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Contra Mundum
Many thanks to LaT, Livia, and the Spike for betaing.

As Clark munched on a slice from his fourth basket of bread, he wondered whether he ought to be mad at Lex for standing him up.

Probably not, he decided. He wasn't even sure how long he'd been there. The fact was, though he liked talking to Lex, he really didn't mind waiting for him, either. He always felt a kind of fizz as he looked forward to Lex's arrival, wondering what sort of puzzling, thrilling, altogether Lex things he would say--and what he, Clark, might say back. Their conversations usually felt like they were about to go off a cliff into God knew what, and even a little trip was always threatening to turn into an adventure. He liked savoring that feeling of potential excitement, like the sense of a whole free week ahead of him. Even if it meant waiting around a little.

Also, the bread was pretty darned good.

This wasn't a big trip, but it wasn't a little one, either. The chess team had come to Metropolis University over spring break for the state tournament. Smallville High had finished a respectable seventh. Lex, who was in town on business, had promised to take him out to lunch on the day before he had to go back to "help him drown his sorrows." Lex had made the reservations, at a cozy, dark-paneled place with white cloths on the tables that probably passed for casual in his world--there was a TV over the bar, though the sound was off and the captioning on--but he hadn't been there when Clark came. Clark had sat there for nearly an hour, dreaming and chewing on bread dipped in oil, when he glanced back and caught the news scrolling across the TV.

...Lionel Luthor, shot this morning by an unknown assailant, presently in critical condition at Metropolis General...

Clark only just remembered in time not to speed out of there. He still didn't register anything of the city on the way to the hospital.

 

Metropolis General was a gleaming fortress of glass and steel, with a strange, white smell and a hush in the air. Clark realized as he stepped inside that he had no idea where to go. He'd hardly ever even been in the Smallville hospital in his life, and that was only a fifth of the size of this place. He stopped at the first desk he saw and asked the woman behind it how he could see Lionel Luthor.

She blinked, and her hands moved beneath her desk. "What's your name?"

"Clark Kent."

She studied a monitor for some time. "You're not on the visitors list."

"Look, I really need to see him."

"That so?" A different voice, hard and masculine. Clark looked up to see two men who were obviously guards of some kind practically jostling him. "And why would that be?"

With three serious, almost threatening faces turned to him, he shifted uncomfortably. "I'm a friend of his son. Of Lex Luthor. I just want to know if Lex is okay."

"The younger Mr. Luthor isn't here."

"He's not? Where else would he be?"

The two guards traded glances. "I can't tell you that," the same one said, though his face had softened a bit.

It would have been funny to be taken for some kind of deadly ninja assassin if it weren't so frustrating. He didn't think too many assassins wore plaid flannel. "Okay, fine. Thanks, anyway."

He turned and hurried out of the hospital. He thought that LuthorCorp was closer than the family mansion. Besides, he probably couldn't get anywhere near the house without using his powers, and LuthorCorp was still open, so people had to be able to go in. He was oblivious to his surroundings again as he walked the fifteen blocks, anxiously wondering why Lex hadn't been at the hospital.

Of course, he knew that Lex and his father didn't get along very well. Lex didn't complain about him often, but no matter what he said about Lionel Luthor--even something as small as that he'd gone on a trip or bought a car--there was always, always a bitter, sarcastic edge to his voice. It was like it was automatic for Lex, something he didn't, maybe even couldn't, think about. Clark still would have thought, though, that his dad's getting shot would have changed all that. Lex, he decided, must still be talking to the police. He must be.

The Luthor Building was even more of a fortress than the hospital, a tall, grim spire with a glass front that seemed to reflect everything and reveal nothing. A huge stone marker out front proclaimed the LuthorCorp name, graven like a tombstone, and Clark felt a chill as he crossed through its shadow. There was a small crowd in the plaza--geez, it had its own plaza--gawking at the crime scene. A couple of policemen were keeping the people, including a bunch of reporters, back. The security guard at the door gave him another stern look, but let him pass through the large, clear doors.

The woman at the information desk, however, took his request to see Lex coldly. She wouldn't even say if he was there or not; she spent five minutes talking into a headset while other guards gathered casually at the doors, pointedly not looking at him. Clark did his best not to shuffle his feet or duck his head. Finally, though, the woman said in astonishment, "You can go up to the executive lounge on the seventy-fifth floor and wait." She swiped a keycard through a reader and handed it to him. "That will operate the elevator."

He should have been glad about his victory over the forces that thought he was Kansas's only ninja, but it was too intimidating to walk back through the high, cold, vaulted space to the bank of elevators. His good shoes rang on the polished floor. It was like Lex had been swallowed up into the heart of some unfriendly army which he had to infiltrate. Lex had never pretended he was anything but ridiculously rich, but he wore the trappings of the Luthor money so lightly and carelessly, as though it actually were ridiculous, that Clark had never thought of him as belonging to an environment like this--ornate, formal, stern. And very unwelcoming to boys in jeans and plaid shirts. He was getting stares from people as he walked by, not strictly hostile, but automatically, impersonally judging that he didn't belong there. He raised his chin and tried to act like he knew where he was going.

He didn't feel much better in the executive lounge, though it was smaller and more softly furnished, with leather couches and a TV and a fridge full of drinks that a woman told him brusquely to help himself to before disappearing. Clark didn't take anything, pacing around the room instead.. The TV was tuned to financial news, and one of the top stories, of course, was the attempted murder of Lionel Luthor. A man had shot him outside the building that morning, then escaped into the crowd. No one had seen him, though security cameras had picked up his voice threatening Luthor, and they hadn't recovered the gun. The police were pursuing leads, but no one was in custody. LuthorCorp stock had dipped ten points. God, Lex. Clark sat down and tried to wait.

The anchor was repeating the story at the top of the next hour, and Clark was about to climb the walls, when he heard a door open and then a low babble of voices, including, he thought, Lex's. He got up and went to the hall. Lex, in a crowd of others, was stepping out of a conference room. His head was turned back and he was talking to someone. He hadn't spotted Clark.

Lex looked strange in the sea of dark suits. One of them. Serious. Adult. Almost the way he'd looked when he'd come into the plant to talk to Earl Jenkins, but much cooler and harder. There wasn't a hint of friendliness or even a sense of humor in the set of his jaw. He finished whatever he was saying, looked over, and saw Clark. "Excuse me," he said to the person next to him, and crossed to him.

"Clark. I'm sorry about lunch. Exigent circumstances. I should have sent a note."

"I went to the hospital looking for you after I heard," Clark said.

"There was nothing for me to do there," Lex said smoothly. "LuthorCorp needs all its leadership at a time like this."

Clark was struck by how much, how weirdly, Lex sounded like a spokesman at one of the news conferences he had just seen on TV. "How is your dad?"

"He was out of surgery"--Lex glanced at his watch--"one hour and fifty minutes ago. He's in critical condition. It's touch and go."

Still the same tone. Clark tried again, touching his sleeve. "And how are you?"

"Me?" Lex looked startled, but swiftly recovered. He started to say something, then looked over his shoulder at the others still lingering in the hallway. He led Clark into the lounge and shut the door behind him before answering. "I'm all right, Clark. Thank you for asking. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to take a rain check on lunch, though."

He sounded a little more real, but his eyes were still remote, his shoulders set. "Lex, come out and...and have coffee with me or something, okay?"

"I can't. I have to go back to the mansion and call my grandmother."

"Will she come to town?" At least there'd be someone who cared with him. That would be good.

"Not likely, since she's in Antarctica."

"Antarctica?"

That got a very slight smile. "Long story."

"At least let me walk you down to your car."

Lex hesitated. "Do you need a ride back to your dorm?"

"No..."

"Then maybe it'd be better if you didn't. It's going to be a madhouse down there."

"Lex." Clark's fingers closed around his wrist. Lex's pulse was jumping. "I want to help, okay?"

The plastic of Lex's gaze cracked, and Clark had a swift flash of...something...roiling beneath before he turned away, passing a hand over his brow. "I know, Clark. I know."

Lex's neck was bent, vulnerable, and Clark felt the sudden urge to curve his fingers over it, but he kept his other hand at his side. "Then let's go."

"Right. Let's." Lex straightened up, and, pulling himself free, headed for the door. "Just don't say I didn't warn you."

"I'm prepared," he promised.

It would have been hard to be prepared for the scene down in the plaza, though. Word had obviously gotten out ahead of them that Lex Luthor was coming out, and the reporters surged around the building. People shouted, cameras flashed, lights burned, tape recorders whirred. Clark felt like they were escaping prisoners pinned down in a searchlight. All that they needed to complete the illusion was gunfire and helicopters.

Lex, however, seemed to know what to do. He paused, facing the crowd. "I will make a brief statement, and then I will take no questions." Clark tried to blend into the background as Lex continued. "Naturally, my chief concern at a time like this is the well-being of my father. He is receiving the best medical care available and we have every confidence he will recover. We are also certain that the police will apprehend the criminal who carried out this cowardly deed. In the meantime, however, I want to assure every stockholder and customer of LuthorCorp that the directors of the company are more than ready to lead it through this crisis. Thank you."

