because you know - - sheriff's station."

She waved a hand and they slowly got her point. It was a bad place for an assault. Maybe he even owed her one for it, because they backed down, giving him dark, dirty looks. One of them, when sliding off the hood of his car, drove a fist down when pushing to his feet and left a small dent.

Lex drew a breath and another. He could pursue it, which would end up less satisfying than the adrenalin-fueled part of his brain insisted it might be. Pursuing it would only mean going back into the sheriff's station and he'd seen enough of the drab interior of that building for a lifetime.

They called him a few names, before he got into the car and shut the door, muffling the sound of their voices. His hands were shaking, he was so angry. All day long he'd kept his head, and it took these ignorant bastards to get to him. He pulled out of the space with a skid of tires, swinging close enough to make two of them jump back to avoid flattened feet, which was small enough satisfaction.

He ground his teeth all the way out of town, until he reached that last intersection before open road surrounded by nothing but empty farmland for miles.

The solitude eased the tension. It was getting to him. After all these years, he'd finally had about as much as he could tolerate of small town America. The reasons he'd had to stay in Smallville just weren't anymore. The mansion was a mausoleum of cold walls and leering memory. The people had never appreciated a Luthor among them - - and after this - - well, he could be cleared tomorrow of all doubt concerning Lana's death and they'd still blame him for destroying her. Their hometown princess. The girl who'd survived everything but him. The bitch who'd betrayed him and maybe set him up and gotten caught in the backlash.

He ought to sell the castle - - get a few million towards that debt his father had so graciously negotiated for him - - and move back to the city once this mess was over. Wouldn't that piss Lionel off? It made him smile a little thinking about it.

Something skidded onto the road in front of him. A truck veering half off its tires onto the main road from one of the countless country routes that intersected it. There was no braking to avoid it, just a frantic jerk of the wheel that sent the Mercedes sliding uncontrollably towards the embankment across the lane on the other side of the road. The front end hit earth with bone wrenching, metal crumpling impact. Air bags inflated, slamming into him and stealing breath even as they saved him from crashing into the dash.

Lex sat there, shocked, feeling the warm flavor of blood in his mouth where he'd shredded the inside of his cheek. Nothing else felt particularly damaged. Nothing but his car and his patience. He cursed, the miracle of being simply alive evaporating in the face of indignant anger.

The truck had stopped its mad rush, and pulled up not far from him. Another vehicle, the headlights which had been distant points behind him, screeched to a stop. If he was lucky, they'd been close enough to witness the jackass in the truck sailing across the intersection in front of him.

The door tried to stick, but he got it open with a shove from his shoulder. He batted the deflating airbag out of the way and managed a mostly graceful exit into the ditch he'd run afoul of. He climbed out of it and onto the road. The second vehicle had stopped, headlights on high, illuminating the sad state of his front end harshly. The other driver was trotting towards him to see what damage had been done and Lex wasn't in the mood to play gracious.

"You stupid son of a bitch, I had the right - -"

The fist caught him off guard, the guy not even stopping as he swung and belatedly Lex realized the jacket was the yellow and red of a Smallville high letterman. Lex spun, kept his footing, and came around with a blow of his own, that rocked the big bastard backward a few steps and bloodied Lex's knuckles.

"You fucking faggot!" the guy screamed, and rebounded forward. A second man from the truck was hard the heels of the first.

The guy was big, and drunk and not as quick as Lex on a good day, probably. Lex avoided the charge, kicked the back of the bastard's knee in and spun to meet the other one. He drove a fist into a gut that was a lot softer than it had probably been in the football days from high school, and had the satisfaction of seeing the guy grunt and double over, before impact hit him from behind.

A fist in the ear, stole his equilibrium. It came from one of the passengers of the truck that had been in his rear view mirror - - almost all the way since town.

Fuck. They'd followed him. And knowing the back roads, one had most likely sped down a rural route and managed to cut him off, while the other one followed. He didn't know if they were just out for a casual drunken assault, or if they had something more serious in mind.

The blow behind his ear hurt and he staggered, swung and hit somebody in the face, then twisted in an attempt to drive an elbow into the side of the body closest to him - - succeeded - - before somebody got in a blow that caught him in the solar plexus. Air left in a rush as did a portion of vision. He went down, knees hitting asphalt hard, gasping after breath, thinking that he really, really didn't need to have his ass thoroughly kicked a second time in one month. At least these guys were human.

There was a gun in his glove compartment, but he doubted he could get to the car, wrench open the passenger door and fumble after if before they took exception. He saw the flash of a cheap, gold plated high school ring, and a fist smashed into his face. Pain flashed behind his eyes, instant and shocking. New blood flowed in his mouth. He would have gone down entirely, sprawling on the pavement, but they caught his arms and kept him from crumpling.

"Fucking bald freak. Come into our town like you think you own it." A fist plowed into the side of his jaw while they held him on his knees. Another blow that snapped his head back and fogged his thinking.

"Driving your fancy cars. . ." Another.

"Fucking our women. . . " And another and it felt like his brain was rattling around inside his skull with each impact, like a bean inside a maraca.

They shoved him down, and the toe of a boot connected to his back, to his ribs, with stabbing flares of agony. If he could just get on his feet he'd make them regret it. They were drunken country hicks that had just gotten lucky and he was a goddamned Luthor and Luthor's didn't get driven off the side of the road at night for a curbside beating.

"Killing that girl . . . " But he couldn't get his feet and he couldn't think past the pain, and his mind flashed back to the abandoned mill and the entity inflicting similar hurt and it was hard to differentiate between the two.

He curled in on himself, instinctive effort at self-defense. It was all that was left for him to do, assaulted from all sides. Four men determined to kick him to death. And they might succeed, because he lost control of his limbs somewhere around the dozenth blow and they weren't stopping and everything was going pain washed red.

If they were smart, they'd just put him back in the car - - and with the present love he was getting from the sheriff's department, they might not even investigate the unusual bruising. Might just write it off as an accident and that would be that. A neat tying up of loose ends, so many problems taken care of in one fell swoop - - so much time and effort saved. They'd throw these guys a private party, celebrate their ingenuity - -

Then it stopped, or maybe it was a state of nothingness and he just couldn't feel. But in Lex's experience, if someone were inflicting pain, he was generally aware of it on some level. And he could faintly, through the ringing in his ears, still hear them cursing him - - laughing among themselves, pleased with themselves. The words didn't mean anything though. Just a jumble of sound to a scrambled brain.

Something warm hit his face that wasn't blood. Hit his body, saturating his clothing. Burning ammonia smell.

A detached part of his mind realized they were urinating on him and that was an insult that his brain refused to fully comprehend. People did not piss on Luthor's. Not and live to brag about it.

But what if the Luthor in question were dead? What then? It ran down his cheek, into his mouth and he thought, maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to die out here - - escape all the crushing problems - - escape the mortification. Maybe if he willed it badly enough - - it would happen. But no, Lex wasn't weak. Lex was a survivor. He didn't curl up and die; not when his company was teetering on the edge of disaster, not when an alien entity, with a mouth you could masturbate to the memory of was trying to bore a hole through him into the earth with fingers made of rock. So dying wasn't an option.

But darkness came down anyway, and he didn't know if it were the herald of death - - or was simply a prelude to apathy.

Part Three

Clark felt uncomfortable in the Talon, because it had been hers and it felt almost like her ghost still lingered. Drifting around the back counter, making the doors rattle on the display case, or idly ruffling napkins. But of course, it was only the footsteps across the loose board near the case that made the glass tremble and just the breeze finding its way in each time the door opened that disturbed the linens.

But he had friends who lived in the apartment above and ghosts or no, it wasn't enough to keep him away from Chloe or even Lois, who in her calmer moments didn't annoy him quite as much as she once had. He had few enough friends left, to avoid the one's he did simply because they lived above a shop that reminded him of better days.

Which was him being morose. He knew this. He accepted this, because it was hard to be anything else after wallowing so long in the throes of disappointment and remorse. Chloe asked him, a few days after she'd come out of her coma, if he remembered the last time he'd been happy. Really happy. And he'd stood there for a while, thinking, trying to come up with an answer and failing to find an easy one. There were moments of course, brief bright spots, but overall, it was hard to pinpoint a long stretch of contentment.

"You need to do something about that," she'd said, with the newfound wisdom of the nearly dead. "Life is too short to spend whiling away after something you can't have."

He honestly didn't know whether it had been a dig at him, or some introspection on her own life choices. But it had been so nice to have her back, he hadn't really cared.

She was back at work now - - two weeks after coming out of a coma the doctors hadn't been able to explain. She couldn't explain it, what she'd done or how and Chloe had done more research than anyone he knew on mutant phenomenon - - well aside from Lex, and asking Lex's opinion wasn't an option.

She was on her way back to Smallville from the Planet now and had called Clark from the road with no particularly new information to share, but a few ideas of new routes to take. She promised to run ideas past him over dinner, which sounded like a plan.

Clark was tired of his own cooking. He missed his mom's home cooked suppers, the smells of her baking in the afternoon, the aroma of simmering pot roasts and perfectly fried chicken. He missed his mom. She'd come back for Lana's services, but hadn't stayed long enough.

Clark was good at sandwich making. He wasn't half bad at simple breakfasts. He could grill with the best of them, but the majority of his other culinary efforts fell flat; under spiced, overcooked, watery, tough - - if there was a way to make food unappealing Clark could find it.

Chloe had told him to pick a place and they'd meet at the Talon so she could unload her desktop and deposit her work upstairs before they went and contemplating dinner was a heady distraction.

Dawson's Home-style Buffet, two streets over on Apple, offered a plethora of options - - all you could eat, but McLean's Steakhouse had a special running, buy one get the second half price. Red meat was always appealing, even though Chloe was restricting her meat intake these days to fish and chicken. McLean's had chicken on the menu.

He loitered near the stairs inside the Talon, avoiding looking at the spot in front of the counter where he and Lana had shared an early kiss, or the booth in the back where they'd used to sit and talk - or the table where they'd all gather to study during high school- and then there was the table by the window where Lex had always liked to sit, quietly observing the ebb and flow of people, talking to Clark about things that no body had ever considered Clark capable of understanding back when he'd been wide eyed and na_ve.

He took a breath, turning his thoughts away from the past, and watched Janet, the girl who'd taken over management duties after Lana had entered the Luthor world and risen above mundane things like working for a living. And that was a mean thing to think, and he felt marginally guilty for it, but it was true nonetheless. Lana had retreated into that world and it couldn't all have been Lex's manipulation, no matter how nice it might be to consider her withdrawal a fault of his - - Lana had been too quietly stubborn in her own right to just meekly withdraw on the whim of someone else.

The staff of the Talon were on pins and needles now, expecting the ax to fall any day. Expecting word to come down the line through lawyers or realtors that Lex had decided to close the shop down, to sell it as he almost had time and again, save for Lana's intervention.

It had been Janet's statement to the police the day Lana had died, relating Lana's fears of physical retaliation, her claims that Lex had threatened death on her before he'd let her leave him, that had set them on Lex to begin with. And maybe Janet had exaggerated in the throes of hysteria - - maybe even Lana had in her desperation, because as many things as Clark knew Lex was capable of, hurting Lana - - seriously contemplating hurting her - - seemed far down on the list.

"Hey, Smallville," he glanced over his shoulder and saw Lois weaving her way past a group of customers by the door. He groaned a little, because Lois here meant three for dinner. She would worm her way into a situation whether she was invited or not, and dinner conversation would have to be stunted out of necessity because of her presence.

"Hey, Lois. I didn't know you were in town."

"I live in town, dufus." She shouldered her way past him at the base of the stairs.

"Yeah, but you stay in the city a lot." He countered lamely.

She shrugged, swinging around two steps up, her bag just missing his face. "The friend I usually crash with has a new boyfriend. Third wheel." Lois rolled her eyes as if it were a great inconvenience to her, the initiation of other people's romances.

"What was she thinking?" Clark muttered.

"Yeah. Sleeping over first week is taking things a little too quick if you ask me. Sleep shouldn't be involved until at least the eight or ninth date. Until you know the guy isn't going to strangle you in your sleep."

Clark lifted a brow at her in mild amazement. "Jeeze, Lois what sort of guys have you dated?"

She waved a hand, dismissing the dismal state of her past relationships. "Jerks. A lot of jerks. Speaking of which, did you know Lex Luthor got called into the sheriff's office again this afternoon?"

He caught his breath, attention suddenly very much focused on Lois. If Lex had been called in it meant something had come up in the investigation.

"Called in or brought in?"

"Called. I couldn't find out why, even though I practically prostituted myself to that doughy desk sergeant, trying to get a hint. Lex was his usual pleasant self when I tried to get a comment on the way out." She hesitated, frowning, then added. "There was a little trouble in the parking lot when he was leaving."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Bunch of drunken rednecks, waiting for him by his car. Big, dumb, has-been types - older than you and still sporting school colors. Looking for a fight right there in the sheriff's parking lot."

"Did they get one?" The palms of his hands itched a little, prelude to the bad feeling that curled in his gut.

"No. They backed down, but they weren't happy about it and they sort of made beelines to their trucks. I don't know if they were desperate to get to the bar and start bragging about how they backed down a Luthor or - - well, not that I have a problem with the devil getting his due - - but sometimes small town justice in the bible belt can get a little out of hand."

"You think they went after him?"

She shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe. I told Deputy Doright outside the station about what happened, but he seemed to think they were just good ol' boys blowing off steam. There's not a lot of love between Lex and the sheriff's office right now."

"How long ago?" The bad feeling uncoiled and expanded, because nothing that could turn bad in Smallville ever veered the other way.

"Not long. The time it took me to walk from the station back here. Maybe a half hour? I stopped for a donut on the way back."

"He was heading home?"

"You know, he wasn't in a sharing type of mood, Clark. How am I supposed to know? Is there a club for homicidal billionaires in Smallville? Maybe he was heading there."

He gave her a tight look, annoyed at her flippancy - - at her casual acceptance of probable violence against - - against anyone - - it made no difference that it was Lex. It absolutely did not and hadn't in a long time.

"Listen, I was meeting Chloe to get something to eat. If I'm not back in ten minutes tell her - - just tell her I'll call her."

"Clark - -" Lois called after him, but he couldn't stand there and talk when his body needed to be doing something. To dispel that bad feeling as nothing more than the general pessimism he'd been experiencing all through this last dreadful month.

He got outside the Talon and far enough down the sidewalk so he was out of Lois' line of sight through the front window, then took off.

He knew the route Lex would take heading from town to the mansion. Knew a few side routes if Lex were feeling the need for scenic views. It would take him seconds to trace those roads - - just to make sure. He'd stop by the mansion, scan it just to see if Lex were inside and that would be that. His moral obligation fulfilled.

He saw the wreck on route 17 halfway between town and the mansion and felt a pang of dread. Saw the two trucks on the road, flanking it, shielding what went on between them. He skidded to such an abrupt stop on asphalt that he burned rubber on the soles of his shoes - - heard them, before he saw them, covered in darkness.

The sound of labored breathing, the thud of flesh impacting flesh. Animal grunts of effort, involuntary sounds of pain.

He moved and was just there, catching a fist on its way to smashing down into an unprotected head. There was a curse of surprise and the two holding Lex on his knees let him crumple on pavement, and all Clark saw of him was spatters of dark blood on pale skin as he fell.

And he knew them. All of them had gone to school with him, seniors or juniors his freshman year. The one who's meaty arm he held had been linebacker for the Crows five years running if you counted the year he'd repeated. Jake something or other and Tom and Clancy Briggs, and Chris Tucker who'd been back up quarter back to Whitney before Whitney had left Smallville to find a different fate.

"Kent? Is that you, Kent? Where the fuck did you come from?"

One of the Brigg's brothers demanded, wild eyed and flushed.

"What are you doing? God, what have you done?" Clark loosened his hold on the linebacker's arm with enough force to send the big man staggering back a few feet. Lex was breathing. Labored, harsh inhalations. He wasn't moving. Just lying there, sprawled on black pavement, blood on his face, blood trickling down behind his ear, bloody hand beneath the cuff of his coat.

"None of your goddamned business, Kent," the linebacker snarled.

"Getting a little fucking justice," Tucker said. "You ought to be grateful. She was your girl once, right?"

God. Their hands were smeared with Lex's blood and they thought it was justice.

"What do you care if we pound this cocksucker into the ground?" One of the Briggs brothers, maybe Clancy, pulled back a foot to kick Lex. Clark felt the snarl surface before he realized he'd reacted and slammed the heel of his hand flat against Clancy's chest with enough force to hurl the man backwards into the side of Lex's car.

"You fucking - -" Tom Briggs screamed at him, hurling a fist at Clark in retaliation. Clark caught it, squeezed with enough pressure to send Tom to his knees and stared with absolute cold clarity at the linebacker as he advanced, giving the big guy reason to reevaluate his course of action.

"Get out of here, before you find out what it's like to bleed on the pavement." Clark said softly, the surge of anger like heat in his veins, that he had to actively strive to repress. He would hurt these men otherwise and he didn't want to cross that line.

He stepped over Lex, a foot on either side and dared them to test him. Something inside maybe even wished they would. Give them a taste of what it felt like to go up against overwhelming odds.

Maybe they saw something in his face that was more dangerous than their drunken, misplaced retribution, because they backed off, casting glowers as they retreated, the Briggs brothers helping each other to the one truck, the linebacker and Tucker piling in the other.

He drew a breath. A deep swallow of cold night air that helped soothe the trembling anger - - that helped him think of things other than smashing his fists into malleable human flesh.

He waited until they'd pulled off, tires screeching on asphalt, before he crouched down, putting a hand on Lex's shoulder. The wool of his coat was damp, and Clark pulled his hand back a little in surprise, then noticed the smell.

"God," he muttered, and laid his hands back down, turning Lex onto his back to assess the damage. He tried to be gentle but Lex hissed at the motion, coming alive with a flailing attempt to land a blow. Clark just let it hit him, before catching Lex's wrist and the back of his head and pulling him up against his knees, urine saturated clothing or not.

"Lex. Lex, calm down. It's over. I got you."

Which didn't seem to help with the panic, because Lex jerked against him, heart thudding so fast and frantic that Clark could feel it through bone and flesh and layers of clothing. He was going to hurt him if he held on while Lex was fighting to be free. And at the moment, hurting Lex was not a high priority. So he let go cautiously and Lex pushed himself backwards and sprawled, staring at Clark with wide, bruised eyes. With bruised everything, blood leaking down over one eye and the curve of one cheek from multiple cuts. Bloody nose, lip wet and red from an obvious split on the outside and maybe less obvious ones within. And that was what Clark could see.

"Clark?"

As if Lex doubted. And then Clark realized that he might. So he settled onto his knees on the road and gave Lex a very calm, very reassuring look, the sort you might give an animal you were trying to coax out of a corner.

"How many cars does this make that you've totaled? Are you still in single digits or are you into double now?"

Lex stared for a moment more, that look people got when they'd taken one too many hits to the head. Then he released a little sigh, his elbows gave out and he collapsed back onto the pavement. His head hit with a painful sounding, dull thump. Clark grimaced and scrambled over.

"I think - - I might be sick," Lex murmured.

"I need to get you to the emergency room."

"No." Lex caught at Clark's sleeve. Pale hand, bloody knuckles, voice sharp. "God, no. I'm - - okay."

He latched hold of Clark's shoulder, hauling himself upright, teeth clenched with the effort. Since Lex was determined to try, Clark rose and helped him up - - kept a hand on his elbow because he was wavering.

"Okay, then I should get you home and you can call your own doctor."

"Fuck - - no. Not there. Just - - just get me to my car. I'm going to - - city."

"Have you seen your car?" Clark looked over Lex's head at the dark, crumpled front end of the Mercedes. Lex followed his gaze, staring as if he didn't quite comprehend.

"Fucking town - -" Lex swore softly, before his legs gave out and he crumpled.

Clark caught him on the way down, swearing a little himself. If Lex was set against the hospital and didn't want to go home, it didn't leave a lot of other options. He ought to call Lionel to deal with his son - - and to hell with what Lex thought of that solution. Lionel would probably love it- - one more thing to have over Lex. And Lex wasn't in a position to bargain. Lex was bleeding all over Clark's jacket - - the second time in a month and this time there was the added stench of urine.

"Damnit," Clark ground his teeth, swung Lex up in his arms while he was unconscious enough not to notice the lack of vehicular transportation, and headed home.

If it hadn't of taken him all of five seconds to make the trip, he might have had time to talk himself out of the insanity of bringing Lex into his own house. Lex had been on the property in the last year and half, but he hadn't been in the house. Hadn't stepped over that invisible line of welcome or lack of. You invite a man into your house, a certain degree of trust was implied and he hadn't trusted Lex in a long time. He didn't trust him now.

He got the door open with the hand under Lex's knees. It wasn't locked. It was never locked. People out here didn't need to bar their doors against mundane things like burglaries or home invasion - - the sorts of things that haunted Smallville generally couldn't be stopped by simple precautions like locks anyway.

Clark was halfway up the stairs heading for the bathroom and the medicine kit in the cabinet when Lex came to, tensing in his arms, grabbing the back of Clark's jacket with one hand like he feared Clark was going to drop him. But then, most people didn't trust the sensation of being off their own feet. Most people didn't trust anything out of their own physical control. With Lex that distrust was probably doubled.

"God - - put me down." Lex twisted a little, and superior strength or no it was hard to hold on to somebody that was eeling around in your arms, unless you clutched tight. And there were maybe some fractured ribs to consider that he didn't want to crack further.

"Just - - wait a second." There was no room to maneuver on the stairs and Clark clomped up the rest of the way and dropped Lex's feet to the floor. The rest of Lex's body wanted to follow, so Clark kept an arm under his shoulder, and got no complaints.

Maybe Lex couldn't, breathing hard, fist still tight in Clark's jacket like he was feeling enough pain to knock further argument right out of him.

"Where - -?" Lex gasped.

Clark pressed his lips, almost not wanting to admit it. "My house."

He got Lex into the bathroom while that was being digested. Got him sitting on the toilet lid and went into the medicine cabinet for the first aid kit.

"God - -" Lex complained, wrinkling his nose. In the confined space of the bathroom, the smell was worse.

"Yeah, you smell like a urinal." Clark agreed, wondering why he was dealing with this instead of one of the army of people Lex employed.

Lex gave him a distressed look, like that was more of a trauma for him than the beating and tried to shrug out of his coat. Got desperate about it, like the cold damp was acid instead of pee, and almost toppled himself off the toilet lid. Clark grabbed his shoulder and held him steady, and helped him pull it off. He tossed it in the corner by the wicker hamper. Lex was looking down at his shirt, which was stained with blood and patches of less savory liquid, as were his slacks, and something close to a sob escaped him. A desperate, hysterical sound that Clark had only ever heard from Lex when he was drugged and half out of his mind. It struck a chord of sympathy - - maybe even guilt, and Clark crouched down.

"It's okay. We'll get you cleaned up." He caught Lex's jaw while Lex was struggling, single-mindedly with the buttons of his ruined shirt.

"Look at me, Lex," he said firmly, wanting to assess the damage. Lex flinched, the grip on his jaw probably hurt. There were bruises on the side of his face, bruising around his eyes. Split lip, swollen but clotting already. Cuts that had to have been made from a fist with a ring, on his face. He marked easily to start with and they'd had a real go at him. He was having a hard time focusing on Clark, which meant concussion maybe - - and made Clark regret not taking him straight to the ER.

He understood the reluctance though. He understood Lex's ego and it was considerably more fragile than Lex let on. This humiliation made public would be unendurable.

He helped Lex with the shirt and underneath there was more abuse. The thick wool of his jacket might have buffered some of the impacts, but Lex was still dotted with bruises. The impact points of boot toes to body.

Clark clenched his jaw, anger rising again. The mentality it took to kick a man while he was down escaped him.

"I don't remember getting here," Lex said dazedly, slumped back against the wall next to the toilet.

Clark wet a rag and started cleaning the blood off his face. "You were out."

Which was entirely true. He just didn't need to mention that he hadn't driven Lex here. The truck was outside and there was no way in hell Lex had noticed how he'd arrived on the scene.

The gash above Lex's right eye was long and deep, but it had already started clotting.

"This might need stitches," Clark remarked anyway, thinking that the butterfly band-aids in the kit would do for now.

"It'll heal," Lex murmured, eyes shut. He sounded tired. Very, very tired. "Everything does."

And he was right. The wounds he'd taken in his shoulder barely a month ago - - terrible finger sized punctures in his flesh by something less than human - - were gone. No trace at all on the smooth skin of his shoulder. Wounds like that ought to leave traces. Scarring for maybe years to come. He knew Lex healed fast, but he hadn't guessed this fast and this well.

"Lex?" he asked, because Lex was wounded and not thinking straight, and his defenses were low enough maybe, to answer a prying question. "Did you heal this quickly before the ship took you?"

Lex rolled his head against the wall to look down at Clark. Foggy eyed, drowsy and with as many blows as he'd taken about the head tonight, it probably wasn't a good idea to let him fall asleep for more than a little while for a few hours.

"No," Lex said after a bit, and it was too simple an answer to be a lie. He shut his eyes again, maybe out again, because he didn't protest when Clark ran his fingers lightly across his ribs, following the trail with his x-ray vision, searching out internal damage. A few hairline fractures, but nothing that caused bone to misalign. Deep breathing and exaggerated movements would hurt, but lungs weren't in danger of being punctured.

Lex had disturbingly smooth skin. Clark's fingers lingered, almost of their own accord, fascinated maybe by the texture of flesh completely devoid of hair. He'd never touched - - really touched Lex before. He'd never seen this much of Lex's skin bare. Lex never wore clothes that revealed too much of his flesh, as if he were self-conscious of the utter smoothness - -maybe he was. Maybe you just didn't grow out of some insecurities. Foolish to be embarrassed by it though when it was really kind of - - nice.

Clark pulled his hand back, fingers tingling, embarrassed himself of a sudden. He grabbed for the rag, wrung it out compulsively until the water ran clear instead of pink, and he could focus again on what he had to do. Which was clean Lex up and get him out of the corner of the bathroom and someplace more conducive to a battered body.

Which meant pulling off his shoes and his urine spattered slacks, which he managed easy enough, without rousing Lex from the drowse he'd fallen into. Run the rag down his body, to erase the stench from his skin. Clean the scrapes on his knees where the pavement had damaged skin through the thin material of fine trousers. Peroxide on the worst of the cuts, which didn't disturb Lex until he dabbed at the torn flesh of his knuckles, and then he hissed into wakefulness and tried to jerk the hand away.

Clark held on to his wrist and commented wryly. "I hope you knocked a few teeth loose to compensate for this much damage."

"It's cold," Lex mumbled, not all there. But it probably was. Clark didn't feel it and when he was by himself in the house, he never bothered turning the heat up. One of the penny-pinching traits he'd picked up from his dad.

It didn't help that Lex was mostly naked.

Okay. Take a breath. Lex was as clean as he was going to get without a shower and he wasn't up to that tonight. Clark wasn't sure he was, so he got an arm under his shoulder, got him to his feet. Lex's legs sagged, even though he tried and Clark ended up taking most of the weight. Which was fine. The weight was nothing, it was the skin under his hands that made him uneasy.

Where to put him? The guest room was crammed with junk, and it didn't seem right to put Lex in his mother's bed - - not with the pictures of his father staring critically down from the chest of drawers. So Clark's room it was. With furniture he'd had since grade school, because they'd just never had the money to upgrade over the years. And walls that still held various posters and banners from his high school days that he'd never gotten around to taking down. There always seemed to be things that took priority over redecorating.

He dropped Lex into bed, glad to have his hands off him, and Lex eased back into the pillow with a grimace that hinted at just how much discomfort he was in.

"I'm going to come back up with some aspirin," Clark promised, distracted momentarily by the bruise peeping up from under the waist band of Lex's boxers, just brushing the edge of one sharp hipbone. The belly next to it was flat, hard - - no hint of the usual treasure trail leading lower - -

He took a breath, and pulled the covers up, because Lex sprawled mostly naked in his bed was vaguely alarming.

"Don't bother," Lex slurred. "They don't work for me. Vicodin might be nice?"

"Sorry. None of that lying around." Clark backed away. Listened to the sound of Lex's breathing slowing, the measured thud of his heart. He retreated to the hall and stood there, thinking about banging his head against the wall to pound some semblance of reason back into his skull - - but then he'd only have to fix the plaster tomorrow.

He could go downstairs and still listen out for Lex at the same time. And he'd promised to call Chloe, after bailing on her - - for Lex of all people - - but she'd understand. She might not entirely believe Lex was innocent of killing Lana, but she believed that Clark believed it and was working to help find a clue to the real culprit.

He realized he should have asked Lex about the meeting at the station while he'd had him off balance and teetering on honest. He'd do it later, when he went to rouse him in a half hour or so, just to make sure he hadn't fallen into brain swelling induced coma or worse.

"Hey, Chloe."

"Clark? What happened?" She'd picked up on the first ring.

He told her, basically and she gave him a predictable response. A perfectly reasonable response.

"You really should have taken him to the ER, no matter what he wanted. You recognized the guys?"

"Yeah. The Briggs brothers and Chris Tucker and that Jake guy who was linebacker for the Crows for forever."

"Did you do anything that they're going to question later?" She asked very softly, so he gathered Lois was in the room.

"No. Maybe. They were drunk enough that they probably won't remember the details. I guarantee you, none of them have the bruises Lex does."

"Do you want me to come over?" she asked, after a long pause, as if she doubted he could deal with Lex on his own. Or if she thought they weren't safe to be around each other. Probably they weren't, but he was pretty sure he could take Lex.

"I'm fine. Go eat dinner with Lois. Don't even think about letting her come over here, because he's out and I can't deal with her and him."

He changed his clothes downstairs, and considered throwing Lex's in the washer as he was making yet another dinner sandwich. But then, Lex probably wore dry clean only and a cycle through the washer and dryer would finish the job of ruining them.

He wolfed down the sandwich and a soda, then went back upstairs to check on Lex.

"Hey. Wake up." He nudged Lex's shoulder. Again and Lex murmured something under his breath that didn't quite sound like a word. Not an English word.

Esh-ra. Was what it sounded like, slurred as it was. And Clark's brain made an unexpected connection, an instinctual connection between English and a language that had been learned via implant instead of practical application. Esh-ra meant 'stop' or 'leave' or some variation of those sentiments in Kryptonian.

It could have been simple coincidence, a muttered incoherency that happened to resemble an alien word. He felt an involuntary chill regardless, remembering what Lex had said a week ago, drunk off a fortune's worth of fine scotch. That something was left inside him - - some segment broke off from the whole of a persona that Clark had been so sure he'd banished completely.

He shook Lex's shoulder, hard enough to make Lex gasp, and start awake, nothing but pale disorientation in his eyes. Certainly no hint of a genocidal dictator.

"What did you say?" Clark demanded. "Lex, what did you just say?"

Lex stared up at him in confusion. Irritated confusion. "What?"

Lex kept staring, not getting it. Not getting much past the need to drift back to sleep and Clark balled his fists, alarmed for a whole new reason. He sat down hard in the chair by his desk, running that word over in his mind, wondering if he was mistaken. Wondering what if?

A year's worth of nightmares, Lex had claimed, in a moment of drink induced honesty. A year's worth of - - something maybe a little different in Lex. Something maybe a little more driven and ruthless than had been there before Zod had taken him as his vessel.

Clark just hadn't been close enough this past year to really see first hand. He hadn't wanted to be close and Lex had ceased all efforts at reconciliation - - at coming up with believable lies. Because of Lana, Clark figured - - an insurmountable bone of contention between them, more so even than the research and the labs. But what if there was something else? Some other driving motivation?

Clark looked back at the bed, at the still shape under a quilt his mother had made a decade or more ago and wondered what he'd brought into his house.

Nothing he hadn't been dancing around for the past fourteen months. Certainly nothing that was going to prove a threat he couldn't handle. Probably nothing more than ridiculous speculation on his part. It had been a bad month and he was looking for new fronts to vent his frustration.

Still it would be nice if J'onn carried a cell phone, because Clark had a few questions and with Lex at issue, Lionel was an uncomfortable option for answers.

Part 4

The sheets were coarse and the pillow was lumpy, but there was a certain smell to the pillowcase that was vaguely comforting. Something familiar and warm, that was so much more appealing than the blossoming ache that came with consciousness.

A whole-body ache that came with its own set of multi-hued colors sparking at the corner of vision when Lex opened his eyes and moved. Or tried to move. The effort was aborted at the first contraction of muscle and the first bone deep swig of pain and he groaned and pressed his face back into that inviting pillow.

Jumbled memories played through his head. Fragments of things that might or might not have actually happened. Run off the road. Assaulted. Vivid recollection of the glint of a school ring flashing in front of his face. Snapshots of pain and he flinched, involuntarily as his body recalled more vividly than his brain. He couldn't recall what they'd said, other than they'd blamed him for Lana's death.

That was pretty much a given. He wasn't sure where he was and finding out would require lifting his face out of the pillow and opening his eyes to take a guess.

He shifted his head, carefully, and cracked an eyelid. There was a window with blinds half cracked, letting in dappled sunlight. The curtains were some horrid country print. The posters on the wall looked like they belonged out of the late nineties, or in a school hallway.

They were familiar. The room was familiar. And now that he had visual stimuli, he connected the smell directly to Clark. He still had no idea how he'd gotten here. Wasn't sure if he ought to be alarmed, offended or relieved. He shut his eyes again to consider it - - and drifted.

Came awake again some indefinite period later and chided himself for the lapse. This was not his bed. Not his house. And Clark was not his friend, no matter that his body wanted to sink into the bed that oozed his scent.

He pushed himself up and little stabs of dizzy pain rippled behind his eyes - - muscles complained vehemently, limbs trembling with the effort. It was a familiar feeling - - a month ago he'd felt much the same. And often enough before that, the way his luck tended to run, that he ought to be used to it. But there was a subtle difference in the distribution of pain. There didn't seem to be a great deal of him that they'd left unattended in the road last night. Everything hurt. He had a sudden memory of Clark there. Of Clark kneeling on the road next to him, calmly asking about - - something - - Lex didn't remember the question, just the soothing tone of his voice.

Clark in the road. Clark in the field. Clark in a dozen other places, unexpected savior - - Lex felt a shiver of indignation. Or maybe it was just cold. The room was chill on his bare skin.

He realized he'd been undressed and felt another very distinct curl of annoyance, His clothes were nowhere in sight. There was a robe on a hook on the closet door, grey and mercilessly without country print.

Getting out of bed took effort. His muscles wanted to cramp. His head wanted to explode. His bladder felt like it was on the verge of rupturing. The bladder won out over other physical discomfort.

He felt like an old man, limping across the floor, easing into the robe, which was thankfully thick and warm, if overlarge. Clark's robe would be. But it was comfortable and it had that smell - - and Lex's brain seemed intent on focusing on scent.

The bathroom was one door down on the other side of the hall. He heard no sounds from the rest of the house when he ventured outside of Clark's room.

The porcelain tiles of the bathroom floor were cold on his feet. The wallpaper was just as hideous as he remembered from the last time he'd been in here. The dcor was the same.

He raised the lid of the commode and closed his eyes at the sting. If the residual hurt were any indication, he'd be peeing pink for a while.

As he was finishing, flushing away the odor of blood-tainted urine, he remembered what had happened to his clothes.

He growled, low in his throat, fist pressed against the wall behind the commode and thought he'd find the bastards and kill them. He even contemplated whom he'd get to do it.

But first he needed to get his bearings, to find some clothes and get out of here. He paused on the way by the mirror, winced and passed on. He didn't need to see the details. He felt them.

First thing - - even if Lex didn't feel up to a confrontation - - and what encounter between them wasn't lately? - - was find Clark.

The stairs were a challenge that his legs just didn't seem up to handling. His left knee in particular kept sending little shooting pains up his leg and if his equilibrium had been up to the task he'd have looked down for signs of massive bruising. As it was, a dozen steps overwhelmed him. His head was spinning by the time he'd reached the bottom, and his body shaking, and it was either sit down on the bottom few or fall. So he chose the less embarrassing former option.

Which turned out to be mortifying after all, because that was where Clark found him when he returned to the house, stomping in through the kitchen with the noise three people might have made, and spotting Lex before Lex could pull himself up. Not that he'd be particularly dignified standing, considering his attire, but it would have been a marginally better way to confront Clark.

"You're awake."

Clark was full of brilliant observation. Clark was flannel clad and bright eyed, a few errant strands of straw in his dark hair, as if he'd been baling hay or mucking out stalls or some other farm oriented morning chore. Which was probably right on the money, all things considered.

"I didn't hear you. I was out - -" Clark started, then shut his mouth, as if he'd decided he really had no obligation at all to explain what he'd been about.

"I wasn't wearing a bell," Lex said dryly. "I wouldn't have expected you to. What am I doing here?"

He saw the moment Clark's eyes got belligerent. The morning sparkle replaced by resentment and Lex felt a nudge of satisfaction at that.

"I could have left you on the road," Clark said sourly and when Lex kept waiting, he elaborated. "You were dead set against the hospital and didn't want to go home."

"So you brought me to your house?"

Clark narrowed his eyes, clearly not pleased. "I've made better decisions."

Lex ran his tongue along the faintly swollen edge of a split lip. Picking a fight with Clark seemed inherently counter productive. There was nothing to fight over at the moment, worthy of taxing his throbbing head.

"How did you know?" he finally asked.

Clark's eyes flickered away a moment with that look Clark got when he was considering a lie. Lex knew it so well it was almost comforting.

"Lois told me." Clark shrugged. "Said she saw them take off after you, and I was heading that way - -" he shrugged again, as if to drive home the pure happenstance. "We need to call the sheriff. Somebody's probably already reported your car."

"No," Lex said and Clark blinked at him.

"What do you mean, 'no'? They can't get away with what they did to you."

"Sure they can. If I can't identify them, which is a distinct possibility and if they have alibis from their buddies at the bar or the turkey shoot or pool hall or where ever they hang out, you think the sheriff will take my word over theirs? If you haven't noticed, I'm this month's town pariah. My pull isn't exactly what it used to be."

"I know exactly who they are and I'll pick them all out of a line up, and give a statement and testify if it comes to it." Clark declared with absolute certainty.

There was something fierce in his eyes, something offended that was in no way directed at Lex. It was almost - - touching. If Lex didn't know better, he'd almost think Clark was angry about them hurting him - - instead of just angry over the general principle of the thing.

Lex shook his head slowly, pulling himself up by the banister rail. "I appreciate the offer, but no sheriff. I don't need one more complication right now." He didn't need the incident spread over the papers - - and it would travel from the Smallville Ledger to the City papers at light speed. All the humiliating details. God help him if Clark had told Lois Lane.

He felt a little surge of panic - - a fine indication of his state of mind - - and took a few long breaths to push it back.

"Clark, I would - - appreciate it, very much, if you would keep this incident to yourself." And there he was, reduced to pleading and it sat terribly wrong, but the words slid from his mouth silk-smooth regardless. Lex could do all manner of unpleasant things with a smile on his face, if needed.

Clark stared at him, eye level for a change with Lex on the bottom step of the stair. Not happy at all, Clark's sense of justice being what it was.

"If you'd care to share the names, I'll see it taken care of privately," Lex offered, to appease injured sensibilities and Clark snorted. An actual half laugh, and Lex hadn't heard Clark laugh in years it seemed, even if it was a disbelieving one.

"I know how you take care of problems, Lex. It's either the law or nothing."

Lex shrugged. He could find out on his own - - if he could remember the faces. "Okay, nothing then."

"Fine," Clark snapped.

"Fine," Lex smiled tightly.

Clark stood there, breathing hard, probably no more comfortable than Lex, probably wanting to invite him out of his house, but hampered by the fact that Lex was standing there in his robe and without a ride to take him on his way.

"Clothes would be nice," Lex commented.

Clark looked down at the robe. He winced a little, a faintly embarrassed look crossing his face. "Ah, your clothes are pretty messed up - - I've got them in a plastic bag - -"

"Burn them," Lex suggested. He didn't want to think about what was on those clothes.

"I've got some old stuff, you can use."

He nodded. The idea of climbing back upstairs after he'd just completed the task of coming down seemed more than the prospect of clothes was worth just this moment.

"Would you bring them down?"

Clark shrugged and squeezed past him to climb the stairs. Lex moved down the hall and debated, kitchen or living room. The living room had a couch. He went for the couch. His phone had been in the car. He was almost certain he hadn't stuck it in his pocket before he'd gotten out. Which meant until he got home, he was limited to the numbers he knew by memory.

He should get someone on the car right away, if the sheriff's department hadn't already towed it in. They'd make something out of it just to give him grief. He didn't want to have to explain how it had gotten there, but figured he could claim a cow had wandered into the road that he'd swerved to avoid. It was doubtful anyone else, other than Clark, would come forward with the real story.

He heard the muffled sounds of Clark rooting around upstairs and wondered where he was having to burrow for this 'old stuff? It seemed to be taking a while. He leaned back, settling into the corner of a well-used couch. The cushions had permanent dents where bodies had nestled over the years. He shut his eyes, finding a position that was halfway comfortable against a patchwork pillow, drawn into relaxation despite himself.

He could rest here, he mused. Without his cell, without his computer, without access to his staff - - he could rest. Just a little while, so he could catch his breath before he forged back out into the fray. He was tired. He hurt. There was so much to do.

Clark couldn't be trusted. Clark was the only one he could trust. Contradictions swam in his head.

"Lex?"

Lex snapped open his eyes, head reeling. Clark was standing in front of him and he hadn't heard him come downstairs - - a miracle in itself, for all the noise Clark made simply existing. Clark had a pair of jeans in his hands and a long sleeve sweatshirt.

"I found something that might sorta fit," Clark explained. "My mom had some of my old stuff from middle school packed away."

Charming. He was getting hand me downs from Clark's middle school years. But then, Clark had been taller than him at fifteen, and broader, so Lex could only assume he'd either had an astronomical growth spurt or he'd towered over his middle school classmates.

Clark shook out the jeans, soft faded blue and still long enough in the leg to make him doubt the prospect of a decent fit. Embarrassing. Simply embarrassing.

If the sweatshirt had Smallville middle lettered on it he was going to have Clark killed. Fortunately for both of them it was plain navy.

"Um, are you hungry?" Clark asked, as if he were nervous of a sudden.

The thought of food made Lex vaguely nauseous. He could handle caffeine though. He could live off of caffeine. He thought he smelled some drifting in from the kitchen. "Coffee would be nice."

Clark nodded and went to fetch some and Lex grimaced at the prospect of bending his body in the required ways to get on the pants. He managed, with only a few stabbing pains and muscle complaints. The jeans were a comfortable fit around the hips, but still an inch too long.

It was almost funny. Almost.

Clark came in with the coffee while Lex was standing there, shirt in hand, considering the possibility of growth hormones in the Kent farm water supply, or meteor enhanced growth spurts. Which would be mild additions indeed, to his file of Clark oddities.

Clark stopped in the doorway, as if he were surprised that Lex was still in the process of dressing. His eyes flickered down to Lex's chest, an impulsive, awkward sort of glance that he hastily drew back up to some point beyond Lex's head.

He thrust the coffee out, some of it sloshing on his hand. "Here. I can take you home, if you want."

Lex was still processing the look. There was an odd little blush across the top of Clark's cheeks.

"No," Lex said, easing into the shirt. "If I can use your phone, I'll call someone."

He took the cup, the ceramic warm in his hands. It was black and fresh and could have been store brand crap and it would have tasted good at that moment, hitting the back of his throat.

Clark loitered in the kitchen while Lex sat back down and made the call, then came back in when he'd hung up and stood there, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans.

"Listen - - I'm sorry about what happened to you, Lex. It wasn't right and you didn't deserve it - - "

"It wasn't your fault." Lex cut him off before he could veer into the realm of pity.

Lex didn't take pity well, even beat to within an inch of his life. Even when he felt it so plainly now in muscle and bone that he wanted to curl up and sleep for another few days - - until it all went away and he could wake up renewed and pain free.

But what he would do, was go home and take a long, hot shower to ease the stiffness and afterwards he'd see to a few things that could be seen to from the Smallville end.

He'd never gotten to M&C labs, and there were staff there - - a few people in the know, that he had paid and paid well to keep their mouths shut when the government had started in on the project - - that needed reassuring. Personal reassuring to make sure those files stayed secure.

He would have someone drive him into the city, and he could rest in the comfort of luxury leather seats during the drive. He'd allow himself that.

"Why did the sheriff call you in?" Clark asked and Lex kept the coffee mug neutrally at his lips while he mulled over possible answers to that question. Of course, Lois had told him. Ridiculous to think Clark wouldn't find his way into the loop someway or another. He always had managed to be privy to information that had no business knowing.

"No breaks in the investigation," Lex said casually, after a long swallow of coffee. There were little tremors in the black surface of the liquid in the mug and he tightened his hands, resting it on his knee. It wasn't nerves - - but the overall weakness of a battered body, but a tell was a tell, anyway you looked at it and Lex didn't like giving things away.

"What did they want?" Clark folded his arms, big forearms under the rolled up sleeves of his blue plaid, corded with muscle. His hands were large, long fingers, big knuckles - - to be expected of a young man who managed a working farm with no outside help. It was hard to fathom how he did it, the crops and the cattle and the general upkeep, and still managed to be exactly where he wasn't wanted with annoying consistency. Sheer stubbornness, perhaps, if Lex wanted to look at it from a purely mundane point of view. The same stubbornness that would keep Clark hammering at him until he got an answer he believed - - and at the moment, Lex was marooned in his house and too tired to fence words over an inconsequential matter - - even though part of him wanted to seek out conflict with Clark.

"It was nothing. Just photos. Security footage of her in a restaurant a few days before she died. They wanted me to identify the man she was with?"

"Did you?"

"No. They thought she was having an affair." He threw in, out of malice, just to see Clark flinch from the notion. And Clark did, a sharp glance of the eyes, a frown as the gears in his head turned.

"She wouldn't," Clark said, as if he were the expert on Lex's wife. Which, come to think of it, he probably was.

"Really? The way I understand it, she was ready to cheat the day we took vows - - or am I mistaken?" He met Clark's stare, and Clark gazed back, hard and serious.

Clark shook his head, mouth tight and Lex wasn't entirely sure if silence meant that maybe there had been something behind his back other than unrequited love, or if Clark was simply disgusted by the implication. He rather thought it was the latter, because Clark wore his guilt like an outer layer of skin - - plain for all to see and it just wasn't there.

"You know, at this point, I really wouldn't care." He felt the need to be casual about it. To relegate any assumption of damage done as insignifigant - - fleeting. He'd been called callous and cruel enough times that there was no reason to challenge the viewpoint. It was easier filling that role, than the one Clark liked to project.

But, Clark just stared at him, like he was trying to dissect him and it was unnerving. Clark's eyes were too green, and too familiar, and had seen too much of the inside of him before he'd learned the folly of sharing secrets and weaknesses that would never be given back in return.

There was the sound of a car pulling up outside and Clark looked that way, flexing his fingers, shifting, as if he'd grown tense in his own body.

Lex sat the mug down on the end table and pushed himself up with a grimace of pain that he couldn't quite conceal. He stood there for a moment, delivering orders to his body to quiet down and stop complaining in front of people he didn't wish to seem weak to. He looked up, after a breath and met Clark's eyes with a faint challenge. Clark didn't rise to meet it. Just stepped aside and let Lex walk stiffly past.

But he followed him out onto the porch, looking down into the yard where the driver was getting out of a silver Audi sedan, standing by the car door, waiting for him.

It was cold outside. Frigid weather that made him miss a coat, that made bruises ache all the more. His breath frosted a little in the air. Clark didn't seem to mind. Clark had been out in it without a jacket all morning.

"Thank you," he said, because it was only polite to do so when life had been on the line and he hadn't before.

He glanced over his shoulder and Clark nodded, but Clark still had that look on his face, things going on behind his eyes that Lex just couldn't concern himself with now.

At the moment it was all he could manage to walk down the front porch steps and across the yard to the car. But he did it with aplomb, well-versed in the art of hiding weakness.

Part Five

Clark had worried all night and all morning while he'd been tending to the farm. While Lex had slept in his bed, dreaming God knew what sorts of things that might possibly have a grain of Kryptonian origin. Bad things, Clark thought, because the sleep hadn't been easy at first. No more alarming, half familiar alien words, but, murmuring and restless movement, until well past midnight, when Lex had just settled.

Clark hadn't slept himself more than a brief half hour or so of dozing downstairs in the reclining chair in the front of a TV with the sound turned down. He'd woken up Lex a few times in the night, just to be safe, but somewhere around five, he'd decided Lex was okay - - brain swelling wise and just let him sleep the rest of the morning through while he went out saw to the morning's work.

He might have been done in half the time - - a fraction of half the time if two of the heifers hadn't gotten adventuresome and tried to cross a section of barbed wire separating pasture from a copse of wood beyond, tangling themselves in the wire.

So he'd ended up tending yet more bloodied creatures in the crisp light of early morning and hoped this wasn't the sign of an oncoming trend.

Lex had been testy and hostile, when he'd gotten up. It might have been just the way things had regressed between them, that they couldn't be in a room without tensions mounting, but more likely it had been pain induced, because morning after stiffness was a bitch - - so Clark heard, and Lex had taken a bad beating.

A lot of the bruises had already begun fading by the time Lex left though, and the cuts scabbed over. Clark couldn't remember if damages had healed quite so rapidly years ago, when he had been hanging around Lex on a frequent enough basis to notice such things.

But no. Fast - - but not this fast and Clark started thinking about that Kryptonian word and the things the ship might have had to do to a human body - - the alterations of basic genetic code to make it capable of dealing with powers it was never meant to possess.

The powers had vanished with Zod, but the basic alterations might still be there, lingering in the complex chain of human DNA. Something Kryptonian inside Lex - - some fleeting element that might be enough for a fragment of something else Kryptonian to latch onto.

He cursed, an hour past noon, blissfully alone again on the farm and still obsessing about Lex - - when Lex wasn't his business anymore. The bare fields of the east 40 were ready to be sown with winter wheat. He'd already planted a small stretch of kale in the field closest to the house, which was breaking through the earth, thriving in the early cold.

The work was mindless, but still, he couldn't concentrate. If he had facts - - even educated supposition to counter doubt, he'd be able to breath easier. Because if there was a trace of something that didn't belong in Lex - - it was his business. His shoddy work at ousting the invader to start with.

He showered off the dirt that went hand in hand with farm work, put on clean clothes and headed out.

It took less time to reach the city than it did to take the elevator ride to Chloe's floor in the Daily Planet and he only took the time to ride up, instead of whipping up the stairs, because he needed to figure out exactly what he wanted to say. Not that Chloe could give him answers, but she could corroborate his theories - - or shoot them down as crazy-talk. Either way, he needed to talk with her.

She was eating lunch at her desk when he came in, a deli sandwich and a bottle of water, while she tapped at her keyboard one handed. She looked up when she saw him, and smiled around a mouthful of turkey on rye.

"Hey. You have a few minutes?" He stood over her desk while she was swallowing. She was Googling something about paper manufacturing that he figured was for an article. He didn't inquire, very much distracted by other concerns.

"Sure. Just taking a late lunch. I take it since you're here and not scowling too much, that everything went okay? Did the sheriff come out?"

"No." Clark felt the afore mentioned scowl forming of its own accord, and Chloe lifted a brow at him. "He wouldn't let me call him."

He didn't go into why. She didn't need to know and it was the least he could do, keeping quiet about certain things that would hurt nothing but Lex's ego, when Lex had asked him almost nicely.

"God," she said. "He's not going to take care of it himself? Should we arrange protection for those guys?"

He opened his mouth. Shut it. Because she looked dead serious and it was yet one more thing that was hard to wrap his mind around sometimes - - that Lex was capable of arranging casual murder.

"I don't think he remembers them - - listen Chloe, about Lex." He pulled up a chair and sat down close to her, so he could speak quietly. "Do you think he's different than he was before Zod?"

He whispered the name very softly, not even really liking it on his own lips. Chloe blinked at him, eyes scrutinizing his face, wheels turning inside her head as she tried to get beneath the question.

"How?" she asked slowly, with the wary look of someone who thought they might not like the answer.

"I dunno. I mean - - just different. Colder. Crazy obsessed in a way that he wasn't before." He didn't know how to explain it. He wasn't sure if there was anything to explain other than him grasping at things that just weren't there.

"Okay," she said, running her fingers across the edge of her desk thoughtfully. "I'll play along and say - - maybe. But Dark Thursday changed a lot of things for a lot of people. And as much as I'm not a Lex supporter, I've got to admit that it must have been pretty traumatic for him - - seeing the aftermath and knowing he was inadvertently responsible. That can change a man. Some for the better, some for the worse. And maybe before then there were lines he wouldn't have crossed - - at least not without some really long, hard thought - - lines that just don't seem to exist for him now. But people change, Clark - - I mean three years ago I put my life on the line because I believed in what he was doing, and this year he uses my mom as a guinea pig and has me kidnapped and tagged - - so yeah, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say there was a change. Now I'd like to hear why you're interested in the psychology of Lex all of a sudden?"

He'd freaked her out. He could see it in her eyes. He was sorry for that. Sorrier still that he just didn't feel comfortable revealing the why's and where fore's - - not unless he knew for sure.

"Just - - just a couple of things that struck me odd. Don't worry about it. I'll get out of your hair."

"Clark," she stood when he did, frowning. "You don't just bring up the L and the Z words and then say never mind and take off."

But he was already gone. Out to the street the fast way, blending in with the afternoon foot traffic smooth enough that pedestrians intent on their own business never noticed his sudden appearance. They noticed more when he just stopped on the sidewalk to stare up at the Planet's towering, glass-plated neighbor.

He really hadn't wanted to talk with Lionel about this - - talking to Lionel period still made him tense, knowing how he'd pressured Lana. Knowing how he'd manipulated them all - - for the overall good, he'd claimed. To keep an eye on Lex and his obsessions - - to help Clark. As if Clark needed that kind of help - -

But Lionel knew things - - or could access things - - or had things come to him that were vital - - via a connection with Jor-el that Clark didn't pretend to fully understand. And Lionel had been aware of J'onn and J'onn of Lionel before Clark had been aware that either one of them were working under the impetus of his long dead father. An uneasy thought, really, that someone that long dead could still effect the flow of events - - could still impose will upon the living.

So he went to see Lionel Luthor - - up in his tower of glass and steel. He was let up without hindrance, his name apparently on the list of immediate admittance, because the secretary nodded at him when he spoke it and waved him past security. He had to wait in the lobby outside Lionel's office for a while though, until a bevy of men in suits, lawyers or stockholders or investors, trickled out of the office. When he was finally ushered in, Lionel rose from behind his desk and smiled his benevolent conqueror's smile in welcome.

"Clark, my boy. It's good to see you. What brings you to see me? Your mother is well, I hope."

"Fine." He hadn't talked to her in two days. She was busy in Washington, wrapped up in things that, a few years ago, Clark never in a million years would have thought to find her distracted by. But he didn't want to exchange pleasantries with Lionel.

"Do you know how to get in touch with J'onn?" he asked.

Lionel lifted a brow, a faint, curious cant of his head as he sat back down, steepling his hands before him on the immaculate desk. There was a neat stack of paperwork to his right. A pen perfectly aligned - - everything in its place and ordered and under his control. The way Lionel liked life. Little wonder Lex had picked up the habits.

"Honestly, no," Lionel admitted, thoughtfully, as if he'd never considered the need before. "He's somewhere out there, observing - - But I would imagine it would take quite the threat for him to make himself known. Is there a problem?"

He watched Clark with placid interest. Unruffled. It took a hand at his throat - - a serious hand - - or a threat to something he loved, to shake Lionel Luthor's calm.

Clark remembered when he'd come to him, after the Last Phantom had taken Lex - - desperate and angry and ready to level threats he might or might not have been able to carry out, when Clark had hesitated - - wrapped up in his own guilt and grief and horror.

So Lionel wouldn't balk at destroying Lex, financially and emotionally, but he'd move heaven and earth to protect his life. Which disposition sounded very much like Jor-el's attitude towards Clark.

"When a host is possessed by a phantom," He took the plunge in the shallow end, deciding to skirt around issue. "And when I extract it using the crystal - - is it possible that something could get left behind?"

"Left behind?" Both Lionel's brows went up. "That's an unnerving concept. Why would you think so?"

"Let's say, theoretically, that after the phantom was gone, the host started having nightmares - - maybe started acting a little off, or claimed that they felt something inside that didn't belong. Or spoke a word in a language that there's no way they could know otherwise in their sleep?"

"That's a fair deal of theory, Clark. It sounds more like you're listing fact."

"I just want to know if it's possible."

Lionel pursed his lips, considering. "I don't know. The library of your father's knowledge isn't just there for my taking, it comes to me when needed. But from what I already know, it would have to be a particularly strong entity to resist the power of the crystal. And even then, once the incorporeal body had begun to be extracted - - I would imagine leaving a part behind would be like you or me exiting a building and leaving behind a finger. It wouldn't be pleasant."

"So not likely?"

"I didn't say that. I simply said it wouldn't be a sacrifice anyone without a great deal of resolve would be willing to make."

Clark shut his eyes, a sick little knot forming in his gut. Resolve was not something he imagined Zod had been lacking in. "So, what effect do you think - - just a piece - - might have?"

Lionel stared at him, face passive, eyes unreadable, but Lionel, like Lex, was never still behind those eyes. Always thinking, always evaluating possibilities. "Has a former host been exhibiting signs? The young man from California - - if I recall - - is the only surviving phantom host."

"Maybe," Clark said, instinctually, and mentally kicked himself the moment the word left his mouth, because now he had to come up with a story to back up the fabrication.

"Oh my, but he's not, is he?" Lionel's eyes lit up with sudden understanding he didn't even try and hide. "And here you are being purposefully vague. We're not talking phantom possession at all, are we, Clark? We're talking something considerably more treacherous. Has Lex been having nightmares?"

Lionel laughed, relaxing back into his chair. "The concern is surprising, all things considered, but I assure you that any subconscious horrors plaguing my son at night, are of his own design. Whatever made you suspect otherwise?" Clark shook his head, balking at talking to Lionel about Lex. Even now, with all that was between them, giving Lionel insights into Lex's psyche that he didn't already have, seemed immoral. Relating his worries - - the things Lex had admitted in a moment of drunken weakness seemed like betrayal. Felt like turning Lex's deepest fears over to the enemy - - even if Lionel wasn't Clark's enemy - - even if Lex was.

Wasn't he? Odd that with Lana gone, Clark didn't seem quite so sure of it anymore.

"If you can think of a way to contact J'onn, I want to talk to him."

Chapter Six

The trip to M&C had been predictable. The scientists, as scientists tended to be, were skittish at being secreted away in an obscure lab, nervous over the demise of their superiors and the rash of government involvement in the deconstruction the project they had all had a hand in.

Lex was good at dealing with skittish resources. He was quite adept at mixing reassurance with intimidation. And how subtly gratifying it was to have someone just threatened into compliance look at you with gratitude in their eyes. A Luthor game and he liked winning.

He'd looked over the remaining research, the speculation on lost data and lost resources, the high percentage that the project could never be fully actuated without access to alien peptides - - the analysis on what it would take to get the project back up and running. Somewhere else, of course, far below government radar.

He was already funneling funds from other off the books projects - - from private accounts that he'd hoped not to have to breach, but had begun the process of anyway - - in preparation.

He just needed to find the perfect location, and start looking for another source of test subjects, since pulling from the military would be problematic now. The peptides - - well, where there was one, there would others. He felt it with the same surety he felt towards the creation of his army.

No one at the lab had dared ask about the cuts and the bruising, but his Metropolis secretary had inquired when he'd gone in the afternoon after he'd left Clark's care - - the first person to do more than look and pretend there was nothing amiss in fear of offending him, and he'd given her the prepared answer. Car. Cow. Ditch.

It was what he told the sheriff when he called to arrange for his people to tow the car out of impound. And since the cow in question was not available for statement, the matter was really between Lex and his insurance company and not a law enforcement issue.

The sheriff hadn't liked it. The sheriff would have rather Lex had veered off the road attempting to run down school children. There had been inquiry as to whether there had been alcohol involved and Lex had fought against the urge to retort, that he'd been stone sober, but the sheriff might want to check the inebriation level of the local chapter of has-been high school jocks.

He'd stayed in the city that night, too weary to make the trip back, not feeling any particular need to return to the chill of the castle with its frost rimmed windows and lingering echoes. The penthouse was sterile and quiet and there were no particularly bad memories or worrisome staff to intrude upon a body that just wanted to drink away the stiffness and the sour pang of indignation.

The bed was large and comfortable, smooth sheets, heavenly pillows - - it reminded him of any number of the guest bedrooms in the mansion that he had moved about in the last month - - one to the next, trying to find a comfort zone - - trying to find a space conducive to easy sleep. Failing.

Funny that the best sleep he'd gotten in - - quite a long while - - had been on Clark's sagging mattress, under Clark's cheap sheets, with the smell of Clark on the pillows. And he'd frowned at that admission, staring up at a night dark ceiling with the city outside his window.

The next morning, he almost didn't look like he'd taken a beating at all. The accident story was much more believable. All but the worst of the bruising had faded. The cuts on his face, save for the worst one over his eye were well on their way to gone. The ribs, Lex was still very much aware of, and the general fading ache of an abused body, but the latter could be soothed away by the simple luxury of a hot shower and the former could be endured.

He went to his office in LexCorp towers and attended to business. Moral was low with the company in danger. There had been rumors of layoffs - - premature at best, and he had word of no small number of resumes being quietly distributed around town. He considered finding out the names attached to those rumored resumes and starting the firings now.

He avoided most of the incoming calls - - refused most of the people that wished to see him - - working at his desk at his own speed was one thing, dealing with nervous stockholders and anxious executives was another.

A call came in from the lawyer in charge of Lana's murder investigation, which he did take, sitting back and listening while the man reported that a name had been placed to the face of Lana's mysterious lunch engagement.

"Robert Hyde," the lawyer told him. "Formally of Rampart, Hyde and Vale out of New York, before he was obtained for legal council by Vitarkas Global Transport, which is a subsidiary of - -"

"Daniakos Global." Lex finished for him, making the connection between a grainy face in a photograph and one of a collection of lawyers that had sat across the table from him six months ago when he'd been engaging in little hostile takeover from the Twins.

Son of a bitch. He snapped the phone shut with a snarl. Nikolas and Sophia Daniakos, who'd inherited the third largest shipping company in Greece from a father who's name could be mentioned in the company of the likes Onassis and Tsakos - - and had promptly plunged it into debt.

It had been an opportunity too good to pass up at the time, sweeping up Daniakos stock on the open market when it tanked. Almost as satisfying a financial move as a personal one.

He had a history with the Daniakos Twins. Drugs and sex and certain photographs that had gotten him into a great deal of trouble with his father when he'd been eighteen and considerably less clever than he'd thought he was.

Sophia Daniakos had been twenty-three and the most stunning woman to walk into a nightclub and Lex had been in love. Or lust. It amounted to the same thing when you were eighteen and spent your time jet setting between New York and Metropolis to hit all the hottest nightspots and be seen with all the best people. And the Twins had been at the top of the heap back then - - practically Greek royalty that everybody who was anybody wanted to get near. They were the sort that opened and closed clubs just by being there. The best drugs - - the best parties - - the best sex, so the rumors went. Because very few people got into Sophia's bedroom that her brother didn't want there. And Nikolas Daniakos had particular tastes. Young. Hot. Wealthy. Nikolas didn't like to fuck too far down the food chain. And if you did get into Sophia's bed - - it was damned certain that you would be fucking her brother as well. Or getting fucked - - but by that time, you'd be so far gone on Ecstasy or ketamines or any of the other plethora of drugs that the Twins seemed always to have at hand, that it wouldn't really matter.

Until you sobered up and realized Nikolas had fetishes, and if you were maybe a little hazy on the details - - well, the Twins liked to take pictures.

Lex had thought he'd been so smooth, back then, so savvy in the ways of the world until he got hit with the Twin's brand of worldly experience. A decade of private schools didn't prepare for sex scandals and blackmail and the heady shame of having it all brought to Lionel Luthor's attention. Of having his father make it all go away.

So when the chance had come up, almost a decade later, to strip Nikolas Daniakos of the shipping line that was the foundation of the name his father had built - - Lex had jumped at the chance. Had sat across the table while the company changed hands, and smiled emotionlessly while Nikolas glowered.

'Perhaps a picture, to commemorate the occasion?' Lex had asked, when they were leaving the table, and the lawyers hadn't had a clue, but Nikolas had narrowed his eyes, and glared, knowing exactly the inference - - knowing exactly the reason LuthorCorp had sought out Daniakos shipping like shark sensing blooded prey, and consumed it.

Bad feelings? Of course. In spades. But had they sought Lana out or had she sought them? And why? She'd known about the takeover - - but not the details of his past acquaintance. Had she been looking for outside help - - wealthy help with a score to settle? Or had they been looking for inside information on him? Or had they been seeking something else? The rise to fortune and power by the Daniakos was probably littered with bodies - - killing a man's wife, in retaliation for a business coup was not a far stretch. Involving her in it and then double-crossing her fit with the sort of games the Twin's liked to play.

Still it was a leap, and getting either of them in a room where he could ask a few pointed questions and see their eyes would make a difference. Sophia Daniakos could lie as well as any woman, but Nikolas was the sort of man that couldn't help but brag of his exploits - - a psychological imperative that made him a poor negotiator and worse liar.

He set his assistant the task of tracking down the Daniakos and arranging a meeting, then let his people on the investigation know there was a new direction to explore.

Clark flittered across his mind. He'd made a promise to apprise Clark of new developments. He hadn't actually meant to keep it, and certainly it was no more than speculation at this point, but it would be an excuse to pick up the phone and call. He frowned and refused the urge. But he couldn't help thinking of Clark standing in the living room, proffered coffee in his hand, staring at him, nonplussed.

He chased that memory away, feeling a little unsettled himself, a clear enough indication that he'd been sitting here too long today, that he was tired and sore and needed to move to work out the stiffness.

He hadn't decided whether he'd stay in the city tonight, or go back to the mansion. A long drive for a few hours sleep, when he might have to come back to the city tomorrow anyway.

"Lex."

He looked up and saw his father striding purposefully down the corridor. Lex was close enough to the elevator that if the doors opened immediately, he might slip in before Lionel reached him, and avoid having to talk. It felt cowardly, the notion of easy escape, so he waited before the bronze elevator doors until his father had covered the distance, and then pressed the call button.

"Son, I heard you had a mishap on the road Monday night. You really do have terrible luck with cars."

The doors slid open immediately, and he regretted not taking advantage of the escape route after all. He stepped in now, schooling his face into neutrality, and his father and his father's security guard followed.

"You have sharp ears, dad. It was a fender bender that didn't even get a write up. I'm surprised it got back to you." Lex stared pointedly at his warped reflection in the polished brass. He could see Lionel's wavery shape next to him in the metal, thankfully lacking the detail of expression. The security guard stood behind the both of them, just a dark shape in the brass.

"I heard something about a cow." Lionel remarked.

Lex exhaled a long breath, refusing to expound on ridiculous fabricated details. The security guard stepped forward, close enough to his back that complaint hovered at the tip of Lex's tongue - - and dried up as the reflections in the brass began to twist and swim, darkening around the edges.

A hand touched his shoulder and he felt himself falling. A long, long freefall with no bottom in sight. The descent was slow, like the pull of anesthesia that drowned out the sense of time and place, but still left some semblance of awareness. Something slithered inside him, some animal sense of alarm that wanted nothing more than to reach the bottom of the fall and retreat into darkness - -

- - And Lex sputtered back to awareness, swiping at the hand that was trying to dab at his face with a cold, wet handkerchief. He was back in his office, on his couch, his father crouched next to him with the cloth in hand, his secretary hovering behind nervously, and his father's security guard beyond her - - only it wasn't the same man from the elevator. He'd seen this one before, but the other had been an unfamiliar face - - tall, lean black man with tinted shades. He couldn't remember the features, because he hadn't paid enough attention to take them in.

"What happened?" He decided that he detested the feeling of disorientation that came with opening his eyes someplace entirely different than he'd closed them.

"Lex, you fainted. My god, did you have yourself checked out after your 'fender bender'? Head injury is not to be taken lightly."

Lionel's fingers hovered near the scabbed cut over his brow and Lex knocked his hand away - - unexpected panic crowding in from the back of his mind at being touched - - by Lionel, by whoever had gotten him here from the elevator to his office.

"I've called for a physician," Lionel rose, looking down, nothing but concern on his face. Benevolent, fatherly concern.

Lex almost choked. "Don't bother."

"It's been a stressful month, son. LexCorp issues aside, you've experienced physical trauma and the body needs time to recover. Why don't you stay in the city for a few days, take break and rest in the penthouse where I'll be close by if you need me."

God. Lex pushed himself up, straightened his coat while he searched for some sign of the lightheadedness that had assaulted him in the elevator. It was gone. His head was clear and focused.

"If that's a threat, dad - - it's a good one. I'll stay in the country. Don't bother to come out."

"Clark." Lionel's voice oozed out of the kitchen phone, and Clark didn't think he'd ever reach the point where unexpectedly hearing Lionel purr his name wouldn't make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Could you come to the city and meet me at my office? It's important."

"I'm sort of in the middle of something." Which was not entirely a lie. He had water boiling in preparation for boxed macaroni and powdered cheese. He'd been thinking of calling Chloe, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

"Its about Lex."

Clark tightened his jaw, pulse jumping a little. He'd been trying not to think about Lex-related things today. But the bag of ruined clothes he'd thrown out this afternoon had brought back vivid images of Lex on the road, crumpled and bleeding and he'd come close to making a trip out to the Wild Coyote where he knew at least the Briggs brothers hung out to see if they were still in the gang beating frame of mind. But he'd dismissed the notion a moment later, because it wasn't his nature to pick fights, even if they were well deserved, and he'd already left his mark on at least one, if not both of the Brigg's brothers. He didn't need to make more of an impression. Besides which, Lex was the last person who needed anyone to fight his battles for him - - the last person Clark needed feel concern over the welfare of.

"What about Lex?"

"Some things just shouldn't be discussed over the phone," Lionel said.

Clark turned off the heat under the water, and covered the distance between Smallville and Metropolis while Lionel still had the phone to his ear, sitting behind his desk in his LuthorCorp tower executive suite. Papers fluttered and Lionel blinked up at him in surprise.

"Okay, what?" Clark asked, then stopped, registering the still figure in the shadows by the floor to ceiling windows behind Lionel's desk.

"It appears you were correct in your assumptions concerning my son." Lionel regathered his calm and leaned back, watching Clark gape at the brutal implication of that statement.

The man - - the being - - that claimed to be an emissary of his long dead father, turned away from observing the night dark city outside the window and faced Clark. His eyes were mundane brown now, but Clark knew it was an illusion that covered an unnerving glow of red.

"J'onn?" he said, then looked back at Lionel, putting pieces together. Of Lionel having more of a means to contact the elusive J'onn than he'd claimed - - and of them pursuing his concerns without bothering to let him know they were about it.

A surge of anger came out of nowhere - - irritation and no small bit of anxiety. "You sat here yesterday and told me it was nothing and then you go behind my back and - -"

"Behind your back, Clark?" Lionel cut him off, a narrow eyed look of impatience in his eyes that he usually was so adept at hiding. "This is my son, we're talking about. My concern."

"Yeah, and your concern has always worked out really well for him." Clark snapped.

Lionel canted his head, considering, running the back of his knuckles along the stubble on his jaw.

"As interesting as this territorial pissing match we seem to be engaging is might turn out to be - - there are more pressing issues at hand, don't you think?" Lionel said, and Clark took a breath, turning that over in his head. Feeling a moment of sharp embarrassment - - because maybe that's what he was feeling, some sort of misplaced protectiveness, dug up and dusted off from some years old stash of unwanted sentiment.

Clark took a breath, loosened his fists and tried to force the irritation down. He looked to J'onn who was observing them both silently.

"All right. Talk to me. There's really something there?"

"I felt the presence of something that did not belong," J'onn said, unnaturally still, hands immobile at his sides, when it was all Clark could do not to ball his into fists and pace.

"You felt it? How did you get Lex to - - is it dangerous, what's inside him?" He was having trouble fixing on a target and focusing. There were too many questions. Too many concerns.

"Not overtly," J'onn said. "It is not - - entirely sentient."

Clark didn't know what that meant. What it really meant when they were talking about something inside a human mind that ought not be there. Lionel was sitting back, mouth pursed, as if he'd already heard this explanation - - as if he already had decisions made in his head on what was to be done about it - - and that annoyed Clark, all over again. It scared him a little, because they'd already been at Lex behind his back and neither of them, once engaged, were casual players. Neither was Lex, but he was at the distinct disadvantage of not even knowing he was in the game.

"What is it, then?" Clark asked.

"A fragment," J'onn said. "Possessing no cognizant understanding of its own - - merely the ghost of Zod's inclinations. Something that clung to the mind of the host when you tore the incorporeal whole away."

"Would it effect the things - -? I mean would he be any different because of it?"

"I do not know. When I sought it out, it retreated. It has had a long time to infiltrate his mind, and I cannot know how powerful an influence it has gained, until I have the opportunity to sift through and examine it more closely."

"Clark," Lionel said. "However deeply it's embedded itself into Lex - - it's still only a splinter of Zod's mentality. We can't assume that it's done anything more than give him bad dreams."

"How do we get rid of it?" He didn't want to look at Lionel, with his calm eyes and the patronizing tone of reason in his voice. "Can I pull it out with the crystal?"

J'onn shrugged, expression still painfully emotionless. "You could. But the portion of his mind that it has attached itself to would be damaged. I can unravel its hold, given time - - separate it from his mentality enough that the crystal could draw it out with minimum harm."

Clark swallowed, uncomfortable with both their eyes upon him, as if they were waiting on him to reach a conclusion that they'd already achieved. He wondered if they hadn't needed him to use his father's crystal, if they'd have even consulted him at all?

Zod. Even a piece of Zod - - the ghost of his intentions, his motivations skulking about the world, was enough to make Clark feel ill - - his worst nightmare come back to haunt him. Lionel said the fragment might pose harm only to the state of Lex's easy sleep. Clark thought he was wrong. Zod was a builder of armies - - merciless in his goals - - and Lex hadn't been - - until this last year, when he'd taken a project, that according to Lionel's intel had not been initiated with mass production in mind and turned it into a fanatical crusade.

"How much time?" Clark asked, mouth dry.

"It will take as long as it will take," J'onn declared helpfully.

