Lex didn't know what had made him think that this time would be different from all the other times over the past couple of years. Besides stupidity, obviously. Maybe he'd just spent so much time on the project he'd lost all perspective, because it certainly hadn't been different. He'd barely begun his pitch for introducing the new processes he'd developed to speed production when his father cut him off in mid-sentence: "What sort of start-up capital are we talking about?"
Lex told him.
"Not feasible. We're not going to make that kind of investment here."
He'd tried to argue, but Lionel had held firm, of course. He'd ended the meeting and walked to the door. Just as Lex was gathering himself for one last plea, he'd turned and said, condescendingly, "It's fertilizer, Lex. Fertilizer."
Implication: you might be in the business of selling crap, son, but only a fool would care about the crap itself.
Lex slammed the door behind him as he went into the castle. He wished Heike were there. A good fight. Even a good loss. He needed that. Two and a half years, and still stuck running an aging plant Lionel was clearly determined not to invest any further in. Hitting something, or being hit, would be a relief.
The only one in his office, however, was Clark, hovering in the middle of the room. Clark, who somehow managed to know exactly when he was upset, but still acted like he was afraid to break Lex's furniture. Comfortable in his head, but not on his chairs. God, Lex thought, something in him cracking open and spilling out. Clark was eighteen now, and still too fucking considerate to fight with. Would he ever change?
"How'd it go?" Clark asked, before he caught the expression on Lex's face. "Oh."
Lex leaned on the desk. "Not well," he said anyway.
"He said no?"
"That would be one way of describing it, yes."
"But you said it would increase the yield by twenty percent. You said he'd have to--"
His own stupid words parroted back at him. "Yeah, well, I've said a lot of things. I was wrong. He doesn't want to sink the capital into the plant." He turned and threw the plans into the trash. "He's probably right."
"No, he's not. It was a good plan, Lex."
"How would you know?" he snorted, even though he knew it was totally unfair.
There was a brief flash of hurt in Clark's eyes, but then it was gone. "Because I believe in you."
"I don't know if that reflects well on you, Clark."
"Lex--" Clark put his hands on his shoulders. "Come on." He pressed his lips to Lex's forehead. "It was just a little setback. Don't beat yourself up over it."
"I don't need to. I have family members to do that." Clark's mouth was warm. Always warm, always there. He reached up to pull his head down. Clark cooperated in the kiss. So careful, so earnest. So well-meaning. Lovers for eight months, and that was still the same. It seemed impossible to Lex at that moment that he was usually grateful for it. He grimaced and reached abruptly for Clark's ass.
"Whoa!" Clark laughed a little as Lex dragged him close. "Let's go upstairs, huh?"
Lex didn't want to go upstairs. Fucks were easier in the office, and that was what he wanted right now. Clark, however, was already pulling away, tugging at his arm. He wanted to be tender and reassuring, Lex could tell, and it was no use trying to convince him otherwise. It was hard to dissuade Clark when he thought he was doing something for Lex's own good.
He ground his teeth as he followed Clark upstairs.
When they were in the suite, with the door shut--Clark still always shut the door, nothing Lex could do seemed to break him of that habit--Clark kissed him again, but pulled away again when Lex slid a hand down the back of his jeans. "C'mon. Let me...sit down, okay?"
Lex dropped onto the edge of the bed, trying not to sigh. Clark slid behind him, kneeling to rub at his shoulders. Lex let him for a little while, then started unbuttoning his shirt. He shrugged out of it, knocking Clark's hands away, but they returned, squeezing the bare flesh. Harder, Lex thought. Not that Clark would, even if he asked. He turned to face Clark. "Let's just..." Lex put a hand flat on his chest and pushed.
Clark, naturally, had to pull the hand away and kiss it first before nodding. "Okay." He leaned back against the pillows, smiling up at him. Encouragingly.
Lex crawled on top of him and, without preamble, bit down hard on his lip. Clark didn't like to hurt him, but he seemed to be able to take an awful lot. Maybe that was as close as Lex could get to what he needed. He gasped beneath Lex, sliding his hands up his back. He was hard for Lex already. Eighteen-year-olds, so easily incited. To sex, to their ridiculously naive kind of love...Lex ground against him for a minute, then pulled away just as Clark's hips started to rise to him. "Take those off." He was already pulling at his own trousers. He kicked them off the bed, snagging the lube from the bedside table as he did. When he turned back, Clark had shed his jeans and was reaching for him, ready to curl around him. "No. Lie down."