He started towards the street, Clark following, and the crowds parted only reluctantly for him. One reporter in particular kept shoving his microphone at Lex, yelling, "Mr. Luthor! Mr. Luthor!" Lex shook his head, his mouth clamped tight, but the reporter kept on, blocking his path. "Is it true that you're considered a suspect in the shooting?"

Lex's glare went black. Clark frowned, reached out, and just...twitched the reporter to the side. Which turned out to mean sending him skidding back into the crowd. Accidentally. On purpose. He knew it wasn't a good idea to do that, not with all the cameras around, and that feeling only deepened when he realized that Lex's eyes had been on him. He put the thought away, though, and tried to focus on getting Lex to the street.

When they reached the limo, Clark turned, looking for a way to get himself out of the crowd. He was surprised to feel Lex's hand on his wrist, pulling him down after him, but let himself be tugged into the car. He quickly slammed the door and looked over at Lex. He was glad, but he didn't want to assume too much.

Lex was tapping on the partition that separated them from the driver. "Do you think..." he started, not looking at Clark. He stopped, squared up his shoulders, and faced him plainly. "Do you think you could...stay for a little while?"

Maybe it hadn't been such a bad idea, after all.

 

The Luthor mansion was a looming brownstone, darkened with age. Inside, the wooden floors shone in the dim light and the air smelled of wax. It was quieter even than the hospital had been, and cool. Lex called a servant to show Clark to a room and promised to come see him some time after dinner.

The room was only about four times the size of his back home, but much darker. It was like a combination of a living room and a bedroom, with a big bed but also overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, and a TV. There was a phone on a table near the bed. Seeing it, Clark realized that he had to call home. He really hoped he was going to get permission to stay, because he had already said that he would.

"Mom?"

"Clark!" Mom's voice was relieved. "We heard the news. Are you all right? Is Lex?"

"I'm fine, Mom. Lex didn't get hurt, but he's got a lot of stuff to deal with."

"Where are you, the dorm?"

"No. I'm calling from his place. In fact..." He paused. "He asked me to stay. Can I?"

"Clark, you don't want to get in his way at a time like this."

"I really don't think I am."

He could almost hear her frown. "I'm not sure it's such a good idea, anyway. That kind of environment--"

"Mom, this place is deserted. There's no one here at all except the staff. Lex doesn't have anybody, and I think...I think he needs someone." Clark was suddenly very glad he was talking to Mom instead of Dad. He could just imagine how Dad would've taken that sentence.

"I'm sure he does. I just don't know whether it's appropriate for you to be that someone."

"Come on. There's another week til school starts, and I'm sure he can get me back to town in time."

She sighed. "All right, Clark. But try to stay out of the papers, all right? And if you should start to feel like you're burdening him, I want you to call me right away. We'll bring you home."

"I will, I promise."

Clark hung up. It was still a couple of hours til dinner. He didn't recognize any of the titles on the bookshelves, so he picked one at random and flopped on the bed. He didn't really feel like reading--he felt like running. Or doing something to help. But he guessed that the most useful thing he could do was be around for Lex when he wanted him. So he opened the book, trained his eye on the page, and tried to keep his feet from twitching.

He woke with a start some time later, thinking he'd heard a door close somewhere. He looked at the clock: 10 p.m. He'd had some dinner on a tray earlier, then stretched out with the book, a stodgy mystery, again. He must've nodded off. Clark reached out and pressed the button the servant had showed him.

Hardly a minute later, the servant was there. "Sir?"

"Is Lex home?"

"Mr. Luthor has just arrived."

"Where's his room?"

"I'll take you there, sir."

Clark followed him through a series of corridors. The servant was going to rap on the door, but Clark waved him away. He knew Lex didn't mind him not knocking, and he thought that a less formal approach might actually be better after the day Lex had had.

The first room he went into looked like a separate living room, in much the same gloomy style as Clark's, but with more electronic stuff. There was a big stereo, and the TV was much larger, and flat-screen. On the floor near it was an X-box. There were paintings on the wall that looked really modern and abstract--at least, Clark couldn't make head or tails of them with the quick look he gave them as he went by. They clashed badly with the heavy green and red and brown furniture. None of it succeeded in overwhelming the general atmosphere of stuffiness. Clark went through the open arch into the next room, about to call Lex's name, and stopped.

Lex was sitting stiffly, exactly on the edge of his bed, barefoot, in his pajamas. He was staring off into space with an absolutely blank look on his face. He didn't move or acknowledge Clark.

Clark cleared his throat. "Lex?"

Lex didn't answer.

"Lex." He came forward and sat down next to Lex. "Are you okay?"

Lex blinked and turned his head to him slowly. "My father's been shot," he said, almost dreamily. "He could die. And I can't remember what I'm supposed to do next."

Clark gripped his arm. "I know," he said. "We're going to go see him." There were probably visiting hours, but he bet they didn't apply to Luthors.

Lex's eyes went wide and he shook his head.

"Lex...come on. You need to go see him. He's your dad."

"I...can't."

"Why not?"

Lex bowed his head. "I don't want to feel sorry for him," he said, not meeting Clark's eyes. "And if I don't feel sorry for him..."

Clark squeezed his arm tighter and pulled Lex against him. "You're going to feel sorry for him," he said firmly, "and it's going to be okay."

"How do you know?"

"I know you, Lex." Clark put his other arm around him awkwardly, trying to convey reassurance. Right. Reassurance. Even though Lex's breath, against his chest through his shirt, was making his skin tingle oddly. It was just a tickle, and if he shifted, it would go away, but he didn't want to disturb Lex by moving. That was all.

He touched Lex's head gingerly. Cassandra had said that he would make lots of people's pain and fear stop, but he didn't know what to do for Lex. How to pull him back from being the scary person he'd been all day. As far as Clark knew, he didn't have any superpower of comforting people, the way that it sometimes seemed like his mom did. Her technique involved lots of hugs, though, so he tried gently stroking Lex's scalp. Lex shivered under his touch, then went quieter. "Maybe," he murmured against the fabric.

"Come on, let's go." Clark said it louder than he'd intended, making himself sound like he was suddenly trying to convince himself to get up, too. That was ridiculous, because he wasn't doing anything he couldn't stop anytime. Though his hand was still moving over the soft skin on Lex's head, like he was trying to memorize the texture. He dropped it quickly. "There's some kind of car that can take us there, right?"

He wasn't sure he could pull away, so he was relieved when Lex straightened and said, "Yes. Ring the buzzer, will you?"

 

Lionel Luthor was in a large private room with yet another guard, who Lex sent outside with a jerk of his head. There were machines beeping all around Mr. Luthor, but he was breathing on his own, which Clark was pretty sure was good.

Lex stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at his father. Clark couldn't read his face. "Why don't you sit down?"

"Right." Lex eased himself into a chair near the bed, never looking away.

"He doesn't look so bad," Clark offered. At least, not for someone who'd taken three bullets that morning.

Lex snorted. "He's a Luthor. He'd never allow himself to look bad in public. Believe me, I tried to make it happen for years."

"Are they...do they think he's going to live?"

"He's doing better than they expected. He's a tough old bastard, though naturally they didn't put it that way to me. But with injuries like his, you can never be sure."

"Have they caught the guy who did it yet?"

"No. Of course, considering how many enemies he had, it may take some time for them to go through the list. I've been told that I myself am under investigation."

"What?"

"Yes. Didn't you hear that reporter you clocked, Clark?"

For the first time since they'd come into the room, Lex was looking at him again. Clark pushed away the uneasy feeling. "But they can't seriously think you'd try to kill your own father!"

Lex shrugged. "I stand to gain the most from his death--several billion dollars. And I'm sure that every single person of our acquaintance has run to the police with the story of how we've had so many disagreements that we can't even live in the same city. Fortunately, I have an alibi, but--"

There was a faint sound from the bed. Lex's head snapped back. Lionel Luthor was blinking at them. Lex looked like he was trying to smile, but had forgotten how. "Dad?"

"What...are you doing here?" Lionel pushed out.

Lex's smile swam into focus then, brittle and bright. "PR, dad. I can't be seen to be ignoring my father while he lies at death's door."

Lionel made a sort of minimalist glower. "The business."

"It's almost eleven o'clock at night, Dad. There's nothing for me to do there now."

"So you think."

Clark squirmed backwards, wishing he could slip out without being seen. Mr. Luthor must be pretty sick and confused. Meanwhile, Lex leaned forward. "Dad. Do you know who shot you?"

"No. Didn't get a look."

"Dad, whoever it was ripped the door of your car off its hinge. You're telling me that didn't catch your attention?"

Mr. Luthor might have been a stubborn child. "Bad angle."

"You see, Dad, they think I might have done it, so unless you want your son and heir arrested for attempted murder--"

His brows beetled. "They won't touch you."

"I'm glad you can be so optimistic, but I'd like a little more to go on than that."

"Can't help you."

Lex swallowed. "Dad. Is there something going on that I should know about?"

"No," Mr. Luthor said firmly, and closed his eyes.

Lex made a strange, convulsive move with his hand and stood up. "Let's go, Clark."

Clark followed him out silently, too full of dismay to say anything. When they got into the limo, Lex closed the partition and let his head drop back on the headrest. "He's lying."

Clark wasn't half as surprised as he ought to be. "Would your own father lie to you?"

Lex smiled bitterly. "Oh, yes."

"But why?"