"It's best if we deal with it now," Lionel said. "Lex believes he's had one spell today, if he looses more time on the heels of it, he'll attribute it to the same cause. He's at the estate in Smallville now. I trust, from past experience, you've no qualms about breaching security."

"No," Clark said softly, then. "You said 'minimum harm'. How much is minimum?"

J'onn simply stared at him. Clark clenched his jaw, turning his eyes to Lionel, the father who claimed concern. "And you're okay with this?"

"I am. The alternative, Clark, is to simply ignore it. I don't think either one of us is capable of that, do you?"

Clark looked away. He wasn't. He knew he wasn't. It could have been any stranger and he couldn't have let it rest - - much less Lex, who had enough obsessions and moral ambiguity all of his own without the added benefit of something coldly alien. Something like that other half of Clark - - the Kryptonian mindset that didn't understand human values and human frailties - - that he'd locked away for the sake of everything he loved.

He nodded assent, and Lionel held out something, a small flesh colored something that looked like a round band-aid on the tip of his finger.

"Put it on his neck, below his ear," Lionel instructed, like he was giving Clark casual stock-tips. "The effects are swift."

"You want me to drug him?"

Lionel lifted a brow. "You could use more physical means to subdue him, but chemical sedation seems more humane. Unless you prefer to inform him of the situation and ask for his assent?"

No. Clark wasn't prepared to do that. He swallowed and gingerly plucked the patch off Lionel's finger.

"Call me," Lionel said, tapping a key and bringing his sleeping computer screen back to life. "When it's done."

Part Seven

"That's not an answer I want to hear," Lex said coolly, phone cradled between shoulder and ear as he poured himself a healthy two fingers worth of scotch from the crystal decanter on his office bar. "If you can't find them via business routes, try the society pages or the gossip rags. Just track them down."

His people were having trouble contacting the Daniakos twins. The lawyer that had met with Lana was also proving difficult to locate. It wasn't as if Nikolas and Sophia were particularly furtive in their activities, so it should have been an easy matter to find them and set up a meeting. An hour's worth of work arranging it between his assistants and theirs - - only it seemed, for all intents and purposes, as if they were avoiding his calls.

Quite likely, considering the overall nastiness of the buy out. More likely if they'd had a hand in the Lana conspiracy. He snapped the phone shut and laid it on the bar, taking a moment to savor the burn of the liquor, while he considered methods of extracting information from a pair of jaded socialites that wanted to play hard to get.

Over three hours on the road from Metropolis to Smallville in the middle of rush hour traffic, with a driver that didn't have Lex's tendencies to double any posted speed limits, had put him in a fine mood. The Mercedes that had been towed back from the sheriff's impound, sitting outside the garage, front end crumpled beyond reasonable repair had been icing on the cake.

The phone rang again, vibrating slightly on the glass surface of the bar and Lex glared at it a moment, before checking the number of the incoming call. He recognized the name as the supervising manager of one of the LexCorp holdings in the process of liquidation. A panicked call, no doubt. He'd been getting quite a few of those as people discovered their worlds were being turned upside down. He ignored the call. Cut the phone off, having had his quota of telephone conversations this evening on the way back from the city. He was tired of dealing with the people who wanted a piece of him and mollifying the ones who were unavoidable sacrifices.

The door from the main hall opened and he expected someone from security, because the house staff was avoiding him like the plague. He half turned, irritated at the intrusion, quarter to nine and well into time that ought to be his own, and then kept turning, because it was Clark, walking in blithe as if it was mid-day and he had an open ended invitation.

There were standing orders at the gate - - had been since the ill-fated engagement party - - that Clark Kent was not allowed onto the grounds without express permission.

"How did you get past the gate?" He wasn't feeling particularly genial. He was feeling off his balance, confronted with the last thing he'd expected tonight, with hands in its pockets and a faint, awkward expression on its face.

"They let me in. Were you busy?" Which was the sort of answer he might have gotten out of Clark when he was fifteen and admitting to charming his way past the housekeeper to loiter about Lex's office and distract him from his work. Generally Clark gave less genial answers nowadays with more accusation in his voice.

"They let you in?" Lex blinked, calculating just how many people were going to lose their jobs over this little blunder. "What is it with you and these night time visits, Clark?"

"Lex." Clark put out his hands, as if emphasizing that no, he wasn't armed. Just damned persuasive, obviously to have gotten past the gate guard, and through the front door. "I - - I just stopped by to see how you were - - y'know, after."

"I'm fine," he said automatically, even while he was trying to wrap his mind around the sudden concern.

"I saw the car - - out by the garage. Looks totaled." Clark commented, throwing Lex further off balance because they just didn't have these sorts of conversations anymore.

"What do you want, Clark? Forgive me if I find it hard to believe that you stopped by to check on the state of my health and comment on the condition of my automobile."

Clark frowned, but it wasn't his usual glower, more a sigh of resignation and a forlorn look from under ridiculously long black lashes. Lex narrowed his eyes, because Clark was staring at him - - really staring - - like he was trying to get inside his head or under his skin - - and without the usual antagonism in his eyes, Clark's stare was entirely unnerving.

But whatever Clark's problem was tonight, whatever mental dilemma that had him acting out of character - - it couldn't be Lex's problem. He had more than enough of his own.

The papers on his desk fluttered gently, like an errant draft had found its way into the study and wafted across his desk. He glanced aside, lifting his hand at the whisper of a tickle across his skin.

"Clark, it's been a long day, and my graciousness evaporated two hours ago sitting in traffic on the inter - - state - -" he trailed off, the rest of his sentence eaten up by a wave of dizziness. A surge of panic came up in its wake, his mind crowding with all the possible reasons for two episodes in one day - - blood clots and untended head injury and pushing his luck that little bit too far this last time when maybe his father and Clark and anyone else with decent common sense had been right and he ought to have had himself checked out - -

The room was spinning - - or was that him? Staggering against hard warmth that hadn't been there a second ago, clutching at the material of a jacket and pressing his face against the stability of Clark's shoulder in the desperate search for solid ground. And there was the smell again. It hit his brain, countercurrent to the sickening recoil of the rest of his senses.

He tried to say something - - 'help' would have been an adequate word and he wasn't too proud to ask it, not if he were in the midst of a stroke or an aneurism - - only he couldn't quite form that one simple word.

"It'll be okay," Clark said, grim-voiced. The words were a receding echo, falling away like they were slipping down a drain - - or Lex was.

Clark's arm was under his arm, hand against his back. The other was on his neck above his shirt collar, palm big and warm, fingers curling around his neck, callused thumb rough/soft behind the skin of his ear.

He sank, and sank drifting down like jetsam caught in a cold current, plummeting down into darkness - -

He was drowning, distant awareness of death filling his lungs. Familiar feeling. The stuff of nightmares. It seeped inside, persistent and heavy, stretching his skin, bleeding out of his pores - - or in through them - - he lacked the perspective to differentiate.

It swirled inside him, like the lazy ripple of something sliding through warm blood - - invasive and perverse and coldly malignant. He recoiled, but there was nowhere to go, body weighted down with the presence of it, the dark press of liquid death surrounding him, crushing him subtly.

He drifted, caught in the grasp of current that swallowed everything. It always swallowed everything. The sickening plummet of the car - - the grasping pull of the plane, huge and twisted and determined to pull all the smaller flotsam under with it when it went. It dark and cold underwater - - it never ceased to be dark and cold - - and there was no wavering light of the surface and no hands dragging him up - - just the weight pulling him down.

Something reached for him out of the deep, sly and muscular like the sibilant body of an eel, attempting to tear him apart, reaching into his flesh and curling around his spine, trying to strip nerves and veins and marrow - - he screamed, mute sound in the depths and struggled to twist away from the assault - - blind animal terror - - blind animal rage.

Useless efforts. There was pain. Ripping, tearing pain as it gouged the core of him - - wrenched past his heart, and he couldn't breath, lungs finally burst - - The darkness afterwards was complete and thankfully pain-free.

"God," Clark cried, "His heart's stopped."

How many hours had he sat or paced, watching J'onn sit motionless, eyes like low burning embers, Lex stretched out before him on the floor of the loft, because Clark hadn't known where else to take him, private enough for what they needed to do. How long had he listened to the steady beat of Lex's heart, slow, easy tempo brought on by drug induced sleep? Long enough that when it stopped - -just simply ceased to beat that the silence was deafening.

He slid to his knees, panic fueled fear making his hands shake - - they'd killed him. They'd killed Lex over something that might have been nothing more than a dark shadow over his subconscious.

How many seconds since the heart had ceased its rhythm? He placed his palms over Lex's chest, ready to start compressions - - and J'onn's eyes flared and he reached out, catching Clark's wrist before he could make contact.

"Now. Do it now, Kal-el." he hissed, a fine sheen of sweat glossing his high brow.

It took Clark a second to realize what he meant, and he fumbled for the crystal in the pocket of his jeans, pulling it out and willing it to life. There was a miniscule flare. A tiny little tingle of energy that barely breached the skin of his palm and then it was still and cold again. He wasn't even sure if it had worked or just decided to sputter out.

He met J'onn's fading red eyes with desperate ones of his own, and J'onn nodded and let go a breath.

Clark tossed the crystal aside, careless of it in his haste to get his hands on Lex. One palm in the center of his chest, atop the sternum. He remembered the guidelines from health class - - fast hard compressions - - but he had to be careful in his haste not to shatter breastbone and ribs, and it was difficult to gauge.

He got to a count of twenty-seven before he heard the sluggish thud of Lex's heart shuddering back to life. He felt it under his hand, beneath the thin material of Lex's shirt. His head spun with relief, his own pulse a rapid patter behind his temples. He leaned there, over Lex, and glared up at J'onn, who was uncurling long limbs from the position he'd been sitting in for - - how long had it been? Eight hours? Ten? There was sunlight leaking in through the cracks in the loft shutters.

"Minimal harm? You call that minimal harm? His heart. Just. Stopped."

"And you restarted it." J'onn observed, as if it were really an inconsequential thing. Clark clenched his fists, blood pounding hard enough to hear the rush inside his head. "It's gone?"

It fucking well better be gone, after that.

"It is."

"And he'll be okay?" And didn't that cover a variety of uncertainties.

"The fragment was more entwined than I had originally sensed." Time will tell if there was damage done.

"God." Clark's stomach gave a little lurch.

"Kal-el." J'onn inclined his head at him, swung one of the loft shutters open and launched himself straight up with a faint crackle of disturbed air.

Clark glowered at the empty space and the gently swinging shutter. The cool morning breeze eased its way in, rifling old newspapers on the desk, tickling his skin. He didn't feel the cold, but he shuddered regardless, nerves still thin and tight. He'd expected it to be quick. He'd expected not to feel sick over it - - like he'd done something dark and furtive.

He pulled Lex up between his knees, back against his chest, where he could pick at the little patch behind his ear with a thumbnail. He flicked it into the shadows, like he might something poisonous and offensive and sat there, clenching his teeth so hard his jaw popped.

He stayed there for a while, feeling six kinds of fool for risking this. The rational part of his brain insisted that they were all better off, most especially Lex with that clinging little remnant of Zod gone. It said that if the roles were reversed, Lex wouldn't have hesitated to put a life on the line in a chancy endeavor - - Lex did it all the time, which was why they'd parted ways - - Which was why he couldn't stand to look at Lex sometimes, because the disappointment hurt too much.

Only, he wasn't Lex and he didn't live by Lex's standards and he didn't make decisions based on cold calculation of profit ratio and scientific advancement. And neither had Lex, once upon a time and Clark could hate him for that sometimes, too, more than for Lana or years worth of investigation into Clark's business.

But Lionel had been right in one respect, Clark could never have just let it go - - that some part of Zod still existed here - - lurking in the shadows. And yet - -

'Lex's heart had stopped' - - just ceased to beat and Clark clutched him a little tighter, so he could feel the thud of it now, against his chest. He rested his cheek against the thin, smooth skin of Lex's head and tried not to think about 'damage done', but once the floodgates were open, it was hard not to.

The space heater had cut out an hour ago, out of kerosene, and it was probably cold up here and Lex had a thing about being cold. With the patch gone, he might stir soon - - Clark hoped he would, at any rate, so best to get him home, past security and staff that Lionel had promised would not be overly concerned if Lex was conspicuously absent from his morning routine.

Two months ago, if Clark had discovered Lionel had a sly hand in Lex's personal staff, he wouldn't have given a flying fuck - - other than the concern that Lana might be caught in the middle of another Luthor power play. The notion was making his skin crawl tonight - - this morning.

He looked at his watch. 8:10. Eleven hours. It had taken eleven hours to dig the remnant of Zod out of Lex. It had seemed like days.

The air was just cool enough to make the warmth of the covers a subtle pleasure, the quiet the deep, all consuming sort that you got when surrounded by the thick stone walls of 17th century castles. And morning sleep, for a change, was not restless and tense, interspaced by the remnants of uncomfortable dreams.

Lex slid an arm under his pillow, and thought about sleeping in. It had been a very long time since he'd indulged and this morning the notion had a certain allure.

It felt good to slide towards sleep that was a luxury rather than a bodily requirement. The slither of fine sheets was smooth against his skin when he drew a knee up - - but something pricked at his senses. A vague awareness of lack of solitude.

He cracked an eye open to a room hazy with sunlight filtering in past sheer window drapery. It took a moment more to focus on Clark, as still and quiet as the rest of the room, slouched in the reading chair across the room, long legs stretched out on the ottoman, chin on chest, soundly asleep. He had the book that been on the night table draped open upon his lap, one big hand lax upon the pages.

Lex blinked, not quite questioning the state of his awareness - - because god knew odder things had happened - - and really, if he was going to dream of Clark in his bedroom, asleep in a chair across the room was probably not where his subconscious would place him.

Not that he'd had those sorts of dreams in a while - - if Clark had been featured in any dreams lately Lex had the feeling there had probably been blood and screaming involved.

He tried to recall events that might have led up to this unusual occurrence. He was almost certain he hadn't done anything recently enough, being side-tracked by murders and government interference, that might have infuriated Clark to the point where he needed to invade the sanctity of Lex's bedroom to level his accusations. Not that that would explain him being asleep in the chair - - Clark's little indignant rants tended to be spur of the moment. Lex doubted he'd have the patience to quietly sit and wait till Lex woke up.

Which brought him back to Clark dozing in his bedroom. Had he been drinking last night? It might account for the wafting fog in his head and the circular thinking. Had Clark? Or more accurately had he been drinking with Clark, which might explain the current situation, even though Lex couldn't recall the last time he'd been drunk enough not to remember 98% of the night before. And he'd never seen Clark drunk or heard of him drunk - - imagined yes, but stray whimsy didn't count. So the probability of them inexplicably deciding to indulge in a binge - - together - - seemed astronomically low.

Clark's flannel shirt was undone and the t-shirt under it riding up enough to show a thin strip of tan belly. And that was somehow incongruous to the fact that he had a translation of a wordy Russian novel resting on his chest.

Lex couldn't stand it anymore. "Clark. Wake up."

Clark's eyes snapped open at the abrupt command. He started up, face clouded with momentary shock, hands fumbling for the book that he'd sent tumbling with his movement. His eyes focused on Lex and if Lex didn't know better, he'd have thought there was naked concern there. The look was almost more disconcerting that Clark's actual presence. Almost.

"Do I even want to know, what you're doing here?"

"Are you okay?"

They managed the questions simultaneously. Lex tightened his mouth, a curl of apprehension working its way up his spine, because Clark still looked painfully worried and had scrambled out of the chair, book in hand to hover a few feet away from the edge of the bed.

Maybe Lex did recall something of Clark from last night.

"Why would I not be?" he asked warily, pushing himself up.

"You don't - - remember?" Clark asked with that tone in his voice that suggested he'd been about something he ought not have.

Lex narrowed his eyes, trying very hard to put pieces together. Clark 'had' been here last night - - without invite - - and Lex had been pissed and tired and - - fuck. He pinched the bridge of his nose, not quite remembering, but making an educated guess.

"I passed out again."

"Again?" Clark had an edge to his voice. Clark's fingers on the book were white knuckled.

"Second time today - -" he looked out the window at bright sunlight and corrected absently. "Yesterday. At the office. In the elevator."

He wasn't sure why Clark needed that information. It just slid out of his mouth. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and it occurred to him that Clark must have gotten him up here and into bed. That Clark had undressed him a second time in less a week and he felt a flutter of nerves that had no business being.

"How long was I out?"

Clark licked his lips, a quick swipe of pink tongue. He looked at his watch and a pained little smile curved a recently moistened mouth. "Uh, a long time. It's almost one."

Lex blinked, tearing his gaze away from Clark's mouth to the window. One in the afternoon was beyond indulging himself a little and oversleeping. He hadn't even known his body was capable of sleeping in so late.

"And you stayed here - - all that time?" he asked slowly, just to get the facts straight, because obviously there were blanks that needed filling in.

"I - - I was worried," Clark admitted. "I guess I dozed off."

"Dostoyevsky will do that do you," Lex made an effort to put a drawl in his voice, but he was feeling a vague sense of disequilibrium that he was having trouble shaking. "He's a wonderful cure for insomnia."

Clark lifted the hand with the book, as if he'd forgotten he was clutching it. Lex's clothes were laid over the chest at the end of the bed. The same ones from yesterday, but at the moment they were preferable to striding down the hall to the closet in the master bedroom in his underwear to fetch fresh ones.

"I'm sorry, Lex."

Lex swung a wary look around. Clark hadn't apologized to him in - - well, years, quite a few years, if you didn't count him being sorry Lex had gotten his ass kicked a few nights past.

"What did you do?" He inquired mildly, regardless of the fact that he was insanely interested in any regrets Clark might have. He pulled on his slacks and shrugged on the shirt before they were buttoned, just wanting clothes on, because being without put one at a distinct disadvantage.

Clark seemed to think about that for a moment, before shrugging awkwardly. "I should have taken you to the ER Monday night - - gotten them to look you over. X-rays or Cat scans or whatever they do when somebody's kicked you in the head."

"My head's fine." Lex said sourly. It wasn't lingering concussion. He damned well knew what that felt like.

"Maybe a brain tumor," he said, because he felt a little bitter irony was needed here.

Clark's eyes widened in distress. Over him. Like Clark had suddenly decided it was okay to give a damn again. Lex opened his mouth to say something cutting. Shut it, because nothing really came to mind.

He didn't get physical maladies, he simply didn't. Maybe it 'was' stress or anxiety attack or the onset of some mental disease. He'd make an appointment in the city and get a professional opinion.

His shoes were by the nightstand, socks balled up inside, but he could forgo those long enough to walk down the hall and get clean socks, bare feet not being the problem bare skin was. Only Clark followed him to the door, practically treading on his heels, which was damned annoying, but not quite as unsettling as how much difference an inch worth of sole on a shoe made when turning around to complain about it and having to look up and up to meet Clark's eyes.

First instinct said back up a step. Second one said, the hell if he would. Third one caught the scent of Clark's soap and hay, the faint tang of dried sweat - - entirely Clark and male and - - fuck - - maybe he should take that step backwards after all. Lex took a breath and wondered when exactly he'd stopped appreciating the way Clark smelled.

Not that it mattered, because he'd wasted half the day away in bed - - sleeping. If he'd been engaging in something else, at least he'd have gained something from the lost time. It was a wonder his phone hadn't been ringing off the hook with business that needed attending.

"Don't you have cows to feed? Hay to bale? Other people's homes to intrude upon?" He canted his head, putting a casual hand on the doorframe, because casual was the best method of dealing with the little flicker of tension that came with the invasion of his personal space.

Clark swallowed, eyes drifting down - - and it could have been nervousness, because Lex knew he could outstare Clark any given day of the week - - but it reminded him more of the look Clark had given him at his house - - awkward appraisal followed by quick embarrassment.

"I was just - - concerned." Clark shuffled a step backwards, putting the distance between them that Lex had been too stubborn to create.

"Don't feel the need to dredge up old habits on my account." He pulled the door open and strode out into the hall. The house was quiet as a tomb. You'd think in the middle of the day, there'd be some movement from the staff. No one had appeared all day, and apparently all night, to ask what Clark was doing lurking in Lex's room. Unless they'd come to conclusions of their own about what he'd been doing there. The suspicion that he'd murdered his wife on top of the fact that he might be fucking her ex-boyfriend would give them unlimited material to whisper about behind his back.

Where the hell was the security that had apparently let Clark roam the grounds last night?

"Is today a holiday?" Sometimes he lost track of the little things - - and he was generally quite liberal with his employee's on things like vacations, holidays and overly gracious benefit packages. It paid to be generous when it came to garnering loyalty - - right up until the day you cut some poor working stiff off a the knees for profits sake. He'd learned that lesson the hard way, from his father.

"No," Clark said, trailing behind him. "Why?"

"My house seems conspicuously empty."

Clark clomped along in silence for a few steps, then offered. "It's the last week of fall - - there's a festival in Cooperstown. Sort of a big thing. Whatever happened to Beatrice? I liked Beatrice. I don't think your new staff is that reliable."

Lex almost laughed. He might have been offended if it wasn't so utterly bizarre, Clark giving him advice on his domestic staff. Lex vaguely recalled Beatrice the cook who'd been one of two part time staffers when he'd first moved to Smallville. He seemed to recall she'd had a fondness for Clark. But, who hadn't, when Clark had been fifteen?

Clark at 21 was considerably more annoying. And Lex had had enough years to grow immune to those eyes and a pout that bordered on pornographic to be swayed towards consideration that would profit him nothing.

"Clark." Lex stopped in front of the doors to the master suite - - the room he'd shared with Lana and he didn't want to open those doors with Clark standing here. Didn't want Clark to see the ghosts because they were his - - only he didn't know where that dismal thought had come from, ridiculous and sentimental. He hadn't even gone to her funeral after the fight with Nell and Henry Small and his father of all people, to have her buried in the cemetery next to her parents instead of the more ostentatious site Lex would have preferred. They hadn't wanted him there - - and he'd been distracted, desperate to salvage what he could of Project Ares, before the government investigation tracked down all the research sites and stole it away from him.

He'd been scrambling to arrange lab space in Metropolis when they'd put what was left of her in the ground - - and he'd barely given it a thought all through the day and it struck him now at so oddly an inconvenient time, that betrayal or not, he'd owed her a little more than that.

"Lex?"

"No," he snapped at a question Clark hadn't even asked, or maybe Clark had asked and he hadn't heard and that unsettled him. Clark blinked, and Lex clenched his fists.

"Just - - get out."

Clark stared at him a moment more. Then did.

Part Eight

Lex had seemed okay. Lex had actually seemed particularly tolerant considering he'd woken up to find Clark dozing in his room. Which Clark really hadn't meant to do - - but the book had just been god-awful boring. He just hadn't been expecting Lex to sleep so long and he'd needed to make sure he was all right when he awoke.

Needed to make sure he awoke period, because he'd entertained the fear that he might not - - after the almost dying thing. And he'd been determined to brave the lion's den - - or the Luthor's - - and wait until he knew for sure.

But Lex had gotten up clear-headed without any obvious mental defect - - yet. Not that it might not crop up - - because, though he didn't think J'onn would have purposefully hurt Lex or been sloppy with the job, it had been more complicated than he'd said and Clark was absolutely certain that he'd known that going in and neglected to mention it. Maybe Lionel had too. God knew what he'd be willing to risk to achieve a goal.

If they'd known about the physical danger - - and the more he thought about it, the more he figured at least J'onn had to have suspected the trauma of unwrapping a segment of one clinging mentality from another would plunge the body into shock - - they'd had the sense not to mention it to him.

Because drugging and kidnapping a man was okay, but near causing his death was problematic.

Right.

Clark smashed a fist into a four by four support beam in the barn. It splintered, predictably, and he hissed through his teeth, hardly seeing the damage done through the film of guilt. One of the horses nickered, not pleased with the volume of his tantrum.

He shut his eyes for a moment, breathing deep, then went over and scratched under a big equine jaw. The horse gave him a baleful look, holding out forgiveness for a scoop of long overdue breakfast grain. Clark doubted Lex would be so willing to let bygones be, if he discovered what had really happened last night.

There were supplies that needed getting from town, so he took the truck, passing the road that led down to the Luthor estate on the route in. He'd check on Lex again later - - subtly - - in ways only he could, since he doubted Lex would take it kindly if he started showing up unexpectedly in person to inquire about his state of mind.

But Clark needed to assure himself that the results of this almost catastrophe had turned out all right. He needed to make sure so he could put it behind him and get Lex back out of his mind, or at the very least shuffled to the corner relegated for disappointments and irritations. It was entirely disconcerting and brought up too many old memories, when he was right up front. It was far too easy to recall better times when Lex wasn't snarling at him, and didn't have Lana on his arm and wasn't actively engaged in terrible things that made Clark's life difficult. Too easy to remember that he'd always had that uncomfortable awareness of how well Lex wore his clothing, or how embarrassing a draw for the eye the graceful curve of neck into shoulder - - so much more prominent now that he'd seen a great deal more of Lex's skin than he ever had before. Or laid hands on it.

God. And wasn't that the most mortifying thing of all? That he couldn't quite get the memory of the feel of Lex's skin out of his head. That last night when he damn well should have been looking out for him, his hand had lingered over the places deep bruises had been four days prior - - places that were blemish free now. Silk smooth and supple and it just blew Clark's mind that a man's skin could feel like that. Or look like that, stretched taut over svelte muscle and sinew.

Simply embarrassing that 'that' was what stuck in his mind.

He was at the feed store, loading up the last of his order, when Chloe called. He leaned against the back of the truck and answered the call.

"You cut and ran on me the other day," she accused in greeting and he winced.

"Yeah. Sorry about that." He wasn't entirely certain he was ready to talk about the Zod infestation with her yet. At least not while he felt so bad about the solution, because she'd only point out all the perfectly legitimate reasons he had for doing it, and he wasn't looking for justification.

"Are you busy?" she asked.

"Nothing life or death. What's up?" He'd already lost most of the day, what was a little more wasted time?

"Lois and I found out why Lex was called in to the sheriff's office."

"Yeah?" He already knew why, unless Lex had been lying or omitting pertinent facts, which was a high possibility. "Pictures right? Of Lana and some guy."

"Oh ho, you are on top of the game," Chloe had that smug tone that said she was still one up on him.

"And?" he asked warily.

"We're in town. Want to come and meet us at the Talon and we'll share some interesting news?"

"Give me ten minutes."

There was an open space a block down the street from the Talon that the pick-up could squeeze into. He walked the sidewalk towards the caf, and people nodded or smiled as he passed, because everyone knew everyone in town, or knew mothers or fathers or family. And secrets were non-existent - - unless they were the type that you buried deep in the recesses of a storm cellar - - and folk talked about them freely - - because, well, that's what happened in small towns.

If Chloe and Lois had gotten hold of information from the investigation, then it had probably spread the same way. A deputy talking to a wife and her talking to a friend and so on and so on. It was the same reason the whole county had prematurely convicted Lex of the murder in the first place. Unrelenting gossip.

The scourge of a small town. He wouldn't miss it the day he got out.

The Talon was moderately full with the pre-dinner crowd, but Chloe and Lois weren't among them, so he climbed the stairs to the second floor apartment. Lois snatched the door open on the second knock and beamed at him like she'd just finished off the canary. She grabbed his arm and tugged him into the apartment. He allowed the manhandling with a wary look about the room.

Chloe was at the kitchen island, tapping away at her laptop.

"So what's this interesting news?" He asked, when Lois let him go and went to hover over her cousin's shoulder.

"My powers of persuasion finally paid off," Lois declared. She waved what looked like a copy machine copy of a photograph at him. "I got this off an assistant in the D.A.'s office."

He took it from her, and stared at the picture of Lana at a table with an unfamiliar, middle-aged man. He ran his thumb over the grainy image of Lana and looked back up, waiting for the remainder of their news.

"And I found this," Chloe said, turning the computer around so Clark could see the screen, which held an archived page from the Daily Planet. "You can thank my infallible memory for this. Well, and the fact that I was paying special attention to anything LexCorp related at the time this article came out."

The page was from the Planet's business section, and there was a picture of a group of men on the steps of LuthorCorp. The caption read 'LuthorCorp buyout of international shipping dynasty'. Chloe indicated one of the men on the steps and Clark held up the photocopy, comparing. It might have been the same man. Both pictures were grainy.

"Okay, I'm biting."

"He's a lawyer for a Greek shipping company that Lex bought out about six months ago. A really ugly take over, according to people in the know. He took a family corporation and basically ripped it apart."

"So why was he meeting with Lana?"

"Got me." Chloe shrugged.

"Show him, already." Lois urged.

Chloe's smile turned shark-like. "I Googled Nikolas Daniakos, the owner of the company, and Lex - - and look what I came up with."

She brought up another screen with an image search, and there were a lot of pictures that looked like nightclub paparazzi shots. The rich and famous coming and going from the hottest, most exclusive clubs. The ones with Lex in them were hard to miss. Even in a crowd of expensive clothes and attitude, he stood out, but he looked young - - really young, in these pictures. There was the occasional appearance of some celebrity face that Clark actually recognized in some of the shots, but all of them contained a swarthy, dark haired man, obviously a few years older and a stunning olive skinned woman.

"How long ago was this?"

"1998. Supposedly Lex and Nikolas Daniakos and his sister, Sophia were tight for a while back in the day. Rumor of the time had it that he was actually sleeping with the sister and doing a lot of party drugs with the both of them."

Clark looked closer at the woman in the pictures. Long dark hair, sleepy-eyed sexuality, sleek curves - - she would have been Lex's type. She looked like a predator to Clark, and so did the man, with his dark, shark's eyes.

"Then something happened," Lois took up. "Some big blow-up that involved the police called out to the Daniakos yacht in New York Harbor - - the report of which I might add never got filed - - then Lionel Luthor got into it and the Daniakos got called home to Greece - - on supposed 'family' business, but I'm thinking threats were made and they were scared enough of Lionel on his own turf to make scarce for a while."

"So they did something to Lex," Clark said slowly.

"Or he did something to them," Lois interjected, but Clark ignored her, because the Daniakos looked older than he was now by a good span and they didn't have the aura of victims. Not that Lex did, but - - God, he looked young in the pictures.

"And he retaliated ten years later by taking apart their family company. And then, one of their lawyers meets with Lana on the sly? Why?"

"That's the question, Smallville," Lois chided. "Maybe she was giving inside information and he found out about it and had her killed."

"He didn't - -"Clark started automatically, then stopped, tightening his mouth. "Lex didn't even recognize the guy in the photo."

"He's lying," Lois said.

"He told you that?" Chloe asked.

"And you believed him?" Lois exclaimed, like Clark was the most gullible man on earth.

He gave her a narrow glare and she lifted a brow.

"I'm just saying," she said. "That what Lex Luthor says and what he does aren't always one and the same."

"Since when are you the expert, Lois?" He snapped, on edge and not even knowing why. Maybe it was the culpability he couldn't shake that made him feel responsible for Lex. Maybe it was the fact that he'd had Lex's life in his hands an awful lot this week, which made him defensive of it.

"What the hell, Clark?" Lois bristled at his tone. "Just because he gets his ass kicked by a few local rednecks - - you're suddenly his number one fan?"

"And just because you've got a grudge and a press pass, you think your opinions are gospel?"

Lois swelled up with indignant rage, mouth open to fire a return salvo.

"Children." Chloe stood up, leveling looks at the both of them. "As entertaining as a knock down drag out between the two of you might be - - he's got the weight on you, Lo, so I'd put my money on him."

"Yeah?" Lois huffed, glaring at Clark. "Waste of good money then, because I'd kick his ass."

Clark snorted, but he kept thinking about those pictures and what Lex hadn't told him. Maybe Lex really hadn't recognized the lawyer - - maybe he didn't even realize the connection. Or he knew damned well and hadn't wanted to share the information. Which pissed him off, but not enough to buy Lois' crackpot theory. Either way, if these people had had something to do with Lana's death, Clark wanted to know about it.

"I'll keep looking into this," Chloe promised.

"Okay." It was either flop down on the sofa and spend the evening listening to Chloe and Lois hash out theories, or head for the door and maybe get a little work done.

He headed for the door. Fighting with Lois the rest of the afternoon wasn't a big draw. Chloe trailed in his wake, clearly wanting to ask him things that she couldn't in front of Lois.

She followed him downstairs to the caf, while Lois, still miffed, nonchalantly lingered on the balcony overhead, pretending not to notice them at all.

"So are you going to let me in on what's going on?" Chloe asked quietly.

"It's taken care of," he said and she gave him an expectant look, wanting more.

"Hey, Kent," a raucous voice called from across the room. Jake of linebacker fame stood with a few of his cronies, chatting up a pair of high school age girls.

"How's your boyfriend?" Jake said it with the sort of sneer in his voice that dared Clark to make an issue of something that had obviously been covered up. But his buddies laughed, low and conspiratorially, like they knew exactly the inference. Jake was wearing the same letterman jacket he had that night, and there was a smear of dark, dried something on the sleeve. Blood. Spattered from when he'd been pummeling Lex into the ground.

"Shit," Chloe said under her breath. "Is he one of - -?"

But Clark hardly heard her through the rushing blood in his ears. He covered the space in a dozen measured strides that he didn't really remember taking, and smashed a fist into Jake's face. He pulled the punch a fraction of a second before it landed, the shock on the linebacker's eyes as he saw the blow coming, dredging up some semblance of Clark's common sense. Still bone cracked and blood spattered and the big man tumbled backwards, taking two of his friends and a table and chairs with him as he fell.

Clark stood there, dismay that he might have killed a man battling with the anger that still made his fists curl at his side.

"Sumbitch. Sumbitch." Jake's nasal cries as he struggled against the tangle of limbs and overturned furniture, alleviated the concern of manslaughter charges. "Y'broke my fuckin' nose."

People were gathering, mesmerized by the blood and the violence, as people tended to be.

"So, file charges," Clark suggested. "Maybe I'll give a statement of my own."

Jake glared at him, fingers clutching his bleeding nose. Chloe had her hands on Clark's arm, tugging ineffectually. Lois did too, and he hadn't even noticed her approach.

They got him moving, through the crowd of onlookers and out the door. Once he hit the sidewalk his hands started shaking. He hadn't just done that. He hadn't just smashed in somebody's face because of a taunt thrown across a room full of people.

"Are you okay?" Chloe was asking. If he was okay? It was laughable. He felt sick.

"Damn, Smallville, you've got a mean right, there. You took down three guys and a table." Lois still had hold of his left arm and it was odd that he could feel her fingers, but he hadn't really noticed the impact of his fist breaking a nose.

Chloe was still looking at him, concerned in a way that Lois wasn't - - knowing things Lois didn't.

"I - - I didn't meant to do that," he said, because he needed to say something.

"Hey, it happens." Lois shrugged it off. "I hit people all the time. And that guy deserved it."

He shook his head, pulling out of their grasp, striding down the sidewalk towards his truck. Just wanting to get home - - by himself, so he could figure out where his head was at.

It was Saturday morning and there was a light layer of snow - - not frost - - but actual snow on the ground outside the mansion. Not even technically winter yet and they were already getting snow. It boded ill for a temperate season to come.

Lex needed to get out regardless. Needed to work off a building sense of tension that went beyond the overall stress of the last five weeks. He'd woken with it, caught in the throes of a dream he remembered with more clarity than he'd been able to recall a dream in months. A great many months.

6 o'clock and he was awake with little chance of falling back to sleep. But then, he'd gotten enough sleep yesterday for two people - - with Clark sitting watch like a determined guard dog, which he still found inexplicable. And fascinating.

He took the service road that circled the entirety of the estate grounds. Twice around was a mile. He ran until the cold was a distant memory and the ache in his ribs couldn't take it anymore.

His stamina was shot to hell, he thought, gasping after breath on the back steps of the mansion. He used to be able to make the circuit a dozen times without feeling as if he were about to die. He'd managed five today and it hurt. But then, he couldn't remember the last time he'd had the time or the inclination to just get out and run. There had always been too many vital concerns - - things that he couldn't put off to take the time to simply cater to his body's needs. And he'd always liked to run. Liked the escape of it where there was only the path and the solitude of his own thoughts.

He'd run with Lana, back when they'd been in like with each other, back when he'd been able to laugh - - and he paused, leaning against the cold stone banister at that unexpected reflection - - that he'd been happier when he'd liked his wife, than when he'd loved her. It was an odd little epiphany that he missed the girl more than he missed the woman and he stood there for a while, breath fogging the air, turning that over in his head uncomfortably.

He considered it on the way upstairs to the shower. Took the possibility apart, while hot water streamed down his body - - when exactly he'd stopped liking Lana for Lana, for a girl who'd believed in what he'd believed in for a time, who'd been the one honest thing he could rely on, and started simply needing her. Like air - - or more accurately armor - - against what?

Clark came to mind, but he couldn't fathom why. Because Clark was the enemy. Clark was a threat. But the notions were like placards he remembered reading in the rearview mirror as he passed them on the road. Meaningless.

He pressed his hands against the warm tiles of the shower and stared at the water sluicing down the drain. An honest shiver of doubt assailed him. Lex tried to pin down the source of the uncertainty, but it was elusive, like grasping after something in the fog and having it dissolve in his fingers.

He bared his teeth and drove a fist into the tile. It hurt and the tile was unfazed by the aggression.

He shook out the hand; shut the water off, because it felt like it was seeping into his brain and the feeling was eerily familiar and uncomfortable. He didn't feel lightheaded, but there was a vague sense of disassociation - - as if something were missing - - some vital element or purpose that he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Lex drew a long, deep breath and let it out slowly, gathering his focus. He'd make an appointment Monday and find out what sort of pharmaceutical solution it would take to make this problem go away.

He dressed for comfort, having no intention of seeing anyone today closer than the impersonal distance of a video feed allowed. A ribbed sweater, fine and warm, now that the heat of the shower and the exertion of the run had dissipated. He hesitated with his hand on a pair of dark slacks, eye drawn to the folded pair of borrowed jeans lying on the shelf under the row of clothes.

He ran a hand over soft, faded denim. They didn't have the scent that kept triggering old associations in his memory. Too much time had passed since they'd clung to Clark's skin. But they had a hole in the back pocket that a boy's wallet might have rubbed, and a rip in the knee with dangling strings that had probably been perpetrated during some bit of youthful horseplay.

Lex had tried very hard not to entertain inappropriate thoughts about Clark when he'd been fifteen - - even if he hadn't always succeeded. Imagining him younger, the flesh that would have shown through that hole, the worn spot by the inner thigh, was patently criminal.

He picked up the jeans regardless, compelled by the imaginary sense of familiarity, when he was feeling quietly unfamiliar in his own head this morning. He pulled them on, and the sweater and a pair of soft Italian loafers. It felt good, dressing down for a change - - a minor stress reliever in and of itself. He went downstairs and the staff was out and about today, back to normal routine and he hadn't gotten around yet to asking Mrs. Drake if he'd given them the day off yesterday. Security was studiously 'not' present, but then they weren't supposed to be. Lana hadn't liked to see ominous armed men in the house, so he'd catered to her wishes to a degree, increasing electronic measures and decreasing human ones.

He got a cup of coffee from the kitchen and went to his study. Settled at his desk and turned on his laptop. He responded to emails, made a few notes on his calendar and considered a few calls. His father phoned around noon, but Lex ignored it, not feeling obligated to talk business with Lionel on a Saturday and refusing to engage in conversation about anything else.

He went over LuthorCorp secure files to see what his father had been up to, and found nothing overly suspicious. He had people watching Lionel's moves, but his father had the tendency to worm his way past measures taken to hinder his influence.

LuthorCorp stock was holding. It was low, but not disastrously so. LexCorp stock was still floundering and it was almost a physical pain to check the downward spiral.

He got another call and he sat for a second, phone in hand after reading the name on the caller ID.

"Mr. Mueller." He picked up, knowing very well that the man on the other end had no tolerance for idle pleasantries.

"I have the names." The cold, level voice over the line of a man who made his living getting blood on his hands so the people that hired him didn't have to dirty their own. "Do you want to know them?"

"No," Lex said, pulse racing as fast as it had the first time he'd sought out this man - - this very frightening man - - to deal with an obstacle in his path some ten months ago.

He changed his mind. "Yes. Who are they?"

"Thomas and Clancy Briggs. Jake Smith. Christopher Tucker. Should I pursue the matter?"

Should he quietly and efficiently see to it that those four men didn't live to the see another month, was what he was asking. And Lex had set him on their trail, coldly furious and wanting retaliation the day after. Four lives just like that and four days ago, he hadn't blinked at the thought of ordering it. He sat here now, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat - - trying to remember the justification he'd had when he'd called Mueller. They'd wrecked his car and beat the crap out of him, but that wasn't why he'd orchestrated their demise - - no, he'd done that because he'd been fucking furious that they'd had the gall to humiliate him on top of it. Four lives because a handful of drunken local has beens had pissed on a Luthor.

A word from him and it would be done. Just like that, and he could go back to business as usual - - remorse a distant, contained thing. He teetered on the precipice of panic, remembering other problems this man had solved for him - - impediments to his goals that had to be removed. But sitting there, with the morning sun warming the office from the high windows, with a old, soft sweater and jeans that felt like some sort of haven, he couldn't seem to make the scales balance out in his head. Validation he was almost certain he'd felt every time he'd set Mr. Mueller in motion just wasn't registering now.

"No," he said. "Do not pursue the matter further. Payment for full services will be deposited as usual."

He hung up. Sat there, while his hands shook, remembering faces and names and orders given like he was recalling moments from a movie- - surreal, because he could place himself in the script, but the motivations behind the motivations were lost to him.

He rose, pacing the length of the room, on the verge of abandoning the office altogether, then turning and stalking towards the bar. It was early to start drinking - - but what the hell? Maybe half drunk he could organize thoughts better than he was managing sober.

He downed two tumblers and barely tasted the scotch. The phone rang again and he cast a narrow glance towards the desk. It wasn't in him to simply ignore it without knowing at least who had the balls to intrude upon his Saturday. He put the empty glass down and stalked over to look down at the incoming number.

Clark. He smothered a bitter laugh and considered ignoring it. It kept ringing. Another ring and voice mail would cut in and Clark could talk to that. Add his message to whatever Lionel had wanted to say.

He snatched it up before that last ring finished vibrating the phone on the desk.

"What do you want?"

There was a pause on the other end. Clark digesting his non-attempts at telephone courtesy.

"I need to talk to you," Clark finally said, sounding like he was on a mission. Fuck that.

"No."

"It's important."

"It's the middle of the day. I'm conscious. Don't break the streak, Clark. Bad luck." He hung up. Stared at the phone expecting an irate call back, but it didn't ring.

Almost, he was disappointed.

Part Nine

Clark looked up from the phone in his hand to the mansion across the boundary of box hedges, weathered statuary and dead fall gardens. He was already inside the wall, having bypassed security and outpaced the motion sensors capacity for detection. He'd been aiming for politeness, calling ahead for permission and Lex was lucky he'd waited this long, because the desire to head out here yesterday evening and ask about the connection between Lana and Lex's old clubbing buddies had been really hard to resist. The only reason he hadn't was because - - well, because he'd been feeling distinctly anti-social after the incident at the Talon. The fact that the sheriff hadn't swung by to arrest him for assault and battery had barely made a dent in his mood. Chloe had called him later and let him know that no charges were being pressed, so apparently Jake had taken Clark's threat to heart. Which didn't make Clark feel much better.

All his life he'd been told - - after that first imperative rule of not telling - - was never strike out in anger - - never do something that in a moment of rage, he couldn't control. Something irrevocable, like shattering a fragile human body and having the world know that he wasn't like the rest of them. He'd come so damned close. And why? Not in self-defense, or to protect a threatened life - - but because he'd been pissed - - and it had come up so fast and sharp that still didn't understand it.

He'd come out to see if he could get an honest answer out of Lex today and gotten rebuffed. But Lex had had an edge to his voice, this little twinge of something that straddled the sharp line of hysteria and Clark thought about mental lesions and broken psyches and all the other possible repercussions of ripping the remnants of Zod out of him.

So he scoped out the wandering grounds security on the other side of the mansion sneaking a smoke, and bounded over the hedges and closer to the house. He expanded his vision, sifting through layers of stone and mortar to find the living things within. There was the cook, chopping something in the kitchen and the housekeeper washing windows in the solarium. Lex in his study, pacing, nervous energy oozing from his stride.

Clark focused past the walls and into the warmth of the room. Orange from the fire, red from the stained glass, yellow sun from the high windows. Lex moved in and out of the patterns of light. He had a glass in his hand, a thick, grey sweater - - faded blue denim with a familiar hole in the knee. Familiar worn seams clinging to the line of Lex's legs. Clark's hand me downs.

Clark swallowed, almost losing his focus, things going skeletal and layered before he concentrated and got the finer points of his vision back on line. Before Tuesday morning, when Lex had been limping out of Clark's house, he wasn't sure if he remembered ever seeing Lex in jeans before - - Lex didn't do jeans and t-shirts and casual Smallville attire. But there he was, stalking about his study wearing Clark's old Levi's and it was simply, unaccountably - - hot.

"Shit." Clark turned around, putting his back to the wall, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, trying to get the image out of his head. There was no way, no possible way he'd ever worn those jeans the way Lex did. The soft cling of wear-thinned fabric to long, lean thighs, the pale glimpse of knee through the rip in the leg - - the hole in the back pocket over - -

God. His own jeans were getting far too tight. He looked down to confirm and even standing here alone, it was embarrassing. He cursed it, under his breath and told it to go away, but it was still centered on the idea of Lex in his jeans - - of Lex walking the way Lex always walked, wearing 'his' jeans. And it was the most ridiculous thing ever that he was standing against the side of the mansion with a boner. He wasn't fifteen anymore, and plagued with raging hormones that triggered these sorts of things at the brush of a strong breeze.

The need to get out of there became pressing, even if running superspeed with a hard-on wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world. It wasn't like he was going to be confronting Lex today anyway. Not and keep what was left of his dignity.

So he got home in seconds flat and leaned against the corner of the barn, secure in the solitude of the farm, his breath forming furious little clouds before his face. He wasn't out of breath, but he was breathing hard and there was nothing to do but rub his hand over the bulge in his pants, because it didn't seem to want to go down on its own and it was insistent to the point of discomfort, almost.

Harder - - the scrub of cotton boxers and the inside seam of his zipper pressing against his cock felt like the scraping teeth of heaven. He shut his eyes and knocked his head back against the wood, thinking about Lois's breasts against his arm this afternoon, and Chloe's mouth and God - - God, it wasn't enough to wash away Lex's ass in Clark's jeans and his legs - -

He came, sticky and hot inside his shorts, and hissed through his teeth after the pressure went away and he could breath again, and walk again without feeling like he was going to poke a hole in his jeans.

In all honesty, Clark couldn't say it wasn't the first time Lex had ever crossed his mind while he was masturbating, but it had been an awfully long time and even then it had been embarrassing. The only bright spot was that his mother wasn't home to inquire why he needed to change pants in the middle of the day.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow he'd try to talk to Lex again, when Lex would hopefully be wearing normal, tailored clothes not likely to cause spontaneous erections.

Now, he just needed to get his priorities straight. Get a little work done about the farm - - or maybe take a break from it all for an hour or two and take a spin about the globe. God knew he needed something to drain off pent up frustration that was obviously effecting more than his mental state. Maybe he'd head up to the Fortress where it was cold enough that he actually could feel the chill on his skin. Cold right now would be a very good thing.

The drink didn't dull the perplexity. Not even in mass. It took the edge off though. It always took the edge off. If not for the advantage of meteor enhanced biology, Lex thought his liver might have been well on its way to early retirement.

No one had ever bothered to suggest his alcohol consumption teetered on the edge of addiction, not even Lana and god knew he'd increased the intake during the last few months of their marriage - - but then she hadn't really cared at that point. And no one else would have had the courage to mention it. Clark maybe, if they'd still been friends.

But of course, when they'd been friends, the need hadn't been so intense. Then it had just been the pull of the normal, everyday tension of being a Luthor. The stress of having Lionel as a father.

Now - - well, there was a price to knowing the things he knew, and doing the things that needed doing.

It wasn't like he allowed himself the luxury of actually getting drunk on more than very special occasions. It wasn't as if it were easy for him to reach that point - - aforementioned enhanced metabolism a definite killjoy when it came to recreational substances.

He'd spent the day fighting distraction - - fighting the urge to turn things over in his head and discover the worms underneath. His mind kept drifting back to Mueller and what Mueller did for him with a vague sense of quizzical repulsion that was simply foreign. And if he thought too hard about it, delved too deeply, the unease would spider outwards, tangled roots from a central hub - - This problem had been eradicated because it had become a hindrance in the operation of that venture which protected this facility which had honestly been created to study a dangerous curiosity - - to alleviate a known threat - - not become one in and of itself.

So he'd finished off the brandy and in lieu of sending one of the staff down to get a fresh bottle, had started in on the vodka.

And somewhere around a quarter bottle into that, he'd started thinking about Clark - - and that strip of hard belly visible when he'd been asleep in the chair and how soft his lips looked in repose - - like a woman's almost, full and dark with natural rouge. And he'd used to have the most explicit fantasies about that mouth and what it could do for him. To him - -

Fucking ungrateful bastard. All of Lex's efforts - - wasted - - discarded like so much rubbish, because Clark didn't understand the simple need for pragmatism. He hated Clark because he was oblivious to the pain he created and yet he was willing to condemn. Clark who he'd protected - - who he still protected, even though part of him wanted to destroy - - to devastate Clark. And he could have so easily - - a phone call - - as simple as calling Mueller and erasing a problem - -

If Clark only knew the impulses Lex had denied for him - -

He'd felt the need to share this information some point after dark - - but not wearing Clark's clothes - - God, he wasn't so far gone that he was willing to share that little moment of weakness, so he'd changed and gone down into the garage and pulled the cover off the Porsche, letting it flutter to the concrete in a waft of dust particles. He'd neglected her too long, content to be chauffeured about like a fledgling imitation of his father. Fuck Lionel.

He got in the car, headed out of the castle grounds and into rural America.

It was just before seven, the sky blanketed with clouds that made the evening darker than it ought to be, that insulated the air with a sense of moist cold that might be the herald of more early snow or simply cold, cold rain.

Clark was at the kitchen table, when he heard the sound of a car taking the drive too fast, tires spitting gravel outside as it pulled to a short stop. He had the dregs of cold Campbell's soup in a cup, the crumbs of grilled cheese on a napkin and his laptop open before him in preparation of doing a little research of his own.

Through the kitchen door he could see the sleek shape of a car in the darkness, headlights illuminating the fine mist that saturated the air, engine purring quietly. It was still running when Clark walked out onto the porch and stood on the steps warily. Even if there had been an abundance of criminally expensive Porches navigating the roads of Smallville, this one still would have been familiar. Lex used to drive it all the time, the car he'd always end up coming back to, after he'd gotten over the allure of new acquisitions. Clark hadn't seen him in it in a while.

It didn't look as if he was planning on getting out of it now, and Clark wasn't sure if that were a good thing or not. Him showing up at the mansion, intruding upon Lex's personal space was one thing, Lex showing up in his domain was another. It made him bristle a little defensively and want to walk over and tap on the window to suggest Lex call before showing up on Kent property.

Only, maybe he didn't mind so much tonight as he might have, this afternoon's embarrassing moment aside, and he was curious. So he walked across the yard, feeling the very fine mist on his skin and rapped once on the window. It slid down, breaking the buffer between the quiet of the night and the low beat of the music throbbing from at least a half dozen strategically placed speakers.

Lex didn't look up at him, one hand on the wheel, eyes forward, staring towards an empty field.

"Should you be out roaming the roads without security?" Clark asked, instead of the blunter inquiry of what he was doing here and what he wanted.

Maybe Lex had been expecting the latter, because he leaned his head back against the headrest with an aborted laugh. "I have security."

Clark bent a little to look into the shadowed interior of the car. Nothing there but Lex, but Lex, upon closer inspection, had the dense shape of a gun in his coat pocket. There was also the subtle scent of alcohol about him.

"Should you even be driving?" Clark asked, and Lex's mouth tightened. He looked up, meeting Clark's eyes, his own hidden in the shadows.

"You called me. Said it was important? What?"

Clark had. He hadn't expected a personal visit. "It could have waited till tomorrow."

"Well, that would be a first with you, wouldn't it? I didn't think you were capable of waiting when an urge struck?"

"Did you drive over here to insult me, Lex?"

"If I were insulting you, you'd know it - -" Lex started, then canted his head, a humorless smile touching his lips. "Well, maybe 'you' wouldn't."

If he dragged Lex out of the car and shook him, Clark wondered if he'd get an answer out of him that didn't involve verbal abuse.

Lex cut the ignition, pushed the door against Clark's legs and Clark stepped back to give it space to swing open. It was a relief of sorts that Lex had changed clothes. Back to his normal fashionable chic, even if the shirt was untucked and showing skin four buttons down.

He moved past Clark, the slightest waver in his gait, the mist sheening the pale skin of his head. Something was wrong. Clark could feel it. The way Lex shoved his hands in his pockets to hide the trembling. The distant look in his eyes. He'd heard the hint of it in his voice today, but the addition of god knew how much alcohol made it more pronounced.

"Lex?" he asked warily. "Did something happen?"

"Yes," Lex said simply and stood there, in the beams of his headlights, staring at nothing. Then he shook his head and retracted the admission. "No. I just came to see what you wanted. I was rude on the phone."

Clark let out a breath of disbelief. "I wanted to ask why you didn't tell me the man Lana met in the pictures worked for old friends of yours?"

Lex didn't answer for a moment, then he turned, the ghost of an ironic smile on his lips. "Why should I? Your sources of information seem more than adequate."

"Because you said you would and I'm holding you to it." Clark said it levelly, absolutely dead serious and Lex lifted his brows in something that might have been actual surprise.

"That's touching. Really."

Lex was drunk enough, Clark thought, that there might have been as much honest truth as sarcasm in that statement. Lex was also drunk enough, that he probably barely noticed the gradual permeation of water into clothing.

"If you want to stand in the rain, stand in the rain." Clark started towards the house, leaving Lex in the drive, but making an offer he wouldn't have considered a month ago - - hell, he wouldn't have considered it a week ago. "Otherwise, there's an actual roof and coffee in the kitchen."

Which Lex needed about a gallon of, but Clark wisely didn't mention.

Lex stood there, while Clark clomped up the steps and scraped the mud off his boots on the welcome mat, then started moving towards the house.

"Headlights," Clark called and Lex stopped mid-stride, rocking a little in his tracks like balance wasn't quite his friend, then returned to kill the lights.

When Lex came into the house, stopping just inside the kitchen door, Clark had already closed the laptop and stood with his hip against the kitchen table, wondering how much of a fool he really was. Lex was dangerous because he was beautiful, and determined and manipulating and capable of so many terrible things and Clark wanted to believe it hadn't all been his fault. Not this last year. Clark wanted to believe that the remnants of the monster who'd destroyed one world and tried to demolish another had tainted Lex and that now that it was gone - - maybe.

He didn't even know what he was hoping for or why it made a difference because Lex had damn sure been toying with the idea of playing God before Zod - - but still, there'd been a difference. Just maybe there was something salvageable.

Which brought him back to being a fool. And a fanciful one at that. He thought about Lex in his jeans, and Lex mostly naked and smooth when he'd put him to bed - - and had to turn and fumble after a cup in the cabinet and poured coffee from the instant machine on the counter.

"Black right?" Even though he knew that's how Lex took it. He knew so many little details about Lex, so many little likes and dislikes and confidences shared - - because they'd used to talk. Aside from certain dark secrets they both kept buried, they'd used to share confidences.

"I'm fine," Lex said.

Clark took a breath, and turned around to meet his eyes. Lex's face was pale beneath the sheen of rain, eyes dark and unreadable, like he'd gathered his calm between the car and the kitchen and was holding on to it for dear life.

"So why didn't you tell me you found out who the man was?" Clark asked point blank.

Lex walked into the kitchen, trailing fingers along the back of the closest chair. "I just found out." He paused, looked up at Clark speculatively and amended. "A few days ago. It slipped my mind that I was supposed to report to you."

"Right," Clark said. Nothing ever slipped Lex's mind. "So, is there a connection? Between these old friends of yours and - - what happened?"

Lex lifted a brow at Clark's inability to say it. Lana's murder. So Clark looked away, tightening his mouth while Lex mulled over an answer.

"I haven't found that out yet," Lex finally admitted. "And they're not friends. They were never friends."

"No? What were they? There are an awful lot of pictures of you guys hanging out."

Lex circled the table, long fingers still trailing the edges. "Have you been surfing the net, Clark? You can't believe everything you read, you ought to know that."

"And pictures speak a thousand words. What, did you have a bad break up with the sister?"

Lex reached the counter next to him, fingers turning the cup of coffee Clark had poured for him. "I thought you didn't like hearing about my sordid affairs? I seem to remember a sermon - -"

"Lex." Clark gave him a look, and Lex smiled wryly, shifting enough that his hip brushed Clark's and even through layers of damp wool and denim, Clark 'felt' it.

"I never fucked her," Lex said bluntly. Then he turned, facing Clark, close enough that Clark could see the blue and the green fighting for dominance in his eyes. "I honestly don't believe anyone other than Niko Daniakos has ever fucked Sophia. But she would watch, while he fucked me. Is that the sort of detail you wanted to hear, Clark?"

Clark took a breath, not even beginning to know how to deal with that, and Lex never took his eyes from his face. Just watched with that predatory, hungry look, like he wanted to devour every nuance of Clark's reaction. Like he wanted to shock and dismay.

"Would you like to hear the particulars?"

"No," Clark said, mouth gone dry. He could imagine well enough. Too well, and he wanted the imagery out of his head, even while some baser part of his intellect kept drawing it up. He moistened his lips, and Lex broke eye contact, gaze flickering down.

"Hmm," Lex sounded almost disappointed.

"Do you think they had something to do with it, Lex? Is the blood that bad between you?"

"I destroyed the jewel in their family crown." Lex shrugged indifferently, as if it were nothing. "Ripped it apart and sold the pieces I wasn't interested in off to competitors or salvage. Yes, the blood is bad. No, I have no idea the connection. Yet. But, honestly, if they'd a hand in orchestrating it, I'd imagine they'd have done a better job of setting me up. Same reason I never suspected my father's hand in it. I'd be behind bars now if anyone competent had planned it."

"Then who?" Clark exclaimed. "And why?" He drove a fist down in frustration and the cupboards rattled. He was lucky he didn't dent the countertop. The hurt of not knowing was almost sharper now than the duller ache of her being gone.

Lex shook his head, the calculated indifference fading from his eyes. He swallowed, looking past Clark to the array of magnets and keepsakes stuck to the refrigerator door. "You know - - no matter the who or the why - - it was probably because of me. Something I'd done or someone I'd - - hurt."

Clark drew a breath, trying to steady his hands. "You've hurt a lot of people, Lex."

"I know."

He wasn't certain if he'd ever heard Lex admit it before. He wasn't sure Lex meant to now, but there was something distant and a little lost in his look, which he shook off with a shiver of black clad shoulders and looked back up at Clark with a crooked twitch of the mouth. "Most of them even deserved it."

Condemnation wanted to bubble up, like an old familiar friend, only Lex looked like he was waiting for it, and that threw Clark off the game.

Lex's pocket rang. Clark started. Lex reached in for his phone, checked the number and flicked his eyes up to Clark mildly.

"I have to take this." He walked towards the kitchen door with the phone to his ear. He waited till he was outside on the porch before answering, but Clark didn't need to close the distance to hear the voice on the other end of the line and he felt absolutely no shame in eavesdropping.

"Talk to me," Lex said.

"We've found the Greeks, sir."

"Where?"

"New York. We have eyes on them."

"Have the plane ready. I'm flying out tonight."

He severed the connection, slipping the phone back in his pocket and starting down the steps towards his car without a backward look or an explanation.

Clark stalked out onto the porch, clenching his fists in irritation. "Where are you going?"

Lex hesitated, turning in the soft rain to look back at Clark. "Business," He said smoothly. "Did you need my itinerary?"

"You're lying," Clark said, a growl of frustration lacing the accusation.

Lex lifted a brow, patently false amusement on his face. "I might take offense at that - -"

"If you weren't lying through your teeth." Clark cut in.

"- - If I didn't know how uptight you are over this unfortunate situation." Lex finished without missing a beat.

The desire to shake him reared up again - - or to press him against the wall and force something resembling truth from his lips.

"Anything more solid than speculation," Lex said over his shoulder. "I will let you know."

Part ten

There was a two-hour delay getting off the ground due to weather that had decided to put a dent in Lex's plans. Which meant, by the time he drove the two and half hours to the airport outside Metropolis and impatiently paced the private terminal waiting for air traffic control to clear the LuthorCorp jet for take off, it was after midnight when he finally got into the air.

The delays, the lack of sleep and the fact that though scotch never left him with anything more than fond memories, vodka inevitably made his head pound, put him in less than a tolerant mood when they finally sat down at LaGuardia. Being told by his people, upon arrival, that they'd lost track of the Twins, didn't improve the mood.

"Sir, we followed them though half of Manhattan, but our people couldn't get into the last club they entered and they never came back out - - at least through the front entrance."

"Where are they staying?" He suppressed the urge to rail at the man for not having the credentials to gain entrance to what was no doubt one of the cities more exclusive clubs. There were simply some places you didn't get into unless your face was plastered on the front of magazines or movie screens or your bank account had a ridiculous number of zeros attached.

"They have a yacht at harbor - - the Dionysia. But they haven't returned to it."

Par for the course, if the Twin's habits were anything like they'd been when Lex had known them - - and from all indications, they'd changed little over the years - - to the ruination of their father's empire. But if drugs and sex and notoriety were all they craved, then the remainder of the Daniakos fortune would easily supply them a lifetime's worth of debauchery. Unless they'd been plying their hands at fucking with Lex's life - - in which case he might have something to say about the length of those lifetimes - - or the stability of Daniakos prosperity.

Lex pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the headache to recede. It didn't seem inclined to take orders.

The ride through Queens to the Queensboro Bridge and into Manhattan was quiet and relatively traffic free at three a.m. and there wasn't a damned thing to do, without a bead on his quarry but check into the hotel and wait till they showed. Which very well might not be till after the clubs opened again and they were back out on the prowl.

He got a suite at the Mandarin Oriental, his lodging of choice when visiting New York, and someone's reservation probably got bumped in their eagerness to accommodate him. He got an executive suite with a Central park view. Clean white furniture with rich mahogany trim and windows that looked out over the twilight vista of upper Manhattan.

The bar was fully stocked and he considered it for a moment, before dismissing the urge, wandering into the bedroom and letting himself collapse into softness. He lay there for a while, the room spinning a little behind closed lids, the cool, processed hotel air clearing his head.

The gun in his pocket poked against his hip, and with a sigh, he sat up, shrugging out of the coat, tossing it across the chair opposite the bed. He toed off his shoes and scooted back against pillows, not particularly caring if he fell asleep in his clothes. He'd have them pressed in the morning and maybe go to Bodaro's and pick up a change of clothing while he was waiting for word on the Twins. He hadn't been to Bodaro's in a long time, or John James in the Garmet district.

He should have stopped and packed a bag - - or called and had one delivered - - he'd had the time, after all with the weather delays. But his focus had been off - - or too narrowed - - he wasn't sure which, and the minor details that he usually paid so much attention to, had been overlooked. It was distracting, the subtle feeling of something fractured - - but not.

The rain on Clark's dark hair had sparkled like diamond dust. The image came out of nowhere. Stayed with him while he lay there, melting into fine hotel linen. If he put his hands in it, the shards would melt away like snow - - absorbed by Clark's heat, because Lex's fingers were cold - -

He blinked - - light filling his vision from floor to ceiling windows that he hadn't bothered to pull the shades on when nothing but darkness graced the other side. Someone was knocking on the door, and his people would have called before coming up and hotel staff wouldn't have dared interrupt a guest in their room, unsummoned - - and even then they wouldn't be insistent about it.

Lex twisted his wrist around to look at the time. 9 o'clock. Sharp. Almost six hours sleep had cleared his head, but he still had the taste of a day old binge in his mouth. And whoever was beating on his door was going to lose a job or gain a problem.

He slipped on his shoes, thought about tucking in the shirt, but it was rumpled enough that it would hardly matter and he wasn't out to impress people on his shit list.

He stalked through the suite and snatched the door open. Stood there a second looking at an annoyed looking Clark Kent before slamming it shut in his face.

How the hell - -? It was just damned annoying - - beyond annoying and well into infuriating - - how Clark always ended up exactly in the places Lex least expected and most certainly didn't want him. Clark was supposed to be tilling fields and sowing seeds in fucking Smallville - - not showing up at his doorstep in the most exclusive hotel in Manhattan. How had he even known? Who on Lex's staff could have slipped the information? Some advocate of Lana's, doling out information on the side? Had he followed him to the airport? In his truck, at the speeds Lex had been going down a rain slick highway? Unlikely?

Lex made it to the bar, before turning on his heel with a smothered curse and heading back to the door. He opened it again to Clark's glower and forced his own expression into one of barely controlled neutrality.

"How did you get here?" Which wasn't necessarily the right question, but Clark got under his skin in a way no boardroom adversary ever had.

"You're the only one allowed to fly?" Clark retorted with just enough surliness in his voice to make Lex think he probably had spent the last few hours with his big body crammed into the cheap seats of a commuter plane.

Lex rethought his line of questioning. "How did you find me?"

Clark shrugged, a little more uncomfortable with that one, and countered with a prying question of his own. "Have you talked to them, yet?"

Lex wanted to snap that it wasn't Clark's business and for him to back off - - but, they'd already covered that ground and Lex had been drunk then too and agreed to something he shouldn't have.

Clark disrupted his calm badly enough sober; he really needed to stop encountering him three sheets to the wind. How the hell had he overheard? But then, Lex used to have a room full of answers about Clark that he didn't know the proper questions to. Or was that the other way around? Sometimes the questions and answers surrounding Clark ran muddied in his head.

"I don't know what you think you know, but you've wasted a trip. Go home, Clark."

"No."

If he'd had hair - - Clark would have had him pulling it out in frustration. The idea of yanking on Clark's and using it as a handle to slam his head repeatedly against the wall was an attractive one.

"What are you hiding, Lex?"

"Many, many things. You go first and we'll start spilling secrets." Clark glared.

Maybe it was simply habit, too long ingrained, that dictated he keep his secrets close, whether they were incriminating or not. Maybe it was just Clark. But having this debate - - especially when Clark had no concept of voice modulation - - halfway in the hall of the Mandarin Oriental was in decidedly poor taste.

He grabbed one flannel sleeve and pulled Clark across the thresh hold. Clark stepped into the room grudgingly and Lex shut the door behind him. They protected the privacy of their guests ferociously here, so how Clark had discovered his room number was another mystery.

"So, have you talked to them yet?" Clark repeated.

Lex gave him a look, wondering how he'd even gotten upstairs dressed like he'd just walked in out of the field. Mud spattered jeans and blue flannel were the sort of thing that stood out in upscale Manhattan locales.

"No. How did you know I'd found them at all?"

Clark chewed his lip - - no small bit distracting to see the corner of a full lower lip sucked into Clark's mouth - - and finally declared stubbornly. "I heard part of your conversation - - I could see it on your face."

Which was a horrifying thought, that he could be so transparent that Clark, who was undeniably intelligent and bright, but often painfully unobservant about the important things, could decipher the whys and wherefores of this trip from one side of a phone conversation and a misplaced expression.

"While I'm impressed by your powers of deduction, Clark - - if I had needed your help or wanted it, I would have asked. When I said I'd let you know if I found out any pertinent information, I meant it. Clearly, I haven't found out any yet. If you feel outside of the loop -- well, I'm sorry, but it's not your loop."

Lex moved into the bedroom, ignoring the glare, reaching for his phone inside his jacket pocket. Clark trailed behind him, stopping at the doorway, eyes drawn to the fantastic view of Central park and the towering monoliths of grey flanking the red and oranges of fall foliage. He wondered idly if this was Clark's first time in New York. Certainly seeing it from this view had to be a first for him.

Lex checked for voice mails, listened to his man in the city report that the Daniakos had not returned to the yacht and that there was still no sign. Lex wasn't concerned. As long as the boat was in harbor, they'd be in the city and as long as they were in the city, they were predictable. They'd stick to routine. He'd find them tonight.

"What are you going to do, Lex?" Clark asked, tearing his gaze away from the windowscape and fixing it on Lex.

"Buy you a return ticket home. I'll even spring for Business."

Clark kept staring, not amused.

Lex considered having him bodily thrown out. Maybe even physically put on a plane home - - only he doubted Clark would go easily and Clark's unique durability was no less pronounced than his absolute, infuriating doggedness.

Clark would be pissed and it occurred to Lex, that there'd been a sort of dtente between them recently - - an odd, fragile cessation of overt hostilities - - and strangely enough he found the thought of destroying it disagreeable.

"Lex, if you thought this was nothing - - that these people had nothing to do with - - her - - you wouldn't have hopped on a plane and flown out here in the middle of the night. So stop trying to pretend its nothing."

Lex turned, expecting the glower and got something more imploring. Got Clark tired of the fencing and looking at him for something he hadn't wanted to give in a long time - - honesty. That Clark thought he might give it was unsettling. That Lex had the need to provide it made his head ache a little.

"We've lost track of them," he said shortly. "But they'll be out tonight and word will get around because they like to make entrances. I'll have people watching the places they're most likely to go."

"And then?" Clark's eyes were fixed on him. Big. Intent. Leaf green in the bright morning light flooding the room through the windows. There had been times when Clark used to look at him and his mind would blank, all his finely honed grasp of language stalled when confronted with the statistical improbability that nature, left to its own devices could come up with something so lacking in imperfections.

He almost fell into the trap now, but pulled himself back from the brink. "Then I go and have a talk with them."

"We." Clark amended.

Lex felt the inclination to laugh and stifled it. Looked Clark up and down instead, from the worn workman's boots to the flannel, a bit of thread unraveling from a tear at the seam in the shoulder, missing a button, two from the bottom. Repeated the look because - - well, there was simply a lot of Clark to take in.

"When I go looking for clues at the Wild Coyote, you'll fit right in. They won't let you past the door at the Marquee. I believe there's a rule against plaid - - unless kilts or mini-skirts are involved."

Clark lifted a brow, miraculously not offended back onto a glare.

"And which will you be wearing?" Clark asked, deadpan.

"Well, the Luthor's are Scottish - -" There was a rhythm to both verbal sparring and flirtation that was almost identical, and Lex fell into it without missing a beat. "And I've been told I have nice legs."

Clark's eyes flicked down the length of the aforementioned legs, then back up with an accompanying blush.

Lex lifted an eyebrow of his own, waiting for the comeback that would allow the dance to continue. But Clark had his mind on other things - - things connected to the blush - - and he had seen Lex's legs recently, as well as the rest of him, so he probably had an opinion.

Lex would have given quite a bit to know what it was, but he settled on being satisfied with the blush. The ability to make Clark color had never failed to please.

Not that it had ever been a feat, to tweak the modesty of a sheltered Kansas farm boy and twenty-one was not so far a reach from sixteen when you took into account the lack of social life - - limited sexual experience and the tendency to fixate on things he couldn't have. At twenty-one, compared to Clark, Lex had been a jaded, world-wise ancient.

"I didn't come - - Stop trying - - I'm going." Clark fumbled after words, flustered or angry, possibly both, big hands flexing at his side like he didn't quite know what to do with them. It was fascinating. Riveting, actually and Lex shrugged lazily, feeling a certain sense of control settle back into place and needing to keep it.

"Far be it for me to discourage you from trying then."

He decided on momentary mercy and let Clark off the hook by breaking the stare and picking up the hotel line by the bed. He requested laundry service then strolled towards the bath, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. He finished undressing on the cool imported tiles of the bathroom floor, noted with satisfaction that every blemish and bruise had faded. Aside from the faint reminder of healing ribs, he was entirely whole. Physically. He frowned at the metaphorical little voice that reminded him of that.

Clark was loitering at the bedroom door, not quite knowing what to do with himself, now that he'd cemented his intrusion into Lex's business - - not quite knowing what Lex was up to. Lex stepped to the edge of the bathroom door and tossed the crumpled ball of clothing at Clark.

"When they come to pick up the clothes, tell them to have them back within the hour. I'll be showering."

Clark gaped. His eyes went straight down Lex's body, widening, like a child without the manners to avert his stare politely from a physical defect, the blush going from pink to bright red, his lips parting a little as he clutched the clothes.

And honestly it had been a ploy, a little power play to unsettle Clark and Lex loved to put an adversary off balance, thrived on it - - but he hadn't quite expected that blatant, wide-eyed stare. There were old issues that reared up now and then, body issues that a man couldn't help having when he was bare as a ten year old below the belt.

He nodded slightly, a casual assertion that he was in no way flustered, that he had in no way made a miscalculation in tactics, and stepped back into the bath, shutting the door behind him.

Well, that worked out wonderfully. He leaned there for a moment, eyes shut, before he allowed the ghost of a grim smile to cross his lips. At the very least he'd probably assured that Clark's stay would be an uncomfortable one, though he doubted even a little calculated nudity would throw him off the trail. Lex cut the water on, determined to take a very long, very leisurely shower. Clark could sit out there and look at the skyline for all he cared - - or raid the well-stocked kitchenette - - or the bar. Maybe sulking on the couch, slouched back, knees spread, pouting. Clark had lips designed to carry a pout. Designed maybe for other things. A few years ago if he'd had Clark alone in a hotel room half a country away from Smallville Kansas - -

No. No. No. He was not prepared to go down that road this morning. Not in the shower with the beginnings of an erection that had nothing to do with Clark - - honestly - - it was simple habit. Spending the last few weeks of his marriage not sleeping with his wife had dictated manual relief.

Clark wasn't in the equation - - except that he was. He always was, one way or another, whether Lex was visualizing him on his knees in abject defeat or on his knees giving head, Clark always had a place in the fantasy.

He sighed, giving in to the whimsy, stroking himself - - hand on soap-slick skin. There was an art to being quick and deft - - when he sought relief because it was the body's imperative instead of something sensual - - he wanted to find that distance now, with Clark a room away - - but in the same vein, Clark was a room away. He shut his eyes against the spray of warm water and blanked his mind, finding that place where only sensation counted for a few blissful minutes.

After that, he felt saner. Even the little niggling sense of unease that had been plaguing him since the most recent collapse had receded. The water sluiced down his body, taking the evidence with it and after a few minutes he added more soap and helped finish the job.

