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White lights glittered from the foyer, strung out like a vast constellation of snowflake stars, and Clark dipped his head with a grin as an unfamiliar butler took his coat at the door. Though he didn't need directions to the ballroom, a lean redhead in a tuxedo spread out a hand to lead the way, her heels marking a staccato clip on the varnished floors. Music and laughter poured out of the distant party, growing louder as they approached. Clark wondered if he shouldn't tip the guide; he started to pat his pockets in search of a wallet he knew only contained two dollars and a movie stub, but the guide had disappeared in another flurry of heeled clicks before he had a chance to produce his paltry tithe.
The ballroom smelled of fresh pine, the scent radiating from an enormous Christmas tree in the corner. Every bough hung heavy with purple or silver globes; silver tinsel and more white lights glittered among the branches, and the star on top wasn't so much a star as delicately complicated blown-glass confection, impossibly fragile and regal all at once. More lights shimmered, tangled in long boughs of holly that graced the high, corniced walls, and an ice dove glowed with underlighting at the fore of the room, flanked by a tastefully silvered bar. On the other side, a professional photographer raised his flash, setting off the strobe to commemorate a couple in front of a winter wonderland backdrop.
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Clark dipped his head again, making himself smaller as he wound his way through the brilliant plumage of LuthorCorp women and the dark slashes of business-casual LuthorCorp men. Clark tugged at the collar of his sweater, brownish-reddish polyester that must have been washed with Kryptonite at some point in its dubious recent past, because the turtleneck itched and tightened around his throat in a valiant attempt to strangle or annoy him to death.
Each cable in the sweater felt like wire, scritching down his back, prickling up his front, and as he melted into the heat of the room, it seemed to double its efforts to burrow into his skin. Clark resisted the urge to dig his nails in and scratch all over, though; he didn't want Lex's employees to think their CEO had invited a rube to the annual LuthorCorp Christmas Party.
Clark took a proffered glass of champagne then turned slowly amid the crowd to seek out the host. Lex wasn't hard to find; amid all the berry reds and forest greens, he stood apart in a dusky lavender dress shirt, matching his tree almost shade for shade. Clark sipped the champagne, dryish bubbles dancing on his tongue, and tickling all the way down as he watched Lex smile and talk with his business-face. Maybe no one else noticed, but Clark recognized the reserve Lex wore, that slight, inscrutable edge to his smile, and the sidewards angle when he met someone's eyes. For everyone else, this was a party; for Lex, it was pure business and public relations.
Which just didn't work for Clark, and moving very carefully, preternaturally aware of his size sixteens in the tight quarters, he cut through the crowd to fix that. A veritable garden of floral perfumes wafted over him as he slipped past glitter-dusted women, and to his disbelief, he could have sworn that one of them patted his butt when he passed. He glanced over his shoulder, but everyone behind him seemed innocently, and completely, engrossed in their holiday conversations. Shaking his head, he pushed on, and a few paces away, he caught one of Lex's forty-seven degree angle looks.
Lex's smile warmed, his genially impersonal mask slipping for a moment when their eyes met. Holding out a hand to invite him close, Lex made introductions- the part of a local business owner's son played by Clark Kent until the small crowd dispersed around them. With a stealthy once-over, Lex tended an appreciative smile as he leaned his head back to meet Clark's eyes. "I hope that's sparkling grape juice," he said with a nod toward Clark's glass. "You're not twenty one yet; I wouldn't want to contribute to the delinquency of a minor."
"I'm really going to miss hearing that in four months." Clark grinned and took a deliberate sip of the champagne; on second taste he decided he didn't really like it, but it was worth it to draw the real Lex out of the businessman. Falling in beside him, Clark gestured toward the guests as he tugged at his collar. "Looks like everybody's having fun."
His eyes still on Clark, Lex nodded. "They should be. They just got their bonuses."
Rebelling against the torture-sweater, Clark tugged on the collar again as he grinned. "I have to give you credit, Lex. You bribe people better than anybody I know."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Lex lifted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter's tray. Raising it to his lips, he hesitated, his attention drawn to the quiet struggle taking place just beneath Clark's chin. Even over the music, he could hear the unmistakable whine of nylon stretching. "Something wrong, Clark?"
Clark gave in to the itch, just a little. Drawing his shoulders up as if that would free him from the garment, he crinkled his nose in discomfort. "I think my sweater has fleas."
Poised to move, Lex raised his brows, expecting Clark to take the step toward the door with him. "I probably have something upstairs..."
"Thanks, but I can't." Working fingers beneath one cuff, Clark tried to keep his scratching as subtle as possible. He rubbed a warm patch on his wrist, dark lashes fluttering in pleasure at one tiny annoyance vanquished. When he came back from that happy place, he cast a sheepish smile in Lex's direction. "It's Chloe's version of a Christmas tradition. Every year, she gives me something ugly, and then waits around to see if I'll actually wear it. So I always do, once, just to prove I will."