"I don't know. Yet." He reached under the seat, snagged a flask, and drank from it.

"What was all that stuff about the car door?"

"What you heard. The guy who attacked my dad ripped the door off the car before shooting him. It was a whale, that car, but still."

"But how could someone rip the door off a car?"

"Well..." Lex eyed him. "I was sort of hoping you could tell me. You seem to be the expert on dismantling cars with your bare hands."

Clark frowned. "I've told you--"

"Right." Lex's expression dissolved to something too much like "not you, too," then he bit his lip and looked away. "I don't know what my dad is lying about, Clark. But I'm going to find out."

"How?" Clark asked uncomfortably.

"The same way I always succeed, Clark: intelligence, diligence, and chicanery." He paused. "Will you help?"

Lex's reference to tearing open the Porsche made him hesitate. He couldn't let Lex get anywhere that secret. Still, there were only about fifty reasons to do it. Liking Lex. Lying to Lex. Lex being so alone that he was asking him for help even though he knew Clark was lying to him. And now car-door-ripping and what it might mean. "Sure. Whatever I can do. Though I don't know what that is."

"I'll know. Sometime. Tomorrow." Lex rubbed his eyes. "Tomorrow it will make more sense."

"You'll try to get some sleep, won't you?"

"Try." Lex took another swig from the flask. "Yes, I'll try."

 

Clark was jolted out of sleep at ten the next morning by the blare of his TV. Lex was standing in the middle of the room, wearing his coat, ears red. He had the remote in one hand. "--estimated damage of several million dollars," the news anchor was saying over an image of a factory in flames.

"Lex," Clark said sleepily, "what--is that--?"

"It's LuthorCorp Fertilizer Plant Number One. Seventy miles outside of Boise, Idaho. Some unknown person or persons broke in around four a.m. and trashed the place, Clark."

Clark sat up straight, appalled. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Two security guards got minor injuries in an explosion, but the plant was shut for the night. Not that that made the board any happier. I've been in meetings all morning."

"Do they think it was the same guy, or terrorists, or...?"

"They don't know. My money is on the same guy. Though I don't know how any one person could have caused so much destruction. Normally, you need a corporation for that."

"Didn't the security cameras get anything?"

"Oh, they were destroyed, too. This guy's not an idiot, whoever he is. As demonstrated by his first choice of target."

Clark looked back at the TV screen. He could hardly believe this was happening. "Lex, why would anyone do this? Why would anyone hate your family, or your business, so much?"

Lex smiled dryly. "Funny. It doesn't seem all that strange to me. In fact, it almost seems...familiar."

Clark was almost angry with him. It bugged him that Lex could look at all that destruction and still make those kinds of jokes. It was...it was self-centered. "Come on, Lex."

Lex sighed and rubbed at his eyes. "We have a lot of enemies, Clark." Clark immediately felt a flash of guilt for having been angry. Lex looked like he hadn't slept at all. He did have a lot of enemies--geez, Clark didn't even know what it was like to have one, since Whitney didn't seem mad at him anymore--and he had to pretend he wasn't afraid and confused, didn't he? It wasn't really his fault he couldn't stop, even with Clark. "But I'm thinking this is an internal affair."

"Why?"

Lex handed him a folder. "Someone with the common sense to respect the rising sun leaked me this."

Clark flipped it open. A floor plan, with PROJECT GREEN THUMB, PHASE IV written across the top, and a section circled in red marker. "Do you know what this is?"

"It looks like a subbasement of our R&D facility here in Metropolis."

"What's down there?"

"A minor animal-testing program. Food additives. At least, according to the official information in the database."

"You think it's a lie?"

Lex sat down on the bed next to him. "There isn't any Project Green Thumb in the records I can access, Clark."

"So this is Level Three all over again."

Lex nodded. "Or worse." He mused on that. "Or worse."

Clark didn't want to know what could be worse than Earl shaking himself to death--or bruised and battered Lex holding onto Earl's legs and screaming for Clark-- He still had dreams sometimes when he was too slow to get to Lex in time, or too weak from the meteorite under Earl's skin to pull him up, or worst of all, too afraid of showing his powers to do anything to save him. He sat there in silence, too. But there was only so long he could do that, and finally he asked, "What do we do now?"

Lex roused himself. "I'm flying out to Idaho to look at the plant. You"--he tapped Clark's knee--"you're going undercover, Clark. I'll bet you always wanted to be a biochemist." He forced a smile. "We get all the girls."

"You want me to go down there?" Clark looked at the floor plan in confusion. "But it's your company."

The smile turned even wryer. "Well, you see, Clark, the problem is that it's not. My company, that is. Not while my dad is still breathing. I'm very much not the most senior member of management at the moment, and the senior people aren't very fond of me. I can't just march in there, and it would be fairly difficult for me to go undercover, for obvious reasons."

"Oh."

"But I can get you some ID that will get you into the facility. And you can sneak down there without being recognized. If you get caught, you can just tell them I was letting you look around and you got lost."

At last. Something to do. "Well, I am getting used to sneaking around your plants. Hey, maybe I have a future in it."

"A career in industrial espionage? Your parents would never forgive me." Lex rose. "Come on. We need to get you set up."

 

Clark stood in the elevator, staring at the buttons. SB5 was the level he was supposed to go to. No one had noticed him so far--Lex was right when he said he would look much older than fifteen if he dressed like an adult--but this was the moment when he'd be committing to...what? Trespassing? Something like that. He wasn't quite as confident as Lex that they could talk his way out of that, especially since Lex was currently in a helicopter somewhere over Idaho. He had been doing a lot of, well, snooping around lately, but back home, in Smallville, where nothing could get too dangerous. This felt like the big time.

Well, Lex needed him in the big time and he kept telling his parents he was ready to make his own decisions, so--he reached out and pressed the button.

A little black box next to the rows of buttons beeped. It was a card-reader. He fumbled out the ID Lex had given him and swiped it through. It whirred briefly, then flashed red. Clark frowned and tried again. Still red. His ID must not be authorized for that level.

Experimentally, he punched the button for SB2, then slid his card through. This time, the reader flashed green. All right. There had to be staircases, in case of fire. He furtively checked the plans as the elevator descended. Yes.

Clark stepped off the elevator when it reached his floor into a corridor and turned left. He pushed open a pair of swinging doors and came into a large area that reminded him more of a Costco than anything else: huge, lit with florescent lights, filled with rows and rows of shelving. A few people in white coats moved purposefully among them, taking down bottles and tubing and strange clear cubes with things embedded in them. He really wanted to stop and take a look, but he wasn't sure how much time he had.

The stairs were in another corridor on the opposite end of the level. Clark swiped his card in the reader and went into the stairwell, which was lit only with a yellowish emergency lighting. He clambered down to SB5...and there was a card-reader there, too. He tried his card, but, of course, it didn't work. Frustrated, he tried looking through the door...and hit nothing but blackness. It was like trying to look through the box Lex had gave him. A tiny flare of unease went up in his mind. He turned the handle of the door, hearing the lock crunch but no alarm. Now he really didn't have much time.

This time, he stepped out into what looked like a hospital. There was a sort of waiting area with a nurse's station at the end, but nobody was there. The sickly yellow lighting, which came from a strip running around the room, was the only real illumination. There were a bank of TV screens above the station, all snowy. A very faint sound of static filled the air. The exit was a glass door by the station. He walked to it slowly. Locked, also.

Once he'd dealt with that, he found himself in another corridor. At even intervals were transparent glass panels set next to doors. He went to one and peered through it.

Behind the glass in a small white cubicle was a narrow bed, a sink, and a toilet. On the floor, someone had dropped a gown like the kind you wore for a physical. The door had a card-reader next to it on the outside...but nothing on the inside.

Fear rose in Clark, like a monster swimming up from the deep, fear from the farthest reaches of childhood. The fear that had always made his father's voice go loud and his mother's grasp on his hand tighten fiercely. This wasn't a hutch for rabbits or mice.

LuthorCorp was experimenting with something on people.

Clark could have stood paralyzed with horror for hours if it weren't for the thought that burned through his brain. He had to see if there was anyone still down there. He hastened up the corridor, glancing through each of the panels, but they all seemed empty. He was in such a hurry that he almost didn't notice that the second-to-last cell on the left was different, but he spotted it out of the corner of his eye after he'd gone past. The observation panel was simply missing from its frame.

Clark stepped back to it and heard the crunch of a sliver of glass under his shoe. He touched the frame; there was a groove for a pane. The cell was empty. When he peered in, he could see that the sink was also missing--there was jagged piping sticking out of the wall where it should have been. Had someone gotten out? Someone who could tear a sink from a wall and use it to smash glass? Someone who...could rip a car's doors off its hinges?

He needed to talk to Lex. They had to decide--

"What are you doing down here?"

A guard was standing at the end of the corridor. His hand was resting on the butt of his gun. Clark gave him a smile. "Uh, I was looking around and I got lost?"

"Yeah, right. Keep your hands where I can see them and come here."

"Okay." Clark complied, keeping the smile plastered on his face. Had this man patrolled this area while people screamed behind the glass panels? Had he not cared? Clark waited til the guard stepped aside, gesturing him to go in front of him, and then moved.

He could feel time stretch around him when he first started moving fast, but then everything was completely normal, except for sound. The static caught and hung on a single note as he pushed the guard to the wall, hard enough to knock him out, and ran.