The mirrors were fogged when he finally stepped out, but the heat from the overhead lights had warmed the floor tiles, and the towels were thick and soft. He took his time drying off, calculating time spent. Not nearly as much passed as he'd have liked - - not enough to have really irritated Clark. But still, there was nothing to do, but put on the snowy white robe hanging on the bathroom door and walk back out into the cool air of the suite.

The bedroom, of course, was Clark free, so he snagged his watch and his cell and strolled into the living room. Clark was standing close enough to the windows that his breath created faint traces of fog. The fingertips of one hand touched the glass, splayed with the strangest hint of delicacy considering the size of the hand.

Lex stared for a moment, snared by the inconsistency, blinked and contemplated seeing if the quality scotch offered by the Mandarin was still as high as he remembered. But no, it was before ten and - - simply, no.

"Have you been to New York before?" he asked instead, slipping on his watch and fastening the catch.

Clark turned to look at him, a quick flash of the eyes taking him in, a bobbing of the Adam's apple as he swallowed. "No."

"It's a nice time of year to visit. Winter's not bad. Summer is intolerable."

"You've been here a lot."

Lex wasn't sure if it were a question. Clark was looking back over the park, where it was safe.

"When I was younger. We used to have a place - - over there," Lex indicated the rise of buildings to the right, exclusive, multi-million dollar apartments overlooking the park. "My father lost it in a bet, though he'd never admit it. He never got around to acquiring a new residence, but then he was never much for New York. Probably why I visited so often."

Clark was looking at him again, curious, a little uncomfortable, but not hostile. Minus the anger and the coiled tension that had seemed so much a part of him of late, he looked younger. Like he was supposed to look, instead of like someone trying to hold the weight of the world on their shoulders at all of twenty-one. It was bad enough trying when you were twenty-seven - - a losing proposition, because there was never enough of you to go around. And where had that pragmatism been when he'd been ignoring all the warning signs in the world of woman's discontent and running LexCorp into the ground, pursuing goals and pushing timetables that were unrealistic? And didn't that sound like something Lionel would say, which left an unpleasant, unsettled feeling in the back of his mind.

"What happened here, between you and them on their boat, that your father covered up?" Clark asked.

Lex felt his pulse skip a beat. He remembered why he hadn't been back to New York in a long time, now. Remembered flashes of things that Clark did not want to know about. Or maybe it was him, that didn't want Clark knowing.

"I sat it on fire with a flare gun. Minimal damages. They were able to take it home." Which was only truth. If he'd had been able to get his hands on a real gun at the time, there might have been manslaughter charges instead of easily paid off arson and property damage ones.

"Why?" Clark asked. Of course Clark asked.

"I thought you didn't want to know the particulars." Lex smiled coldly with absolutely no intention of answering. He flipped open his phone instead and arranged for a car, while Clark chewed the inside of his cheek, perhaps using his imagination to fill in blanks on his own. As if Clark's imagination was sordid enough to come close to the truth.

Room service tapped on the door as he hung up, delivering his freshly laundered clothes. They'd made good time and he gave the boy the type of tip that guaranteed impeccable service in the future.

He took the bag into the bedroom, away from Clark's quiet speculation. Came back out pressed and immaculate, with his coat over one arm.

"I'm going out," he said, striding for the door, even as Clark hastily rose from one of the chairs by the window. "You can come, if you want."

He phrased it indifferently, as if Clark's presence mattered very little to him, one way or another. And honestly, it shouldn't have. But he felt a warm peal of satisfaction - - he might, if he were feeling particularly candid, even say relief - - when Clark stomped across the floor to catch the door before it swung shut behind him, and trailed down the elegant hall on his heels.

Lex was a son of a bitch. Not that Clark hadn't discovered and become accustomed to this fact for some time now - - it was just that he hadn't been close enough recently to be personally impacted. There was a difference between suspecting culpability in some unsanctioned research project or subtly rubbing the fact that he was dating/marrying/doing Clark's ex in his face, and stepping boldly forward, blithely unconcerned and blowing Clark's mind. Shaking the foundations of Clark's fundamental beliefs like he might uproot the board of some recently subjugated company.

It wouldn't have even been an event worth reminiscing about - - if Clark could have stopped reminiscing. It wasn't like he hadn't seen another guy's package before - - he had gone through four years of high school gym, after all. He'd never once looked at Pete and - - well, not been able to look away. And Pete had been damned impressive in that department and proud of it. And that was the sort of thing a man might appreciate - - or envy, or be proud to surpass - - and not feel like he was veering into the realm of unacceptable.

Not that Lex hadn't been impressive - - just not so much as Pete had been or Clark - - but then Pete had always sworn up and down that Clark was a freak and once he knew about the alien thing, he'd been smugly assured as to the validity of that claim. Lex had just been - - perfect and cut and - - pretty, the skin of his cock as pale and smooth as the naked flesh surrounding it. Probably softer to the touch - - and wasn't that a mortifying notion.

Lois's breasts, soft and round with infinite cleavage. The way Lana used to bit her lower lip, the hint of teeth and tongue. The swell of Chloe's hips - - the sharp jut of Lex's - - sleek muscle over bone angling down towards the juncture of his legs and all that smooth, hairless skin, and his pretty, pretty cock. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!!

The worst thing - - the absolute most embarrassing facet of the whole thing was that he honestly didn't think he'd met Lex's eyes or looked at his face the whole time he was standing there in the bathroom doorway. He hadn't been able to tear his gaze up past his waist and Lex had to have noticed. Lex didn't miss the little things, much less the painfully obvious. Dumbass.

He called himself a few other choice names while he listened to the sound of the shower running and kept his gaze fixedly glued to the city outside the window, because God knew what he might be tempted to look at if he let himself turn around and stare at the wall separating rooms.

All because Lex was a bastard, who wasn't happy unless he was pushing somebody's buttons.

And then he'd come out all fresh from the shower, snug in a hotel robe, smug in his own absolute calm and started small talk. Clark supposed it could have been worse. He could have come out with a towel wrapped around his hips and not spoken at all - - and God only knew how Clark might have embarrassed himself then.

So he found himself following Lex through the lobby of what had to be an outrageously expensive hotel. And the bellhop or concierge or whatever opened the brass doors for them and told Lex the car would be there shortly, as if the man were heartbroken that it wasn't out there waiting for them now.

He'd followed Lex here from the airport, after beating the LuthorCorp Jet by a long, long shot. The city had been sleeping then, the traffic no worse than Metropolis at night. He could hear it now, outside the barrier of the hotel drive. The rumble of a thousand thousand engines, the squeal of tires, the crash of rumpled fenders and broken headlights, the cries of irate drivers.

A car pulled up, as sleek and expensive as anything Lex had ever driven - - and yellow. Bright yellow. A man in a suit got out, came around the car with a clipboard and the concierge met him and waved him towards Lex. There were apologies for making Lex wait all of five minutes, and Lex signed something and strolled around to the driver's side of the car.

It was a Ferrari. Clark recognized the little horse logo on the front. He snatched the door open when Lex gunned the engine, slipping in before he could peel off without him.

"It's yellow," Clark observed, because, well, he'd never seen Lex drive anything yellow before. Lex liked blacks and silvers, and blue-grays. He didn't do colors that verged on neon. Though, Clark sort of liked it.

Lex flicked his eyes towards him, and cut out into traffic. Clark didn't ask where they were going, just looked up at the buildings that they passed, and at the people on the street and thought that New York was not that much different than Metropolis. Bigger. From what he'd seen on the way in, it seemed to sprawl forever. Clark didn't ask about landmarks, even though he wanted to, and Lex didn't offer explanations even though Clark knew he loved to play tour guide, which made the air vibrate with all the almost moments of broken silence.

They moved into the traffic of 7th Avenue. There were a lot of nice cars mixed in with the battered taxies. A lot of nicely dressed people mixed in with t-shirts and second hand jackets, on the street. Storefronts were polished and sleek and just reeked of the expensive things inside. Lex found a Ferrari sized space on the side of the street and backed the car into the spot.

"Will you feed that?" Lex spoke for the first time since they'd gotten into the car, and Clark looked at the meter and dug into his pockets for change. He had to assume Lex had nothing but plastic and large bills. He dropped two quarters in and figured if they stopped anywhere else that required coinage to park, he'd have to get change.

Lex was heading towards a store with male mannequins in the windows, sporting an assortment of casual chic.

"You're going clothes shopping?" Clark asked, standing on the sidewalk and blocking the smooth flow of pedestrian traffic.

Inexplicably enough, it seemed that Lex was. Clark took a breath and followed him into the store.

Lex hadn't gotten a dozen steps into the sore and already had someone fawning over him. Clark walked into the door and immediately had a turtleneck sweatered salesman looking down his nose at him as if he were a vagrant come in off the street. Clark narrowed his eyes a little back at the guy, stuffed his hands into his pockets and shuffled into the store. It smelled really good inside, and there was music with a sort of weird, acoustic tempo oozing out into the air from hidden speakers. The floors were all real wood and polished, but there were rustic brick columns, original probably to the building that they'd left unfinished to give the place that contradiction in terms sort of look. There was a pool table right out in the middle of the floor and a collection of leather couches and chairs that nobody was sitting at. The racks of clothes were along the sides in little well lit cubbies and every customer seemed to have their own private salesperson.

"Can I help you?" the turtleneck with the attitude asked, sounding as if he sincerely doubted there was anything Clark could possibly afford in this store. Which was probably true.

"No," Clark muttered, and when the guy kept staring, maybe on the verge of telling him where the nearest soup kitchen was, Clark jerked his chin towards Lex and added. "I'm with him."

Which apparently made all the difference in the world, because the smile turned from patronizing to ass kissing with the smoothest transition Clark had ever seen.

"Ah, well, what can I show you today? Are we looking custom or ready to wear?"

Clark had no idea the difference. "Just browsing."

Which got him a purse of the lips and the reluctant departure of the salesman. Lex had a pair of salesmen groveling to him over by cubby filled with lots of black. Clark loitered by the pool table, wondering if anyone ever played or if it was simply for looks.

A woman approached Clark - - long legs, short skirt, white silk blouse stretched over an impressive set of breasts. He figured she worked there when she said. "You're waiting on Mr. Luthor?"

"Um, yeah." He was having a real problem today, meeting people's eyes. He looked up from her cleavage with a slight blush and met hers. She didn't seem offended. In fact she ran one manicured hand up his arm in a measuring sort of way and asked.

"Perhaps I can interest you in something a little more urban? I'm sure we have something in your size, though I'd have to take measurements."

Her fingers slipped around his bicep and he swallowed. It was a come on. He could hear it in her voice, but he wasn't sure if it was all salesmanship or if she actually had something else in mind. He flashed her a nervous smile and tried to think up an answer that didn't involve stuttering.

"I don't think that will be necessary," Lex sauntered over, adjusting the cuff of a sleek black shirt. "I think we can guesstamate size."

Lex gave her a 'thank you, no' half-smile that didn't reach his eyes and she pulled her hand away off like she'd suddenly realized she was trespassing private property.

"Of course. Perhaps something in jade, to set off his eyes."

Clark gave Lex a look as she held out a graceful hand, indicating movement on Clark's part that didn't involve exit from the store.

"If you're going with me tonight, you'll need something adequate to wear."

Which was sort of insulting and Clark would have loved to argue the point for argument's sake, save that Lex was right and it wasn't like he could run home and get a nice shirt - - well nothing as nice as what they sold here - - and zip back with out Lex noticing.

So warily followed the saleswoman to one of the cubbies with mirrors on one wall with two little changing booths to either side.

"Shirt," she directed and stood there with a sort of polite insistence until he frowned and unbuttoned the flannel. He had a T-shirt on under, which he damned sure wasn't shedding just out in the store unless a changing room door was involved. She took the flannel from him in two fingers and laid it across the back of a chair and looked him up and down. She laid hands on his shoulders, but it was an entirely light, non-suggestive touch this time like she really was measuring him.

He got handed a green shirt. He started to shrug it on over the T, but she clucked her tongue at him and shook her head. "Italian silk does not sit well over thrift store cotton."

He did not scowl at her. It wasn't polite. But he wanted to. He took the shirt and retreated into the little changing room and it did feel good against his skin, all slithery and smooth. The collar was really big though and he didn't like it.

He stepped back out to look in the mirrors and Lex was back.

"No. The collar's to wide," Lex said as if he were the final word, but well - - he was right about the collar thing. "Try the burgundy."

The woman was holding several shirts that Lex had apparently picked out and handed over. It made Clark uncomfortable in a tingly sort of way, Lex choosing clothes for him.

"I know how to pick out clothes," he said sullenly.

Lex lifted a dubious brow.

Clark took the other shirts and returned to the changing room.

"That one is very nice," the woman remarked when he stepped out in a long sleeved, dark red shirt that fit really well. Sort of embarrassingly well, the way it stretched across his shoulders and narrowed down around his torso.

"Maybe the next size up?" he asked hopefully.

"No. This is good." Lex said, circling in that predatory way of his. He stopped in front of Clark and reached up to the buttons that were done up almost to the collar. Clark came close to flinching, and controlled it - - not sure if he ought to bat Lex's hands away, or step back or stand there like a frightened rabbit and endure it while Lex unbuttoned the top two buttons. It felt sinful when Lex's knuckles brushed his skin - - and he focused his gaze over Lex's head to the brick column behind them and thought about cows and axel that needed fixing on the old tractor and dad telling him that 'son, the world will throw all sorts of temptations at you, the trick is being able to tell the good from the bad'.

That worked.

"Pants."

"No. Absolutely not." He was not going through another session of changing room charades with Lex playing the master of ceremonies. The jeans were relatively new and he just needed to brush a little mud off the hem. "Besides, the only clubs that have a 'no-jeans' rule are boring anyway."

"We're not going to have a good time. And how would you know that, Clark?" Lex canted his head, managing to looking doubtfully curious.

"I've - - been to a club or two - - in Metropolis," Clark muttered. He'd been to more than a few - - he'd cut a swath through the city, but it wasn't something he liked to think about, because it hadn't been him. Not really. He'd never told Lex about it. He'd never told anyone the details and he didn't plan to.

"Have you?" Lex was interested now. Amused and patronizing. "Did you go the whole fake Id route, or were you hitting the under twenty-one spots?"

"With the right attitude, you don't need Id." Clark shot back, offended.

He got a clever smile out of Lex at that, and a speculative look, while Lex did something with his tongue and the back of his teeth that made Clark's mind flash on the image of him naked.

Which was not what he wanted running through his head right now - - or any other time for that matter - - because he couldn't even begin to appreciate the vast scope of the wrongness.

"With the right attitude you don't need quite a few things." Lex agreed. "But a decent pair of slacks to go with the shirt would take you a good part of the distance. It's not as if I'm suggesting black leather."

And there was the glint of something old and familiar in Lex's eyes, a hint of flirtatious teasing that Clark hadn't seen from him in a very long time. He hadn't understood then, that Lex flirted with everyone - - tried to seduce everyone, one way or another, friends and enemies alike and that it had nothing to do with sex, it had to do with power. Because Lex was always on the prowl for one more conquest.

And if Clark kept telling himself that, he'd even believe it.

Part eleven

The line of hopefuls outside the velvet rope of La Cruz snaked around the corner of the building, and down 27th. There was a spattering of the curious, with and without cameras simply mulling, hoping to get a look or a snapshot of celebrity.

It had been quarter to twelve when Lex's people had finally latched onto the Daniakos trail coming out of Bungalow 8 in Chelsea and had tracked them to the smaller, very exclusive La Cruz. A new hotspot, that might retain popularity for a few months if it was lucky and then the fashionable crowd would find some new spot to frequent.

Lex had been out of the club scene long before La Cruz had ever opened its doors, but if the Twins were there on their after mid-night tour then he knew all he needed to about it. The drugs would flow freely as would the sex. The sort of place that paid through the nose to keep the police from interrupting the entertainments of its high profile patrons.

"Don't drink anything anyone hands you," Lex had told Clark.

And Clark had given him a look that very clearly said he was not an idiot and capable of taking care of himself. But the sort of crowd that circled around the Twins had no problem spiking drinks and Clark, no matter what his claims, had a look about him that just screamed 'purity in need of corruption'.

And he looked good. The sort of good that would attract attention that Lex wasn't sure he wanted him to attract. Lex wasn't sure he wanted Clark on the Twin's radar - - for a number of reasons. But chiefly because Clark tended to be intimidating when he was pursuing a cause, and Lex wasn't out to blatantly intimidate just yet. He wanted to test the waters - - talk to them without their shields up, and see what his gut told him. His instinct was generally accurate and Niko Daniakos had a bad poker face. And if that didn't work then he'd consider strong-arm tactics.

So he went in on his own, and let Clark park the car. And though it might have been years since Lex Luthor had made the round of the club scene, he was recognizable and like Clark had said in the hotel, the right attitude and a lot of cash could get you anywhere.

He strode right up the entrance, after exiting the god-awful yellow Ferrari, ignoring the stares and the stray paparazzi that suddenly realized that here was something more unusual than a strung out teen starlet. He heard his name uttered from people leaning out of line to stare. The suit with a clip board next to the two very large, black-t-shirted bouncers by the door, whose job it was to differentiate between the desirable elite and the desperate wanna be's, inclined his head and smiled, ushering Lex in with a - Mr. Luthor, good of you to join us, tonight.

Lex paused, slipping the man several folded hundred dollar bills, requesting softly that Clark be allowed in when he arrived. He got an affirmative nod, and stepped into the club.

Stepping inside was like being hit by a physical wave of sound and scent and motion. Strobe lights throbbed in time with the music and bodies mingled and swayed near the doors, voices raised to near yells to be heard above the music. The ceiling was bare beams and the tangled wire of lighting and speakers. Raw brick and welded iron framed walls that had been stripped to their guts. Demolition chic.

The bar in the central room was lined with neon lights, a constant beacon against the flashing overheads. There were thick I-beam supports dotted throughout, and stairs that wound up to a second half level where more bodies gathered. Catwalks where half naked people swayed or made out or stared vacantly down into the undulating masses.

Lex moved into the crowd, finding the press of overheated bodies less of a thrill than he had, once upon a time. Clark might have been able to see over the heads of the crowd and spot a familiar face or two, but Lex didn't have that luxury, so he made his way to the bar, and slid a bill towards the closest tender.

"Daniakos?"

"Blue room." The bill disappeared and the bartender jerked her head towards the back of the main room.

Around the edges of the dance floor, where the music was deafening, and there were doorways in between leather upholstered booths, leading into individual lounges, each one emitting the soft glow of sullen light. Red, blue, purple.

He slid though the crowd towards the blue. A young woman pressed against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, the hazy seductive smile on her face of someone at the apex of her high.

"Wanna fuck?" She smelled of Chanel and was sporting designer originals.

He caught her bony wrists and untangled himself from her grasp, not even bothering with a verbal response.

Stepping through the doorway into the blue room, the music was instantly a decibel or two lower, the light was soft and constant, and the bodies swayed here and there to the beat but left the manic dancing to the other room. There were a lot of booths with plush cushions where people lounged, and the walls were lined with blue tinted mirrors.

There was a space at the back, a raised portion of floor with sheer drapery and beaded strands, a big private booth that overlooked the floor. People seemed to gravitate to and from it, as if seeking audience, or at the very least the best drugs.

There were at least a dozen bodies sprawled on the wrap around couches. Beautiful people, all. More than one celebrity face among them. The table in the center was a vice cop's dream - - at least the dream of one not paid to purposefully ignore the goings on of the rich and famous here at La Cruz.

Nikolas Daniakos sat between two glittery blonde things, swarthy and broad, dark hair artfully mussed. He oozed that wealthy, Mediterranean look, wide jaw, dark eyes, slick attitude.

He saw Lex and his eyes widened a little, a flash of surprise crossing his face, a flash of something darker, before his mouth curled up in a lazy smile.

"Lex," Sophia was right there, purring his name, no less startling a beauty today than she'd been almost ten years past. No less easy to refuse when she leaned in to kiss him. Her tongue slipped into his mouth and she tasted of cinnamon and the tart flavor of margaritas and the barest hint of something bitter. He pulled back, not as easy a conquest as he had been - - certainly less trusting of warm greetings after sub-zero business maneuverings.

"You've been avoiding my calls, Niko." He had to half yell to be heard above the music, standing on the other side of a table crowded with glasses and drugs, staring down into the black eyes of a man who'd held a good deal of sway over him, when he'd been young and stupid. He didn't even look at Sophia, who'd been the temptation that had led him into the Twin's web, but he felt her hovering at his side, not quite touching his arm.

"Didn't want to talk to you, Lex." Niko ran his hand down the bare shoulder of the pretty young thing at his right and she leaned into the touch, pupils dilated, nipples hard under the sheer fabric of her top.

"Make the effort," Lex suggested.

Niko met Lex's stare for a moment, weighing his options, then he urged the girls on his left to move, and with little pouts of displeasure the couch on that side of him cleared. It was either stand there and show hesitation, or move in smoothly and take the body-warmed seat, despite the distaste. Sophia followed him in, settling in next to him, her thigh touching his, the smell of her perfume an underlying trigger to past things. He felt the tingle of goose pimples along his arms.

"You've been in the news, Lex." Niko leaned in towards him, flash of white teeth, sly smile, his cologne so much more repulsive than his sister's subtle sent. It didn't just rise gooseflesh, it made Lex's stomach curl a little. "LexCorp's having trouble, no?"

"Nothing that won't pass."

"Ah, yes, I heard your father had to come in and save the company, Lex. He makes a habit of that, doesn't he?"

"Too bad yours wasn't around to bail you out while you were destroying his legacy." Lex said with a humorless twitch of a smile.

Niko's laughter held as much humor as Lex's half smile. A waitress wove her way to the table with a trey full of drinks. Lex waited for her to deposit the full glasses and clear away the empties. Beyond the mulling bodies, he thought he saw the glimpse of raven hair and burgundy shirt, but he couldn't be sure it was Clark.

"I can't say you're the last person I expected to see here, Lex, but it's a close call. I thought you were all business, now," Niko said.

"So boring," Sophia purred, leaning against him, with that voice like warm honey. "And you used to be so much fun."

"I've developed an appreciation for my brain cells intact," he said. "Would you care to explain why my wife was meeting with your legal council?"

"Your wife?" Niko lifted a thick brow. "Which one? You've been through a few now, haven't you, Lex? The one that tried to kill you, or the one you killed?"

Lex allowed a cold, dangerous smile to cross his lips - - the type of malice that didn't offer idle threats, but promised in absolutes.

"Robert Hyde met with my wife six weeks ago in Metropolis. He was under contract with you at the time."

"Hyde? We've quite a few legal vultures working for us. You can't expect me to remember them all."

"Funny, because I remember him from a few days worth of meetings six months ago, and he wasn't even drawing a paycheck from me."

Niko laughed. "What was it you said about brain cells, Lex? Do you remember such a man, Sophia?"

"You know I never pay attention to such things, Niko. She was pretty, your wife, wasn't she, Lex?" Her dark eyes were intent, her full mouth curved in a smile. There was something of Lana's look to her - - or Lana had possessed something of Sophia Daniakos about her. Long dark hair, doe eyes that so skillfully hid the glint of a predator. Sophia claimed to have no care for business, no care for anything but her pleasures and catering to her brother, but Lex didn't believe that. Not anymore.

Sophia's light fingers brushed his knee and the touch felt - - good. Electric almost. She leaned across him so her brother could hear. "You look so good, Lex. Doesn't he look good, Niko?"

"The years have been kind." Niko admitted, a speculative glint in his eyes.

The weight of Sophia's breast against Lex's arm, the soft give of flesh through his coat came with a euphoric little wave of awareness. A ripple of tingly warmth eased up his body, like a hundred little fingers trailing over his skin. He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to clear his head, trying to keep the blue light and the glittering bodies from spinning. Her hand slid up his thigh - - God - - his cock reacted, lengthening into the touch and it felt amazing - -

Until it hit him, with a dull sort of disgust, that she'd spiked the kiss. It had to have been the kiss, because he hadn't had anything else in his mouth. That tartness on her tongue hadn't been mixed drink but a hit of something potent. A slow burn that wasn't the comforting high of X or the mind-bending trip of LSD, but some chemical cousin that might very well fuck him up in company that he dearly did not wish to be fucked up in.

"You bitch," he shoved her off and staggered to his feet, bones feeling like rubber, body vibrating. Niko leaned back, while his sister scooted into the space Lex had vacated, curling under his arm, her gleaming rust lips curved up in a predator's grin.

"What's the matter, Lex?" Niko asked, the words seeming to run together. "Stay and talk. We'll catch up on old times, no?"

Son of a - - He'd fucking kill them. As soon as he could focus his thoughts, as soon as he could harness the electric thrum that was making his nerves pulse.

Lex collided with someone, with several someone's getting down the two steps to the floor. A body slid against his, hard and male, mesh shirt and leather, a murmured suggestion against his ear. A hand slid under his jacket and for a moment he went with it, all the wrong circuits tripping - - or the right ones. He shoved the body away.

He ought to be calling his people and having the Twin's damned boat sank - - anything to ground them until he could force a meeting someplace under his control. Have them picked up maybe, on their way out of this club - - only he didn't have that sort of manpower in New York. Not at short notice - - all he had was a few men already spread thin - - and Clark.

Clark. Who was at the edge of the Blue room, easy to spot now that Lex was out on the floor, taller than the people around him, Black hair and gorgeous face above a shirt the color of dried blood. No one in this entire club of wealthy, beautiful people - - people that could afford the best surgery could provide to improve upon Mother Nature, came even close to Clark.

And Clark had his eyes glued to Lex, a worried frown between his brows and even that looked good on him. Clark's smiles were heaven, but his frowns were charged with storm cloud current and were no less thrilling, laced with the promise of leashed violence. And Lex liked violence - - violence possessed more honesty than sweet kisses and soft words, which were nothing more than dust jackets over volumes of lies.

Clark mouthed his name, but Lex couldn't hear it over the throb of music. He grabbed Clark's arm, pulling him along in passing, out of the blue room and into the louder din of the main club. Beneath the thin fabric of the silk shirt, Clark's skin was hot, and his arm was solid and hard, the muscle twitching under Lex's fingers when a girl flung herself against him, pressing her scantily clad front against his chest. One breast was bare and glittering with iridescent oil.

In the flashing lights, Clark's expression was priceless. Smallville morality shocked into offense. Lex let him go, considering shedding the coat because the heat was stifling. He couldn't think from it.

Clark caught his arm, pulling him around, yelling at him over the music. 'What's wrong? What happened?' Was maybe what he asked.

There was a little glitter from the bare breast on Clark's shirt. A little on his hand where he'd probably had to extricate himself from her embrace. If he lifted his hand and wiped it across his mouth, he'd have it on his lips. The image stuck in Lex's head. Enticing. Erotic.

And Clark stood there, one still body in the midst of a hundred undulating ones, eyes large and dark and wary, face a work of stark art under the flashing lights.

Lex wanted him. It surged up, unhindered by rationalization and animosity. Lex shoved at him, and Clark took a step backwards, back against one of the I-beam supports, opening his mouth to make an apology that no body would hear over the music. Lex closed the space, pressed against him, and shocked Clark into true silence.

He tangled his fingers in the silk, nails scraping the flesh beneath, wanting to mark, wanting to raise welts and bring blood to the surface - - he was still hard - - hard all this time and pressing up against Clark made it want to explode. But it was the drug talking - - the best stuff always made him horny - - something in his metabolism that sent hormones into overdrive, fast and furious before it worked its way out of his system at a fraction of the time it took for anyone else to come down.

Sophia had tasted of cinnamon - - he wanted to know what Clark tasted like. He'd always wanted to know what Clark tasted like. And Clark was standing there, not quite knowing what to do, aghast maybe, but not shoving him away in indignation - - not moving away from the grind of his body, or the grasp of his fingers.

"I'm on something. I don't know what," Lex yelled, because it needed to be said, because there needed to be a validation before he lunged forward and kissed Clark.

He saw colors and tasted bliss. Clark's soft lips parted in surprise and Lex slipped his tongue inside as if it belonged there. Clark's tongue retreated, and Lex chased it down, a hand tangled in Clark's hair, one scraping down the back of his arm, until Clark's tongue flickered forth to meet him. Artless and messy and hot, and Lex wanted to devour him, wanted to wrap himself around Clark's body and stake a claim.

Clark's hands didn't know what to do, where to settle - - on Lex's shoulders or his hips, and ended up grazing under his coat, skimming the line of his torso from armpits to hips and the jolt of sensation went through Lex like he'd been tazered.

Either the drug was absolutely fantastic or Clark was - - he couldn't decide which, and didn't quite care, because he felt the rub of Clark's erection against his own, hot and hard beneath the denim that Clark had refused to part with. Fucking in some dark corner of the club didn't seem like such a terrible idea. It wasn't as if he hadn't in the past. He didn't recall it ever seeming so vital, he didn't recall ever wanting to slip his hand down the front of a man's pants as badly as he wanted to get into Clark's. But then again, he didn't think he'd ever wanted a man as desperately as he wanted Clark and maybe that didn't have a fucking thing to do with whatever Sophia had slipped him. All her little Mickey had done was broaden his perceptions.

Clark pushed him away, fingers gripping Lex's arms so hard the pain got through the haze, face flushed and shocked, mouth parted, lips red and wet. Lex's own felt tingly and swollen - - everything felt tingly and parts of him were definitely swollen. Which was amusing enough to make him grin like an idiot and try to grind close to Clark again, but Clark swung him around, a death-grip on Lex's left arm above the elbow, and stalked towards the faint glow of the exit.

"We need to get out of here." Clark yelled at him. And it was a wonderful idea. Somewhere private. The car would do, or the alley, Lex didn't particularly care as long as he got Clark there alone - - or not alone. It didn't particularly matter at the moment.

People parted for Clark like he was a barge breaking through ice, dragging Lex in his wake. It was distantly embarrassing and the grip hurt and it was unbelievably hot, Clark taking the initiative.

It was easier getting out than in, and the air was a hundred times cooler and fresher, even in the depths of the city. The absence of bone shaking music was like a gift from the gods. But he'd forgotten the crowd outside and the paparazzi and there were a few flashes that the bouncers glared at, and Clark ignored, while Lex tried to wrap his mind around the idea that a sex scandal in the gossip rags might out shadow the corporate one in the business section.

The car was a few blocks down, nearest parking and Clark was taking the sidewalk at a good clip, hand still fast on Lex's arm. Mouth set tight now, and eyes hard, no less of a turn on. But then most everything was now.

"God, Lex!" They reached the car and Clark swung him around, against the passenger side door. "I thought you told me not to drink anything."

"I didn't," he said, pushing off from the car and against Clark, pressing his mouth against the bare skin above Clark's collar, tasting the faint salt of sweat and something indefinable and Clark.

Clark breathed a curse, hands on Lex's shoulders as Lex worked a hand between them, palming the front of Clark's jeans. Clark hung to the right and his cock was still a half hard, impressive length. Clark's fingers clenched and a spasm of pain shot through Lex's shoulders and might have dropped him to his knees if Clark hadn't been there to shore him up. He had a fleeting memory of the thing that had worn Clark's face, with its hands that could break bone and rip muscle without even trying.

But Clark was saying sorry, muttering it, in the same breathy tone he'd used for the curse and Lex thought that if Clark wanted to hurt him, that might not be such a bad thing. He might just be able to get off on that, and they'd both have something they needed. He murmured something along those lines against Clark's neck and felt Clark shiver.

He slid his hand up under Clark's shirt and touched the skin beneath. He felt goose pimples form under his fingers and that was simply erotic. He wanted to get his mouth on the same spot, but Clark wrapped an arm around his waist and walked him backwards to the curb, got the car door open with his other hand and maneuvered Lex into the seat.

So apparently making out against the car was a no go.

He leaned his head back against the headrest, while the car settled around him. Being off his feet provided an oddly weightless sensation - - the muffled quiet behind raised windows was curious. Clark opened the driver's side door and let in some of the city's residual noise. The car shifted a little under his weight when he got in, and the noise went away when he closed the door.

The red shirt was half untucked, and the jeans were tight across Clark's thighs, tighter now that he was sitting than the loose fall of them standing. Lex leaned across the gearshift and ran a hand up taut denim. Clark made a strangled noise and caught his wrist. Held it up between them and met Lex's eyes with desperately serious green ones of his own.

"Lex - - could you not - - are you okay? Should I call someone? Take you somewhere?"

"Its not so bad," As highs went, this one was really rather nice. He liked the feel of cool leather seats and the smell of the car. He liked the feel of Clark's fingers circling his wrist. "Home."

"Hotel?" Clark countered and certainly that was as good an alternative as any. It had a bed.

"I like how you say my name." Lex leaned in closer and Clark swallowed. "You use it like a curse one moment and a supplication the next."

He got close enough to feel the warmth of Clark's lips against his own, before Clark pulled away, pushing Lex firmly back into the confines of his own seat. Clark's hands were shaking as he fumbled with the key and the ignition. The engine purred to life and Lex slumped back, a dull sense of disappointment pricking the edge of his thoughts. Clark was a killjoy. Clark was a tease. And if Clark wouldn't oblige him - - he ran a hand between his legs, squeezing and his cock seemed indifferent in the matter of whose hand was touching it, as long as someone was - - he could take care of it himself.

Clark pulled out into the street, trying not to look at Lex or listen to Lex or think about Lex. Lex was bad enough stone sober with a grudge - - boneless with hands that wanted to roam everywhere, with a mouth that was no less clever on lips and skin than it was with words - - he was overwhelming. And wrong. And out of his head on something he'd warned Clark to steer clear of.

Clark had seen Lex drunk, but he'd never seen him stoned or high or whatever this was that had him hazy eyed and slurred, and deep into the realm of sexual overdrive. And God - - Lex's tongue had been in his mouth, all sly and wet and rough velvet and his lips had been slick and silken on the inside and - - stop thinking about it. Stop thinking.

Clark had listened to the conversation with the Greek twins, had tuned out the music and focused on the voice he knew like the back of his hand and the responding, slightly accented others. How Lex had gotten the drug, he didn't know, but there had been nothing particularly revealing or incriminating in the short conversation. But if these people were anything like Lex, they could lie without missing a beat.

Lex made a sound that sort of went straight past Clark's brain to his spine and traveled down. He had to glance over and wished he hadn't because it was hard to tear his eyes away when Lex had his hand down the front of his pants, stroking in cadence to his little breathy moans. And the image hit Clark's brain of Lex's cut cock and how different it looked from his own uncut one, and how when it was hard the skin would probably stretch taut and shiny across the tip - -

Lex arched in his seat half growling, and Clark caught a glimpse of the rosy head slipping past the edge of Lex's underwear. Then the flash of headlights coming down the intersecting street and he jerked the wheel hard, throwing out an arm to keep Lex from flying forward when he slammed on the brakes, but not soon enough to avoid the curb and the trashcans that the nose of the Ferrari sent tumbling across the sidewalk and into the road.

Clark blinked through the windshield at a couple of startled homeless men taking shelter a few door stoops down. A taxi swerved around his tail end, passing by without slowing. Lex was laughing, low and soft next to him.

He looked over and the fact that he'd wrecked a half million dollar rental car wasn't nearly as distracting as Lex slumping in the seat next to him, bringing up a hand, fingers glistening with spots of what had to be come and sliding one after the other into his mouth, like he was licking melted ice cream from his fingers or honey or - - ah, God, Clark was so hard it hurt.

Lex leaned over, across the gear shift and his hand landed on just the right spot - - or the wrong one and Clark shuddered and bit back a groan, thinking if he shoved Lex away now, he'd likely fling him hard enough to tear the door off the car - - and Clark had damaged the car enough already - - and Lex had strong fingers and they were kneading through the denim.

The jeans were so constricting and Clark thought he just might rip a seam - - or come in his shorts, which seemed more likely when Lex surged up, one knee on his seat and slipped his tongue into Clark's mouth again. Lex kissed like it was an art form and he a master of the craft and there was just no place to go to avoid it, trapped in a car that had been built for looks instead of spacey comfort. Nothing to do but lift his hands to the sides of Lex's neck, curving his fingers around the smooth, sleek skin at the back of his skull and sink into it. Because really - - really, you just didn't get kissed like this everyday - - maybe ever - - where it sort of sapped rational practicality like a sponge and dropped IQ a good fifty points.

Clark felt the button of his pants give, felt Lex's clever fingers squirm under his jeans and a little spark of reason flared up, pounding on the outside of his brain to let him know he needed to stop this. It was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which was Lex being stoned out of his mind. It was taking advantage - - the next best thing to rape, though Clark was a little foggy on who was getting molested - - and Lex would probably be rightfully outraged when he came down.

Only Lex's fingers touched his cock and Clark lost his train of thought, half coming up off the seat as sensation shot through his body.

"Ah - - God. Lex - - Lex, I can't let - -" Lex bit the side of his neck and the words tumbled into inarticulate gasps.

"Yes. You can," Lex murmured into his ear, hot breath, grazing hint of teeth at the lobe, fingers wrapped tight around Clark's cock. "You know you want to."

He didn't. Really, he didn't. Lex was the last thing he wanted. He wanted Lex naked with nothing between his hands and that smooth, smooth skin. He wanted Lex face down, fine lean body crushed under his, gasping after breath, begging for it - -

Clark came, crying out, spasming, balls throbbing as they emptied, come spewing up across his belly and fine new shirt, on Lex's hand. Lex's hand, which was squeezing the head of his cock like he was trying to milk the last drop. Clark saw lazy stars. They settled like the trailing brands of fireworks, sizzling out into blackness with the acrid scent of spent gunpowder left in their wake. And like a fireworks show, once the explosions were over, there was nothing but darkness and the muted silence of the night - - and he'd just had sex in a car with Lex. On the side of a New York street, with a couple of homeless not fifteen feet down the sidewalk and the occasional cab flashing its headlights in the rear view mirror.

Breathing became suddenly difficult. The last time Clark had hyperventilated he'd been six, but he felt a bout coming on now.

"Oh, God." He got the door open, got out from under Lex and stumbled onto the sidewalk. Leaned with his hands on the hood of the car and fought the urge to just run. To the other side of the world where no one would suspect what he'd just done. Where he could hide his face in shame and maybe pray to some pagan god that Lex would have hazy memories at best of tonight's activities.

What were the chances? Slim to none, with his luck.

He took a breath and circled the car, needing to move, to get his mind on something else. He accessed the damage to the right front end. The headlight was shattered and the frame crumpled around it. It honestly looked as if the car had taken more damage than the trashcans. You'd think anything this expensive would be built to take more than a love tap without needing major reconstructive surgery.

You'd think, even if he couldn't toss a tractor across the county line, that having four inches and thirty pounds on Lex, he could have staved him off. You'd think it would have been first instinct - - instead of second or third or washed away entirely by the press of a body against his. It wasn't like he hadn't ignored a dozen or more eager bodies pressed up against him this very night once inside the club - - and most of them had had breasts. Of course none of them had skin like Lex's and maybe Clark had a skin fetish that he was only just discovering because he'd been fixating on Lex's for a while now. Maybe it was a blossoming Kryptonian thing.

He'd paced to the end of the block and not even realized it. He turned around to start back, and the passenger side door was open and Lex was squatting down with his back against the side of the car, the long tail of his jacket trailing off the sidewalk and into the gutter. Clark wasn't sure whether to speed up or slow down. He wasn't sure how long he'd been out here running circles in his head.

Lex had his fingertips to his forehead. He looked up from under his hand when Clark ventured close and there was something a little more collected in his eyes. Clark couldn't think of a damned thing to say, but if the heat in his cheeks were any indication, his expression probably spoke volumes.

How did you say, 'jeeze, sorry I let you stick your tongue down my throat and your hand down my pants when you were drugged, because I don't even normally swing that way - -'

"Fuck," Lex muttered and shoved himself up. He held out his hand. "Keys."

"What?" Clark stared dumbly. It was the same hand that had recently been around his cock, and recently had come smeared fingers sucked into Lex's mouth. Clark wondered if Lex had licked off what he had spattered on his hand. The notion actually made his newly spent cock twitch.

"Clark," Lex's voice got through his mental meanderings. "Give me the keys."

Keys? As if Lex needed to be behind the wheel of a car. He had bad enough luck stone sober.

"No," Clark said. "I'll drive." He might not be able to look Lex in the eye at the moment, but he wasn't prepared to let him endanger himself, or anyone else.

Lex tightened his mouth, as if being flat out refused wasn't something he was used to when he gave direct orders. Which he probably wasn't.

"Obviously you're in the midst of a moral dilemma here, so I wouldn't want to impose," Lex said carefully, as if his brain's connection to his mouth wasn't as lightening fast as usual. There was a hint of offense in his tone that he usually hid so much better when he was being defensively sarcastic.

Clark looked up and caught a glimpse of unshielded turmoil in Lex's eyes, a mishmash of emotion that he couldn't even begin to interpret.

"This shouldn't have happened," Clark blurted. "I should have stopped it. I don't know what I was thinking - - and you weren't - - and I was supposed to be the responsible one and its as much my fault - -"

Lex hissed through his teeth, spinning on his heel and stalking into the road to wave down an oncoming taxi. The cab had to swerve a little to miss hitting him and Clark shut his eyes, trying to slow the thumping of his heart, because things were really swinging miserably out of control.

Lex got into the cab without looking back and Clark stood there next to the badly used rental and wondered if he just went home and pretended tonight hadn't happened if he would wake tomorrow and go on with life as usual. Something that happened a thousand miles from home, in the heat of the moment, shouldn't irrevocably change a life. People had casual sex all the time. Strangers met, got drunk, knocked boots and never saw each other again.

But of course, Lex wasn't a stranger and Clark hadn't been drunk and they both lived in the same small town so the option of avoiding each other was a little slim. They hadn't done a particularly good job at it when they'd been at odds and actively engaged in cold war. Clark wasn't entirely sure the idea of steering clear of Lex really appealed now.

A trio of teenagers had slowed in their progress down the sidewalk to appraise the car. Ferrari hubcaps had to be worth a pretty penny, much less the other salvageable parts. They were skinny and armed with switchblades in the pockets of their ridiculously low slung pants, and despite the appeal of the car, Clark fixing them with a 'you really don't want to try me' look, decided them against attempted carjacking. They kept walking, looking back over their shoulders.

The longer the car was here, the more chance a police cruiser would pass by and he'd have to explain the reasons why, or trouble that he'd have to physically deal with would saunter up, so he carefully pulled back the front bumper so it wouldn't gouge the tire when it turned, and pulled out onto the road. Hopefully accident insurance came with such rentals or Lex was going to get a hefty repair bill.

He glanced over at the passenger seat. It was embarrassing to admit, but he was almost certain he'd never seen anything quite so hot as Lex with his hand down his pants, slowly jerking off. Those peeks of flesh had been riveting. The sounds Lex made better than any porn Clark had ever snuck over Pete's basement to watch - - better than Lana's quiet little breathy moans - - and that made him feel guilty and deviant.

He could have held Lex off. Could have done any number of things - - if he hadn't liked what Lex was doing. If Lex hadn't sparked every sensory receptor in his body and then some. If he hadn't wanted - - very badly - - was Lex had been offering.

He had a Ferrari and a city mercifully sparse of traffic in the wee hours of the morning - - maybe if he drove long enough, he could figure out exactly how he was going to deal with this.

Part twelve

The cab stank of sweat and whatever cheap cologne the driver had sprinkled liberally over himself to cover the fact that he probably hadn't bathed in days. Lex leaned back in the seat, the back window rolled down the halfway that it would go and tried not to think about how unsettled his stomach was. Tried not to watch the buildings flash past, because it made the sensation of motion sickness worse and adamantly attempted not to dwell on the absolute mortification and dismay that had been on Clark's face.

Lex could still feel the pain of the gearshift ramming into his side when Clark had shoved him away in his attempts to flee the car. He'd have a bruise there come morning. Maybe some others that he didn't quite feel now, on the downside of whatever Sophia had slipped him.

Predictably, he'd reached the apex and come down hard and fast. The downside of the slope was never particularly pleasant, which was why his youthful drug phase had only lasted a few years before he got tired of fleetingly short periods of gratification backed by dismal downs. It had taken a ridiculous amount of hard drugs, mixed and matched, if he'd wanted to last the night. He supposed he ought to be thankful of that fast metabolism now, or he might still be making a fool of himself in front of Clark. And there was nothing Lex despised more than feeling the fool.

Clark. God. The last time he'd seen Clark so offended - - so mortally embarrassed - - Lex couldn't even remember. He laughed, rubbing a hand over his eyes feeling a bit of mortal embarrassment himself. He added the other hand, palms pressed into his eyes - - thinking that all last year, when he'd been looking for a way to get Clark out of his business and off his back, the solution would have been so ironically simple. Back him into a corner, kiss him breathless, slip a hand down his pants and get a good firm grasp on what had to be - - and Lex could only guesstimate from feel alone - - a very impressive cock, and Clark would take off, never to show his face again, his puritan morality affronted beyond repair. A marvelous solution.

It would have been a wonderful way to keep him away from Lana - - if in retrospect keeping Clark away from Lana had been as vital a concern as keeping Lana away from Clark - - as keeping Clark from being happy. He laughed again and thought there was more of the drug still in his system than he'd assumed, because that wasn't the type of rationalization he'd make lucid. Even to himself.

He wasn't sure when hurting Clark had gone from a personal need close to his heart, a Luthor imperative to return pain given - - to a coldly clinical need for conflict. A curious realization and he couldn't put his finger on the seeds that had started that particular portion of their war, but he thought that Lana might have been a casualty of it. Tactical ground won in dirty combat. And he'd done things to get her - - unfathomable things, that made his hands tremble a little now, trying to rationalize - - because at the time, losing had not been an option. When he looked back now, all things considered, loosing would have been the best thing for all involved.

He laughed again, silently and wondered how much black coffee it would take to knock Sophia's crap out of his system completely. Niko liked to think he ruled his little roost, but she'd always been the sly one, the ingenious one who whispered suggestions into her brother's ear. Lex had to wonder if most of their little games were spawned by Sophia's fertile imagination instead of her brother's. So beautiful and so twisted.

He took a breath of the fresh air whipping in through the window and tried to clear his head, then pulled out his phone and started making calls. He could get more of his own people down here in a few hours time, but he needed to make sure the Twins didn't leave New York before then. He gave instructions and hoped the men here, who would not be his top choice for under-the-table work, could carry them out. Made another call and woke someone up who owed him a favor and got another ball rolling in another court.

The cab pulled up to the Mandarin Oriental and the driver got a hefty tip, thanks to Lex's lack of small bills. He leaned against the wall of the elevator on the ride up, head clogged with a gummy film that he couldn't quite shake. He recalled the feel of Clark's lips. Soft. He'd known they'd be soft. Even pressed tight in a grim frown, you could see Clark's lips would be supple and plush. He kissed like a novice though, uncertain of himself, uncertain of his technique - - except for that last one, in the car before he'd come - - then, he'd gotten into it - - gotten off, before he'd gathered the shreds of his moral values back together and fled.

Poor little Kansas farm boy led into temptation and falling to it, and then crying foul. Self-righteous bastard. Clark never changed. The high horse just got taller and taller.

Lex couldn't quite recall what Clark had said, but he was certain there had been regret attached - - as if Lex didn't regret latching onto Clark instead of some faceless stranger, who'd have happily given him a fuck in the club toilet and gone on his way. At least then he could have come down from it pissed, but not feeling as if he'd done someone a grave injustice. Done Clark an injustice - - as if it suddenly mattered again.

Lex stalked down the hall to his room. Had to insert the key card twice because his hands were shaking too badly to get the door open the first time. His head was in a fine welter, thoughts chaotic and jumbled. He called down for a pot of coffee and a bottle of Tylenol. Once he got a cup or two down, he'd call and double check on the order's he'd given, just to make certain they'd sounded as comprehensible to his man as they had to him when he'd been giving them.

He got into the shower - - as cold as he could take it and let the spray beat against his face. Got out chilled and shivering and slipped into the clothes he'd flown down in. The cart with the coffee had been left inside his door, along with the pills.

He swallowed four pills with black coffee, refilled the cup and tuned the TV onto CNBC to watch the early morning commentary on the soon to open market. The Japanese market was already open, and LuthorCorp was actually up a point and a quarter there. LexCorp was down .51 and Lex almost wished he hadn't turned it on to see. As much as he hated admitting it, his father and the plan to distance LuthorCorp from LexCorp seemed to be working on the one front. In the grander scheme of things, if LexCorp went down, it would be an acceptable tactical loss, if its larger brethren escaped relatively unscathed.

Tactical loss. An easy term to bandy about when it wasn't your company and your reputation on the line.

He turned the channel aimlessly, seeking something less depressing than business news, settled on a history channel special on human sacrifice and the Aztec culture, which was a definite step up. It was grim enough to fit his mood and kept his mind off other less productive things. Dark haired, green-eyed things that he ought not care one whit about the opinions of.

Lex focused on millennia old mutilated skeletons tangled in a newly unearthed mass grave in an Aztec dig site in Mexico. He idly wondered, while he was watching primitive art renditions of prisoners being eviscerated and decapitated, if Clark would ever be able to look him in the eye again without blushing. Would that even be so great a loss?

Except, that he liked Clark's blushes. He liked the way he used to be able to rattle him with veiled sexual innuendo. He'd always wondered how much went over Clark's head and how much he really understood and pretended to be oblivious of - - because he'd been scandalized or turned on and embarrassed because of it. Lex shut his eyes and veered his mind away from that vein of thought.

He drifted off, and was jarred awake at around five by the ringing of his phone. He blinked himself awake and answered.

"It's done, Mr. Luthor, exactly as you wanted."

Okay, one problem down. He rotated a neck gone stiff from drowsing on the couch, and rose, heading to the bedroom for a few hours more comfortable sleep. Sooner or later the Twins would be calling on him. He guessed later, since with the hours they kept, they were notoriously late sleepers. If they got to sleep at all.

There was a t-shirt on the end of the bed and a worn flannel shirt. Evidence of Clark that he'd forgotten was here. He took a breath, and unbuttoned his own shirt, put it on a hanger in the closet, then hung his slacks over a pants rack. He tossed the flannel and the T on the chair by the window - - then hesitated, his own sense of radical order making him retrieve them, and put them both onto hangers in the closet.

He slipped between the sheets and sank into uneasy slumber.

He awoke not long after seven. He'd had dreams that had to do with Clark and Clark's barn in the midst of high summer. There had been hay involved, he thought, with the refreshing awareness of actually being able to recall the details of a dream. And possibly bare, sweaty skin. No new dream, he just hadn't had the like in a very long time.

He'd gotten less than four hours sleep, but he felt refreshed, energized almost. Maybe it was the lack of fuzz in his head. Or taking active measures to assure the twins would be making an effort to see him, after the little impromptu stunt they'd pulled last night.

He checked his phone for messages, but there were none that he cared to answer. Showered, and dressed in some of yesterdays acquisitions, he decided to go down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

He hesitated just out of the elevator, staring at a newsstand with today's edition of the Wall Street Journal, which had a majestic looking profile of his father on the cover with a caption reading "Lionel Luthor Does it Again: Newly returned CEO pulls LuthorCorp from the brink."

Lex ground his teeth, feeling a thrumming tension between his eyes. He walked past without picking up a copy, through the lobby towards the entrance of the Mandarin Caf. Almost he missed Clark, wrapped up in lingering annoyance over the Journal cover. He slowed his stride marginally and cast a glance to one of the comfortable groupings of seating scattered about the elegant first floor reception area and sure enough, there was Clark, slouched in a chair, looking distinctly as if he'd been there for some while.

Lex kept walking, feeling a little surge of satisfaction, followed by a peel of irritation, a nudge of curiosity, a twinge of victory and then back to the satisfaction. Having run the gambit of emotional reaction in response to the simple presence of Clark Kent, he dredged up the additional one of disgust and aimed it at himself.

"How many will there be?" the hostess greeted him at the entrance to the caf. He could almost feel Clark's presence approaching from behind.

"Lex."

He glanced casually over his shoulder at Clark, burgundy silk shirt untucked and no less attractive because of it, hair tousled to the point that if Lex had to guess, it hadn't been touched by a comb since they'd left the hotel for the club the night before. Again - - no less attractive from the lack. Maybe even more so. Or perhaps Clark just seemed so much more attractive than usual because Lex had gotten up close and personal, first hand taste, first hand touch and it was coloring his perception.

He tore his eyes away and looked back to the hostess.

"One." He said and she glanced behind him to Clark, then back with an unfaltering smile.

"This way, please."

Of course, Clark trailed him and stood there, shifting a little in either impatience or annoyance while the waiter descended with coffee and inquired whether Lex would be having the breakfast buffet - - which was quite expansive if he recalled correctly - - or if he'd prefer to order from the menu. He'd actually had an appetite coming down, but between his father on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and Clark surprising him before 8 am, it had dwindled.

"The buffet, please."

The waiter nodded and went off.

"Listen, Lex," Clark started, as Lex rose to wander down the line of silver covered serving platters. "I brought back the car."

"Give the keys to the concierge." Lex took a plate and chose a selection of fruit, a toasted bagel and creamed cheese and considered the smoked salmon. He decided against and strolled back to the table. Clark was still with him.

"Was there something else?" he asked mildly, as he might a hovering assistant who needed a prod to be about their business.

Clark stood there, tense, working the inside of his cheek like there was a mountain of something else's that he'd like to broach, while Lex spread cheese across the top of one half of the bagel.

"The front end was sort of banged up." Was what he said instead, so very clearly not what was really on his mind.

"Humm. I'd assumed you could drive something not manufactured by Ford. My mistake."

He didn't look up at Clark's expression but Clark's fists, which were more at eye level clenched and there was the distinct sound of cracking knuckles. Lex wondered how much it would take to push Clark over the edge.

"We need to talk," Clark said bluntly. Lex considered the even spread of creamed cheese and finally looked up to meet Clark's eyes. There was no blush, which was a surprise.

"No. We really don't. I think we're long past the point where heart to hearts are required to hash out differences. I assure you I won't be spreading tales, so you can rest easy."

"I wasn't worried about that." Clark leaned down, palms flat on the crisp white tablecloth. "I was worried about you."

Worried about him? That was laughable. And annoying. It struck a chord of defensiveness that set Lex's nerves on end.

"Shouldn't you be long past that, too? What is it with you, Clark, that you always have to play someone's savior? You'd think that with Lana dead, you could find someone more in need of it than me. Chloe, maybe? Lois certainly seems to attract trouble - - why not go and bother her?"

"At least they don't deserve the shit that hits the fan around them." Clark snapped.

"And of course, I do." Lex took a bite of bagel.

"Yes." Clark agreed immediately - - then took a breath and gathered frayed calm, adding in a much lower voice, though teeth that were practically clenched. "But you didn't deserve what happened last night and I'm sorry I didn't - - handle it better."

Lex speared a strawberry, spent a great deal of time pretending to examine the quality if the berry while he turned that over in his head.

"In what way? I'm a little foggy on the details." Lex finally asked - - even if he wasn't - - because, well, he was curious and if it made Clark uncomfortable answering that was an added bonus.

"You were on something - - not thinking straight," Clark pulled the chair out and flopped down so he could lean in on his elbows and whisper.

"Obviously," Lex agreed dryly, trying a piece of cantaloupe.

"Its like - - its like if somebody roofies your date, the last thing you do is go and take advantage of it and I was just freaked out and didn't know what to do and it got out of hand." Clark finished with a deep breath and almost comically serious look.

Lex rolled his eyes at Clark's attempt at rationalization. "First of all, it wasn't a roofie - - it was nowhere close. Second - - your date? Third, if you had taken advantage you'd have fucked me in a bathroom stall, instead of acting like a frightened virgin while I got a little handsy. So get over yourself, Clark. Oh, and by the way, obviously some part of you knew exactly what to do, when you were coming all over my hand. Accurate assessment?"

Lex took one last sip of coffee and rose, leaving Clark with the beginnings of that oh so satisfying blush on his cheeks.

Lex ground his teeth all the way across the lobby to the elevators. He picked up a copy of the Journal while he waited for the car to arrive, just to give himself more fodder for irritation.

Of course Clark would take the martyr's route. Taking blame on himself, even though Lex knew at heart he thought he was just an innocent victim of Lex's drug induced horniness. Just happened to kiss back like he really meant it and just happened to get a hard-on of porn star proportions. An accident. A twist of cruel fate. Clark hadn't enjoyed it at all. Of course it wasn't the corn-fed, self-righteous prick's fault. Nothing ever was.

Lex stepped into the elevator car, paper curled in his fist and the doors almost made it closed before a hand inserted itself into the gap and forced them back open. Clark stepped in, red cheeked and pissed and Lex pressed his lips, frankly surprised Clark had the nerve to prolong a painful conversation.

They stood there, at silent odds while the car stopped at the second floor, picked up a pair of women in fashionable sweats who had obviously come from the hotel's gym. They got off on the Fourth floor and Lex could practically hear the grind of Clark's teeth.

"Why did you kiss me?" The straightforward question caught Lex off guard.

"I thought we'd established I was high?"

"The place was filled with gorgeous women. Why me?"

When Clark actually stopped and thought, he was annoyingly perceptive. Lex shrugged, gathering forces, wondering how much it would take to make Clark run screaming. Wondering how much it might take to make him stay.

"Didn't you know, I don't have a problem with men?" He stepped closer, right up into Clark's personal space. "But, I think the question is, why did you kiss me back? Repeatedly."

Clark swallowed, took a half, nervous step backwards, which put his back against the elevator wall, and Lex had no qualms closing the distance, pressing his advantage.

"So I can only assume, you don't have an issue with men, either. " he grazed the back of his hand across the front of Clark's jeans. Rubbed his knuckles up and down the flap covering the zipper and felt reaction underneath. "Or is it just me?"

Clark caught his wrist, brought it up between them, and Lex looked up from the captured hand to Clark's eyes. Dilated pupils with a ring of angry green. Lex smiled the sort of smile that offered all manner of things to a man willing to throw caution to the winds and take him up on the offer. Which of course Clark wouldn't, because the sorts of risks Clark took, weren't of the scandalous nature.

He leaned in, brushed his mouth across Clark's and felt the full body shiver that rippled over Clark in response. "If you'd care to explore options, make an appointment. I'll see if I can squeeze you in."

The doors opened and Lex pulled back, lifted a questioning brow and Clark released his wrist as if it had sprouted thorns. Lex strolled down the hall, not looking back, feeling a distinct sense of victory, even if it did come with simmering frustration.

He got the door half open when he felt Clark press in behind him, pressing him into the room, up against the inside wall while the door softly swung shut behind him.

"You're a son of a bitch." Clark growled, breath close to Lex's ear.

"I thought we'd already established that." He shoved Clark back - - or made the attempt and failed, Clark caught one wrist, held it fast against Lex's side while he leaned in.

His hand was going a little numb from Clark's grip, but the rest of him was very aware of the press of Clark's body. He could feel the thud of Clark's heart against his back, the external wave of heat that radiated from his skin. The harsh breath against the back of his head.

He pressed his free hand flat against the wall, seeking leverage that didn't seem to make a damned bit of difference trying to move Clark when Clark didn't want to be moved.

"Is there a plan to go with this bit of spontaneity?" Lex inquired, less control in his voice than he might have liked.

Clark made a sound that might have been a growl - - frustrated, low in his throat. "You - - just - - make - - me crazy."

Which in certain circumstances, might not have been the most undesirable of things. Might have been a very good thing indeed, considering Clark was half erect against his ass - - if Lex had plunged into this little contest with sex as the goal, instead of sex as a means to drive Clark away. After the utter embarrassment of last night, he simply wasn't up to more of Clark's horrified regrets in the face of impulsive physical reactions.

"You're not making my life any easier, either. Get off," Lex growled back, bucking against Clark uselessly.

"Why did you kiss me?"

Ah, god, back to that again. Clark was steadfast as granite.

"Why do you think?" Lex hissed.

Clark was silent, leaning into him, his weight oppressive, subtly thrilling. Then suddenly it was gone, and it was just Clark's hands on either side of him against the wall. Lex turned, caged, not desperate enough yet to surrender dignity and try and duck under Clark's arms to escape. Not sure he wanted to.

He'd made a hobby of reading Clark, once upon a time. Certainly no complicated undertaking, since Clark wore his emotions as plainly as credits on the big screen. His lies had always been as easy to read as his truths. There was honest emotion there now. Honest confusion. Honest frustration. Honest guilt, because upstanding young Kansas farmers didn't sport erections pressed up against other men.

What would it take to make Clark just give up and go home? To stop fucking with Lex's head with this sudden surge of interest - - with the sudden reinsertion of his presence in Lex's life when it had taken Lex a damned long time to get over the abrupt departure in the first place.

"I don't know," Clark said softly and Lex hissed, because it was lie. Another damned lie because Clark did know.

"That's bullshit." Lex took the half step open to him, between Clark and the wall, got right up in Clark's face, and damned if he wasn't a little hard too, from anger, from Clark's closeness, from Clark's aggression. It grazed against Clark's and it was like a shot of pure electricity.

"You were never that naive," he bit out, mouth very close to Clark's jaw and Clark wasn't moving, Clark's arms were brushing his shoulders. "You were just so used to lying to everyone else, that lying to yourself about a little deviant attraction was no great stretch. Admit it, Clark. If I'd been anything but reputable back then - - and I so fucking was - - I'd have had you bending over for me every - -"

"Shut up," Clark shoved him backwards. Hard. Lex hit the wall with enough impact to drive the air from his lungs, to make him see stars when his head hit. His knees went watery, would have given out entirely if Clark hadn't caught him by the arms and pressed up hard against him, mouth covering his, slamming his head back against the wall, all over again.

It was desperate and demanding, Clark's tongue invading like he was waging war, giving no quarter, thick and strong and wet, thrusting inside Lex's mouth like he was fucking. Oxygen starved and half dazed, Lex tried to get his bearings, but it was easier at the moment, to simply submit. To rub his tongue across Clark's, to suck at the meaty fullness of it, to let Clark pull his into his mouth, wet and messy and wonderful even if he was on the verge of seeing black around the edges of his vision from the lack of air.

Clark pulled back and Lex gasped, pulling in a shuddery lungful of air. Clark's perfect, perfect lips were glistening, his eyes so dark a green they were almost black.

"God," Clark said, in the same sort of voice he might use at the scene of a horrific accident.

Lex could see it in his eyes, Clark thinking about Lana hardly six weeks dead, and his mother, and his self-righteous father and all his carefully constructed pre-conceptions about what it was to be a man - - and Lex didn't care. Not about Lana or Clark's moral values or even his own recent desires to drive Clark as far and as fast away from him as he could.

"How's it taste? That straight shot of honesty?" He asked, voice shaking just a little, but he didn't care about that now either.

Clark stared at him, mouth half open, throat working and so damned hard. Lex was and he shifted, grinding against Clark and Clark gasped. Lex saw a flash of pink tongue. He grasped Clark's shirt, pressing up and kissing him. Sucking his bottom lip into his mouth, biting it enough that Clark shuddered and made a sound that went through Lex like the best drug in the world. He slipped his tongue inside, slow easy, tracing the silk on the inside of Clark's lips, the slick feel of his teeth and Clark's tongue flickered out to meet him, practically shy after the intensity of his first kiss, but growing stronger and Clark opened his mouth and drew Lex in.

Clark's taste was euphoric, half remembered from last night, but clear headed, in possession of all of his faculties, it curled through Lex's senses like fine liquor.

He worked his hand down between them, cupped Clark's bulge and Clark's body jerked against him, up against his hand. He let his mouth slide to Clark's jaw, biting, scraping his tongue, sucking against the angle of clenching muscle and bone. Clark was muttering, prayers or curses - - all of it unintelligible past the pounding blood in Lex's ears. Clark's hand moved up from his arms to his neck, big, callused fingers rough/soft against his skin, sliding under the collar of his shirt to splay out across his shoulders. A button popped off and another as Clark tried to work his hands down more of Lex's chest and that was okay. Buttons could be reattached, new shirts purchased. Clark's fingers on his skin were beyond price.

He got the button of Clark's jeans undone, fumbled after the zipper and got it down enough so that he could get his hand down, but Clark caught his wrist before he could do more than brush his fingers across the moist tip of Clark's cock. Clark pushed him back against the wall and pinned him there, the strength in his hands unforgiving - - entirely frustrating. Clark looked at him for a moment, eyes bright and fevered, throat working.

Clark was thinking. Lex could see it. The second guessing going on behind his eyes. The doubt. If he could just get his hands on Clark's cock, he could banish that unwanted thought. Get down to basics.

"What are you waiting for?" he sneered. "Me on my knees, sucking you? I could do that for you if its what you need to get back on track."

Clark twitched, fingers tightening on Lex's wrists, grinding bone together, maybe the animal part of his brain thinking about that option and liking it. Lex hissed and arched forward, closing the distance between their hips, grinding his erection against Clark's. It was the deciding factor. Despite all of his high and mighty ideals, his homespun values, Clark was only human.

Clark was back against him, sucking his tongue into his mouth and Lex dug his fingers into his silk slick hair, ran them down a silk covered back, feeling muscle roll and flinch under his hands.

Clark moaned, hauled Lex up by the elbows until his feet were half off the ground, chest sliding across chest. He could feel Clark's hard little nipples through the thin material of his shirt, biting into his skin like brands. He wanted to taste them. Roll them in his mouth. To bite hard enough to make Clark scream.

Clark's mouth was on his neck, not gently, and it felt fucking fantastic, but there were things that would feel better. And he had Clark willing - -more than willing, damned insistent - - and not denying it and that was unprecedented and not to be chanced on unpredictable mood swings.

Clark let him slide down, a slow drift between Clark's body and the wall, and somewhere along the way Clark finished mauling his shirt, big hands drifting down his ribs, to his hips, sliding around to the small of his back like he couldn't get enough of Lex's skin.

Lex got his hand on Clark's cock, felt it jump under his touch, gripped the head hard, sliding the foreskin down so he could press a thumb to the tip. He wanted to see it, to see all of Clark, golden and naked, confirming the details he'd only ever had his imagination to supply him with.

"No," Clark said, slipping around behind him, too swift by far, for Lex's peace of mind, too strong. One hand curled around his waist, the other tugged at his zipper, pushed his slacks and underwear down over his hips and as frustrating as this little stubborn streak of Clark's was, it was just as exhilarating. An exquisite little power play that Lex didn't particularly mind Clark winning, as long as he didn't back out before the game was over.

The pants slid down and his cock bounced up, craving attention. Lex drew Clark's hand down and Clarks fingers tentatively touched his skin, touched the place where pubes would be if meteor radiation hadn't stolen his ability to sprout them.

Clark's fingers circled him, callused and strong and it felt like a little brush with the dirty part of heaven, that first flex of his hand. Lex's head fell back against Clark's shoulder, he thrust into the grip and Clark's other hand spread out flat against his hip, pressing him back, preventing the friction he craved.

"You fuck," he breathed, digging fingers into Clark's forearm, but his nails didn't leave marks, not even the little white streaks that would flush to pink before fading.

"I want to hate you." Clark breathed against his shoulder, covered the warm spot with his mouth and bit down. His hand tightened, warm and large around the head of Lex's cock.

"Yeah?" Lex was seeing stars. Feeling little tracery explosions traveling from the bite to his cock, secure in Clark's grasp.

"I did, when - - you and Lana - - you went out of your way to make me."

It wasn't an entirely inaccurate statement. He'd been a son of a bitch. But Lex was having trouble concentrating. He was generally very good at multi-tasking, but not apparently, when Clark was slowly, firmly jerking him off. "You make bad choices, Lex."

God, wasn't that a loaded statement. It could have covered so very many things, to Clark's way of thinking. None of which he felt particularly inclined to debate at the moment.

Lex got a hand behind him, found Clark's rigid cock, pressed between them, wrapped the shaft in his fingers and flexed. "Practical choices."

"Doesn't make it right." Clark gasped.

He swallowed and thought agreeing to anything at the moment might be his best option to get Clark to get on with it. "Maybe not. Do you want to fuck or do you want to talk?"

Clark groaned, maybe liking the notion, maybe just liking Lex's hand on his cock. Lex found himself against the wall again, face first, Clark's hand still gripped firm around him, Clark's cock, mostly escaped from the band of his shorts, pressed against the cleft of Lex's bare ass. The whole of his body clenched, coiling and wanting. Wanting Clark's hot fist to move again. Wanting Clark's other hand to slide up his body, pinch his nipple - - Wanting Clark's mouth on his shoulder, or his neck or anywhere as long as it was doing something. But mostly - - mostly wanting Clark's cock, slick with pre-come, and hot and heavy, even if it would hurt like hell without the kindness of lube.

Lex couldn't remember the last time he'd wanted as badly as he did now - - and the prospect of blood mixed with the gratification made him shudder in anticipation. If he begged Clark to get on with it, he wondered if Clark would appease him, or continue on doggedly at his own pace. If he pissed Clark off again, badly, that might do the trick.

"It took less time to get Lana to spread her legs, than it's taking you to work up the nerve to fuck me," he said, lacing the words with spiteful humor.

"Don't," Clark warned, his voice shuddery with anger/passion/revulsion/want.

Lex ground his hips back, felt the bite of the zipper of Clark's jeans against his thighs. Clark groaned and thrust against him, cock sliding in his cleft, but not inside. It was okay, because Clark's hand was moving with his thrusts and Clark was making the type of moaning sounds that could only be issued through clenched teeth. His hands were so strong and so hot, moist with sweat and the come leaking from Lex's cock. He ought to be crying out from the intensity of the grip, - - couldn't differentiate between the pain and the pleasure, but they were so intertwined that it didn't matter.

He felt Clark tense, the grip tightened and Lex did cry out, face pressed against the wall, while Clark spurted over his lower back. Hot, searing spatters of come branding his skin.

Lex would have come himself, if Clark's grip hadn't been so tight around the base of his cock and then the grip was gone, Clark backing off like Lex had sprouted thorns, job unfinished. Hateful, son of a bitch.

Lex groaned, support gone and sank down the wall to his knees, in the tangle of his pants. He didn't even look at Clark, didn't want to see the expression on his face this time, just took his aching cock in hand and stroked it hard. Four, five times was all it took, and he was spilling over his hand, across his own belly.

He slumped, shoulder against the wall, feeling the residual ache of Clark's fingers now that passion was spent and indignation was rushing in to take its place.

"You can run away now," he said, fixing as impassive a look as he could manage on his face before he looked up. He felt numb. Drained. Like this had been considerably better sex than it had ended up being. But, he couldn't shake the notion that even if he'd had to finish up himself, it still ranked up near the top. Because - - God - - it had been Clark. And it might never be Clark again and that hurt - - raking across something that felt surprisingly like vulnerability inside of him. He hated the feeling.

"You know, I imagined you having better staying power," he remarked lazily. "Is that why you couldn't keep Lana? No follow through?"

"You're a son of a bitch," Clark said softly, with something very much like tentative hurt in his voice.

Lex laughed, cradling one bruised wrist, feeling the aches of quite a few others. "And you're a prince, Clark. We were made for each other."

If Clark had a response for that, it was swallowed by someone rapping smartly on the door to Lex's suite. Wonderful. Perfect timing. Whoever it was could fucking well come back.

"Lex," Clark said softly. "Its the woman from the club."

Lex groaned, opened his eyes enough to squint at Clark who had a hand gingerly on the door, apparently having checked the peephole.

Are you sure, he mouthed and Clark nodded.

Fuck. Leave it to Sophia Daniakos to show up at half past nine in the morning, when Lex was in the midst of recovering from an extraordinarily compromising situation.

He pushed himself up, yanking up his pants, finding the zipper mangled halfway down. His shirt was buttonless, and there were no doubt finger marks on his skin. Fucking priceless.

He growled and cast Clark a glare. Clark had zipped and buttoned up and there were no apparent splotches of telltale bodily fluids on his person. Apparently everything had been magnetically attracted to Lex, because he had more than his fair share.

"Tell her I'm in the middle of a call. Don't make small talk. Don't let her leave before I come out." He headed towards the bedroom, gauging how quickly he could step under the shower, dry off, get redressed in undamaged clothing and get back out here.

Leaving Clark in a room with one of the twins was not high on his list of intelligent moves. But then, Clark had shown a surprising bit of predator himself this morning, so maybe he could hold his own.

Part thirteen

Clark took a breath, found surprisingly enough, a center of calm that by all rights ought to be a far and distant thing, considering he'd just lost all hold on sanity and reason.

Lex had retreated to the bedroom, the lingering marks of Clark's fingers - - Clark's mouth - - on his pale skin, and even that wasn't throwing Clark. Clark wasn't sure if he was in some weird state of denial, or shock, or simply satiated into complacency. If he'd had time to really think about it, he might have been able to achieve a more appropriate state of mind. In other words - - panic.

But the woman outside the door demanded immediate attention, so he fortified his self-control, composed his face and opened the door.

He'd only seen her before through a crowd of people, under the eerie blue light of the club's back room. If her face hadn't been so memorable, like some classic beauty off the silver screen, he might not have recognized her as the same scantily clad woman who'd been pressing up against Lex last night at La Cruz.

She was a vision of elegance now, in a tailored ivory skirt suit that clung to her curves like an expensive second skin and emphasized the olive hues of her skin and the darkness of her long hair. Up close she was the sort of woman that caused intelligent dialogue to dry up and wither away. The type of woman that billionaires would have pursued - - and had.

"Uh, hello." He felt like an idiot, standing there staring at her.

She canted her head, eyes flicking over his face, a faint, patient smile on her lips. "This is Lex Luthor's suite?"

"Yeah. He's on the phone. Important call." Idiot. Absolute moron. Clark smiled to cover it, one of his big, sort of apologetic ones that usually had women tumbling over themselves to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sophia Daniakos lifted a brow, looked him up and down a little more thoroughly. "I believe he wanted to speak with me. May I come in and wait?"

She walked past him without waiting for consent, her heels clicking on the marble of the entryway before she hit carpet. She had really fantastic legs, but Clark tore his eyes away in a panic as he passed the wall he'd had Lex pressed against less than five minutes before. There were no stains, no splotches, nothing to indicate it had been anything other than a twisted dream. Except for the smell - - and God, Clark hoped the scent of sex was mostly in his head and not actually permeating the air.

"So," She turned in the center of the room, to look at him. "Are you here by the hour, or did he pick you up last night at the club?"

She asked it with such a composed smile, such an elegant lilt to her voice that he almost didn't get the connotation. It took him a second, before his defenses started kicking in and he got past the deceptive beauty and remembered this woman might have had something to do with Lana's death, that she'd certainly done something to Lex last night. She was a shark. A pretty shark, trolling for blood.

"I'm a friend," he said, mouth twitching in the sort of smile he might give Lois when she was rubbing his last nerve raw.