His tone was too abrupt. He could see it in Clark's eyes: surprise, and then concern. Oh, God, he thought, not now. Not more reassurance. After a pause, though, Clark complied, rolling over onto his stomach. "Lex?"
Lex halted in his application of lube. "What?"
"I love you."
There was a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth. It was no use, no use at all. "I know." He moved up the bed and slid into Clark. Hot and tight, as always, and Clark was responsive as ever, squirming and gasping and moaning. Like he always liked it, though Lex couldn't see how he could when they weren't doing any of his favorites. He was hardly even touching Clark as he pushed into him, and that was what Clark liked best of all, casual all-over contact and as much rubbing as possible. Lex briefly considered the gag--the happier Clark sounded, the more frustrated he felt--but it was just too much trouble.
He came, grunting, and flopped over to the side. Clark reached for him. Lex withdrew from the surface of his skin, the way he did for family photos, but Clark didn't even seem to notice. "Is that better, Lex?"
Clark propped his head on his elbow, gave him that sweet stare even though he must have been horny as hell. You, Lex informed himself, are being an utter bastard. He asked anyway. He couldn't just let it be, just subside into sleepiness as if he'd had his fight. He hadn't. "Why do you like me?"
"Geez." Clark laughed uneasily. "I don't know, Lex. What kind of a question is that?"
Lex shut his eyes and pulled in further. His skin was smooth, polished armor. It could deflect anything. "Not good enough."
"Well...you're different. You're smart, and you're really hot, and you're funny, and you like me...Do you need lots of reasons to like someone?"
Clark sighed, slid in closer, and started stroking his head. Lex could feel his erection pressing against his hip. "Lex, you're going to have your day in the sun. I know it. You're not going to be in Smallville forever."
He said it like he wasn't practically Smallville personified, and Lex couldn't take it anymore. He sat up. "I don't even want to be here tonight."
Clark blinked at him. "What are you doing?"
"Getting dressed." He groped for his shirt. "I've got things to do. Elsewhere."
"You're just going to leave me here?"
"The staff knows to look after you." He got his pants on and walked back over to the bed, where Clark was looking bewildered. He leaned down, kissed him, and curled his hand around his cock. He held the kiss as he jerked him, hard and rough, and managed to snatch himself away just as Clark came. No mess on his hands or his clothes. "There. I'll call you."
He didn't look back as he walked down the hallway.
The nightlife was just starting to hum through the streets as Lex arrived in Metropolis. He tapped his fingers on the wheel, considering, as he waited at a red light. Zero was a possibility, but...no. Too impersonal. He reached down to his cellphone (hands-free set a present from Clark) and punched in some numbers. No answer at the first two, so he tried a third.
Eight rings, nine..."Yeah."
"Lex! It's been a while, man!" Eight months, Lex thought. Forever. "You in town?"
"In town, and on my way to your place."
"Cool. You want to go out?"
"Not really, Charles."
A laugh. "So this is basically a booty call, then?"
Lex made a face. "More or less."
"You stay away for, like, a year and then think you can just call up and hop into bed with me?"
"Well, it's true, isn't it, Charles?"
Another laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, it is. All right, come over."
Charles had plenty of alcohol. Lex downed two gin-and-tonics in rapid succession while Charles talked on the phone to somebody else, then put his hand on the back of Charles's neck and said, "Enough."
A blowjob on the couch from Charles, then Lex let himself be fucked on the bed. It felt...pretty good. Charles wasn't very bright, but he was hot and he had a good working grasp of the fundamentals. He liked to smoke after sex, though. It must have been the acrid smell in the room that made Lex sit up and say, "I want to go out after all."
Charles shrugged. "We could pick up some girls, go over to the Paradise..."
"No. I want to go to Smallville." Or maybe he didn't want to, not really, but it suddenly seemed imperative.
Charles cocked his head. "You want to drag me out to the sticks?"
"You can see the castle."
"I've seen plenty of castles. My parents took me all over Europe the summer after my sophomore year, remember?"
"Not castles with me in them."
Charles frowned. "Why the hell haven't I seen your castle, anyway? You never invite anybody down there."