He scattered two more guards as he went up the stairs, tripping them both as he went by. He didn't slow down til he reached the door to level one. Then he took a deep breath, smoothed down his lab coat, and stepped out into the insanely cheerful lobby, with its intricate water sculpture. No one stopped him as he strolled out, or as he made his way down the street, but he didn't stop wanting to be running until he reached the Luthor mansion. The Luthor mansion, he realized as he walked in the front door, and he had to fight off the urge to run again.

 

Instead of running away, though, he called his mom.

"Clark! We heard about the other plant! You should have called earlier. We were getting worried."

"I'm okay, Mom. You don't have to worry. Everywhere Lex goes is crawling with security." Security that he was beating up, of course...

"You don't sound okay, Clark. You sound upset. Is something else wrong?"

His fingers tightened on the phone. Well, Mom, he imagined himself saying, it's just that Smallville's biggest employer is eviler than Dr. Doom. It's just that people can lock other people up in cells and do weird things to them for money. It's just that our worst nightmares could be coming true. It's just that I'm scared and mad and I don't know who I should trust anymore.

Except he couldn't tell her any of that, could he? If his parents heard one word of what LuthorCorp had turned out to be capable of, they would...heck, they might just take him and run. Out of the state. Out of the country. Somewhere that LuthorCorp couldn't reach, if there was such a place. At the very least, they'd forbid him to so much as look at Lex again.

The worst part was that they might be right. He didn't know. But he had to make that decision for himself. He owed Lex that much. "It's just...weird here, Mom. I don't know how Lex deals with it."

"I'm sure having you there is a big help, Clark."

"Maybe."

"Honey, promise me, no heroics, okay? I know you want to help him any way you can, but with cameras all over the place...it's just not safe."

He'd never thought that his secret could ever isolate him from his parents. Anyway, what he'd done that day didn't exactly count as heroics. "All right, Mom. No heroics."

"Good. Your father says hello. Chloe came by and borrowed your math notes, by the way."

Math notes. He was in high school. He had to swallow a nervous laugh. "That's fine. Tell Dad I said hello, too. And, Mom?"

"Yes, Clark?"

"I love you."

"I love you too, honey."

"Bye."

The next few hours were agony. He kept the TV on, waiting to see if there'd be any news about a break-in at the R & D facility, but apparently LuthorCorp had kept that to itself. That made sense; they really didn't want to draw attention to what they had down there. Clark wondered if he'd ended up on any security cameras--if LuthorCorp security knew who he was now. He could only hope not. At least, no one turned up to drag him away while he waited for Lex to get back.

Lex didn't show up til after six. Clark was sitting downstairs on a bench in the big entrance hall, waiting for him. Lex came in quietly, waving off the servant who materialized for his hat and coat. He didn't greet Clark, but instead dropped his coat on the bench and stood there, looking at it.

Clark couldn't wait any longer. He burst out, "Did you know?"

"Know what, Clark?" Lex's voice was subdued.

"That LuthorCorp was doing experiments on humans. I mean, without their permission."

That got Lex's attention. He jerked his head up and glared at Clark, eyes dark with anger. Then he laughed, painfully, incredulously. He turned away, laughing and laughing, until it almost sounded like he was crying.

Clark stared in astonishment. "Lex, what the hell is so funny?"

"Sorry, Clark." Lex struggled to control himself, wiping at his eyes. "It's just that I couldn't decide whether to be angrier at you for the insult to my intelligence or my ethics, and the whole thing suddenly seemed ridiculous."

Which still didn't make much sense, in at least two different ways. "Your...intelligence?"

"Yes, Clark, my intelligence. Do you actually think that if I knew that LuthorCorp was experimenting on humans, I would let you anywhere near our facilities?"

"Oh." That was a pretty good point. "I'm sorry, Lex, I was just freaked out--"

"And you decided that I had to know about it," Lex said flatly.

"No, I decided I had to ask." Clark tried not to sound annoyed. "I believed you about Level Three, remember?"

Lex sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. "I remember. So. You found people down there."

He might not have known, Clark thought, but he didn't sound all that surprised. "No. But I found..." He swallowed hard. "Cells for them. And it looked like somebody had broken out of one. Using enough strength to, to..."

"Rip the door of a car off its hinges?" Lex finally finished for him.

"Yeah."

"That's it." Lex grabbed his coat again. "Let's go."

"Where?"

"To see my father."

 

Lionel Luthor was looking much better, lying propped up on the pillows watching the television. Clark stared at him from the doorway. How could someone who caged up human beings like lab rats look so normal? Even in his hospital clothes, even with his face still a little grey, Lionel radiated assurance, control, respectability. It wasn't right. He had to unclench his hands before he stepped into the room.

"Lex," Lionel said, and his eyes barely flickered from the screen. "Was it your idea to let that fool Digby handle the Idaho press conference?"

"No, Dad," Lex said, dropping into a chair, "that would be the idea of your hand-picked board member Gunderson."

Lionel frowned. "I expected you to be handling things."

"Then you really should have given me enough authority to do that. I'd say that was bad planning on your part."

"I hardly thought you'd need formal authority to take over your own family's company, Lex."

The conversation was so surreal, it was almost more than Clark could do not to interrupt and demand the truth. He didn't see how Lex could talk to him as if nothing was wrong. He shifted uneasily as Lex said, "Well...I've been busy, Dad."

"With what?"

"Among other things, cleaning up your mess." Lex leaned back, crossing his legs. "It would've been a lot easier if you had just told me about Project Green Thumb, you know."

Clark caught the startled movement of Lionel's eyes to Lex, but in an instant they had returned to the screen. "I don't know what you're talking about. And if it's company business, I'm not sure why there's a stranger in the room."

Clark stepped back, but Lex said, "This is Clark Kent, dad. He's a friend. I trust him."

Lionel gave him a quick, assessing glance. Clark looked back, face hot. "Foolish," Lionel said, once again returning to the TV screen, "but there's nothing to trust him with, anyway. There's no Project Green Thumb in the LuthorCorp database."

"Of course there isn't. Just like there wasn't any Level Three on those plans of the Smallville factory." Lex laced his fingers in front of him. "But that doesn't mean there isn't any Project Green Thumb. I know all about those cells on Subbasement Five of our facility here."

"Those empty cells?"

"They weren't always empty, though, were they? There were people in them. Test subjects. Until one of them smashed his way out."

"Don't be ridiculous, Lex," Lionel snorted. "How could anyone do that?"

"An ordinary person couldn't." Lex's voice was calm, level, almost casual. "But those weren't ordinary people anymore, were they?"

Lionel just smiled. It was meant to be dismissive, but Clark thought he saw a hint of something like pride in it. "You think we were keeping alien hybrids down there, Lex? You've been watching too much TV."

"No, I think you were exposing people to a particular teratogenic substance. One derived from the meteorites that hit Smallville." Clark tried to keep his face blank. "I think you were keeping mutants down there, Dad. And I think one got loose."

"And attacked me? Perhaps you should take this story to the police, Lex. I'm sure they'd find it far more compelling than the idea that you arranged to have me shot."

Lex breathed out sharply. "Dad. Don't do this. I can help you."

Lionel nodded. "Yes, you can. By handling affairs competently in my absence. I think your time would be much better spent seeing to that rather than engaging in amateur investigative work."

"If I have to do this on my own, Dad," Lex said, rising, "you may not like the results."

"Since I haven't cared for the results of your actions for years now, Lex, that won't be a new experience for me. Leaving your father so soon?"

"Yeah," Lex said, his voice tight, disgusted. At least it wasn't calm anymore. "There's nothing here that's of any use to me. Come on, Clark."

Clark followed, half in a daze. He desperately needed time to think. At least, he needed time to sort out whether he was more terrified or angry.

 

A little while later, Clark sat on Lex's bed, watching him pace back and forth, taking an occasional pull from the bottle in his hand. The trip back to the house had been awkwardly silent. The only time they'd exchanged words was when Clark asked, "How did you know?" and Lex snapped, "We recovered a blood sample from the Idaho plant. I had it tested. Let me think, Clark."

Which he had been doing for the next forty-five minutes or so, his face getting darker and darker, as Clark tried to calm himself down. The more he waited, though, the more he felt that they had to do something. LuthorCorp couldn't just get away with it. He wouldn't let them. He was trying to figure out who might believe the story when Lex suddenly turned and hurled the bottle against the near wall. It shattered, splattering Scotch all over the wall. "Christ!" he muttered and ran his hand over his head convulsively.

"I know. It's awful," Clark agreed. "Like a nightmare."

"I didn't--" Lex shook his head. "All this time I've known him and I didn't realize."

"Well, of course you wouldn't think your own dad was capable of...of locking people up and doing experiments on them. No one would."

"Yeah. That's...not good. But it's not just that, Clark."

Clark thought that was bad enough. There was more? "Then what?"

"The material he was using." Lex walked across the room and stared out the window. "He was experimenting on them with the meteor rocks. My own father took the worst thing that ever happened to me and tried to make a profit from it." He rubbed quickly, furtively, at his eyes. "Tried to find a way to make it work for the business."