"Hmm," She wasn't making the effort to hide her appraisal of him. "Lex always did have exquisite taste in 'friends'. I do hope I didn't interrupt anything other than his call."

She settled on the couch, her fingers, tipped with manicured nails stroking the leather of the seat cushion next to her, little rotating circles of her index finger that were almost sexual. She was the sort of woman, he thought that drew you in with her beauty, but seduced with the little things, the subtle movements, the simple grace of crossed legs - - and he found himself oddly numb to it. "No interruption at all." He crossed his arms, not backing down from her dissecting gaze, not bothering to tack the smile back on. Having played enough games this morning and not wanting to play hers.

She pursed her lips a little, a pretty pout at his lack of interest in her verbal teasing. Let her play with Lex when he came out, because Lex was at the top of his 'words as weapons' game today.

"Do you have a name, Lex's friend?" she inquired.

"Yes," he answered.

She kept watching him, and wary of her as he might be, he hadn't been raised to employ discourtesy easily. He relented.

"Clark."

"Clark," she repeated, lips curving a little as if she'd won some sort of victory. "Pretty." She said and he knew she couldn't mean the name, because, well, it simply wasn't. He finally felt the blush that should have risen minutes ago. He couldn't help it. Lex had said not to talk to her.

"So what do you do for fun, Clark? What sort of games do you like to play?" She purred and the innuendo was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Clark had no idea how to answer that one or even if he should try.

"Not the type you like, Sophia."

Lex kept him from having to, strolling out of the bedroom as pressed and neat as he'd been doing nothing more stressful this morning than reading the paper, not even glancing Clark's way. "To what do I owe this - - pleasure?"

She fixed her gaze on Lex. Clark did, eyes drawn almost helplessly as Lex moved across the room towards the suite's bar. He had on a blue gray shirt, buttoned up to the neck and a silvery gray tie, back slacks that fit him - - well, like all of Lex's clothes fit, perfectly - - which was absolutely the wrong direction for Clark's thoughts to drift.

"As if you didn't expect a visit, Lex?" Sophia was saying, drawing Clark's attention back to the issue at hand, instead of how Lex wore his clothes, how his ass looked in pants - - or out of them - - Clark drew a sharp little breath, stomach churning like someone had slipped a sliver if meteor rock into the room, and forced his eyes to the woman. She was safer by a long shot.

Lex canted his head, considering the selection of hotel liquor, and said lightly, as if it were of little consequence. "After your little stunt last night? I assumed you and Niko would find the nearest available rock to hide under. I would have, in your shoes."

Lex smiled at her, and it wasn't one of his nice ones. He poured a finger's worth of something amber colored, and lifted a brow, a silent inquiry to her preference.

She waved a hand sharply in refusal, the first indication that she did indeed have nerves and that somehow Lex had already pricked them. No surprise there, Lex was good at it.

"You don't play innocent well at all, Lex," she said. "I don't know why you try."

Lex shrugged, sipping at his drink. "Is there a problem, Sophia? Perhaps I can help?"

She tightened her lips, then regained control of her calm and smiled thinly back at him. "Our yacht was impounded early this morning by New York city police. It seems they were tipped off about the possibility of illegal substances onboard."

"Unfortunate," Lex managed a brilliant imitation of sympathy. "I hope you weren't careless enough to have any lying around."

"Apparently they discovered several kilos worth of cocaine."

"That's a lot, even for the two of you," Lex remarked. "Planning a party, were you?"

"It wasn't ours and you know it, Lex." She hissed the name like it was poison on her tongue. "They've been questioning Niko for hours. And then there seems to be some issue with our visas that has the interest of your Homeland Security."

"Imagine that. Well, I suppose it would be criminally negligent if suspected drug traffickers were to flee the country."

"You bastard," she said with more level calm than Clark could have managed under the same circumstances. "Don't tell me you're upset about last night. It seems to have worked out quite well for you."

She glanced towards Clark and he felt another little rise of heat and tightened his jaw.

Lex simply lifted a brow, not rising to the bait, not following her glance, as if Clark weren't even in the room.

"Or," she asked, a deeper hue if insinuation settling in her eyes. "Is this about our little party on the boat, all those years ago, Lex? Even after gutting the company, you still can't get over it? I still think about it, now and then. How delightful it might have been if you'd been more - - accommodating."

A muscle twitched in Lex's jaw. His fingers on the glass were white, but nothing else showed on his face or his voice when he spoke. "If I were still harboring that grudge, Sophia, the least of your problems would be drug charges and revoked visas."

She glared and Lex's knuckles relaxed on the tumbler, composure quietly regained at her expense. And Clark had to wonder what it was that had happened that Lex so very obviously did hold a great deal of bitterness over. He remembered those pictures he'd seen, of Lex with this woman and her brother, as cock-sure as any eighteen year old with a fortune to back him up, but still very, very young. While she looked the same. Same expression, same seductress smile, like she knew so much more than the men around her and always had.

She gathered herself, settling back into the cushions, stroking the skin between the hem of her skirt and her knee. "This is about the girl."

It wasn't a question.

"My wife," Lex agreed and Clark felt something clench inside, a hard little knot between his heart and his gut that would never, ever accept with grace that unholy union.

"Would you care to explain?" Lex asked.

"Lovely young woman," Sophia shrugged. "Sweet. I met her in Metropolis while you and Niko were fighting over the dissolution of Papa's company. Sad little thing though, caught in your shadow."

Lex's mouth tightened.

"I can understand you sleeping with her. She was beautiful and I know you like your beautiful things, but taking her as a wife? She was ill-suited. No proper match for a man that likes challenge."

"When I need your advice on my personal life, Sophia, I'll email." Maybe she'd scored deeply, because Lex moved to the window, hands loosely in his pockets, looking out over the multi-hued park and the city beyond. "That was six months ago. Why was your man meeting with her last month?"

Sophia rose, brushing past Clark with the deliberation of a hunting cat, as she moved towards the bar. "We commiserated on past disenchantments and future pitfalls - - the general disappointment that women share over men. I gave her my number. She called it."

Lex turned, eyes narrow and bright. Clark could practically see his body coiling, no less of a predator than she was. More dangerous by far, by the simple nature of their hunting grounds. She trolled the clubs and the playgrounds of the elite. Lex was global.

"And you hoped to gain what, by fostering this association? Inside information on LexCorp? Something to use against me? You did realize you'd have to stand in line and wait your turn for that particular source of information. She was apparently stretched thin."

"Ah, yes. Your father."

Lex opened his mouth. Shut it abruptly, apparently not expecting her to be privy to that particular knowledge. Lana had to have told her and Clark wondered just how many people she'd confided in before she'd ever come to him. He supposed wryly, that he was a step further up in the information highway than Lex, who had been the absolute last to find out. A month ago that knowledge hadn't bothered him in the least - - he'd reveled in it, confirmation that she'd never loved Lex - - but now, oddly enough, he felt a niggling little stab of empathy.

"She met with your man and a week later she was dead. You realize don't you, that if I discover you or your brother had a hand in it your lives are over."

It was as blatant a threat as Clark as ever heard Lex level, he was usually so much subtler in his insinuations, but he was angry now. Maybe more than angry and Clark could understand that, could feel it inside himself at the thought of having someone in the room that might have used Lana as coinage against Lex in the payment of some meaningless vendetta.

But Sophia Daniakos was holding up her hands, eyes suddenly wary and wide as she realized the implication of Lex's words. As she realized what he was accusing her of and what he was capable of in retaliation.

"No. No, that's not what happened. This had nothing to do with her death - - she asked me for help. For money she couldn't get from your accounts without you finding out."

Lex just stood there, not demanding she elaborate, maybe figuring things out in his own mind that Clark had yet to put together.

"Why?" Clark had to ask, and she turned her eyes on him, more than appraisal in her gaze. Curiosity. Wondering who he was that Lex let stand here in the middle of this. He didn't care what she thought or what she assumed, he just wanted to know.

"She wanted to leave him and needed the resources to run far and wide and I was happy to help her out." She turned her gaze back to Lex, eyes narrow. "Because I understand what it's like to be under the thumb of a man who thinks he's God."

"You had money transferred to her, through your lawyer?" Lex asked, voice gone low and neutral. Nothing showed on his face. His eyes were blue-gray mirrors.

"Yes."

"What else?"

"Nothing else. Nikolas knew nothing of it. He would hardly have approved. He's old fashioned that way."

"How much did you give her?"

"None of your business, Lex. What does it matter?"

Clark wondered the same thing. She was dead, and if this woman was telling the truth they were no closer to finding out why or who. This had all been a colossal waste of time. All it had proved was that Lana had been so desperate to get away from the Luthor world that she had run to Lex's enemies for aid. Instead of running to Clark. Instead of trusting him with any of this.

"Everything matters, Sophia. But I think we're done." He walked towards her, a hand hovering at the small of her back and she went with it, walking with him to the door.

"Be a gentleman and walk me to the lobby," she said. "For old times sake, Lex."

Lex shrugged, opening the door for her and Clark felt a peal of relief that she wasn't going to walk out that door and leave them alone again. He wasn't sure he was ready to be alone again with Lex. With Lana so fresh on his mind, it made what they'd done seem so extraordinarily wrong. So excruciatingly dirty - - because part of him still twitched a little thinking about it. The part he'd stuffed hastily back into his pants, without the benefit of a tissue to wipe off. He could still feel the slow drying wetness against his shorts.

He felt the heat in his cheeks again, but their backs were towards him and he fought it down. He wasn't ready to get in the elevator with them, because God knew that ride down would be filled with enough tension without Clark adding himself to the mix, but damned if he was going to wait in the room for Lex to come back up. He wasn't sure if he could hold a rational conversation just yet in the same room they'd just both gone off the deep end in. He wasn't sure he could talk to Lex at all, because somewhere in that convoluted maze Lex called a brain, he'd decided that provoking Clark was his new method of communication. And worse yet, something inside Clark rushed to the challenge, eager for the conflict - - eager for any excuse to back Lex against the wall and let him know without doubt that there were bigger dogs in the junkyard than him.

Which was so completely screwed up that Clark wanted to yank at his hair or smash a fist in the wall, or run somewhere far distant where it was cold and silent and try and get a handle on his newly birthed insanity.

He ran downstairs instead. Got there long before the elevator carrying Lex and Sophia arrived at the lobby, and loitered behind the foliage in the little indoor Japanese garden.

The doors opened and they stepped out, no worse for wear. They crossed the lobby, and Sophia stopped, turning towards Lex and saying something about bygones and the times they'd shared in the past, to which Lex didn't respond, until she leaned up and kissed him on the mouth. Which made Clark's fingers curl until Lex stepped away from it, impassively, maybe on the verge of saying something when a man burst through the lobby doors, from an awkwardly parked black Mercedes outside.

"You come to him? Of all people? Did you touch her?"

Clark didn't even have to expand his hearing to get that, and though he didn't remember the features of Nikolas Daniakos as vividly as he did Sophia, vague recollection and basic math pretty much assured him this was the man.

Lex's height, but a lot broader, the man didn't carry his age as well as sister and the lines on his face were tense with rage and no doubt the exhaustion of dealing with the problems Lex had created for him for the last half dozen hours or so.

Sophia smiled and her hand brushed Lex's arm, a familiarity that suggested intimacy before she left him, walking past her trembling brother towards the door.

"I'll kill you. I'll fucking kill you!" Nikolas shouted, face gone red with rage, body vibrating with it before he launched himself at Lex. Clark was halfway across the lobby before it even occurred to him what he was doing, and stumbling to a halt when Lex sidestepped the swing, and conveniently got a foot between his attacker's ankles, sending the man staggering forward into the arms of frantically approaching bellmen. When it wasn't four on one, and karma wasn't thumbing its nose at him, Lex wasn't half bad at taking care for himself.

"No one touches her but me. No one but me, you smug little freak!!" Niko was screaming, struggling in the hands of two bellmen, glaring at Lex like he was the antichrist.

Lex's mouth turned up in a cool smile, but he didn't say a thing. Just stood there with his hands in his pockets and watched them force Niko towards the door and the car where his sister was already waiting. But Lex had a look in his eyes, when Clark finally walked up, that hinted at wheels turning inside his head.

"It's funny, isn't it," Lex said, tone soft and musing. "How little a woman really has to do, to have a man do her dirty work. If he'd had a gun, he would have shot me."

Clark swallowed, the notion of that making his gut lurch. He didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about how badly he didn't want to think about Lex bleeding out his life on imported tiles.

"Is your new hobby making enemies and getting death threats, Lex?" Clark asked.

The car screeched away outside, pulling hazardously into city traffic. Lex tilted his head, looking up at Clark, almond eyes inscrutable, still thinking and God that made Clark edgy. Being this close to Lex did, because Clark could smell him and feel the subtle energy radiating from his body and he hated that awareness. Lex had felt really good under his hands. The kind of good that made everything else bleed away into inconsequentiality. Until consequence came back and slapped him in the face and he realized what he was doing - - what Lex had driven him to do. It had been Lex, right? Lex's fault. Lex's vicious seduction.

Clark swallowed again, convulsively and shuffled a step away, needing that space. Needing a lot more than a few feet.

"It seems to be," Lex said, with less of an edge of sarcasm than might be expected with that bitter admission.

"Did you believe her?"

Lex looked back towards the doors and the movement of traffic beyond the landscaped wall separating the Mandarin's drive from the rest of the city. "Yes."

He trusted Lex's instincts and in this, he trusted Lex not to lie. Which left nothing else here for Clark, but the desperate urge to leave.

"If you need a lift back home," Lex said in a neutral voice. "I'll be flying back to Metropolis this afternoon."

Clark almost laughed, the offer was so civil. Like Lex hadn't recently been spewing vile things at him to spur him on, and he hadn't had Lex pressed up against a wall, his dick pressed tight against Lex's perfect ass, shooting come onto the small of his back.

He felt the panic swim up, gnawing at the edges of his calm like hungry piranha, and shook his head. What the hell was Lex thinking? Plotting? Planning? His bouts with schizophrenia were driving Clark mad. And the idea that it might have something to do with the abrupt and admittedly violent removal of the remnant of Zod just made it worse. Because then, didn't the blame lie partially at Clark's own feet?

"No thanks. I'll manage on my own." He managed to say that without it coming out strangled and did the one thing he'd always been consistently good at in this rollercoaster ride of a relationship - - he turned on his heel and walked away.

Part Fourteen

Halfway through the flight home and Lex was a little drunk. The flight attendant had kept filling his glass and he'd kept drinking it down, because he'd needed to have his hands on something, otherwise it was drum the arms of his seat obsessively or walk the cabin and the turbulence was rough enough to put a damper on comfortable pacing. Lex hated turbulence. It made him nervous and he hated being nervous.

He hated being distracted to the point where the simple act of conducting essential business was beyond him. He had his laptop, he had his phone, he had a great deal of work that he could have been doing - - if he could have torn his thoughts away from this disaster of a weekend. From this very curious week in its entirety. From Clark.

He accepted Sophia's story. It even made sense to him, that Lana would seek outside help in her attempts to leave him. If he looked at it logically, past the hurt and past the anger, it had been a smart move. Funds from what should have been an untraceable source - - he might never have uncovered it if he hadn't been so dogged in his determination to clear his own name - - or if Clark had killed him in Reeves Damn, driven to murder by grief over Lana's death and a clear indication that Lex had been responsible.

And he'd come close. Lex remembered the look in his eyes, dilated pupils, narrow rage, all the empathy, the compassion, the humanity that normally dwelt in Clark's expression just gone. He'd seen that look in the eyes of killers, in the faces of no few number of psychotic 'guests' he had acquired and kept safely locked away from a blithely unaware populace in various off-the-books facilities. He'd never seen it in Clark - - not like that. It had been terrifying and exhilarating, because a brief flicker of something inside him had thought that if he were going to die, better by Clark's hands than the thing he'd left in the lab. It would have given Lana the justice she thought she needed, even from the grave - - and Clark would have been a murderer for her - - just like Niko was willing to kill because his snake of a sister let him believe a falsehood.

If he could believe it of Lana. If Clark hadn't stopped and Lex still wasn't entirely sure why he had. Just as he wasn't certain why Clark had picked him up off the road and taken him home, or sat in his bedroom all night while Lex slept off what he was sure now, had been an exhaustion and stress related attack.

Oh, the looks he could understand. Clark had always looked at him - - under the lashes when he didn't think Lex was watching. The nervous, curious looks of a young man who didn't entirely understand why he was so fascinated.

Lex could understand fucking someone you despised. He'd done it on more than one occasion. Apparently Lana had all through their sham of a marriage. He just didn't understand the concern, or why despite his best efforts, Clark kept coming back and looking at him occasionally like he was something wounded that Clark needed to mend.

Perhaps it had all been the driving need to discover who had killed Lana and the fact that Lex had found a possibility in the Twins that had kept Clark so determined to shadow him? That reason was gone now along with any vague idea of where to look next. So perhaps he could expect not to see Clark in the foreseeable future. Perhaps? After what had happened between them in the Mandarin Executive suite that morning, in the heat of anger and frustration - - he doubted Clark would ever willingly cross his path again. Which was exactly what he'd wanted. Wasn't it?

He shuddered a little, an uncontrollable reaction to a sudden jolt of turbulence, clutched the seat arm in one hand and the smooth planes of the glass in the other. He rode it out, no choice but to ride it out, as the air buffeted the plane from without and Lex thought about the terrible sounds of engines failing and the whine of insubstantial objects power-diving towards the earth from thirty thousand feet in the air. He had nightmares about those sounds. He'd known Clark seven years, a quarter of his life - - and it didn't seem nearly long enough.

He shut his eyes and pushed that panic induced thought away. Another one followed on its heels, of Clark kissing him, fierce and desperate and Clark's big hands on his body, tentative, like he'd been touching something pricey and fragile, before need took over and the grip tightened and god, Clark's strength had never felt so good. Until it stopped. And that had been an embarrassing, inopportune let down. Might have been entirely disappointing if Clark hadn't stood there staring at him raptly, mouth open, cock half hanging out of his open jeans, while Lex stroked himself to completion.

The turbulence actually proved helpful, since it kept the flight attendant in her seat and not prowling about noticing the beginnings of the tent in Lex's pants. How many Clark-related fantasies had he entertained over the years of just such an occurrence? Even while he'd been getting regular sex from Victoria, Helen and various other partners. Certainly while he'd been courting Lana. Even after Clark had stopped being the boy who had first enthralled him, for so many reasons, and became a young man full of distrust and accusations. When had the sexual whimsies actually stopped and turned into darker musings? He looked back, being analytical about it, because analytical made the hard-on recede - - ticking off dates and events in his head.

After Dark Thursday - - when he'd been so traumatized by the destruction he'd wrought under the possession of something utterly alien, that the whole of his worldview had altered. When he'd half killed himself and invested a good deal of his fortune in his pursuit of an answer to preventing such a thing happening again. When he'd dreamed every night about things he couldn't recall in the morning and couldn't ever shake the feeling that he wasn't quite alone in his head. Like an amputee feeling the ghostly sensations of a limb that was no longer there.

Only he hadn't felt it for a while and he wasn't sure when that had gone away either. He wasn't sure about so many things and it vaguely felt like the onset of some mild mental break. Which he damned sure wouldn't allow. He had too much to do for that sort of inconvenience.

There was a light covering of snow on the ground when the plane touched down in Metropolis. Ridiculous that it was colder in Kansas than New York, but the cold front they'd been experiencing seemed unusually persistent.

Lex left the plane with a bag he hadn't had on the trip up, walked across the private strip butting up against the vast tarmacs of Metropolis International, towards the parking lot. There were a few stray flakes in the air and an overcast sky made early evening darker than it ought to be.

The Porsche was blocked in by the long, black shape of a limo, the exhaust of which spit white clouds of condensation into the cold air. Lex didn't have to see the license plate to know it was a LuthorCorp car. No one else would have the audacity to blockade him but his father.

Lex ground his teeth, considering options as he walked across the lot, shoes crunching in snow. The front passenger door opened and his father's usual security man got out, opening the back door in invitation.

His choices were limited. He could refuse it, walk around and sit fruitlessly in his car hoping his father would give up and leave without voicing whatever it was he'd come out here to catch Lex and say, or walk back to the terminal and call for a ride of his own. Or just step into the Lion's den and see what was so fucking important.

He chose the latter, triggering the Porsche trunk open and tossing his bag at the waiting security guard, before he slid into the back of the limo.

"Son." Lionel sat in his leather-upholstered cocoon of warmth, the melodious sounds of one of Mendelssohn's concertos oozing through the sound system.

"What?" Lex wasn't in the mood for pleasantries. He had a buzz that wasn't entirely contributing to razor sharp wits and he hated to feel disadvantaged around his father.

"You've been avoiding my calls, Lex. I was beginning to worry." Lionel turned the music down a few notches, a subtle, patient smile curving his lips.

Lex had, but really, avoidance between the two of them had been working out so well lately. Lex found himself less constantly in a murderous mood when his father was out of sight and out of mind. "I find it hard to believe you don't have more productive things to do than sit out here waiting to ambush me because I haven't been returning calls. What do you really want?"

"I was worried about you, son. Have you seen your doctor yet? Some things shouldn't be taken for granted, your health chief among them."

"Don't - -" Lex started off with a growl, stopped and got hold of his temper and started again. "Don't concern yourself with my health, dad. As busy as you are, pulling LuthorCorp from the brink, I wouldn't want to distract you."

"Ah, this morning's pretentious Journal cover." Lionel laughed. "The young man who took the interview was overly enthusiastic."

"Another fan?"

Lionel shrugged and Lex practically choked on the false modesty.

"Don't be bitter, son. We agreed this was for the best, no matter wounded pride. This will blow over. People will forget. You'll have your place back in the sun, if you choose to take it."

"Choose? You mean you won't have your tendrils sunk so deeply by that point that I'll actually have a choice in the matter?"

"You have your safeguards. You think I'm not aware?"

"I think you're entirely aware, which is why I worry, dad."

Lionel laughed again, that infuriating casual amusement he could wear when Lex felt nothing even close. "You think I want to end my days waging war on the corporate front, Lex? I have visions of retirement. Someplace sunny. Spain, perhaps, I always did love Marbella."

Lex sat back, not believing it for an instant. His father would be the master manipulator until the day he died and if Lionel Luthor had his way, he might even be able to affect things beyond the grave. Chilling thought.

"If all you wanted was to inquire about my well-being, rest assured, I'm fine."

He reached for the door handle, Lionel reached for his arm, latching on and leaning forward, eyes sharp and critical as if he were searching for something Lex had no clue of. To the day he died, Lex would never get over the feeling of not measuring up - - that there would always be chinks in his armor that his father could spy out, no matter how impenetrable Lex forged it.

He matched the gaze, pulled his arm out of the grasp and stepped back out into the cold.

He got into his own car and waited for the Limo to pull away, which after a minute it did, slowly receding into wan evening grayness. Lex sat for a while, letting calm that his father always managed to shatter settle back over him. He turned over the things Lionel could want from him when he already had LuthorCorp again - - at least on paper. When he had the approval of the public, the approval of the stockholders, the approval of the board. He didn't need Lex's sanction. Lex did have his safeguards against his father wresting full control, but he didn't doubt for a moment that Lionel had already uncovered them - - was already working to disengage measures to encumber complete authority. Lex had been playing at corporate warfare - - really playing it - - for six years - - his father had been a master at it long before Lex had been born and a smart player, a paranoid one, never passed on his best tactics.

Lex watched the approach of an incoming passenger plane and the roar of it, as it passed by low overhead, shook the car a little. He cut on the engine, let the defrost melt the light layer of ice on his windshield while he checked his voice mail. Sure enough three messages from his father, an old one he'd ignored from a day or two ago and two new ones, from last night and this morning. He deleted a fair bit, mentally marked a few that he'd let his assistants deal with, a few he could put off until tomorrow and regular business hours and one that he hadn't thought about for the last two days, but really ought to deal with now.

Making the trip to M&C labs from the airport was easier than making it from LuthorCorp towers and fighting heart of the city traffic. The congestion was still terrible though, 5 o'clock traffic made worse by the bad weather and people's absolute inability to navigate when there was even the hint of snow on the ground.

He reached the facility, its faade dull and lazy, not even a fence or a guard to monitor incoming traffic. An old security man at the front desk that nodded at him and barely took his eyes off the little portable TV blaring some game or another. No one cared about wheat gluten and research thereof and that was what this lab studied - - on the books. He had a dozen facilities like this one, innocuous fronts concealing far more complicated things within.

This one had been set up impromptu, a means to house what was left of the premier project on his list of projects. A few weeks ago, he hadn't been able to think of anything else but the resurrection of Ares, funny how it hadn't crossed his mind all weekend.

The measures to reach the real sub-basement lab were more strident and the air down here was filtered and cool, permeated by the hum of equipment behind the walls. There had been testing done here, behind lead shielded walls, of meteor rock in various capacity. He still had a great deal of his father's stolen stash, secreted here and there. More priceless than gold for its rarity outside Smallville, considerably more dangerous, instable as it was. As likely to create catastrophe as benefit from its usage. Four months ago a lab exploring the possibility of meteor rock as an alternate source of long-term energy had exploded at the outskirts of Scranton. Four neighboring buildings had gone up with it. Fourteen dead and they were still getting reports of possible side effects from survivors and not a beneficial one among them. Every one of the active research facilities had been moved out of populated areas after that. This one included.

Now it was home to eight misplaced researchers and every scrap of salvaged data they had.

"What do you have for me?" he cut to the chase, walking in on newly promoted project director Knox and his team, all of them waiting nervously on Lex's arrival.

They offered proposals, and final analysis on the lengths the project could go without the crucial alien peptide component. They could be ready to move to the new location in a few days time if he gave the go ahead. Ready to start recruiting test subjects from a new pool - - not as ideal as military trained, but the next best thing when you were talking taking a man and playing Mr. Wizard with his DNA and hoping the process took before you made damned sure there wouldn't be a chance he'd betray you once you'd made him into something more than human. Or less.

Two years ago when he'd initiated the germination of this project, he'd been content to wait out slow, methodical exploration of the possibilities of instilling select mutant abilities in non-mutated test subjects. No one that hadn't been willing to take the risk had been involved in the endeavor. There had been no such thing as alien peptides to leap frog the potential light years ahead of projected schedules. Until the first of the extraterrestrials had turned up after the events of Dark Thursday.

Even then his researchers hadn't wanted to take the next step, the logical progression until years worth more study had gone into it, until they really understood what they were playing with. And he hadn't let them. One scientist had even threatened to go to the press after the dozenth or so subject was brought in. Mr. Mueller had dealt with that problem.

Mr. Mueller . . .

"You said last week, you'd like more time to evaluate accumulated data from the last run of tests," he stood at the end of a stainless steel lab table while they fidgeted around it, nervous in his presence. He'd made sure all of them held the proper respect. There were figures on the laptop before him, but he couldn't quite focus, wondering idly instead, why he couldn't recall the name of the researcher that had been silenced. You'd think if he were going to have a man killed, he'd have taken the time to recall the name. It was chilling that he hadn't cared enough to remember.

But then again, you'd think if he'd had a man killed, eight months later it wouldn't suddenly occur to him that there might have been better ways to deal with the problem.

"Well, yes. Ideally, scrutinizing that data, running purely lab based trials on non-human subjects would certainly be preferable - - but you did stress the urgency of moving the project along, Mr. Luthor," Project director Knox said, as agitated as any researcher faced with the impatience of the powers that be.

"Is there any progress past the point we'd already reached that can be made without the peptides?"

"Well, no sir. But you did say that you wanted subjects prepared in the event we were able to obtain - -"

"Wait," Lex cut him off, shutting the laptop with a sharp movement. "Do your data analysis. Do your lab tests. No human subjects until we have a viable source of peptides." Until he figured out if the sacrifice of the first fifty was justifiable.

He left the lab, shocked scientists in his wake. Scientists who must have doubted his sanity, when a week before he'd been pushing them towards forging ahead regardless of caution. His shoes echoed on the hallway floor, tempo of confidence in his stride that he didn't let falter, past electronic security, past the old guard who was part of the faade, and into the parking lot, before he let his hands shake.

He planted them on the cold roof of the car above the driver's side door, drawing in lungfuls of condensation laden air, breathing it out in gusts of white.

What the fuck?

Month after month of absolute certainty, of doing what needed to be done, of sacrificing everything for the cause and suddenly the validation slipped through his fingers like oil through a sieve, leaving the slick feeling of distaste clinging in its wake.

He could quote all the reasons, like lines in a play. He could understand the hard truths and the hard choices - - he knew how to make hard choices, the things the average man - - the things Clark wouldn't understand and wouldn't condone - - but needed doing anyway. Only to make those choices you needed discipline and you needed perspective and he had the former in spades, but somewhere along the way he'd lost the latter - - somewhere along the way, his methods had gotten muddied and he couldn't understand how or why. The more he pulled at the strings, the more his understanding seemed to unravel and it was making his head throb.

Maybe his father had been right to inquire about the state of his health, because he was beginning to feel a vague sense of disassociation that couldn't be anything but the prelude to something worse.

He wanted a drink. Or a hit of whatever Sophia had slipped him the other night, because he hadn't felt anything but certain on the tails of that. Maybe find some good looking kid with dark hair and rippling muscles and close his eyes and pretend.

He went back to the penthouse instead, not ready to make the drive in this weather back to Smallville. Settled down with that drink, because anything harder just wasn't going to happen, even though all it would take was a call. He wasn't that kid anymore that went out and got high and got fucked to chase away his dissatisfactions.

He pulled out work to prove it. Legitimate LexCorp business that had been piling up this last week. Things that needed his personal stamp of approval. Emails that needed replies, proposals and figures that needed going over. There was a meeting next week with certain high level federal authorities, smoothing out the final details of the bargain his father had orchestrated - - the timetable allotted for the payment of fines levied. He'd gathered enough capital for the first installment and only had to liquidate a fraction of LexCorp holdings, but then, it was the plummeting stock that was killing him.

He fell asleep on the couch, woke up stiff and sore from the awkward position, papers still spread out on the coffee table, lap top still open, dutifully drowsing, but on the same page he'd left it.

A shower took care of the residual body ache and chased away the lingering dregs of hangover. He went to his offices in LuthorCorp tower with a considerably clearer head than he'd had when he'd retreated to the penthouse. Concentrating solely on business business clarified his thoughts - - gave him a focus on details that triggered absolutely no contradictory musings.

But the problem with competent assistants, was that there was only so much work that he actually needed doing, when there weren't meetings scheduled or people that needed his personal attention. He hadn't been expected today, so the schedule was clear of all but a few face to faces. It left him time in the afternoon for thoughts to wander.

Clark would be home now. Probably home late last night, hours behind Lex at the mercy of passenger airline sluggishness. Lex thought of him slouched in too small economy seats, still in blood red silk, and leaned his head back with a sigh. The flannel and the T-shirt were in Lex's travel bag, along with his own off the rack purchases. He'd considered leaving them, tossing them in the trash in a fit of frustration when he'd returned to that suite, rebuffed. But Clark's scent, permeating cheap fabric stopped him and he'd sat there, on the end of the hotel bed, shirt twisted in his hands and belittled himself for sentimentality. He couldn't leave the shirts behind anymore than he could the bruises Clark had left on his wrists that the cuffs of his sleeves had hidden from Sophia's prying eyes.

Those had faded by morning though, along with the rest of the finger shaped bruising and an intelligent man might have chosen to put the memory of the incident behind him as well. An intelligent man shied away from assured pain and embarrassment. Of course, there were certain areas of his life that Lex had never exhibited particularly great amounts of intellect in. The arena of his personal life was the prime example. One disaster after another and God knew he'd tried to make it work. Just bad choices or bad luck that seemed to strike time and again - - like that sort of contentment wasn't meant to be. If he believed in Luck he might have bought the excuse - - so really, it was just down to bad choices.

Sophia had met Lana for an afternoon and figured out she was ill suited. It had taken Lex over a year. He wondered when Lana had known.

But no, off that track, or he'd just get maudlin, or paranoid and he wasn't sure which was worse.

He'd finished everything he was likely to finish by half past five and let his assistant know he'd work from the mansion tomorrow. He was on the road by six driven by some indefinable urge to simply get home. The roads were clear of yesterday's snow and he made good time. He passed the sign declaring Lowell county an hour and thirty-seven minutes from the city and the traffic was non-existent, which meant another fifteen minutes with the Porsche pushed to its limits and he'd be within Smallville town limits. Another ten and he'd be home. Fifteen if he wanted to keep down the rural route that bordered the estate and pass the Kent Farm.

But he wouldn't do that. He would go home and put something on his stomach other than water and scotch and the English muffin he'd had this morning and try and find a little peace. Perhaps read. It had been a long time since he'd sat down with a book and simply lost himself in written word.

There was still snow on the ground when he pulled through the gates of the mansion. More of it out here in rural Smallville than there'd been in Metropolis. Clumps of it decorated the hedges and the naked branches of ornamental trees. There weren't many lights on in the mansion, but then he hadn't called ahead to let them know he was on his way. Gate security would be notifying house security though, that he was back on premises, and sure enough he was met at the door by the quiet, serious head of estate security, who didn't ask how his day had been or the weekend that he'd flown the coop without a word of warning, and probably didn't care as long as he was in one, functioning piece. He hadn't hired these men for their personalities.

He went up to the master suite, determined not to let the ghost of Lana chase him to lesser rooms. Tomorrow he'd have the staff start boxing up her things. Nell was enough of a social climber to still be on speaking terms with him, allegations of misdeed or no, so he'd call her and see if she wanted her niece's things. If not - - the Smallville Good Will would get the donation.

He felt better with that long overdue decision finally made. As if a burden had been lifted he hadn't known was there. He put on comfortable clothes, and went downstairs, where the staff had started the fire in the study. It would be a while before the warmth of it seeped out and took the chill off the air. He took a late, hastily prepared dinner on the sofa next to the fire. Sat afterwards with his back to the fire and flipped through the choice of books he'd brought down from the library. He read a page of this, a half chapter of that and couldn't find a subject that kept his attention. His fingers were cold and his mind kept wandering to how uncannily warm Clark's hands were. Clark's skin in general.

Clark's skin. Lex leaned his head back against the arm of the couch, staring at the shadows at the ceiling. Copper colored nipples on golden skin. The rose flush of his cheeks that almost matched the blush of his lips - - almost matched the shade of his cock, when it was proud and erect. It would have been nice to see the whole package, but Lex's imagination filled in details hidden by underwear and jeans.

Lex sighed, shut his eyes and considered putting the books aside in favor of switching on the TV and finding a channel that offered good old-fashioned porn.

He woke up at the muffled movement of one of the staff adding wood to the fire. The man murmured a soft apology and Lex grimaced at a stiff neck and the morning light filtering in through the stained glass. Second night it a row he'd slept on a couch. Someone had come in during the night and put a throw over him, a frankly surprising act of kindness considering how much distance the staff had been keeping from him lately. He still felt like - well, like he'd slept on a couch in a room ten degrees colder than he normally liked to sleep.

He took the time for a long, leisurely shower, leaned against the tiles and stroked himself with soap slick hands while he pictured Clark doing dirty, dirty things. It didn't take much of that to trigger release and he leaned there afterward with a self-satisfied smile that slowly faded as it occurred to him that masturbatory fantasies might be the only option open to him, as far as Clark was concerned.

He'd fucked up Monday morning. Let emotion get the better of him and destroyed a tentative truce. He thumped his forehead against the shower wall, let the hot water beat against his back and tried to figure out how he was going to fix it. Stopped thumping and rethought that and realized that he actually did want to fix it.

If for no other reason than to explore the possibility of whether he actually could. The challenge of Clark never failed to appeal - - on one level or another.

Despite the steam of the shower, the bathroom tiles were cold underfoot. Lex smeared a clear patch in the fogged mirror and stared at his reflection. His mother's eyes stared back - - that one thing he had to really recall her to memory, eyes just like hers, changeable as weather on the outside, but he had to wonder how much of his father lurked beneath. More than he'd ever wanted to believe possible, once upon a time. But a few of those inherited traits were laudable, tenacity chief among them - - and it had gained him no small victories in the past.

He took breakfast in the kitchen while he spoke with his assistant at length about the state of his schedule for the rest of the week, of emails to be forwarded and faxes to be sent for his approval.

He even pondered going into the study and settling down to work early, before shuffling the notion aside in favor of more pressing concerns.

He took the new black Audi, and left behind security, who were probably beginning to feel superfluous, with his rejection of them this last week and headed east down route 601. It was cold of course, but the clouds were spotty and the sun just might gain the courage to peek through as the day progressed. With a little luck it would melt the snow and bring a stretch of much needed warmth.

Lex was already tired of the cold and it wasn't even true winter yet. He had no doubt Clark had already gotten half his days work done, cloudy cold or not. He pulled into the Kent drive, up to the bright yellow farmhouse. He got out with the implements of his plan. Granted it wasn't a particularly brilliant plan - - but his resources on the Clark front were limited.

Lex knocked politely at the front door. There was no answer. He walked out to the big barn, where Clark could usually be found. A few of the horses nickered at him questioningly, but no Clark. It was frustrating to be stymied simply because Clark wasn't home at quarter to nine in the morning. What possible pressing engagements could he have this early?

He headed back out, and there was Clark standing by his car, jacketless, muddy boots, sleeves rolled and a bit of hay clinging to his shirt and hair, indicating he'd been doing some cow related chore. He also had the sort of wary look on his face that people wore at the approach of tax collectors and insurance salesmen.

"What do you want, Lex?"

Lex held up the laundered, neatly folded flannel and t-shirt that Clark had opted to leave behind. "I thought you might want these back."

Clark eyed the offering. Looked back up at Lex with vaguely annoyed eyes and asked sullenly. "Did you think I was getting down to my last few?"

Lex managed not to loose the impartial smile, even though Clark was considerably less endearing moody and resentful at twenty-one than he'd been at sixteen. He supposed he deserved a bit of hostility though, after some of the goads he'd used against Clark in their last encounter. Lex could take his medicine to get a step closer to a goal.

"I didn't want to take the risk of you going without. I wouldn't want your reputation ruined if you were seen without plaid or primary colors."

"If you're worried about my reputation, being seen with you's guaranteed to have people avoiding me."

Okay. So Clark's sense of humor was currently hibernating, even if he had hit the nail right on the head. Lex hadn't been able to take a step into town within the last month without people glaring, or whispering, actively crossing the street to avoid him, not to mention gratuitous physical attacks on his person.

"Well, the risk of social stigma aside, I thought I'd drop them by." He held out the clothes.

Clark looked at them like they were laced with poison. Looked back up at Lex with a dead on stare that was so reminiscent of Jonathan Kent's frank, accusing gaze that Lex had a brief, fanciful moment thinking of Clark channeling his spirit.

"All right, Clark I admit it, it was a flimsy excuse. It seems to me we need to talk about - -"

"No!" Clark snapped, accusing stare turning white around the edges with sudden panic. "We don't."

Clark snatched the shirts out of Lex's hands, gave him wide berth in moving past him as if the risk of touching him were too great to bear. "I've got a lot of work to do, so you can leave now."

Lex tightened his mouth, watching Clark's stiff shoulders as he walked towards the house. He swallowed back an angry knot and spun towards his car.

"Lex?"

Lex stopped, one hand on the hood, one on the open door. He didn't turn to look back. He was tired of the animosity on Clark's face. It occurred to him that one of the things he missed most in his life was Clark's smile.

"Thanks for the shirts."

"Yeah."

"You could have sent somebody by."

"I could have."

He heard the squelch of Clark's boots in the soggy drive. Felt his presence a few yards away - - had always been uncannily aware of Clark's simple presence.

"What are you doing, Lex?" Clark asked softly.

He didn't know how to answer that. Trying to heal a rift they'd both been damned and determined to create? Trying to appropriate what had once been a valuable resource. Trying to gain some measure of control over something personal when he seemed to be losing control over so much else. Trying to get laid?

"That's an excellent question. If I come up with an answer that makes sense to me, I'll let you know."

Clark was silent, maybe caught off guard by that bit of blatant honesty. Lex took a chance and turned, caught Clark staring at him from under those ridiculously lush lashes, eyes somber.

"I don't understand you," Clark said.

Lex almost laughed. Caught it and flashed a wry smile instead. "I don't understand me, either."

Another brutal honesty - - but this one Clark wouldn't get the gist of.

"Lex, why do you go out of your way to hurt - -" Me, was how Lex thought Clark would have ended that sentence when he didn't finish it. Just stood there swallowing like something had flown down his throat.

That was another one that Lex wasn't entirely sure how to answer. At least honestly. Clark was hitting on the difficult questions today.

Because you hurt the things you loved the most. But no, that wasn't right either, that was just him channeling his own father. And he didn't love - - he hadn't come here because he loved - - he'd come here because he wanted. Two very different things.

"Lex?" Clark was closer, a hint of concern in his eyes and Lex didn't remember seeing him move. "Are you okay?"

Of course he was okay, he just needed to catch his breath, to quell the rapid beating of his heart and try and ignore why the panic had surfaced in the first place.

"It's my nature, Clark. Just like it's yours to be gullible and believe the best of people - - until they show you otherwise. Isn't that how it goes?"

"You're doing it again."

He was. Basest instinct to strike first when he was feeling disadvantaged and Clark put him on the defensive just being Clark.

"Habit."

"It didn't used to be," Clark had a hand on the edge of the door. The folded shirts were on the porch steps behind him, probably already stained with bits of tracked mud from the yard. It occurred to him, out of the blue, that with Martha Kent doing the Washington circuit, Clark was left to his own devices in the domestic areas that she had probably claimed as her own before.

"If you plan on keeping the burgundy silk, it's dry clean only."

Clark blinked at him.

Lex managed not to mimic the dumbfounded look, even though he felt it. God knew where the laundry tip had come from.

"Yeah, I can read laundry instructions," Clark said dryly, but there was a miniscule curve to his lips. "Don't tell me that you've ever, in your entire life, had to do a load of clothes?"

"Clark, very few of my clothes are of the type you just throw into the machine." "That wasn't what I asked."

"No," Lex said. "I've never done my own laundry. I've never cut the grass. I've never washed my own car - - cars. It doesn't mean I don't know how it's supposed to be done."

"You've never cut grass?" Clark sounded astonished. Like it was a rite of passage that every young man was required to take before he was allowed into the ranks of adulthood.

It was an inane conversation, but it felt very much like the kind of therapy that no earthly amount of money could buy.

"I've been outside while it was being done. Does that count?"

Clark's mouth twitched. He stared over the door at the hood of the car as if the cooling patterns of condensation on the gleaming paint held some secret meaning. He looked back to Lex and there was a shift in his eyes, a subtle intensity that hinted at the iceberg that lay beneath the surface of Clark's beautifully simple faade. It was the sort of look that contradicted every lie Clark had ever told claiming normalcy. Because nothing normal could exude diffident farm boy naivety the one moment and that sense of overwhelming power the next.

It made Lex's pulse start racing again - - but not from panic.

There was the sound of tires spitting mud up the drive. Clark swallowed and turned his eyes down the drive. It felt like something physical being ripped asunder, the loss of that gaze and Lex leaned back against the edge of the car, recovering. Turned his own stare down the drive as a car drove up. Pulled to a stop a few yards behind the Audi and vomited out the unwelcome presence of Lois Lane.

Clark shuffled away from him, obliquely putting distance between them. Lex tightened his jaw and straightened, putting on a face that showed nothing.

"What are you doing skulking about this early in the morning?" Lois stomped through the mud like she was on a mission, ignoring Clark and glaring at Lex suspiciously.

"I could ask the same of you?" He could very easily hate Lois Lane to the point of violence for her interruption.

"Well, unlike you, I'm welcome here. Don't you have laws to break? Murders to commit? The day's a wasting, Lex."

He smiled tightly, not in the mood to waste his time in verbal battle with her in the middle of Clark's driveway when he was feeling so damned cheated. Since Clark pointedly wasn't looking at him, he didn't look at Clark. Just got into the car with the purpose of orderly retreat.

Lois fired a parting salvo. "Have you been to the dam since the army pulled out, Lex? Of course, they're in cahoots with you, covering up information, so I was just wondering, how many bodies did they really recover? I heard they were finding them a mile, two miles down the river once the water receded. What's it feel like being responsible for that? Can I get a quote?"

"Fuck you." He said softly, because no calm, impassive answer could fight its way to the surface though the surge of queasiness he thought he'd left behind at the Metropolis lab.

Her eyes gleamed in a predatory, gleeful way at his lapse.

He pulled the door shut, started the engine and made a U-turn around Clark and Lois - - not looking at Clark's face. Not wanting to see his expression. He got out onto the road and floored it, the car surging forward and he was halfway home before he slammed the brakes and skidded to a stop off the side of the road. Sat there with his hands, white knuckled on the wheel, leather creaking under his grip, mind awash in a chaotic swirl of static that finally coalesced into one thing.

She was right. He hadn't been back there since the incident. He'd read the reports. He knew the exact number of casualties. He knew the official explanation of what had ruptured the dam walls. The unofficial theory was less popular and involved things the army wasn't entirely prepared to admit existed, fools that they were.

Lex knew. Lex had had its fucking cock down his throat. But the responsibility didn't lie with the entity, it lay with him. And he hadn't set foot within the wreckage to see for himself the damage wrought. He needed to go. Needed to make the pilgrimage, because maybe if he did, he could get past whatever subconscious hang up was impeding his mind.

He turned the car around and headed for Reeves Dam.

Part Fifteen

Lois was still bitching about Lex, but Clark only heard a fraction of the complaints, the sound of her voice the only thing really getting through for a few moments as he watched Lex's car speed away. When Lex had been younger, he'd used to drive dangerously fast - - like a man with a death wish. He'd slowed down in recent years. Graduated for the most part, from the sleek extensions of male ego he used to have imported in, to more refined works of automotive art.

Everybody grew up, sooner or later. Lex no exception. Clark no exception. Everyone gave up some cherished ideal, some coveted dream, sacrificed on the alter of adulthood.

Lex only reverted now a days, spun tires and mistreated his toys when he was pissed. At least in Clark's admittedly limited knowledge of recent Lexian behavior. He hadn't been keeping track. He should have been. Maybe then he'd have a clue what was going on inside Lex's head.

Lex had half smiled at him, and it had seemed really, really honest - - not the tight, fake smile that was the only thing Clark had seen from him in a long, long time. The tension had been on its way to relaxing off his face, and his eyes had almost lost that guarded look - - halfway to something familiar and candid. Before Lois drove up and banished it.

Lex was a half mile down the road, and Clark adjusted his vision, slowly focusing back on what was standing in front of him still talking, and away from the car going way too fast down a country route that still had patches of icy slush.

"What?" He cut into her diatribe and that question could have covered a plethora of subjects that he didn't want her to have to repeat.

Lois snapped her mouth shut, eyeing him narrowly. She took a deep breath and said with exasperation practically oozing from her pores. "Were you listening to a word I said, Smallville?"

"Uh, yeah. I just missed that last part." He tried to recall if there might be some reason she was out here this morning that he'd forgotten in the confusion of the weekend.

"I said, I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him - - me, not you - - and what was he doing out here anyway? You really would think he'd have better things to do than harass the local yokels."

Clark narrowed his eyes and gave her a glare at the insult, which she either didn't notice or ignored, because she plowed right on.

"Considering what happened last week and the love the rest of the town has for anything Luthor, you'd think he'd just pack up and move back to the city where soulless scum are a dime a dozen."

"Lois." He felt a little surge of protectiveness, which was just damned stupid and uncalled for, because Lex could take care of himself just fine. Except when he couldn't.

"Don't tell me he was out here thanking you for your little save? A little late for that, isn't it? What did he want?"

Even if Clark had an inkling to the answer of that one, he wasn't prepared to share with Lois when she'd already managed to get him on edge.

His still mostly neatly folded shirts were on the steps. Lex had probably had them washed. But then, Lex always was a stickler for the most miniscule detail. Things most people would never even consider important, Lex thought of and dealt with. Obsessive compulsive to a degree, with the way he liked things ordered. The way he folded his clothes and kept his surroundings immaculate. The way he poured over books, craving knowledge - - the way the unknown plagued him like a demon with a sharpened stick.

"What are you doing here, Lois?" He asked without answering.

She huffed a little, cheeks pink from the weather and her irritation. "Just stopping by to see if you were home. Chloe and I tried to reach you all weekend, but you were incommunicado and apparently not even bothering to answer your cell. Did you forget to charge it, or were you just feeling unsocial?"

Actually, now that he thought about it, he probably had forgotten to charge the phone late last week before the impromptu trip to New York. He'd thought it had been unusually quiet all weekend.

Easy to plead forgetfulness since it was God's honest truth. So he shrugged and managed an embarrassed look.

"Sorry about that. Mom used to always remind me to plug the thing up. I forget."

"God, Smallville. You're hopeless." Lois rolled her eyes, but there was a little twinkle that suggested satisfaction, as if she'd gotten to the bottom of a mystery and the answers all pointed to someone else's stupidity. "But it still doesn't explain where you were all weekend. We stopped by a couple of times looking for you? The truck was here, but no you."

That was a harder one to explain. He tried for simplicity. "I needed to get away, so I went to the city this weekend. I got a ride with a friend headed that way."

Half lie. Half-truth, if you overlooked the implication that the city in question was Metropolis and not New York.

"You have friends other than Chloe and me? And my God, I didn't think they had barn dances and ho downs in Metropolis." Lois lifted both brows as if that was the most astonishing news. Clark lowered his, wondering if there would be any painless, successful way to mark Lois off that short list.

"Shut up, Lois."

She smiled at him, pleased with herself. Followed him to the house when he stalked that way, sweeping up the shirts as he went like it was the most common thing in the world - - like he'd left them out here for some reason, instead of having them hand delivered by Lex Luthor - -

Who'd looked really good today, in a black wool pea coat and sensible black boots with soles fit for early winter instead of the imported shoes he usually wore. Who'd had a little bit of color in his cheeks from the morning cold - - who's skin would have probably felt really chill if Clark had touched him - - really smooth.

Clark tightened his lips and turned to press his hands to the kitchen island, looking at Lois, who was rooting around in the cabinet for creamer to put in the coffee she'd helped herself to.

"Chloe at work?" he asked, while she was liberally dosing.

"Yep."

"Why aren't you?"

"Who says I'm not?"

And that almost scared him, because God knew what she'd uncovered or what had happened in town while he'd been doing things he'd been trying really hard not to think about with Lex six states away.

"Everything okay?"

She turned around with the mug in hand, a frustrated line between her brows. "I wasn't just busting his balls, when I asked about the dam. I've been trying to get in there for weeks now - - I mean I figure I have the right if anybody does, having almost died there myself - - after what happened to Chloe. I thought once the army cleared out, I could slip in, take a few pictures - - do a little snooping, but LexCorp security moved in when the military moved out, and they've got it locked down."

"Lois, you can't believe they left anything there?"

"No. But sometimes you just have to see for yourself."

The dam was twenty miles outside Smallville, four miles off the highway at the end of a road that had seen better days. He owned it through a subsidiary of a subsidiary that had the government contract of its upkeep, and under normal circumstances it would have taken a magnifying glass and a leap of logic to connect Reeves Dam to LexCorp. That or a disaster of major proportions.

Everyone knew now. It had been plastered across the front of papers country wide, even if the press never did get the real story. And even those that suspected had been shut down, one way or another. The Government didn't want public knowledge of what had been going on here, anymore than he did. Maybe more so. There was a limit, after all, to what Lex could lose. No matter how vast, his resources were finite. If people got wind of aliens and government sanctioned genetic manipulation the federal government stood to loose the sort of face that could cost it more than money.

There was nothing subtle about security now. Before, they'd tried to hide their presence, to dispel the notion that any thing out of the norm was happening here. Now, they were posted to keep out the curious. The trespassers with a cause and a press badge. The mourners, come to see the place where the waters had been unleashed.

Sixteen civilian lives washed away in the initial torrent. That was the final count. There were lawsuits filed for wrongful death that were trickling into the courts, even though settlements had been offered. The families of his own casualties had already been compensated. He took care of his employees and his employees' interests.

The subjects were another matter. Men that were already supposed to be dead, fatalities of another sort of war altogether. Volunteers who hadn't an inkling what they were really getting themselves into. Who'd given themselves over because they'd believed the spiel. The protection of country, of liberty, of all the cherished things against not the 'internal' threat of global politics and religious fanaticism, but something so much worse.

The ends justified the means, right? Of course they did. Even if it meant stripping the humanity from a group of men willing to give their lives for a cause, making them something more than human and less, to fight the advent of something - - more than human and less.

He walked into the dam, past rubble on the floor, past the raucous sound of repair work in progress. They'd shored the dam, sealed the cracks and patched the holes and the river was held at bay once more. More power in that stymied water than what he'd hoped to gather here.

He'd wanted that army. He'd wanted it so bad everything else had faded to obscurity. Trifling distractions from the long-term goal of power. Power for security? Power for the sake of power? Power to subjugate - - who? He wasn't even sure if he could differentiate between legitimate goals and pipe dreams anymore- - but he'd been so sure when he'd pushed this project into overdrive- - so damned fervent - -

The path he remembered that led to the lab was blocked by a wall of uncleared debris and dark with failed lighting. He flicked on the flashlight they'd given him at the entrance when he'd ignored their warnings of unstable areas. He had to work his way around the long way, through security gates wrenched off their hinges, and halls with walls slimy from algae growth, stinking of mold and mildew. Water still pooled on the floor here and there, and he trod through it, uncaring, focused on the goal, on the subtle underlying scent of death in the air. Or was this in his imagination?

There was the doorway, gaping black hole into the control room. Funny how he'd always been so eager to get here, to cross that threshold and behold the fruits of his labor - - and now he stood at the bottom of the steps leading up and couldn't quite convince his legs to move. It was the sense of death, quiet and insidious that repelled him - - that drew him forward finally. Most of the tell tale equipment was gone. The army had been through here with a fine toothed comb, gathering evidence - - removing it. They had him if they wanted him. Fifty times over, well negotiated settlements or not.

The floor was littered with wreckage that he slowly stepped around, sweeping the beam of light here, there, expecting - - God, he was expecting things that were simply not going to be here. There was no stench other than mildew and no death presence other than what his imagination provided and yet - - was that his breath? That rasping sound?

Two bodies would have been found here, if the initial flooding hadn't displaced them. The unbreakable glass separating control room from subject holding area was unarguably broken. Shattered by strength greater than anything they'd been able to reproduce. Beyond, was wreckage. The ceiling had half collapsed, though the rubble had been removed in efforts to retrieve bodies. There had been a rupture in the wall - - Lex had seen pictures - - where water had flooded in. Patched now. All but the bare bones of examination tables gone, pulled out to remove the suggestion that human beings had been housed there. Row upon row of them, neatly placed, like lines of corn in any number of Lowell county fields.

He hadn't remembered the names before, not of the ones that had been in stasis, waiting their turn to receive that all important alien boost - - that jolt of energy that would give life to the creation - - a modern day legion of Frankenstein's monsters.

Master Sergeant William Ramey. Lieutenant Edward Summerfield. Private first class James Smith. Private first class Steven Chenault. Wes Keenan - - the list went on. He'd read it after his visit to M & C. The first time he'd gone over as a whole, as a list of names that belonged to men, rather than assets. It hadn't seemed to matter before.

He walked to the shattered window, passed the beam of his light over empty space. Rubble. Twisted metal. Stared for a long time, a vague sense of numbness creeping up - - like he'd felt after Dark Thursday when the damage reports starting really rolling in. When the enormity of the death toll began to sink in. The only difference being, he didn't remember that terrible day - - not consciously. He remembered this. He'd orchestrated this - - this monstrosity. Rode roughshod over morality and ethics - - and he'd had ethics once, hadn't he? Not Kent ethics, granted, but the Luthor brand - - still - - still - -

The beam of the light passed over something half caught under a chunk of concrete on the floor by his boots. The arm off a set of glasses. He stared at it for a moment, putting two and two together, because no one in the facility that afternoon had worn glasses but the man he'd willingly sacrificed for his own escape.

It hit him. It just hit him so hard he couldn't breath. The bile came up, a surprising rush of acid at the back of his throat. It caught him like a slap on the face, a sudden wash of blind repulsion that sent him to his knees with the force of the nausea that came in its wake.

Lex knelt there, bits of rock biting into his knees, while his stomach expelled its contents. Reached for the gently rocking flashlight that had fallen from his hand after, vacant grab for the one point of movement and light in the chamber. Wiped the back of his arm across his mouth, the wool of the jacket sleeve scratchy against his lips.

The light was wavering, damaged when he'd dropped it perhaps. No. It was his hand. He pushed himself to his feet, staggered backwards into a wall and braced himself there, the names flitting across his memory - - but not the faces. He couldn't match the faces, because they'd all just been naked test subjects, stacked in rows.

He got out the door, blind escape, to the bottom of the steps and leaned a shoulder against the wall as his stomach clenched and rebelled again. Nothing but a thin stream of liquid came up this time and it tasted like nothing so much as stomach acid and stale scotch. He dry heaved again, not seeming to be able to stop, once started. Wetness spiked his lashes and he blinked it away, its presence rousing indignity. Rousing fury that helped drive back the shuddery feeling in his knees.

He got out of the warren of halls without having to backtrack by luck alone, because God knew, he wasn't concentrating on the path. Wasn't concentrating on much of anything, as he walked out past LexCorp security towards the car. Just keeping his stomach stable and his hands from noticeably trembling. Keeping his face impassive. That was a big one. A major effort when usually it came so easily.

He drove back home, hands clenched on the wheel, trying to grind molars down to nothing, radio turned to silence because the music was noise that clashed with the disruption in his mind. The madness could only flood in if he let it. If he gave in to the weakness and let the confusion overwhelm him.

He could hold it at bay if he ignored it. If he pushed the twangs of guilt far back in his mind and went on with life. Necessary evils. Two words that held so much meaning when you were talking about survival. Personal survival no less than species. More so, maybe.

He kept repeating it, a mantra that grew meaningless the more the words echoed in his head. Became sounds, a collection of syllables and vowels that were gibberish until he stopped - - took a breath and reevaluated the words. He heard them uttered his father's voice along with the echoes of a hundred other 'life lessons'.

The housekeeper was running the vacuum in the main hall when he came in, the cord undulating behind her like a serpent as she moved. Back and forth. Back and forth.

She straightened when she saw him. Cut off the machine and waited questioningly, because he was standing there staring.

"Get out," he said, low growl and she blinked, incapable of comprehending the depths of his desire for silence.

Get out!" he yelled, and he never raised his voice with the staff. You never showed emotion to the domestics - - a rule learned young. But he was feeling the edges blur. The seams starting to rip in the fabric of his psyche.

She flinched backwards, flustered, not knowing whether to edge past him to unplug the machine or simply retreat. House security came trotting down the hall at the disturbance, and Lex realized there were too many people by far in the mansion.

"Mr. Luthor?"

"Everybody. Out. Security. Staff. Just get. The. Hell. Out of the house."

He stalked to the study, leaving them to it, heading straight way to the bar. The taste of fresh scotch washed away the bitter taste of vomit from his mouth. He filled another glass. Downed it like he was gulping water. It hit a newly empty belly with warmth that was palpable. He shrugged out of the coat and flung it in the general direction of the couch. It landed on the arm and slithered off onto the floor and he found he didn't particularly care to walk over and pick it up.

Another glass of scotch and he moved to his desk, leaning over and opening the laptop. His fingers hovered over the keys, while he debated files he could pull up. So many necessary evils.

He grinned. Laughter came out around it that sounded nothing less than hysterical. He slammed the laptop closed, snatched it off the desk and hurled it. He hadn't been particularly aiming for the stained glass window behind his desk, but he managed to hit it, off center, and the computer sailed through with the tinkling of shattered glass.

The glass tumbler followed, exploding against the age-old stone wall next to the window. Everything else went off the desk with a sweep of his arm. Books flung off the shelf, priceless first editions, tossed spine up on the floor, in a blind frenzy.

He found a poker beside the fireplace and it was an enthusiastic extension of his rage. The stereo smashed to bits, objects d'art destroyed, glass cases shattered. The glass top of his desk harder to make a dent in, just splintery fractures of stressed glass that wore down his patience and sapped his energy.

He stood in the middle of it, pulse rushing in his ears like the water from a broken dam, sweat trickling down his face. No, not sweat. Blood. He lifted a hand and felt the sting of cut above his brow. Looked at the blood on his fingers as if it were alien. His head spun with the irony of that?

He licked it off, one finger at a time, salt and copper, and wondered what it was that the entity had tasted when it had been violating him in that parody of Clark's body? Violation. Looking back, he supposed that had been pure karma at play, considering the violations he'd committed. Nothing less than he'd deserved - - not even close. The greater good never came without its necessary evils, after all.

God, he was shaking. He felt his bones rattling and he couldn't stop it. If he'd had those pills handy, he was considering a few days ago, he would have swallowed a hand full, just to kill the tumult in his head. He glanced towards the bar, and found it decimated. Bottles shattered, precious liquid soaking into the floor, making puddles on the hardwood. Not the smartest move on his part. He'd have to go down to the cellar now for more.

He did just that, reached the door leading to the depths of the castle and realized he still had the poker in hand. He leaned it against the frame, careful that it didn't fall, needing it not to fall, because it was his choice what to obliterate and what to keep in proper order.

Down into cool, darkness, silence where even the sound of his steps got eaten up by the density of earth buffered stone. He broke open a dust-covered case of 60-year-old Macallan that he'd bought at an auction a few years back. What he'd been saving it for, he had no clue. What was the point of it sitting down here, aging in the shadows when he could put it to more constructive use?

He took a swallow right from the bottle, a damned criminal way to savor something that had cost him twenty thousand a pop, but it was no less smooth and rich than it would have been out of a Waterford tumbler, swirled and savored slowly.

He slid down against the stair railing, sitting on the next to bottom step, drinking down rare single malt with much the fervor that a bum on the streets of Metropolis might attack a six dollar bottle of 20/20. There existed the corresponding need to forget, perhaps. Or at the very least the desire to numb persistent awareness.

Somehow he was back upstairs. He didn't remember making the climb. He didn't remember finishing off the one bottle and grabbing a second, but he held it in his hand.

He'd wanted silence and the whole of the house screamed it at him now. Years and decades and centuries worth of unsaid things wrapped up in stone and mortar and aged wood. He saw boxes at the top of the stairs leading to the family wing that he hadn't noticed before. Lana's things, which the staff had obediently packed up, ready to be taken away and out his sight.

If the all traces of her were gone, he wouldn't have to think about the depths he'd sank to assure success. Things flashed across his mind, decisions made - - necessary evils to further a cause when he thought she'd been faltering - - drawn back towards the enemy - - towards Clark.

Inevitable. Clark drew in everyone. Clark was magnetic. Powerful. Pure. The type of man you could fall in love with and not have second thoughts once you saw beneath the surface. Clark didn't have the sort of darkness that seeped up through the cracks like blood through torn skin.

Lex wavered in the doorway of the study and took in the extent of the demolition. It was like something inhuman had gone on a tear. Maybe it had.

He searched through the scattered shards of crystal around the overturned bar for a whole tumbler. Found one with only a whisper of a chip along the rim and figured it would do. It was only fair to appreciate the Macallan out of a proper glass, now that he was on his second bottle.

He headed towards his desk and tried to right his chair. It was a treacherous task with his balance shot to hell, heavier than it looked. Defied, he sank down beside it, pushing himself back against the wall behind the desk, the glass clutched between his knees, the bottle on the floor next to him.

He looked through the clutter for his laptop - - remembered after a bit that it was probably outside in the garden somewhere, resting on sodden earth with all its damning information.

But there were things he'd never written down, on paper or behind the encrypted security of computer software. He wondered if she'd told Clark. He shuddered, tightening his hand around the glass, fighting back a new curl of nausea at the thought. There were quite a few things he'd flaunted in Clark's face, things designed to hurt, things designed to incense - - but never, ever did he want him to know the depths of Lex's desperation. The depths of his shame - -

He lost time. He knew he'd lost time because his hands were wet, palms stinging with the bite of scotch whiskey burning the slices in his palms. Shards of the tumbler still glistened in his hands, while the larger, broken pieces lay on the floor between his knees. He turned his palms up, watching the blood well, watching it trail, pinkish where it mixed with the Macallan down his wrists to soak into the edges of his sleeves.

Necessary evils. He'd needed to protect himself, after all. Needed to have that tactical advantage because he'd been in a war - - he just couldn't remember why.

He touched a shard of glass embedded in his hand. Wiggled it and the grate of glass against bone or tendon or whatever it lodged in deep in the meat of his palm, registered as dull, distant pain. More blood seeped out though, around the edges, when he pulled it slowly out.

He used to have control over everything. But it was slipping now. Pieces of his life crashing down like dominoes - - click, click, click. It was nice to know he could still bleed on command.

And something in the back of his mind, stirred in alarm. He reached for the bottle and saw the silver shape of his office portable. He used to know Clark's number by heart, still remembered the first cell number, but it wouldn't be the same anymore. Even Clark upgraded phones once and while. The farm number would be the same. Lex had a head for numbers, even when it felt like he was bleeding from the brain.

He leaned his head against the wall and grayed out. Came back again at the crunch of glass and his name uttered like a breathy curse.

Clark stood there, in the middle of the remnants of Lex's tantrum, fists clenched at his side, body taut with anger or surprise or hatred or fear. Lex didn't know anymore. He'd used to be able to read Clark like a beloved classic.

"Why are you here?" He couldn't fathom it. He couldn't fathom the sound of that slurred voice in his ears. Was that him?

"You called me?" Clark's face was pale, his eyes wide and bright and beautiful.

Had he? He didn't remember. He'd thought he'd just drifted for a moment. "And you came," Lex whispered, a sense of reverence shivering over him. It was the most amazing thing. No matter what he did, or how little he deserved it, Clark always came. The day he stopped, would be the day Lex lost all chance at salvation.

"What have you done?" Clark moved forward, flung the overturned chair aside so that it skittered across parquet and crouched in front of him.

Big fingers, stained by honest dirt caught Lex's wrists, turned them face upwards so the damage showed. Lex didn't try and stop him, didn't try and avoid the critical eyes. What was the point?

"God," Clark said softly, smearing blood from the unmarred skin of Lex's forearms and wrists as if he expected to find self-inflicted gashes. Not a particularly novel idea, but he wasn't that far gone yet.

Clark's eyes traveled down to the pieces of the glass on the floor, the bloody silver phone next to them, that Lex didn't even remember picking up in the first place. Clark took a breath. When his gaze flickered back up, his eyes were narrow and hard. A muscle twitched in his jaw. Angry. Furious Clark. Lex felt confident at the classification of those emotions.

"I shouldn't have bothered you." Lex felt numb. Felt stabbing pain. Felt dead inside. Felt surges of emotional upheaval that came in unpredictable surges. "You can go now."

Run out the door, never to be seen again. Betrayed. Betrayer.

Clark said something under his breath, something that probably contained foul language. He rose, pulled Lex up after him by the wrists, one smooth, unhindered motion.

"Where is the staff? Where's your security, Lex?"

Where? Oh, he'd sent them away. They were loud presences intruding upon his solitude.

"Gone. Sorry." Lex wasn't sure that was what he was sorry about. There were a lot of options to choose from.

Clark muttered again, pulled Lex by a grip on one slick wrist around the desk. Lex's hip hit the edge and he staggered, balance shot to hell, legs trembly and weak, from the booze or maybe a little from all the blood soaked into the sleeves of his sweater and pooled on the floor where he'd been sitting. Clark put an arm around him, shoring him up and the heat of contact went through him like a lazy surge of current.

"Is there a first aid kit in the kitchen?"

Maybe. Probably. When Lex got hurt, it generally required more attention than a box of generic medical supplies could provide. But he seemed to recall a kit under one of the counters. Clark didn't wait for his affirmation, just got him moving and there was no arguing with Clark when he wanted forward momentum.

Into the kitchen. There were the signs that the cook had been about something when Lex had ordered the exodus. The remnants were still on the counter. Clark took him to the sink and stuck his hands under running water. It was cold, frigid at first, but Clark didn't seem to notice, and Clark's hands weren't letting Lex pull his own back. But it washed the old blood away and made the new run pink, leaving the gashes in clear relief.

"There's still some glass in there." Clark said, after squinting at Lex's pinkened palms. He looked around the kitchen then, fixing finally on one of the doors under the island. The first aid kit was miraculously inside.

Clark pulled up a stool and said 'sit' in the tone he might use with a dog. Lex didn't respond well to spoken command. He did better with hand signals, which Clark reverted to after a moment, taking Lex by the shoulders and aiming him towards the padded seat.

"What the hell, Lex?" Clark picked at the big slice in Lex's palm with a pair of tweezers out of the kit. Prodded until the ends of the tweezers clicked against something hard and solid nestled in Lex's flesh and latched on.

Was it possible to feel yourself go pale? It hurt more, of a sudden now that Clark was here, than it had when he'd been staring at the blood in dazed fascination in the study. Perhaps Clark amplified everything.

"Do you think you could root around a little deeper?" he asked, on a harshly expelled breath, trying hard to keep his voice from wavering.

Clark held up a pink-coated sliver of crystal, disgust clearly written on his face. He plunged the hand he'd been working on under water again, and Lex swallowed, feeling the thud of pulse in both hands now, hot and throbbing. "You're probably going to need stitches." Clark squirted ointment on his palms and started wrapping them.

Lex watched him wind filmy white cloth around and around, while the stool swayed under him. Or was it the kitchen?

"What happened, Lex?" Grim voice. Jaw still working as Clark fought back some emotion.

Wasn't that the hundred billion dollar question?

"Nervous breakdown? Mental break? If I could remember the symptoms of my last brush with insanity, I'd have more to go on." That came out shakier than he'd hoped. He'd been aiming for wry sarcasm. His wit was usually much sharper three sheets to the wind.

Clark's eyes jerked up to his, his hands stilling on the bandages. "Why do you say that?" He asked softly, something timorous and culpable shifting through his expression.

Oh, God. If only he knew. Laughter boiled up, desperate and hysterical and he fought it down. Managed to squash all but a few strained cackles, before he jerked his hand out of Clark's loosened grip and staggered off the stool. The kitchen was too bright. All white and gleaming stainless steel. He needed darkness and shadows to drown himself in.

"Damnit, Lex, tell me what happened?" Clark stomped up behind him. Caught Lex's arm and swung him around and the room spun with him, crazily, like he was loosely fastened in the seat of a Tilt-a-whirl. "Tell me why your study looks like a tornado ripped through and why you're so drunk you were willing to sit there and just bleed."

The grip hurt. It really sort of hurt, which was saying something, that he could register it past the swirley mess in his head and the throbbing heat in his hands. Indignity reared up at the manhandling. Unless the hands-on was proceeding some sort of rough fuck - - which really was an idea that held merit all on its own - - Lex was not prepared to tolerate it.

"Let go." If there was authority in his voice, Lex didn't hear it. It came out shaky and breathy and didn't seem to make much of an impact on Clark, who took a step closer without releasing the grip and glowered down, self-righteous and demanding - - and entirely hot. Lex's mind drifted back to the rough fuck notion, until Clark shook him a little and then did let him go. Without the benefit of that hand, Lex stood there, swaying, bearings lost.

"I want to help, but you need to tell me, Lex, what I'm helping with," Clark said slowly, face very serious, eyes very intent on Lex's face, like he was trying to see inside him. As if he were trying to figure out what made Lex tick, not because it would give him some advantage, but because he was simply concerned about Lex. Because Clark liked to understand people for the sake of people, and not to ferret out weak spots to prod and manipulate.

Clark wanted to help. Clark always wanted to help, but he couldn't if he hated Lex so badly he couldn't stand to look at him. And he would if he knew. But - - didn't he already? Hate. Didn't he already have enough grudges that any sane man would have shied far away? And he'd come anyway.

It was inside Lex's chest, this swelling, tight ball of guilt and confusion and if he didn't lance it, it was going to crush him from the inside out. Lex laughed at the absurdity of that macabre image, kept laughing until his shoulders shook and Clark's hands came back, gentle this time, to weigh on his shoulders.

"My math's all wrong," he said trying to wrap his mind around a concept that had too many blurred edges to get a grip on. "Two and two are adding up to nine hundred and seven - - and I just can't make sense of it."

"What?" Clark blinked at him in confusion, but his face had the earnest magnetism that had snared Lex all those years ago - - and Clark had never lost that, they'd just stopped talking enough that Lex ever got the chance to see it. God, he missed it.

"Sixteen. Fifty. Two. Nine. Two thousand three hundred and twelve. - - One."

"What are you talking about, Lex? What does that mean?" Clark wanted to know.

Clark wanted to know - - but really, he wouldn't like the truth behind those numbers. Lex had added them up. He might forget a name when it didn't seem to matter, but he didn't forget the details. The devil was in the details, what was his father always said. Some of Lionel's lessons, he had taken to heart.

"Lives," Lex whispered. "That's how many - - my hand, my actions, my orders - - that's how many."

His knees felt weak. Clark's big, green eyes were blurred so badly they seemed multi-faceted. But his vision wasn't so far gone that he couldn't see Clark putting things together. Clark's fingers tightened on his shoulders, and Lex half expected pain. But instead - -

"Dark Thursday wasn't your fault, Lex." Clark figured out the big number, his mouth twisting a little in a grimace. "Nothing that happened that day was your fault. Don't you get that?"

Lex laughed again, an aborted breath of bitterness. He was bleeding again, from the eyes. God, please let it be blood that was warm and wet on his cheeks, because anything else would be unforgivable. He couldn't think. Why the hell was Clark playing devil's advocate with the devil?

"I don't know how I got here." The words felt broken, coming out of his lips. He did. And Clark was just standing there, a foot away, blotting out the bright whites of the kitchen, smelling of clean earth and grass and the faint unique musk that was simply Clark.

"I do," Clark said, solemnly, like he was speaking last rites.

And that was really not what Lex had expected to hear. Not even close. One more inconsistency atop a mountain of inconsistencies and the whole of the structure started to tumble. His legs gave way, overcome by that nauseating down-the-drain sort of faintness that went hand in hand with succumbing to the influence. He clutched at the closest solid support, wrapped his hands in the edges of soft fabric, but it couldn't keep him from sinking. There wasn't buoyancy enough to stand up to the weight pulling him down into darkness.

So he let go and plummeted.

Part Sixteen

Clark caught Lex on the way down. Was already reaching when Lex's lashes fluttered shut, his face went slack and his body gave up the pretense of stability. Lex was just unresisting weight against him, slack in his arms while Clark stood there breathing like he'd just run been running laps coast to coast, Lex's babble starting to make sense in his head.

