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Chasing Redemption

by P L Nunn

 

Part Two

 

Though work continued all through the day and night, it did slow considerably when the lights dimmed and the already shadowed tunnels became difficult to navigate. A lot of the nightshift workers, Clark supposed, were those pour souls who hadn't the stamina to fill their carts during the day and worked well into the night to meet the quota. And then there were those that simply avoided the more active mine population during the day shift - - preferring to work alone in the shadows.

He might have wandered a bit more that second night himself, to better familiarize himself with the mines, and needing little in the way of sleep, save for Lex. Who was ridiculously confident or utterly fatalistic - - or possibly a twisted combination of the two.

Lex who walked away from the safety Clark's very presence offered like he was the one who enjoyed the security of super human powers. Or maybe it wasn't so much confidence in self as it was confidence in Clark, who'd already proved the tendency to intrude into Lex's business, whether Lex wanted him there or not. Lex was never one, after all, to not utilize an asset to his own advantage.

So Clark followed Lex, tumbling about the possibility in his head as he walked, that he'd been subtly maneuvered into the role of bodyguard. And it did make him feel a little better about the uneasy feelings Lex provoked, to put Lex back in that place of manipulator that Clark had become so comfortable seeing him in.

Lex descended a level to the Grotto, tired and hungry apparently not holding sway over the desire to be clean. The huge cavern, like the rest of the mines, was draped with the shadow of dimmed light panels. There were men within though, moving slowly in the darkness.

Lex paused at the entrance giving Clark the chance to close the gap. Lex glanced askance at him, expressionless, before moving to the right towards a rocky edge of the underground lake that was devoid of life. Clark hesitated a moment more, listening to the sounds of lapping water, of men quietly moving within it, the quiet breaths of those that had found warm nooks along the edges of this one warm place within the mines, of the labored efforts and guttural groans of those seeking gratification either by their own hand or in the company of another in equally secluded places.

He reined his hearing back in, focusing on simple background noises. He moved towards that quiet edge of the water, where Lex was toeing off his prison issue shoes with the grateful release of breath of a man who had blisters in more places than one. Clark's own shoes might have been marginally tight, but then Clark wasn't prone to skin being rubbed to the point of wounds.

Lex dipped a toe into the water, an absurdly prim sort of motion, all things considered. Apparently having satisfied himself that he wasn't about to be boiled alive or eaten away by toxic runoff - - though considering what he'd mentioned earlier about the lake being the coolant source for the big machine - - that possibility wasn't entirely out of the running - - he began undressing.

Clark watched with the same sort of frozen fascination he'd experienced when they'd first been given their prison clothing. Lex had a bruise along his side, likely where he'd been struck with the gun butt yesterday - - but it was faint and fading. The flex of his back was utterly mesmerizing, the sharp angle of shoulder blades moving under smooth skin, the play of light muscle, the curve of his spine where it dipped at the small of his back down towards his - -

Lex glanced over his shoulder and caught Clark in the act, a subtle play of speculation shifting across his features before he lifted an inquiring brow.

"I thought you said," Clark blurted out the first thing that came to mind to cover the embarrassment and the possible blush that might have stained his cheeks. "That the water was maybe toxic?"

"I did say that," Lex admitted, easing himself down to the edge and into the dark water. It was deep enough at this side that the first step in was up to his thighs and the next took him to waist level. He shut his eyes and sank down, letting his arms float out on the surface to his sides. "It's worth the risk. No risk at all to you, I'd say."

Probably little enough risk to Lex, whose body had the tendency to shrug off the sorts of things that would devastate a normal man.

Washing the dust and dirt off would be a welcome thing, but getting into that water, naked, with Lex in the same state a few yards away seemed far more dangerous than contaminated water. Clark had long adjusted to the fact that as far as physical attractions went, his tended towards men - - and it had taken a lot of years of pursuing ultimately unsuccessful relationships with women to figure that out - - but an attraction to Lex Luthor was a not a line he was willing to cross. Of course if wishes were horses - - Clark could have filled the family farm with vast herds - - and thank God the pants were loose, because there was a stirring there that couldn't be reasoned away.

Okay, physical attraction didn't mean he was succumbing to the dark side - - physical attraction was perfectly reasonable when the person in question looked so damned good. It didn't mean anything. It just meant that Lex tailor fit the sort of body type that Clark found appealing.

It didn't mean that Clark was willing to shuck off his trousers and display his burgeoning hard-on for the world - - and more importantly, Lex - - to see. He did pull off his shirts though and his shoes, and sat down at the edge of the lake, dangling his legs in the water and wetting the undershirt to wash his exposed skin.

Lex snorted softly, rolling his eyes, as if he'd expected nothing more than Clark's prudishness, then he turned away, drifting further out, so that all Clark could see of him was the back of his bare head.

Some sort of scuffle broke out across the Grotto, involving growling, cursing men and the meaty sounds of fists connecting with flesh. Clark pushed down the instinct that insisted he go over there and break it up. But, it was no one-sided brawl and the men involved would likely resent his interference. He clenched his fists though, as he watched the turmoil recede, one group stumbling away, while the other hurled threats.

"That must have hurt," Lex commented, lazy in the water. "Sitting idle while blood was shed."

"It wasn't my fight," Clark said tightly.

"I thought you reserved the right to intrude upon any altercation. Sanctimonious alien arbitrator that you are."

"I'm not - -" Clark ground his teeth. "That's not what I think."

"No?" Lex asked lightly, not convinced.

Clark had heard the accusations before, but he wasn't in the mood to defend against Lex's assumptions now.

"No," he said softly. Simply. And Lex watched him for a moment, contemplative and didn't press the issue.

It was a surprising reprieve, Lex letting it go, but Clark suspected that had more to do with exhaustion than any lassitude in Lex's opinions. Clark considered slipping into the water, the issue in his pants having receded, and washing off the rest of the accumulated dust, but an influx of bodies into the grotto made him hesitate.

He heard the wary murmuring of men already present, and recognized Sweet sauntering in amidst a larger collection of his cronies than he'd had with him at rations. Maybe fifteen or twenty men, none of which looked to be suffering from the malnutrition that beleaguered so many of the struggling inmates.

Men gathered up clothing and moved away from the lake, scurrying past a group that exuded malicious purpose. A few got shoved as they attempted to pass, to a sprinkling of cruel laughter.

Clark sighed and wrung out his shirt. It was very likely he might have to prove that point sooner rather than later, because Sweet had seen them and was heading their way.

"Lex," Clark warned softly, but Lex had already seen, chin deep in the water. He made no move towards shore, though his eyes narrowed.

Sweet strolled up, his men drifting behind him, casting looks towards those few other men that had not felt inclined to retreat at their appearance.

Clark stood, dripping undershirt in hand and waited.

"You're new here," Sweet remarked, stopping not far from Clark, eyes flicking over his bare torso, the breadth of arms and shoulders, in speculation. "So maybe you don't know, the Grotto here's sort of like a private resort for those that've earned the right. Those that haven't, that come in here and foul our clean water with their stench - - some of us take exception."

"I wasn't aware," Clark said. "I was told this place was open to all."

"Rather ironic, isn't it, you complaining about stench?" Lex drawled from the water and Clark pressed his lips, his little attempt at diplomacy ripped to shreds.

Someone at the back of the pack laughed, appreciating the humor, but it was cut short when Sweet swung his gaze around darkly. Sweet moved past Clark, to the edge of the water, staring down at Lex's lazy drift.

"Why don't you come on out of the water and we can talk about my stench, scut?"

Lex canted his head, considering, then. "I'm fine here, thank you. Perhaps later I can give pointers in basic personal hygiene."

Okay, Lex was trying to start something, of that Clark was sure. He heard the grinding sound of Sweet's molars. But Sweet, like Lex, was not inept at hiding the extent of his agitation. He looked back at his hovering pack with a sly smile.