Clark really hadn't thought of it that way, but it was true. Just another way that Lionel...Lionel almost wasn't human. Clark couldn't imagine his dad trying that to make any amount of money. God, what would Lionel have done with him if he had found him in the cornfield instead of his mom and dad? "Jeez, Lex. I'm sorry. That's just not right."

"Oh, I don't know about that. I can hear exactly how he'd justify it. He'd say that only a sentimental fool would let a consideration like that stand in the way of making money. That he was at least trying to take a bad situation and make some good come of it. That the money would be for the family, including me."

Clark got up and put a hand on Lex's shoulder. "Those aren't excuses, Lex."

"Of course they are. You know why I can hear them, Clark?" Lex turned back to him, and the corners of his eyes were wet. "Because I've thought them myself. I've done it myself."

"What are you talking about, Lex?"

"How do you think I know it was the meteor rocks rather than something else? I've been funding Dr. Hamilton's research for months now. Our lab couldn't identify the trace minerals in the guy's blood, but I could. I could."

Clark slowly pulled his hand back. He felt frozen. "You...you've been studying the meteors?"

Lex nodded. "I had to know, Clark." He took a shuddering breath and turned away again. "And now I guess I've found some things out. Including how much my father and I really are alike."

Clark stumbled his way back to the bed and nearly fell onto it. "Lex," he managed, clinging to the one strand of conversation that might possibly be safe, "you're not like your father at all. Maybe you were researching the meteorites, but you didn't lock anybody up and give them injections."

Lex rested the tips of his fingers lightly on the windowpane. "Maybe I just didn't have enough time," he said, very quietly.

"Lex, you're not like that. I know you're not. And you'll never be like that."

"Oh, no? What makes you so sure?"

"I trust you."

"The hell you do, Clark." Lex peeled away from the window, abruptly full of energy. He came across the room to stand over Clark. "You don't trust me at all."

"Yes, I do," Clark protested weakly.

"God, Clark, you really do think I'm an idiot." He jerked his head in disbelief, then leaned closer, his voice insinuating and angry. "There's something about you and the meteorites, Clark. You're not like other people. You know it and I know it. Now, maybe you feel like you have to keep it a secret, maybe you even have a good reason, but don't sit there and tell me you trust me when you've been lying to me since the moment we met, because my intelligence has been insulted enough today."

Lex said it like it was some kind of personal insult to him that Clark was a freak and had to hide it from the world, and suddenly Clark was angry. He jumped up, making Lex take a couple of steps backwards. "Maybe I have a good reason, Lex? What do you even know about it? I can think of fifteen good reasons--fifteen cells down there! Cells with people in them! That could--that could've been me in there, and you didn't even sound that upset talking to your dad about it!"

Lex nodded. "As I said," and his tone was painfully light, "you can't really distinguish between us." He walked over to one wall, where there was a case of fencing weapons on display, and ran his finger along a blade. "Maybe you should go, Clark."

Clark stared at his bowed head, trying to sort out what he felt as the anger receded. Lex was right; he really hadn't trusted him. Funny, the truth about himself was never something he had thought about as having to do with trust--it was just something he could never tell, No Matter What, No Matter Who. But of course it did. If he ever left Smallville, he was going to meet lots of new people, on his own, and he was going to have to decide not to tell them--and each time he did, it was going to mean that he thought the truth wasn't safe with them. It was his choice, and it was starting to occur to him that not trusting Lex might be more dangerous, in the long run, than trusting him would be.

"Lex, no," he said, coming over to him. Lex was still stroking the blade, drawing his finger swiftly against the edge, frowning. Clark swallowed a gasp as he saw that blood was trickling down and pooling in the web between Lex's thumb and hand. Clark's own hands jerked up to stop him, but a physical gesture by itself seemed totally inadequate and he was still working through the words. "Look--I want to tell you everything. I do. I never used to mind lying to people, but I hate lying to you. But I can't. Not right now, not when I just found out..." Fifteen cells. Lex was bleeding. He reached out and took Lex's hand away from the sword, curled his own fingers around it. "Look, if we can just get through this, then maybe...maybe it'll be okay for me to tell you."

"Maybe?"

"I might be able to think about it differently. If we stop all this."

Lex looked up at him. Clark could feel the tremors in his hand. "Clark...I really need you to believe in me. And I need..." He reached up with his free hand and brushed his fingers over Clark's cheek. "I just need..."

Clark stared at him, a rush of warmth flooding over him as he realized what Lex meant. And that the idea seemed nowhere as strange and impossible as it might have a few weeks ago, even a few days ago. Lex's fingers on his face felt good, and maybe even more real because he'd never fantasized about them, the way he had about Lana's. It wasn't a dream. Lex was strong like no one else and Lex was weak in a hundred secret ways and Lex needed him and he couldn't imagine life without Lex, and it all just pulled at him and pulled until they were kissing each other breathless. Clark was stunned at how...necessary it felt. Lex's lips moving over his mouth like he wanted to suck life from it again meant he was there with Clark, even if they were in the heart of the LuthorCorp monster. Clark wrapped one arm around Lex's shoulders, wanting to keep him there, wanting to always be able to feel the rapid heartbeat beneath the smooth surface. To always be able to believe that Lex was different.

But Clark had already started to learn that what his body told him wasn't necessarily true for others. This was a choice that went with the other one, and when they broke apart, Clark stammered, "I can't do this right now either, Lex."

Disappointment flashed over Lex's face, but then he nodded again. "All right, Clark. But then you...don't get to keep my hand as a souvenir."

Clark looked down and saw that he was still clutching at Lex's wrist. He let go and stuck his hands in his back pockets. "Right. Just...no more cutting yourself, okay?"

Lex cleared his throat. "Right."

"So. What do we do now?" His mind was offering so many suggestions that it almost sounded like a stupid question, but...they had to stay on track.

Lex laughed, and it was a real laugh this time. Despite everything, Clark had to grin back at him. "Research."

 

So, for the next three days, they did research. Clark had gotten used to following Chloe's wild hunches about weirdnesses in Smallville, but Lex's methods were much more systematic. It obviously would be easier to track down their guy if they knew who he was. Lex didn't think that LuthorCorp would just kidnap test subjects off the street, so he put Clark in front of a computer, cross-referencing lists of company personnel and contacts with lists of the dead and missing. They restricted themselves to people in the U.S., but it was still a massive undertaking, and Clark didn't dare work on it quite as fast as he could have.

It was lonely work, too, because Lex spent all his free time in his lab in the basement, where he was working on "something to help us take this guy down if we do catch him," developing some of the research he'd already been doing. Clark didn't know if "taking him down" was the right thing to do, but no matter what LuthorCorp had done to him, he was running around destroying property and threatening lives, and it might take a while to make him see reason.

They weren't totally sure what they were going to do when they did make him see reason, either. Clark had wanted to go to the cops, or at least the Planet.

Lex said no. "It would destroy LuthorCorp."

"Shouldn't it be destroyed? If it's doing things like Green Thumb?"

Lex gave him a sharp, pained look. "Do you have any idea how many people make a living from our company, Clark? How many people would suffer if we fell apart? We're talking about tens of thousands of jobs here."

Like Chloe's dad's. "But we can't just let them go on experimenting on people!"

"If we get enough proof that they are doing it, then we can threaten them with exposure. Make them stop."

Clark thought about it. After a minute, he said, "You don't want him to go to jail, do you?"

Lex looked down. "He's my father, Clark."

"But he treats you like...like garbage, Lex."

"Which doesn't, technically, make him any less my father."

He felt the force of it, but the images from the facility still haunted his mind. "He still locked people up like animals."

"And he got shot three times by one of them. I'd say that's a kind of rough justice."

Clark hated the feeling that was coming over him, like he was trapped in a web and couldn't cut himself free with any decisive action. He wished he could call his dad and find out what he thought, but that was impossible. "I don't know, Lex. I just don't know."

Lex contemplated a button on his sleeve. "Do you really want this to get out, Clark?" he asked finally. "I mean, wouldn't it be...problematic for you...to draw attention to the meteorites and Smallville?"

Which was...a real point. Wow, was it a point. But he didn't know how to say so without shoving the fact that he was keeping a secret in Lex's face again.

When he stayed quiet, Lex nodded. "I thought so. This is the only way, Clark."

Clark had had to agree.

They didn't talk a lot after that; Lex was at LuthorCorp all day and the lab most of the night, and Clark spent all his time in the little-used office Lex had put him in, hunched over a huge wooden desk whose top was inset with green leather, looking for candidates. A servant brought Clark meals, and he started to get used to ringing for things, being able to give his whole attention to what was in front of him. He wondered if this was what it was like for Lex all the time.

He only saw Lex later in the evenings, when he returned from his regular, solitary visit to his father, always in a dark mood, to drop onto the couch in his sitting room. Maybe, Clark decided, it was a good thing that they weren't spending a lot of time together; that made it easier not to have...thoughts. Clark had never even wanted to think about kissing a guy before. When he tried thinking about kissing Pete, it just made him laugh. But the memory of Lex clinging to him had burrowed its way under his skin. He had to admit, he wanted to touch himself, bring it out again, but he knew that there would be no way he could trust himself around Lex if he gave in to that. The less time they spent together, the less he had to fend off the urge.