God. God. J'onn had said time would tell, but Clark wasn't sure this was damage plaguing Lex, so much as conscience. He hoped not and all he could do was hope, since J'onn wasn't around to inquire. And if it was conscience - - and he didn't think Lex had been capable of guile just then, then it was a good thing, right? It meant maybe what Lionel had said about the Zod thing just being a whisper of a presence inside Lex's subconscious was maybe an understatement. Was maybe a damned big understatement if the pain in Lex's eyes had been anything to go by.

He got an arm under Lex's knees and swung him up in his arms. Familiar sense of weight, familiar fit of the body in his grasp. He'd had Lex in his arms a lot lately. Enough that he could see habits forming. He shifted his shoulder, so Lex's head lolled forward instead of back, and figured upstairs. It wasn't as if he hadn't carried him up there before.

He passed boxes on the landing, and padded down the second story hall to the room he'd taken Lex before - - after he and J'onn had pillaged his mind. No. Not pillaged, damn it. Repaired. It had been necessary. For all involved. For the world, maybe, if the Zod influence had pressed Lex towards the sorts of things that had led to the destruction of Zod's own race. Clark's own race.

He laid Lex upon the bed and the damp blood on his sleeve immediately stained the beige brocade of the comforter. It would have to stain, because the notion of undressing him again - - after what had happened in New York - - it made Clark's hands shake. Seeing Lex's skin bared was not conducive for deep thought and Clark really needed to think. He settled for taking off Lex's boots, which had dried mud in the soles and bits of glass embedded in that.

Letting Lex continue on, driving himself mad and blithely unaware of the reasons why, would be deplorable. An unforgivable act of cruelty. And yet, how did he broach the subject without dredging up the inevitable questions of how he knew? And Lex loved his questions. Lex thrived on questions. And Clark made a livelihood of keeping secrets. No wonder there had been the inevitability of clash - - with neither one willing to bend. Only it was important now, really important for Lex to understand that maybe those things he was grieving about, those lives he had tallied up, weren't entirely his fault.

Clark needed someone to talk to in a bad way. Someone without bias. But did such a person even exist that didn't have prejudice against Lex one way or another? Maybe mom, and even if she did, she'd still try and give him honest advice. Only she was in Washington and the last time he'd popped in to visit, he'd almost gotten caught on camera, because she had a spotlight all her own now. So calling was a safer bet. Besides, he wasn't sure he wanted to be a half country away just now, until Lex sobered up and got a grip.

But outside would be fine. Where the cold fresh air would clear his head. The mansion was oppressing. As if all the dark deeds done within its walls weighted the air. It was enough to push a perfectly sane man over the edge. He never had liked the idea of Lana living here and that went above and beyond the fact that she'd been with Lex. Hell, he wasn't sure if he liked the idea of Lex living here, with nothing but staff that obviously didn't give enough of a damn to try and deal with him when he was so obviously in need of dealing with.

He went downstairs, picked through the shambles of the study and found Lex's cell in his coat pocket. His own was dutifully charging at home and he hadn't really stopped long enough to think about grabbing it in his haste to get here anyway. Lex hadn't asked for help in so many words when he'd called, but Clark had heard it plain as day in the slurred speech and the nonsense words. After he'd heard 'blood' that had pretty much clenched the deal and he'd just been there, heart hammering in - - well, in fear - - of what he might find.

It was almost three and the sun, which had been out this morning for a while had gone back into hiding behind ominous fronts of clouds. Another storm rolling in on the heels of the one that had just left. The temperature was already dropping. He went out the kitchen door, to the back terrace overlooking a manicured array of evergreen box hedges formed into a geometric maze that dominated the landscape below. He walked across the tiled terrace past wrought iron patio furniture, down low stone steps and onto a lawn that no amount of time and effort could keep green in the midst of early winter weather. It was scrupulously free of dead leaves or other fall debris, and the dormant garden beds were rich with mulch and spotted with fall hardy perennials. The gardens here were too formal for his tastes, too controlled. He liked his mother's wildflower beds better, that grew untamed and tangled and beautiful.

He dialed his mother's cell number, and it picked up almost immediately, answered by the now familiar voice of his mother's personal assistant.

"Hi, Nancy. It's Clark again."

"Hi Clark. Session's running over. The senator's still tied up."

He shut his eyes and sighed. Some days, he missed the sound of his mother's voice.

"Okay. Just - - just tell her I called again."

"First message I give her." Nancy sounded like she had better things to do than talk to him.

He severed the connection and held the phone to his chest, debating his other venting options. He used to be able to tell anything to Chloe - - except this Lex stuff was different. And Chloe had reason enough to not want anything to do with anything remotely involving Lex and it didn't feel right making her fight past painful grudges just because he couldn't deal with a problem on his own. It didn't feel right having to explain to her why it mattered to him so much, really mattered, when he wasn't quite sure himself.

There was Lionel, but he shivered a little even as the thought crossed his mind. Lionel's methods of helping Lex were as inscrutable as Jor-el's were of helping Clark. Even though Lionel might have more than the straws Clark was grasping at, the idea of baring Lex's weaknesses to him made the hair on the back of Clark's arms rise. No, he'd given Lex over once into that particular brand of care when he been young enough and scared enough not to know better, he wouldn't do it again. No matter whose side Lionel claimed to be working on.

He cursed J'onn for being secretive and elusive, because if anyone could figure out exactly how to deal with this problem, it was a being capable of getting into people's minds and sorting through the mess. At the very least Clark would dearly have liked to shake some comprehensive answers out of him.

Otherwise, his options were limited to just coming out and saying, yeah, there was a chunk of Zod left inside your head and I helped rip it out. Sorry it's messing with your mind, but that's the price you have to pay, I guess. How did I know? Well, you want the old familiar lies or should I come up with some new elaborate ones? God. He was screwed. He was totally screwed.

He collapsed down onto a white stone bench at the edge of the hedge maze and stared gloomily up at the weathered faade of the castle. He focused his hearing, picking up the rhythmic tempo of one heartbeat inside. Strong, steady beat, that didn't even hasten when something loud and porcelain sounding shattered.

Crap. Clark was back inside before he finished his mental cursing. He skidded to a stop in the doorway, and found the beside lamp in pieces on the hardwood floor and Lex staggering towards the bathroom with the single minded intent of someone desperately feeling the need to hurl. Clark followed him in, hovering, because Lex seemed none too stable - - clenching his fists a little, helplessly when Lex dropped to his knees and hunched over the commode, the whole of his body shaking as he heaved.

From the sound of it, it was mostly liquid, and though Clark was neither squeamish nor prone to nausea, his stomach did flutter a little in sympathy. Lex knelt there a while longer, after whatever was going to come up, had come up, his arms resting on the toilet seat, his head hanging and for a moment, Clark thought maybe he'd passed back out. But after a minute, he shuddered and managed to push himself up, leaving a little red smear from the hand that had had the worst cut, from blood soaked through the bandages.

Clark took a step backwards as Lex staggered for the sink, yanking open the mirrored cabinet over it, and fumbling around inside after a bottle of mouthwash. A tumble of various other medicine cabinet paraphernalia came tumbling out after it, which Lex ignored in his struggle with the Listerine cap. He took a swig of it, dropping the open bottle where it fell, to ooze green minty freshness over the bathroom sink counter. Clark snatched it up, screwing on the top as Lex bent down and spit, wiped the back of a hand across his mouth and turned to collide with Clark.

Lex blinked up at him, as if he hadn't noticed Clark's presence before, put a hand out and patted Clark's arm, then frowned down at the stiffened, blood-crusted cuff of his own sweater.

"God," Lex breathed, hazy distaste, as he pushed around Clark and back into the bedroom, awkwardly attempting to pull the sweater off as he walked. Which considering the massive amounts of expensive booze that he'd probably consumed, was probably a really bad idea. He lurched, socked feet dangerously close to the remains of the lamp and Clark caught him, an arm about the waist, helping with tangle of sweater and arms and head. Which left Lex listing against him, bare now, from the hips up, hands sliding up Clark's arms to grasp the collar of his shirt, pulling Clark with him towards the edge of the bed.

Clark's mouth was appallingly dry and whatever innate grace he might have possessed sort of shriveled up and died as his feet tangled with Lex's and it was either twist about and sit down or fall down with Lex under him. Lex on top might have been worse, because Lex's hip was pressing against Clark's crotch, his weight solid and warm. Lex's mouth was really close to the edge of Clark's jaw, his breath sending tickly little fingers of sensation all down Clark's body.

"I love - - your smell." The words shimmered out along with one of those amazing, tingly breaths upon Clark's skin, and Lex sighed afterwards, going loose and heavy against him.

"Oh - - God," Clark breathed out one of his own, not even having a coherent clue at that precise second what to do, with his hands on Lex's naked back and his dick having inappropriate, twitchy thoughts where it was pressed between his thigh and Lex's hip. He looked at the ceiling and imagined his dad's expression, walking in upon such a scene and that served to put his lower extremities firmly back in line.

Now if he could just get his nerves to settle - - no easy task, because well, this just shouldn't feel so nice. He ought not be experiencing the distinct urge not to wriggle out from under. To simply lie there and soak in the sound of Lex's soft breath, and the feel of his heartbeat and the texture of all that vibrant, living flesh under his hands. Maybe just for a bit, he could indulge this unexpected impulse.

He eased backwards a little, getting his back against the padded headboard, getting a leg up onto the bed and shifting Lex into a more comfortable position. Lex was easy to deal with unconscious, long limbs, lean body, malleable and cooperative. But his skin was cool to the touch, and Clark realized that was because the room was chill, just like the rest of the damned castle, so he pulled the side of the comforter they weren't laying over and draped it across the both of them. He lay there a second, Lex's forehead pressed into the curve of his neck, then slid his hands under the blanket and against Lex's back. Almost he felt guilty for it, that indulgence, like he was molesting a man not aware enough to protest - - or appreciate it. But he couldn't quite stop himself from spreading his fingers out over skin he'd been thinking about a lot lately and just savoring it, when there were no witnesses to catch him at it, Lex included.

Lex's shoulders were broad, but his shoulder blades were sharp and boney, and the muscles of his back a thin, sinewy covering across bone. Clark could almost feel the shape of ribs under flesh. There was nothing to spare on Lex, no excess anywhere, like the magnitude of Lex's energy consumed anything even remotely superfluous. Until you got below the belt - - and no, Clark absolutely refused to let his hand wonder past the small of Lex's back to the swell of his ass - - his memory was excruciatingly perfect in recalling the detail of that, thank you.

He shut his eyes and imagined his dad again. Now son, there are just some things you don't take to bed with you if you expect to wake up with all your parts intact - -

Clark grinned. It wasn't exactly one of his father's pearls of wisdom, but he could well imagine it coming out of his mouth. He felt the smile fade, chased away by more sullen musings. He'd been so angry at Lex, for so damn long. Driven to it by jealousy, rage, hurt - - before Zod ever came into the picture, when Lex had gone in for the kill and taken what he knew was Clark's - - even though she really wasn't. Anymore than she'd been Lex's. Clark's ideal girlfriend. Lex's ideal wife. And the both of them left with nothing but the ashes of a feud over a woman.

It was funny, that the way's Lex had always chosen to strike at Clark had been at the heartstrings - - when he'd had the resources to make more devastating physical assaults. As much obsessive interest as Lex had in metahumas, as much evidence as they had of his gathering both willing and unwilling subjects - - he'd never gone after Clark. After that last time, that fiasco at the farm that had almost gotten Clark, Lana and his parents killed, Lex had never tried again - - and even then, even if Clark had responded the way Lex must have been hoping - - Clark had the feeling it might never have gone further. Like all he'd really been looking for had been confirmation.

If he'd gotten it, maybe things might have turned out different - - maybe. Who the hell knew anymore? Clark didn't. The world was so turned upside down now, that he didn't know much of anything. He knew he wasn't angry right now. Not even close.

He turned his head and watched the first drops of cold rainfall outside the window. Snow would have been nicer. Snow wasn't so gray and depressing. It covered and made beautiful the things rain simply just washed bare. He shut his eyes again, lulled by the silence of the house, the patter of rain outside, by the slow, steady cadence of Lex's heartbeat.

He came awake at movement. The careful motions of a man who was probably in the throes of a none too subtle hangover. Clark blinked down at Lex, then over to the window, which framed darkness instead of the gray afternoon light that had been there the last time he'd looked. It didn't mean a lot. It was getting dark early now, closer to the equinox, but his internal clock guessed somewhere around six. He'd check with his watch as soon as he could extract an arm.

Lex looked up at him, the faint traces of red veining at the corners of his eyes, skin tinted with an unusual pallor. There was a strain in his eyes that suggested no small bit of pain throbbing behind them. Definitely hangover.

"Hey." Was the first thing that came to mind, and Clark kicked himself a little for the brilliance of that opening statement. But maybe it was okay, because Lex wasn't looking all that clever himself at the moment.

"God," Lex breathed, and got an elbow under him, braced against Clark's ribs, and sort of rolled off Clark and over onto his back next to him. He lay there, breath a little harsh, one arm over his eyes. Clark shifted, uncomfortable of a sudden, looked down at the one foot that was on the bed and the dried mud that had flaked off from the boot he'd neglected to remove. He sat up, pulling the leg from the bed, leaning down to swipe at the dirt. It was six. Which meant he'd dozed for close to three hours.

"What - -? do I want to know - - what happened?" Lex murmured, arm still hiding his eyes.

He didn't remember? Was that a good thing or a bad? Clark swallowed, panic biting at the edges of his calm. "You, ah, passed out. Guess you went on a binge. Tore up your study, really bad."

Lex was silent a long time, the rise and fall of his chest his only movement. Clark noted absently that his nipples were a shade of pink only a tone or two darker than his skin, the nubs only slightly darker as they peaked from the cool air in the room. He tore his eyes away, up to what was visible of Lex's face and asked softly. "Lex? You awake?"

"What are you doing here?"

Back to that again. Clark bit his lip, the urge to come up with a comfortable, easy lie and avoid the plain truth so strong it was almost in his throat, before Lex lifted his arm - - lifted both arms to look at his bandaged hands. The blood on the white gauze of the one was dark and dry now, but the hands were trembling. He curled his fingers and winced, turning his head a little to look at Clark, a sort of dread inquiry in his eyes.

"Yeah," Clark sighed, claiming credit for the patch up and pushing the lies back. "You sort of messed yourself up. I should have taken you to get stitches."

Lex dropped his hands to his chest, gaze shifting away. Eyes fixed on some mundane spot at the corner of the ceiling. "Okay," he finally said, voice a little hoarse. "I appreciate it. You can go now."

Dismissal. Clark blinked, chewing on the inside of his cheek. It would be really easy to back off, to let Lex have his distance and his defenses. Only it would make it twice as hard when he had to come back and eventually deal with this. And he would, because he couldn't do it to Lex anymore, let him flounder when all it would take was a semblance of explanation to give him something to cling to.

"Do you remember those numbers you rattled off to me, Lex? The ones you were so upset over that you did this to yourself? Lives, right? Victims?"

Lex narrowed his eyes, jaw working, then pushed himself up. A shiver of pain passed across his face, before he strangled it, trying to hide everything. But he was still too ragged to achieve the usual perfectly placid expression that graced most of his deceptions. Too hungover, too off his balance, too damaged to hide the bruising in his eyes.

"I don't require your services any longer, Clark. Go home."

Textbook Lex on the defensive. Imperious and cold. It didn't throw Clark off one bit.

"Did they matter to you two months ago, Lex? Why not?"

"What do you want?" Lex asked, clipped, soft-voiced tone.

"Maybe it wasn't all you, Lex." There, he'd said it, gotten over the first difficult hump. "Remember what you told me about feeling like there was something inside you? Something left over from Zod? I think maybe - - maybe you were right."

Lex took a breath, staring at Clark with bright, bloodshot eyes for maybe three breaths, before he said quietly. "That's an unusual leap of logic for you to make, Clark."

"Yeah, well, its not completely out of the range of possibility, is it?"

The silent stare Lex gave him was that critical, under the skin sort that made Clark feel like he was fifteen and had just presumed to offer Lex stock tips. He took a breath and leaned forward anyway, not flinching from that gimlet gaze. "Is it still there. That feeling?"

Lex's mouth twitched, he pushed to his feet, shut his eyes for a brief moment and swayed. After a breath and a gathering of determination, he headed for the bathroom. Clark knew Lex metabolized fast, but he wasn't sure if the unsteadiness was all hangover or if Lex was still a little drunk. Even if he was, he'd gathered his wits enough to form coherent sentences.

Clark trailed after him, standing in the doorway of the bathroom, while Lex hesitated, staring dazedly at the jumbled contents of the medicine cabinet scattered on the counter, the gummy puddle of spilled mouthwash. The had this lost sort of look, like he couldn't comprehend the disarray. Then with a jerky motion, he snatched up what looked like a bottle of prescription painkillers and struggled with the cap, fingers no doubt a little stiff and sore from the slices in his palms. Got it open and shook out two pills, which he downed with a glass of water. He stood there afterward, hands on the countertop, staring past his own reflection at Clark's, eyes close to blue under the bright bathroom bulbs, searching for something from Clark maybe, with the safety of reflective glass between their gazes.

"I'd be scared, too," Clark said softly, and immediately figured mistake, when Lex's expression hardened and he scoffed at perceived insult. Weakness was not a trait Luthor's admitted to, Clark recalled with something close to frustration - - at least not when they were close to sober.

"You're delusional," Lex suggested coolly.

"Right," Clark shot back. "Because it's total science fiction that anybody could conceivably be taken over by an alien entity. What was I thinking?"

Lex was not amused. Lex was so anything but amused, but his hands were shaking, and he couldn't quite clench his fists to hide it. Smooth denials weren't flowing from his mouth because he was thinking. Clark could practically see him putting together things in his mind, things that he didn't like, or that hadn't occurred to him before maybe.

"What about the dreams, Lex?" Clark asked, needing to hit on all the points that he safely could. "Are you still having those?"

Lex let out a breath of exasperation, a whispered curse, and tried to push past Clark through the bathroom door. Clark didn't budge, blocking escape from a simple question. He repeated it. "Are you still having them?"

Lex stood there, practically close enough that Clark's shirt brushed his bare skin, staring straight ahead, resolutely fascinated with Clark's mouth, lashes a fine fan of ginger shading his eyes. And for once, the nearness didn't scatter Clark's wits, but reinforced his determination.

Very softly, without looking up, Lex said. "You know, if any other Kansas farm boy came up to me with this fantastical supposition, I'd assume he was growing more than corn - - and smoking it to boot. But you - - you've got the inside track, don't you Clark? You knew about - - Zod, before I did. What was the story you told Lana, again?"

"Please don't make this about me, Lex. It's about you, this time. Just you." Please, please let him accept it, this one time, without argument, without closing himself off, on the outside of one more not quite lie. Clark didn't want to lie to him now, not with Lex's hands shaking and his body held so defensively taut it was a wonder he didn't shatter. Clark's secrets could only cloud the issue. He owed Lex an explanation, he owed him maybe more than that, but he didn't owe him the deeds to his life.

Lex looked up and for the briefest moment, his eyes glittered with hurt or anger, but he pulled it in, throat working, back ramrod straight. "Please get out of my way, Clark."

Softly asked. Politely asked. And what was he going to do, keep Lex trapped in the bathroom until he agreed to consider a not entirely reasonable explanation without the facts to back it up? He shifted out of the threshold, and Lex passed by. He hesitated at the remains of the bedside lamp, but stepped around them, to the door. Clark trailed down the hall behind him, towards the double doors of the master suite.

The last time Clark had been in here, the traces of Lana had been everywhere. The obvious signs of impact that a woman made on a room. But they were gone now. The dresser top starkly bare, devoid of make-up, brushes and combs, perfumes, hair accessories and jewelry and all the other assorted stuff that sat it apart from the sort of things a man might have on his own small portion of dresser top.

Why hadn't she noticed? There had to have been signs. Maybe just subtle changes at first from pre-Zod Lex to what he had become afterwards. Clark hadn't been close enough to see for himself - - had purposefully distanced himself from the pain of Lex and Lana - - but she should have seen. Maybe she did see, eventually, and maybe that's why pregnancy or no, she'd hadn't wanted to go through with the marriage. Maybe she had questioned it, but had had no one to turn to with her suspicions. She could have come to him - - she damn well could have come to him with it and he'd have listened. Maybe. Perhaps he'd still have been too angry to care. Or possibly, she'd been too wrapped up in her own problems to question why Lex went from his normal brand of obsession and subtle Luthor manipulations to cold-blooded dictator in the span of months.

Clark ran his fingers across the gleaming, lacquered surface of the dresser. There was a box sitting next to it, the flaps half open, filled perhaps with things Clark really didn't want to dwell on. Her things. He was surprised Lex had left them here as long as he had. Clark wasn't sure he could have looked at those personal items, day in and day out without crumbling a little each and every time.

"Hurting her was the last thing I ever wanted to do." Lex said quietly from behind him. Clark turned and found him leaning against the threshold of the closet, watching Clark look at those boxes. Lex had put on a shirt so dark it verged on black, save when the light hit and brought out shades of purple. The cuffs hung, unbuttoned, covering the top edges of the bandages on his hands.

"I know." Clark sighed. And he believed it. No matter what he'd thought Lex capable of, harming Lana had never been on the list.

For a moment, Lex just looked at him as if gauging the validity of Clark's admission. Then his eyes flicked down, and he shook his head slightly, a sort of dismissive motion, but Clark saw pain in it - - guilt certainly. Lex pushed off the doorframe, with the careful movements still, of a man who's not quite sure if his head is up to speed with his body.

Lex headed down stairs and Clark followed, feeling like he was keeping vigil. God, the quiet of the place was almost alarming and he focused his hearing a little just to pick up more than the muffled pads of their footfalls. He couldn't hear the rain outside anymore, but there was the sense, even through castle walls that it was doing something out there. He looked through the stone and saw big flakes of wet snow wafting through darkness. Not sticking yet, but soon. That's why it was so silent. Snow buffered everything. Even the sounds of nighttime wildlife from the grounds and the woods at the edge of them was muted, everything tucked in and awed by the catharsis of snowfall.

Everything but Lex, who had stopped at the entrance to his study and was staring at the devastation he'd wrought with a sort of shell-shocked amazement. He stepped into the room, and his shoes crunched on bits of glass, stopped in the center, heartbeat increasing, and God knew what was going through his head. Clark wondered if he even remembered thrashing the place.

"Let's assume, for the sake of argument," Lex said, without turning. "That your theory has a grain of merit. Why did it stop?"

No one without particularly acute hearing would have picked up on the tremor underlying the question. No one that didn't know Lex might have even caught it then. It would have sounded like polite inquiry - - nothing Lex was particularly invested in knowing the answer to. Clark didn't want to lie. He really didn't want to stand there and come up with fabrications one more time in the face of Lex's raw need.

So he said nothing, perhaps the wisest choice he might have made, because Lex didn't press the issue, wondering around the study instead - - coming closer to his own conclusions. He picked up the half empty bottle from the floor behind his desk and Clark frowned, thinking seriously of going over and knocking it right out of hands if he lifted it to take a drink. But Lex just looked at the blood-smeared bottle, a sort of bemused quirk on his mouth and commented.

"Do you know what a rare label this is? I was saving it for - - I don't know what I was saving it for. A rainy day?" He looked around, as if he were searching for the cap, but it was nowhere to be found, so he sat the open bottle on the cracked, chipped surface of his desk.

A stray flake of snow blew in from the jagged hole in the window behind the desk. There was enough cold air with it that their breath fogged a little. Clark hadn't picked up on that before. Hadn't noticed the fire was long dead. He shivered and it had nothing to do with cold. He didn't want to stay here. He sure as hell didn't want to leave Lex here alone.

"In another couple of hours the roads are going to be a mess," Clark said, and Lex glanced at him with mild curiosity, no doubt wondering what exactly that had to do with him.

"Then you should probably get home."

"That's a good idea." Clark took a breath. "I think you should come with me."

Lex canted his head. "Should I?"

"Because if your staff's not here now, they're probably not going to have an easy time making it in tomorrow and - - let's face it, the place is a shambles. And it's cold." And huge and quietly unsettling.

"I know how to work a thermostat, Clark. I can start a fire, for that matter."

"Really? So cutting grass is a problem, but starting a fire you can manage?" He tried to keep the fact that he felt faintly desperate out of his voice.

Something shifted in Lex's eyes, a sharpening of perception that had been noticeably dull since they'd come downstairs. "Fire's considerably more interesting than grass. Why do you care, Clark, if I'm cold and have a deficit of domestics?"

There was enough of a taunt in that question, that Clark rose to the bait and countered. "Why'd you bring shirts by the house this morning?"

Lex opened his mouth, hesitated and something close to a smile twitched at the corners of his lips. "You know, one the things that always annoys me the most about you, is your penchant for answering perfectly legitimate questions, with questions of your own."

Clark stood there, not quite knowing how to respond to that blatant truth, other than shuffle his feet and shove his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, I guess that used to be a bad habit."

"Used to be?" A brow shot up.

Clark studied the rug under his boots, then looked back up at Lex from under his lashes, waiting.

"This morning, you told me to get off your property." Lex reminded him.

"Yeah," Clark agreed. "I'm inviting you back on, now."

Lex looked away, laughing abruptly. Stopping abruptly. "Am I a project, Clark? One of your charity cases? I'm flattered, really, but I would think you could find a cause more deserving of your - -"

"Shut up and put on your coat, Lex."

Lex chewed the inside of his cheek, considering. A lot less offended that Clark would have thought. Finally he shrugged, just a touch of wariness in his eyes and said. "Okay."

Part seventeen

"How did you get here?"

Lex stopped outside the front door, eyes scanning the curved drive beyond the castle's carriage porch. Driveway lights illuminated the fall of heavy snow, clinging to the cold paving stones, even if it only stuck to the wet ground in patches before it melted away. There was no truck though, and Clark felt the sting of stupidity slapping him in the face at the oversight. He hadn't exactly jumped in the pickup in his rush to get over here.

"I ran," he said and held out his hand without missing a beat. "I guess we're taking your car. And since I'm guessing you're still probably over the legal limit - - Keys?"

Lex's look was about as inscrutable as Lex's looks ever got, but he dug into the pocket of his coat and withdrew the keys to the black Audi that was parked half under the shelter of the portico. Dropped them wordlessly into Clark's hand and walked around to the passenger side.

"You know," Lex said, after Clark had gotten his seat adjusted and the car moving down the drive towards the gates. "There was a time when that answer would have irritated me beyond all reason."

Clark licked his lips, noticing that the gate guard was still at his post, even though everybody else seemed to have abandoned the grounds. "Yeah? Not now?"

"Mmm. Just doesn't seem to be striking any nerves."

Lex had enough other things on his mind that it was hardly surprising a casual confession of Clark's left him unfazed. And it was only a few miles. It wasn't like it wasn't possible Clark might have decided to take an afternoon jog.

Clark stopped at the gate and the guard leaned out of the guardhouse as the gates were swinging open. Lex rolled down his window. "I won't be back until tomorrow, weather permitting. Lock up and go home before the roads get too bad."

The guard nodded, rubbing gloved hands against the chill. "I'll do that, Mr. Luthor. Have a good night, Mr. Luthor."

Lex rolled up the window and leaned his head against the rest, face tilted towards the glass and the fields rolling by outside. He looked tired, a weariness that seemed to go beyond the physical. A quietness had come over him - - a sobriety that had nothing to do with the level of alcohol that might or might not still be in his system.

The whole ride home was silence. And silence was a good thing, because some issues needed to be worked out inside a man's own head, without outside input. Clark had a few of his own mulling. Lex had been right, he hadn't wanted anything to do with him this morning. Hadn't wanted the complications Lex brought with him, the contradictions. The embarrassment. Until Lex had changed his mind with a half a smile that didn't conceal the nerves beneath and a bit of ridiculous banter that had gone straight past Clark's defenses like a guided missile. Maybe it was a good thing Lois had shown up when she did, to shake him out of it. Maybe she just had crappy timing.

Regardless, Lex was wounded now. Confused now, but he'd get over it, and then what? What would he be, free of that influence? A better man or a worse one, damaged beyond repair? One way or another, Clark needed to find out. He didn't have it in him to turn his back on the problem. He hadn't been brought up to turn wounded things away - - even if they weren't looking for help. Even if they might turn out to be the sort of half-wild creature that turned and bit the hand that helped them.

They reached the farm, and the kitchen light was still on and God, he hoped he hadn't forgotten and left the stove on or anything, but since the house wasn't in flames, he figured not. He pulled up behind the pickup, cut the headlights and plunged the yard into darkness. They crunched across the gravel in the drive towards the house, and Clark's mind switched back to farm mode when it occurred to him that he had two horses in pasture that needed to be brought in tonight, what with the weather. The herd would fair fine, but he'd have hay to put out tomorrow and water troughs to thaw.

"Lex, door's unlocked. I've got to close up the barn, but I'll be right in."

Lex hesitated, nodded and continued on. Clark walked towards the barn until the door shut behind Lex, then took off into the darkness towards the east pasture. The horses were waiting by the fence, no doubt put out that he'd left them out in first rain, then snow. He patted necks and noses on the walk back, and promised extra portions of grain. With the horses in their stalls, well fed and the barn shut snug, he hurried back to the house. He'd almost been afraid that Lex had bolted- - had almost been prepared for it. But that was just habit - - him expecting the worst where Lex was concerned and tying to shield himself.

But Lex was where he was supposed to be. In the house, with his coat laid neatly over the back of one of the kitchen chairs, standing in the hall under the stair gazing at the array of family photographs on the wall. The house was really quiet, and sort of cold, so Clark stuffed wood into the woodstove, looked over his shoulder to check were Lex was and started it burning the quick way, with a blast of inferno vision. He padded back into the kitchen and thought coffee might be something Lex dearly needed.

"You hungry?" he asked, spooning ground beans into the filter.

"I'm fine." The answer drifted in from the hall, followed shortly by Lex, who had composed his face into a pleasantly unreadable mask. All armored up then, like he was expecting a fight - - or expecting to be asked to give things he wasn't prepared to part with. Or maybe just really, really upset over the things Clark had suggested and hating the idea of showing that inner turmoil. Who the hell knew with Lex when he had his game face on?

The best thing to do in these cases, Clark had learned during his early years of Lex watching, was to plow on regardless. "I think its time to break out the good stuff."

Lex lifted a brow. Clark rummaged in the freezer and pulled out a plastic container of his mom's county fair, prize-winning chicken Brunswick stew. She'd put up enough of it a few months ago to last him half the winter if he got tired of his own cooking. He dumped it into a pan on the stove and broke it into smaller frozen pieces with a ladle and a serving fork.

"You don't listen very well," Lex commented, but there wasn't much in the way of complaint in his voice.

"When's the last time you ate? Not drank, but actual food?"

"Are you sure your mother didn't leave you cue cards lying about, so you could get the tone of maternal harassment down pat?" Lex inquired dryly.

Clark felt the edge of a smirk, flattened it out and glanced over his shoulder to give Lex a look. Lex was standing with his hands on the back of a chair, black cuffs against white bandages, long pale fingers below that. He remembered the last time Lex had been in the kitchen, those same long fingers trailing across the backs of chairs - - all seduction in the way he'd moved, the sway of his hips, the look in his eyes, the things he'd been saying - - but the frightening sort of seduction, designed to scandalize. He just looked weary now. Wrung out and badly used - - and most of that self-inflicted.

"You drink too much. Sit down, stew's almost warmed." Clark said flatly and turned with a mug of black coffee before Lex could narrow his eyes in offense, and held it out in offering.

Lex stared at it, jaw working tightly, then reached out and took it with a bandaged hand. He pulled out the chair and sat down. Silent. Definitely offended. If he'd have said the same thing to Lois, about the drinking, he might have gotten the cup flung at his head, Lex held his angers closer to heart - - expressed them in subtler, more devastating ways.

Clark turned back to the stew and took a breath. No doubt about it, this was going to be a long night.

"Don't turn your nose up. My mom made it, not me." He felt the need to clarify as he slid a bowl of the stuff in front of Lex and sat down with one of his own. Whether Lex cared to admit hunger or not, Clark was ravenous. Mental dilemma did not dwindle his appetite.

"I never doubted your culinary skills," Lex said idly turning his spoon in the steaming concoction before him. "I would assume, growing up with your mother as an example, you know your way around a kitchen."

"You'd think," Clark mumbled. "After the second time I almost burned down the kitchen, she stopped asking me to help. There was this thing with hush puppies and - - well - - Gas stoves and grease fires suck."

"I imagine they would." Lex agreed mildly and Clark looked up at him, but Lex was still examining the contents of the stew.

"I was twelve," Clark added, just in case there might be some mistaken belief that it had happened last year.

"It couldn't have been an easy decision for her, taking the senate seat - -" Lex said quietly, looking past Clark out the kitchen window at the snow caught in the outside porch lights. Something flickered at the back of his eyes, a crack in the seams. Clark tightened his fingers on spoon, felt the metal give and let up, the both of them knew very well why that senate seat had opened up. He wanted to ask, 'would you do it again? Now?' Wanted to know whether that decision and the subsequent ones had been made under the influence of something more dangerous than aged scotch. Maybe Lex didn't even know. Clark couldn't begin to imagine how tangled the web had been or what sort of introspection it might take to untangle it. To figure out where Zod's desires had ended and Lex's had begun.

"We discussed selling the farm," Was what he said instead, and surprised himself a little with the admission, because it was close to his heart and painful. More so because deep down, he wanted to, was terrified of being shackled to this plot of earth forever.

Lex's eyes shifted back to him, sharpening, studying him and Clark leaned over his bowl to scrape the bottom.

"What's keeping you from doing it? The fact that there are photographs of three generations of Kent's working this land on your wall? Because your father died here?"

God, Lex was supposed to be the one off his balance here, and he was already under Clark's skin like a surgeon with a scalpel, making all the right assumptions. And he didn't have the right to bring up dad. He just - - didn't. That's what he got, trying to have a conversation with Lex, when everything they might talk about would trigger sore spots sooner or later.

Lex picked up on his tension, or was familiar enough with the flexing of the muscles in Clark's jaw to know upset when he saw it broadcast. He slid the bowl away, untouched and pushed back from the table. "No offense to your mother's cooking - - but I just can't eat this now. Does that antique in your living room get Cspan, CNN anything with decent news?"

"We have satellite," Clark said crossly. It had sort of been essential with his mom's political responsibilities, that they get more than the local channel's take on world news. Lex nodded and disappeared into the living room. After a moment, Clark heard the television come to life.

He emptied Lex's stew back into the pot. It could be reheated later and damned if he was going to let it go to waste. He stared at the mixture, vegetables and chicken and mush and it occurred to him that a man with a hangover might not find its appearance particularly appetizing. It did sort of resemble food that had seen the light of day a second time around. God.

A touch of hot coffee added to what was cooling in Lex's mug and Clark followed into the living room. Lex had settled on the couch, slouched into the corner closest to the wood stove. He'd found one of the news channels, but there was something in his face that made Clark think he wasn't paying much attention. Clark held out the mug and after a second, Lex looked up and accepted it, cupping his hands around it as if to soak up the warmth.

"You still - -" Clark didn't know how to phrase it politically, so he made a vague motion towards his own head.

"Hung-over?" Lex asked, then shrugged a little. "The dregs of one. I tend to recover quickly from these sorts of things. One of those rare advantages of - -"

He trailed off, but Clark knew what he'd been about to say. Maybe Lex knew he knew and simply waited to see if Clark would fill in the blanks.

"From meteor exposure?" he asked, because what the hell, they both knew - - what was the point in dancing around the issue? He collapsed down on the other end of the couch, a whole empty cushion between them. Lex's mouth curved momentarily with a wry smile, a cold flash of practicality dancing across his eyes.

"Yes. My own personal - - alteration." He looked away for a moment, staring back at the TV with narrow intensity, his hands around the mug tightening, fingers tensing. "But it's different now. Faster. Metabolically, restoratively I'm leaps and bounds ahead of where I used to be." He held up one bandaged hand and didn't even seem to care that it was shaking. "This will be closed up by tomorrow. You'll never know I had it in four or five days. Whatever the Ship did to me - - I'm not the same. I've never been quite certain whether to take it as a blessing or a punishment. Who would have guessed there might be other lingering - - side effects?"

Clark felt his stomach lurch a little. He hadn't known. Hadn't even considered that the fundamental physical alterations the Ship had made out of necessity, might not have vanished as completely as they'd assumed. He'd cared about three things at the time - - that the powers were gone, that Zod was gone, that Lex was alive. Beyond that, he'd been focused on other things.

How had it not occurred to him that to be a suitable host for a Kryptonian, a human shell would have had to be altered at a basic genetic level? Genetic code changed into something more than human. Something a step closer to Clark. And Lex knew. Lex had lived most of his life with the obvious physical effects of one mutation. That he'd been subjected to the unknown factors of a second one - - specifically forced upon him by alien abductors must have driven him mad. Must have been terrifying for a man who thrived on control, to have absolutely none at the most rudimentary of levels.

"I - - I didn't know." Clark said slowly, mind still spinning with what ifs. If Lex realized all of this - - with Lex's obsessions with the nature of mutation - - had he offered himself up, in one of those facilities of his, as a subject for testing?

"Why would you?" Loaded question, but hollow sounding. Lex's eyes back on him now. It was the most amazing thing how their color seemed to shift with lighting and mood.

Clark didn't have an answer for that - - not an easy one, at any rate. "Somebody should have figured," he muttered, not sure if he were more uncomfortable, or irritated with absolutely everyone who had been in the know who hadn't questioned, himself at the top of the list. "Did you tell Lana?"

"No," Lex said after a moment of silence. "I'd already given her enough to worry over - - enough reasons to fear anything connected with the ship and Zod - - and me."

"Right, because what if she thought less of you for it?" Clark said and Lex narrowed his eyes, then his mouth twitched and he shrugged.

"Exactly. I see we're on the same page. Is that why you kept your secrets?"

Clark swallowed, denials familiar as the flavor of his mom's stew sitting on the tip of his tongue. But they both knew those lines by heart and Lex had one-upped him in the honesty department tonight, and it made Clark feel shallow and small. "Yeah, maybe it was. Is."

He surprised Lex. Clark saw it in the widening of his eyes, the momentary parting of lips as maybe a question or an accusation trembled there - - but didn't come out. Then Lex's mouth tightened and he turned back to stare at the television, gathering himself in a little, like he was cold, or defensive. His skin was very pale in the glow from the TV, his eyes nothing but shadow. There was a tense sort of fragility to the set of him now that screamed, okay, I'm done talking. Leave me the hell alone.

Clark sat there for a while, watching Lex pretend to watch TV. But Lex wasn't paying attention, because there was some story about a painting dog, that even Clark found silly, and Lex had the remote within reach and didn't bother to switch channels. He was just sitting there, wrapped up in the silence of his own screaming thoughts.

Clark wasn't sure he wanted to know what was passing through Lex's mind - - was almost certain if he did, it would leave him dizzy and confused.

He left Lex on the couch, and went to bring in a few more armfuls of wood. Snow was sticking now and there was a fine covering of it across the yard, more on the roof of the barn and the shells of the truck and Lex's car. He stood out on the porch for a while, watching the snowfall, listening to the muted sounds of the horses in the barn, of the herd in their pasture over the rise, the buzz of the television inside the house - - the soft revolutions of Lex's breathing. If he tried hard enough he could discern the impact of individual flakes as they landed, each one adding to the growing blanket of white.

The phone rang in the house. Clark blinked, the sound of it like the roar of a freight train in comparison to the gentle resonance of crystallized ice. He hurried into the house and snatched it off the hook.

It was his mother, exhaustion edging her voice, concern hard at the center.

"Everything's okay, mom," he assured her, taking the phone and heading back to the porch. He'd wanted so bad to talk earlier, but now, he didn't know how to broach subject. How did he explain that he'd lost his grip on good sense and dragged Lex home with him - - that somehow Lex had wormed his way past the ranks of Clark's other concerns to find a place at the top. It wasn't an unfamiliar circumstance, it had just been a while.

"Nancy said you sounded upset. I tried to call this afternoon but you didn't answer. Are you sure, you're okay?"

"Yeah. I was - - out." Sleeping in Lex's bed with Lex sprawled on top of him. And liking it. A lot. Bet you didn't see that one coming, huh, mom? Neither did I.

"You forgot to charge your phone."

"Yeah."

"Write a note and stick it on the refrigerator, honey." She knew him so well, it was scary. "I'm so sorry I missed you earlier. I think I should shuffle aside a few meetings and fly home this weekend."

"Mom, its snowing here and looks like more's on the way. You'll just end up getting stranded at an airport between here and there. Stay. I'm fine. I just - - missed your voice, is all."

She was quiet for a few breaths, and he just knew she was analyzing him, putting together little clues he hadn't even realized he'd been giving. She hardly ever failed to come up with anything but dead on accurate assumptions about his state of mind. Maybe he should get her home, put her in a room with Lex and let her help hash out that quandary.

"Okay," she finally said, not pushing. "Call me, if you need to talk about anything, honey. I'll tell Nancy to make sure to put you through. I love you."

He nodded, feeling a little lump in his throat, then curled his free hand in annoyance, because damnit, he was twenty-one, not fourteen and he ought not need mom's miracle touch to solve his problems for him. "Love you, too, mom. Bye."

He stood there with his hands on the rail for a while. He couldn't begin to explain the depths of his dilemma with Lex - - oh, the Zod part was pretty straightforward - - it was just the other stuff - - the mess in New York and the way he couldn't quite manage to shake images of Lex naked - - or the feel of his skin or how his mouth tasted - - that was the sort of stuff that made him light headed just contemplating talking to his mom about.

He didn't even want to think about what advice she'd give on the subject. He shuddered a little bit in horror at the notion and thought maybe one quick little zip around the borders of Lowell county would clear his mind.

But that would be cowardly, and his head was in pretty good shape, comparatively speaking, so there was nothing to do but go back inside.

Lex was still sitting there, scary quiet. Clark stood in the doorway between living room and kitchen and tried to come up with something intelligent to say.

"Shower's upstairs if you want to use it." But of course, Lex knew where it was, having been here a time or two. Clark decided to dig a little deeper. "You can crash in my bed when you're ready."

Lex's eyes flicked to him and Clark couldn't see past the shadows to what was in them.

"I'll use my mom's." He stuffed the tips of his fingers in his pockets, feeling the need to qualify - - because, well, otherwise embarrassing assumptions might be drawn. Assumptions that the part of him that dwelled below the belt twitched a little at the notion of. He was not blushing, it was absolutely not heat he felt in his cheeks. He muttered something that sounded vaguely like babble in his own ears and headed for the stairs to check on the sorry state of his sheets. Laundry, like charging his cell, tended to slip Clark's notice. He hadn't gotten around to it for a while and there was a hip high pile of 'waiting to be washed' in the basement by the washer and dryer. There were a lot of things that just didn't seem as important as they had a few months ago - - a year ago.

There was maybe one clean fitted sheet, and a mismatched flat that he found clean in the upstairs linen closet. He did a really quick job of stripping off the old and putting on the clean. He sucked at wrinkle-free bed making. Hospital corners were beyond his ken, but it was as good as he was going to get it,, At least the room didn't smell like old socks, thank god - - and one day soon, he vowed to take down the Crow's banner and the Radiohead poster, and the Yasmine Bleeth swimsuit poster Pete had gotten him for - - what, his sixteen birthday? - - that was still stuck on the outside of his closet door.

Clark stepped out into the hall and stopped, startled, Lex not more than a few steps away and damned quiet about it. But then, Clark had been preoccupied with the antiquated adornments on his walls.

"Hey, I was just changing sheets. I'll be out of your way - -"

Lex stepped closer, close enough that the tips of their shoes were only inches apart. His eyes were murky, blue green, fixed on Clark's hands with their balled sheets, moving up to his face with slow, deliberate scrutiny. The dimness in the hallway created hollows and rolling shadows on Lex's face - - on the delicate curve of his head. "No bother."

Clark stood paralyzed, heart beating crazily, egged on by some primal instinct that warned danger.

"Why am I here?" Lex asked, voice low, rough velvet. His eyes didn't leave Clark's, and he had really mesmerizing eyes once he snared you. The sort of eyes that dug down into your soul, took your measure without loosing a beat and came back out with ammunition to use against you. Clark had gone out of his way, the last few years to avoid looking too hard and too long into Lex's eyes, afraid of the inherent traps. Afraid of giving Lex things he didn't want Lex to have.

He swallowed, mouth desert dry, palms hot and clammy where he clutched the sheets. The answers to Lex's question were rolling around in bits and pieces inside his head, not a cohesive one in the bunch. "Nobody as messed up as you were ought to be left alone. Look what you did to yourself? I figured if you were someplace booze free, you'd could get your head - -"

Lex leaned in and kissed him. Clark's back hit the door jamb, his mind going curiously white for a breathless moment, with Lex's hands on his shoulders and Lex's mouth, warm and soft pulling at his bottom lip. Lex drew back, and the retreat of his mouth seemed to have a direct correlation to the coherency of Clark's thoughts.

"That's not a good enough answer," Lex said on the exhalation of a soft breath, while Clark blinked in shock. "Try again."

Like he expected a decent answer, pressing against Clark in the doorway, nothing but the wadded laundry between him and what was really starting to feel like a full-blown erection in Clark's jeans. Words were escaping him at the moment.

"Never mind," Lex amended his demand, and trailed his tongue across the edge of Clark's jaw and really, Clark could have pushed him away, could have moved his head to avoid it - - but nerves he didn't even know he had were popping and it just felt so damn hot.

"It's probably better - -" Lex slid his mouth back to Clark's and the back of Clark's head hit the wall with a thump that would have made anyone else see stars.

"- - if you don't - -" Lex pressed closer from necessity, having to lean in and up to gain access. The concept that this was a bad idea kept trying to raise its hand and demand his attention, but it was being too polite, drowned out by the chorus of riotous excitement crowding up from lower regions.

Clark opened his mouth with a sort of helpless groan and Lex's tongue slithered in, crafty and warm.

"- - talk at all."

The scent of Lex's skin was warm, sultry with the hint of whiskey. It went through Clark like something alive, shuddering to the surface, this quiver of craving that had a life all its own.

"God," Clark gasped, releasing his death grip on the sheets and reaching up to grasp the sides of Lex's head, fingers curling around the back of his skull, thumbs pressed into the hollow of his cheeks. Dragging him up closer, because he couldn't get deep enough inside to satisfy the inexplicable thirst.

Lex's fingers slid under the untucked flannel shirt, up Clark's sides and raked down, digging in hard enough that he would have scored flesh through the layer of T-shirt - - if Clark's flesh had been easily marked. Welts didn't raise, but goose pimples did, in a ripple all over his body. He wanted so bad it ached - - so bad it stole thought - - like in New York when he'd thrust Lex against the wall in blind frenzy and anger. Only he wasn't angry now and he wasn't the one who was on the verge of out of control. He wasn't the one looking for a substitute addiction - -

Some trickle of willpower got through past the energetic clamor of his libido. He broke the kiss, forcing Lex back far enough to meet his eyes. "Lex - - what are we - -? I can't - -"

"Shut up," Lex lifted his hands, fingers wrapping around Clark's wrists, teeth bared a little in his fight for breath. "You brought me here - - just shut up - - and play the good host - - and do this for me." He tried to close the distance, but Clark wouldn't let him, that reasonable, reckoning part of his mind verging on appalled. But the rest of him, all those pesky lower brain functions - - all those animal instincts - - were trilling with exhilaration.

Lex's breath was jagged, harsh, and Clark could feel it against his body, could feel it under his hands, the beat of Lex's pulse through the big arteries in his neck. He was hard. Just beautifully stiff against Clark's own erection and how did you just turn away and ignore something so crucial and just damned obvious?

Did it really matter that this was a crutch, when there was no downside? Really, it wasn't like it was going to make more of a difference than what had happened in New York? Right? His lower brain was very insistent on that point.

Lex moved his hips and constrained erections brushed in a way that had Clark seeing little dancing stars. That had his body humming and rational thought crowded out by the primal need to get down to basics.

"Ah - - fuck."

"Exactly." Lex concurred and it slid downhill from there. Or sideways in a stumbling, graceless migration into Clark's room.

There was a great deal of fumbling with buttons and belts and Clark's feet had no earthly idea what to do with themselves when confronted with Lex shoving him in increments towards the bed.

The back of his knees hit the mattress and he sat down hard enough to make the springs squeak, his shirt and t-shirt discarded on the floor between bed and door. Lex shoved his way between Clark's knees, sinking down with a purpose, hands working at Clark's jeans, fingers grasping denim and pulling and Clark's body was two steps ahead of his mind, because it helpfully lifted his hips so Lex could pull the pants down baring - - just everything. He should have been embarrassed - - really embarrassed like the way he'd felt the first time Lana had seen him naked and just stared at his cock like she'd never seen uncut foreskin and wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Only it didn't seem to bother Lex in the least - - in fact Lex was sort of looking at him like he was something expensive and gourmet and he hadn't eaten in a while.

Which analogy might have been funny, if Clark's sense of humor hadn't been tucked away somewhere with his good sense. As it was, all he could really focus on was Lex on his knees between his legs, his shirt unbuttoned, revealing the pale, creamy curve his neck, the ridge of his clavicle, the tantalizing strip of smooth, hard chest and belly. His belt was loose, the button of his pants undone, and Clark had the hazy, surreal recollection of having done that.

Then he stopped thinking altogether when Lex leaned forward and sucked in the head of his cock. Wrapped his hand around the shaft, pulled the skin back and slid his tongue across the slick, leaking tip.

Clark almost came, then and there. Because - - fuck, fuck, fuck - - Lex had his mouth on his cock and hadn't there been one or two fleeting teenaged masturbatory images of just such a thing? And even then, he'd never imagined Lex trying to worm the tip of his tongue into the slit of his dick like he couldn't get enough of the taste, while his oh, so clever hand massaged the shaft and his other oh so clever hand rolled Clark's balls like dice he was warming up for a lucky throw.

Then Lex changed tactics, licking down the underside, to the fleshy V of skin connecting balls and shaft and Clark dug his hands into the edge of the mattress and heard himself making strangled sounds. When Lex came back up, he met Clark's feverish eyes for a heartbeat, gaze nothing short of pornographic, then swallowed him whole. Or it seemed that way, because Lex was really good with his hands, and bent over Clark, fucking him with his mouth, lips stretched around the girth of Clark's dick in this incredibly dirty/sexy way, teeth scraping just a little - - not that Clark cared - - in fact it made it all the better, heightened the sensation, like Lex's nails down his skin.

Lex was swallowing, making little humming sounds and the head of Clark's cock was snug in his throat and it was maybe one of the most erotic things Clark had ever felt. He went over the edge and spilled, jerking helplessly, hands hovering and clenching, afraid that if he laid hands on Lex now, he'd hurt him.

It was like Lex had his mouth on the tap of Clark's tension - -his pent up energy, and was draining it off, swallowing it down with convulsive movements of his throat, leaving Clark blissful and satisfied in the wake. When Lex pulled back, Clark's cock plopped from his mouth, wet and still flushed with gathered blood that hadn't decided yet to declare total retreat. Not with combatants still on the field. Not with Lex's eyes fixed on Clark's face as he shrugged off his shirt. Not with Lex using Clark's thighs to push himself up, the tent in his pants so obvious it looked painful.

Clark knew what Lex looked like down there, had had his hands on smooth, hairless skin, the silky heat of Lex's cock - - He lifted his fingers to the waist of Lex's pants and surprisingly enough they were steady. Surprisingly enough, even though his breath came hard and his heart pounded, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. His fingers skimmed Lex's hips and a little shiver rippled across Lex's skin - - an honest reaction that couldn't be hidden by glib words or schooled expressions and Clark felt a shiver of his own that he'd caused it.

He curled his fingers in material and drew slacks and briefs down, rougher than he'd meant to, because restraint was just a nine letter word, the meaning of which had been lost somewhere along the way. Lex bobbed free, and he was beautiful, just like Clark remembered, belly flat and hard, the concave between hip and groin framing his jutting, pink cock.

Clark stared for a second too long, and Lex's hands connected with his shoulders, pushing him back and oh, god the feel of Lex's skin when there was nothing between them was amazing.

Clark's hands moved of their own accord, exploring all the curves and hollows and sharp edges, while Lex's mouth and fingers were performing their own assessment. Lex was grinding against his hip, leaving slick little trails of precome, and Clark was hard again - - big surprise there.

Clark got a hand on his hip and reversed positions, rolling Lex onto his back, sliding hand from hip to cock.

"That's it - - that's good," Lex gasped when Clark tightened his grip and stroked. Tight, sleek skin. Rosy, leaking head that kept disappearing down the circle of Clark's thumb and index finger. Clark couldn't tear his eyes away, until Lex's fingers twisted in his hair, drawing him down to his mouth, tongue thrusting into Clark's in a matching rhythm. Then Lex tensed and he threw his head back, back arching off the bed, pumping into the channel of Clark's fist with discordant, wild strokes and he came, warm and wet across Clark's hand and his own stomach.

Clark opened his fist, slowly, while Lex collapsed back against the newly changed sheets, long, pale body shuddering on the heels of climax, breath gradually slowing. Clark stared at the glistening residue on his hand - - he'd never had another man's come on his skin. Never considered how it would taste, but Lex had swallowed everything Clark had offered with no flicker of distaste - - with no hesitation. Lex's mouth tasted phenomenal and the salty tang of his skin, sheened with sweat was addictive, so maybe - - Clark lifted his hand, rubbing the edge of his thumb across his lips, testing the flavor with the tip of his tongue.

It was interesting, a little salty, a little musk - - an intimate sampling of the basest part of a man. Of Lex.

He looked up, met Lex's stare, the naked fascination in his eyes as he watched Clark lick the rest of the come off his mouth.

"An acquired taste," Lex said slowly, pushing himself up onto his elbows. "For some."

"You like it?" Clark could hardly find his voice.

"Like wine, there are vintages - -" Lex's lashes fluttered down, trailing off, half a wry smile crossing his lips as he reconsidered the slick answer and decided on something more cut and dry. "I like yours."

Clark's dick thrummed, trapped between his belly and Lex's hip, back to full, avid attention. Lex must have noticed, because he looked down.

"You have something?"

Clark most certainly did. He wasn't sure what Lex meant right off, though.

Lex caught his brief bafflement and clarified. "Condoms? Lubrication?"

God - - Lex was offering and Clark couldn't think past it, other than the half lucid memory of pressing Lex against a wall and thrusting against his white buttocks. And maybe Lex was recalling the same thing, because he pushed at Clark's shoulder, scooting back enough to get his back against the pillows and the headboard and said. "If you need a few hints to get it right this time, I'm happy to give pointers."

The growl that curled its way up Clark's throat had nothing to do with anger and everything to do with building desperation. He reached for the bed table, and the jar of Vaseline jelly, which was as close to real lube as you got in the Kent household. Pitifully enough, there hadn't been a condom here in years and even then, he'd been scared shitless his mom would discover the stash. Not that he'd ever had sex in this house more than once and then - - well, surprisingly enough it didn't even matter at the moment that he was about to have it a second time with his first partner's lawful spouse. He'd agonize over that later and in detail, he was sure.

He'd agonize over a lot of things that just didn't seem to make a damn bit of difference now with Lex propped against his headboard, long white thighs spread like he was posing for dirty pictures, hand idly curled around the base of his half flaccid cock.

"For starters," Lex drawled, the faintest hint of challenge in his voice. "Vaseline's a little messy, but it gets the job done. You need to actually apply it, though. I could help, if you're - -"

Clark grabbed his hips and dragged him out of his recline, got himself between Lex's thighs. Between Lex's thighs - - Lex sprawled out under him, heartbeat accelerating, eyes so dark with dilated pupils they were almost black. Come on. Come on. Lex's lips were forming the words, but the sound didn't get past the rush of blood in Clark's ears.

He greased himself, fingers glopped with petroleum jelly making a sort of ribald suckling sound as he stroked his cock. And there was procedure for this, wasn't there? But Lex drew him forward, intent on the endgame and growled at him. "Now. Fuck me, now."

Clark was on him, before he'd finished processing the command, Lex's knees in the crooks of his elbows, leaning forward and sliding down the crevice of Lex's ass. Finding the right spot by animal instinct and driving in with a lot more strength than he probably should have used, because Lex gasped like the air had been knocked out of him, fingers scrambling for a hold on Clark's thighs. Clark froze, hunched over, halfway inside flesh that grasped him like a close fitting glove.

"Move," Lex hissed, face flushed, pained, but he lifted his hips, moving against Clark, impaling himself further. And God - - balls deep inside of Lex was like absolutely nothing Clark had ever felt. He drew back and slammed in again and the slide was transforming, like the first time he'd run so fast that gravity seemed to loose a little bit of its hold on him. Astonishing that fragile human flesh could grip him so tightly, with heat to match what was bubbling inside him. It pushed him over the edge, and it stopped being anything but the need to get off hard and fast. That narrow focus of purpose that had him lifting Lex for a better angle and pumping into him. That had the bed creaking and swaying ominously in time.

Somewhere along the way, Lex must have gotten religion, because he kept gasping Jesus - - God - - Jesus, on the release of each jagged breath and his hands were just splayed out, clutching at sheets, like Clark had driven the strength right out of him. His mouth, open and gasping was so gorgeous, Clark had to lean down, forcing Lex's knees almost to his shoulders, and cover it with his own. And that maybe did it, the fucking and the kissing simultaneously, because Lex clenched around him, muscles tight and convulsing - - Clark hadn't thought it could feel any better - - and came again, spattering both their stomachs, screaming something incoherent and possibly lewd.

And Clark kept moving, reveling in the feel of it around him, finding it beyond electrifying when Lex's body went loose and jointless under him afterward, willing receptacle that made little breathless sounds at the apex of each inward stroke. Not the sort of sounds he would have ever imagined Lex making. But he liked them, and thought he'd like to cause Lex to make them again.

When Clark came, it was almost liberating, because Lex was durable, and tensile strong and not likely to break because Clark let himself go for a few precious minutes. Maybe even a little part of him didn't care if he did.

Clark leaned there for a few seconds afterwards, feeling that odd sort of exhaustion that was more mental than physical. Things other than that central connection of bodies, started to come back into slow focus. The faded pattern on the rumpled sheets. The new dent in the old plaster wall behind his bed right about where the headboard would have slammed into it - - repeatedly and with force. The warm press of Lex's legs against his arms.

Clark drew in a slow breath and pulled back, and Lex drew in a quiet, hissing breath as Clark slid free of his body and lay there after Clark had rolled off, eyes shut, just breathing. Maybe giving Clark an out. An avenue of escape that didn't involve after sex conversation that Clark was almost entirely sure he couldn't handle.

The bandage on Lex's left hand had come undone, gauze trailing off onto the sheets. The one with the dried blood. The bandage on the other hand was intact. He looked back at the unraveled one and it just screamed disarray, an untidy middle finger to all of Lex's calculated precision. If Lex had had hair - - it would have been tousled, too and that thought made Clark grin a little.

Getting out of the room might have been nice, but he reached down for the quilt at the end of the bed and pulled it up, instead. He might have just made one of the bigger mistakes of his life, but he wasn't going to run from it. He was tired of running from it.

Chapter Text

Part Eighteen

Parts of Lex were cold. Frigid almost, in comparison to other parts which were quite comfortably warm. He cracked his eyes just enough to let a few visuals past his lashes and took in a knee and an arm devoid of covers, half hanging over the side of the bed.

He opened his eyes a little further to take in the room the bed in question occupied. There were posters on the wall, and clothes on the floor - - some of which were definitely his - - the room was not. The room was Clark's. And so - - he discovered when he tried to shift to find the edge of the cover that had migrated off some time during sleep - - was the heavy arm draped across his waist. Clark's other arm had been stuffed under Lex's pillow, the forearm and hand protruding from the other side, fingers loosely brushing the surface of Clark's beside table. The rest of Clark was pressed up against Lex's back, which accounted for the warm parts of him. The cold sections were due to the fact that Clark had hogged the majority of the no doubt hand crafted quilt haphazardly covering them.

Lex swallowed and lay there, abandoning his efforts at retrieving covers in favor of running over in his mind the events which had led to him waking up in Clark's bed, playing the inside utensil to Clark's naked spoon. Oh, the night had been memorable - - the night might stick with him forever - - but honestly, he'd made smarter moves. Mind blowing sex or not, he had the sinking feeling that he might have managed to put himself in the red in his efforts at cultivating Clark's good will.

He knew Clark well enough to theorize that as soon as he really started thinking about what they'd done - - a panic attack of some order would soon follow. And after that, guilt. And after that, distance.

The anxiety and the guilt, Lex could deal with - - he could talk around - - but he wasn't entirely certain if he was prepared to endure Clark's avoidance - - again.

And he needed Clark in ways that he wasn't entirely sure he could explain if he were pinned down and forced to validate. Clark was a lying bastard. Clark was hiding things vital to Lex's Self. Clark was the only anchor he had left to cling to that he trusted - - implicitly and inexplicably trusted - - that wouldn't let him drift out and drown. And last night when the psychological became too disturbing, he'd sought the physiological. Clark, as expected, had been better than any drug known to man, when it came to driving pesky thoughts to the edge of awareness. Repeated orgasm, Lex had found, was a fail-safe method for blanking the mind.

Of course it all came back in the morning, it just lacked that nails-on-chalkboard intensity that had been turning him inside out last night. The light of day and abject sobriety brought dissociation from the matter that was sorely needed. Claiming it was ludicrous, Clark's disquieting suggestion, would be - - well quite the raging hypocrisy, all things considered.

If he'd been presented with an extraterrestrial tainted subject, it would have inspired a barrage of intriguing speculation. Funny how it left him cold, with the ghost of nausea, contemplating his own contamination. So he supposed he was a hypocrite after all.

Clark's arm tightened around him, hand stretching flat on his stomach, pressing into the pulse under his ribs, while Clark murmured something breathy against his neck in his sleep. Lex shut his eyes and lay there, enjoying the feel of it - - of this brief respite for the time he had it, before Clark woke up and the inevitable awkwardness began.

It was easy to do, surprisingly enough, to let himself relax into Clark's sleeping embrace, to let himself luxuriate in the feel of Clark's body. The sex really had been - - for lack of a better term - - fucking amazing. If this was Clark's first time with a man, other than the embarrassing incident at the Oriental - - and Lex had to stop a moment and darkly consider the possibility that it might not have been - - he'd outshined all beginner expectations.

Clark shifted, the restless movements of a sleeper drifting out of REM sleep and into something lighter. A knee shifted up, covering Lex's thighs, and the arm flexed, a breathtaking little display of unconscious strength that threatened to steal Lex's air. He felt the very distinct growth of morning wood against his ass. His own was engorging a little in sympathy.

Clark nuzzled the back of his head, soft warm lips against his skin. Little shivers of pleasure worked their way down Lex's body from the point of contact.

"Mmmm, Lex," Clark murmured, voice sleep-slurred, hand trailing down and brushing the head of Lex's now very erect cock.

Lex felt it the moment Clark dropped out of sleep and into awareness. The supple sprawl of his body turned rigid. The breath on the back of Lex's neck was withheld for a beat or two, before it picked up, tinged with the rhythm of the panic Lex had anticipated.

He took a breath and berated himself for not having already composed a soothing, reasonable spiel to offset the inescapable damage. "I realize that this could turn out to be incredibly awkward for the both of us, if not handled properly - -"

Clark hadn't shoved him out of bed, or rolled away yet, which no doubt meant he was experiencing one of those 'caught in the headlights' moments of utter, frozen panic. Lex would have liked to turn over and see what sort of expression he was dealing with. Clark hadn't particularly loosened his grip yet, though and Clark's erection was still long and thick against the crack of Lex's ass, which made coherent thinking - - much less speech making - - damned difficult.

" - - so, we should probably look at this reasonably - - both being consenting adults - -"

Clark pressed his forehead against the back of Lex's neck and emitted a sound halfway between a moan and a groan, which Lex furrowed his brows trying to decipher, before Clark threw his mind off track by asking. "Do you wanna - - ?"

Lex blinked, sorting that uncompleted question in his head. It was almost comical how much leashed hope trembled in three simple words. So maybe, Clark hadn't reached the anxiety laden, awkward stage yet.

"I'm game, " he started, before Clark pulled him over and kissed him like he was on a mission. Which he was, for morning wood waited on no man and tended to be considerably more insistent the younger the man in question was. Foreplay was apparently not on the agenda, a refreshing lack in and of itself. It had been a long time since Lex had had a quick, dirty fuck in the morning without complications - - the lack of need for soft words and gentle coaxing that was generally required for this sort of morning activity out of a just roused woman. Men were considerably less complicated in their needs.

Mutual hands on cocks went a long way.

Clark had apparently found the Vaseline again, because he pushed himself up and pulled Lex up with him, an arm under his hips and the slick head of Clark's cock nudged him from behind.

Lex shut his eyes and breathed out, relaxing. It still stung when Clark pushed in and if they were going to keep doing this - - god, please - - they needed to go over the niceties of prep work for those times when Lex wasn't looking for punishing pain along with his pleasure. Because Clark was proportionally large and though Lex could work with the length, the girth took getting used to. It helped when Clark reached under and took firm hold of Lex's cock. Helped quite a lot, actually, when he started to stroke with a petroleum jelly coated hand. Big hot palm, tight as a second skin around him that moved with the precision of someone who'd done quite a lot of experimental jerking off. Of course, if Lana had been Clark's first and only and not for long at that - - then it stood to reason that there had been a great deal of self-satisfaction taking place on the Kent farm.

Lex almost laughed at the thought, but a soul deep thrust from Clark knocked it out of him - - and oh, fuck, but this was a particularly ideal position for hitting just the right spot - - and the girth thing was really, really coming in handy now. His arms gave out and his shoulders hit the mattress. It was very likely he was drooling a little and couldn't have cared less, because nerves were tripping all over his body and his mind was blanking again from circuit overload and - - Goddamnit, it wasn't like he hadn't had a fuck and a hand job before- - it was maybe just that he hadn't had it from Clark.

A dozen thrusts and Clark came, leaned over Lex's back and shuddered while he found completion, then pulled back enough to slide out with a searing little pain that sent Lex over the edge.

When the white light faded, he was on his side with Clark's hand still wrapped around his spent penis, Clark curled behind him, the rise and fall of the chest pressed against Lex's back beginning to even out.

The fingers slowly unfurled, and it was a sad absence of warmth. There was a wet spot on the bed and probably a few dried, crusty places from last night. Come was cooling on Lex's stomach. There were probably quite a few things cooling. Now, he thought, after Clark had satiated physical needs, he was going to have his second thoughts. Lex idly considered killing him.

"Damn," Clark said softly, and Lex wasn't sure if the weakness in his voice was from recent orgasm or onrushing regret. "These were the last clean sheets."

Lex rolled over, which put him in the wet spot, but let him see Clark's face. Of course he was flushed, cheeks that heated pink that on Clark was never splotchy or unbecoming. But his eyes were earnest and clear green in the light coming in through the bedroom window and there might have been something related to a tentative grin skirting around the corner of his mouth. So Lex took a breath and reevaluated.

"It happens," he offered carefully, and tried to keep his gaze on Clark's eyes, because Clark's eyes weren't capable of perpetrating convincing lies. But the lure of the rest of Clark's body in the light of day was impossible to resist and Lex let his attention drift down. Golden skin, defined like someone with an artistic eye had taken a chisel to living stone. The sated softness that lay between his legs, a shade darker than the skin of his thighs and gorgeous, even deflated.

"I need to go out and feed the cows," Clark said and Lex narrowed his eyes a little, not sure if that was a euphemism for alone time in the barn.

"Okay," he agreed slowly, doubtfully. He was generally so much better at handling these morning after situations. Really, he had been expecting more awkwardness.

"Honestly, I have to feed the cows." Clark actually did smile then, albeit a little self-consciously, and he waved a hand towards the window as he rolled off the bed with a great deal of contained energy. "Have you looked out the window?"

Lex hadn't. Lex didn't recall Clark taking time to appreciate the morning view either, for that matter. But when he glanced that way, the panes were crystallized with frost around the edges and there seemed to be a thick layer of snow on the sill, a chill portent of what was actually outside on the ground.

Clark was rooting through the tangle of clothes on the floor for yesterday's underwear, which he pulled on, followed by jeans. Watching him dress was more fascinating than Lex might have thought. An erotic little reverse striptease that had nothing of grace or seduction about it - - just a criminal obscuration of that beautiful body with clothing that did absolutely nothing to hint at what it hid.

Lex sat there, with the quilt pooled in his lap and just waited for the sky to drop, expecting it to come crashing down - - with some look or phrase or action - - even considered hastening the process with some cutting comment of his own. This was not the type of situation - - they were not the type of friends - - they weren't friends at all - - to simply rebound from this without uneasiness and pain. The constriction in his chest echoed the certainty of that expectation.

"If you wanted to make a pot of coffee, that would be great. And if you want to, y'know, come outside, feel free to scrounge around in my closet and find something warmer than what you wore over."

And then Clark was gone, clomping out of the room in high-topped work boots and flannel, that hitch in his stride that a man sometimes exhibited when he went off to work after a bout of exemplary sex.

Lex considered the possibility that he'd succumbed to alcohol poisoning and was experiencing some surreal, subconscious fantasy at the depths of a scotch-induced coma. But the fact that he was sitting in the crusty leavings of his own ejaculation negated the possibility that this was a concocted whimsy. His scenarios generally had much more spit and polish and more than likely wouldn't leave him still aching from the enthusiasm of Clark's efforts.

He heard the faint squeaking slam of the back door and took a breath. When reality was more disconcerting than fantasy, you knew you were in trouble. Plowing on was the only rational option.

He rose, dragging the quilt with him, and looked out Clark's narrow window. Indeed, the world outside was white and featureless. A sea of powdered ice as far as the eye could see.

And quiet. The house was too quiet without Clark's presence, and the silence Lex had been searching for yesterday echoed disturbingly inside his head.

He shivered and thought about the steam of a long, hot shower. He gathered up his clothes from the floor, shook them out and laid them across the end of Clark's bed. The bathroom was predictably cool, and the water took forever to warm. When he had an acceptable temperature he cut on the shower and stepped into the old, claw-footed tub. Hot water eased the aches of a body that hadn't been on the receiving end of sex for years.

He stood under the spray for a long while before reaching for soap. There were spots of mildew here and there on the inside shower curtain - - Martha Kent had been away for so short a while and already her house was falling apart. He wondered how offended she'd be if he arranged for someone to come in once a week and catch all those little things that Clark seemed oblivious to. She'd always been more reasonable than her husband when it came to things like that - - and someone needed to see to the things that any ordinary twenty-one year old male simply didn't find important. She would appreciate that need.

Lex shut his eyes against the water and wondered when the state of Clark's domestic welfare had become an issue again? Much less over and above a dozen or so other concerns that ought to be demanding his undivided attention.

It was predictably cold when he stepped out. He grabbed a towel off the rack on the back of the door and dried off. Took a moment to examine the fingertip shaped bruises on his hips. He didn't mind the marks, he just had no recollection of getting them, and it must have hurt, if Clark had borne down enough to leave imprints. He supposed he'd been deftly distracted by other sensations.

He wrapped the towel around his hips, covering the telling marks and went back to Clark's bedroom. Clark's offer notwithstanding, Lex donned his own clothing. He'd had his moment of insanity with Clark's hand me down jeans, thank you. He had no intention of traipsing about in other appropriated clothing the morning after sex - - wait there had been sex in the morning as well, so - - late morning after? - - like a woman wearing her trophy shirt for all to see that she'd scored a man. He didn't care if it was twenty degrees outside and there were apparently six to eight inches of snow on the ground and more coming down. Even if he'd been tossing it off like dead skin recently, there was still dignity to consider. Lex went downstairs, looked out the kitchen door at the white-coated yard.

Clark's footprints were gentle pockmarks in powdery snow, leading off towards the big red barn. There was no sign of him otherwise. The Audi and the Kent truck were snow-covered mounds. The roads were most likely a lost cause anyway, Smallville's one snowplow being notoriously slow at getting to the back rural routes. He didn't have his phone. He didn't have his laptop. He felt vaguely marooned in the middle of Kansas farmland.

He'd been marooned worse places. There was coffee here at least, even if it was brand name pre-ground crap. He found the container in the freezer and put some on to brew.

The telephone on the wall rang while Lex was staring at black coffee dribbling into a glass pot. He considered ignoring it. The complications of having to explain to any number of Clark's friends why he was here was ample enough reason. Still, it was a ringing phone and Lex's sense of order screamed, pick it up, pick it up.

"Kent Farm,"

There was a pregnant pause, then. "Lex?"

Lex shut his eyes and cursed himself for not ignoring the compulsion. Why the hell was his father calling here anyway, with Martha Kent out of town? What could Lionel Luthor possibly have to talk about with Clark? The contemplation of it, sent little shivers of unease up his spine.

"Did you misdial, dad," he forced casual disinterest into his tone. "Or is this just a happy coincidence?"

"Actually, I was looking for you, son." His father never missed a beat.

"And the first place you thought to call was the Kent farm?" Lex stared steadily at the back door, with its cheery paint and its handmade, rooster-patterned curtains. Martha Kent's curtains. Martha Kent who had a relationship with his father that Lex had yet to figure out the specifics of. He idly wondered if Lionel had fucked her - - in this house under the disapproving eye of her husband's ghost. He wondered what that same ghost thought of Clark fucking the younger Luthor in the same hallowed, creaky environs of the farmhouse. A faint, humorless smile touched his lips.

"I was concerned, Lex. There was no answer at the mansion. Not even a stray domestic to pick up the line. Then to discover from your head of estate security that you'd had a bit of a - - tantrum - - and fired the staff - -"

"I didn't fire the staff." He was almost 100 percent certain that he hadn't.

"Yes, well, you might want to clear that up, then. Your man at the gate said you left with a young man fitting Clark Kent's description. A surprise certainly, considering your recent interactions. But I thought I'd call to check, just the same."

"If I was sixteen and out past curfew, I'd understand the concern. I fail to see your interest, now."

Lionel laughed and it grated on Lex's ears. "I was worried. You know, I've been worried. You haven't been yourself, lately, son."

It hit Lex, like a frozen fist in the gut, that Lionel knew. That somehow, his father suspected the things that Clark had suggested - - the things that made all too much terrible sense once pieces started falling into place, one puzzle shard after another locking together to form a hazy sense of an alarming whole.