"I'm saving it for a special occasion," Lex said, smirking. "You get a sneak preview. Come on."
"Only you, Lex. Only you." He got up, giving Lex a glimpse of his ass. For a minute, Lex considered forgetting it all and just staying in bed.
He didn't, though. About halfway through the ride, Charles was recovered enough for another round, and since Lex had hijacked his evening, it seemed only fair that they pull off at a rest stop. Lex gave him a handjob while staring up at the stars. It took much too long to clean up afterwards--Lex couldn't tolerate a mess in his Spyder, and Charles was always careless--so it was getting late when they finally got to the castle. Lex automatically checked for lights upstairs, but there were none.
The bed was big, and no moment meant anything more than itself, and Charles never said anything silly like he loved him. The sun was rising when Lex finally turned away from Charles and went to sleep.
He was awakened the next morning by the sound of a voice. "Geez, Lex, I called like a million times--"
Lex rolled over just in time to see Clark freeze in the doorway of the room, dropping a brown paper bag from his hand. Donuts, from the only shop in town. He could smell them from there. He had the sudden, terrifying feeling of the world dropping away from beneath him, but kept his voice even. This was what came next. Hadn't he known? "Good morning, Clark."
Charles made a sleepy noise and sat up. He blinked at Clark. "Hey, man. What's up?"
Clark's mouth worked a little. "Lex, how could--how could you--"
All that blind, useless, stupid faith. Lex's temper flared. "How could I? Why shouldn't I? This is what I am, Clark. This is what people are. This is what we do!" He'd meant it to be a bored, lazy drawl, but instead it had come out urgent, desperate. He was supposed to be gazing off into the distance, but instead he was searching Clark's eyes for something. Some kind of understanding.
Clark's face hardened, though his eyes didn't change. He didn't understand. "Oh. I'm sorry. I just thought you'd like to talk. I didn't know you had company. Goodbye." He started to leave, then stopped to add to Charles, "Nice to meet you."
After he left, Charles laughed and swatted Lex with a pillow. "So that's why you haven't been around lately! Good eye!"
"Shut up, Charles."
"But, dude, your strategy! This was the most unnecessary bust in the history of busts! We could've stayed at my place! It's not like he would've come up to Metropolis looking for you!"
Lex snapped his head to glare at him. "Shut up and get the hell out."
"Show's over, Charles. Go home."
"But how am I supposed to--"
"Take a car. Leave it at the house in Metropolis. I don't care. Just go."
The ice in his tone persuaded Charles, and he got up, grabbing for his clothes. He stopped at the doorway. "You're fucked in the head, you know that, man?"
Lex buried his face in the pillow Charles had hit him with, but he could still smell the goddamned donuts. I know, he thought. I know.
Lex drank a lot that weekend. There were quite a few bottles gathering dust in the liquor cabinet--Benedictine, framboise, aquavit--and he decided he might as well try them all. He wandered through the halls aimlessly, singing sometimes to keep off the silence, or talking to some of the portraits of the ancestors Lionel Luthor wished he had. He visited rooms he'd never set foot in since he'd come to Smallville, dark and gloomy with the furniture covered in white sheets. It didn't take him long to lose track of time; he'd thrown his watch off a parapet early on and he drew the shades in every room that might have gotten sun, so there was nothing to disturb the perpetual twilight of the castle. He felt like he was drifting around inside of one of his own dreams, and there really seemed no particular reason ever to wake up, except for the chills that kept coming over him, making him slide to the floor and wrap his arms around himself. Then he found an old silk coverlet in one of the bedrooms and draped it around his shoulders as he went. That solved that problem.
He listened, sometimes, as he lay on the couch or the bed or the cold stone floor, bottle in hand, but Clark didn't come to save him from himself. Which was good. Because Luthors didn't need saving. And...because Clark had his dignity after all. Which only meant that Lex had fucked up even worse than he'd thought. But there was no way of fixing it. He'd damaged what was between them beyond repair.
Charles called him once. Lex answered with a pounding heart, but hung up when he recognized the voice. He had been in the garage at the time. There was a toolkit nearby. He disassembled the phone with meticulous care, then scattered the pieces with his foot.