On the third night, though, Lex didn't turn up at all until nearly twelve o'clock, and he looked different. He was wearing a loose, flowing purple silk shirt and black leather pants, and Clark could sworn there was glitter on his eyelashes and on his cheek where they touched it.

Clark's mouth fell open. "You went to see your dad like that?" was the only thing he could think of to say.

Lex smirked at him tiredly. "Of course not. That would have given away my secret identity."

"Then what...?"

"I just wanted to blow off some steam.".

Clark felt vaguely stung. "Why didn't you invite me along?"

"Even I couldn't have gotten you into that club, Clark," Lex said, looking into a heavy gilt mirror on the wall and wiping at his cheek.

"So, what are you doing home so early then? I wouldn't have thought that the clubs in the big city closed at midnight."

Lex sighed. "It's a funny thing, Clark. My dad's in the hospital, my business is on the brink of ruin, there may very well be mutants that we made running around wreaking havoc. Suddenly, clubbing seemed like a really pathetic form of rebellion. Even the way I do it." He moved into the bedroom, unbuttoning his shirt, and Clark found himself focusing on the way the pants outlined one lean thigh, giving rise to the same kind of thoughts he'd been stifling in his bedroom for the last several nights. "Besides...the company is more entertaining back here."

Clark was more reassured than he should have been. "Did you go see your dad earlier?"

"Yep."

"How is he?"

Lex had moved out of sight, and Clark heard the sound of a zipper. His cheeks heated instantly. "Recovering well. They might release him in a couple of days."

"What do you guys talk about?"

"We don't. I sit there and look at him; he lies there and looks at papers. After about fifteen minutes, he says, 'You must have a more pressing engagement elsewhere, Lex.' I agree and leave."

"What's going to happen when he gets out of the hospital?"

Lex came back into the room, wearing loose gray clothes. "It's going to get a lot more complicated for us. It would be good if we solved this problem before he did."

But Clark was nearly ready to quit. "We're not getting anywhere, Lex."

"Research doesn't happen overnight, Clark," Lex said, pouring two drinks. Clark hesitated, then accepted one. They said it helped you relax.

"We're spinning our wheels here."

"There's not much else we can do. We, the police, and, I guess, LuthorCorp are all looking for this guy. We don't have the manpower for a big investigation. So, we have to be smart and persistent instead."

"I feel like I'm going crazy in that room," Clark grumbled.

"Look, the best thing to do with work at the end of the day is just let it go. Sink yourself into something else." Lex picked up the remote and turned the TV on.

"Late-night talk shows? That's your solution?"

"Until you can look at a man with glitter on his eyelashes without flinching? Yeah. Slide over."

Clark usually wasn't awake for "Conan," but it wasn't bad, and, with the help of the alcohol, they even laughed at a few of the jokes. Lex got quiet after a while. Clark didn't really notice until he felt a touch on his shoulder and glanced over to see that Lex had fallen asleep, right there on the couch, and was slumping onto him. Looking at the purplish shadows under Lex's eyes, Clark didn't want to wake him up. Instead, he slid down and pulled a pillow behind his head, letting Lex settle against his chest. A fleck of glitter drifted down to Clark's own sweater, winking against the blue. He wasn't entirely sure what to do with his arms, but eventually decided that it wouldn't be cheating too much to fold them around Lex. It was where they'd go naturally, wasn't it?

The light and the TV were still on, but the thought of moving was really too much and now that he was horizontal and covered with a reassuring warm weight, he was already drifting away...

They were still in that position when they woke the next morning to the images of Fertilizer Plant Number Three in ruins.

 

It took less than an hour to get from Metropolis to Smallville via helicopter. Clark watched the world whizzing away beneath them, but Lex sat stiff, staring at his hands. "I never liked these things," he'd told Clark as they climbed aboard.

The site was an absolute zoo seen from above: smoke streamed from collapsed parts of the structure while reporters, workers, and family members surged around it. Lex sighed as they made their final approach. "I've got to talk to the media here," he said. "I want you to look around."

"For what?"

"Anything that might give us a clue as to this guy's identity. We're going to have forensics teams all over it, but they don't report to me. Anything we can find--and keep to ourselves--will be really helpful."

"Right."

They separated the minute the helicopter landed, Lex practically leaping out to deal with the reporters. As Clark was getting issued a hard hat and protective jacket, he saw someone jumping up and down and waving out of the corner of his eye. "Clark! Clark!"

"Chloe!"

"Look at you!" she said, scrambling forward. A guard moved to stop her, but Clark gestured at him to let her by. "What are you doing here?"

"Is your dad okay?"

"What? Oh, yeah. It wasn't his shift. I repeat: what are you doing here?"

"Oh, just helping out Lex."

"With what?" She snapped a couple of pictures of him.

"Investigating, I guess."

"Oooh! I'll help! Let's go!" She started towards the biggest remaining building, the offices, but Clark reluctantly caught her by the wrist. "What?"

"I don't...I don't think you should. It's not safe."

"Okay, then, let's get me a hat and stuff."

"No, I mean..." They had been looking into the weirdnesses of Smallville together for months now, but he knew what Lex would say if he let any information out to a member of the media, even if that media was just a high school newspaper. "I mean...Lex is kind of touchy right now about stuff. It'd probably be better not to have reporters wandering around the plant."

Chloe's eyes went wide at him. "Oh." She slung the strap of her camera over her shoulder and kicked at a piece of rubble. "You are outgrowing me, Clark Kent."

It felt as bad as the meteor rocks. "Chloe...don't say that. I'll talk to you as soon as I get back to Smallville for good, okay?"

"Yeah. Okay." She squinted off. "Your parents are waving at you."

"Um. Will you tell them I'm fine, and I'll call them later?"

"Sure, I guess."

He squeezed her shoulder. "I promise we'll talk soon, Chloe."

She nodded and went off. He headed for the building.

An hour later, he was ready to swear that the guy had left nothing behind him but destruction. How was he supposed to spot something like a bloodstain, anyway? He was going over Lex's office, whose door had been wrenched open, when Lex came in. "God, it's total chaos out there," Lex said. "My dad himself couldn't settle it down. I'm leaving it to the cops."

"Sorry."

"Did you find anything?"

"I don't even know what I'm looking for," Clark said. "This is a wild-goose chase, Lex."

Lex sighed. "I thought it might be. But on the off-chance..."

"How much damage did he do?"

"I don't know yet. Tens of millions. And the fifth guard just died in the hospital." Lex frowned at his desk. "At least he didn't trash my computer." He went over and touched the keyboard. "I seriously doubt the T3 is still up..." His face grew puzzled. "Funny..."

"What is it, Lex?"

"I don't remember having this file open. In fact, I don't recognize this file at all."

"You don't?"

"No," Lex said, scrolling through it. "And I definitely would remember this."

"Why?"

Lex looked up at him. "Because it's plans for the continuation of Project Green Thumb."

"What?!?"

"Including the location to which the other test subjects have been moved."

 

The ride back to Metropolis was even faster, and Lex even tenser. "You really think your dad had that information planted?" Clark asked as they climbed out at the Luthor mansion.

"I seriously doubt he singled out me personally," Lex said. "Probably every plant within a five-state radius has that information in its system somewhere. He just made it more obvious on mine. Must have thought it was the first place the guy would look."

"Do you think the guy will come?"

"Wouldn't you?"

Clark remembered standing in that eerie hallway. "Yeah."

"This guy could expose LuthorCorp to the media, but he won't. He obviously prefers direct action. I was wrong about him; he's an idiot." Lex reached into his pocket. "I just wish Dad had chosen somewhere less populated than a Metropolis warehouse to stage this. I'd better increase security around his hospital room, just in case." He flipped open his phone and punched in numbers as Clark waited. "Yes, Courtade. About my father, I'd like you to--yes? What? What? Right. Thanks. No, I'll call you." He hung up the phone and jammed it unseeingly back into his jacket.

"Lex, what is it?"

Lex blinked and looked at him. "My dad checked himself out of the hospital today. Against medical advice."

"He did?"

"He did. The old bastard wants to handle this play all by himself." He looked at his watch, speeding up his stride. "Damn. Our fugitive has had time to get back to Metropolis. We'd better go check that place out. Just give me a minute."

"Where are you going?"

"Insurance." Lex threw him some keys. "Get the car, okay? Blue BMW Z1."

"Lex--" But he'd already vanished into the house.

When Lex reemerged a few minutes later, Clark was waiting out front in the car. "Better let me drive," he said, "since you don't know your way around here." Clark gave him a look. "Clark, you must know that there are times when driving like a maniac is justified. Put on your seatbelt if it makes you feel better."

Clark slid over, stifling the feeling that things were starting to get out of hand.

The warehouse was on the outskirts of town, tired brick with faded lettering painted on it: LONG-TERM STORAGE CHEAP. "I don't see any guards," Clark said as they pulled up.

"Of course not. My dad would want him to be comfortable coming in here. And the fewer people who know about this, the better."

"You mean..."

Lex's face was pale and deadly serious. "I mean, this is it, Clark. The longer this guy stays loose, the greater the chance that the facts about Green Thumb get out. And if the facts get out...I don't think even my dad will be able to dodge responsibility on this one. The risk has to be appalling for him to be handling it himself like this."

Clark tried not to entertain the disloyal thought that that might not be such a bad thing after all. "Lex...what are we going to do with this guy if we find him?"