"Devious," Lex said, an admiring note in his voice. Then he leaned in, whispering conspiratorially, "But I think there's a flaw in your approach, Clark. Ms. Sullivan is conspicuously absent, which shouldn't be a surprise given that it's a company party and she steadfastly insists on working for the Inquisitor."
Clark bumped Lex's elbow, and tempted him to follow with that touch, their shoulders brushing as he led them toward the far corner of the ballroom. "She doesn't have to see me in person. She just wants proof."
If anyone minded Lex cutting in line, they didn't mention it. He stopped to whisper something to the photographer then slipped back to let Clark take center stage in front of the backdrop. Instead of posing and smiling, however, Clark held up a hand and asked, "Has Mr. Luthor had his picture taken yet?"
"I don't think that's necessary," Lex said, his protest drowned out by the photographer's negative response.
"C'mon, Lex." Clark waved him closer, his champagne glass catching the light. With his most charming smile, he wriggled against the sweater's interminable attack and threw out his trump; he wanted out of the turtleneck and didn't intend to spend fifteen minutes needling Lex into agreeing. "We can get two copies and give one to my mom."
Bringing Martha into it worked. Lex held his ground for a moment, just long enough to reassert to nearby employees that he had a choice, and could certainly say no if he so desired, then took a sip of champagne as he joined Clark in front of oil-stroked images of snow-dusted trees and mountains. Fixing his face into a carefully arranged smile, Lex murmured through his teeth, "What was that you were saying about bribes, Clark?"
"Smile." Clark looked up, enjoying the iridescent haloes the bright lights made when he peered into them. With a slight pivot, he arranged himself to stand just behind Lex's shoulder, Confident that no one could see from this angle, and inspired by his walk through the crowd, Clark watched in slow-motion as the photographer moved to trigger the flash, and just before it went off, Clark squeezed Lex's backside.
In an instant, Lex's cultivated smile faltered to incredulity, and the bulb popped and whined, the moment captured forever on Ektachrome GX. Slipping out of his super-enhanced perspective, Clark glowed with a toothy grin, his brows dancing when Lex hissed low enough for just him to hear, "Was that your hand on my ass?"
Shrugging, Clark plucked the confirmation slip from the photographer's hand, mischief playing on the edges of his smile. "I don't know what you're talking about, Lex. You said you had something I could change into?"
The Talon's decorations tended toward the vibrant: crimson lights, gold ornaments, lapis blue tinsel wound around the columns. Busy marking down post-holiday trinkets, Lana smiled when the door chimes announced Lex's entrance. Hair pulled up and tiny gilt bells bobbing in her earlobes, she crossed her arms on the counter and relaxed as she greeted him. "Merry Christmas, Lex."
"Merry Christmas," he echoed with a smile, fanning a manila envelope as he stepped up to the counter. With a casual flick, he ran his finger beneath his collar, obscuring the motion by asking, "How was your holiday?"
Pondering it for a moment, Lana bloomed with a soft smile and bobbed her head. Her bell earrings chimed softly, casting soft, bronzed reflections on her skin. "You know, it was nice. Quiet. How about yours?"
He paused to consider too, then met her with a cryptic smile. "I enjoyed it."
Smile widening a little, more familiar now, Lana leaned in and lowered her voice. "No more coat closets?"
Caught by his own past confessions, Lex laughed and worked open the flap of the envelope. "None. As a matter of fact, I can prove that and if it's not too much trouble, ask a favor at the same time."
Lana spread her hands on the counter, rising on her toes to get a better look at the picture he pulled from the envelope. Her eyes crinkled at the edges when she caught a glimpse of a very merry Lex laughing up at Clark, who smiled up from the photograph with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Wow. It looks like I missed some party."
"It had its moments," Lex said, tapping the edge of the picture before sliding it to her. "I'm on my way to deliver a copy to Mrs. Kent; I was hoping you'd pass this on to Chloe for me? Compliments of Clark?"
"I'd be happy to. Can I take a look? " Lana waited for a nod, then leaned in, her cheeks warming with an amused blush. Examining the image more closely, her gaze skimmed Clark's shape to get a peek at Chloe's latest deliberate fashion disaster. Brows furrowing, Lana squinted with a gentle frown- the sweater wasn't Clark's style by any means, but he looked handsome in it. Brushing a stray tendril of hair from her face, she lowered the picture to look up at him again. "I think she's losing her touch; it looks fine to me."
Lex skimmed his finger beneath his collar again as he backed away. "I think this year she aimed for uncomfortable; it itches."
Starting to laugh, Lana blinked as Lex buttoned his coat over a photographically familiar brown sweater, then took his leave with another cryptic smile.