"Good bye, dad." He hung up the phone. Stood there with his hand on it, grinding his teeth. Clark knew. His father knew. How many other people were on the inside of a secret that Lex felt himself floundering at the edges of?

Of course his father had known about the Zod thing, just as Clark had and Martha Kent, and God knew who else. Half of Smallville probably - - everyone but Lex who'd been at the center of it. He took a breath and fought back paranoia. He wasn't paranoid he was just outside of the fucking loop.

Lex hated being outside of the loop.

He snatched his coat off the back of the kitchen chair and went outside. He stood on the porch where the snow was only a light dusting under the roof and pulled on leather driving gloves that were too thin to really be much protection against the cold. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stalked to the railing to look for that sign of color against the whiteness that would indicate Clark.

He heard the cantankerous rattle of the old tractor before he saw it, coming up the service road behind the barn, between pasturage and fields. The shoulder high back wheels rolled through the snow with precision, dragging a flat bed behind, that was littered with the remains of the hay that Clark had probably loaded it with on his trip out to the Kent cows.

Lex crunched across the yard to intercept it, and Clark, perched in the precarious narrow seat at the back of the rig, waved and yelled something that might have been a request to open the barn door. Lex did so, pushing the big doors back on tracks that Clark had already cleared of snow.

Clark eased the tractor into the shelter of the barn and cut the engine. The lack of rumbling diesel engine that had to be older than Clark and Lex combined, was a blessing to the ears.

Clark clambered down, red cheeked and bright eyed, and unaccountably pleased it seemed, to be about farm work at quarter past eight in the morning. Or maybe it was the snow. Clark had always liked snow.

"Hey, you came out." Clark stated the obvious with a toothy grin.

"My father called." If Lex had been less annoyed, he might have eased into the subject with a little more finesse, instead of snapping it out like an accusation.

"Really?" Clark stopped dusting particles of hay off his jeans, eyes wide and startled.

Lex narrowed his. "I surprised him by answering the phone. He claimed he was looking for me - - but I get the feeling your number is on his speed dial."

Clark blinked, wariness starting to creep into his eyes. "Yeah, well - - him and my mom talk a lot."

"You know another feeling I got? That you and he were on the same page in your - - hypotheses - - concerning the state of my mind. So how long have you and my father been chatting, Clark?"

Clark opened his mouth. Shut it with a frown. "I don't chat with your dad, Lex." He marched out of the barn, waiting for Lex to follow before pulling the doors closed.

"Really? It seems to me he's been in rather tight with the Kent's since your father died. And why not - -? Lionel Luthor has always proven trustworthy beyond compare."

Clark turned on him, halfway between the barn and the house, with an exasperated huff. "Lex, stop it. Yes, I occasionally talk to your dad and no, I don't particularly like it."

"All that proves is that you're not a masochist."

Clark gave him a look and a raised brow and muttered. "No, I'm beginning to think I'm entirely masochistic. I'm not plotting against you, though."

Clark looked earnest. But then Clark always looked earnest, even when he was self-righteous and pissed. He looked better when he was naked. Lex looked away, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

Hands grasped his face. Big palms that were fever hot against his chilled cheeks and for a heartbeat Lex felt the pull of irritation at Clark's audacity. People just didn't go about touching him without invitation. He had the beginnings of a look that would shrivel the courage of lesser men - - but Clark wasn't paying it heed and Clark was looking down at him with a steely glint in his eyes that some part of Lex must have found appealing because he lost track of the biting reprimand that had been on the tip of his tongue.

"Lex, if you don't trust anything else I tell you, trust this. I'm not working against you and if I can help it, I won't let you get hurt again."

Lex let out a gusty breath of pricked pride. It rolled in front of his face in a little cloud of white, mingling with Clark's frosted exhalations. "I've been seeing to my own welfare for the last twenty-eight years, so I think I can manage without you."

Both Clark's brows rose. His mouth twitched in what looked suspiciously like skepticism. And yes, there were a few incidents where Clark's presence might have come in handy, but Lex could overlook them for the sake of argument.

"Sure. Whatever you say." Clark smiled at him with good-natured condensation - - if there was such a thing when directed towards Lex personally - - and moved past him towards the house.

"Damn right, whatever I say," Lex snarled at him back. "Because half of the things you're dredging up in your memory were probably a direct result of something you dragged to my doorstep to begin with."

"True," Clark admitted, stomping the snow off his boots on the mat before the door. "Of course the other half - -"

"Shut up."

He wiped his own feet and followed Clark into the kitchen. It smelled pleasantly of coffee, which Clark made a beeline for. He poured two cups and held one out to Lex. Lex took it with a frown, feeling rather like the sulky child in the face of Clark's good humor. It was a disconcerting turn of events, for usually Lex was the one in possession of cool wits while Clark stomped around in a temper.

"So, I'm thinking scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast," Clark said as he doctored his coffee with powdered creamer and sugar. "And maybe waffles. Yeah, waffles would be good. That okay with you?"

Lex stared at the indication of Clark's ass through the baggy fall of his jeans and considered the possibility that it had been so long since Clark had had sex that he'd gone off the deep end into terminally giddy now that he'd had it twice in twelve hours. God knew, Lex had had the occasional partner that had made the leap into irrationality after a night spent in his bed. And while his ego was certainly capable of maintaining the notion that he was simply that good, he rather thought it was more along the lines that he had abysmally bad luck. "Waffles sound good."

Clark cast a grin at him over his shoulder and Lex let out a breath, the curve of a smile grudgingly touching his lips. It was hard not to soften around the edges when Clark smiled at you. The only solution to the question of whether this were some weird physiological sex reaction on Clark's part, was to have it another ten twelve times minimum and see if the good mood diminished.

 

Part Nineteen

It was like and episode of the Twilight Zone - - this strange, blandly jovial atmosphere that permeated the Kent farm. There should have been averted glances and arguments - - and Lex had tried that latter route to no avail - - or at the very least uncomfortable silences.

Not Clark cooking breakfast while he related the tale of the last time it had snowed this early and he'd been stranded at home when the schools had been closed for the day - - a truly lamentable thing since Pete Ross had only recently acquired a Playstation 2 and Clark had been devoid of electronic entertainment.

"Why didn't you just run over, like you did yesterday to the mansion?" Lex asked archly, and Clark gave him a look, followed by a plate of waffles, only slightly burnt around the edges.

"I was twelve. And Pete's house is farther away than yours," he said, then added in a muttered undertone. "Mom wouldn't let me."

Lex drizzled maple syrup over the waffle in a geometric pattern, watched it pool in the holes and said. "I understand that avoiding an uncomfortable issue seems easier, but in the long run, we need to discuss - -"

"I know it's your thing to analyze everything?" Clark sat his own plate down with a thump. "But do you have to pick everything to pieces right away? Can we just not think about - - you know - - the why's and wherefores right this minute and just enjoy the snow?"

Clark was embarrassed. Clark was confused. But apparently Clark had liked the sex enough - - had liked having it with Lex specifically enough - - that he was willing to overlook the first two. Lex wasn't certain if he'd classify it so much as denial as a type of compartmentalization that he never would have suspected Clark capable of.

He cut into his waffles, hating to leave it. Hating not understanding motivations that had direct bearing on him.

"Why don't you have a degree?"

Clark looked up at him, blinking, a folded waffle with syrup and bacon in the middle, halfway to his mouth. "What?"

"Are you even still attending classes?"

"Things came up. There's been a lot of distractions - - the farm." Some of the comforting familiarity of a glower came back to Clark's face. Lex was well aware of some of those distractions and they had nothing to do with the farm.

He took a bite of waffle, that masochistic part of him that needed conflict that needed to get in the last shot fulfilled.

"When was the first time you wanted to - - you know - - with me?" Clark shot back, attempting to play the game by his own abrupt change to what should have been an embarrassing topic. Only Lex wasn't embarrassed by it, and he was no small bit amused by the fact that Clark couldn't even say it.

"Fuck you?" Lex asked for clarification with a raised brow and Clark pressed his lips and gave Lex a narrow look that bordered on accusatory. He nodded though, reluctantly and Lex felt a swelling of unexpected affection. He'd missed these little conversations with Clark.

"Third meeting," he said without hesitation and Clark stared, working that out in his head.

"The cornfield?" Clark asked, a faintly scandalized expression crossing his face.

Lex shrugged. "I admit to having my kinks. You?"

"I don't - - what?"

Lex took a sip of cooling coffee, back on solid ground now and liking it. There was something about Clark flustered that never failed to appeal. That was apparently a kink, too. "When you figured out you wanted to 'you know' me?" Lex smiled placidly around Clark's euphemism.

Clark stuffed the last bit of waffle-sandwich in his mouth, the flames in his cheeks heating up. Lex cut another square of waffle and let Clark debate that question with himself. Though Lex would be honestly surprised if Clark had any earthly idea. Indecisive was not a word that had done Clark justice as a teenager.

Clark did not disappoint. "I don't know. I mean - - I wasn't thinking about - - or if I was I wasn't comfortable admitting - -there were - - I really don't know - - Does wanting to strangle you count?"

Lex lifted a brow. "In some circles - - absolutely."

Clark looked at him, gauging, not quite as easily shocked as he might have been - - say, four years ago, but clearly erotic asphyxiation was not on his list of comfortable conversation.

He had no problem though, with food related erotica, licking stray syrup off his fingers with the sort of oblivious seduction that always used to set Lex's teeth on edge. Still did in fact. Clark simply had no idea.

"I'm going outside and shovel snow," Clark announced, apparently finished with the intimate admissions portion of the conversation. He finished off the dregs of his coffee with a gulp and put plate and cup in the sink with a clatter that betrayed rattled nerves. There was the faintest line between his brows, which meant he was thinking.

Lex hated to interfere with the process, so he worked on the remains of his breakfast while Clark pulled on a jacket and went outside to pit himself against the snow. A little surge of sensory memory flooded in as he watched Clark leave - - bare skin against bare skin, the hot press of hands, the sounds Clark made when he was close to the edge - -

Lex took a breath, realized his hands were shaking a bit, and carefully laid the fork and knife down across the edge of his plate. He scraped the remains of his breakfast in the garbage and took the plate to the sink. The bowls from last night were still there, along with Clark's dishes from this morning.

Lex couldn't recall the last time he'd done more than rinse out a coffee cup, but the scant collection of dirty dishes sat wrong with him and since there was no housekeeper to hustle in after him and take care of the untidiness, he felt compelled to deal with it.

It was the stress. The more disordered the world around him became, the more pressing his need to exert order over it. He'd had a therapist or two suggest a mild touch of OCD, but he didn't believe it. He'd always preferred the term meticulous.

He liked his ducks in a row and he liked his details and the concept of preparation before the fact had always been a major motivator for him. That wasn't obsession, it was practicality.

Compulsion was a different matter. The more he thought about it, his need for Ares completion - - his drive to take 33.1 in directions it hadn't originally been designed to go - - it had almost been a compulsion. Excessive and repetitive in his efforts. So strong it had been almost beyond his control. So he hadn't tried.

So what had changed? When? And how? He kept trying to go inside his head and decipher possible differences - - trying to find the footprints of something that might or might not have been there to begin with. How did he differentiate when he'd never realized anything was amiss to begin with?

You couldn't. Just as delusional schizophrenics very rarely realized their reality was the distorted one.

He put the last dish in the strainer, poured out the dregs of his cold coffee and refilled his cup. Strong and black as it was, he could barely register the taste as he took a swallow, mind too wrapped up in frightening what ifs.

If he'd had a piece of alien inside him, left over from the whole entity, what did that mean? How tainted was he still? He'd had himself tested with excruciating thoroughness after Zod had inexplicably disappeared. Nothing abnormal had showed up - - nothing except the most miniscule alteration at the basest genetic level and the lingering effects of the alien altered immunization.

What was he supposed to have been on the lookout for? He hadn't gone off the deep end, hadn't engaged in the sort of killing sprees that phantom possession or extreme meteor exposure induced.

Not a rampage.

He recalled those names he'd listed. Those numbers he'd tallied in his head. He looked out the window at white covered everything and swallowed. His reasoning was sound - - it was the methodology that kept snagging him.

Lex shook his head, annoyed with himself for obsessing on something that might be nothing more than fanciful speculation and couldn't be helped even if it wasn't, instead of dealing with the things he could affect.

He imagined his father hadn't been the only one trying to reach him. His assistants were probably having multiple panic attacks at the lack of contact. He had promised an appearance at the Metropolis office today.

Clark's laptop was on the kitchen island, so Lex opened it up and logged onto his email. He read a few that looked interesting. Flagged a few for later perusal and sent a message to his assistant letting her know he hadn't fallen off the face of the earth and to reschedule his missed appointments for later in the week. He hesitated including the number of the Kent farm as a method of contact. He wasn't quite sure why. Was it that he didn't want the questions of why he was here - - or was the lure of anonymity, tucked away in the last place the world might expect to find him, that attractive?

He logged off without emailing the phone number. Pulled on his jacket and went out to the porch. The steps had been cleared of snow and there was a path shoveled from house to barn. He could see Clark, blue jeans and red jacket a vivid splash of color against the white walking back towards the house down the long drive that separated it from the main road.

It was a pipe dream, this thing with Clark, more fanciful than his dreams of stability with Lana. But he wanted it. Badly. No points to prove. No foes to vanquish. No vengeances to extract. Just the simple truth that Clark made him a better man. That Clark made him stop and consider and always had. That what Clark thought mattered in a way that no one else ever had. That the cease-fire they were presently engaged in, not to mention the accords of the armistice, made Lex something he hadn't been in a long time. Happy.

Granted, it was interspaced with fear and doubt about the return to hostilities, but even sporadic bursts of it were rare enough to be hoarded.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked down into the yard, along the shoveled path.

"How's the road?" he asked, when Clark was close enough that he didn't have to yell to be heard.

"Plow hasn't been through yet, so still pretty bad. I'll put the snow blade on the tractor and clear the driveway this afternoon so we can get out when they do come by."

"So what do you do on farms during snow days, anyway? Other than shovel snow?"

Clark stomped up to him, eyes gemstone bright, breath misting the air. "The same things we do on non-snow days. The snow just makes for more work."

"So, the chances of me getting you to clear off my car - -?"

Clark let out a snort of laughter and moved to the truck, brushed snow off the handle and yanked the door open amidst a shower of snow. After digging around behind the seat, he produced an ice scraper with a brush on end, and tossed it at Lex. Lex barely got his hands out of his pockets in time to catch the thing.

"Are pretty damned low, but I'll be happy to lend you my doohickey." Clark said cheerfully.

Lex turned it over in his hands idly, watching Clark brushing powdery snow off the pick-up's driver side window with gloveless hands.

"I've got a five if you clean off the snow. Ten if you wash it afterwards."

"Gee, really?" Clark turned wide eyes his way, false naivety unaccountably attractive. "Think of all the stuff I could buy with that."

Lex's mouth twitched. He descended on the Audi and swiped the brush across the layer of snow on the trunk.

"Do the top first or make twice the work," Clark recommended helpfully.

"I'm aware of the process."

"Uh huh." Clark hopped into the bed of the pick up and used his arm to sweep snow from the cab roof.

"It was a test swipe." Lex felt the need to clarify.

Clark turned around, hips against the cab and stared down at him. "Lex is this another one of those things you've never had to do before?"

"Its not rocket science, Clark."

"Did you ever make a snowman when you were a kid? Snow angel? Write your name in the snow?"

They were not comfortable questions. The menial labor queries he could shrug off, but the lack of normal childhood questions made him edgy. There were certain things Lionel Luthor had never encouraged and juvenile wastes of time had been high on the list. Besides, Lex had never liked the cold. Even bundled up, he'd never had a tolerance. He wasn't sure if he'd been that way before the meteor shower or not. When his mother had been alive, they'd spent a lot of their winters in warmer climes.

"By write my name, you mean piss in the snow? I've done that. Granted, I was drunk and letters weren't involved - -" It was easier to divert attention than answer the initial question. By the same dubious grace, he might also have done the snow angel thing, if falling down and floundering counted. He didn't think Clark needed to hear that.

"No snow men?" Clark was tenacious.

Lex narrowed his eyes and finished sweeping the roof of the car clean. "I never got around to it. It's sort of a group activity, isn't it? I never had a group. If you're proposing one now, I'll pass. I'm losing feeling in my fingers and ears and nose are long gone."

"You've been outside twenty minutes."

"Thirty, at least."

"Twenty-two, twenty-three most." Clark countered and Lex stopped and looked up at him, arching a brow at the haggling.

"Twenty-seven and I can prove it."

Clark canted his head inquiringly.

"I logged off of my email at 9:41 came outside two minutes later. It is now," he pushed back his coat sleeve and looked at his watch, then back up at Clark with a smile. "10:09 and 50 seconds. So twenty-seven minutes, which is closer to thirty than twenty."

Clark stared at him a second, then shook his head. "You are a complete freak, you know that?"

Lex flung a clod of snow with a particularly energetic swipe of the ice scrapper in Clark's direction. "Yeah? Look who's talking."

Clark opened his mouth, shut it, then crouched, scooped up an armful of snow from the truck bed and tossed it in Lex's general direction. Lex stepped back and avoided all but the edges of the barrage, and most of it hit the recently cleared top of the Audi.

Lex stabbed the end of the ice scrapper in Clark's direction, for there was a definite gleam in Clark's eyes that a man got when a gauntlet of some sort had been thrown down. "Don't even think it."

He had certain unpleasant memories of winters at Excelsior and being the victim of malicious snowball pelting.

"Oh, no, you started it," Clark was gathering snow from the truck bed. Lex put the Audi between him and Clark and a ball of packed snow exploded on the edge of the roof, next to his shoulder. He dropped down, letting out the bastard child of a laugh and a curse and packed a double handful of defensive armament.

Twilight Zone moment number two. If someone had told him last week he'd be crouched behind a car, prepared to engage in snow related battle, he'd have had them escorted from his presence.

"Don't dent my car." Lex warned.

"Don't hide behind it." Clark hopped down from the back of the pick-up on the side closest to Lex and hurled two consecutive balls. One sailed past Lex's ear and the other hit his shoulder high enough to get snow inside his coat. He flung his own at Clark and it had to have been sheer luck that got him on the side of the face, because Lex hadn't exactly taken the time to aim.

Clark shook snow out of his hair, spit a little out of his mouth and grinned in an entirely unsettling way.

"No," Lex said, holding up two warning hands, but Clark was rushing at him, and an instinctive little flash of panic welled up - - because, well, when was the last time Clark had charged him without some sort of painful violence ensuing? But the white of Clark's grin was incongruous with hostility and aside from loosing a bit of air, there was surprisingly little pain involved, other than that delivered to pride, when Clark's shoulder connected with his mid-section.

The world upended with a great deal of speed and ease and Lex found himself head down and ass up across Clark's shoulder for the few precarious seconds it took for Clark to toss him into the big drift that Clark had created with his snow shoveling.

Snow powdered up around Lex, finding its way down the back of his collar, up his sleeves and into overlapping sections of clothing that by all rights should have been impervious to infiltration.

"Son of a bitch," Lex spat snow.

Clark apparently had no problem wallowing in the stuff, or dropping to his knees and shoveling more into the mix. Lex ground a handful of snow into Clark's face, and Clark caught his wrist, pressing him back into the drift, leaning down, and just like that the mischievous kid drained out of his eyes and Lex was staring up into something more serious.

Lex reared up and met Clark halfway down, faux-fight adrenalin converting into something else entirely. How Clark's mouth could be so hot when Lex's own lips were numb from cold was beyond him. But it felt good, and he leeched away some of Clark's warmth, drawing it into himself. Grasped a fistful of Clark's jacket and pulled himself up to mold against Clark's body, wanting to steal a little bit of the heat there as well. Clark had more than enough to spare.

Clark drew back, flushed, when he hadn't been before, and scrambled to his feet, pulling Lex up with him. Lex was shedding his coat two steps inside the kitchen door, and there seemed to be as much snow on the inside as on the out. He managed to brush some of it off, before Clark had his hands on his neck, kissing him again. Tongue and lips and taste that flooded Lex with heat.

He pushed Clark's jacket off his shoulders, and got to warm flannel underneath. Ran his hands up that and Clark moaned into his mouth and slid his hands down Lex's arms and pulled him close. Lex broke the kiss to draw a lungful of air and Clark rubbed his cheek against the side of his head.

"Your skin's so cold," he said, as if that were a surprising thing, considering they'd just been rolling about in the snow. What was surprising was that Clark's wasn't. Lex didn't care.

"Told you," Lex breathed against Clark's neck, inhaled his scent and thought that if he leaned here against him long enough, he might just thaw down to the core.

"Let me stoke the woodstove," Clark said, and backed away. A tragic loss that might have been more tragic still if he hadn't pulled Lex with him into the living room.

Lex peeled off his sodden leather gloves while Clark was stuffing wood into the cast iron furnace. There were a few clumps still in his collar, which he dusted to the floor, and his pants legs were damp with it.

"I might have to take you up on dry clothes after all," Lex commented wryly.

"Okay," Clark agreed, sincere and gorgeous, and shoved him backwards onto the couch. Came down next to him and kissed him again and Lex opened his mouth and let his hands run all over, mapping the terrain of broad shoulders and arms thick with muscle, narrow waist, the firm line of thigh. Flannel and denim were too thick to get a proper feel and he worked at buttons while Clark tried to get inside him through his mouth. They slid down, full length almost on the couch, a leg each planted on the floor, Lex's dirty boot on the clean fabric of Martha Kent's sofa cushion.

He couldn't find it in himself to care, because Clark's weight was pressing him down, and he'd gotten Clark's shirt pushed off his shoulders and had his hands on Clark's satiny flesh and he was absolutely certain he'd never touched anything so nice as that taut skin over hard muscle in his life. He dipped his head to fasten his mouth to the juncture of Clark's neck and Clark made one of those groaning sounds he'd made last night and it went through Lex like a shot of electricity.

Just a damned sound and he was lost - - so what did that say for his chances against the rest of Clark?

Clark slid down further, both knees on the floor, his face pressed against the buttons of Lex's shirt, fingers flexing on his hips almost hard enough to hurt.

"God, Lex," he said softly and Lex could feel the heat of his breath through the fabric. "God - - freshman year."

"What?" Lex blinked down at Clark's dark head, baffled.

"You showed up at school - - to maybe look at the Wall of Weird - - you told me the story of how you lost your hair in the meteor shower."

"Yeah?" Lex wanted to grind up against Clark's body so bad it hurt, but Clark's hands on his hips were like vises.

"That's the first time I think I wanted you."

Lex let out a startled breath. "Oh." He couldn't think of another damn thing to say, mind gone strangely blank from the admission.

"If I hadn't been so afraid to admit it," Clark pressed his forehead hard against Lex's stomach. "Maybe it wouldn't have taken us so long to get here. Maybe a lot of things wouldn't have happened."

"Maybe pigs will fly." Lex coiled his fingers in Clark's hair, forcing his head back, meeting that dilated green gaze. "You can't change the past, no matter how much you might want. We work with what we've got and go from there."

Clark winced, eyes shifting down away for a second, then his mouth twitched a little in a smile. "Okay, you've given me my words of wisdom for the day. Let me do something for you."

His hands slid to Lex's belt, unbuckled it with maddening leisure, unfastened his pants and curled his big fingers in the band and drew them down. Lex shut his eyes, stomach quivering with butterfly expectation. He didn't know if Clark were teasing him or simply being very, very cautious. Lex's cock was a rigid presence in his briefs though, and Clark lightly stroked the outline of it with the tips of his fingers.

Lex came half off the couch, sensation spiraling out from groin to fingernails. Clark pushed him back down, one hand on his hip, the other trailing across the inside of Lex's thigh, tracing the long line of muscle down to the back of his knee. Back up, and the fingers wormed under the elastic at the leg of his briefs and callused pads grazed the sensitive skin of Lex's scrotum.

"Jesus - -" Lex breathed, everything contracting, wanting more than that teasing contact. Clark edged back, caught the top of the briefs in his hands and pulled them down, then hesitated, staring, hands on Lex's hips and not where Lex wanted them to be.

Lex had tips aplenty to give, if Clark was uncertain how to proceed, but he wasn't sure he could voice them coherently. But Clark rallied, with a look up at Lex from under sinfully thick lashes, and he lowered his head and took the tip of Lex's cock into his mouth. Lex dug his fingers into the couch cushions and thanked whatever karmic fuck up had allowed him this good fortune.

It occurred to him, as Clark swallowed him deeper, as Clark's hands slid up under his shirt, tracing the curve of his ribs, sliding around to hollow his back, that Clark had probably been right. If he'd had this, back when Clark had been illegal enough to get Lex 17 to 25 in Kansas and Lex had been naive enough not to know half the things he knew now, that his obsessions - - there was that word again - - might very well have veered off in different directions.

Then thoughts dissolved completely, scattered by the silken pressure of Clark's mouth, and the velvety scrape of his tongue along the underside of Lex's cock. There wasn't any finesse to it at all, Clark didn't need it. Just being there, on his knees, leaning over Lex's leg and devouring him with that furnace hot mouth was more than enough. God, if Clark learned tricks, Lex might not survive them.

There were sounds and he was making them, dying a tiny bit here, being reborn there, in endless tingling cycles, until that final little death that flooded his mind with white and had his hands clutching at Clark's hair, spilling everything he had into that willing mouth.

Saying 'thank you' seemed a criminal understatement. He might have done it anyway, if he were capable of speech those first moments afterwards. As it was he lay there, all the strength bled out of him, and felt Clark's weight against his leg, and the subtle tremor of Clark's body as he drew ragged breaths.

Lex cracked an eye and looked down. "I don't want to know," Lex said. "If you've ever done that for anyone else."

Though really, he did, so he might find the bastard and hurt him. But Clark dispelled the notion, by looking up, slight offense cutting through the glaze of his expression.

"I didn't just say that," Lex said, because really, where had his smooth gone? If Clark kept messing with his head, he wouldn't be able to seduce his way out of a paper bag.

Clark's expression cleared, though and he pressed his cheek against Lex's thigh, licking moist lips with the same tongue that had been pressed up against Lex's cock - -

"It's not even the middle of the day," Clark said, voice gone husky and deep. "And I want to go back upstairs and I want to get you naked and just - - do things. Are you okay with that?"

It was a laughable question. Lex could turn on the television and watch the plummeting stock values of his company, or get on Clark's computer and return a few more emails while he was waiting for the road to be cleared so he could get home and maybe arrange to do a little more comprehensive work from the mansion office - - or he could while away the afternoon fooling around with Clark. It wasn't the reasonable, nor the responsible choice.

"I think I could be persuaded - -"

Part Twenty

When Clark brought Lex back home that night he'd found him on the road, battered and bloody, and had seen the expanse of bare skin and found it appealing, he'd been mortified. As much ashamed at the attraction, as he'd been angry at the flaw in his own self, that he was so weak he could want something he'd already given up as a lost cause.

But he hadn't known then, what he knew now. And Lex hadn't quite been the same person. There'd been that extra slice of darkness that had plunged Lex's shades of grey into pitch black. And Clark was optimist enough to believe that that slice being gone, would make a difference.

It already had. He felt it. Had felt it, he thought, since the day Lex had woken up after they'd ripped the last desperate shred of a despot and a genocide out of him. Clark just hadn't taken the time to delve deep enough to notice that something inside of him, some Kryptonian instinct perhaps, that recognized the scent of another Kryptonian based threat, was no longer sending off little warning beacons in Lex-related matters.

It was the only thing he could believe and come to terms with the fact that he not only found Lex's bare skin appealing, but downright irresistible. It was like a craving had sprung up overnight, something triggered by exchange of bodily fluids that was Lex-specific and instantly addictive, because god knew he'd loved Lana, he really had, but he'd never had to fight the urge - - really physically fight it - - to keep from tumbling her onto the nearest horizontal surface and having his way with her.

Urges that had been growing in frequency since that same ill-fated night when he'd gotten his first good look at Lex's skin - - had gone into some sort of hormonal overdrive now that his head had caught up with his body in deciding that the idea of sex with Lex was not a dirty little secret that needed to be pushed to the back of his mind. But in fact a good thing. A miraculous thing.

He'd had so many multiple orgasms this morning that Lex had actually inquired if the marathon erections were some meteor enhanced ability. He'd only been half teasing.

"Or it could be," Lex had soothed, at Clark's embarrassed frown. "That you're twenty-one and sex deprived. Either or. I have vague memories of my debauched youth - -"

"Because you're so ancient now?" Clark had taken the out with the graciousness with which it was extended - - they'd been downstairs at the time, distracted from the pursuit of liquid refreshment by Clark's roaring libido.

"I am feeling a little on the stiff, sore side." Lex had admitted with an arched brow and a glimmer of eyes that had shifted to a clear, almost blue in the snow reflected light flooding the kitchen. And Clark had flushed a little and bit his lip, brushing the collar of Lex's unbuttoned shirt guiltily. The strip of hard, pale flesh between the edges was what had distracted him in the first place. He'd thought he'd outgrown sex on the brain every waking hour phase years ago - - back when he hadn't been getting any. Apparently Lex brought out the sixteen year old in him.

Lex was going to have bruises, no doubt. Lex already had them, fading ones from this morning or last night and newer ones from the late morning activities. And Clark felt considerably less guilt than he should have at the sight of them, even though he'd tried very hard to keep a reign on his strength, even in the throes of passion. With Lana or Alicia or any of the scant handful of girls he'd ever fooled around with, he'd almost been afraid to lay hands on delicate flesh for fear of the damage he'd cause. Lex was no less fragile, being human, but Clark didn't feel the fear - - didn't feel so much the bull in the china shop, when he touched him. It made no reasonable sense, other than the fact that it simply felt - - right.

And Lex hadn't complained, not once - - had done anything but complain, urging Clark on. Clark might have had matching sets of marks himself if he'd been anything other than what he was, because Lex liked to bite and Lex gave as good as he got and he never backed down and never hesitated, even when Clark did.

Of course Lex had tons of experience. Lex knew things that made Clark color in the teaching of. Lex explained things, like some of the polite methods of foreplay involved in preparing a partner for - - well - - anal sex. Clark wasn't sure that was a more comfortable term than fucking, but honestly he preferred doing it to talking about it. Lex showed him several sensitive spots on the male body that Clark had had no idea - - God, no earthly idea - - existed. And Clark showed him he wasn't quite the novice Lex seemed to think he was.

"Who taught you to kiss?" Lex asked, relaxed and warm during a lull where words didn't seem so out of place.

Clark didn't remember names. He barely remembered faces. If he ran into any of the various club rats he'd experimented with during that wild summer in Metropolis, he doubted he'd recognize them now.

"I have a social life, you know." He was embarrassed to admit the truth, but Lex kept watching him, faintly dubious, from under half lowered lashes, lips swollen from a great deal of the aforementioned kissing and Clark felt spurred to honesty. "When I ran away to the city that summer - - I, uh, did a lot of seed sowing."

And he had. He'd learned a lot of things. He'd learned that he didn't like kissing just anybody. He learned that looks could get you just about anything or anybody if applied correctly. He'd gotten his first blowjob - - and his fourth. None of them as fantastic as what Lex could do to him with his mouth. He'd learned a thing or two about Kryptonian physiology the first time he'd had a woman go down on him and try to stick her finger up his ass in the process. And it had felt great, until he orgasmed and clenched, and when a body that could do what his could tightened up - - well, the girl in question had been lucky to pull back a finger at all, even if it had been broken in four places. Even on Red K, that had been a humiliating experience.

He didn't know how to explain that to Lex, the fear of hurting him, but Lex was excruciatingly perceptive when Clark shied away from that area of experimentation, seeming to understand nervous boundaries, fingers shifting elsewhere with silken smooth precision.

"It's okay. Some things need working up to. There's - - time." Lex hesitated, flinching minutely on that last word, as if it had slipped out unbidden and he didn't really believe it. As if last night and this morning and the hours they'd spent feeling out the possibilities of each other's bodies was some fleeting thing. A momentary reprieve in hostilities.

He was wrong, of course. It couldn't go back to the way it was now. Clark wouldn't let it. He wouldn't let Lex slip back into old patterns, even though he wasn't entirely certain how he might prevent it. Force of will had never been as big an advantage for him as force of arms, but the latter was temporary at best, and Lex was a force to be reckoned with in the former. He'd figure out a way.

Clark hadn't forgotten deeds done. He wasn't na_ve. But he lived in a town where good people were often driven to terrible things by inexplicable influences and his mother had always taught him that forgiveness was easier to stomach than animosity. Maybe that's why he'd been so miserable this last year and half. Hating Lex had been hell on the digestion.

"Lots of time," he declared, sprawled on the rumpled sheets of his bed, Lex half atop him, skin warm and damp from exertion. The morning sun kept peeking out from behind cloud cover, casting teasing patterns of light across the bed from Clark's bedroom window.

Lex shifted and gave Clark a look, the squares of light curving across his skin, broken by the windowpane dividers. Clark spread his fingers out across Lex's hip, where sunlight kissed pale skin. Wonderful skin. Clark didn't think he'd ever get enough of it.

"You could stay here tonight again?" And the night after and the night after. Clark wished for a blizzard to end all blizzards, snow up to the windowsills and Lex stranded on his doorstep indefinitely. He doubted he'd get it. He'd heard the town snowplow rumbling by not long ago. He'd just been distracted and forgotten to mention it.

"That is an incredibly tempting offer," Lex said slowly, but his pulse increased, a skittish tempo that Clark felt through his skin, belying the casual intonation of the words. God knew what he was thinking - - it could have been anything from excitement at the notion or fear of some sort of betrayal. Clark had stopped attempting to fathom the way Lex's mind worked a long time ago, but he had the feeling he needed to start trying again.

"But I've missed more days from work lately than I can afford with the present situation," Lex sat up, looking down on Clark. "So a personal appearance at the office is overdue."

"Traffic on the highway is probably crawling. Even if you left now, it'd be evening before you reached the city."

"45 minutes by air." Lex countered. "Do you think they've cleared the road yet?"

Clark could lie, but Lex would catch him at it. He threw an arm across his eyes to hide the disappointment. "Probably."

Lex's thigh was against Clark's and it felt nice. He peeked from under his arm at the bedside clock radio. It was half past noon. They'd spent over two hours up here, tangled in sheets and limbs, Clark deftly avoiding issues that Lex wanted to discuss and Clark figuring out concise, bullet proof ways of drawing Lex off target, until Lex stopped trying.

The mattress dipped as Lex leaned over him. Clark moved the arm over his head to meet his eyes. Lex had really beautiful eyes when they weren't shuttered and spitting daggers.

"Are you pouting?" Lex canted his head, teetering on the edge of amusement. Clark wanted to see him smile again. Wanted to see the honest pleasure wash away the tension and the stress that had seemed a constant companion to Lex for ages. He'd come a ways this morning, but Clark had the feeling that Lex kept holding himself in check, waiting for the punch line to some malicious joke. Always expecting treachery.

"No. Maybe. A little."

"Ah, I thought I recognized the expression. I used to see it regularly. Different reasons, obviously."

"I was a good-natured, cheerful teenager." Clark defended his awkward years.

Lex lifted both brows in disbelief. "I'm sorry, who were we talking about again? Some other well-adjusted Smallville native, certainly?"

Clark pulled him down by the back of the neck, face inches from his. "You're saying I'm not well-adjusted? Because you, having such a corner on the market, know it when you see it?"

"When you put it that way," Lex pressed his hands against the bed, trying unsuccessfully to pull away, then giving up and leaning in closer to brush his lips across the corner of Clark's. "I see your point. I never realized you were such a shrewd debater."

Clark felt himself grin. "I never realized how full of bull you were - - oh, no, actually, I did know that."

He kissed whatever reply Lex had on the tip of his tongue away, hand sliding up Lex's neck to the back of his head. A little quiver curled in his belly, exhilaration that Lex let him without complaint. Because no matter how casual Lex seemed about his baldness, Clark knew he was sensitive.

"If you're trying to distract me, I have to warn you, I'm a seasoned multi-tasker. And I really do have responsibilities." Lex sat back and Clark sighed.

"I have to go."

"Okay." There was no fighting it, short of physical force.

Lex slipped off the bed, searched out clothing that was as rumpled now as anything Clark normally wore. Clark watched him, anxious over things he couldn't even name.

"If I come back to Smallville tonight," Lex buttoned his shirt, but left it untucked. "I'll call."

Clark wasn't sure if that was an invitation or not. Lex looked at him with that intense, speculative gaze that always went straight to the center of Clark. God knew what going on behind his eyes.

"I'll call." Lex reinforced and this time Clark figured maybe it was an invitation. That and the unspoken promise of chipping at the edges of the iceberg's worth of conversations that one way or another probably needed to be addressed.

Clark nodded and pulled on his jeans, feeling a little warm spot inside when Lex paused tying his bootlaces to watch from under his lashes. Lex used to watch him all the time, but now Clark knew why, and felt the sting of stupidity for all those years of oblivion.

Lex arranged with one of his people for the helicopter to pick him up at the estate, before they walked outside. The clouds had cleared, leaving the sky that brilliant sort of blue that came out after a storm. Icicles were already starting to form at the edge of the roof and the snow was so bright it was blinding. Clark helped Lex finish cleaning off the car, which had been left half done, and then they contemplated the long driveway that led to the newly cleared road.

Clark's grand plans of plowing it had gotten side-tracked and it occurred to him that he might delay the inevitable another hour or so by dawdling with the blade and taking his sweet time with the drive- - maybe change Lex's mind entirely if he made reaching Metropolis a late enough prospect not to make it worth his while. But that would be a pitiful gambit and Lex might very well see through it.

"You should make it. If you get stuck in the drive, I'll give you a push out."

Lex shifted his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose and nodded, willing to take the chance. Clark could barely see his eyes through the purplish tint of the shades. Clark stood there, not quite sure what to do, in the sober light of afternoon.

The rickety old produce truck from the farm down the road broke the snow muffled quiet and Clark glanced towards it. Lex slowly followed his gaze, the both of them maybe relieved at the distraction.

Clark didn't know what to do. Kiss him? Draw him in for a hug? Slap him on the shoulder and wish him safe driving? How did you act after the things they'd been doing this morning? It was beyond Clark's experience. Lex ought to know. Lex ought to have it all down pat, but he wasn't helping, standing there with one hand on his car door, staring down the road at the tail end of a truck that he had absolutely no interest in whatsoever.

"I appreciate what you - -" Lex finally turned to look back at him, tilting his head down to look over the rims of his glasses. "I - - It was a good morning. The nicest I've had in a while. Thank you."

"You don't need to thank me." Clark felt a whisper of offense, but that was just old habit, because he wasn't entirely sure what Lex was implying. "It wasn't a pity fuck."

Lex lifted a brow at Clark's terminology and Clark managed to keep the blush off his face, but he half thought maybe Lex was assuming it was and he wouldn't have it.

"I know that." If Lex was offended it was well hidden.

"You know, I don't think you do." Clark decided maybe more than a slap on the back was warranted. He caught Lex's jaw and kissed him. Just a gentle, brush of the lips and Lex's mouth was cold, but his lips were soft and the inside of his mouth would be warm if Clark deepened the kiss. He didn't, mostly because he wanted to so badly he felt it in his bones and he didn't want to stand there with another damned hard-on tenting his pants while Lex drove away.

So he stepped back and stuffed his hands in his jean pockets, while Lex licked his lips with a faint little curious smile.

"Be good," Clark said softly, fingers clenching, because he hadn't realized until he'd voiced it, how much was riding on Lex doing just that. On just how afraid he was that Lex wouldn't be.

Lex hesitated, one foot in the car, hand on the open door, eyes widening in momentary surprise behind his sunglasses.

"I'm always good." But he didn't mean it the way Clark did, and he knew it.

Clark nodded anyway and shut the car door, watched as the Audi crunched steadily through the snow down the drive, wide tires making the progress smoother than Clark might have thought for a low-slung car. One of Lex's sleek little sports cars never would have made it. And then he was on the road and heading home.

Clark was in Metropolis thirty seconds after he checked to make sure Lex had gotten home without mishap. Lex had a bad enough driving record under the best of conditions, and Clark found himself feeling all sorts of protective over a man that would probably be offended at the concern.

It had to be the sex. Obviously sex made Clark loopy. And ridiculously high-spirited and entirely unreasonable. And hungry. God, he was really, really hungry. He could eat a cow or two. Normal people got the munchies from getting high, he seemed to get them after a morning of really awesome sex. He didn't want to cook again. If he stood in the kitchen and raided the freezer and the fridge all he was going to think about was a couple of hours before, having pushed Lex up against the wall next to the refrigerator and - - just doing things. Dirty things that had involved him on his knees and Lex making soft, panting sounds over him, and the palms of his hands got sweaty just thinking about it, so making lunch in the same room just was not going to happen.

Metropolis served twin purposes. An endless selection of cheap diners with good food - - and Chloe.

He really needed to talk to Chloe. He wasn't entirely sure what he was willing to admit to her - - but there were things he needed to get off his chest and Chloe had the advantage over his mom of him not dying of utter embarrassment if something along the lines of sex talk slipped out. He hadn't even been able to talk to his parents about the various females in his life without wanting to melt into the floor - - much less the admission of same sex attraction.

Funny that there had been a time that the person he'd have gone to without hesitation with the most personal of issues, even the embarrassing ones, was Lex. And Lex wouldn't have pulled punches - - he wouldn't have told Clark what he wanted to hear to soothe teenaged ego, he'd have told him what he needed to hear, and offered up unbiased advice that inevitably ended up being dead on. Lex had always looked out for him, even with the damned covert investigations.

The Planet was bustling as usual, people dressed in winter coats pulled out of storage early, and sweaters and rubber soled boots. The streets had been cleared by the city's army of snowplows, but the sidewalks still had a layer of snow packed down to ice form by the trespass of countless feet and anyone who'd had a car parked along the side of the road last night would have a job digging out after the plows passed by. Which meant a lot of foot traffic and a lot of business for cabs and city transit.

Clark zipped through the lobby, and up the stairs. Came out on Chloe's floor with his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets and a little bit of stray snow still in his hair from the run over.

She looked up when she saw him and smiled. "Hey, that wasn't as quick as usual." He shrugged and returned the smile with a toothy one of his own. He'd called to make sure she was in the office before coming but had been diverted by checking on Lex's safe arrival at destination before running here.

"Food?" he asked.

"Let me finish this thought." Her fingers tapped away at the keyboard, a small half frown tugging at her mouth. He didn't ask what she was working on, thinking about maybe Italian for lunch. Lots and lots of pasta with meat sauce. And meatballs. And a huge salad with that homemade, creamy Italian dressing they made at Anthony's down the street.

"Are you zoning out on me?" Chloe asked, looking up at him, slipping into her coat.

"I'm starving."

"Oh, is that what that look is all about?"

They walked out the slow way, taking the elevator down with a bevy of harried looking Planet employees.

"So I haven't seen hide nor hair of you for the last few days," Chloe said when they hit the sidewalk and headed north towards the restaurant. "Lois said she stopped by - -" She left that hanging and he could imagine what else Lois had said.

"Yeah, Lex was there." Better not to deny it and then have to go back and admit the lie if he decided to come clean. The lies came so damned easy sometimes, he forgot who was supposed to be on the inside and who wasn't. It was a hateful way to live. He wondered what Lex would do if he admitted to all the lies he'd told over the years? He wondered how many Lex already knew the truth about.

"And?" Chloe urged.

"He was returning something that belonged to me." He left it at that until they were inside the restaurant, dim lighting and mouth-watering smells making it a haven from the cold grey of a Metropolis besieged by early winter. It was seat yourself and they found a table at the front near the window, where they could watch the passage of pedestrians outside.

"We were in New York over the weekend. Following a lead about Lana."

Both Chloe's brows went up. "Together?"

"He went. I followed. I thought he might be hiding something."

"Was he?"

Clark shrugged. "No. He's as in the dark as we are."

"Are you sure? Covering things up is his stock in trade. You know you can't trust anything he says, Clark."

There was never any doubt about her feelings towards Lex, not really much doubt that what she said held truth, but it still bothered him, hearing her say it - - hearing her talking about Lex with that hard edge to her voice and that look in her eye that proclaimed she'd go out of her way to damage Lex in the ways that were available to her. Her and Lois and every other friend Clark had.

But out of all of them, Chloe was the one most likely to listen and to consider things not necessarily to her liking.

"Do you remember when I asked if you thought Lex was any different after Dark Thursday?"

"Yeah?" Maybe she caught something in his voice, or in his eyes, because she went very still and focused on his face.

"Well, he was." He took a breath and told her. About going to Lionel and about J'onn untangling the remnant and him tearing it out of Lex with Jor'el's shard.

She sat there for a while, after he'd trailed off, turning things over in her head, making connections and assumptions of her own. So very much like Lex sometimes in the way her mind worked, clever and quick, running two steps ahead of the crowd.

The server brought the pasta, two heaping platters and Clark found that some of his appetite had deserted him.

"This is really, sort of huge, Clark," she finally said, slowly. "To think that all this time there was something of Zod left lurking around. Lex had no idea?"

Clark shook his head.

"And you told him?" She asked sharply, and he swallowed and took a breath.

"A little - - as much as I could without letting things slip - - sort of brought it up like it was a wild theory. I had to, he was cracking up - - he was counting up casualties, Chloe. Hurting himself. He didn't understand - - he still doesn't really understand."

"If you're saying this thing influenced his actions - - how much? 50/50? 10% Zod, 90% Lex? A tickle in the back of his mind? Voices in his head? What are talking?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said twirling spaghetti on his fork, miserable. "You don't know how much I wish I did?"

"Its not your fault," she said sharply. "You couldn't be expected to know."

"Couldn't I? You know, Chloe, I never bothered to look. He got hostile and colder than he ever had before and I never questioned. I didn't care because I was too busy being pissed off at him over Lana. If I had bothered to look past that, I'd have noticed that the warning signals that kept going off every time I was in a room with him were more than jealousy over a girl. That's the truth."

She stared at him, wide-eyed. "How much of that is guilt talking and how much is you really thinking things might have been different if you'd somehow miraculously guessed you'd missed a chunk of interstellar, world-conquering psychopath?"

He stuffed a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth, slurped up the dangling strands and chewed while he mulled that over.

"They would have been," he said, and was absolutely certain of it. "And if it's not my fault, who's is it? I made choices and I didn't clean up my mess."

"You didn't know there was a mess? Nobody knew there was a mess, Clark. God, next you'll be saying every black deed he did last year is your fault as well."

He stared at her, not having considered it from that viewpoint. Chloe slapped her palms onto the table making the silverware jump, and glared at him.

"Oh, don't even. I get it. I really get that this was a big oversight, and that Lex got a raw deal out of it, but Jesus, Clark, why are you going out of your way taking blame? It's not like he was on the straight and narrow before Zod? He had plenty black marks to his credit. Just ask some of your suped-up friends. His weapons research. The ship. 33.1. There's a list, Clark."

There was. Clark could recite it verbatim. It would even piss him off, thinking about it. And at this moment in time, it didn't make a bit of difference. Did that make him a fool? Blind? A hypocrite?

He looked away and Chloe furrowed her brows, not understanding. How could she understand if he didn't tell her all of the truth? How could Lex, who knew even less?

He dissected a meatball unenthusiastically. He'd thought it would be such a good idea to talk to Chloe. Thought it would be a relief to unburden himself. But listening to her sit here bashing Lex was doing anything but lightening his load. It was making him sort of edgy. It wasn't her fault. It wasn't like she could have predicted his change of heart. It wasn't like he'd even admitted it to her. Hard to admit something he wasn't sure about the reasoning of himself. Maybe he should have given in and talked with Lex, about the uncomfortable things Lex wanted, and figured out a few things.

"Chloe," he said softly. "What would you be doing right now, if you didn't know about me? If no one had ever told you the full story and all you had to go on were bits and pieces of really frightening information? About everything."

She swallowed, hands very still on the table. "Playing Devil's advocate?" she asked.

He just stared, waiting. Needing to hear an honest answer to shore up or dispel a disturbing notion.

"I'd probably still be obsessed with the Wall of Weird. It'd probably be a pantheon of Weird by now. I'd probably have turned into one of those crazy conspiracy buffs you see on reruns of the X-files - - but I wouldn't be stomping all over people's lives to find out, if that's what you're getting at."

"Not even if you had a fortune and all the resources in the world to back your curiosity? Not even if you really, really wanted to know? Not if maybe you were scared of what you thought was out there?"

She opened her mouth, shut it, remembering perhaps when she had stomped all over his privacy in her need to uncover what she had thought to be a relatively mundane secret. The only difference between her prying into his business and Lex, had been means. The driving curiosity had been the same.

"I don't know. Maybe I would. I'm a journalist, so prying comes naturally, I guess. And invading someone's privacy is just a hop skip and a jump from invading their lives and I do that all the time with just words and questions to back me. If I had more money than God - - I don't know. Its not a fair question, Clark." She sounded a little desperate, like she didn't like the answer she was coming up within her own head.

"No," he agreed, because he didn't like it either and it hadn't been fair and it might be too late in the game to do anything about it. "I guess it isn't."

Part Twenty-one

It was past two and the majority of the business day was behind him - - Lex hesitated to say wasted, because wasted meant nothing had been accomplished and a great deal had been accomplished, he simply hadn't figured out all the nuances of the achievement yet.

Clark interfered with his thought processes. Badly. Clark had always been a distraction, Lex had just never entirely realized how proximity and actual skin-to-skin contact exponentially increased the effect.

For a while there this morning, he hadn't been able to form a coherent thought at all and other than various incidents where drugs had been involved, Lex could not recall a bout of sex that had deprived him of his higher brain functions. Because sex, when you got past the physical gratification aspect, was all about control and profit and gain. Alliances made and deals brokered between the sheets, whether personal or business. Sex was about power, because when you lost the upper hand you left yourself open to victimization. A hard lesson. He kept forgetting it. And relearning the hard way.

He'd lost it with Clark somewhere along the way, last night or this morning - - that comforting control. Maybe he'd never had to it begin with, desperate as he'd been for Clark to chase away the threatening darkness. That scared him. Clark scared him. That pure intensity that drew him in like a moth to fire and shredded all his carefully coiled discipline. What made it worse was that he hadn't cared. Had welcomed it like a newly made addict seeking his fix and no other high would ever do.

It was just sex, damnit and sex after six, almost seven years of recurring fantasy buildup should have been a colossal let down. Reality always let fantasy down. It was a given. Except when it wasn't.

Except when it was Clark.

And if Clark had an agenda, Lex had yet to figure it out. It wasn't like Clark's motivations were ever that complex. Clark's hidden layers had very little to do with his emotional state. Clark wasn't him and he wasn't Lana, he wasn't capable of the sort of deceit it took to feign depths of emotion that just weren't there. What you saw was generally what you got.

It was in Lex's nature to question and to doubt. But no matter what angle Lex looked at it from, and he looked a lot, during the flight from Smallville to Metropolis, what he kept coming back to was simple. It wasn't some elaborate set-up. Clark wasn't in cahoots with his father or any other agency out for Lex's blood. Clark had decided, for his own inexplicable reasons, to stop hating Lex and Lex couldn't fathom it any better now than he had yesterday.

It wouldn't last though. Nothing good ever did.

"Mr. Luthor, we're about to touch down."

Lex refocused, looking out the curved window of the LexCorp helicopter at the jagged, white rooftops of the city. The helipad was a patch of smoothness beneath them and at the bottom of the stairs leading down from that, huddled the small, windblown figures of several of his personal assistants. They descended on him like a flock of organized vultures sporting PDA's. They scattered like them too, fluttering aside when he strode through towards the rooftop elevator and following in his wake, their caws wisped away by winds.

He shed them, one at a time as he walked towards his office, answering this question, okaying that one, signing this, giving the go ahead for that, until it was only him and his executive assistant and she'd already whittled down the mountain of things that needed to be done into a smaller hillock of the most vital.

Two days worth of business squeezed into an afternoon, two days worth of meetings. He rose to the challenge, falling into the steps of a familiar dance that ate up the dwindling hours of the day. His people stayed late without complaint, while darkness seeped up outside the windows of his office. When the final piece of business crossed his desk he let himself pour the half tumbler of scotch that he'd denied himself all afternoon. Let his thoughts drift to that place he'd denied himself of necessity, all afternoon.

Until the doors to his office opened one more time and admitted not his assistant but a less welcome visitor and Lex fixed an emotionless mask on his face and tracked his father across the floor.

"I see the weather didn't keep you in Smallville, Lex." Lionel waved an expressive hand, the tails of his coat rippling behind him.

"You're extraordinarily perceptive." Lex recalled their last conversation and his fingers tightened on the glass. Swallowing down the whiskey in one gulp would be a sign of weakness he wasn't willing to show. So he lifted the glass and casually took a sip, before setting it down.

Lionel came up next to him at the bar, clasping his hands behind his back and staring out at the lights of the city below.

"I'm glad to see you making the effort. You've been distracted recently, when you can hardly afford to be. Your picture was in the gossip rags, you know, coming out of a nightclub in New York. Was that what you were about last weekend? I thought you'd outgrown that particular bad habit years ago."

"Nice to see you still keep up with your light reading, dad. Not that it's any of yours, but it was business."

"Really? With Clark Kent in tow? Or was it the other way around? It was a striking picture. Apparently you were less than discreet, according to witnesses. Really, Lex, I know you have little care for your own notoriety, but to sully another innocent's name in the process? I find it disappointing."

Lex laughed. He bit back the urge to say 'fuck you, dad.' Because Lionel would only smile at him condescendingly, his superiority reinforced, his point scored over Lex's loss of control.

"Why is it that Clark's well-being is so much more important to you than mine?" he asked instead, swirling amber liquid in his glass, but not drinking. Damned if he would.

"You're sleeping with him." It wasn't a question.

Lex didn't flinch. Just canted his head so he could see his father's craggy profile. "That's a wild leap, all things considered. Perhaps you ought not believe all the speculation you read in the gossip sheets. It's so - - lowbrow."

Lionel turned his head to meet Lex's gaze, clearly amused. "I don't begrudge you your pleasures, son. A man has needs, even with his wife newly buried - - but taking up with her lover?"

"He wasn't - -" Lex tightened his lips and took a breath. "She may have been mentally unfaithful, but never physically. So get your terminology straight, dad."

Lionel laughed. "Who's purity are you defending? Hers or his? Poor little girl. Did she even know whom she was a surrogate for? Did you, while you were wooing what was his?"

"Get out."

"This can only lead to tragedy, Lex. When he finds out what you did to her, he'll have a change of heart. And you'll be hurt again. I don't want to see that."

"Get the fuck out." He hissed it, seeing black around the edges. He didn't understand it. He would never understand the lengths his father went to raze him to the ground. Time and again. As if there were debts to be paid that Lex had no memory of charging.

Lionel smiled at him, inclined his head and strolled out, whatever mission he'd come in with, accomplished.

Lex picked up the tumbler, brought it to his lips, close enough to smell the scent of aged whiskey, but not close enough to consume. He shut his eyes, snarled and hurled the glass at the wall of windows behind his desk. The tumbler splintered, but the shatterproof glass of the wall was unfazed, except for the smear of scotch trailing down its surface.

He scrubbed a hand over his scalp, dug his nails in and welcomed the bite of pain. It let him regather his lost calm. His father was right. There were things Clark might overlook, things even, he might forgive - - and then there were some things that Lex couldn't even bring himself to forgive. Zod made me do it, would only go so far. He laughed bitterly and collapsed into his chair. Pressed his palms into his eyes and leaned over his desk.

Almost he could hate Clark for doing this to him. For making him mourn something he hadn't even lost yet. For drawing him in and giving him - - what - - hope?- - he wasn't even sure what that was- - and having it all balanced so precariously on the edge of a razor that cut both ways. Fucked if he was dishonest, fucked if he told the truths that would come out eventually if his father had his way. What would it cost him to have those truths buried? Was it even worth the price anymore?

It was a blurred memory at best, but Lex thought something cathartic had happened yesterday when he'd admitted the deaths on his conscience to Clark. Or maybe it had just been that Clark hadn't seemed to care.

"Mr. Luthor, is there anything more I can do for you tonight?" His assistant stood in the doorway to his office. The lights were dimmed in the hall behind her, long past normal business hours. It was after nine. He'd hardly realized. It looked like he'd gotten in a full day after all. Capped by a magnanimous visit from Lionel.

"Yes, you can make it a point not to let unsolicited visitors just waltz into my office. The next time my father hits the executive floor, I want to be notified before he's off the elevator."

She blanched at his tone, but really, part of her job was keeping unpleasant interruptions from his door, so he couldn't find it in himself to care. "Yes, sir. Of course sir. I'm sorry - -"

He waved a hand at her. "There's nothing else tonight, Miranda. Go home."

She backed away, closing the doors softly behind her. He shut his eyes and thought tomorrow he might have to offer a subtle apology. She was a competent assistant, though new to the senior position, and his father was not an easy man to hinder. She'd attempt it from now on, though, might even succeed if Lionel wasn't on a crusade. God help who stood in his way then.

He looked at the phone standing in its gleaming silver cradle. It was late enough that staying in the city tonight was a reasonable option. If he didn't call, it would just be one more broken promise and maybe nipping this thing in the bud now, before he invested to much would be the wisest course. Only he was half a decade late for that, and the investment was so high it seemed like parts of his soul were laid down as collateral.

He picked up the phone and dialed the number. Two rings and Clark picked up. "Hello?"

"I'm heading back now. It's late though - - tomorrow I'll practice proper hours. We can talk then."

"I'll come over tonight, when you get home." It wasn't a question. It was Clark practicing initiative and broking no resistance.

Lex released a breath and relaxed his hand on the phone. The relief that swept through him was intense and unexpected.

"All right."

"Bye."

He hung up, and called to prep the chopper. Straightened a few things on his desk and stuffed his laptop into its case to take with him. He hadn't had the time today to go through and check on the validity of back ups of personal files that might have been lost forever on the computer at home. He really should have walked around the mansion and dug around in the snow to retrieve the thing from the yard today before he'd left for the city. Irreparably damaged as it probably was, there still might be salvageable files.

Checking up on the employment status of the house staff might also have been a good idea, if he were to believe his father's telephone hint this morning that they'd left for less moody pastures. If they had, it meant his home office was still in the state he'd left it.

The helicopter was waiting when he reached the roof, briefcase and laptop in tow. It was a clear night, but darkness had brought a drop in temperatures. The wind from the rotating blades was frigid.

They lifted off smoothly and he watched the lights of Metropolis swim by below as the chopper headed east over the multitude of rooftops. The pilot murmured into his headset, talking to Metropolis international air traffic control.

Lex settled into the seat and shut his eyes, not caring for the unobstructed views the plexi-glass shell of a helicopter provided. At least in the belly of a jet, you couldn't see how far you had to plummet.

He dialed the mansion, let the phone ring and ring and cursed silently when it wasn't picked up. So, no staff after all. Had he been that abusive when he'd come home from the impromptu visit of the Reeves's dam facility, or had they just been looking for the excuse to leave? He didn't recall exactly what he'd said, but he'd been upset. That much he knew. And the staff had been distraught since Lana's death. Maybe distraught since before that, sensing her unhappiness better than he had and flinching at his - - whatever it was you'd call the dark mood he'd been floundering in the last few months. He could think of a few psychological terms off hand that were less than flattering. They were still better than the alternative explanation.

He could call Miranda and have her arrange for new people to come in tomorrow - - but she'd worked a longer day than he had and he'd been short with her tonight, so letting her relax at home in peace was the least he could do. Tomorrow was soon enough to get new, less skittish household staff in place.

Maybe less than he'd had previously. It wasn't as if he usually left a mess in his wake that needed an army of domestics to deal with. Or an army of security. He'd used to hate the looming shadow of an over enthusiastic security detail.

"Sir, we've got a problem."

Lex looked up, towards the shadowy form of the pilot against the lights of the chopper control panel. "What?"

"Gauges are reading a utility-hydraulic system malfunction. If we have a hydraulic leak, I have to set her down before we loose all hydraulic control."

"Then do it." He made himself loosen his fingers from the leather of his laptop case, actually succeeded for a few seconds before he tightened his grip again. The chopper lost altitude sharply, the pilot taking it down faster than the gentle descents they usually made and Lex felt his stomach lurch. This was why he preferred cars. A two-hour drive to the city was a small sacrifice to make to be in control of his own damned fate.

He didn't want to see the ground rushing up, but he looked down anyway. Saw nothing but treetops illuminated by moonlight and patches of snow covered ground. If he could have pried his hands away from their grip on the laptop, he would have looked at his watch - - as it was, he thought they'd been about thirty minutes outside Metropolis. Ten - - fifteen minutes from Smallville.

He used to know the survival percentage of helicopter crashes - - but he hadn't checked statistics recently. New technology and innovative system advancement didn't necessarily mean lower fatality when you hit the ground from a few thousand feet up. He really should have kept abreast.

But the meeting with earth was less catastrophic than expected, just a soft jolt against snow covered ground and Lex took a breath, and another and gathered embarrassingly scattered wits. Yet another airborne mishap survived. His guardian angels were obviously clocking overtime.

The pilot was checking gauges, tapping on his control panel like a man trying to bully a TV on the fritz into compliance by banging on the side.

"Shouldn't you be radioing in and letting them know we're down?"

"Yes sir." The pilot, reached out, flipped a switch and started babbling off a distress call. It occurred to Lex that he ought to have been on the radio with air traffic control the moment he'd seen the warning gauge.

He picked up the passenger headset and brought it to one ear, and heard nothing but silence on the other end. Glanced out the chopper door and saw the approaching headlights of a vehicle crunching through the snow towards the grounded craft.

Fuck. Maybe his guardian angels had been napping after all.

"What did you do?" Lex ground out, and the pilot shut up, abandoning the pretense of reporting their forced grounding and stared straight forward.

"Get out of the chopper, Mr. Luthor." The man said, voice trembling. He knew the man's face, but not his name. He'd been on the payroll for a year or more at least. Which meant he probably wasn't some recent plant, but a man that had been bought out.

"Son of a - -" If Lex had had a gun on him, he'd have put it to the back of the pilot's head. As it was, he had a brief case and a laptop and neither of them made for particularly threatening weapons.

The vehicle was getting closer. Close enough to see it was large enough to be a Hummer or some approximation there of. Lex cursed and shoved the door open, not willing to sit here and wait for whoever had bribed his pilot to sit him down out in the middle of nowhere.

"Whatever they paid you - - it's not nearly enough." He snarled and stepped outside, crouching under the threat of still whirling blades, staggering back a step as the chopper suddenly rose, the door not even fully shut behind him.

There were men getting out of the Hummer, dark figures in the glare of the headlights and he wanted to know badly who they were and what they wanted, but not badly enough to stand there passively and just let them walk over and take him. He ducked under the landing skids of the helicopter and ran for the edge of the woods maybe a hundred yards away. Voices behind him got whipped away in the noise of the departing chopper, but he could figure out well enough that they were yelling for him to stop. He dug his cell out while he pelted through the snow, hit the newest number in his speed dial instead of 911. God knew why, other than the fact that the authorities had always been next to useless to him in dangerous spots and Clark had never let him down. It wasn't as if either one could do him much good when he didn't know where the hell in rural Kansas he was. Thirty minutes from the city would have put him - - where? That was even if the pilot had actually been on a vector to Smallville.

He hit the tree line, when the first shot rang out, hissed and dove into brush. Skidded in snow and fought to untangle himself from bramble. The phone was lost somewhere in the trampled undergrowth and stopping to grope for it in the darkness seemed a tad too suicidal for his tastes. Another shot that hit a tree to his left and he darted the other way, half slid down an icy slope and his feet broke through the thin film of ice at the edge of a spring fed brook. He went down at the unexpected give under his boots, to his knees, hip deep in damned cold water. It was like a jolt of current to his system and he gasped and struggled up, splashing to the snow covered slope on the other side. A shot thumped into the snowy slope at eye level, even as a breathless voice called out.

"The next one's in your back."

He froze, grinding his teeth, drawing in gasping lungfuls of air. He turned, slowly, holding his hands out at his sides. Two men scrambled down the opposite bank. Big men, with the sort of look you'd expect from someone's hired muscle. They were dressed for the cold - - thick coats, gloves, hats - - and he figured they might have been out here a while, waiting for him to be delivered, lamb to whatever slaughter they had in mind.

"Get over here." They had their guns trained on him.

"Who are you working for?" He was trembling, but it was more from cold than fear. His sodden pants were fucking glacial "I can make what they're paying you seem like pocket change."

"If I have to come get you," one of them said, edging closer to the embankment. "You're going to regret it."

"I regret it already," Lex said, between clenched teeth.

"Shoot him in the leg and drag his ass back over here." The second gunman suggested.

Lex drew a breath and started moving. Splashed through water that couldn't make him any colder or wetter than he already was and scrambled up the other bank. One of the men caught his arm, hauling him up the slope, while the other trailed behind, gun trained on his back. The one with his hands on Lex, spun him around, pulled something out of his pocket and clamped the cold ring of a handcuff around his left wrist. He shut his eyes, heady rush of dread rising up as his right was pulled behind him and clamped in the other cuff.

If they'd wanted him dead, he'd be dead already, shot in the back while he fled. But, if this were a kidnapping, and the pilot hadn't bothered cover his part in it and these men weren't hiding their faces - - it didn't bode well for Lex's chances for prolonged survival. People with the balls to take on a Luthor didn't leave witnesses.

"LexCorp doesn't negotiate with kidnappers or terrorists." He said. God knew his father wouldn't.

They said nothing. Just hauled him along back through the wood to the clearing where the Hummer still waited, lights on, engine running to keep someone inside it warm and toasty.

They drew him into the glare of the headlights and the toe of a boot kicked in the back of his knee, knocking his legs out from under him. He went down and the snow was a merciful cushion to his knees.

The headlights flashed to bright and he turned his face away from the glare, blinded. He heard the door open and the crunch of boots through the snow. He blinked up, eyes tearing up from the cold, from the intensity of high-powered Hummer headlights and saw the silhouette of a man in front of him.

"Where's she at, Lex?"

The voice was rigid with anger, and for a moment, all Lex could think was that the man was asking about Lana. Then the voice sank in, the accent and the smell of expensive cologne that was the same brand worn years past.

"Niko, you son of a bitch," Lex hissed in fury. "You're a fucking dead man."

"Where the fuck is she, you little bastard?" Niko screamed and Lex half saw the fist, but wasn't in any position to avoid it. Niko definitely had a backhand on him. Lex crumpled backwards into the snow, vision dancing, pain shooting through his head via the blow to the temple.

Niko's twisted face appeared over him, hands grasping his coat and dragging him half up to better shout in his face. "You tell me where you've hidden her or I will fucking take you apart."

"Sophia?" Lex gasped. "You think I've got Sophia?"

"I know you do. You fucked her and took her away from me. You laid hands on her, you hairless freak and you knew she was mine."

Lex laughed. He had to, it was too tragically Shakespearian. It was a mistake of course, Niko didn't take it well and the fist came down again and he felt the inside of his mouth tear against his teeth and blood welled, the only warm thing presently in contact with his body.

He spit a mouthful of it out, and glared up at the half mad Greek leaning over him. "I never touched her, you demented bastard. If she left, it was because she was tired of your incestuous bullshit and used me as a handy excuse. She played you."

"She loves me. Only me. You twisted her mind."

"When? In the twenty fucking minutes she was in my hotel room? If she's that easy, maybe you're better off rid of her anyway."

He got hit again, a blow to the ear that hurt like hell and made his head ring like the bells of St. Paul. He pressed his cheek into the snow, thinking there was no way Niko planned for him to get out of this alive. Niko knew him too well to think the repercussions of this wouldn't make the take over of his father's shipping company look like a mild slap on the wrist.

Still, desperate men were easily swayed. If he could find the right leverage.

"I don't know where she is, Niko. But I can find her for you. I've got global resources and she's not exactly easy to miss. We'll set up a search and deal with this rationally."

Niko sat back on his heels, rocking a little, face twitching. Lex managed to get back onto his knees - - no easy task with the spinning of his head and the wet clothes freezing on his skin.

"No," Niko shook his head, jaw clenching so hard Lex heard it pop. "No. If she left - - if the bitch left me - - see how long she'll stay away once the money runs out. Let her wear off the rack fucking clothes for a change - - let her eat fast food. Let her come crawling back. Fucking bitch."

"Sounds like a plan," Lex said, teeth beginning to chatter a little. "You call me when she does and we'll laugh about it together."

Niko canted his head and looked down at him. "You never touched her?"

"No. Never. I knew she was yours."

"You knew boundaries back then - - you don't know them now, though, do you Lex? You think I'm stupid? You think I'll let you take everything else that belongs to me. You think she's the only reason I want to see you sucking dirt in a shallow grave? You destroyed my legacy you smug little shit."

"You deserved it." Lex snarled, snapping, remembering things that left him seething a decade later. He glared up unflinchingly, hands gone too numb behind him to clench into proper fists. "What did you think was going to happen? That I'd forgive and forget? You dope me, you set me up for a gangbang with a bunch of old men with grudges against my father and you film it happening - - then you bring in your Goddamned dog, you sick fuck - - and you think you get off Scott free? You're lucky I didn't kill you then."

Niko giggled, a mad sound. "The dog was Sophia's idea. She always had the best imagination."

Of course it had been, Niko was simply perverse, not creative in his endeavors.

"You'd have liked it, if you'd have given him a chance, Lex - - Zeus had staying power. And those old men, they paid a lot, you know, to have a piece of you. Lionel Luthor's hairless freak of a son - - who was so, so pretty when he was stoned off his ass."

Lex hissed in inarticulate fury. Helpless to just reach out and smash the bastard's head against the ground until it split.

Niko rose to his feet, brushing snow off the knees of his pants, grinning down.

"You're still pretty enough, Lex, for one more go before I put a bullet in your head."

Lex glared up, feeling a wash of feral disregard shimmer through him in the face of imminent death. Niko pushed his coat aside and unbuttoned his pants, gloved hand reaching in and stroking himself beneath his underwear. He stepped close, grabbed the back of Lex's head and pulled out his cock. Lex turned his face away and the hard barrel of a gun tapped against the side of his jaw.

"Suck it Lex, or I blow the back of your head out."

"You're going to do it anyway. So excuse me if I prefer to go without the taste of your dick in my mouth."

It was the second time in as many months that somebody or something had wanted their dick in his mouth against his express wishes. Was there some signal he wasn't aware he was giving off that screamed 'open to oral rape'?

Niko snarled and the muzzle pressed against Lex's lips. A harder jab and it was open his mouth or loose teeth. The barrel slipped in, ice-cold metal that slid across his tongue and scraped the roof of his mouth. He gagged when it hit the back of his throat, he couldn't help it and knelt there trying to swallow convulsively while Niko clutched the back of his head with one hand and caressed the trigger with the other.

Lex heard the breathing of the two men somewhere behind him, soft and even. Not disturbed at all by the scene being played out. He hoped, when Niko pulled the trigger he forgot to move his other hand and blew the damned thing off along with the back of Lex's skull. He hoped they left him here, instead of burying him in that shallow grave Niko had mentioned, because he'd like to be found eventually, because just going missing would be an ignominious way to be remembered. He didn't want Clark spending the rest of his life wondering - - he didn't want to hurt Clark anymore than he already had.

Funny thing, tragic thing, numbing thing was, Clark was the only person in the world that would probably care. When had that happened? When had he alienated every one else that might have given a second thought about him over and above the lure of what he could give them financially or of what he represented in the dynastic sense?

He felt sick and frightened and bravado and pride started to mean a lot less in the face of onrushing mortality. He didn't want to die, and if Niko would take the gun out of his mouth he'd suck his damned cock and the cocks of his two goons, if they wanted, in the vein effort to avoid it that much longer.

He made a desperate sound, all he could get past the gun in his mouth.

"What's that Lex?" Niko leaned down, wiggled the barrel in his mouth a little. "Change of heart?"

Lex nodded, as much as he could.

Niko pulled it out, and if the gun had had a sight, it would have chipped a tooth on its way. Niko grinned down, and pressed the muzzle to Lex's forehead.

"Too late, baby. I'm out of the mood."

He squeezed the trigger.

Part Twenty-two

Impact and sound. Deafening crack that vibrated his eardrum even as pain seared along the side of his head.

Lex went down, crashing backwards into the snow, blackness crowding in around the edges of his vision, huge and pulsing with the beat of his blood. Between the edges of dark, he saw a crumpled figure thirty feet away in the snow. Vaguely, he thought it looked like Niko, but it was hard to tell from his face-pressed-into-the-snow angle.

Feet crunched in the snow next to him, a body blocked out the harsh glare of headlights. Clark? He thought it was Clark. Even in stark silhouette, Lex knew the angles of his body, the way he held himself when he was angry. But, it made no reasonable sense, that Clark was just there, where Niko Daniakos had stood a heartbeat or two ago. It made no sense that Lex was able to reason at all, when by all rights he should have had a hole in the front of his skull and a bigger one blown out the back.

There was the report of gunfire. The impact of bullets, the briefest of moments when he looked up and saw Clark's jacket ripple from deadly little pieces of lead ripping into it and then Clark simply wasn't there anymore. Like he'd winked out of existence - - or never been to begin with. Or was that last cherished hallucination of a dying brain.

Maybe he did have those holes in his head.

But then Clark was back, barely having been gone long enough for a trio of labored breaths, falling to his knees in the snow, leaning over Lex, face filled with fear.

"God. Lex? Are you all right?"

He reached out, big hands touching Lex's face, cradling his head, tentatively stroking his thumb across the right side of Lex's skull, from temple to behind his ear. It stung, like he was tracing the line of a burn. Lex blinked up at him, not even close to wrapping his mind around what had just happened. His head hurt. His arms hurt, pinned beneath him. His legs were numb with cold - - the rest of him fast following.

"It's not bleeding - - much - - I couldn't get to him in time - - I thought - - God." Clark was babbling. Clark pulled him up, into his arms and it hardly mattered that the breath was compressed out of him, because the warmth was enough of a tease to make tenuous consciousness waver.

"What happened?" Amazingly enough Clark asked the question before Lex could, face pressed against the side of Lex's head that didn't have the throbbing line of fire.

"You got shot," Lex said, dazed.

And Clark drew a breath, shuddering. Said softly. "Yeah, I sorta did. S'okay, it's an old jacket."

Lex couldn't quite fathom that, even though he thought it was vitally important that he absorb every detail of this. Clark leaned back, pulling Lex against his chest, reaching behind him and releasing the cuffs. Only the bracelets were still on Lex's wrists, cold and implacable, when his arms fell forward. There was a link of twisted chain on the right one.