"You mean after we demonstrate to my dad that we could blow the roof off? Get him some help, Clark." Lex tilted his head. "What else?"

"It's just...people died at the Smallville plant today."

Lex stopped mid-way through climbing out. "Look. Clark. First you want to string up my dad, now you want to...what...send this guy to jail?"

When he put it that way..."I don't know." He really didn't. What would he do, pushed that hard? How far could you go to stop something like this?

"Clark, there's no way we can bring this guy to the cops without letting the facts out. More importantly, there's no way we're going to do anything at all if we don't get to him before my dad does. So come on."

Which made sense, so Clark followed him out of the car. The inside of the warehouse was much more modern-looking than the outside; it resembled Subbasement Two, but with crates rather than shelving. Against the far wall was built a smaller structure that looked like two tiers of temporary offices. "I think he'd go up there," Clark whispered.

Lex nodded. "Let's try to get somewhere with a good view and good cover." They settled behind a crate to wait.

"Lex," Clark said softly after a while.

"Yes?"

"What if this guy doesn't turn out to be friendly? I mean, he already tried to kill your dad. What if he tries to kill you?"

"I sincerely hope we'll stop him, Clark. But if we don't..." Lex stared at his fingers where they were laced over his knee. "LuthorCorp created this guy. We turned him loose on the world. He's killed several of our employees. There would be worse ways to go than trying to stop him."

Clark swallowed. He looked at Lex's hands, too, the hands that had clutched at Earl's legs, suddenly remembering his mother's earliest lesson: You need to be gentle, Clark. Other people break easier than you do. Did he even have the right to keep his secret if it meant endangering other people, good people? "Lex..."

"Shhh." Someone had come in the entrance. The figure moved steadily across the floor. He passed under a light, and Clark could see that it was a man. His skin had a deadly green tint, and his hair was a dull purple. His face was sunken; his hands twitched. His gait was shambling, but fast. Lex tensed next to him, obviously preparing to stand up, but as the guy got closer, Clark felt a wave of nausea sweep over him. He clamped his hand over his mouth, trying to silence his groan. Lex's eyes turned to him, instantly lighting with concern. "What's wrong?" he mouthed at Clark.

Clark shook his head, trying to wave to him to go on, but Lex was staring at him. His skin, Clark realized. He could feel the veins bulging painfully as the guy passed on the other side of their crate. He leaned against the side of it, fighting to keep quiet and not throw up. After a little while, he heard the door to the offices slam, and the discomfort eased. He straightened up and tried to smile.

Lex's eyes were huge. "Clark, what the hell?"

"Later," Clark said. "We don't have time."

"But you--"

"We don't have time." Clark got up and sprinted for the offices. The door in was unlocked. Clark hurried into the corridor. There was a flight of steps leading up. He heard something like a scuffle from the second floor. Lex burst in behind him. "Upstairs! Come on!" Clark hissed.

Upstairs weren't offices at all, but cells like before. Clark could hear a voice from the very last one. "Trying to trap me, Mr. Luthor. That's not very nice. But if you read your own reports, you would have known that tranquilizers won't work on me."

"Be reasonable, Frank," the voice that had to be Mr. Luthor answered breathlessly. "If you kill me, you'll never get the treatment you need."

Clark and Lex crept down the corridor. "The mineral salts?" Frank laughed harshly. "I took some of those with me when I escaped and had them analyzed. I don't think that will be a problem. No, what I need from you is the location of the others."

"Well--I'll--I'll take you to them."

"No more lies, Luthor!" the man roared. "They're dead, aren't they?"

The nausea had crawled back over Clark as they got closer. The door was partially closed, and there must have been some kind of shield in it, because he didn't feel as bad before, but the minute he went in..."Yes, Frank, they're dead. But it would be stupid of you to throw your life away to--"

"Are you blind? My life's already been thrown away. By you. And now I'm going to throw away yours."

Clark could hear the choking sounds, and he knew he didn't have any choice. He jammed through the door into the cell. "Don't do it, Frank!"

The man had Lionel pinned up against the wall and was choking him. He turned and stared at Clark. Even the whites of his eyes had a green tinge to them. "Get out of here, kid."

"No. I won't let you do it," Clark said, trying to sound confident though he felt about three breaths away from throwing up.

"You don't have a choice," Frank snarled and lunged at him. Clark tried to dodge out of the way, but his limbs wouldn't cooperate and the blow sent him flying against the near wall. His head collided with the metal and he saw stars. He pulled himself to his feet and Frank hit him again, sending him skidding further away from the door. He did throw up then, helplessly, as Lex got the door open all the way and stepped in. No, he thought, don't do it, run away...

"Hey, Frank," Lex said. "I never got to thank you for trying to take out my dad."

"Oh, the Luthor brat. You'll stay out of this if you know what's good for you."

"Lex, no," Lionel husked. "Get out of here."

"No." Clark looked up to see Lex standing firm in the middle of the room. "If you want to destroy LuthorCorp, you have to take me out, too."

"That's really not a problem for me." Frank moved, too fast, and caught Lex's shoulders. He was about to fling him against the wall when Lex brought his hand out and jabbed something into his arm.

"Is this a tranquilizer?" Frank snorted. "That won't have any--" His face suddenly tightened, and he let Lex go. "What--"

"It's an experimental substance," Lex explained casually, even as he hurried over to Clark. "It temporarily inhibits your ability to metabolize the meteorite mineral and therefore your powers. There may be a few side effects; I didn't exactly have a chance to test it."

Lex dragged Clark awkwardly across the cell as Frank leaned against the nearest wall, shoulders heaving. "Your dad," Clark mumbled, but Lex kept pulling until they were outside the door.

Lex then turned around and went back in. As he started to step around Frank, he abruptly straightened up. Lex smiled weakly. "I guess the effect is even more temporary than I thought," he said.

"You're going to pay for that, Luthor."

Frank reached for Lex, but Lionel threw himself forward and tackled Frank around the ankles, toppling him over. "Son!" he shouted, voice cracking with the strain. "Get out of here! Go! Now!"

Lex shot him a glance and scampered backwards, stumbling over Clark. The instant he'd cleared the door, Lionel reached into his jacket and did something that made it slide shut. The sickness ebbed again, and Clark sat up.

Lex was kneeling transfixed before the panel. Clark crawled over to look. Frank had turned back and grabbed Lionel by the throat again, lifting him against the wall. Lionel's feet were kicking against the metal as he tried to claw at Frank's face.

"Lex! We have to save your dad!" Clark reached for the door.

Lex grabbed him. In Clark's weakened state, he could actually hold onto him. "He said to get out of here."

"But it's your dad!"

"What are you going to do, Clark? Get sick all over him?" Clark stared. How could Lex...? "The door's locked. The idea is to keep the maniacal, superstrong mutant inside for as long as possible. No matter who else is in there!"

Lionel was still struggling. One of his hands managed to gouge at Frank's left eye. Frank recoiled, releasing him, and Clark's hopes rose. But Lionel could only fall back against the wall, clutching at his neck and gasping. Frank growled in rage, grabbed him again, yanked him close, and snapped his neck.

Lionel slid limply to the ground and did not stir.

"We have to go," Lex said, and pulled on Clark. Clark, however, was starting to recover, and resisted. What good would running away do?

Frank was banging at the door. The metal started to give. Clark braced himself, trying to think of how he could fight someone when he couldn't even stand to be in the same room with him. Then the banging slowed. Clark could see Frank step back, twitching all over. He began shaking faster and faster, just like Earl, then all at once stiffened and fell forward on his face.

Clark waited with cold anticipation for him to get up, but he didn't. "What happened?" he finally asked.

"The serum I injected into him," Lex said numbly. "I knew there was a chance it might do that. The minerals he didn't metabolize...built up."

"Is he dead?"

"I think so."

"And your dad?"

"Come on," Lex said, tugging at his arm. "They can't find us here."

 

Lionel Luthor's funeral, Clark heard, was the biggest one in Metropolis in ten years.

The five days before passed in a kind of blur, a whirl of media (who believed Frank to have been a crazed ex-employee), cops (who found that Frank's blood matched that recovered at the Idaho plant and were satisfied), and Luthor hangers-on (who somehow did not manage to penetrate the barriers Lex threw up around himself). It was a lot of noise and fuss, and Clark was glad to be mostly camped out in the quiet of the Luthor mansion.

His parents had decided to let him miss some school to stay on in Metropolis. Clark had hated that conversation. Yes, he was fine, no, he had no idea who Frank was, everything should be okay now, but Lex was hit pretty hard...He wanted to tell them the truth, now that the crisis was over, but he couldn't ask them to trust Lex when he still hadn't made up his mind about it himself.

His mom had actually encouraged him to remain with Lex, but Clark wasn't sure he was making the slightest difference, seeing as he hardly even spoke to him. Lex was swept away every morning, came home very late, and went to bed almost at once. Clark wouldn't even have been sure he was grieving if he hadn't happened to be wandering the halls late on the third night, restless, unable to sleep and tired of staying in his grand, grim room. The sound of running feet and a slamming door caught his attention; they seemed to be coming from the part of the house where Lex's rooms were. He headed up there. The outer door was ajar, and he could hear painful, high-pitched wheezing from within.