"Why don't you give it now. Some of the boys are overdue a bath."

He jerked his head, meeting the eyes of a few of the closer inmates. There was guttural laughter, the sort that rolled with anticipation of bad things, and a handful of the men stripped off their clothes in preparation of joining Lex in the water.

Which Lex damn well deserved, having gone out of his way to inflame the situation. A little groping seemed just rewards - - anything more - - damnit, Clark had wanted to avoid a fight, but there were certain things he wasn't willing to allow.

Four big bodies splashed into the water, and Clark heard the faintest of curses from under Lex's breath. Lex moved towards the shore, whatever bluff he'd been playing, called. A big, slick hand reached for him, but he twisted out of the grasp of fingers and climbed onto the shore, dripping and sleek and unnaturally smooth.

Sweet noticed - - they all noticed - - eyes roaming over Lex's body with the sort of appreciative speculation that made Clark think the big inmate was considering things he like to do to it. That same damned muscle that had been getting over time usage since he'd been down here with Lex, began to twitch again in his jaw.

"Damn, scut - - no hair anywhere. That's nice."

Lex pressed his lips, the only sign of annoyance and pulled on his pants, casually, like he didn't have an avid audience.

"Fucking you," Sweet moved closer, inhaling, as if he liked the way Lex smelled. "S'gonna be one smooth ride, eh?"

He reached out, and Lex stepped back, cold eyed and outwardly calm. "I guarantee you, it'll be the last thing you do."

"You think you can take me down, little man?" Sweet laughed, casting an amused look at his pack. They shared his amusement at the improbability.

"I know I can," Lex said, loudly enough for the closest inmates to hear, loud enough to make Sweet swell in anger, over the sleight to his status here.

Damn.

Sweet drew back a fist, preparation for no gentle blow and Clark blew out a breath of irritation and caught it, pulling the big man off balance. Someone in the gathered group cried out, eager for a fray and charged forward. Clark swung Sweet around, into the water with a huge, ungainly splash, and caught the oncoming inmate by the shirt and tossed him that way as well. Somebody broke their knuckles on his abdomen and staggered back, howling - - and Clark regretted that injury, for it would hinder the man's basic ability meet his quota and feed himself without having to resort to the theft of weaker men's labor.

It wasn't quite a brawl, because frankly this was more along the lines of a bunch of guys attacking a steel block that happened to have the ability to toss them around and that type of situation fell short of actual brawling. If Lex had gotten into it, maybe. But Lex just gathered up the rest of his stuff and eased around the edges, while Clark chucked guys into the water and tried to avoid anyone else breaking bones on him.

By the time Lex was out of the grotto, Clark had had enough and used a bit of super speed to extricate himself from the confusion. There was going to be hell to pay for this. Men like Sweet didn't forgive and forget. Not anymore than men like Lex.

Lex gave him a narrowed eyed look when he caught up, and Clark returned it with a frustrated, angry one of his own.

"What the hell was that, Lex? You were trying to piss him off."

Lex shrugged into his over shirt as he walked, not bothering with the buttons. The thin fabric of the shirt underneath soaked up the moisture from his skin.

"You're an idiot," Lex said softly and Clark gaped.

"What?"

"You could have solved the problems of most of the population here by a little slip of the hand - - the accidental use of a bit too much strength."

Clark kept staring, the implication sinking through. He caught Lex's arm, yanking him to a dead halt, shoving him backwards into the tunnel wall as indignation rose. "I'm not a murderer. I don't kill on demand. Not for you. Not for anyone. Not to make life easier."

Lex tried to shove him off, but Clark wasn't moving. He let out a furious hiss and snarled. "Do you think this place gives a fuck about your sense of right and wrong? You think those men don't have blood on their hands? You think they haven't killed and won't kill again to make their lives easier?"

"And you haven't?" Clark spat right back, fingers tightening enough that Lex winced.

"It's called survival, Clark. Most of us don't have the luxury of invulnerability to carry us through."

Clark backed off, shaking his head in incredulity. "You thought - - you really thought I'd take a man's life - -?"

Lex pushed himself off the wall, straightening the lapels of the prison issue shirt like it was hand tailored Italian silk. He eyed Clark warily, as if he expected to be pushed back again, but the initial rage had dimmed and Clark was feeling inexplicably bruised.

"I thought," Lex started carefully, then looked away, brow furrowing as if the words that generally never failed him, had suddenly become scarce. "I thought wrong. Obviously. A lapse in judgment. I'm sorry."

Lex brushed past him, jaw clenched tight, heart thudding fast beneath his ribs. Uncharacteristic. When Lex lied nowadays, he never gave tells. There probably wasn't a lie detector made that could catch him in a falsehood he really wanted to keep. Maybe it was the truths that riled him.

"Really?" Clark asked, with a weird little sprig of hope, but common sense and past experience bittered it. "Sorry for trying to make me a murderer or sorry you got caught at it?"

Lex's step faltered, but he didn't respond. Clark stood there a moment longer, wondering how desperate a man might be, that was out numbered and out gunned and the target of malicious intent, with only mortal strengths to rely on to defend himself against attackers that had no interest in reason or logic. Even a virtuous man might succumb to despicable acts to avoid the sorts of things Sweet and his cohorts promised.

One whose associations with virtue were few and far between - - well, there was no telling what that sort of man would do to protect his most personal of interests.


Leaving Lex on his own that night, no matter how badly Lex had pissed him off with the stunt at the grotto, was not something Clark was prepared to do. Not and be able to live with himself if Sweet and his men took their vengeance while he was elsewhere. He could brood just as well within easy range of Lex as he could alone up on the abandoned upper levels where no one else could disturb him.

Lex was a conundrum. Had been since the day Clark met him, back when the earnestness had been just as strong as the complications. Back when the plots hadn't been so thick, nor so complicated and so many of the ones that had existed had revolved around - - well around Clark. Looking back, it was almost sort of flattering - - to be the center of so much obsession. Of Lex's obsession. Looking back, it had never been a malicious interest, because Lex Luthor had never attacked Clark Kent personally - - not really. Not after he'd found out the truths Clark had tried to keep from him for all those friendly years. He'd just backed off - - leaving Smallville - - leaving the wellspring of all those secrets he'd fought to learn like a man escaping some great hurt.

Oh, he'd attacked Superman. He had tried to vilify Superman, and plotted against Superman. Attacked Superman's cohorts and Superman's interests when it suited him. Made some not entirely rational moves where Superman was involved and over all made Superman's life more complicated.

There had never been anyone, in all Clark's life, both before and after becoming Superman that he'd wanted to throttle so badly. That he'd wanted with just as much intensity to save from themselves. Even though that later mindset didn't always rise to the surface when he was freshly irritated by this scheme of Lex's or that. It would always seep back though, when the heat of the battle had faded, creeping through the seams of the armor plating that he'd built up over the years of dealing with things more terrible than he ever could have imagined when he was all of twenty-one and naïve and optimistic. When he'd see Lex at a press conference, not doing anything more notorious than pimping a new LexCorp project or read a quote Lex made to some contemporary or see a picture in the society pages, where Lex Luthor's more personal exploits were like crack to a city full of gossup hungry addicts. Or even and this was embarassing - - on those rare occasions when Superman was devoid of actual superheroing tasks to occupy him - - and he might happen to find himself in the vicinity of LexCorp tower with nothing better to do than hover and spy through the walls at a man that really was a workaholic, considering how many willing sycophants he had just waiting to do his bidding.

Those were the times Clark really did wallow in the mud pit of lost chances and regret.

So Clark followed Lex, to a dark, unfriendly niche where only the barest illumination of a battered light panel reached. Lex didn't comment when Clark sank down against the wall across from him. Despite certain indications, Lex wasn't masochistic enough to want the predators to find him alone.