Lex lifted a hand to his head, he could barely feel his fingers, but there was still enough sensitivity to trace the welt where the bullet had scored the side of his skull. His ear was still ringing on that side.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw two sprawled bodies in the snow. Two big, armed men, just taken down between heartbeats. He blinked, trying to form appropriate questions.

"Can you stand?" Clark was pulling him up, without waiting for an answer, arm around his waist, hand on his lapel. It might not have mattered if he couldn't, Clark's arm wasn't loosening.

"Are they alive?" Lex asked, reflexively, because if they weren't measures needed to be taken. Clark couldn't be involved in this. Clark had - - done this.

Clark started a little. He hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Who are they?"

"Niko - - Daniakos." Lex said numbly, staring at the crumpled form. A good distance away, with no tracks in the snow to tell the tale of how he'd gotten there. Like he'd been flung by the hand of God.

"Why - - why'd he have his - - his stuff out?" Clark asked.

Stuff out? Stuff? Lex's brain wasn't firing on all pistons. It took him a moment to realize that that was Clark talk for penis. Had it still been out? He hadn't noticed.

He laughed hoarsely, too cold and too dizzy to try and explain and wished a severe case of frostbite upon any tender body part exposed to the elements while Niko lay senseless.

"Why?" Clark turned him, hands on his shoulders and it really was a terrible loss, the heat his body had provided. The support of his arm. It was very likely Lex's legs were going to crumble out from under him, brittle as ice. But Clark's eyes were intent, like he thought maybe the answer might entail more than just old feuds of Lex's.

"Sophia - - he thought I - - "

Clark was questioning him, but Lex could see the holes in his jacket where the bullets had torn though. He had flattened slugs in a secured box, mementos of something he'd been unable to prove - - had maybe stopped wanting to prove somewhere along the line, because concrete answers would have forced decisions he hadn't been willing to make.

"How did you find me?" he asked dully, staring at those bullet holes over Clark's chest, knowing the skin underneath was smooth and whole.

"You called me," Clark said softly, eyes wide and worried. "I heard - - shots."

How many minutes ago? How many miles distant? And here he was.

"We should call the police." Clark glanced at the bodies behind Lex, but his eyes came back quickly, shifting over Lex's face, uncertain. Afraid maybe. Of him. A man that couldn't even stop bullets.

How many tragic ironies were going to inspire humor from him tonight? Lex choked back the laugh, because it would have sounded mad if he'd let it out. Shook his head, and the motion made him dizzy - - faintly nauseous. He'd had a bullet graze his skull, he was lucky he wasn't spilling brains on the snow.

"No. Not yet." If the police were called in - - he'd be all night giving statements. He didn't want his dirty laundry aired without damage control contingencies. He'd had enough of his dirty little secrets splayed across the papers recently already. He had more important things to think about at the moment than Niko getting his due. Niko, he could track down anytime.

"Lex - -?"

"I want to go home." He pushed past Clark, towards the idling Hummer. His legs barely worked. He couldn't quite feel his feet, just distant, painful tingles at end of his legs.

"How far - -?" he asked and he had to clamp his jaw afterward because his teeth were starting to chatter and he couldn't control it any longer.

"Thirty miles - - give or take." Clark said quietly. Still standing in the headlights.

"And you ran here, too?" Lex didn't even bother to scour the area for the Kent truck. How had he found him?

Clark swallowed, skin alabaster and stark over the bones of his face in the halogens. He wasn't blinking in the intensity of the light, just staring through it at Lex, as if it didn't blind him at all.

"Yeah," Clark whispered. "I ran."

"Of course." Lex opened the Hummer door on the passenger side. There was no way he was up to driving thirty miles back home. "I'm cold. I want to go home."

"There's a faster way." Clark said.

Lex blinked and Clark was right there in front of him, like a ghost flickering from one spot to the next. Only there was nothing insubstantial about Clark. Nothing cold or transitory.

"How - -?" Fast. He didn't even feel himself swept up. Just a blur of sickening motion that his head didn't have quite the time to adjust to, before Clark was sitting him down in what might have been the stoop of the mansion doorway. He clutched at Clark's jacket to keep from just folding to the ground, victim of vertigo, concussion and the beginning stages of hypothermia.

He dug for the keys in his pocket, but his hands were shaking too badly to align it with the lock. Clark took them out of his fingers, and opened the door. The warmth inside was not as welcoming as Lex might have liked, but it was whole temperate zones warmer than outside.

"Your clothes are wet," Clark voiced the discovery and sounded aghast. Lex shed the coat, soaked halfway up the back and didn't care that he left it on the foyer floor. He put a hand on the banister at the foot of the stairs and pulled off his boots and socks, not caring where he left those either, just wanting the frozen, wet things off his feet. Clark hovered at his elbow, distraught.

"Lex, are you sure we shouldn't call someone?"

"I'll deal with them later." When he could stop the trembling in his limbs and felt less like something dragged out of a meat freezer. When he could think about anything other than Clark.

"I meant, about you? You don't look so good." Clark was hedging. Clark was nervous and Clark had a right to be. Lex wasn't ready to focus on him yet. Right now the order of his priorities ran; hot shower, dry clothes, a fistful of whatever painkiller he could find, Clark.

"Would you start a fire in the study hearth?" He couldn't deal with Clark dogging his steps upstairs. He needed a few moments distance to pull himself together.

"Lex, I need to explain - -"

"I agree. Not now." He started up the stairs, not looking back. If he looked back he'd waver, and it was all he could to focus on making his legs move. Reach that first goal. Achieve it. Go from there. He could do that.

He reached the bedroom, kicked off the pants before he reached the bath and cut on the shower. He stood there and let warm water wash over him, a slow thaw that made his knees go weaker than they had been frozen. He sank down on the ledge at the back and shut his eyes. Moved to turn up the water heat after a while and paused at the jangle of hard steel still around his wrists. He blinked water off his lashes and held up a hand, stared at the dangling link of chain and was surprisingly not amazed. He'd had a considerably larger chunk of metal and glass in his possession for quite some time, similarly twisted and broken by contact with Clark Kent. So this was no news.

It was just - - unexpected to experience it firsthand, while he was conscious enough to appreciate it. The shocking part was the lack of ludicrous fabrications to cover it up.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there, leaning against steam-warmed tiles, but the pads of his fingers were starting to wrinkle, so he assumed a good while. He cut the water and grabbed a robe from the hook by the shower. The mirror was fogged and he swiped a hand across the glass to clear a space so he could see where Niko's bullet had grazed his head. A nice long welt, already bruised around the edges, a faint, bloody streak along the top. There was no way he was hiding that for a few days. He stared a moment longer, remembering the feel of the muzzle against his forehead - -remembering the feeling of knowing for a certainty he was going to die. And the shock of not.

He blinked, shaking himself back into focus.

He dried off and got dressed. The lure of soft, warm sweats was appealing, comfort clothes he could let his body relax in. Only relaxation was dangerous, when he needed his wits about him and God knew the way his head was throbbing, they were disadvantaged enough. Six years ago, if he'd had to deal with this, he'd have been as eager as a kid in a candy shop. Five years. Four. Now it made him shaky, and cold inside.

Confronting Clark with anything less than perfect control would be unacceptable, even if the remnants of a dozen or more scenarios of how this conversation might have gone were whispering at the back of his mind.

Slacks and a thin sweater and a shirt over that. Black, black and black, because anything lighter seemed inappropriate. It wasn't enough to chase away the chill, but then it was highly likely that anything could. Lex thought of the heat of Clark's skin. Generous warmth that dispersed chill with its welcome - - that created heat with the teasing spark of contact. He tightened his mouth and went downstairs.

The study doors were open, one of the stained glass panels shattered, though there were no shards on the floor. The floor as a whole, was debris free, the overturned cabinet righted, books stacked back on the shelf in no discernable order, things generally put back in their places, though he distinctly recalled leaving a monumental mess in his wake after his episode of insanity. The great hearth sported a cheerfully crackling fire, which took the edge off the normally cool air. The shattered window behind his desk, had been haphazardly patched with a piece of plywood, nailed to the frame on the outside.

"I figured, since nobody else was here to do it - -" Clark stood in the east entrance doorway, a broom in hand, one of the big kitchen trashcans just inside the door, that was no doubt filled with shards of broken glass. Lex glanced back at the boarded window and Clark shifted nervously into the room.

"It was letting in a lot of cold air - - I had the wood at home."

Of course. And he'd run home, literally, and fetched it and put in place, then righted what would have taken a full staff of domestics hours in the span of time Lex had been upstairs.

He ought to be amazed, or aghast, or frightened, or enraged. What he was, was numb.

He moved towards Clark, held out his wrists, with the broken cuffs. Clark stared, swallowing, not making a move.

"Oh, go on, no reason to be shy now," Lex said, condescension heavy in his voice. He wanted to see Clark do it, without chaos and adrenaline tainting the stark reality.

Clark's eyes flashed a little at the tone, met Lex's gaze for a moment, large and dark with emotion, then he looked down at the gleaming steel encircling Lex's wrists. He reached out, both hands, big fingers grasping the tongue and the clasp of the bracelet on Lex's right wrist and separating them, as if they were tissue paper facsimiles. He did the same to the other. A casual display of strength that was neither surprising or impressive enough to get past the walls of Lex's calm. He'd seen other Smallville mutants with similar strength.

Lex held out a hand, a silent request, and Clark hesitated a moment, before placing the mangled cuffs in his palm. He picked one up, studying it clinically and Clark let out a breath of pent up air.

"Lex - - I'm sorry."

"For what?" Lex shifted his gaze past the handcuff to Clark's flushed face. Clark who was all passion and reigned energy, who couldn't keep from clenching and unclenching his hands or shifting forward on the balls of his feet.

"You know what - - damnit, this isn't the way I wanted to tell you."

Lex canted his head. "You wanted to tell me?"

Clark opened his mouth. Shut it. And Lex figured that Clark's declaration had been a rhetorical one. He hadn't wanted to tell him anything. He hadn't had a choice.

"Lex, I want to explain. You need to know that it wasn't just you, I was keeping things from. It wasn't just my secret, it was my parent's too. If people knew, it might not have just been me that suffered from it, but anybody that knew. I was taught up all my life not to trust anybody and once you start telling the lies, it's hard to just back out of them. I didn't want to be known as the freak that lived down route 601- - I didn't want people coming after us because of me. I just wanted normal. You can't understand."

Clark was talking fast, desperate and panicked. Lex just absorbed it and let it run its course, until Clark finally stood there, breathing hard, stricken in the face of Lex's silence.

"I understand," Lex finally said. "With the tragic end most meteor mutants meet, it was only prudent to keep a low profile. Caution was the only reasonable course. I even understand why you didn't want people - - friends - - to know - - the fear of rejection - - the shame of being different. There's nothing more demoralizing than being a teenager on the outside. I understand self-preservation, Clark."

Clark shut his eyes, skin gone very pale aside from the color in his cheeks and lips. It was a good look on him, that china doll coloration, over perfectly sculpted bones. It made him seem somehow more fragile than he really was. It made Lex believe what he'd told Clark.

"I'm not," Clark whispered, eyes still shut, voice barely audible. "A meteor mutant."

Lex flinched. Felt a chink in the armor of his carefully maintained control. A little stab of dread, because that was also a possibility he had considered, and purposefully chosen to ignore, because considering what he knew about the alternatives, a meteor mutant was so much nicer an explanation.

"I'm sorry," Clark said again, and Lex felt the edges of cold creeping up again. I'm sorry was a mantra with Clark. He used it often enough that he either held the guilt of the world on his shoulders or he had no concept what it really meant. Silence was more vivid than any question Lex could have voiced and Clark shifted under it. Almost, Lex didn't want to hear explanations. Almost he could have stopped Clark from answering outright, and maintained the pretense and the comfortable illusion. Tranquil in his ignorance, but never content. He knew himself well enough to know that eventually the curiosity would eat him from the inside out. It always did.

He wanted to blurt questions out, about the meteor shower and the ship in the cornfield that he never had tracked down, so many curious things he'd uncovered over the years. He didn't. Posing answers as questions was simply a path to convenient truths.

Lex moved to the bar, and laid the separated cuffs upon the surface. Not a glass or a container of liquid remained. Shame, because he could have used a shot of scotch.

"This is my home," Clark gathered himself, following Lex a few steps into the room and holding firm. "It's the only one I've ever known - - but I wasn't born here."

"Kansas?" Lex asked dryly, ghosting his fingers across the splintered surface of his desk. What had he taken to it? A fireplace poker, he seemed to recall.

Clark winced, not appreciating Lex's humor. "Krypton. It was called Krypton. It's - - not there anymore. I could show you the constellation where it used to be - -"

"Could you? How romantic." Lex swung his gaze around and Clark squared his shoulders, narrowing his eyes. Lex knew too, the path those consecutive meteor showers had taken, the trajectories of where they would have originated.

"Lex - - I have no idea what's going through your head right now, but I swear to God, I'm the same person who used to be your friend, and would like to be again. And that's the truth.

"I didn't even know until I was fifteen. I thought I was just another Smallville freak. They sent me here to save me. The planet was dying and nobody believed my birth father. And I didn't even know that until - - until - - well, there was sort of this AI thing that came with the ship and the caves are kind of a doorway to someplace else - -"

Clark looked so earnest, nervous and sweating and so patently human in appearance that it was little wonder no one would ever suspect, until they saw what he was capable of and even then it was easier to believe the human explanation.

Lex sat down behind his shattered desk and listened to Clark talk, putting pieces together in his head. It wasn't the fact that he was alien to this planet that finally got to Lex, but the realization that he was the same sort of alien as those that had come with the second ship. The same sort of alien as - -

"You knew." Lex said softly, interrupting, the cold starting to melt away in the growing heat of anger. The numbness cracking under the sting of indignation. "They came here looking for you, the people from the ship. And you knew. You knew about Zod."

Clark stared at him, the guilt written so plainly on his face he might as well have shouted it to the heavens. "Lex, I - -"

"You son of a bitch, you knew and you didn't tell me. It's one thing to keep secrets when all you're afraid of is exposure - - when planetary invasion is at issue, I'd think you could bite the bullet and be a little more forthcoming." "I thought you were working with them. With Fine."

"Right because there's nothing like alien possession and being responsible for worldwide chaos and destruction to boost the ego. Didn't it occur to you that even if I had been dealing with whatever the hell Fine was, it might have been beneficial for me to know a few fucking details? That it might have been worth your while to - - Oh, I don't know, let me stretch my imagination and say - - try and talk me out of it? Expand my horizons? Give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that my endgame didn't include the annihilation of human civilization?"

"Lex, we didn't know." Clark rounded the bar, advancing towards the desk and Lex shot up, fists clenched so hard he heard his knuckles pop. "By the time we were sure, it was too late - - we thought it was too late - - and I couldn't do what needed to be done."

"You mean kill me?" Lex asked.

Clark blinked at him, mouth working. "You remember?"

"No. Lana told me. Lana told me a lot of things. Did you have something to do with getting him out of me?"

"Yes."

Lex looked towards the fire, a muscle twitching in his jaw. "And was part of it - - of him - - still inside me, like you so helpfully suggested?"

"Yeah. But it's gone now." Clark added hastily. "We pulled it out, once we realized it was still there. I'm sorry I didn't get him all the first time - - I just didn't know. I'm sorry I didn't know sooner there was still something of him left - - I should have."

"How retroactively - - responsible of you. And while I was convincing myself I was in the midst of a psychotic break - -you were going to just sit back and hope I worked things out on my own? A subtle hint here, a fuck there and everything would be okay?"

"No. No, that's not - -" Clark lifted a hand, reaching for him and Lex batted it away with a snarl.

"Don't touch me."

Clark dropped the arm, hurt and stared, all liquid green eyes and breathlessly parted pink lips, perfect skin and silky hair and none of it human. Lex wanted to scream.

"Who is 'we'?" He asked instead.

"What?"

"You said 'we' pulled it out once 'we' realized it was there. Who else was in on it?"

Clark hesitated, the faint flicker of guilt crossing his face. "Your dad," he said softly. "And - - a friend, who helped unravel it. But I got it out."

Lex shut his eyes a heartbeat, the thrumming pressure inside his head building. His father. Of course. Lionel was in on everything else, had a hand in controlling every other aspect of his life, why not the one's Lex wasn't even aware of as well?

"When? When did you do it?"

"The night I came to see you and you - - um, passed out."

"And I woke up to you in my bedroom. Hanging around to make sure I woke up at all? I assume I didn't simply faint?"

"Your dad gave me something. I'm sorry about that. I didn't want - - I was trying to help you."

"Yes, because we'd been scratching each other's backs so thoroughly up until that point."

Somehow, that last bit of information, the knowledge that his father had been confided in, had been on the inside of the loop, the whole time Lex had been struggling outside it, was worse than any other revelation Clark had made tonight. That Clark had been working with Lionel - - just like Lana - - that Clark had gotten close to assess Lex's post remnant mental state or worse yet, to assuage some neurotic guilt was a greater blow than the not so shocking disclosure that he was more than human. A plethora of betrayals that made him see spots of red at the edge of his vision. Anger wasn't an adequate term for what bubbled up inside him now.

"Get out," he hissed, softly, because his voice snagged on the rising fury. "Lex, please." Clark reached for him, fingers grasping his arm, false sincerity on his face. It had to false - - working with his father - - Lionel's recent interest, Lionel's call to the Kent farm. Clark's blatant denial out in the snow and he'd bought it, surrounded by the simple warmth of farm and the lure of Clark's forgiveness - - the lure of Clark.

He jerked his arm out of the loose grip, shoving at Clark with both hands. The impact was jarring, and Clark moved almost as an afterthought. A blink of surprise before he took a willing step backwards.

"Get the fuck out." Lex felt vaguely nauseous from the head wound and the painkillers on an empty stomach. If Clark didn't get out now, he was going to lose his grasp on what control he had left and snap. He felt it building.

But Clark acquiesced, nodding his head once, mouth a tight line, brows drawn. He looked as if he wanted to say something, some parting apology or excuse, some new placating lie, or inept platitude learned at the knee of his self-righteous father - - oh, not his father - - just some human that had had a fondness for taking in stray animals and displaced aliens.

Clark took a step backwards. Turned on his heel and stalked to the study door, then he was just gone, no footsteps to betray his exit, no anything but a curl of disturbed air. Lex stared at the empty doorway, heart beating so hard it felt as if it were trying to escape. If there had been anything left to throw, he would have, but he'd already destroyed everything breakable he was capable of lifting during his last fit of rage.

But that was acceptable. He could find other outlets for his anger.

Part twenty-three

Clark had imagined the evening turning out considerably better than it had. Was it even possible, in all the realms of space-time, that it could have gone worse?

Well, maybe. He supposed blood could have been shed, Lex's own men in black could have come rushing in, meteor rock could have been involved - - and Lex hadn't really even yelled at him, so all in all yeah, it probably could have been a lot worse. But, it had gone pretty damned terrible nonetheless.

The look in Lex's eyes had been - - well, Lex had never looked at him like that, even when they'd both been spitting mad at each other. Never looked at him with that hollow anger like he was a thing instead of person. And it hurt. This phantom pain deep down in his gut that made him slightly nauseous.

So Lex knew and Lex wasn't taking it as well as hoped. It was just fair odds that out of the handful of people that knew - - really knew- - at least one would freak out. Clark really, really wished that Lex hadn't been that one. Maybe if the situation had been different. Maybe if it hadn't just been sprung on him in the middle of a kidnapping/attempted murder. Maybe if Clark had had a little time to compose a reasonable explanation? Perhaps in bed, with Clark's mouth somewhere in the vicinity of Lex's lower half, because Lex seemed to become particularly malleable during and after oral sex.

Clark ran that scenario through his head and groaned, vividly imagining the sudden onslaught of flaccidity after such a declaration. God. He kicked a snow-covered rock and it shattered, sending a powdery spray of granite and ice into the air. He looked down at the shards, and they were watery in his vision, faceted through a spill of wetness that he hadn't even realized had formed.

He had no idea where he was. The lay of the land and the winter tilled fields suggested he was still in the Midwest. He wondered how far he'd have to run to escape the ache in his chest?

He'd run, because he hadn't known what else to do, hounded by Lex's accusation. He needed to fix this. Somehow, someway, he needed to make this right.

He went back to the place he'd found Lex about to be summarily executed and found nothing but trampled snow marred by a bit of blood and tire tracks leading back out to the dirt road that bisected this particular stretch of undeveloped Kansas wilderness.

It had taken him an agonizingly long time to find this spot the first time around, having nothing to go on but the distorted sounds he picked up Lex's cell. It wasn't until he'd stopped and concentrated on the one thing he did know that he'd finally zeroed in. Almost too late.

That had been a horrifying moment, seeing the gun to Lex's head, hearing the click and the hollow slide of the round rocketing through the barrel and not knowing whether he could make that last crucial distance in time. And when Lex had gone down, rocked backwards into the snow - - God - - it was like he'd taken the bullet himself, deep in the gut, this painful blow that he could still feel the echo of. Daniakos and his thugs had never been so lucky in their lives as they had the moment Clark heard the continued thud of Lex's heart.

He went home. Sat in the loft, because the smell of Lex and sex still seemed to linger in the house and he couldn't stop the mental images of what they'd done and the specific locations - - so the barn was safer all around. He sprawled on the old couch and stared up through the roof at the few stars winking through cloud cover.

He'd told Lex he could show him where Krypton used to be. He wasn't even sure now he could find that quadrant of night sky without all the familiar constellations visible. Could you even see it at all during the winter months on the opposite side of the sun? He really ought to have taken a few astronomy classes, all things considered. Hell, finishing the classes he had registered for would have been a plus. Lex had asked why he didn't have a degree yet, and even though he'd been trying to draw Clark off track at the time - - it had still been a damned good question. A question none of his friends had asked since he'd just sort of drifted out of attending classes. What the hell had happened to him and his goals for his life?

After Zod and the released phantoms, the mundane things just hadn't seemed to matter. Maybe before then - - maybe after Lana and Lex had gotten together his focus had been shot. He didn't know. He couldn't find that hinge moment where his priorities had shifted away from the dreams he'd held for his future - - his escape from Smallville - - and turned elsewhere. He didn't even know what his dreams were now.

They'd used to be so cut and dry and had revolved around a girl and the fantasy life he'd imagined with her.

She'd been so perfect in all his visions of white picket fences and postcard tranquility. All of those visions of a normal life, that could never be anything but a pipedream for him. The universe itself seemed stacked against him ever leading that mundane existence and no matter how well she'd taken the revelations he'd made to her, he didn't think that was the sort of life she'd have wanted to lead. The girl of his dreams ran a coffee shop in a small town, and lived in a yellow house with a garden out back, and a dog and one point two laughing children and never had to contend with threats to the world trampling the flower beds on the border of the front yard.

Even if she'd been alive and well, Clark didn't think he fit into that picture anymore. It was likely he never had.

He wasn't certain if he'd ever consciously fantasized about Lex, aside from the usual envy over sleek sports cars and sinfully sophisticated entertainment systems. Subconsciously, though, he was almost certain Lex had gotten a lot of play, but never the happy ending sort of dreams he'd had about Lana.

Lex had never safely qualified as dream material. Lex was all gritty reality, silk-smooth evasions and painful honesty, confusion and insight, frustration and unbelievable gratification all mixed up in one complicated package.

Lex lied and he manipulated, he was obsessive and vindictive and sacrificing the little people for the big picture wasn't necessarily a problem for him. But he regretted them. The sacrifices weren't meaningless and the lives that had been lost while he'd been driven by the ghost of a genocidal general haunted him. That was painfully obvious. And he could have done a lot worse under Zod's influence, only he hadn't. And maybe they - - Clark - - the world in general - - ought not be as thankful that the sway of the Zod remnant had been minimal, as much as they ought to be that Lex's will had been strong enough to ignore the darker compulsions.

Lex would never shrink when the demons trampled his gardens. He'd fight them back with whatever ammunition he had available. He'd seek them out - - he had been seeking them out, only with no one he trusted to temper him, to balance out that cold Luthor practicality that Lionel had gone to such lengths to instill into him, it had gotten out of hand.

Trust. An awfully huge concept for such a little word. Clark wasn't sure how he was supposed to get Lex's back, when he wasn't sure how to offer it himself. All his life he'd only ever been encouraged to trust two people in the whole of the world. And they'd been damned vehement about it. He could think of a half dozen times off hand when it would have felt so good to tell Lex, when it would have maybe been something welcomed instead of something to feud over. And at each and every mention his dad had metaphorically smacked him down, all full of fearful suspicion, while his mom had taken the gentler, but no less impactful tact of quiet reasoning.

And he'd listened, because after all, they were the only two people he could ever really be sure of. The only people he could trust. Only that proved wrong too, because look at Chloe, and Pete to a lesser degree. And Lana wouldn't have betrayed him, he was sure of it. And even Lionel was guarding his secret like it was some proprietary formula and Clark had never in a million years thought he could trust that particular Luthor. So why not Lex, who he'd been closer to than any of them for a while there, who he'd loved like a brother - - like more than a brother and just hadn't realized it?

He stared down at the old tractor. The one Jonathon Kent had spent almost as much time with as he had with his family. The thing never had run the same under Clark's care. A lot of things on the farm didn't. Clark's stubbornness ran on a different vein. Different things were important. He wished he could go back and know the things he knew now and make different choices.

"I love you dad, and I know you were only ever trying to protect me, but you gave me some crappy advice."

The tractor sat mute, not even the miniscule creak of rusting metal and Clark rolled his eyes, reduced to talking to the dead via farm equipment.

He stomped down the stairs, running a hand through his hair in frustration. He stood in the half open barn doorway and looked out at the snowy fields, at a sky that was pale with pre-dawn light, the stars all gone now, vanished along with true darkness.

It wasn't fair.

It had been such a good morning. It had felt so right. Pieces falling into place that had been disjointed for so long. How did things go so wrong so quickly? He'd done the right thing damnit. Lex's life had been at issue and saving it had been more vital than keeping up appearances. He shouldn't get penalized for that. Lex needed to take into consideration that he was alive and be a little thankful instead of going straight to pissy. It wasn't like Clark was holding Lex's misdeeds against him, because if they wanted to play tit for tat, Lex would damn sure hold his own in the lies and misconceptions department.

Clark ought to call him. It was almost five and maybe Lex had calmed down. Maybe a few hours sleep had mellowed him. Of course, being woken up in the wee hours of the morning might not put him in the most pleasant of moods. It was a dilemma. Clark desperately wanted to talk to him - - wanted to just hear the sound of his voice and see if he could gauge the prevailing mood. Maybe Lex hadn't gone to sleep at all, if he was in as much emotional turmoil as Clark.

Clark pulled out his cell and dialed the mansion number. It rang maybe five times before voice mail picked up.

"Um, hey. It's me. Listen, I know you're upset, but please talk to me. I know I made some bad decisions, but I swear none of them were meant to hurt you. And any question you want to ask me, I'm willing to answer. No more lies - - just call me, okay?"

He took a breath and clicked the phone shut. He'd been walking circles in the snow and there was a trodden little path in his wake.

Maybe he should run over and see if Lex were in bed - - make sure he hadn't gone on another binge and thrashed the rest of the mansion? Or maybe Lex just wasn't downstairs to hear the office phone ring. Was there a different number for the upstairs phones? Maybe he should try Lex's cell.

That number went straight to voice mail without the benefit of a single ring. Clark ground his teeth and blurted out a message.

"Me again. If you didn't get the message I left at the house - - um - - call me. Please Lex. I want to fix this. Whatever it takes. Please call me."

He winced a little after he severed the connection, having the feeling that last message had sounded a lot like begging. Heck, maybe Lex would respond well to groveling and Clark was willing to discard a little dignity if that's what it took to salve wounds.

The cows could have cared less about Clark's mental distress and since he was up and pacing and needed something to take his mind off the desire to zip over to the mansion and stalk Lex, he hauled hay out to the pasture and melted the ice in the water trough. He put the horses out to pasture and fed the chickens. And with nothing else live that needed tending, there was nothing holding him back from what he really wanted to do.

A handful of seconds and he was there, over the stone walls that surrounded the grounds and obscured by thick evergreen foliage in the side gardens. He listened for the sound of human habitation and discerned a single heartbeat. Almost he sighed, until the rhythm of it struck of chord of unfamiliarity. It wasn't Lex.

Clark focused his vision, seeking out the one body inside. A man sitting in the big kitchen, drinking coffee and watching the small cabinet mounted Television. Security, by the holstered firearm under his armpit.

It was almost six in the morning, where was Lex? He couldn't very well show up at the kitchen door and inquire of a bodyguard he didn't know. But, there was the gate guard, who had seen him leave with Lex the day before yesterday. Maybe that familiarity might give him some leeway.

Clark circled around and approached the gate from the outside, not particularly caring if the man questioned his arrival by foot.

"Hi." Clark tapped on the little gatehouse window and the guard started out of a doze, then narrowed his eyes in annoyance at Clark.

"Mr. Luthor's not in residence," the guard said testily, obviously not at his best so early in the morning.

Clark smiled, his big, charmingly harmless one, and made a gamble. "Yeah, he mentioned. I was just wondering when he left - - would he have made the city by now or do you think he's still on the road? I tried calling but the weather's really messing with my cell reception."

The gate guard looked at him a little closer, debating. Then the man shrugged. "He left last night, so he's bound to be in Metropolis by now."

"Thanks." Clark forced another smile. Lex must have taken off not long after Clark had left, an idiotic move, considering the condition he'd been in, shaky with near hypothermia and a probable concussion. It couldn't have been a pleasant drive. But Lex was stubborn at the best of times - - mix in angry and he'd be unstoppable.

It occurred to Clark that maybe he ought to be a little scared. That maybe Lex stubborn and angry and feeling personally betrayed might not bode so well for him, combined with the very alarming facts Lex had recently learned. In the long term, Lex reasoned and coolly considered options, but inevitably in the throes of fresh anger, Lex didn't always rationally think through his vengeances.

Clark headed for the city, following the interstate along the route Lex would have taken. The roads were mostly cleared, but there were still patches of black ice and the traffic, even at six am was light today. It would have been almost non-existent last night. He hoped Lex had driven something sensible, preferably with four-wheel drive.

Metropolis was still grey and slow, city-folk not the early risers than rural residents were. But the bustle would start soon enough and the sidewalks and streets would be clogged with people on their way to work.

He stood outside LuthorCorp and slowly scanned the building, ignoring the lower floors for the upper levels, sorting through maintenance workers and staffer's arrived early, looking for that one body - -

And found it, in the most likely place, ensconced in the executive offices of the floors that LexCorp occupied. Not alone. There were four other people in the room, two security from the armament under their clothes and two white-collar employees from the lack of.

Clark expanded his hearing, got past the familiar beat of Lex's pulse and heard the hind end of some sort of briefing and the following 'yes sirs', before the assistants scurried out and Lex whipped around his desk, heeled by the muscle. Lex's stride was fast, clipped, pissed off and Clark shut his eyes to block it out and groaned.

Okay, so the calming down period had yet to begin.

Lex was taking the elevator down, and Clark followed the unhindered progress all the way to the underground garage where Lex and his security detail got into a big black SUV and headed out. Not following just didn't seem a viable option. He practically could have done it without superspeed, the traffic had picked up so much. Morning rush hour had the SUV creeping along, which probably did nothing for Lex's mood. It wasn't until they got out of the business district that the roads cleared a little and speed picked up and the SUV headed towards the city's north side.

The destination was a big old whitewashed factory looking building, with the faded logo M & C Laboratories on the side. It did not look like one of Lex's usual high-tech facilities, which made Clark more than a little wary. Anyplace Lex took the time to visit that was this understated and worn had to be a front. And that made Clark's gut tighten a little, because he didn't want to think about Lex and his secret labs and his questionable experiments.

There was another black SUV in the lot, and a beat up old station wagon under the one parking lot light that still worked. Lex and his men went inside while Clark scanned the outside of the building and the parking lot for cameras. There was one on the right corner of the building that was easily avoidable if you weren't coming into the lot via vehicle.

Clark x-rayed inside the building and found a lot of empty rooms. A factory warehouse floor that looked like it hadn't been active in a while, a bunch of labs that seemed barren and lifeless. The place was an empty shell, except for the elevator at the back of an elevator that Lex and his men took down, and when Clark listened, there was the quiet hum of machinery, and the distant patter of multiple heartbeats. A lab under a lab. Something that needed to be hidden and he knew the sorts of things that Lex needed to hide.

Clark took a breath and tried not to be disappointed. What had he thought, that Lex was going to close down every shop he had, just because he'd had a little extracurricular darkness removed? Like Chloe said, Lex had had his projects even before Zod had been the whisper of a threat.

Clark tried to pick up Lex again, but there were big blank spots in his vision, places that had to be lead shielded that blocked him out. And he wanted to see, damnit. He needed to see what was down there. Because maybe something fresh to be equally pissed off at Lex about would alleviate a bit of his own guilt.

He circled the perimeter of the building, careful of hidden cameras and wondering guards. There were none of the latter and the only other cameras were at the back at the loading docks, where a couple of unmarked trucks sat. Clark moved to the side, where there was nothing but bland cinderblock and launched himself up at the roof.

He found his way in through the big ventilation windows over the factory floor. Just pried one open and slid though, dropping the two hundred feet down and landing in a crouch that absorbed the impact. No one noticed save a few startled mice that scurried into the shadows. There were other rooms off the big factory floor, but they were empty and this was the path that Lex had traveled to get to the freight elevator at the rear. Clark headed that way and stopped a dozen feet from the big, dilapidated elevator doors, scanning inside the walls. There was surveillance there, elegantly hidden behind rusted walls, and a hidden panel on the back wall of the car. There was no way he was getting in there without somebody noticing, speed or no. The only way down without triggering some sort of alarm would be to tear through the floor and he wasn't prepared to go that route without evidence of something damned nefarious to back it up. What if it was just old LexCorp records or Lex's private stash of fine booze and embarrassing collectables?

So he backed away, into the enveloping darkness of the factory floor, amidst all the abandoned equipment, and waited, because Lex had to come up sooner or later.

Maybe thirty minutes and he heard the quiet whir of the elevator on its way back up. He didn't bother with the x-ray vision, just sat in the shadows and waited for the doors to open and the sound of footsteps rapping upon the concrete floor.

Lex, with a phone to his ear, in the same clothes he'd put on last night after Clark had gotten him home, plus a long black wool coat, all pale skin and shadows and the vivid line where the bullet had grazed him along the side of his smooth head. There were two guys behind him, the type that fit Lex's normal security detail specifications. Which meant big and mean and alert. They saw Clark in the shadows and two hands went inside jackets for weapons.

Lex looked up, surprised, two beats behind his trained muscle, and then his eyes must have adjusted to the dim light because his mouth went flat and he stopped dead.

They had their guns trained on Clark and Clark wasn't moving either, staring at Lex like they were in some sort of old west showdown. Somebody on the other end of the line must have said something, because Lex's mouth twitched in irritation a moment before he flipped the phone shut and slipped it into his coat pocket.

Clark didn't have a clue what was going on behind Lex's eyes. His face was all shut down, closed off and cold. Clark had no earthly idea what was on his, but if it had any relation to what he was feeling inside, it must have held desperation.

"Wait for me outside. Prepare for protocol 13." Lex said softly. And it took Clark a second to realize he was talking to his security. The guns reluctantly disappeared and the two men stalked across the floor, bristling as they passed Clark like dogs defending territory.

He didn't take his eyes off Lex, just listened to the sound of their footsteps receding, and the eventual opening and closing of the door at the other end of the factory floor.

"Lex." And with everything Clark wanted to say, needed to say, that one word was all that got out.

Lex's mouth twitched. He walked forward, easy, rolling gait, like he was stalking prey. Clark felt a twinge of nausea. A spasm of it that clutched at his gut and stole his breath.

It wasn't nerves. He doubled over, looking up at Lex in panic.

"Their home is their weakness," Lex said softly and brought his hand out of his pocket, long fingers curled around a baseball-sized chunk of green kryptonite. "Isn't that right, Clark? I never got the chance to properly test that theory."

"Oh - - God," Clark went down to one knee, his chance at flight gone. He could have run, at that first sickening feeling - - gotten enough distance between him and the rock to put on a burst of speed and get the hell out of there. He'd passed it up and now Lex was close enough that the world was spinning so wildly that staying upright was an impossible task. He crumpled to his side on the concrete, curling his legs up in a vain attempt to ease the pain.

"Does it hurt?" Lex asked, impassive, the toes of his shoes almost touching Clark's leg, but Clark couldn't quite get his vision to focus enough to see his face.

"Please - -" It was hard to catch his breath, the air inside his lungs felt like it was tinged with acid.

"Please what?" Lex's foot connected with Clark's shoulder, shoving him over onto his back. "Please can I tell you a few more lies? Please can I carry the charade on a bit longer? What are you selling today, Clark?"

Lex swung a leg over Clark's hips, sank down to his knees, straddling him, the chunk of rock in his hand pressed against Clark's sternum. "Just how gullible to do you think I am?"

"I'm not - - I didn't - - don't do this?" His blood was rebelling, churning like a thousand little fire ants were scuttling through his veins.

"What do you think this is? What do you think is going to happen? What do you think should, to the alien among us? After the last few encounters, I'm thinking a pro-active approach is the way to go."

"I'm - - not him," Clark gasped.

Lex laughed, sharp, bitter. "You think it makes a difference?"

"Yes." Clark hissed passed clenched teeth. There was blood in his mouth, thick and coppery and he didn't know if he'd bitten his tongue or if it was coming up from his throat. "I'm not - - your dad, either."

Lex snarled at him, all the cold gone and white-hot anger flooded in to fill its place. He grabbed a fist full of Clark's hair and slammed his head back against the floor. Maybe mentioning Lionel hadn't been such a good idea. Maybe Lex had gone over the edge into apeshit crazy and Clark wasn't going to survive this. He didn't even want to know what Protocol 13 was.

Lex leaned down, close to his face, breath warm on his skin, the scent of him getting through to Clark even past the pain. "Do you know what I could do to you?"

Clark thought of the stuff of his nightmares. Flashes of things that filled his head like images of shock flick gore. Dark rooms and shiny tables and blood spattered instruments. Faceless men taking notes while they cut him open - -

"I forgive you," Clark whispered, feeling wetness trickling down his temples and into his hair. Clark wasn't sure for what - - just felt that it needed to be said, now before he changed his mind.

Lex's eyes widened, then narrowed. Furious, slamming Clark's head into the concrete again.

"You forgive? - - You don't know what the fuck - - just shut up." Lex was so irate he was sputtering incomplete sentences.

Another slam of Clark's head and the hurt got through past the kryptonite poisoning. Lex growled, a frightening, primal sound and leaned over Clark, breath ragged, the rock in one hand digging into Clark's chest, burning into his skin through his t-shirt. Clark's heart kept shuttering and jerking in his chest like it was trying to put distance between itself and the rock. It hurt so bad he thought he was going to black out. He probably would soon enough, if past experience was any guide.

Lex cursed, low and inventive and flung out an arm. Clark heard the clatter of something hitting metal machinery parts, even as the pain eased. Lex pushed to his feet, empty fists clenched, then as if he were force-feeding himself composure, he loosened them. Looked down his nose at Clark with that Luthor disdain that could just eat you from the inside out and it was hard not to shiver under it, when it felt like the insides in question were only slowly solidifying again from jellied form.

"Don't," Lex said and had to stop and take a breath, so maybe he wasn't so composed after all. "Don't follow me again. Don't call me. Don't show up and expect me not to follow through with what I should have tonight. This - -" Lex waved a hand, a wild gesture that he pulled in at the last moment, and turned into something casual. "This is the scales being balanced. I owe you nothing."

He turned on his heels and walked away, towards the far door that led back outside. He didn't look back.

Clark rolled to his side, clenching his jaw and the empty, rolling hurt in his chest had nothing to do with kryptonite. He slammed a fist against the floor and cement cratered, cracks splintering out from the point of impact. He hit it again, with purpose and the floor split. Something underneath burst, and steam sprayed up. Clark crouched in it, trying not to yell in frustration. He could go after Lex, stop him, force him to listen - - but Clark had the feeling that forcing Lex into anything would be a sure route to disaster.

He watched the SUV pull away through layers of wall, and controlled the urge to do more damage to the floor. He jumped up instead, to the windows he'd used to come in, caught the edge and pulled himself through to the roof. Clark stood there under skies that were bright and cloud free for a change, basking in sunlight that chased away the last of the kryptonite caused weakness.

God. Lex had a lot of kryptonite. And Lex was pissed. Not a good combination to dwell on. Clark leapt off the building and ran. Got halfway home and stopped as it occurred to him that his mom needed to know. He didn't want to think that Lex would hurt her - - he didn't want to think that Lex would hurt him, but Lex had already proved that was a shaky assumption. She needed to be aware of at least the possibility of backlash if Lex regretted not following through with whatever it was he'd been considering, and changed his mind back again.

He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and called her cell. If he was lucky she might still be at her DC apartment. If not - - she needed to make the time.

Part 24

The city flashed by, grey and dirty, the snow no longer a pristine coat of white to hide the flaws, but spattered with mud and dirt and oil, piled in ungainly little mountains along the sides of roads. An eyesore that would only melt away by degrees.

Lex stared out the window, catching himself grinding teeth and forcibly stopping. Eight hours ago he'd come to the very reasonable conclusion that a year's worth of work could be salvaged. He'd notified his researchers and set the special arm of security that dealt with these sorts of things on alert. A year of scouring the planet for a scrap of that one viable element and all this time it had been sitting in his own backyard. Concealing itself with misdirection and lies. Cloaking itself with the allure of innocence and integrity, because God knew those were traits that any city bred skeptic would find incurably intriguing.

I forgive you - - -

Molars impacted, grinding away enamal. Lex dug his nails into his palms. The sting of pain in his hands let him loosen his jaw.

An hour ago, Lex had met with his people and told them to prepare to reawaken the project, had gotten statistics on just how far it could go with unlimited access to those all important alien peptides. He had met their skeptisism with the assurance of a garunteed source. And he hadn't wavered once in that conviction because Clark had never wavered in his.

Six years of lies. The worst sort of deceit. The personal sort where trust had been invested and squandered. It hardly mattered that he'd known - -

I forgive you - -

He'd let him inside his guard. Inside his head. Inside his body. And Clark had shared more truths with his father - - with his manipulative, malevolent father - - than he had with Lex. Lying bastard. Inhuman. Ingenious, with his k-mart clothes and his mud stained boots, scraping pennies and feeding cows and wasting time on a failing family farm. It would take more than a day's supposition to figure that one out.

I forgive you - -

Teeth ground again and vision narrowed to the watery ghost of his reflection in the tinted window.

30 minutes ago and where had the conviction gone? Eaten up by the glimmer of tears in big, pretty eyes?

Fool. He was a fool of the worst type, because he'd been burned and burned and burned and still he let emotion get the better of him.

If he'd had more time to prepare - - to come to terms with the cold hard facts, he could have carried it out. Could have called in the team already gathered in the facility beneath the facility and implemented protocol 13. Subdue and contain extreme threat of a meta or a non-human nature.

This team had tracked the phantom, had taken it in its last form. Had taken numerous violent, highly dangerous meta-human threats. They knew their business. With what Lex knew about the meteor rocks and Clark's reaction to them, they could have had him without incident. Lex had had him, no fight, no damages, no anything but that look of betrayal on Clark's face, before it had mutated into pain.

Clark's look of betrayal. Clark's forgiveness. Fuck Clark.

He sat there and tried to piece together why he'd let Clark go. Glued together reasoning that didn't make him feel weak or emotional or sentimental or any other type of fool who couldn't see the forest for the trees.

The project had been in stasis too long to jump start in a matter of days. They had no test subjects and he wasn't willing to acquire unsuspecting ones again - - not when there were men mercenary enough to willingly undergo advantageous alterations for the right incentive. It wasn't as if he didn't know where to find Clark. Even if he ran, Clark had ties. Clark had some loyalties that he'd never betray. Clark would be easy to destroy, because Clark loved.

The cell in his pocket vibrated. Lex shut his eyes a moment, and took the call.

"We've tracked Denardo to Mexico. His credit card was used in a Chihuahua this morning." The voice on the other end told him.

The pilot who'd delivered him to Niko and a meeting he'd been garuenteed not to survive. Unfortunate for Steven Denardo that Clark had a hero complex.

Lex watched the city traffic outside his window. He could have the man killed as easily as he might have a stain removed from a favored suit. But that option didn't come as effortlessly to him as it had before Clark and his father had conspired together in their little elective mental surgery. Having that piece of Zod there had made things easier. Clearer. It had been liberating almost to have that utter lack of doubt. Everything was murky now, laden with shades of guilt and morality. Little damned wonder he'd thought he was loosing his mind.

"See that he comes to the attention of the Mexican authorities. See that he's dumped someplace unpleasant and forgotten."

"Yes sir."

For the right amount of money, Denardo would have the rest of his life to languish in a Mexican prison and dwell on the enormity of his miscalulation in betraying a Luthor.

Lex felt less satasfaction than he should have at that small vengeance. The pilot was the least of his loose ends. Niko was out there still, running long and far, no doubt. He'd been hard to track when he hadn't been actively trying to hide. Lex could be patient. Niko was a fool and a pawn and he'd show himself eventually. Sophia might stay hidden forever, for she was neither.

They weren't enough to keep his mind off the bigger problem. The alien problem. He repeated the word in his mind, silently sounding it out. Exploring the edges of a concept he'd thought he had such a firm grasp on. Alien. Inhuman. Merciless. Cold, frightening logic. Zod. Fine. The pair from the ship. The phantom that had worn Clark's body - - which incident needed to be reexamined now that Lex had new details - - the killing machine he'd tracked to fighting ring. Clark.

Only Clark didn't fit in well to the mix. The adjectives didn't work. At least not the ones that applied to the other aliens Lex had had contact with. Lex could come up with other descriptive terminology for Clark that had nothing whatsoever to do with extraterrestrial sources.

He contemplated the incongruity all the way up to his office in LuthorCorp tower. He started pinpointing all the little slips Clark had made over the years - - all the little things that Lex had noted and filed away and never considered using against Clark as anything other than a means to pry loose simple truth. There were a lot of things. Clark's talent for discretion had been severely undeveloped. It still was.

Lex had destroyed valueble files, irreplaceable evidence in his various attempts at salvaging friendship, but he had it all in his head. Layers and layers of Clark related trivia, starting from that first day, that first fateful meeting. How much more benifical for Clark if he'd just let Lex drown.

"Mr. Luthor." His secretary stepped into his office, the shadows of two hulking security outside the door beyond her. "He's on his way up."

Lex sat back, steepling his fingers, welcoming the cold fury that crept up. Frigid anger was the only sort to practice with Lionel Luthor.

His father swept in, past the secretary, past the security, with the air of a man that thought he held power. The air of a man that was secure in secrets he thought he knew, that no one else did.

"You're in early today, son. Already settled in and summoning me, what's the occasion?"

Lex let his mouth turn up in a humorless smile at his father's condescension. Canted his head a little and watched Lionel make for the bar and fill a glass with fresh orange juice. His assistant pulled the doors to his office closed, sealing them in. Lex had never felt the predator with his father, even when Lionel was at his lowest. He felt it now. That heady sense of power, that sense of cool assurance that he held the upper hand and had no intention of losing it.

"So what's the problem, Lex? I thought you'd still be in a tiff over yesterday."

"How long have you known about Clark Kent?"

Lionel lifted a brow, face betraying nothing. "You need to be more specific when you throw out these little quizzes, son. Known what?"

"That he's an alien, dad. How long have you known he's an alien?" Lex lifted a cool brow of his own, watching his father mimic incredulity.

Lionel laughed, shaking his head. "My god, you go from sleeping with him to concocting paranoid theories in the span of a few days. That's a record for you, son. It generally takes a little longer for you to start suspecting daggers in the dark and arsenic in the cognac."

"Krypton, isn't it?" Lex ignored the sleight, ignored the reminder that the last time he'd slept, it had been in Clark's bed. "Sent here as a baby, the forerunner of those other pesky visitors that preceded Zod? Do I have that right? I ask, because it appears that intimate knowledge of the facts is a bit of an understatement for your involvement. Channeling alien intelligences is a noteworthy accomplishment, even for you, dad."

Lionel's smile turned hard, frozen in place. His eyes fixed on Lex's face while he considered options, considered what Lex knew and what Lex was guessing at.

"Was he foolish enough to tell you?" Lionel finally tsked, as if someone had let slip a family recipie. "Na_ve boy, to think you could be trusted. You'd think he'd have learned from past experience."

"Yet, apparently you have all the qualities a na_ve boy would find trustworthy. How long have you been counciling him? I could make assumptions, but I don't want to jump to false conclusions when I have you right here to tell me the truth. If you know what that is."

"You're asking the wrong questions, Lex," Lionel leaned on the desk. "Instead of inquiring about possible planetary invasion, or alien infestation, you can't get past the notion that Clark Kent placed more trust in me than he did in you. That we conspired against you."

"Is there an invasion in the works?" Lex asked.

"Would it bother you to know that you'd been attempting to build your little army for nothing? But then, that wasn't all you, was it, Lex? You were channeling your own alien all this time, weren't you?"

"You'd know better than me, dad. And your concern was touching by the way. There's nothing like being drugged and altered without consent. You should try it sometime."

Lionel's smile faded, the lines on his face deepening. "It was for your own good, son. You have to see that. We couldn't be sure how much control the remnant had over you - - what it might compel you to do if it felt threatened."

"How altruistic. How's that title for sainthood coming? Now that you've got otherworldly backers, the points must be racking up. What sort of angle have you worked out? What's the agenda?"

"There is no agenda, Lex. No invasion. No ulterior motive. He's the last of his kind and what was inside my head were the last wishes of a father trying to secure a safe haven for his son."

"Well, that must have been a novel experience for you. Forgive me if I don't take you at your word. It would be irresponsible of me, frankly, not to go to extremes to gain the truth. I could probably even reestablish my credibility with the US government if I shared my source of information. Do you think they'd take you at your word, Dad?"

"I think they'd need proof. Are you willing to give them Clark to back up your claims?"

"Why not? His loyalty lies with you, not me." Lex said lightly, schooling his face to match his father's bland expression. Lionel was right, Clark would be the ultimate coinage.

Lionel blinked at him, eyes widening in a rare split second of surprise. He laughed again. "I knew you suffered paranoid delusions, Lex, but my God, the extent of your misconceptions are laudable. He tolerates me. He trusts me to a degree, but he doesn't want to. Where as you, he wants to trust, but you keep giving him reason not to. This isn't about where Clark Kent was born, is it? It's about damaged ego and hurt feelings and your own sense of false betrayal."

"False betrayal?" He felt his teeth grinding again and he'd managed to control the reflex till now. Managed to hold back the outward signs of irritation. But, of course, his father was so very adept at getting under his skin. Lex stood up, staring across the desk. "Every relationship I've ever had that was more than a one nighter - - every single one since I learned to walk - - you've sabotaged or gotten your claws into one way or another. Why would he be any different? He came to you. You colluded against me behind my back. Deny it."

Lionel stood there, studying him, mouth a flat line, which was the only tell Lex had that his father was unsettled. Lionel didn't give things away. You had to work for them. Lex was tired of the game. He was ready to rip the answers free and to hell with the consequences.

"You were out of control, Lex. With your obsessions and your fears. Manipulated by something less than human."

"Are we talking you or Zod?"

Lionel inclined his head, awarding Lex that one.

"You don't want to hear anything I say. You've already made up your mind and we both know how dogged you are once you've convinced yourself you're right. What else is there for me to say?"

"Quite a lot actually. With enough time and the right - - incentive, I think you'll be quite forthcoming."

Lionel opened his mouth, absorbing that threat, realizing it was not threat at all but plain fact. He composed his face, unruffled in the face of disaster. Lex had rather hoped for gibbering fear - - a pipedream of course, but a man could hope.

"What do plan, Lex? To spirit me away to one of your projects for a little inventive interrogation? The consequences might well be more disastorous than you foresee."

"Don't fret for the company, dad, LuthorCorp will survive without you in the flesh." Lex pressed a button on his desk, and the doors to his office swung open, filled with the bulk of his own private security.

"I have no doubt," Lionel said, glancing over his shoulder with a wry look of disappointment. "But it's not the company I was talking about. There are only so many bridges you can burn before there's no way back. Only so many absolutions before there's no more forgiveness to offer."

Lex lifted a brow. "From you? I think I can survive without."

Lionel looked back at him with that expression he always wore when he liked to make Lex feel obtuse. Then he was gone, and Lex stood behind his desk, spine ramrod stiff, searching for the thrill of victory. It was there, but it wavered a bit, tinged with the edge of doubt.

He clenched his fists, taking a cleansing breath. A series of them, until his head was clear and his pulse beat at an acceptable rate.

His secretary crept up to the doors of his office, face a little pale. The things that had been going on this morning were beyond the experience of a legitimate executive secretary. Swarming security and familial confrontations had her rightfully on edge and she didn't even know the half of it.

"Sir? I've cancelled all the morning's appointments as you asked. Should I reschedule the afternoon?"

He smiled at her, recalling something about sending her flowers for yesterday's short temper. All things considered, she was handling the stress rather well. "Thank you, Miranda. No. Keep the afternoon as is."

Lex had no intention of going back to Smallville. Not tonight. Maybe not ever. The Metropolis penthouse was cool and welcoming and sterile, offering up retreat, as it always had when the tomb-like confines of the mansion and the eccentricities of Smallville became too much.

He hadn't slept in 33 hours. He still didn't want to, even though his body felt the strain. Sleep was a lack of control he wasn't willing to surrender. He wasn't ready for the things his sub-conscious mind would subject him to.

He'd spent the afternoon with lawyers and analysts. With wolves in the guise of potential investors. An executive contingent from Toshiba, who'd been sniffing around LexCorp since the stocks had started dropping after Reeves Dam and Lex's own vilification in the press. They were talking mergers, but he knew they'd been plucking up huge blocks of LexCorp stock. He knew the maneuverings of one corporate predator sizing up another for the kill. It was enough of a distraction to keep him from falling into the pit of darker musings.

He'd resisted the urge to drink all day. He poured a healthy scotch now and sat down in the darkened great room and stared out at the lights of the city at dusk. It was barely six and it was dark. There was a time when he'd liked the season. He found it oppressive now, with its shadows and its early snow. Clark thrived in the fall, with its chilly weather and its multitude of color - -

Clark. He veered his thoughts away from that line of thought, swallowed the drink and sat turning the empty glass in his fingers. Forced himself to think of nothing but the dark shapes the buildings made against the muddy horizon.

Clark came back, filling the empty space with a subtly that flesh and blood Clark was deficit of. Creeping in by degrees, like he always did when Lex tried to exercise him. He'd never been able to succeed in that. Even while he'd been walking around with a sliver of something inside him that had hated and feared Clark.

Clark. Whatever that meant. A plain human name to cover something so much more. He'd always known. Never doubted, despite the fabrications that there was more to the boy who'd been his salvation. Funny that he'd wanted the details for so long, and when it came down to it he hadn't wanted to hear.

He sat the glass down, and picked up the rock from the coffee table. Dull green crystal that had gained a subtle glow when he'd held it close to Clark. Amazing that the simple presence of Clark's body could incite such a reaction. Amazing that a chunk of stone could make Clark crumble.

I forgive you - -

Lex scowled and closed his fist over the rock, felt the sharp edge of crystal slice into his fingers and wondered idly the degree of pain that had racked Clark's body.

His cell rang. He put the rock down, looked at the blood on his hand, trickling down from the bend of his knuckles and picked up the phone with his other hand.

He listened silently to the nervous voice of the man on the other end. "Mr. Luthor, your father never reached the Landover facility. The GPS of the van and the cell phones of the detail accompanying him have been disabled. We're assembling search teams now."

Lex felt something bubbling up inside and it took a moment and a released breath to discover it was laughter. He shut his eyes and silently shook with it.

"Don't bother," he finally said, when he had the breath. Why waste the resources? Lionel Luthor would be found when and if he wanted to be and God knew the resources he had at his disposal.

Lex tossed the phone down, pressed his bloodied palm to his forehead and laughed again. How weak was he, how sentimental that it was almost a relief, Lionel's escape?

Just like Clark. His father and his father's alien and he'd let them both slip away. No. He didn't like the sound of that. Not his father's alien. His. Clark's anonymity. Clark's freedom. Clark's life. In his hands. He'd earned the right, through blood and pain and years of lies. He felt a proprietary rush.

The laughter threatened again and he felt just a little bit mad - - a little bit over the edge. He probably was, sleep deprived as he was.

He went to the bar, wiped his hand on a crisp white towel, noted the slices on his fingers had already clotted, and poured another scotch.

He slept on the couch without meaning to, facing the city view. The sunlight breaching the vast windows got past his lids and drove him to consciousness and he woke with the dull feeling of sobriety after a gleeful binge.

He showered, put on a robe and padded barefooted through the quiet confines of the penthouse to the kitchen. He put on coffee and considered the option of negating a live in domestic staff here entirely. This wasn't Smallville where he had drive ten miles to the nearest restaurant. He could make exceptional coffee himself and that was his only morning requirement. He liked the quiet.

He settled at the kitchen island and opened his laptop, checking email out of habit. Checked the itinerary Miranda had forwarded. He'd requested a light schedule today. He had plans to make and things to consider. He retrieved his cell and checked his voice mail for messages, almost expecting a taunting call from his father. Two LexCorp assistants, his secretary, a company lawyer with the answer to a legal question Lex had posed a few days ago. And Clark.

Lex sat and listened to the message, unmoving.

'Me again. If you didn't get the message I left at the house - - um - - call me. Please Lex. I want to fix this. Whatever it takes. Please call me.'

When it was over and voice mail announced there were no more messages he sat there still with the phone in his hand. He didn't like the quiver in his belly. He hated the thickness in his throat. Weakness that needed to be aborted. He erased the message and sat there afterwards staring at his half cup of cooling coffee.

He went and dressed for the day. Looked at himself in the floor length mirror and blinked, hardly recalling choosing the attire.

If you didn't get the message I left at the house - - There was another message on the mansion voice mail, waiting for him like a drought of poison. He ought to simply erase the entire cache and be done with it. He ought to do a lot of things.

He didn't listen to it until he was in the garage, sitting inside the muffled quiet of his car. He bypassed the accumulated messages until he found the one he wanted.

'Um, hey. It's me. Listen, I know you're upset, but please talk to me. I know I made some bad decisions, but I swear none of them were meant to hurt you. And any question you want to ask me, I'm willing to answer. No more lies - - just call me, okay?'

He'd prepared himself for it this time. Steeled his emotions. Told himself all the things he needed to hear to put things in proper perspective. And still - - his pulse sped up erratically and he could no more stop the knot of pain in his belly than he could the rotation of the planet.

It pissed him off. His thumb hovered over the button that would send that message the way of the other. An act of finality that would sever a metaphorical connection - - that would put him on the path to squashing sentimentality.

And he couldn't do it.

Part 25

The first thing Martha Kent had wanted to do was fly home. Clark talked her out of it. Reasoned, whined, begged, when it got right down to it, for her to stay put in DC, as much for her own safety as for Clark's sense of dignity. It would simply be embarrassing to have one's mom fly into a protective tizzy and take up arms because one's - - he wasn't sure what to qualify Lex as at the moment because Lex fit a lot of bills - - was seven different kinds of pissed and had the means and the motive to do serious damage.

He'd ended up convincing her to stay put by merit of the simple truth that if it came to violence, to some sort of attack by Lex's men in black, then Clark could protect himself more efficiently if he didn't have distractions.

"But I don't think it'll come to that, mom," he'd told her.

"You hope, honey," she'd said, in the little park outside her DC apartment where she'd met him that morning, because what he'd had to tell her, he didn't trust to phone lines. And he'd told her a lot of things. Everything but the most intimate details. The one's he couldn't voice, because they hurt too much to dwell on.

"I know you think so much of what he was - -what he did last year - - was because of the part of Zod still inside him, and that may be true. But his obsession with you came long before that."

"I know that."

"I still think we should call Lionel. I have contacts here in DC, but he has resources you and I can't even imagine."

"No!" He'd snapped at her and she'd blinked at him with soft, worried eyes, not understanding his reluctance. Not understanding that his tentative alliance with Lionel was the root of a good deal of this whole mess to begin with. He wasn't going to rub salt in the wound unless Lex left him absolutely no other choice.

"I'm sorry, mom. I just can't. It's my problem. I'll deal it with myself."

She'd swelled up a little bit then, her eyes turning sharp and fierce. "It's not just your problem, Clark. It's my problem, too. If you get hurt - - I hurt, you understand that, don't you?"

He did. It didn't make anything easier.

He'd swallowed and nodded and promised vigilance. Then he'd gone home and waited for the hammer to fall.

And waited. And after a few days, when nothing had happened, no assault on the Kent farm, no a hint of surveillance, no call from Lex - - even a cold, pissed off Lex offering to take him up on his offer of full-disclosure, Clark began to get annoyed.

Where did Lex get off, acting like he was the only injured party anyway? It wasn't like Clark had physically attacked him. The kryptonite had hurt. A lot. And Lex had just looked at him like he was contemplating a high school science experiment. Probably the same way Lex looked at any other unlucky meteor infected subject that he'd snared for his research facilities. Oh, yeah, don't forget any of them, and the fact that Lex had been an absolute son of a bitch in his dealings with the genetically challenged and maybe Clark had been giving a lot more credit to the Zod remnant than it deserved. Like his mom said, Lex had had his obsessions long before Zod was a whisper of a nightmare.

It wasn't like Lex hadn't been pushing his buttons long before possession of any sort had occurred. Lex talked about betrayals and lies as if he wasn't the grand master. Clark lied out of necessity. Lex lied to further agenda's and manipulate.

Clark stood in the yard outside the house and fumed. Stared at the snow free spot in the drive behind the truck where Lex's car had been, and the trampled snow around it, where he'd taken Lex off his guard and made him grin with honest horseplay.

That was the problem with Lex, he didn't have anybody with the nerve to just force the issue with him, make him forget all his plans and his issues and just relax for a little while. If he had somebody full time to just haul him up and toss him into convenient piles of snow, he'd probably be a lot less uptight and scary.

Clark found himself half smiling remembering the exact look on Lex's face when he'd done just that, then caught himself and corrected it with a scowl, clenched his fists and decided he desperately needed to destroy something.

In efforts to avoid going on a demolition spree that he'd just have to come back and fix later, he ran. Down through Mexico and into Latin America, all the way down to the tip of the continent where the land eroded away to treacherous ocean. It was colder here than home, but there was no snow to cover the dour landscape. It fit his mood.

He stood at the edge of a towering cliff and flung rocks out into the waters of Cape Horn, watching them skip from wave crest to wave crest, before they disappeared beneath the surface. He sat down after a while, and just watched the seagulls scrapping over something bloated and dead lodged in the rocks far below.

If it ever came down to war between him and Lex, he didn't know what he would do. He didn't know what he could do, other than run, because too many innocents would be caught in the crossfire otherwise. Too many lives endangered if he fought back. He'd end up someplace like this, remote, isolated and lonely, because Lex was relentless when he went after something, and no place else would be safe.

'If it ever came down to war between him and Lex - -'

He'd been prepared for it, months ago, before he knew the things he did now, when Lex didn't know the things he did, when all Clark could think about was Lana in Lex's bed. Now - - God - - now it made him nauseous thinking of it. Nauseous like the feel of Lex pressing the kryptonite against his chest and leaning down with that cold, angry look on his face. Like things were slipping away that Clark couldn't stop the flow of. Things that were integral to him and precious.

Over a quarter of his life people had been telling him beware Lex. That Lex would be his downfall, that Lex would have him on a slab, peeling back his skin, or in a box, poked and prodded worse than any animal. That Lex couldn't help it because he was a Luthor. And Lex had yet to prove any of them right. And Lex had known - - maybe not all the pertinent facts, but enough to warrant closer examination in one of his labs. So why wasn't Clark there? Especially last year when there hadn't even been the illusion of friendship to hold Lex back - - when the insidious presense of Zod would have been whispering in his inner ear to take Clark down anyway he could. Why hadn't he followed the compulsion?

He had to believe that Lex wasn't going to change his habits this late in the game. He had to believe that the things he'd seen in Lex these last weeks - - the good things - - had been real. That as long as Clark didn't push, Lex wasn't going to push back. A damned wobbly definition of dtente, to be certain and not one that particularly catered to the things Clark wanted for himself. Namely a dtente that went beyond cold war and into the realm of negotiations, with concessions offered by both sides in the personal arena. He'd be willing to sit down to those sort of talks.

He broke off another flat piece of shale and hurled it out over the water, wondering if it were possible to sink any deeper into wishful thinking?

Easier not to think about it at all. To get himself invested in something that didn't require anything but instinct and let whatever was going to come, come and deal with it then. He pushed himself up, spurred on by that motto, and expanded his hearing, blocking out all the murmur of mundane life until he heard the distant echo of gunfire against the shrill backdrop of screams.

He latched onto the sound, followed it to its source a hundred miles north along the coast of Chile. Drug runners or gunrunners or maybe just simple thugs come down from the mountains to terrorize a small coastal village. It didn't matter who they were, because there was an old man with a bullet hole in his head on the ground, women screaming and wailing and two boys about to be forcibly recruited by desperately violent men who only knew how to terrorize and take.

It pissed him off. It really, really pissed him off. He sped around the clearing at the edge of town and slapped guns out of hands too fast for men to realize quite what had happened, then stopped dead right in front of the group that had the two boys, not giving a particular damn if they saw him or not. They were more than likely too busy gaping at their empty, stinging hands to have even realized he was there, until one of the village women screamed something that might have been a prayer to God over the apparition that had just appeared before them. Clark's conversational Spanish was about as comprehensive as his conversational Kryptonian, which was to say, not very smooth at all, when it came down to following rapid fire, excited speech.

The bandits were looking at him now, with wide-eyed suspicion and the boys took the chance to run. One of them slipped past and pelted back towards the gathered women, but the other got snagged, a hand in his ragged collar. A knife came out and Clark got a threat leveled at him, or the boy did, it was hard to tell who was being spoken too when everyone started talking. He stepped right up to the guy with the knife, ignoring the other four in favor of staring down the four or five inches that separated his eyes from the one holding the kid, completely freaking a man out who was probably used to people cowering away from him.

It wasn't the fear in the man's eyes that got to him, that made a little shiver of satisfaction run down Clark's spine, it was the subtle awakening of knowledge in a killer's eyes that he longer had free reign.

Clark caught the knife by the business end before it could press to the kid's throat. Closed his fist around it until metal crumpled like play dough and released it. Every set of eyes in the little circle around him was glued to that savaged bit of blade. Somebody made the sign of the cross.

"Ir." Clark said to the boy. He knew enough Spanish for the simple commands.

The boy stared up at him with the sort of awe you'd expect from church devotees, then twisted out of the loosened grip of his captor and ran back to his family. You'd think that if people who didn't even know him or have reason to trust him were that appreciative when he saved their lives, that the one's he'd been making a habit of saving for years could practice a little more gratitude.

He looked at the beat up old jeep on the dirt road beyond the bandits, narrowed his gaze and let loose a burst of heat vision. The jeep went up in a surprisingly large blaze of flame, suggesting more than just gasoline fueling the flames, and everyone, including the bandits yelped in surprise.

Clark tossed the one with the knife twenty feet towards the brush at the side of the road. A second one followed before the others started scampering up the road towards the forest, eyes white rimmed with fear. They'd left guns in their wake, scattered on the ground. He wasn't particularly feeling in the mood for gun control today, and rather hoped the villages collected them and used them well to protect against future incursions. They'd need something eventually, beyond the tall tale that would no doubt spread about the nature of today's salvation.

He picked up the knife he'd mangled and tossed it towards the sea. It spun out of sight over the village towards the ocean. He was long gone before it splashed down.

The first thing he did when he got home was run by the mansion. But like every other day he'd checked since the incident, there was no sign of habitation. The only difference today, from the last few, was that workers had come out and repaired the window.

He contemplated calling, but Lex had been pretty damned specific and Clark wasn't the boy he had been once upon a time, desperate for acceptance, desperate to be on the inside of something when everything else about his life demanded he be on the outside. Damned if he would beg. He refused to be the one that gave in and made a fool of himself crawling to Lex for a scrap of understanding. He'd already made a fool of himself. Lex was the one who'd been panting after the truth all these years anyway. If Lex wanted it - -if Lex wanted anything more to do with him, Lex could damn well resend his imperious command.

Making that declaration to himself felt good, fortification to a flagging self-esteem. It energized him into catching up on work he'd left undone around the farm. It didn't take long at super speeds, so he made up more work to occupy himself. The barn had needed a new coat of paint for years. The water tower needed patching. The harvest of fall gourds was long past due. He could load up the truck and take the lot down to the organic market in Fisherville tomorrow.

Which he did, spending half the morning browsing the quaint shopping district that was popular with the collegiate crowd down from K-state in Manhattan. He leafed through a fall curriculum guide someone left on the counter at the little caf he stopped at for an early lunch. Idly, he counted up how many credits he'd managed to snag in the three semesters he'd actually finished before he'd let things distract him. By all rights he ought to be a junior now, on his way to a degree. Lex's wasn't the only life Milton Fine had screwed with in his calculating campaign to free Zod. Easy to blame it on Fine though. Or Lex. Or even Lana. Anybody other than Clark himself, who'd just slouched away from campus and never come back.

Was it even worth it anymore, with the responsibility of the farm in his hands, or the looming threat of exposure that would pretty much insure that his life went to hell? It wasn't even like he wanted the sort of degree he could get at K-state anyway, with its strong focus on agricultural studies. He knew everything about agriculture that he needed or wanted to know. Learned at his father's knee.

He remembered what Lex had said, the insinuation that the only reason he stayed in Smallville was the approval of a dead man. Lex was too clever for his own good - - or Clark's apparently.

Riding down the road home, the human way, on four wheels, and obeying posted speed limits, gave his mind too much leeway to wander. From the contemplation of maybe taking a few classes that actually interested him at Metropolis Community College, just to get back in the game and to hell with disaster teetering over his head; to less helpful musings, like the way Lex's voice sounded when he was pleased with himself and relaxed. That lazy, velvet drawl that made you sort of loose track of what he was saying in favor of just listening to the sound of him saying it. How many conversations had they had in the past - - back when they were actually talking - - when Clark had come off a lot more oblivious than he really was by the simple virtue of that embarrassing habit?

Clark frowned at the long stretch of road before him and remembered he wasn't supposed to be dwelling on Lex and forcibly started thinking about other things. He ought to rent a movie tonight or just go to the multiplex in Granville and camp out at the back of a theater and see something on the big screen.

He ended up renting the movie, not particularly being in a mingling with people sort of mood. A couple of old Jackie Chan flicks that he and Pete used to watch every chance they got. Pete had always ended up hyped and practicing exaggerated Kung Fu moves and Clark would sort of endure it and try to roll with the punches and not hurt Pete in the process.

Watching it in the house proved unsuccessful though, by the simple virtue that sitting on a couch that had recently seen an awful lot of sex proved an insurmountable distraction. He kept missing big chunks of the action, imaging stains that weren't there and then picturing how they'd come about - - really, really vivid pictures. Which resulted in really, really tight, uncomfortable jeans and an erection that begged attention. He ignored it, because damned if he was going to jerk off thinking about Lex.

Lean, smooth thighs spread while Clark delivered his first blowjob - - Damnit, no. If he wanted to dwell on Lex's thighs, he could damn well picture them straddling his hips while Lex pressed a chunk of kryptonite to his chest. That had been a memorable moment.

He popped the DVD out and retreated to the loft where there had been no sex of any sort and flopped on the couch to finish the movie on the little twenty-inch out there.

He fell asleep during the second flick and slept in the loft, sprawled on the old couch. Woke up to his cell phone ringing all the way in the house and was there, tousle haired and bleary eyed on the third ring, staring hopefully at the number of the incoming call - - then shutting his eyes and fuming at himself for harboring foolish hope.

It was just Lois.

"Hello."

"God, Smallville, there you are. I thought you'd run off and joined a cult or something, you've been so scarce." Was her opening complaint.

"Not so much, Lois. What do you want - - it's - -" he cast a glance at his watch and winced. It was closer to noon than morning and he hadn't slept in so late since high school.

"Past ten?" Lois offered, the not so faint sound of sarcasm in her voice. "Rough night?"

"No, I just - -"

"So I was thinking," she cut him off before he could quite think up a plausible explanation. "Since you're not doing anything and don't have a real job, that maybe you could help me with something."

"I have a job. Farm." He ought to be more annoyed. It was hard to work up the motivation.

"Yeah, whatever. Listen, I'm investigating this little thing on the bad side of town in Metropolis and not that I can't take care of myself, but sometimes the perception of a little muscle can go a long way. You came to mind."

"Gee, thanks. I'm not interested."

"Oh, c'mon Smallville, you gotta take the plunge every once and a while and live dangerously. What else do you have to do, groom cows?"

"You don't groom - -" He shut up. Stood for a minute, staring at the assortment of magnets on the refrigerator, all the homey little nic nacs that his mom had collected over the years, and realized he was on the verge of slipping back into moping.

"Okay," He said.

"Great. I owe you one."

Lois had apparently entertained high hopes of uncovering a nefarious Russian gambling ring the pots of which consisted of wagered human organs, sold on the medical black market.

Where she'd picked up that rumor Clark didn't even want to know. What they'd ended up disrupting was a nightly backroom card game attended by admittedly shady looking characters, but hosting nothing more intimidating than chips on the table, with not a bloody body part in sight. There had been threats leveled at the interruption, but Clark had dragged Lois out of there before she could aggravate the situation to the point of violence.

"I swear to God, I thought my source was legit," she complained on the way back to her car. And kept complaining on the drive out of the lower east side.

The river was a dark presence to the north, seen in flashes past the dark bulk of warehouses. The lights of the city proper sparkled to the south, a whole different kingdom than the low dark buildings that sprawled here. Luthor Corp tower was the tallest spire, a jeweled edifice even in the dead of night. Lionel's creation, which Lex had skillfully subjugated.

He wondered if Lex were there now. Even if he weren't, he was probably somewhere in the city - - within this few square miles worth of concrete and stone and welded iron. Clark could try to seek him out if he wanted, like he'd sought him out when he'd been desperately searching the night he'd saved him from Nikolas Daniakos's bullet to the head. He'd never known a heart could beat so individually unique, until he'd zeroed in on the pattern of Lex's. He wondered, in this city of millions, if he could weed through all the extraneous heartbeats and find the one he wanted.