"Please, Mr. Luthor," a servant said, "use the inhaler. The doctor said--"

"I--will--not," Lex said between gasps at breath. "Get out! Get out! Get out!" Something expensive-sounding crashed to the floor.

Clark touched the door gently with his fingers, turned around, and went back to his room. It felt wrong, trespassing on Lex's pain. Or--maybe just too early.

Lex had definitely been avoiding him, choosing to shut himself up with whatever he was feeling, but it was more than that. Clark felt sure that Lex was doing it for him, too. Giving him time to think. Time to decide. It somehow made it only more momentous that Lex wasn't pushing for an answer, wasn't working him to get the right one. It was too important for that; Lex needed the true answer, the one he really meant. Clark only hoped he would be able to give it to him when the time came.

The funeral had been long, with eulogies from everyone from the governor to the head of a famous charity. Clark watched Lex the whole time, and he played the part perfectly. He was somber but assured, the picture of a heir who was grieving but ready to assume his new role. The king is dead, Clark thought, long live the king.

Now it was over, though, and Lex and Clark were standing in the hallway. No servants had appeared to take their jackets, and the echo of the heavy door closing behind them seemed to reverberate through the house.

"No one's here?" Clark asked.

"I thought you might want to talk to me," Lex said, a strangely formal tone to his voice.

His parents wanted him to come home the next day. It was time. Clark nodded. "Actually, I would. Can we--can we go upstairs?"

"Of course." Lex led the way up the staircase into his rooms. Once they were inside, he pulled off his tie and went to pour himself a drink. "Want one?"

"No, thanks." He couldn't really keep his eyes off Lex. Once again, he was struck by how useless his powers were. He could look right through Lex's skin, but he couldn't see into his heart. Lex had been able to sit there and watch while his father died. He had been willing to inject a sick man with something that he knew might kill him. You could come up with reasons, good reasons, for both--Clark was smart enough to know that if he hadn't done both those things, all of them might have died in that warehouse, not just Lionel. But Clark wouldn't have done either of them. It wasn't Lex's fault that he wasn't a hero. It might be, though, that Clark needed him to be one. To cover his thoughts, he said, "That was...really impressive."

"Yeah." Lex shut his eyes and drained his glass. "Imagine if one-tenth of those people had actually liked him."

"Lex..."

"What? I didn't have any illusions about him when he was alive; I'm not going to start having them now."

"Are you sure?"

Lex narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"About your illusions. Did you ever think he'd give up his life to save yours?"

He didn't quite expect the reaction he got--Lex putting his hand to his mouth as if to stifle a laugh...or a scream. "You say that like it's a good thing, Clark."

"I pretty much thought it was."

"You weren't looking at him after I dosed Frank."

"No, I wasn't."

Lex sat down on the couch. "Well, I was. He looked...not proud, exactly. But satisfied. Like I had finally passed one of his goddamned tests." He shook his head. "Like I had finally become something he wanted me to be."

Like Lionel. Like a person who would authorize Green Thumb and then do anything to cover it up. Clark remembered the way Lionel had smiled, lying in that hospital bed, and felt a chill running down his spine. "Are you? I mean...how do you feel about that?"

Lex drew his knees up to his chest. "That I was smart enough to figure everything out? That feels good, Clark."

Clark's heart sank. "Is that it?"

"Of course not. That I was willing to defend LuthorCorp? I guess...I guess that was bound to happen. Smug bastard, he knew all along I'd give in. And he was right. I don't have the energy to fight it anymore."

"Right..." Lex, the heir-apparent. That had been coming forever.

"That I was ready to kill someone to do it? That my dad thought--that he thought it would be okay to leave the business in my hands, because I would do what he expected with it?" Lex pressed his head against his knees. "It terrifies me, Clark. It scares me more than anything I've ever known."

Lex sat there like he was just waiting for him to leave, but Clark stood rooted to the spot. Because it was enough. That Lex knew what was waiting for him, that he wanted it in some ways, and that he still understood he had to fight it. How deep did the good have to run in him, to survive everything it had--his dad, his education, his own heart? Maybe Lex was a hero, after all. Or could be. Maybe...maybe what Clark chose to believe about him could help make the difference.

"I know, Lex." He sat down next to him and rested his hand on the back of Lex's neck. "I'm scared, too."

Lex raised his head to look at him, startled. "Of what?"

"Of telling you what I'm about to tell you." Clark slid his hands into his lap. "You were right, Lex. I'm not like other people. I guess...maybe I'm not a person at all."

"What are you talking about, Clark?"

"I mean. I'm not from Smallville. I'm not from Kansas. I'm not from here at all. I came in the meteor shower, Lex. In a spaceship."

Lex unfolded himself, staring. "You're saying...you're an alien?"

Clark nodded.

"But you look..." Lex reached out his palm to touch Clark's face. Clark let him. "You feel...." His eyes shone. "Wow. I have to get you in the lab, get some blood samples..."

Clark recoiled. Yellow light and glass panels and static. "Lex."

Lex yanked his hand back as if it had been burned. "Oh, Christ, Clark. I'm sorry. I just--I--" He twisted away, shaking. "Go, why don't you go?"

Still afraid, still fighting it. Still Clark's choice, but he had to reach for him now. "No," he said, pulled Lex around, and kissed him.

One startled jerk, then Lex was kissing him back. Eager and hungry, and Clark wasn't quite prepared for the switch. He hadn't realized that being kissed could feel so much like being possessed. Like being grabbed and held and not ever let go. Even though he knew he was the stronger one here. Even though he'd wanted to hold Lex. The kiss was too much like needles in the skin, X-rays, lights being shone into his eyes.

"Um, hey," Clark said, disentangling himself. "Is there somewhere more comfortable than this couch?"

"Of course, Clark." Lex took his hand, running his fingers over the skin. "In here."

Lex's bed was huge and springy. Clark tried to sit on the edge, but fell over backwards. Lex laughed and crawled in next to him. He started unbuttoning Clark's shirt. "If you only knew, Clark, how often I've thought about how you looked up there..."

"H-how I looked?"

"How good. How absolutely fucking gorgeous you were. This was." Lex flattened his hand against Clark's abs.

Tied up like a scarecrow? Clark's world spun as he tried to reconcile the wash of tingles from his skin and the strangeness of the thought of Lex looking at him, strung up on a post, maybe dying, and stopping to notice that he was gorgeous. Remembering it, playing with the memory, probably...oh, God...probably jerking off to it. What the hell had he gotten himself into? "Jesus, Lex," he said dizzily.

Lex pulled off Clark's shoes, then tugged at his pants. "You weren't...ohhhh....like this, though."

There was no question what Lex was staring at, the way he looked at a car, hard and assessing and wanting, and Clark squirmed, making a little noise in the back of his throat. He was hard, too, he couldn't say he didn't want...

But Lex laughed again. "I know. I'm being greedy." Instead of reaching for the boxers, he kneeled next to Clark and slid his hands over his chest. "I don't...we don't have to hurry, Clark, I'm just glad...every inch of you..."

Lex's hands were gentle, but they were also searching, as if they were testing the quality of the skin there. "Could we...turn off the light, Lex?"

Lex ducked his head, licked slowly at one of Clark's nipples. It felt like the surge that sent along his body might pop the top of his head off. "I hate to not see you."

"But I'd just--I'd feel better."

"All right." Lex reached off the side of the bed and did something, and they were in blackness.

It did help. Without the sight of Lex's eyes, Lex's hands felt more like they were begging than examining. Clark rolled them over, put himself on top, and that was better, too. Under his weight, they sank down into the bed like they would never be able to escape. Lex let out a short gasp, then just squirmed against him. Clark felt Lex's cock brush his through a couple of layers of fabric, and the thought of it made him almost giddy enough to fall over.

Instead, though, he pushed himself up a little and pulled at Lex's clothes. Funeral clothes. The clothes of the prince. They ripped in his hands with a satisfying sound. Lex needed to be as naked as he was. Nakeder--his boxers came away in Clark's hands, and he realized there was a naked man underneath him now. Clark suddenly wasn't sure whether that made him feel more or less safe. "Lex, you know I'm really strong, right?"

"Well, I do now," came the soft voice in the dark. "Wool isn't supposed to be that easy to rip."

"And fast," Clark plowed on. "And not a lot of things can hurt me."

"All right, Clark. But why are you telling me this now?"

That, and Lex's hands again, imploring, were the right answer, and Clark let himself sink down and get lost in the folds of the heavy comforter. Most of the time, he didn't think about anything but the soft, almost whimpering noises Lex made, the endless softness of his skin, the warm, musky smells that it was so strange to catch from someone else.

He woke from his light doze a little later, aware that Lex wasn't curled tightly against him anymore. He heard the light tapping of keys, and opened his eyes to find that Lex was sprawled on the floor next to the bed, working on his laptop.

"Lex," he said, and watched his shoulders jerk with surprise. "I'm not an expert on these things, but I think it's supposed to be really unromantic to telecommute after sex."

Lex laughed softly. "Right. Sorry, Clark. Habit."

Clark wanted to ask how Lex could have gotten such a habit, and then he didn't want to know. He just wanted Lex to crawl in next to him again, which he did. It felt good enough that he was able to shut his eyes and refuse to try to see what was on the computer screen.

Still, it took him a long time to go back to sleep.


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