He did a good job of ignoring Clark though, using his teeth to tear open the foil packet of salve he'd tucked away in the crude inside pocket of the shirt. Dabbed a little on his fingers and painted the worst of the blisters on his hands, before carefully folding the little packet of salve and returning it to the pocket. There wasn't enough of the cloth gauze to be frugal with, barely enough for a single pass around each hand. Enough to keep the dirt out until Lex's own enhanced healing kicked in and closed the open wounds.

It might have been cold - - Clark sometimes had trouble differentiating between minor temperature changes - - because Lex tucked his newly bandaged hands under the lapels of his shirt, drawing in upon himself subtly, like a man trying to protect himself from the elements. It had been warm in the grotto, a comfortable place to sleep for those willing to fight for the right. Everywhere else was inhospitable. Cold. Hard. Dismal.

Clark thought of the skirmish at the lakeshore and the blatant manipulation that had inflamed it. Sweet might have come in and started it, but Lex had seen to it that it got out of hand. Lex had to have known the chances of Clark playing his game were slim - - had to have known inciting Sweet and his pack had more of a chance of backfiring and coming back to bite him in the ass, than Clark taking care of the problem for him permanently. He'd just as well put a bullet or two in a gun, spun the chamber and taken his chances with the muzzle against his head. Because if he hadn't been a target before - - he was one now.

"Are you insane or just suicidal?" Clark asked bluntly, breaking the rock muffled silence.

Lex canted his head, the shadow of a wan smile crossing his lips. "On occasion. Not this year."

Clark blinked, not quite having expected that. Not quite able to wrap his mind around the concept. "You're not serious?"

Lex leaned his head back against the rock, the quiet lengthening. His heartbeat was a calm, steady thing dancing in tempo with the rush of his blood. If Clark could only focus his hearing to discern the inner workings of a mind, he thought he might banish the confusion that tended to come hand in hand with in depth conversations with Lex.

Finally, Lex canted his head, pools of shadow where his eyes ought to be, and said. "Here's an interesting fact. Did you know that 96.6 percent of all the people effected by the Kryptonite radiation that came hand in hand with your arrival have suffered some degree of mental break?"

Clark swallowed, that old guilt rearing its ugly head. "No. I didn't know that," he said softly. Not the exact numbers at any rate. He knew well enough, from bitter experience that the majority of Smallville mutants tended towards acts of extremity. One way or another.

"I do," Lex laughed, low, humorless. "I've done studies, you know. Kept track. I had reason, being one of those statistics. One of your casualties." He paused long enough to let that sink it, to let Clark shift uncomfortably, because he knew - - he damn well knew - - that Clark willingly took the blame for those tragedies. For those ruined lives.

"I always assumed," Lex went on. "That I was one of that 4.4 percentage - - one of the sane ones, who's minds were able to cope with the mutations of the body. I used to tell myself that my - - darker moments were the result of inherited genetics rather than outside alteration - - my family tree isn't exactly filled with shining examples of stability, after all. But lately sometimes, I'm not so sure."

Clark opened his mouth, feeling the need to say something- - even though nothing seemed entirely appropriate. He had no idea whether this were some twisted attempt to manipulate - - to engage his guilt for some purpose of Lex's - - or whether it was some sort of fatalistic admission, prompted by fatigue and stress and the simple virtue of this place. God knew, he'd questioned Lex's sanity on occasion. Denying it would be a little too polite for their current relationship. Still, Clark had always possessed the innate need to placate when his ire wasn't up - - which was maybe why he had always gotten along so well with Lois. Oil and water and all that.

"Isn't questioning sanity a good sign that you have it?"

But Lex waved a hand, a tired motion for silence that Clark reluctantly granted him, uneasy with Lex's strange admission. Maybe Lex was uneasy with it as well. Maybe he regretted making it at all. But it was hard to tell, with his face sheltered in shadow, all the tiny little gives that most people would never pick up on, but that Clark still recognized, hidden.

Clark listened to the night sounds in the mines instead of dwelling on it - - those terrible quiet noises desperate men made. Heard footsteps scuffling not far from their little offshoot tunnel. They passed on and he tried to relax. And couldn't, Lex's words curling in his head like sly little weeds trying to invade a peaceful garden.

"Why did you tell me that?" He couldn't not voice it anymore and Lex rolled his head, staring at him through the darkness.

"Why are you here?" Lex came back with a question of his own. Clark didn't understand. Being anywhere else, while this place teamed with threat was incomprehensible. You'd think Lex, who made a habit of studying his enemies, who know Clark well enough to have figured that one out.

"Did you want me to leave?" He sounded a sullen, even to himself, asking it.

"I want you to shut up. I'm tired and unlike you, I require sleep."

Clark pressed his mouth, no comeback for that.

He didn't sleep. He couldn't find the right frame of mind. Couldn't find that place where his mind let his body relax enough to slumber. He could go for maybe six or seven days, in a pinch, without. He'd clocked it - - on those occasions where he hadn't even had this much dubious peace to allow himself to rest. After that, he'd start to feel the fatigue. He'd start making bad decisions. And Superman's bad decisions usually had pretty crappy consequences.

He listened to the sound of Lex eventually succombing to what Clark couldn't find. Heard the subtle change in the rhythm of Lex's breathing, as Lex sat there, slumped against a rock wall, in the sort of protective posture a man used when he was at war with the world. But gradually that deteriorated, Lex lisping to the side, no longer looking like a man at war with anything. Just looking cold and exhausted enough to sleep on unwelcoming stone. Looking fragile and human - -not at all like the veneer Lex liked to flash at the world when he was at the top of his game - - whatever game he happened to be playing at any given moment.

Not so many hours later, Clark's internal clock concurred with the subtle brightening of the wall panels. The sun was rising out there, beyond the crusts of rock and earth that entombed all the men down here. He stretched his hearing, hearing the occasional chip chip of some night shifter picking away at rock, but for the most part the mines were draped in that tentative sort of quiet that occurred in in-between times. A fragile peace that wouldn't last.

He glanced at Lex, curled fetally against the wall, arm under his head, knees drawn up, eyes rolling under his lids in the depths of REM sleep.

Fifteen minutes in the wan early morning sunlight that penetrated the upshot shaft he'd found, while the majority of this place slumbered, and he could clear his head.

He raced that way, dust stirring in his wake, and hovered in the shaft, freedom a patch of a wan blue sky overhead. All he'd have to do is shoot upwards and he'd have it. There would only be one sacrifice to his flight, and then he could figure out a way to save the others.

He shut his eyes, turning his face up to catch a precious ray of light. He had never understood the mindset of sacrificing the few for the many instead of fighting with your last breath to save the all. One sacrifice was too much.

Lex was awake when he returned. Sitting against the wall turning the bracelet on his wrist. He looked up at Clark, quiet speculation in eyes Clark realized were the exact wan blue of the patch of morning sky above the shaft. He didn't say anything, but there was something there, in his expression that hinted at things that wanted out.

They walked to the hub in silence. Not one mention of the conversation last night. But Lex didn't rebuff Clark's company. In fact there was a strange sort of easiness to the quiet this morning that sparked a margin of familiarity in Clark. Old memories that tended to bring with them a prick of hurt like most recollections of cherished things lost did.

The tension in the air grew though, as they began passing men on their own way to or from the hub. Stares followed them, most frightened and wary, others plainly hostile. All of them tinged with expectation, like prisoners watching a death row walk. The word was out then, that the two new inmates were on the hit list of the prison mine's top dog.

If the guards at the hub, knew or cared, they gave no sign of it, hulking and bored with their task of seeing the bracelets of inmates scanned before they were allotted tools and carts.