At some point, Joachim found him, picked him up, and put him to bed. He didn't take the bottle away, though, so that was just fine. In fact, it was warmer in bed. Lex dozed with a pillow over his head. Smooth cotton pressed on his face. Maybe he'd suffocate.
Lex jerked upright. For one horrible moment, he thought he had somehow slipped back in time and was living the scene all over again, but Charles was nowhere to be found. Clark wasn't carrying donuts, either. He was just standing in the doorway, looking disgusted. Lex wanted to say something witty, but his brain didn't seem quite connected to his mouth yet.
"You smell like a hobo. How much did you drink?"
Lex let himself lean back against the headboard. "All of it. I think."
Clark furrowed his brows. "All of it?"
"There might...might have been a bottle of curacao I didn't get to. Why? Do you want some?"
Clark ignored his bravado. "That's just great." He came to the edge of the bed. "You need a shower. Before this place gets condemned as a public health hazard." Without waiting to see Lex's reaction, he bent over and hauled him to his feet, then started half-dragging him towards the bathroom.
He was so strong. "I can...walk by myself," Lex snarled, pushing ineffectually at Clark's hands. The minute they were withdrawn, though, his knees started to wobble.
Clark caught him. "I guess not." They were in the bathroom. Clark turned on the light, and Lex blinked in the sudden flood. "Can you get your own clothes off?"
His clothes...He was wearing a good white shirt, stained with half-a-dozen liquors, boxers, and one sock. He suddenly couldn't wait to get out of them and tore at them with trembling hands. Clark turned on the shower and helped him in.
The cold water was a shock--Clark had probably done it on purpose. Lex scrambled for the dial and turned it up. God, he was disgusting. But there were soaps for that. He picked up a blue one, which looked like an agate and smelled like the ocean. He could wash it all away.
His head was clearer when he was done. As he climbed out of the shower, reaching for a towel, Clark was staring at him with an expression he couldn't read. It made him uneasy. "Maybe I should be charging admission to the freak show," he said dryly.
Clark frowned. "Don't talk like that, Lex."
"Why? Because then you won't love me anymore? Whoops, too late."
"I still love you."
Lex stopped toweling himself off. "Then you're a fool."
"No, I'm not."
There was such certainty in Clark's voice. "Why not?"
"Because I won't stay if you keep talking like that."
Oh. Lex couldn't decide whether he wanted that to be a threat or a promise, not with Clark's eyes on him like that. To get away from them, he shouldered past Clark into the bedroom. "Why are you here, anyway, Clark? Aren't you supposed to be off nursing your dignity?"
Clark turned and followed him. "Come on, Lex. You were upset and you made a stupid mistake. I just want to understand why, so I can--"
"What? Forgive me?" He let the word have all the contempt he could give it.
"I already forgive you, Lex. I just want to know whether I should stay with you."
Which made no sense whatsoever. Clark had already left, hadn't he? "How can you forgive me? I behaved like a complete ass, Clark. You should still be furious."
"I still am kind of mad." He paused. "Okay, pretty mad. But that doesn't mean I don't want to...to try to fix this."
"That's stupid. If you're mad, you should...you should just go." He threw himself on the bed. "...unless you're even more of a sap than I thought you were."
Clark flushed dark, but he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Geez, Lex, hasn't..." He made a frustrated gesture. "Hasn't anybody ever loved you enough to stick around when you were being an idiot? Like now, for instance?"
A quaint notion. "My mother might have...but then I can't really say for sure now, can I?" He looked at Clark with what was meant to be a bitter smile, but it fell flat when confronted with Clark's serious eyes. There wasn't going to be any indulgence there.
"What about your dad?"
"My dad." Lex laughed uncomfortably. "Let me tell you a story about my dad. Once, when I was eight, I got a B in reading. I had never gotten a B before. I was actually reading well above grade level, but the teacher was trying to make a point because I refused to do the worksheets, which were stupid. They sent out our report cards right before Christmas vacation. I thought my dad might be mad, but he didn't say anything. Then Christmas came. When I woke up, the presents were there, my mom was there...but my dad wasn't. My mom said it was an emergency business trip, but I knew better." Lex automatically pulled a blanket around him. "The next year, I did every worksheet. I even asked for extra. I brought home straight As. And my dad was there Christmas morning."
Clark looked appalled. "God, Lex. That's awful!"