He wouldn't try. He looked out Lois' dust streaked window and realized they were very close to the factory he'd followed Lex to the night kryptonite had become an issue.

"Take the next exit, Lois," he said without really thinking it through.

"Huh? Why?"

"Just do it. Please."

She sniffed, but veered off the city bypass. "So where are we going?"

"I just want to check something out. Pull in there."

He got out of the car when she stopped, across the street from the building with the faded logo M&C labs. There were no cars in the lot, no lights on at all inside the little, glass fronted entrance. The security guard that had been there before was absent. He listened for the sounds of activity in the places he couldn't see, the lead shielded one's that had protected whatever Lex was doing here before from him.

There was nothing. No hum of machinery, no sound of human presence. The place was dead. Abandoned.

"So what are we looking at?" Lois came around to stand next to him, staring in the direction he was staring, at the face of a bland old building.

"Nothing. We're not looking at anything. I thought something was here that's not. Must have gotten my addresses mixed up,"

"Yeah?" She frowned. "M&C labs? What's that?"

"I dunno." He got back into the car. "You said something about springing for dinner?"

She cast one more look at the abandoned building, then circled around and got back in the car.

Two days later, Chloe showed up at the farm, smartly dressed like she was on her way into the city for work, instead of tromping through soggy snow towards the Kent farmhouse.

"You know, if Lois hadn't confirmed that you were still alive and well, I'd have seriously doubted it. Why haven't you been returning any of my calls, Clark?"

She perched on one of the tall kitchen stools by the island and watched him putter around the kitchen, tossing various fast food debris into the garbage. The pizza box from last night still had a quarter of a pie in it that he'd forgotten to put in the fridge for later. No great loss. It hadn't been that good anyway.

"I've been busy." He turned around to face her, hips against the sink, feeling vaguely grungy in a thrice worn t-shirt and mud-spattered jeans. He hadn't told her. He hadn't wanted her any more involved or endangered than she already was from mere association. He hadn't wanted her looking under the outside layers and seeing the things that lay beneath. It was hard to hide things from Chloe. Harder still when it would have been such a relief to simply share.

"Okay. She lifted a dubious brow, but didn't argue the point. "Lois said you helped her out the other night."

He shrugged.

"So what's Lex doing at M&C labs?"

Clark blinked and looked up at her, seriously off guard at the unexpected inquiry. "What makes you - -? Why do you think Lex has anything to do - -?" He took a breath and trailed off, his ability to formulate even partially believable evasions having apparently dried up and died.

Chloe gave him a moment then shrugged, face carefully neutral. "Lois told me you stopped by there and were suitably mysterious about the reason. It wasn't hard to find out it's a subsidiary of LexCorp. Is something going on? I thought you were considering a tentative truce with him - - at least that's what it sounded like last time we talked."

He didn't know what to say, other than the truth. Or the parts of it he could tell her outright and not flush reactor hot over the admission of. "He knows, Chloe."

She looked at him, lips parted, computations going on behind her eyes. "Knows what?" she finally asked, cautiously.

She knew what and he gave her a look for making him spell it out, before he told her. Well, not the sex parts, but all the other pertinent details. "Oh, my God." She pushed herself up off the stool, stalked halfway across the floor towards him and stopped, breath coming a little hard. "When did this happen? Has he done anything about it yet?"

"Over a week ago. And no. He hasn't done anything since - - since I tried to talk to him about it later and he pulled a piece of kryptonite on me."

"You told him about the kryptonite?" That came out a few decibels higher than she'd probably intended.

Clark winced and stared dismally at the floor. "No, he had that one figured out all on his own."

"Oh, God, Clark. Should you even be here? He's not adverse to snatching people up in the dead of night, you know."

"If he'd wanted me - - he had me. He let me go."

"Why didn't you tell me? I could have been on this from the get go, helping figure out what he's up to."

She was frightened. He could see it in her eyes, hear it in the patter of her pulse. He hated the fact that he was the cause.

"It's complicated."

"How? How is this complicated?" She wasn't buying it.

She was staring at him like she expected an answer and he couldn't frame the one he really felt into words. The hope that it would all blow over. That Lex would show up, the way Lex always had after disagreements, before things had gotten out of hand between them, always the first one to offer the olive branch. The mature one of the two of them, willing to bend for the sake of friendship, when Clark's teenaged stubbornness had prevented him from making that first step. Funny that Lex never made those same overtures to anyone else that slighted him. That for the rest of the world Lex's grudges were long lasting and cruel. Clark had never truly appreciated being the exception to that rule until he found himself clumped in with everyone else.

It would have been nice to say that to Chloe, to get it off his chest, but he couldn't, when the only person he wanted to make that admission to, was Lex.

"I didn't want you to worry. I didn't want you doing anything that would put you on his radar if he did decide to do anything." This was truth, too, just not the one that made his stomach flip flop.

Maybe she sensed that, because she kept staring at him, with that look she got when she was trying to crack a mystery and almost had it. "Well that's just stupid and I'm teetering on being really pissed off at you."

"Well that would be great. You can go compare notes with Lex."

"I'll pass on that. What I will do is give Ollie a call and see if he's got a line on what Luthor the younger has been up to this week. I've got a few more sources that I can tap."

Almost, he told her not to, but it was only reasonable to have an inkling if potential trouble was on the way. And it had been nine days of nothing and he didn't know what was more frustrating, worrying about Lex initiating some move towards him, or the fact that that he hadn't cared enough to bother.

"I've exhausted every resource I have and as far as I can tell - - there's no activity on the alien manhunt front." Chloe said, settling at the table in the apartment above the Talon.

Clark stared at his coffee, brought up in a Styrofoam cup from the cafe below. It had been almost a week since he'd told her and she'd started digging. A very long, very gray week. It hadn't snowed again, but every day the skies seemed to threaten it.

Clark wished it would, simply to obscure the dull spatter of dirty, half melted ice that seemed to cover everything. Even his trips south of the border - - and he'd been making a lot - - didn't seem to lighten the mood. He'd been going into Metropolis at night too, when he couldn't sleep, looking for the sort of trouble that sought out victims considerably less formidable than him. It used to be a good way to relieve frustration. All it did now was depress him. The world was so full of people with ill intent, so full of terrible happenstance, there seemed no way to put a dent in it.

"Even Oliver hasn't gotten wind of anything questionable on the dark side of LexCorp activity and believe you me, he's always on the lookout." Chloe said, finishing off her own coffee like she was chugging soda. "In fact it seems as if several operations that Ollie has been tracking have dried up and disappeared seemingly off the face of the earth. Looks like Lex is trimming the budget. Word is in financial circles, that LexCorp is gearing up to repel a Japanese buyout and between that and the huge chunk of capital he still needs to come up with to satisfy his get out of jail free fines, you've gotta figure that's eating up most of his attention."

"Yeah?" Clark furrowed his brows. He'd been so busy waiting to hear something from Lex personally, he hadn't been scouring the business section, but then again, Clark's understanding of Wall Street politics was limited at best. Anything he'd ever picked up had been gleaned from listening to Lex, and quite honestly, any time Lex had started to drone on about business tactics Clark had more often than not, let his mind wonder to other things.

"Yeah. People in the know are saying the smart move would be to just let the buyout happen - - take the cash and bail himself out of government debt. Its not like he doesn't have the mother company to fall back on."

"Lionel built LuthorCorp," Clark said idly, putting dents in the lip of the cup with his nail. "LexCorp is the first real thing Lex created despite his father. He won't give it up without a fight."

Chloe canted her head, eying him shrewdly. "That's an interesting Lex insight, but it won't matter if rumors are true."

"What rumors?"

"Don't hold me to this, but I've heard that Lex no longer holds majority stock. That during the first big move to liquidate assets for the federal fines he supposedly shifted some very large chunks of LexCorp stock around as collateral to gain capital, with the understanding that he had a buyback option and share voting power. Apparently that agreement wasn't as ironclad as he'd hoped. If Toshiba has it, and nobody on the outside knows for sure, they could force him out as CEO."

Clark had to wonder, if that would be such a terrible thing.

Day twenty and everything that possibly could be fixed or painted or refurbished, plowed, trimmed, planted or shoveled on the Kent farm, had been. It hadn't been so fresh and sparkly new since the day the first outbuilding had gone up in his grandfather's day.

Fourteen muggers, three rapists, six attempted robberies, a car jacking, two fires, a near drowning, a barge accident on the river, a meteor freak outside Smallville that did something that sucked the air literally out of the immediate area, thus incapacitating if not downright killing bystanders and a dog down a well. The deterrent of all, should have left Clark with a warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. It didn't.

Lex was a son of a bitch. This absolute lack of interest was all a ruse to mess with Clark's head. Even if Lex couldn't stomach the idea of carrying on a relationship with - - well, an alien - - there was no damn reason he shouldn't at least want to know all the vital details.

What the hell was wrong with Clark that Lex didn't want to know? Was there some other extraterrestrial implantee that Lex was getting his information fix from?

Clark composed a half dozen indignant messages he might leave on Lex's phone, settled on one particularly good one and worked up the nerve to call. The old number was no longer in order.

Clark's cell ended up a somewhat mangled mess in his hand before he'd finished listening to the automated message and he stood staring at the ruins with the dawning realization that he was fucked. Twisted. Terminally screwed up. Because something in his physiological, biological or Kryptonian makeup - - possibly all three - - seemed intent on dooming him to only really, badly wanting the things he couldn't have. For example; Lana, Lex, high school popularity or anything resembling a normal life.

Lana. It occurred to him, in the middle of a Lex-induced tantrum, that he hadn't thought about her in a very long time. That her absence from his life wasn't that great yawning pit that made existence meaningless. He'd always thought that living without her would be like that, devastating. It felt like betrayal of some sort that it wasn't. It felt like betrayal, that making love to her had been a pale comparison to what he'd felt sinking inside Lex.

It bothered Clark so much he was lost sleep.

"He won't talk to me."

Chloe blinked owlishly as Clark stalked through the door into her Talon apartment Sunday morning. It was early enough that she was still tousle-haired and pajama'd and looking in serious need of a shot of straight caffeine.

"And this is a bad thing? Wait, are we talking about Lex?" She stood there, a little baffled while he crossed the room.

She followed him over to the window, dipping her head to look up at him skeptically.

"Clark, did something happen?"

"No," he said flatly. He felt flat and simultaneously jagged.

She took a big breath and ran a hand through her hair, finger combing unruly strands. "Oookay. I'm gonna put on coffee."

He stared out the window while she did, down over Main Street, at the tops of pick-up trucks and bare-limbed sidewalk trees. At people bundled up against the chill walking past storefronts that were every bit as colloquial as they had been when he'd been fifteen. Smallville was slow to change. Maybe that was the way the town protected itself and its identity against all the upset that his arrival had caused. All the fallout years later from the introduction of kryptonite into the environment. He'd never get over the guilt of that. Of what he'd done to this place. So maybe the town wasn't the only thing that resisted change.

He started when she put a cup of coffee in his hand, having lost more than a few minutes somewhere along the way.

"What's going on with you? This is not nervous anxiety. This is you upset. This has been you melting down for days now. Don't think I don't know about your little night trips to Metropolis. The last time you started doing that you were blowing off steam after Lana and Lex tied the knot. Spill, Clark."

He glowered at the coffee, the reminder of Lex and Lana doing anything setting his teeth on edge. The reasons for that irritation had become oh so much more complicated now than they had been.

"Why are you so upset?"

"I'm not upset, Chloe." He tried for a smile but it came out tight and strained.

"You know who you're talking to, right? I read you like tealeaves, Clark. I know upset when I see it. Is this still you worried about what he's got up his thousand dollar sleeve or is it something else?"

He wasn't sure why he'd come over. Because sitting at home alone was driving him slightly mad and he needed to get out of the rut. Badly.

"I was thinking of maybe picking up a few classes at the city community college."

She took a second to process the chance of subject. "Really? That would be great."

But her brows were furrowed, as if she realized it was a ploy. A desperate attempt to get on with his life - - to get past one more heartbreak.

"Yeah, I can pay by the class at Community College, so it works out better."

"Are you ever going to tell me what happened between you and Lex?" Chloe asked softly, solemnly.

Clark froze, feeling his insides clench up. What hadn't happened? Lex had been happening to Clark for the better part of seven years and he just hadn't realized all the subtle nuances.

"Did I betray Lana by forgiving him?" He asked. "By forgetting to think about her, because I can't stop thinking about him?"

"God, Clark - -" she stared up at him, wide-eyed, caught off guard by that desperate question, by the desperate admission that felt so good to voice, even if he'd used Lana as a cover to voice it. It wasn't about Lana at all.

"Give me a second to wrap my mind around what you're not saying here - -" she said, clutching her own cup, round eyed and worried. "Are you saying - -? Did you and Lex - -?"

He shut his eyes and leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the windowpane.

"Oh. Wow." Chloe whispered surgically removing an answer from that glum motion.

"Doesn't matter," he said, letting out a small, bitter laugh. "Apparently he's a lot better than putting things behind him than I am. It doesn't matter if I hate him or I - - don't hate him, because one way or another he doesn't care."

Part 26

Lex was making changes. Moving and shaking the foundations of the world that existed beneath the surface of the one he allowed the public to see. Oh, there were public efforts too, things his PR team pushed him towards in efforts to shift the current state of disfavor LexCorp and more importantly, Lex himself was enjoying in the poll of public opinion. Subtle things that his detractors couldn't throw back in his face as obvious ploys to repair his damaged reputation. All it took, after all, was a mention of the inescapable fact that he was still an active suspect in the murder of his wife, and any efforts he made would be dashed.

The public labors were a faade, though, chosen by his people, which he carried out with due diligence, while his mind was elsewhere.

A great deal of his attention was focused on the things closer to his heart that had gotten so terribly out of hand. Things he had known about and overlooked because they were the means to an end. Because his genetically well-defined streak of cold practicality had been sharpened to razor sharp precision during his year carrying around the amputated ill intentions of something considerably more bloodthirsty than he liked to think he'd ever been.

Redundant efforts it seemed, regardless of whose compulsion had prompted them - - since apparently there was no alien invasion on the heels of Zod.

There had been liberties taken with subjects - - with people - - that had ventured into the realm of mad science. Things that had started out as necessary evils perpetrated not out of prejudice, but an honest desire to study a phenomenon that had taken and ruined more lives than anyone who hadn't kept exacting track, might be willing to believe. Granted, his goals might not have been purely altruistic, but total exploitation had not been the original plan.

Very few of his subjects were victims, though, and those that were - - those innocents who'd had no blame to their name and gotten swept up in the frenzy - - one day the research that was carried out might be the only thing that saved their lives or their sanity. Or the sanity of their children.

Because meteor mutation was, come to find out, an inherited trait.

He still believed strongly in all the initial reasoning. Ceasing research would frankly be irresponsible - - but changes had to be made. Policies had to shift and researchers kept on a tighter rein. Black ops kidnapping was not a practice he was willing to condone again. There were plenty of monetary or philosophical motivations to sway desirable subjects. It was surprising what a man or woman might be willing to do, to put a child through college or discharge an overwhelming debt, or even in some cases assuage a debilitating guilt. And those that had already crossed the line - - the murderers and the psychopaths - - those were exceptions to his newly rediscovered sense of morality. If they were willing to break the rules, he had no problem following suit.

It was no simple task though, to revamp a system that had veered so far off course from the original vision, without compromising the foundation on which it stood. He wanted to initiate change, he simply wasn't willing to go to jail for it.

He'd been systematically disenfranchising every link to LexCorp and any project remotely linked to 33.1 or meteor related research. If he lost control of LexCorp, he was damned and determined that the new management wasn't getting access to those projects.

Which brought up the second front on which he was waging war. Staving off the inevitable for weeks and finding reason after reason to avoid the meeting of the board that the Japanese had been pushing for with their new acquisition of LexCorp stock.

They had thirty-three percent that he knew of for a concrete fact. Snatched up from every panicked LexCorp investor during the bleakest of market dips. God knew where the two million shares of his own stock, that he'd reluctantly bartered for the capital to meet that first installment of Government blood money, were. He had law hounds breathing down the neck of the supposedly faithful financial backer that had brokered that particular deal and sold him out, with every intention of owning them by the time he finished, stock or no stock.

If Toshiba had those shares, they'd have close to majority ownership and then it would be up to the board to keep their current, somewhat tarnished CEO seated, or vote in shiny, new upstanding and law-abiding management. And boards were fickle. Just ask his father.

As far as the world was concerned, Lionel Luthor was on sabbatical in Europe, a claim backed by the occasional doctored photograph and digitally altered phone call to this gullible acquaintance or that. Lex wasn't ready to deal with upheaval in LuthorCorp when the stocks were on the rise and the company had reachieved stability and Lionel's disappearance - - for any reason - - would certainly stir those waters.

Where his father was in reality was anyone's guess. Lionel had been gone for over a month, disappeared apparently, off the face of the earth, but he'd left his mark on LuthorCorp with restricted files and corporate firewalls the likes of which the best of Lex's people had yet to crack. Subtle, insidious things, no doubt that would come back to bite him on the ass when his guard was down.

Lex still frowned grimly about that now and then when thoughts of his oh, so resourceful father crossed his mind. He was frowning now, making the circuit of the Centennial park jogging path early enough that only the occasional other jogger was out. He had security following him discreetly, far enough distant not to interfere with this rare moment he allowed himself to clarify his mind.

There was a coffee shop at the end of the route that brewed exceptional product, the best in the city and he looked forward to that. City habits he'd shed during his hard time in rural America had come back with comfortable ease. He chided himself for waiting so long to relocate. The only things that had been keeping him were delusions anyway. The city cleared his head and let him breathe. The city reached out to him in all its boroughs, from the gleaming high rises of New Troy to the trendy galleries of Little Bohemia, to Glenmorgan Square and Bessolo Boulevard with its theaters and clubs.

Not that he'd had the luxury of spare time to enjoy any of those countless galleries or shows or nightspots. Trying to reorder the pieces of one's life was a protracted business. A morning run twice a week - - three times if he were feeling particularly stressed, was the most he'd allowed himself since he'd left Smallville. He'd been living off four hours sleep a night for weeks now and the lingering sense of exhaustion was always there, under the surface. It wasn't that his body didn't want it, it was more that the brain refused to cooperate. So he ignored it, the fatigue. Forced it back just as he forced back all the other counterproductive things that gathered at the back of his thoughts - - the things he absolutely refused to dwell on.

Jacquelyn Soveno was waiting for him when he reached the end of the path, a steaming cup of coffee in her manicured hand. His new head of security, she had lived up to the reputation that had brought her to his attention.

He took the coffee she offered and started walking around the path to cool down, with her at his side. She was tall and skinny, and wore designer clothes like a runway model. With heels, he had to look up at her, but she had on sensible shoes today, which put them eye level.

"What do you have for me? He sipped coffee through the slot in the plastic top. It tasted like the beans had been plucked from the plants and roasted that very morning.

"Scranton is now defunct. All transfers have been successful. The reintegration process is progressing smoothly, Mr. Luthor. After the secondary offer was made the four non-compliants have agreed to the non-disclosure wavers."

He nodded, listening to her give specifics.

The snow was almost gone from the park, trampled away by thousands upon thousands of feet and there was yellowed grass beneath, with just the hint here and there of new growth struggling against the cold. You could see the lake in the center from here, through a strategically placed copse of bare limbed trees, but the fountain wasn't running. The fountain hadn't been running since he'd been back.

"There's another issue," she said, when they'd reached the crossroads where the jogging path intersected the riding path. There was still the occasional old moneyed blue blood that thought it the height of prestige to stable horses in the city that used it. Generally it was used by people and their dogs, which seemed to keep the jogging trail clear of unexpected organic pitfalls.

He tossed the cup in a trashcan and veered off the path towards the sidewalk. He had a car waiting, following as discreetly as his security, but it was only a three-block walk to the penthouse overlooking the upper east end of the park.

Funny how he'd lived in the country for all those years and hadn't felt the inclination to walk anywhere - - but the city brought the desire out in him.

"Your Ares researchers are getting antsy. I've been fielding calls from the project head for the last week, wanting to know when active research can resume. It appears the Colorado lab isn't up to par?"

Lex took a breath and kept walking. His Ares staff were used to a no limits budget and his personal, focused attention. And he'd made a promise weeks ago, for fresh resources. He'd made a lot of promises before he'd accepted certain truths.

Earth wasn't a target for alien invasion. And even he'd wanted to continue development of meta-enhanced soldiers, without a source he was willing to plunder for those all-important alien peptides, what was the point? Ares was no longer a valid undertaking.

"Disperse the team," he said. "Distribute them to other projects. Compile all the research data and see that any backups are destroyed. Bring the originals to me. If they have a problem with this, I can have them studying the effects of fertilizer decomposition in sub-zero climates for the next decade."

Jacquelyn didn't bat an eye. "I'll see to it."

Lex stepped into the shower before the water was warm. Stood with his hands on the cool tile wall and gasped under the first cold barrage. He let out another long, slow breath as it warmed and dipped his head, water running down the sides of his face in rivulets, like the illusion of hair.

He should have dealt with the Ares project long before this, should have finalized a decision instead of shying from it like it was poisonous fruit. It had simply been easier to ignore it in favor of other things, because one way or another its existence or lack of, was the final declaration of the burial of beliefs he'd held close to his heart for over two years. That blood, sweat and pain, a relationship or two and billions of dollars had been for nothing but justified paranoia.

It had nothing to do with Clark.

He grimaced a little, even thinking the name, because he was usually so very good at compartmentalizing all things Alien related to the very back of his mind. Until he couldn't anymore, and then he generally went for the scotch until the fit of anger or remorse or God-forbid, longing passed in a haze of alcohol induced emptiness.

Emptiness was preferable over being a man without the sense to realize when he was being played yet one more time. He'd played that part often enough to know the lines by heart and he was tired to death of the role.

It was so much easier not to feel. To close himself off and refuse the lure of sentiment. If his mind wanted to reminisce about Clark in a moment of weakness, Lex was perfectly willing to use it to his benefit. Just as he might use any high dollar whore to sate his needs, even if this one was in his head. God knew he'd paid the price.

He ran his hand down his body, circled his half flaccid cock and let the image of a big, strong body on its knees before him bring it to fuller attention. Lips like bruised red fruit that played so well at innocence, but knew intimately all the right things to do to drive a man past the point of sanity. He didn't allow himself this often, because it was addictive and if he dwelled too long, his mind would wander to more painful things. But as long as it was just this, just him imagining his thrusts bruising Clark's soft mouth - - as if such a thing were possible - - it was safe.

There was a safety net after all, if he wanted to stop the fantasy. He'd discovered the perfect method. Simply envision those beautiful lips wrapped around his father's wrinkled cock and Lex's own erection was guaranteed to deflate.

He didn't need the out now. Just few minutes sharing his head with the facade of something he wasn't sure he'd ever really known and it would be out of his system. Until the next time.

He needed to start dating. Even with the rumors of spousal homicide over his head he could have his pick of bed partners and one way to relieve stress was as good as another, if you didn't care about who you were fucking.

A few rough strokes and it was over. A fading surge of relief that the water washed away along with the residue. It took a moment longer for him to chase away the accompanying images and the tremor of feeling that wanted to follow in their wake. But a reassertion of will and they were gone, pushed back to where they belonged and Lex stepped out of the shower, clear-headed and focused.

Nothing else was acceptable, because in five hours the LexCorp board of directors would convene, his repertoire of delays finally exhausted. In five hours, it was likely he'd find out who had acquired his missing stock and depending on which side of the fence they threw that considerable weight, he'd either walk out of there as untouchable as he'd walked in, or short the reins of one corporation that bore his name.

The way his luck had been running, he rather feared the latter.

He knew which board members were prepared to sell him out. The one's that had been in contact with foreign interests. He knew which one's were under his thumb - - though in big business no one's loyalties were ever written in stone. It was the one's whose intentions he hadn't been able to pin down that worried him.

If he'd had those missing shares - - and in retrospect bartering them away to keep from liquidating assets of great import to him had seemed like the lesser of two evils - - and his firm fifty-one percent ownership, he'd have laughed in their faces. Would have let Toshiba enjoy their minority holdings and still done exactly what he pleased when he pleased. Replacing half the board would have been first on the agenda.

The morning was spent with Lawyers and consultants, preparing for worst cast scenario. He let them plot and listened to the fruits of their labors, desperate legal tactics to slow the inevitable. They'd flayed his last nerve by 10:30, and his overwhelming consumption of caffeine and nothing else all morning wasn't helping the state of his temper. He vaguely entertained the notion, if things went as predicted, of a boardroom shooting spree.

"They're waiting for you, Mr. Luthor." Miranda stood inside the door of his office and informed him solemnly, in fear no doubt, for her job. There were a thousand people in this building itself, not to mention the tens of thousands company wide, on pins and needles, afraid of the change new management might bring.

He was halfway out his door when the phone vibrated in his jacket pocket. Almost he slipped his hand in and shut it off. But the curiosity about whoever was calling him at zero hour caught at him, and he reached down and pulled it out instead. The number was unfamiliar, no name attached.

"This better be good."

"Hello, Lex. Is that stress I hear in your voice?"

He stopped dead and various sycophants, lawyers and aides had to scramble to avoid treading on his heels. "Fancy hearing from you, dad. Your timing is impeccable."

"Is it a bad time? When you're living the life of leisure, time sometimes gets away from you. Where am I supposed to be again? On sabbatical in Spain?"

A loose fist of suspicion settled at the pit of Lex's gut. Time, like opportunity, never slipped away unnoted from Lionel Luthor.

"I would think a southerly climate more appropriate." Like the pits of hell. Now that was a fond image.

"I've told you time and again, Lex, when you have an advantage, you don't give it up. Parting with those shares was a foolish, foolish gambit."

Lex shut his eyes, the fist in his stomach clenching. Of course. His father had orchestrated the situation to begin with. Horrendous fines that he'd had to take drastic measures to meet. So why not be there, waiting in the shadows to snatch up what Lex had had to sacrifice to avoid deconstructing the company?

"You conniving son of a bitch," Lex said it softly. Anything louder and he might have lost control of his voice in the midst of people he wouldn't allow to see anything less than perfect discipline in him.

"The pot calling the kettle - - or is that the other way around? Ah, semantics. You've made so many mistakes, Lex, but I don't place all the blame with you.'

"Big of you."

"Loosing LexCorp will be a devastating blow."

Lex stared blindly down the hall towards the heavy brass doors of the boardroom.

"I hate to see," Lionel continued. "A family venture in the hands of outsiders."

"What do you want?" Lex asked. He knew shades of blackmail when he heard it. Intimately.

"What I've always wanted, Lex."

"Me, groveling at your feet?"

Lionel laughed. "Your well being, son."

"That line's getting old." He tried to get the appropriate amount of dry sarcasm in his tone, but it came out dull and wary. "What else?"

"Leave an old man some surprises for a rainy day. How about for starters, an apology for your little attempt to detain me against my will and the no doubt nefarious things you had planned for me afterwards? Make me feel the remorse, Lex."

Lex felt his mouth twist into a smile. It felt feral around the edges. He did, frayed and coiled and wanting to slam the phone against the wall in lieu of his father's head. He took a breath instead, and ate the pride down, a cold, hard indigestible lump. He was capable of doing quite a few things with a smile if they worked to his advantage.

"I'm sorry dad, from the bottom of my heart, for failing as a dutiful son. You always tell me emotion will be my downfall, and I never listen and look where it's gotten me. I made a mistake. It won't happen again." It absolutely wouldn't.

"Of course it will, but I like the sentiment. You've got voting privileges over my personal portfolio of LexCorp stock." The line went dead.

"Thanks, dad." He shut the phone with a snap and stalked towards the boardroom doors. There was business to attend.

Lex made the cover of the Wall Street Journal barely two months after his father had graced it. It was the first bit of flattering press he'd had in months and with the failed Japanese takeover, LexCorp stock was actually on the rise.

He received requests for interviews from Forbes, Entrepreneur, Barron's and a dozen other business rags. His PR people were ecstatic. When the request from the Planet came, it wasn't surprising, he'd already given a few personal quotes to Raymond Fisk from the financial desk earlier in the week, it was the least he could do for his hometown's finest newsprint. But he hadn't been prepared to give Fisk the uninterrupted half hour of his time a sit down interview might take up.

"Mr. Fisk isn't requesting the sit down, Mr. Luthor," Miranda told him, as they were discussing the day's itinerary. "It's a Ms. Sullivan. I wouldn't have brought it to your attention at all, but she's gotten hold of my personal extension and called several times."

"Chloe Sullivan?" There could be another Sullivan on staff, of course. And Chloe had reason enough to want to avoid up close personal encounters with him.

"Yes sir. Chloe Sullivan. I don't think she's from the financial section. A definitive 'no' would probably discourage her from calling again."

He sat back in his chair, staring at the city reflected in the polished glass surface of his desk, turning over the things Chloe Sullivan might want in his head.

"Set up twenty minutes for her." Curiosity got the better of him. It always did. Even though the wan precursor of danger at the back of his mind was flashing that this was a questionable idea. That there were only so many things Chloe had to talk to him about and most of those he wasn't willing to discuss.

Chloe was shown into his office at twenty to four, trim and professional in a skirt suit, grim-faced like she was heading to war. It had likely been a battle for her getting up the nerve to walk into enemy territory, but then she'd never shown the tendency to shy away from inherently treacherous situations. Maybe it was the company she kept, but more than likely it was simple tenacity.

"Mr. Luthor, I appreciate your time."

He watched her come in, all stiff formality under Miranda's scrutiny, before the doors shut behind her and it was just the two of them who knew enough of each other's dirty laundry to be on an uncomfortable first name basis.

"I'm not adverse to helping an old friend," he said. "Were you thinking on a move to Business and Financial?"

"Oh, come on Lex, you're big news across the board. You cross the street nowadays and people want to know why."

He smiled, giving her a 'what can you do?' shrug. "You have twenty minutes, Chloe."

She smiled right back with an equal lack of conviction and dove in.

"So, now that you've miraculously managed to pull LexCorp's fat out of the proverbial fire - - what's next?"

"Were you looking for the Newsweek answer or the People version? Or was there some other angle you wanted to explore?"

"What other angle is there, Lex? I've read all about the commercial ventures - - what I'm wondering is how come your off the books projects have become suddenly scarce? Is it just an upgrade in security, are you dumping extracurricular hobbies to build capital or are you cleaning house?"

He gave her a faint, amused smile, admiring the nerve it took to toss that out with nothing more than mild curiosity in her tone. He knew she had an investment in the subject - - more so maybe than certain of her friends. He knew she had sources feeding her information here and there, things she'd never attempted to print because there weren't enough facts to back them. It must have been frustrating for her to have those sources dry up.

"Chloe, are you sure you want to waste your twenty minutes with libelous speculation? If you want to leave with something print worthy, perhaps you should change your line of questioning."

He saw something give in her eyes, a flicker of uncertainty, before she squared her shoulders and asked.

"Okay. What are your thoughts on the resident alien issue? Pro or con?"

"Don't waste my time, Chloe." He said softly. He didn't bat an eye. He'd been prepared for it.

"You - -" she took a breath, clamping down on whatever she was about to say and blurting out instead. "You need to talk to him."

"I thought I made it perfectly clear - - no contact. And if he sent you - -"

"He didn't send me," she cut him off, green eyes flashing. "He doesn't know anything about this. He's playing by your rules, and the least you could do is spare somebody that was supposed to be your friend as much time as you'd give a reporter looking for dirt, and let him know whether or not to expect the hammer to fall and when. Do you have any idea what its like not knowing whether you're going to wake up one morning and change your mind and ruin a few more lives?"

"This interview is over." He stood, a collected movement, because the walls were firm and intact. He'd been very good at building them.

She stood too, not so calm, not so collected. Desperation in her eyes while Lex considered whether calling security would be overkill.

"What is it? Are you afraid of him? Is that why you won't talk to him? Do you think under that farm boy exterior there are green scales and tentacles? There's not. I've seen him bleed and his blood's as red as yours or mine."

She laughed in his face and Lex felt a sting of irritation. He'd seen the color of that blood as well. A flow of crimson that always came with evasions and lies. It wasn't the point of origin that bothered him. He wasn't debating it with her when he couldn't properly debate it with himself.

"I can have you escorted out, if you'd prefer?"

"He's trying to get his life together, you know?" She clutched her bag to her like it was armor. Or more likely a weapon, since she took a breath and one more shot at him. "Taking a few classes at Community College - - trying to work around the looming trouble with your name attached. He thinks you're different than you were after - - you know? - - Zod. I think that's wishful thinking, but he'll defend you until I'm blue in the face arguing. How stupid is that, considering you won't even say his name? But then Clark's never been the sharpest knife in the block, has he? Look how long you played him before he wised up? Then you snare him again and he falls for it hook line and sinker. Just an idiot."

"Don't you have who played who, mixed up? I wasn't the one with the world-shattering secret. I never colluded with his enemies behind his back."

"Now who's being the idiot?" she snapped. "Don't pretend you don't understand why he didn't shout it from the heavens and don't pretend you don't get why you might not have been the most comfortable person to confide in. And he never colluded with your dad, you ass. That was your wife, remember? Clark didn't have much of a choice, with Lionel spouting the gospel of Jor-el - - Clark's real father by the way - - and he never followed either one of their advice when it came to you. If you'd bothered to let him explain anything, you might have gotten that, instead of getting on your high horse and acting like it was all some plot against you. We both know that's a load of crap."

Lex looked at his watch. "As fascinating as this conversation is, I have another appointment."

Chloe stared at him, a flicker of something that might have been disbelief in her eyes. She opened her mouth; shut it, frustrated in the face of his calm demeanor. She let out a little hissing breath and turned on her heel, stalking for the door. But, she hesitated, her hand on the brass handle, her back ramrod stiff and said.

"I don't know why I'm even bothering saying this, other than I hate seeing friends in misery - - but, he misses you."

Then she was gone, slipping through the door with a quiet patter of heels.

A nerve twitched in Lex's jaw. He brushed an imaginary wrinkle from his sleeve and sat down, pressed the intercom and told Miranda to send in his 4 o'clock.

Which was a set of R&D techs out of the Fort Worth division, with a proposal and a proprietary rights lawyer on the scent of a patent. He listened to them drone on about profit margins and manufacturing costs. And after a while the words started to loose meaning, worthless babble that assaulted him while he stared with an odd sort of detachment at a striped pattern of afternoon sunlight on the wall opposite the windows behind him. The cold, white light of the city in early winter.

The light patterns at his office in the castle were always flavored by color. Squares of red or yellow that fell across the floor from tall stained glass. The light from Clark's bedroom window had been bright and angled, throwing heat like a magnifying glass, catching lazy dust particles in its path that danced like living things. It had been warm upon flesh. Almost as warm as the feel of Clark's skin - -

Something fractured, a rent in the armor that was supposed to protect him from unproductive reminisces. That was supposed to protect him period.

He was tired. No amount of caffeinated energy could drown out the ache seeping up out of the seams. He'd thought he'd had it so pinned down.

"Thank you." He cut into the presentation. Stood and they rose with him, anxious that he was unimpressed. It didn't occur to them that he simply hadn't paid attention to what they were selling. "Leave the proposal with my assistant on your way out."

They filed out, clutching their folders and their printouts. He stood there afterwards trying to order his thoughts. Trying to get the walls back up. But Chloe's insidious words kept slipping through.

He defends you. Why? It irritated him thinking of it, of them discussing him - - of Clark assuming Lex cared enough what Chloe Sullivan thought to warrant defense. Of Clark thinking he needed it. That bothered him more than the rest.

He let out a breath of pent up air through his teeth and left his office, surprising Miranda at her desk.

"I'm done for the day." She'd cancel or reschedule or shuffle whatever needed to be shuffled to someone lower down the food chain, if it had to be seen to before the end of business today.

He took the elevator down and had to make the snap decision garage or lobby. The one thing Smallville had over Metropolis was endless, deserted, backcountry roads. You could get in a car and drive without traffic lights or congestion keeping your speed limit under thirty. Sometimes testing the limits of a fine engine was better than all the therapy in the world.

He decided on the lobby, since driving in city traffic on a Friday close to rush hour would have him on the brink of road rage. He waved off the security that met him at the elevator doors. He wasn't in the mood for trailing ghosts. He had enough of those in his head.

Stuffing his hands in his coat pockets, he walked.

Seven weeks ago he'd amputated a part of his life that had betrayed him, just like he might a gangrenous limb. He'd had indignation and righteous fury to fuel the separation. A very Luthor thing to do, the cold, calculated severing of emotional connection. It was disturbing on some level, that there was precedent.

It disturbed him, in retrospect, that instead of picking to pieces something that had occupied his mind for years, he chose to lock it in a room, and brick over the doorway, and plaster cautionary tape around the whole. He could have had all the answers to all the mysteries that had ever plagued him, if he'd just had the nerve to carry through - -

He shivered, hunching his shoulders against a gust of cold wind, and the people on the sidewalk around him shivered, in similar straits.

Community college, she'd said. The cheap way to education, one class credit at a time. What world-conquering alien in their right mind, tried for a degree at a two-year institution in between toiling on a dirt-poor Kansas farm? Or wore K-mart clothes, or slept in the same bed he'd had since grade school?

It was laughable. He could have had the world and he chose near poverty on a few hundred acres in backwater Kansas.

It was enough to make Lex loose all sense of awe and respect for the concept of otherworldly visitors. It was enough to make him think the power and the speed and God knew what else that Clark came equipped with were nothing compared to the sheer magnitude of his strength of will. It was so painfully easy for power to corrupt, Lex had seen it time and again, had felt it fester in his own heart, and Clark stood unblemished.

Maybe that was the truest mark of the alien among them. The ability to deny the fruit when the serpent offered.

He detested the thought that Clark had that over the rest of humanity. That he had it over him. Because Lex knew for a fact, that if the roles were reversed, he'd not only have had the fruit, but the whole damned tree, if opportunity arose.

The penthouse had a spectacular balcony view, but Lex envisioned better. When he built LexCorp tower, it would be the tallest structure in the city, taller than LuthorCorp tower by necessity and he'd have a penthouse suite at the pinnacle, with a view of all the kingdom.

But for now, the luxurious penthouse apartment at the top of the Medoc Building was adequate.

He'd spent Saturday indulging himself, because Chloe's visit Friday had unsettled him more than he cared to admit. A charity auction that his PR people had loved and he'd dropped a very public million plus in tax deductible dollars on a turn of the century Boccioni sculpture that he found vaguely disturbing and subtly erotic.

Much like the nature of Clark Kent's secrets.

He scowled and pinched the bridge of his nose. Now that the floodgates were open, he couldn't stop rebellious thoughts, memories and inane comparisons from cropping up. Six weeks and only the occasional tactile input had breached his defense and now he couldn't hold it back.

But it had been a long six weeks. A long six months, with the stress of a marriage based on so many painful lies, the drive to build an army to fight imaginary foes, fighting with Clark - - always fighting with Clark, Lana's murder and the subsequent accusations, the fight to keep LexCorp. The ever-present knowledge that he hadn't been alone in his head for so long. Now this - - grudge - - that he clung to like a terrier with a bone, when sometimes the reasons seemed so paper thin, that he had to build them up in his head to remind himself. When sometimes it seemed like the only thing maintaining the walls was his own contrary nature.

It was exhausting.

Chloe said Clark missed him and it was baffling. Missed what exactly? His temper? His vindictive streak? His tendencies to manipulate and obsess? An ingrained paranoia that just wouldn't quit? It was frankly astonishing that Clark wasn't rejoicing the fact that Lex had chosen to leave Smallville and never step back.

What did that say about Clark? That he was certifiably insane or simply too na_ve to recognize good fortune when it crossed his path. Too stubborn to accept it.

Maybe they both had that last one in common.

Clark made him weak. Clark had always made him weak. Clark lied to him and destroyed his things, shattered his calm, infringed on his territory and was the key to every question Lex had ever had since the first time he'd stepped foot into Smallville. Who smelled like home and cared nothing for boundaries and carefully erected armor and just made him lightheaded from want.

Who made him smile. Ridiculously and without agenda and he couldn't remember who else had made him do that since - - well since ever.

Clark made him - - crazy. Clark made him question himself. Clark made him want to wage war and offer surrender all at the same time and Lex never surrendered. He never ran. And yet, it felt like he'd been running from something these last weeks.

He considered pouring a scotch, but he'd had his fair share of Cristal that evening at the after Event event, and mixing and matching his alcohols was a sure path to more than the very slight buzz he was already sporting. He had been trying to avoid that particular crutch. If he'd been smart, he'd have invited the very lovely redhead that had flirted with him most of the evening, home. She would have been a better diversion than scotch. With her on her knees between his legs, his mind wouldn't have strayed to Clark. He was almost certain.

Only chances were she'd have expected to stay the night, and the idea of waking up with her in his bed had not appealed. He was off his game in a big way when everything but the efficient application of oral sex lost its allure.

If he were feeling particularly nasty, he might blame that on Clark, too.

He sat down on the cool leather of a couch, and stared at the clean, cold face of a hearth he'd never had to light to chase the grasp of winter from the apartment. Between him and it were the glass topped coffee table and the emptied contents of his jacket pocket. Wallet. Keys. Phone.

He stared for a moment, remembering Chloe asking if he were afraid. An offensive question. But, and it was a grudging admission, perhaps he was, but not of the things she assumed.

He picked up the cell, thumb ghosting across the sleek surface. He hadn't listened that message - - that plea from Clark - - since the day he'd first gotten it. But he hadn't erased it either. He hadn't analyzed that irrational need to cling to the recorded tones of a voice, when he'd decided to break ties with the source of it. And Lex analyzed everything. He picked things to pieces to try and worm out all the hidden meanings and yet he shied from this.

He pushed to his feet, annoyed, restless and paced to the doors leading out to a balcony that wrapped around the corner of the building. The Medoc was a conglomeration of vintage architecture and modern luxury. The balcony rail was gothic, wind kissed stone with tile inlay. It was like ice against his naked palms.

He leaned there, looking out upon Metropolis lights and dug up a few self-truths. He hadn't erased the message because, like his often father accused, he was too sentimental to give up all connection with something that he'd allowed to matter to him. He hadn't listened to it because hearing Clark's voice would shatter his resolve.

The resolve in question centered around - - what?

Insurmountable indignation that Clark had given Lionel something he hadn't given Lex - - trust.

The perfectly reasonable desire to protect himself from yet one more person he'd left himself open to, when he had a fantastically crappy track record for affairs of the heart.

The genetic inability to admit that maybe - -just maybe he'd been a little too quick in refusing to hear Clark's attempt at explanation.

If he threw the phone out over the balcony, it would solve the nagging little impulse to dial Clark's number. But then again, the plummeting cell would probably nail some unfortunate pedestrian in the head and all Lex needed was more bad press.

He scowled at the phone and punched in the number. It rang, four, five, six times and he almost breathed a sigh of relief. It was late and Clark was either keeping farmer's hours or hadn't charged his phone. Either way, Lex was off the hook and he could deal with this another day when he had the time to plan out strategies.

"Hello?" Fuck.

His plans were dashed with the answering of a phone. He shut his eyes and experienced the uncomfortable sensation of his heart trying to worm its way up his throat. And then the more startling one of his mind going blank. It wasn't often Lex found himself in a situation where words failed him, but coming up with a simple telephone salutation seemed suddenly beyond him.

Hanging up and pretending he'd never had this moment of weakness was an attractive notion.

He stood there a moment longer, hating the indecision, then ended the call. He pressed the silent phone to his forehead and sucked in a lung full of cold, city air, wondering where the hell his spine had disappeared.

It occurred to him, that he was fucked. Well and truly. And he wasn't even certain when exactly he'd lay down and spread his legs.

There was a gust of cold wind strong enough to make the glass in the doors rattle a little and the sudden sense of not being quite so alone as he'd been a heartbeat before.

Lex blinked, frozen and stared at the looming specter of inevitability. Clark was just there.

White T-shirt, faded jeans, bare feet. God, bare feet. Lex couldn't think, mind aswirl in the contemplation of how he'd gotten there - - the speed it must have taken. How he'd managed the thirty stories up to a penthouse balcony? How his eyes could shine quite so brilliantly, like fevered specks of emerald, when the moon was half hidden behind stringy clouds, when the congestion of the city ate up the view of the stars.

"That's not how you use that." Clark said gravely, gaze flicking to the phone still pressed to Lex's brow.

Lex jerked his hand away, fingers tight around the cell. Clark was large and frowning and three feet away was too close and too far. He smelled like dried grasses and leather and masculine musk. The scent went through Lex like some sort of pheromone. Skin tingling, cock expressing its interest despite clamoring disapproval from his head. It was damned annoying.

Clark kept staring at him. He looked very much like Lex felt. Tense and less than pleased.

"How did you know - - ? It's an unlisted number." If he could just get a few specifics, he could regain his balance.

Clark shrugged, a flicker of embarrassment making his eyes shift. "Your heartbeat - - I know the sound of your heartbeat."

And wasn't that entirely disturbing? And just a little bit thrilling?

"So you ran right over on the off chance it wasn't a misdial? Tracked me down - - why exactly?" Lex laid the phone on the patio table and straightened his cuff, damned and determined to get his poise back.

Clark's stare didn't waver at the coolness of Lex's tone. There was no flinch of uncertainty. It was like the boy who hadn't known what he had wanted had been devoured by a man who was tired of games. It was vaguely intimidating and not entirely unappealing.

"You called me, Lex."

Lex lifted his chin, fixing Clark with a cold glare. He needed the reins of control back, even though his body wanted to betray him. He moved past Clark, to the patio rail.

"It was a bad decision. Hence the disconnect. It wasn't an open door invita- -"

"Shut up." Clark was right there, so close, so quick that Lex took an involuntary step backwards, back against the railing. Clark followed, close enough that if Lex breathed too deeply, he'd feel the evidence of an awkward arousal.

"Do you trust me, Lex? Do you trust me with your life?" Clark braced his hands upon the stone on either side of Lex. From this angle, with the shadow of his hair and the thickness of his lashes, it was hard to see into Clark's eyes and Lex needed to see what lurked there, the hint to this strange, intent temper that had swept over him.

He didn't grip the stone ledge behind him, just leaned there with his hip against it, trapped between Clark's arms. If Clark wanted him dead, there was no stopping it - - if Clark wanted him dead, he'd have been in the grave years ago, the victim of happenstance or any number of unfortunate encounters with people with grudges to settle or psychoses to vent.

"Yes." He said softly and realized that was the starkest truth he'd told in years. With his life, his trust in Clark was absolute - - but there were other things he wasn't so sure of. Other trusts that were devastating when broken.

"Can I trust you with mine?" Clark asked solemnly.

Lex almost laughed. That was the question wasn't it? The crux of all the lies. The thing that had driven the wedge between them time and again. Once upon a time he could have given the right answer immediately. Now prudence dictated he think about it - - weigh options and advantages and inherent dangers, when all the time, beneath the surface of that practical caution, the truth lurked, relentless as the tide.

"Yes." It was amazing his voice didn't quiver. It was amazing that his knees didn't buckle, because it felt like the admission had taken most of his strength with it when it left his lips.

Clark took a breath, dipped his head, so that all Lex saw was a crown of soft, dark hair. The ghost of a tremor seemed to pass across his shoulders. He lifted his head, and the gemstone hardness had faded from his eyes, replaced by the softer glimmer of hope.

"Okay then. Can we fix this now, please?"

Part 27

"Okay then. Can we fix this now, please?"

An impulsively optimistic answer would have taken a great deal of the strain off of Clark's nerves, but Lex wasn't that benevolent. In fact, from the expression Lex wore, you'd think he was calculating the proper amount of an after dinner tip, instead of contemplating a heartfelt plea that Clark personally thought he'd gone way past the halfway mark in offering. If it weren't for the rapid tempo of Lex's pulse, impossible to hide from Clark's freakish hearing, Clark might have fallen for the act.

Maybe a smarter person would have backed off a few steps, given Lex the benefit of a little personal space just out of simple consideration. But Clark was feeling stubborn and he sort of liked the almost touching and the way the hairs on his arm stood up so close to Lex, like there was some sort of electric connection between them.

There was, of course, Clark had felt it, time and again. He'd just never been so aware of what it was. And he wasn't letting Lex slither out of this with the skillful application of cold shoulder. He'd gone a damned long time with the ice intact and Lex had broken it and Lex was going to see it through, one way or another.

"Okay." Lex shrugged, a familiar half lift of the shoulders, a cant of his head that projected wary interest. Clark waited a moment for something more, a little wary himself, but Lex apparently was not in the mood for exposition.

Swallowing, Clark took a step backwards, giving Lex the freedom to move away from the balustrade.

"Just okay?" He was pushing his luck, but - - what the hell? He'd pushed his luck coming here.

God knew what was going on behind Lex's eyes, but his gaze shifted down, to Clark's feet, which were big and bare sticking out from under the hem of his jeans - - an embarrassing tribute to the fact that he'd dropped everything - - literally - - to run over here. But he'd latched onto the sound of that heartbeat and it had been tenuous at best once the phone connection had severed to distinguish it from all the other pulsing hearts clustered in Metropolis. It had been follow the sound of it without hesitation or loose it. And that, he hadn't been willing to do.

"I grew up on a farm. Shoes optional." Clark managed a weak smile, wishing Lex would just say something. The uncharacteristic silence was freaking him out.

What Lex did, was take a breath, as if he were holding onto temper or controlling emotion that wanted to slip free of the impassive mask. He walked past Clark towards the glass doors, jaw tight, whipcord lean in a tailored black shirt and black slacks. For a man with an empire, there was an odd sort of sparseness to the line of his back, as if he were spread so thin that the cords holding him together were taut and ready to snap. Maybe he'd been like that for a very long time and Clark just hadn't noticed.

He felt a sudden surge of protectiveness, a sudden need to press up behind Lex and catch him in his arms so he could feel the solidity of his body and to hell with personal space issues and overstepping tentative boundaries set by grudges that had lived too long.

"I missed you," he whispered, a heartfelt bit of impulsiveness.

Lex went stiff in his embrace, and if he told Clark to let him go, Clark would - - absolutely - - but, Lex wasn't saying anything. So Clark just stood there, pressing his cheek against the side of Lex's head and breathed in the scent of him, soaked in the feel of his body, lean and strong against his. And after a moment, something gave, a full body shudder from Lex, a loosening of rigid muscles. His head dropped back, resting against Clark's shoulder.

"I won't lie and say I haven't thought of you," Lex said in that velvet soft tone he used when he was calmly, rationally trying to prove a point. "I won't deny that physically your mere presence is a turn on of ridiculous proportions. But, sex isn't the answer to this problem, no matter how pat a solution that would be."

Clark felt a flush of heat in his cheeks and it occurred to him that even though he'd stepped into the embrace with pure intentions, his front pressed up against the firm swell of Lex's back seemed to have initiated the growth of something in his pants. But it wasn't a full-blown something, so he felt a marginal justification in denying it. "I didn't - - I don't - -"

"Oh, but you do and I do, but since we're men and not beasts, we have the strength to overcome baser instinct."

Clark let him go and put enough distance between them so that no overeager body parts brushed. Lex turned to look at him, eyes liquid, gunmetal grey in the bleak illumination of Metropolis midnight. Studying Clark, gauging him maybe. Clark met the stare and didn't flinch, wouldn't allow himself to be one of the multitude of people that withered under that cool Luthor stare.

Lex didn't clarify, picking up his cell phone instead and turning for the patio doors, pushing them open and stepping inside. Since he left them open in his wake, Clark figured it was an invitation to follow. He shut the doors behind him and looked around the room. He put his back to them and watched Lex move to stand before a cold, white marble hearth, habit maybe from all the years he'd taken some sort of refuge in front of the one that had always blazed in the Smallville mansion.

"What is the answer, then?" Clark asked. "Truth? I'm willing to give you that."

"Truth's an ideal, rarely achieved." Lex ran the fingers of one hand along the edge of the white mantle. There was an abstract painting over it, in grays and soft blues that Clark thought might have been done by a collection of spastic kindergarteners. It was probably worth a fortune.

"We all lie. Even to ourselves. Predominately to ourselves," Lex said, as if it were gospel.

"Doesn't mean we all like it. Doesn't mean it doesn't feel good to finally stop. I want you to understand things about me, Lex. I sort of want it for me as much as for you - - do you get that?"

"Because the truth will set you free?" Lex asked, scorn in his voice.

"Because I'm tired of it. Because it hurts to lie to the people you love."

Lex's fingers froze on the mantle, the whole of his body gone preternaturally still, down to stalled breath. Then it picked up again, and casually he folded his hands behind his back, the long fingers of one clasping the wrist of the other.

"It seems late in the game to be learning that."

"Yeah. I'm a quick study. How about you?"

He got a quarter profile for that, and either Lex was pressing his lips or there was the ghost of a reluctant smile.

"Don't let me interrupt your therapeutic revelations, then."

"Where do you want me to start?" Clark took a step into the room, hardwood floors polished to glass-like sheen, under his feet.

Lex turned around finally, to look at him, a pale skinned specter in designer black. "Where all good stories start. At the beginning."

It would have gone faster if Lex weren't a major stickler for details. Oh, he'd kept to his guns at first, displaying a cool air of indifference to Clark's offerings. Sitting in the leather chair instead of the sofa, which was a pretty pointed hint that getting too close was not to be tolerated. But he couldn't keep up the faade. Was physically and mentally incapable it seemed, of accepting the cliff notes version of the formidable years. Or of Clark's second hand information of Krypton and his expulsion from that doomed world, or of certain incidences involving the burgeoning of Clark's abilities.

Chloe had nothing on Lex when it came to unadulterated curiosity. It overpowered his resentment, made him lean forward with eyes that glowed with the fervor of a half starved man faced with an overstocked buffet. And Clark was the buffet in question.

It really should have creeped him out, at least a little, but Lex was so damned interested and not in the alien autopsy kind of way that had plagued Clark's nightmares, but like a kid desperately hungry for knowledge, who'd just found the Tree of Wisdom.

It was a relief so huge that Clark felt dwarfed by it. Humbled by it, because instead of going with his heart years ago, he'd gone with instilled fear time and again and look how much pain and suffering that had caused.

Hours passed, dribbling away like minutes, until it was light outside the broad windows of Lex's apartment. It seemed like Clark had been talking forever. They were both on the floor, on respective sides of the coffee table, Clark's back against the sofa and Lex leaning against the overstuffed leather chair. There were empty bottles of water on the table, a half full one that Lex had in his hands, relentlessly turning with his fingers.

"Evolution is such a crap shoot - - genetic drift, inherited traits, random mutations, environmental issues, natural selection - - its mind boggling that life on Krypton developed so similarly to life here. How long did your father search to find that one place where you'd fit in?" Lex mused during a lull, when they sat there, legs brushing under the table in comfortable silence.

Clark shook his head, wishing he knew. "I don't know. I think they - - my people - - must have been aware of earth for a while, but avoided contact - - maybe sorta like the whole Star Trek avoiding contact with lesser races thing?"

"The Prime Directive?"

"If you say. You're the sci-fi geek. I'm just - -"

"Science fiction?" Lex asked with a wan cant of his head.

Clark smiled, shrugging. He was talked out, but he wasn't tired, too hyped to feel the need for sleep. He might not need sleep for days at the rate he was going, but Lex had that bruised around the eyes look of someone staving off the desperate need for rest.

"Not so much with the fiction," Clark said softly. He rolled his head back against the couch cushions and stared blankly at the ceiling. "Sometimes I wish nothing to do with Krypton ever showed up here again - - that I could just live my life without having to worry about it. Normal, like everybody else. Other times, I lay awake wondering what it was like - - what my biological family was like - - my people - - I mean they can't all have been like Zod and his disciples - - right?"

"I would assume not, if Zod was imprisoned for crimes against your world. It's only natural to wonder. I wonder and it's not even my heritage."

Considering the focus of Lex's obsessions these last few years, that was a particularly generous thing to say.

"Besides which," Lex added. "I think you're past the point where normal will ever be an option. Chasing after it seems a waste of time."

"Yeah," Clark lowered his chin to one bent knee. "But it would be nice, you know, to have the choice. Blending into the crowd isn't always a bad thing."

"Blending into the crowd is always a bad thing. No one who ever left a mark on history hid within the anonymity of a crowd."

"I guess that's the difference between the Luthors and the Kents," Clark said with a faint smile. "You want to make history, I just want to survive it."

Lex arched a brow at him, as if he didn't believe the validity of that for a second. Then he rolled his head back, resting against the arm of the chair and Clark watched the subtle throb of pulse along the smooth curve of his neck.

"Did you have anything to do with my father's - - getaway?" Lex finally asked, tilting his head to look at Clark from under his lashes.

"Your father - -?" Clark blinked at him, belly flip flopping a little with dread, because Lionel was a sticking point and Clark wasn't entirely sure Lex believed that their interactions had been strained at best. Then it occurred to him that he hadn't actually heard from Lionel in weeks and that was odd considering the extent of what had happened. Getaway? "God, Lex - - what did you do?"

Lex studied him a moment, fingers turning the bottle of water. "So he hasn't contacted you?"

"No. What did you do?" Clark sat forward, expectantly.

"And you haven't tried to contact him?"

"No. Answer my question." Clark fixed him with an unwavering stare of his own and after a moment the corner of Lex's mouth quirked up.

"Well, in the long run, I didn't do anything - - but I had hoped to squeeze a few comprehensive answers out of him - - since he seemed to be in possession of information I wanted to know."

"God." Clark flopped back against the edge of the couch with a scowl. "You were not planning on torturing - -"

"Interrogating."

"- - your own father?"

"Yes, actually. I was. He slipped away before I got the chance. You weren't an option."

"Not a - - ? What was all that at that old factory then?"

"That? That was me pissed off. I had a change of heart."

"Why?"

That simple question put Lex off his tempo. He looked down and away, putting together an answer, or maybe just trying to figure out something he wasn't entirely sure of himself.

"Because you have very expressive eyes," Lex flicked his own up to meet Clark's again. "And as much as I've thought about hurting you in the past - - and it has crossed my mind on occasion - - apparently I'm considerably more ruthless in theory than in hands on application. At least in some situations. Your eyes got to me."

"So you gave up your chance at getting your hands on your own real live alien, because - - I have expressive eyes."

"Not at all. I'd wager the odds of hands on interaction have drastically improved."

Clark really should have been more upset, really, he should have, but the stark honesty mixed with Lex's leg, this warm presence up against his own, sort dulled the indignation over the admission of attempted kidnapping and interrogation. Maybe later he could work up a little more offense, once Lex wasn't leaning back looking at him speculatively, shirt undone three buttons down, the hint of a smile, the hint of hands on anything, having passed his lips.

"He'd have survived it, right?" Clark needed to clarify that.

"He'd have survived it. Worried about his well being?"

"No. I'm worried about yours and what it would do to you to cross that line."

Lex's lashes flickered down, and the smile that crossed his lips was more than a little wry. "You're concerned for the state of my soul?"

"Yeah," Clark admitted. "I guess I am. I'm sorry I haven't been there more often to help safeguard it."

"It was never your responsibility. You're not my priest - -"

"I would hate to have that job."

Lex chewed on the inside of his cheek, eyeing Clark with narrow speculation. "I've crossed a lot of lines."

"I know."

"I don't necessarily plan to stop."

Clark wondered if this was a different sort of line - - one in the sand that Lex was daring him to venture over.

"Why?" he asked and Lex's eyes widened in surprise at the blunt question, perhaps prepared instead for denunciation.

"Because if lines aren't crossed occasionally, progress stalls. Because the world we live in is full of terrible, terrible things and genetic mutation to the 9th power and the occasional extraterrestrial threat are just the newest incarnations. I'm not content to leave the security of the world I live in up to a government that may or may not take the threat seriously."

"Those are good reasons." Clark said. "I like those reasons. I just don't want to see people get hurt in the process. I've got a problem with the whole sacrificing the few for the many thing."

"You wouldn't be you if you didn't." Lex's head drifted back again, against the chair arm, his eyes shut, delicate traces of fine blue veining in his lids.

Clark glanced at his watch. A good ways past six. "I should go," he said. "And you should get some sleep."

Lex sat there, silent, breathing, bottle held loosely in his hands. "You should. And I should."

Clark swallowed and stood up, loomed over Lex and extended a hand. Lex cracked his eyes and peered up at it, considering, then reached up and took it, and let Clark haul him up. He didn't release the grip and Clark felt no particular inclination to force the issue. Lex standing half a foot away, the dry heat of his palm firm against Clark's was the sort of nice that started at the top of Clark's head and splintered out down the expanse of his body. If he inched a little closer the rest of them would almost be touching.

"We've been very good," Lex said softly. "At ignoring those baser instincts."

Clark couldn't seem to get the lump out of his throat.

Lex brought their hands up, studying the contrast of clasped fingers. Clark's hand just clunky large all around and two shades at least darker than Lex's, which was narrow boned and long fingered and manicured. God, Clark had dirt under his nails. He swallowed, embarrassed a little at that. Then Lex took that step that Clark hadn't and that embarrassment tingle shifted to a surge of current all through Clark's body. And most of it settled right around groin level, making for painfully tight jeans.

Lex tilted closer, body brushing Clark's, his slacks this fine, soft material that did nothing to hide his answering need.

The contact of cock against cock, even separated by two layers of clothing was enough to make Clark dizzy with want. The need scorched a trail up his belly and burned nerves in its wake. He concentrated on not crushing Lex's hand with his flexing fingers, of not doing anything for a few precious moments while he gathered his control. But the feel of Lex's breath on his neck, when he leaned in, the brush of Lex's smooth cheek, the press of his lips, soft and warm and wet at the hinge of Clark's jaw and control simply scattered.

Clark groaned, untangling their hands, grasping Lex by the hips and dragging him as close as two bodies could get without one of them being inside the other.

Lex made a grunting sound, of approval maybe, and his fingers curled in Clark's hair, pulling himself up or Clark down to meet his mouth, it was sort of a half way thing. Open mouthed, wet, warm - - all sex and promises. He ground Lex against him, hands tight enough on his ass that it must have hurt, but all Lex did was kiss him harder, driving his tongue into Clark's mouth like it was an act of warfare.

And maybe it was, because six hours worth of talking didn't necessarily erase almost two months of cold war or old resentments or the perception of new wrongs. Time might be the only answer there. But then again two months of cold war hadn't phased Clark's want. And maybe it hadn't phased Lex's. Lex said sex wasn't the answer, and he was probably right, but it seemed pretty damned crucial now. And if Clark didn't get his hands on Lex's skin, he was likely to die.

"God - - Lex." Lex's fingers dug into his scalp, and the tingle was electric, Lex's teeth on his pulse were. His cock jumped, bound and restrained beneath denim, teased by the feel of Lex. He lifted Lex up, a tight slide against his body and Lex hissed through his teeth, wrapped his legs around Clark's hips and slipped a hand down the juncture of their bodies, squeezing Clark through is pants.

"Down the hall, to the right." Lex said against Clark's mouth.

There was no inquiry needed to know where those directions led and Clark had them there, before Lex could properly draw breath after the command. Lex let out a startled laugh as Clark collapsed less than gracefully onto a very broad bed. The comforter was likely the most luxurious thing Clark had ever felt - - aside from Lex's skin - - and it billowed around them, plump with goose feathers.

Lex straddled him, hands on his shoulders, eyes like glimmering spots of silver in the shadows of his face, lips parted and swollen and gorgeous. He'd been gorgeous last time he'd crouched over Clark too, even though there'd been kryptonite involved, and maybe Lex remembered that too, because his jaw twitched a little and he shut his eyes for a heartbeat. Then he shook it off and reached for Clark's shirt, drawing it up his torso.

Clark pushed himself up enough to help get it off, and went for Lex's shirt, fingers bumbling over buttons, until Lex slapped his hands away and finished the job himself. He shucked off black silk to bare pale flesh beneath. Pink nipples, pebbly and hard, lean muscle over a heaving, flat stomach that Clark spared a moment to spread his palm across, before going for the buckle on Lex's belt.

Then it was a matter of wriggling out of pants, and underwear and sliding back together, body against body with nothing between them but skin. It felt like an act of desperation, like the want had been building and building to fever pitch and he couldn't manage anything more than pressing against Lex and grinding, hands roaming over skin that he couldn't get enough of.

Mouths devoured flesh wherever they could reach and mutual erections were pressed tight between their bellies, slipping against each other now and then with a slick explosion of sensation.

Aimless animal rutting, until Lex took matters to hand and shoved Clark back. He knelt over him for a moment, panting, then eased across Clark, a slow, methodical slide of body against body, his cock leaving slick little trails up Clark's thigh, Clark's throbbing against the pulse in Lex's belly.

"Oh - - God - -" Clark groaned, hands on the dip of Lex's back, fingers splaying out across the curve of his ass.

"Did you think about me, these past weeks?" Lex asked, dark chocolate voice, oozing sex. His fingers found the head of Clark's cock, sliding foreskin back, thumb gliding across the exposed tip, nail pressing down hard enough to make Clark feel it. "Did you masturbate with me in your head?"

Only once or twice a day, really.

"Yes." He thrust up hard, arching off the bed and almost dislodged Lex. Lex's grip tightened and Clark's whole body quaked.

"Did you?" Clark gasped.

"Umm." Lex made a sound that Clark really, really liked when Clark's fingers slid into the crease of his ass. It occurred to Clark to wonder if Lex had done more than masturbate. If Lex had slept with women - - or God forbid men - - during the last month and a half. This plush bed, wide as Clark was tall screamed sex and Lex was never one to deny himself. Lex liked his luxuries and his indulgences. A primal rush of something not quite anger and not quite not coiled behind Clark's eyes, because all differences aside, Lex was his.

"Did you do - - ah, God - - anything else?"

Lex's hand stalled on Clark's cock, he propped himself up on an elbow and stared down with a faint, mocking arch of the brow that made Clark want to shake him.

"Anything else or anyone else?"

Clark caught his breath, frozen in a moment of consternation. Instant jealousy - - just add water and the thought of anyone touching Lex.

Lex leaned down, before Clark's imagination could take hold and mouthed the line of Clark's jaw, murmuring. "I'm cursed with absurdly high standards - -"

His hand began moving again, long, slow strokes, from base to tip that made Clark's eyes roll back in their sockets. "I had an eye out for someone up to par - - but the applicants were sadly lacking."

"You're not - - even close to funny." For a man that could run across the span of a continent without losing breath, Clark was finding it incredibly difficult to catch his breath.

"You just don't appreciate my humor." Lex finished with a gasp when Clark rolled him over, settling on top.

He liked Lex under him. He liked being between Lex's legs, their cocks lined up, compressed between their bodies. Lex thrust up against him, a protest at the sudden reversal in fortune. And that felt incredible, the head of Lex's cock rubbing against Clark's shaft, the soft presence of his balls against Clark's thigh.

Coherent thought evaporated in the need to simply get off - - to vent weeks and weeks worth of want and frustration. He rocked against Lex, fingers digging into the comforter because they dug into Lex they'd go right through flesh and bone and he liked Lex's flesh and bones the way they were.

The slick friction, the sounds Lex was making, made his balls tighten up like somebody had their fist around them. Then the unmistakable sensation of onrushing eruption.

He cried out, hips driving down and climax hit like a sledgehammer and he came, spurting endlessly, while white spots of relief danced behind his eyes and tension drained like someone had poked holes in him.

He collapsed onto Lex, lay for a few seconds, shuddering. Lex's hands were on his back, stroking his shoulder blades, the back of his neck, curling in his hair. He was still hard against Clark's stomach.

Clark pushed himself up, hands on the bed either side of Lex's head, staring down at Lex's flushed face, at wide, dilated eyes and parted lips. Lex ran a hand down between them, fingers trailing through the come on his stomach. He brought it up, sucked his index finger into his mouth, eyes fixed on Clark's.

If Clark hadn't just come, he'd have exploded all over the bed just from the sight of it. He took a breath and caught Lex's wrist, bringing glistening fingers to his own mouth. He sucked in a slick forefinger, tasting himself, bitter and earthen with the underlying subtle flavor of Lex's skin. It wasn't enough.

He eased down Lex's body, trailed his fingers across Lex's hard little nipples and Lex drew in a sharp breath, arching his back off the mattress, as if to follow the touch. The fact that Clark could make him do that, could make Lex tense and shudder and pant, made Clark's spent cock twitch back to life, made him warm with pleasure.

With Clark's weight gone, Lex's erection sprang up, a shade darker than the pale hips flanking it, smooth and long and hot when it brushed Clark's cheek. Lex made a hitched sound, an aborted plea maybe, that Lex wasn't far enough gone yet to voice.

Clark didn't want to make him beg. Clark just wanted him. So he drew the slick head of Lex's erection into his mouth. Sucked his way down the shaft without preamble and swallowed him whole, lips a tight ring, tongue a hard pressure along the underside of the cock in his mouth as he worked it.

It didn't take a lot. Lex had almost been there before Clark ventured below the belt. Barely a half dozen strokes and Lex was gasping little incoherencies, thrusting up into Clark's mouth and coming.

Clark clamped down on him and swallowed everything Lex had to offer. Lay there afterwards, with his cheek against Lex's thigh, marveling how good it felt just to give - - at how right it felt just to be here suffused with the scent of Lex and the feel of him and the taste.

He pushed himself up, crawled up next to Lex, whose body had gone lax and boneless, and collapsed next to him, head in the crook of his shoulder. Lex's hand curled around lazily, fingers threading in Clark's hair.

For a long time, Clark lay, while Lex's breathing evened out, enthralled by the beat of the heart under his ear, slow and steady and precious. Clark spread his hand out across Lex's chest, sleek planes of muscle as smooth as marble. Fine pale skin, like nothing ever - - but there were the marks of finger prints here and there, where Clark had clutched too hard and the sight of them made him thrum with satisfaction.

He wanted to make a few more, with his mouth maybe, that would linger, so that when Lex put on his clothes, they'd be there underneath, a reminder of Clark. He didn't want Lex to ever forget or ever be content enough to go months without him. Fair was fair, after all.

"Lex?"

There was a moment, then, "Mmmm?"

"I don't want to fight anymore. Can we agree not to fight anymore?" It seemed vital to get that straight.

Another long silence and maybe Lex wasn't really awake at all. But, "We can agree to that. We probably will, though. Seems to be our nature."

Clark mulled that over. Lex and his pragmatism made Clark's life complicated. Uncomplicating issues that Lex wanted to convolute might become a favorite hobby. "I don't mind an argument here and there. Make up sex is nice."

Lex laughed. One of the rare, real ones that made Clark warm inside. He tightened his arm, wrapping himself closer, determined to keep hold of crucial, elusive things.

"You're okay though, right?" he asked softly. "With - - me? What I am?"

Another frightening pause, while Lex's fingers lazily stroked his hair. But maybe the consideration was a good thing, because a lot of Lex's quick, pat answers were the ones he thought you wanted to hear. The one's he thought would gain him an advantage.

"I'm okay with you, Clark. I've always been okay with you."

Clark thought that was an honest answer. He hoped it was, because it made him sing a little inside.

"Did you miss me, too?" He'd admitted that to Lex, he might have admitted more if he thought Lex would have believed it. But you never knew with Lex whether all the things he accepted with a smile were always taken to heart. Lex had a lot of reasons not to trust. Clark had a lot of reasons to want him to.

Lex opened his eyes, and there was something unguarded and uncertain in their depths, like Lex didn't know himself the intricacies of his own heart. Then he shut them, hiding the weakness.

"I - - told myself I didn't." There was the faintest waver to Lex's voice. "I'm good at that - - denial."

"I was miserable," Clark confessed his own weakness without qualm.

Lex was silent a long while, and Clark thought he might have drifted into a doze again, but after a bit, he said softly. "I missed you and I hated it. You make me crazy, you know."

So they were even on that score. Clark grinned, and pressed it into Lex's shoulder.

He listened to the sound of Lex's heartbeat for a long time, to the steady rush of his blood. There was a subtle difference to the cadence he discovered, between a preternaturally calm Lex and a sleeping Lex. It had been a long night that had bled into a long morning, and the human body needed rest that the Kryptonian one could do without. Still, sleeping with Lex he'd found, was very nice. Nicer still in a bed big enough to stretch out in without limbs hanging off the side.

His internal clock told him it was almost eight and the light escaping the drapery in the bedroom hinted at the same. Four or five hours sleep and he'd see if Lex was up for lunch. Clark was starving. Over a month of practically no appetite and now it was back in spades.

There were things to do at home of course, all those ingrained responsibilities that kept him from following dreams - - but this morning he felt strangely guilt free. The cows would fend for themselves after all, today. The Kent farm would stand cold and untended, because Clark was absurdly, irrationally happy where he was, wrapped around Lex and he had no intention of going anywhere.

Epilogue

Sophia Daniakos padded under the lacquered bamboo arch of the beachfront bar and onto the white sands of Tahaa beach. The resort was one of the most exclusive in French Polynesia, on a private island off the coast of Bora Bora. To the rich and reclusive it was a luxurious haven, far from the commercialism of the more mainstream island getaways.

The beach was pristine, the water azure and clear down to the shallow reefs. There was a line of beach chairs with white canvas umbrellas and small glass tables that attentive waiters kept stocked with cold, fruit adorned drinks. Sophia walked across the sand, naturally olive skin darker than the sand she tread upon. Her father had owned an island or two in his time and she was no stranger to the sun. Her bikini was Dior and white and barely there. There was no one to ogle her but very discreet staff, this little section of beach front belonging exclusively to her own private bungalow. If mingling was desired, there was the resort club or the gardens. But honestly, she'd had her fill of men and their desires - - and their incompetence.

She settled into a beach chair and reached for one of the drinks on the table, glancing at her companion, who seemed fixated with the calm, clear waters of the lagoon.

"My brother tried to access one of our Cayman accounts today. I imagine he was disappointed to find it empty. It was the last one he hadn't pilfered, so he'll be laying low quite a bit less extravagantly than he has been. If only he'd been a little less inept - - Lex would be dead and Lionel Luthor would have seen very efficiently, I'm sure, to Niko's demise in retaliation. All our nuisances taken care of like dominos falling."

"They never do live up to expectations, do they? Men."

"They have their uses, darling," Sophia reached out to pat the slim wrist of her companion. "But I've always found, if a woman wants a job done, its more fulfilling to take care of it herself."

"I suppose so." Lana Lang looked over the rim of her sunglasses, out to where the ocean met the horizon, a hard edge to eyes that seemed more naturally inclined to softness.

The problem with men, Sophia thought, was that they never properly learned to appreciate the resourcefulness of women scorned. And when they finally learned, it was always the hard way.

She sipped her drink, watching the playful shapes of dolphins in the Lagoon, and enjoyed the company.