Lex loitered near the moving conveyers that fed through channels in the wall towards the great machine they'd seen on the way into the mines. Clark saw Keever amidst a group of other slow moving inmates and veered towards him. He was determined to help where he could and if these men allowed it, he'd steer them towards easy to access, rich veins.

But Keever scowled at Clark's opening 'hey', and Clark stalled at the looks of almost panic that crossed the faces of the nervous group at his approach.

"Can't talk to you," Keever muttered, shuffling into the line to get carts with the others without meeting Clark's eyes.

Clark ground his teeth, understanding well enough that these men were terrified to be seen associating with him. Afraid they'd bring the wrath of the gangs down upon them. He looked around the long, low ceilinged chamber and saw figures here and there at the edges, watching the movements of the rest, with no real purpose to their movements save for intimidation. Like corner bullies on the bad side of town, their very presence darkening the tone of a neighborhood.

"You realize," Lex commented, coming up from behind, pushing a cart that made somewhat less of a clatter than the one he'd had yesterday. "That there are more of you then there are of them."

Keever was trying not to look at him, the others were, but Lex had that type of voice, the tone, the inflections he effortlessly wove into words that tended to make people pause and listen.

"You don't have to be a muscle bound thug," Lex glanced at Clark as if in example and Clark pressed his lips in irritation. "To wield power. Solidarity often proves more successful. As long as you act like prey, you'll never be anything more."

He pushed his cart past casually, having imparted that bit of advice with the same degree of indifference he might have used in a comment about the weather to a wall street contemporary he'd happened to pass on the street.

"Do I call you names?" Clark complained catching up outside the hub, because, really, he never had been much into verbal sparring and Superman barely stuck around to speak at all in the pursuit of his duties. Superman didn't react much one way or the other in response to vicious jibes, sensationalist stories, rumors or accusations. He was above it, doing what needed to be done and ignoring the rest. Well, at least that was the face he put forth to the world. Clark Kent wasn't above reading a quote that smacked of defamation, or an article that blatantly misstated the truth or scandalous speculation about some intimately personal preference of Superman and getting his nose out of joint.

"You generally have a tone that aggravates me, does that count?" Lex remarked without turning or slowing down, but Clark could almost feel the little wave of satisfaction that radiated off him.

"I'm doing something right, then," Clark muttered.

Lex did glance back then, brow cocked as if he were deliberating how to take Clark's surly comment. The corner of his mouth twitched, a hint of humor that lacked the usual dark irony, before he turned back around.

They passed the entrances to shafts that the various gangs had claimed for their own, and men watched them pass with dangerous, sullen glares. The place Clark had dug yesterday, where he'd loosened hard rock to find a rich vein had been claimed by a group of men that bristled threateningly as they moved by. Lex chose a spot, not much further on, that was free of other inmates.

Lex did not ask for Clark's help in spying an easy place to dig, just gingerly took hold of his pick with still bandaged hands and prowled down the shaft eyeing the formation of rock as if he were seeking some weak point.

Clark idly whittled away at rock, in no particular hurry to fill his cart, when Lex wasn't making much headway. He wasn't particularly willing to leave Lex to turn in his load, not with the looming threat of Sweet's retaleation. Doing nothing though, was by far harder work than toiling away filling cart after cart. Clark, being farm raised, had been nurtured at the teat of a good, hard, honest day's work. Loitering in a mine shaft, waiting for someone else to fill a quota was making him antsy.

"Why are you dawdling?" Lex asked him once, when Clark had wondered up the shaft to where Lex had decided to dig. "Shouldn't you have filled a dozen or so carts by now? Who's going to feed all the starving inmates if you don't earn your chits?"

"They survived well enough before I got here," Clark said defensively and frowned when Lex raised a dubious brow, because really, most of the men here weren't surviving that well at all and Clark hated that. He hated being torn between the out of the blue desire to protect Lex and the driving need to contribute what small bit he could to the weak and the starving.

"Stop hovering, Clark," Lex snapped, turning back to his attempts at prying out a large chunk of ore from the rock. "I'm not your girlfriend."

Clark pressed his lips. There hadn't been any attempts against them all morning - - not even bullies on the prowl near their area. And Lex was right, he was hovering like a mother hen. It wasn't like he couldn't keep an ear out for trouble and be back here in a lean second, if needed.

"I don't have a girlfriend." He had no earthly idea why he felt the need to specify that and the moment he uttered the last word, enough embarrassment rose that a little physical action was needed to distract from it. He punched a fist into the section Lex had been chipping away at and dragged out a huge tumble of ore riddled rock. Lex had to jump back to avoid the little landslide and by the time he'd finished cursing, Clark had retreated back to his own cart down the tunnel.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

He berated himself for the utter lack of obsticals between foot and mouth the whole way to the hub. Like Lex Luthor needed that bit of personal information. Half the literate world assumed Superman and Lois Lane were an item - - hell, Lois even half thought it, even though he'd never done so much as kiss her with the suit on. It had been a little creepy, the way she walked all over him when he was just him compared to the way she idolized the man with the AI altered features. Even when he'd thought he might like her that way, before he'd figured out that there just wasn't a sexual zing in it for him, it had sort of felt like cheating on himself. And the lying to her thing hadn't helped, either.

But he'd never done anything to dissuade the notion. Maybe it was a kind of safety zone thing - - the assumption that he was attached kept the gossip rag speculation to a minimum and decreased the number of women - - and men - - that threw themselves at him when he hung around long enough for them to make a go at it. He hated it, being an object of adoration. If Superman could have operated in the dead of night, clinging to the shadows like certain other cowled crimefighters in his acquaintance, he would have. Unfortunately the types of things he was really good at dealing with didn't always happen under the cover of darkness.

None of which explained away that sudden burning urge to clarify to Lex, that no indeed, there was no woman in his life. Even though, Clark thought dourly as he dumped his ore on the conveyer in the hub, there had been a time when he'd used to bemoan that fact almost daily to the sympathetic ear of a younger Lex Luthor.

Lex was still sorting through rock. Clark could hear the slightly elevated beat of his heart and the occasional chip chip of pick ax as he separated rock from ore in the hillock of loosened material Clark had created for him. Lex might be stubborn, but he was practical. He might resent Clark's help, but he wasn't about to walk away from what would have taken him hours to break apart on his own.

He kept an ear out, tucked his cart into an out of the way niche and went to do a little charity work amongst men that weren't so hard to please.

Well, yesterday they hadn't been. Today, they were scared to breath the same air he did and it was hard to get close enough to even lend a helping hand if he didn't use super speed. It was disheartening. He could promise to try and protect these men from the violence that was an everyday thing here - - but even he couldn't be everywhere at once. And he already had one not entirely willing charge.

Those were the sorts of promises that were inevitably broken, because there was only so much fighting human nature and when men wanted to do harm badly enough, they generally found a way.

With that thought in mind, he fetched his cart and headed back to where he'd left Lex.


No move was made against them while they worked that day. Clark filled another cart or two while Lex was topping off his first and they made that last trip back to the hub in silent company. Lex hardly had the breath to spare for talk regardless. If breaking the rock to find ore was difficult, after a day working at it, the trip back, pushing a fully loaded cart was enough to drain whatever reserves a normal man might have left over from the task. Then there was the uphill slant towards the hub to deal with and no few men rasped brokenly in the effort, bodies quaking with depleted strength.

Clark grasped the front of Lex's cart with one hand while he guided his own with the other and got no complaint, save a flash of weary blue eyes for the unasked for assistance. Once they were on the flat ground of the hub chamber he let go and struck off ahead to dump his ore. He nodded once to the hulking form of Darox, who stood watch over the intake of ore. The big guard didn't acknowledge him at all.