"No, Clark, you don't understand." Lex leaned forward. "That was the proudest moment of my life to that point. It still ranks pretty high up there."
Clark got up and walked slowly over to the window, which he contemplated earnestly for a minute. Then he turned back to him. "So...what? Love only counts if you're constantly having to earn it? If I love you even when you're screwed up, it isn't worth anything?" His voice hardened. "So you can go and cheat on me?"
He winced. "That's the way it is, Clark."
"It's a pretty pathetic way."
"Quite possibly," Lex mumbled, looking away.
"And maybe it's the way your father is, but it's not the way you have to be."
Didn't that sound familiar? "I don't know about that."
Clark sighed with exasperation and sat down again, closer. "Lex. Are you happy like this? You sure didn't look happy to me when I came in."
"No." He laughed ruefully. "I was contemplating tossing myself off a parapet."
Damn. Clark wasn't supposed to be so...logical. In his stubborn farmboy way. "I don't know how to feel differently, Clark."
"God, Lex," Clark burst out, "you're the most strong-willed person I know. You've faced down angry mobs, psychotic stalkers, and Nell Potter. And you're saying you can't even try to change yourself?"
Trust Clark to put it like that. Lex threw up his hands. "Fuck, Clark, is the optimism in the water around here?"
Clark almost smiled. "Maybe you should stop drinking bottled."
He slid down against the pillows. "It might help."
"I can help." Clark reached out and traced a line just above Lex's eyebrow. "If you let me."
He shivered. "Going to save me again?"
Clark's eyes were so big, almost stern. "You have to do the saving, you know. And not just for me, Lex."
Lex smiled with one corner of his mouth. "I did say I didn't want anything getting in the way of our friendship. It would be pretty ironic if the thing that got in the way was me."
"And pretty sad."
"That, too." He reached up and found Clark's hand. "Clark...I'm probably going to screw this up again."
"Well, it's not like I'm never going to make a mistake myself. In fact..." He looked down, and a shadow passed over his face. "I can pretty much guarantee I will. I mean--even my parents still hurt each other sometimes, and they're the happiest couple I know. But we were doing all right before. You don't have to get straight As here, Lex. You just have to try your best."
The thought was so unfamiliar that it almost hurt--like the first couple of breaths after being constricted in the waist. Then he was breathing freely again. "Clark. I do love you."
"And I'm sorry. Charles was just--"
"Hey." Clark sat up a little. "Maybe it would be better if we skipped the gory details, huh?"
"Oh. Right." A small part of his brain whispered to him that jealousy meant power, and he needed power right now, but he squelched it ruthlessly. "I'd offer to make some gory details of our own, but I feel like a limp dishrag."
"That's okay. After last time..."
"Oh, God." Lex put a hand over his eyes. "Will a fleet of trucks be enough?"
"Not doing it again will be a start."
For a minute, Clark sounded so much like his father that Lex grimaced. "Right."
"And..." Clark pushed at him gently. "Scooch over." Lex complied, and Clark slid into bed next to him. He made a face. "You'd better have the staff take care of these sheets."
Lex thought about snuggling up to him, but Clark still looked so serious. Amazing, how an eighteen-year-old kid could leave him uncertain of what the next move should be. He cleared his throat. "I think the staff is terrified to come anywhere near here. Except Joachim, and he doesn't do laundry."
"Mmm." Clark was quiet for a little while. "Lex...speaking of last time...I'd really like it if you just...did things a little differently."
Lex rolled over and slid his arms around Clark. He smelled of hay, sweet and green, strongly enough to drown out the Scotch. "Is that better?" he whispered against his hair.
"Yeah," Clark sighed.
Lex unbuttoned Clark's shirt and stroked his chest, trying to be in his fingertips as much as he possibly could. Smooth, and not so very different from his, after all. Warm. The steady, soothing beat of a heart. He draped one leg over Clark's, feeling the muscles move beneath the skin, and Clark curled his arm around his hips. It was simple. So simple, if he could just accept it. "I missed you, Clark."
"I missed you, too, Lex." Clark moved a hand up to his head, and Lex shut his eyes and felt it. Clark's callused hand cradling the thin skin, the complex structure of bone. He could accept it. He could. He'd figure out how.
He fell asleep to the smell of hay and the sound of a heartbeat and the certainty that they would be there when he woke up, and they were all good.