Lex was loitering once more, around the bare hint of mechanism visible at the edge of the active conveyer. So Clark moved back down into the tunnels leading in, to lend a helping hand to some of the weakest of the struggling inmates. He took no small amount of verbal abuse doing it from men not only wary of his status as marked man, but of theft of their hard-earned ore. But Clark was nothing if not determined in his acts of much needed aid.

When the pick ax hit him dead between the shoulder blades he was just inside the northern most tunnel leading down out of the hub. He had just given a cart pushed by a deathly skinny pair of inmates a helping shove to send up on its way uphill and had turned to scan the downward slope for anyone else in dire need of help.

The blow connected and he heard a man yelp in surprise as the pick rebounded. He spun, grabbing the pick by the handle, wrenching it out of the hands of the man who'd swung it - - a man big enough to be surprised that his blow hadn't made a dent.

Clark tossed the pick aside and grabbed the man by his dirty collar and someone else came at him from behind. Several some ones converging out of the little groups of men loitering in the shadows of the tunnel. Clark took another blow without attempting to avoid it - - trying to figure out the best way to diffuse this without inflicting serious injury.

He shoved a man backwards, into the arms of his fellows and stopped another swing from a pickaxe by catching the tip of the thing inches from his head. They were aiming deathblows at him - - because no one of those impacts from the axes would have been survivable by a normal man.

A sudden spur of realization struck. If they were attacking him - - trying to get him out of the way - - it might very well be a two-pronged operation. If they took Clark down, then it would leave Lex open to attack.

He shoved a man backwards, feeling a little less inclined to gentleness and focused his hearing and his sight. Lex wasn't in the hub anymore. And for a second, amidst a sea of thudding heartbeats of exhausted men, Clark couldn't find him. Panic surged. But, the rock wasn't riddled with ore here, this close to the hub, and his vision accomplished what his hearing couldn't.

There, down one of the southern tunnels and not alone.

Clark ground his teeth and shrugged off his attackers. The tunnel practically shook with the speed of his departure and men no doubt stared in suspicious curiosity at the wind that rippled their prison issue clothing as he passed through the hub and into the southern tunnel.

Lex was against the wall, three guys surrounding him, two of them sporting bloody noses. Lex wasn't exactly a pushover, but he was only human and he was outnumbered and it looked as if he'd already taken damage. That was clear from the blood trickling down his chin and the dazed look in his eyes. A fist was connecting even as Clark sped onto the scene, a solid hit that doubled Lex over into the arms of one of the men that was helping pin him against rock.

Sweet wasn't there, and these guys weren't using weapons assured to kill, so Clark could only assume that though his attackers had been sent to kill him outright, these had orders only to rough up Lex. Apparently Sweet had plans for Lex that went beyond a quick death. Just a beat down to deliver a message.

Clark yanked two of them off, a collar in each fist, and tossed them halfway down the tunnel, all his consideration for frail human flesh and bone pushed back by that rage that came upon him sometimes when people that were his got hurt. Only it didn't make sense here, because Lex wasn't one of his people. Not like his mom, or Lois or Chloe or the handful of other individuals that he'd allowed past his defenses and made himself vulnerable over.

Lex was just - - Lex. Infuriating. Frustrating. Confusing as hell. Apart from all of them - - this unique entity that made the lines blur.

The other two backed off, scavengers caught in the act by something bigger and badder, and they scrambled off, not even pausing in their flight to help their comrades up off the tunnel floor. He could hear the patter of their feet as they staggered off, but they weren't his concern, all his focus zeroing on the man in front of him. He reached for Lex, panicked at the blood and Lex was maybe in enough blind pain that he tolerated it - - a few bizarre moments where Clark forgot his grudges and the reasons for them, and just held on to Lex. Solid warm weight that fit well in his arms. Only Lex, being Lex stiffened, as soon as he got his breath and pushed away, choosing the wall over Clark to lean against while he drew in lungfuls of air.

The offended dignity fairly radiated off him, and something else that was angry and terse and not open to conversation. Clark wanted to shake him a little himself, for ill-timed pride, because Lex's legs were wobbling and he was too shades whiter than his normal shade of pale, which made the blood dribbling down his chin all the more stark. And maybe Lex wasn't used to trusting anyone with his weaknesses, but there was a point when putting up a front became just plain stupid.

Clark scanned him, looking for broken bones or internal bleeds and found none - - small favor in this place that had no medical facility - - and tried to make himself relax. Him tense and angry and Lex tense and angry did not a good combination make.

"Are you okay?"

Lex scowled at him and even Clark thought the answer to that one was pretty obvious.

"I'm sorry," Clark started, a huge tide of guilt rising that he hadn't been fast enough or paying close enough attention and had let this happen.

Lex broke into the case Clark was building against himself with a furious jab of the hand. "Don't you dare. You're not responsible for me. You're not responsible for them, you pompous ass. If I wanted a fucking savior I'd take up religion. Get it?"

Clark stood there, hands shaking, this coil of something almost anger, but not quite quivering in his gut. He'd been worried, damn it. Scared even, and it escaped him why, because Lex didn't appreciate it and all Clark got for his trouble was hostility.

The blood had dripped down to Lex's shirt now, big droplets of it, soaked up by coarse material. Lex's hands were trembling too, when he pushed himself off the wall. He staggered a step, face tightening with pain, and Clark had to stop himself from reaching out to steady him.

"What happened to your shirt?" Lex asked.

Clark blinked, still reeling from the verbal bitch slap and not following the topic change.

"Rip in the back," Lex clarified.

"They attacked me, too," Clark said sullenly.

Lex looked at him a moment longer, incomprehensible blue eyes, then lifted a hand to wipe at the blood on his chin. He stared at the red coating his fingers for a moment, brows crinkling at either the blood or the way his hand shook, then wiped them off on the dirty gauze still wrapped around his right hand.

He drew a deep breath, winced at the expansion of his chest as if it hurt, hissed it out through his teeth and said, "I hate - -"

Then he broke off, scowling and Clark finished the thought for him bitterly. "Me?"

"Having to depend on you," Lex said, a great deal of the anger that had been in his voice, replaced by weariness. He shook his head, as if there were battalions of arguments and reasons behind that statement that he was simply too tired and too hurt to summarize. He wiped another dribble of blood from the side of his mouth and stared at it resentfully. "I hate not having options that don't include me as somebody's bitch. I hate not knowing what this place is or why. I hate not having an inkling of control. I hate being - -"

He trailed off with another hissing breath. But Clark knew what he'd been about to say. Helpless. Lex hated being helpless and at the mercy of someone else's good will and it was driving him mad.

"I'm going to try café Hell again," Lex said, quieter still, and looked almost as if he might say more, but pressed his lips and started down the tunnel instead.

Clark stood there a moment, breathing hard for no reason - - thinking he should turn around and go do something for someone who might appreciate it and leave Lex to his just desserts. Only, he'd never been able to abandon Lex to calamity, even when the calamity was of Lex's own making. Clark wasn't capable of that much disregard. And maybe he could comprehend some of the bad temper better new. If he'd found himself in similar straits, dependant on an enemy in a hostile environment, he might be a tad frustrated, as well.

He unclenched his fists and trailed after Lex.

Lex stopped at one of the little natural springs flowing out of a crevice in the tunnel wall and washed the blood off his face and hands. He scowled at the spots on his shirt, but there was little enough to be done about it then, with only a weak thread of water available.

Though the ration's center was not thug free, there was no overt sign of Sweet or Sweet's men - - at least no threatening move was made against Clark or Lex as they entered the wide, low-ceilinged chamber. Stares still followed them and men still made the effort to avoid standing too close, but Clark didn't particularly mind the distance just then, when he was feeling - - regardless of his dressing down by Lex - - still a bit protective. And despite that same dressing down, Lex hadn't protested Clark's company. Following Lex's mood changes was like following a particularly eely game of te'shal, a Kryptonian game of strategy that the AI kept trying to get Clark to master, despite the mind numbing complexities of the game. Lex, Clark thought dourly, probably would have loved te'shal.

Lex stopped short on his way away from the ration's window, path intercepted by a huge inmate and reflex or maybe jangled nerves made Clark step close, his bread bowl forgotten at the window. It wasn't one of Sweet's men - -at least Clark didn't think so - - but the big inmate that had jostled him the first day in the hub. Kraiser, he thought the name was.

Kraiser didn't threaten, just looked down at Lex, and a little less further down at Clark at his back with a dim glint of speculation in his small eyes, then he nodded once, almost like some grudging acknowledgement of respect before lumbering off.

So maybe word had started to spread that an attempt had been made and failed and that they were no easy targets after all.

Lex didn't look at Clark at all, just set his jaw and resumed moving, and Clark hurriedly turned back to get his supper, but it was gone, swiped when his back was turned. He thrust his bracelet under the scanner and got another one and sat down across from Lex at the unoccupied stretch of table that Lex had claimed.

Lex was glowering at his stew, stumped perhaps at the lack of utensils and Clark was not so big a man that he didn't get a sliver of enjoyment out of it. He tore off a hunk of bread from the top of the bowl and dug it, along with the tips of his fingers into the lumpy gravy, then sucked the lot into his mouth. Lex's frown deepened, the edges stained with disgust.

"Its not so bad," Clark said helpfully, licking stew off his fingers. "Sort of tastes like turnips in sawmill gravy. I've tasted worse &endash; those first few years in the city - - before I learned to cook - - definitely, this could be worse."

Something was muttered under Lex's breath, but Clark was too busy eating to pay attention. Eventually Lex followed his suit, albeit more particularly, tearing his bread into even sized chunks and trying to avoid gravy on his fingers. Which was a losing campaign, because no matter how you sliced it, eating stew without a spoon was a messy proposition. Not having eaten for two days did wonders to diminish what probably been pretty snobbish eating habits, because Lex didn't leave scraps and watching him suck gravy off his fingers - - well, it wasn't something Clark would have assumed to be as fascinating as it turned out to be.

"See, not so terrible, huh?" Clark said, because he had to say something to detract from the fact that he'd been staring. Lex looked up at him, something nasty maybe on the tip of his tongue, because Lex didn't like to be proven wrong about anything. But he shrugged finally, and surprised Clark with an arch of one brow and wry little twitch of a smile.

"No, it was awful. But like you, I've had worse things in my mouth."

"Oh? Really?" Clark lifted both brows, his recent interest with Lex's mouth driving his curiosity. There were very few things that trumped food in the animal part of Clark's brain, but occasionally sex was one of those things - - and had that been some sort of dry sexual innuendo? - - because really, it might very well have been.

"Were you planning on feeding the masses?" Lex asked.

Clark blinked, thoughts derailing. It took a moment for him to get back on track and process what Lex had asked. He looked around the room, at the furtive figures around the edges. And those were the bold ones, the ones that risked coming here at all in the hopes of getting scraps from stronger men.

"There won't be much mass feeding today." Clark tapped his bracelet. "I only turned in four - - five carts."

Lex rolled his eyes.

"Its not a spit in the bucket," Clark frowned, mood darkening. "I can't allow this place to continue on."

"How lucky for them then, that you happened to drop by and get your moral indignation feathers ruffled."

"You're one of them, you know." Clark gave Lex the Superman stare and Lex shrugged, dismissing it.

"I like to consider myself apart from the flock."

"You like to consider yourself a lot of things," Clark said, offended and not even sure why, when Lex had certainly said worse things to him. "It doesn't mean it's so."

Clark rose, striding to the rations window somewhat stiffly - - because Lex was no doubt watching with those condescending blue eyes of his - - and Lex thought he had a savior complex and maybe he was right. It didn't change anything. He wasn't going to not do the little bit he could do without endangering the whole population of the place just to prove the smug bastard wrong.

He got bread and cheese, because it was easier to divide. He had enough chits for two portions each and stalked out of the distribution chamber without a backwards glance at Lex. If Lex wanted to linger and take his chances alone, that was fine with Clark too. Lex was wily enough to take care of himself and Lex didn't want a savior, and maybe if Clark hadn't been baby sitting Lex all day, he'd have had a lot more chits to turn into the food some of these men so desperately needed. Besides, he could assuage his pride and stalk away in righteous indignation to do his good deeds and still keep an ear out for trouble.

Men might be wary of getting on Sweet's bad side by being seen with him, but they weren't shy in accepting his food. He did what he could. Maybe six guys that looked as if they were on their last legs got scraps, but it was better than nothing.

Tomorrow he'd do better. Maybe even tonight, while most of the place slept, he'd join the solitary night shifters and turn in a few carts of ore to get ahead of the game. Or maybe he'd just prowl the tunnels and see if he could put a stop to some of the more depressing sounds that echoed through the warren of rock at the height of darkness.

He did for a while, but it was a quiet night, and it was hard to tell which moans and grunts were consensual and which weren't when there weren't outright screams involved. Clark wasn't keen on interrupting someone's only outlet for comfort in this place by mistake. He found a dead body down one of the narrow shafts between wider tunnels, a bone thin, weathered man with a bloody dent in the side of his skull, stripped of his prison issue clothing, only the dull grey prison band left to adorn his body. The blood was long dried, so the body had been there for a while.

Clark went to the hub and reported it to the night shift guard, but the big man showed little enough interest at the news. "Take it to the pit, if it bothers you. Otherwise leave it and we'll sweep it up when the band stops registering in a few days."

In a few days, it would be putrid and a health hazard and the last thing this place needed were more health hazards. Clark glowered darkly and asked where the pit was.

He went back, collected the body and carted it down two levels to a gaping ravine that split a huge natural chamber ripe with stalagmites and stalactites. This apparently was the burial ground for deceased inmates. Ignominious disposal down a chasm deeper and darker than Clark's vision could easily discern. He could fly down there and deposit the body more gently, but honestly, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to see what rested at the bottom.

It wasn't like a gentle landing would make a difference any more to this poor man. A helping hand when he'd still been alive would have come in handier. He let the body drop and watched it fall into darkness.

He went to the place he'd rested last night, uneasy visions of more familiar bodies plunging lifelessly to the depths plaguing his imagination. Lex wasn't there and that worried him. Lex couldn't have been foolhardy enough to have gone to the grotto alone - - could he?

Clark listened for the sound of his heartbeat and found it readily enough, steady and calm. Not entirely at rest, which meant Lex wasn't asleep somewhere else, but on the move. Heading closer, from the sound of it.

Clark waited, skulking in the shadows like an impatient thief, because tracking Lex down before he got there would have been just shy of pitiful.

He stepped out when Lex reached the little crevice in the tunnel that led to the place they'd slept, and Lex drew breath, pace faltering for a moment in surprise at Clark's unexpected presence, then he narrowed his eyes in irritation and brushed past.

"Where've you been?" Clark asked and Lex actually laughed, as he wormed his way into the gloom of the little niche.

"You're not serious?"

Actually, Clark was, but he pressed his lips and didn't push it. Lex was in one piece, so at the very least he'd avoided trouble. Which wasn't to say he hadn't instigated some and managed to escape the results personally. Lex was good at that.

Lex eased himself down with the stiff movements of a man twice his age - - or one who'd recently taken a beating on top of experiencing the aching muscles from days of unexpected hard labor.

Clark sank down opposite, the ceiling of this particular little pocket in the rock too low for him to stand without hunching.

He sat in silence for a while, since Lex seemed inclined towards it. Clark was comfortable with silences. He always had been and the older he got the easier he was with the absence of chatter. But there was a tautness to the hush in the air now, that bothered him and sitting across from Lex while it grew would grate on his nerves unless he broke it.

"I found a dead man," Clark said.

"Hm. I'd assume that's no rarity here," Lex commented indifferently, but there was something in his voice that hinted he was relieved at the cessation of silence as well.

"They dispose of the bodies down a ravine a few levels down. They call it the Pit."

"Charming."

"Disposing of bodies - - eventually - - is one thing the guards will do." Clark said. "Apparently, after a day or so of the bracelet not picking up a pulse, it sends a signal."

"Really?" Lex looked up with a glint of interest at that, turning his own bracelet on his wrist. "That long?"

Clark shrugged, his information source having been shaky at best. It was doubtful Lex saw it in the shadows. Neither spoke for a while, the silence-bred tension having lessened.

"I've heard," Lex broke the quiet this time, a carefully modulated question, as if he were afraid to let Clark know just how interested he was in the subject. "That there are sealed chambers of machinery down here."

"There are," Clark said, recalling the various rooms of dusty equipment he'd seen on his first inspection of the mines. "It's all dead though."

Lex sat forward, eyes glinting in the darkness. "You didn't think to mention rooms full of machinery that might hold some clue to the origins of this hell hole or God forbid, a way out?"

Clark narrowed his eyes. "You and I haven't exactly been in a sharing frame of mind lately. Besides, I just said the stuff isn't active. A long time inactive by what I saw."

"Show me." Lex rose considerably faster than he'd eased down, aches and pains overridden by the excitement of some new discovery.

Clark didn't move to rise. "Don't you want to maybe get some rest?"

"Don't presume to tell me what I want. Don't you want to explore the possibility of answers?"

Clark did, but honestly, he wasn't entirely sure he was comfortable with Lex having access to what might possibly be dangerous equipment. On the other hand, what did he have to lose?

"The closest one is good distance," Clark warned.

Lex waved an impatient hand. "Just lead the way."

"Do you want to get there fast or slow?"

"Fast would be preferable, if you think you can talk and walk at the same - -"

Clark took some small bit of pleasure in cutting Lex off mid-complaint by sweeping him off his feet and super speeding towards the older section of tunnels and shafts where the machinery room lay. He'd taken it slow - - honestly, he had - - but there had been enough bends and curves in the path, that when he put Lex down, ten seconds later, Lex staggered, head no doubt swimming as his equilibrium tried to catch up with his body.

"You said fast," Clark said, deadpan, and got a watery glare, before Lex noticed the rusted metal slab blocking the way to the chamber beyond. There were no particular markings on the door, and it looked like it had been slapped on haphazardly, maybe with the sole purpose of keeping unwanteds out of the chamber.

"Open it," Lex ordered.

Clark tightened his mouth at the command, but really, what was the point in balking just because Lex hadn't added a 'please'? He looked for a handhold that didn't involve punching finger holes through the metal, found an indention and pulled.

The high-pitched grating of rust and metal and rock made Clark hunch his shoulders and wince. Bits of debris showered down from the seal where panel had met rock and one of the hinges snapped entirely, making the huge slab of door hang awkwardly. Clark thought he was better off yanking it entirely off and leaning it against the tunnel wall for the time being. When they left he could weld it back in place with his heat vision.

Lex was inside the chamber before he'd finished setting the door aside, squinting through the dust Clark had stirred in the air. There were a few weakly working glow panels inside, but they were so dust covered that not much light seeped through to illuminate large blocks of machinery. The air was stale and had the acidy tinge of rust. Lex made footprints in the dust as he moved forward towards the largest piece of equipment that dominated the room. It didn't look like much of anything that Clark recognized, but then his mechanical abilities extended to trucks and tractors and he hadn't had to fiddle with either in a long time.

"What is it?"

Lex cast him a brief annoyed look, before heading for the closest wall panel and using his sleeve to wipe it clear of dust. He went to the next and Clark sighed and followed suit, cleaning the two working ones on the other side of the room. It didn't help a lot, but maybe come tomorrow when the sun came back out, they would brighten like the ones in the rest the mines.

Lex stood back and stared. One big cylindrical unit with conduits running to a few smaller chunks of machinery as well and through the floor in the walls. It didn't look particularly high tech, but then neither had that massive machine they all worked to feed ore into.

Whatever this room and its quiet machinery had been designed to accomplish, it hadn't done it in a long time.


Lex circled the equipment, a slow examination of the outside shell. Ran his fingers along the edges, brushed dust off panels to reveal incomprehensible foreign markings. He worked off a panel half welded into place by dust and ages of disuse and looked into guts of bundled wire and what might have been circuitry. He pulled out a card embedded with spikes of metal and chips of crystal or glass and flaked off a few spots of rust with a nail.

He frowned, and looked up at the ceiling, where a little cluster of young stalactite formations glistened with moisture and slowly leaked water onto the works below.

Clark leaned against the wall by the door and watched. It was oddly fascinating watching Lex prowl around the old machinery, the subtle concentration of his expression as the gears turned in his head.

"These symbols mean nothing to you?" Lex asked once, with the faintest edge of wariness in his voice, as if he suspected Clark might indeed recognize the foreign script but was hording the knowledge.

"No."

"I think - -" Lex started, trailing the tip of one finger along the engraved lines of one set - - then he stopped, thought unfinished and went to stand before the largest unit.

"Get that panel off for me," he finally said, with that no nonsense tone he probably used with employees who no doubt jumped at his every whim.

It annoyed Clark just a little, who despite long years of working with Lois, who also tended towards bossiness, had been raised to mind his manners.

"What bothers you more about me?" Clark asked. "That I'm an alien with powers beyond human ken, or that I'm an alien with powers beyond human ken that doesn't take orders from you? Because honestly, if I was on your payroll, I'm thinking all your issues would just dry up."

Lex canted his head, mouth pursed thoughtfully. "You know, I think you've hit on something there. The next time I've got a few free hours to donate to absolute whimsy, I'll give the theory some serious thought. But right now, could you please open the damned panel, Clark?"

Clark ground his back teeth a little, muttering. "Was that so hard? Please isn't a curse word."

He moved forward to take stock of the panel in question. This one was barn door sized and bolted on the front of the cylindrical machine. He had to hover to loosen the top bolts and warned Lex back before he pulled the heavy piece away, just in case something else fell loose from the separation.

Nothing did and he moved the big panel against the wall behind its machine while Lex eased back up to stare at the innards.

Huge rotors lay dormant within and beyond them tightly woven coils of dull metal. Dull and splotched here and there with rust and strings of accumulated dust, it looked as if it hadn't turned in more years than Clark had been alive.

Lex laughed. It had just the hint of hysteria to it - -or maybe that was exhaustion showing that Lex had done an admirable job so far at ignoring.

"What?" Clark asked warily.

"It's a flywheel."

Clark looked back at the rotors curiously.

"It's not exactly as high tech as I would have expected," Lex leaned into the gap between rotors to peer at the coils behind them. "But I think this is some sort of flywheel energy storage station. Probably solar powered and probably one of many. I would imagine, from the sporadic quality of the lights though, that most are inactive."

"You wouldn't need this much - -" Clark waved a hand at the equipment around the room. "Stuff - - just to store power for lights."

"No," Lex agreed, a quick white grin passing his lips. "Not even close. It had other functions."

"What other functions?"

"For starters," Lex circled the big flywheel, a gleam of excitement in his eyes as he examined the conduits leading out from it. "I'd bet money that the operation - - or lack thereof - - of this sub-station has a direct correlation to the operation of the tracks out there. I haven't seen any other signs of dead tech sitting around. Have you?"

Clark shook his head negatively. Thinking, while Lex went on about the existence of air purification and other basic life support systems that were obviously working on some front, that getting those tracks working would make life so much easier for those inmates struggling to survive. Half the work was pushing heavy carts back to the hub - - if they could alleviate that chore, weak men might be able to etch out some semblance of a living here.

"Can it be fixed?" he broke into whatever Lex had been going on about.

Lex shrugged, too distracted to mind the interruption. "Maybe. On the upside, lack of proper maintenance might have gummed the flywheel and the rotor components, but that might be corrected - - the downside is that on the other hand it might be a source problem. What if the same neglect practiced here was practiced on the surface and the collection panels have been destroyed?"

Lex held up his braceleted wrist. "That's not something we can rectify."

He went back to the first panel he'd opened on one of the smaller units and pulled out one of the circuitry cards. "Then we just have to hope that the water damage isn't so severe that these can't be cleaned up."

Lex sank down against the wall, the card in his hands, and started flecking away at bits of rust corroding the circuits carefully with his nail. He pulled out the little packet of salve Clark had given him, and the dirty, bloodstained gauze he'd had around his now mostly healed hands, and used it like he might oil, cleaning the outer layer of contamination off fine wiring. He'd need more than a condom-sized package of salve to repair what time and moisture had accomplished here, though.

Clark would see what was available at the commissary. For the time being though, he sat down next to Lex and stared at the machine, following the route of the conduits up through the rock for as far as he could see before the density of the scattered ore hindered his vision. There was another room above this one though, filled with the dim shapes of quiet machinery.

Lex had fine, long fingers, with nails that had probably been perfectly manicured up until a handful of days ago. They were chipped now, with dirt under the nails Lex was using to flake away bits of oxidized metal. Clark watched him work at the circuitry board, unduly fascinated by the methodical movements of clever, pale hands.

A obstinate clump of hardened rust that was firmly set within a cluster of tiny metal prongs made Lex hiss a little under his breath, patience eaten away, no doubt by long hours without rest.

"Let me," Clark offered. His nails were chip proof and harder than diamond tipped drills.

Lex gave him a narrow look, as if he doubted Clark were capable of precision work, but surprisingly enough he relented, handing it over with a wry warning. "Don't gouge a hole through the board. Replacements aren't lining the walls."

Clark picked the clump of rust free without damaging the board and pursed his lips a little smugly at the success. Lex rested his head against the wall, hands lax across his knees, and watched Clark finish up what he'd started.

"I'll need tools," he said finally. "They'll probably need to be made, since I doubt the powers that be would see the need to make anything other than mining oriented gear available through the commissary."

"Okay," Clark agreed. He could mold basic tools by hand out of strips of metal from the door.

"And that, up there," Lex flicked a finger towards the small cluster of stalactites over the generator unit, dripping moisture a slow drop at a time down upon it. "Something needs to be done about that leakage."

Clark narrowed his eyes, finding the fissure that wound its way up through rock to a small channel of ground water. A few carefully applied bursts of intense heat vision would meld the rock and seal the fissure.

"I can fix that," he admitted.

Lex made a soft sound of assent, the frenetic energy he'd been exuding earlier gone quiet and still, dried up now that forward momentum had ceased.

The silence lengthened, absolute if Clark blocked out all but the surface sounds, the ones any normal human man might hear. It was peaceful, here in this dusty, forgotten chamber with its dormant machinery and that was no small feat considering the company. It had been a long time since he'd felt an absence of tension in Lex's presence. Maybe it was just that it had been too many years since they'd had a common purpose.

Lex's head drooped, shoulder slumping sideways just enough to press against Clark's arm. A little electric trill of contact that made Clark's hands still on the circuitry card. Ridiculous, the odd rush of - - something - - that surged under his skin, making goose pimples rise. Like a kid tromping through the forest, catching sight of some elusive wild animal and crouching in the foliage in fear of dashing the moment. Or like that same kid, the first time the girl of his dreams stood close enough that he could smell the scent of her shampoo, terrified that he'd do or say something stupid enough for her to realize she was standing next to an utter idiot, roll her eyes and walk away.

He took a breath, berating himself for still being that fool - - because God - -Lex wasn't any of those things. But still - - still, Clark laid the circuit card down carefully, shifted enough to ease an arm between Lex and the stone wall. A little charity that Lex might not have accepted conscious. It made Clark feel good. Better, when he curled his arm a little and maneuvered into a more comfortable position, Lex a pleasing warm, weight against his side. Far enough away from the dangers of the populated mine to let him close his eyes and relax, no fear of attack coming while he rested.

He drifted, spans of darkness interspaced with jumbled dreams. Woke up slowly, at outside prompting, slumped far down the wall with Lex hooked in the crook of his arm and trying to untangle. Clark blinked, the fog not clearing as rapidly from his mind as it usually did and the lethargy wanting to cling to his body.

Lex paused in his attempts to remove Clark's arm, elbow propped on Clark's ribcage and stared with a furrow between his brows.

Clark expected complaint about waking up tangled with his arch-enemy. What he got was a wary inquiry about the state of his health.

"What's wrong with you?"

Clark blinked again, drawing in a huge breath to clear his head. He loosened what had obviously become, sometime during slumber, a rather determined hold on Lex, and pushed himself into a more vertical sitting position. "Nothing. Just - - tired."

And he was. He felt it in his muscles, that sluggishness that came with rare exhaustion. It was the sunlight. Or the lack of proper exposure to it, that was telling on him.

"You don't get tired," Lex said, then his eyes traveled past Clark to one of the wall panels, which had brightened marginally, a sure sign that they'd slept well into morning. He pressed his lips and looked back to Clark.

"How many days since you've seen the sun? Four, now?"

Clark sighed. It wasn't like Lex hadn't made it his business to know Clark's weaknesses. The yellow sun being the source of his powers was no big secret. Lois had broken that news to the world years ago, during one of those first interviews when Clark had been a little too free sharing personal information.

"Not exactly," Clark admitted. "I found an air shaft to the surface where I've been getting a little sunlight each day."

"Apparently, not enough." Lex deduced, then added cautiously. "How close to the surface?"

"Not so close that I'd risk triggering the sensors," Clark assured him, and Lex pressed his lips, as if Clark picking up on his concern for just that, disconcerted him.

Lex leaned across Clark, reaching for the circuit board Clark had abandoned, shoulder brushing Clark's chest, whisper of cloth ghosting across lower regions. Clark shut his eyes a moment, feeling a completely inappropriate interest stir in his pants. He shoved it away. This usually wasn't a problem - - the out of the blue threat of erection - - otherwise Superman would have had a lot of embarrassing moments, because the uniform really didn't leave much to the imagination. He'd become very, very good at tempering both physical and emotional extremes over the years. He'd had to as his powers had grown, exceeding by leaps and bounds the relatively limited abilities he'd had as a young man. When you could push a small moon out of its orbit, you damn sure better practice strict control when dealing with human beings who could be broken by a simple miscalculation of strength.

So by necessity, it took a lot to get Superman really riled. Lex had always managed it with ease. It was a miracle or some strange twist of a luck that always seemed to have an eye out for Lex's life, even if it didn't always lend its grace to his ventures, that Clark hadn't snapped and seriously hurt him during some of their more violent clashes. There really was no one alive or dead that had ever managed to get under Clark's skin - - one way or another - - as thoroughly as Lex.

He idly wondered if Lex had spent half as much time over the years brooding over Clark as Clark had over him. Thought about it some more and crinkled his brow in unease over the vague curl of satisfaction he felt at the notion.

Generally contemplating Lex's obsessions with him tended to make him justifiably nervous. It had to be the sunlight deficiency messing with his head and if the lack of proper exposure was going to create lapses in good judgment, it just might be more of a problem than he'd thought.

He got up, shaking off the lingering lethargy and considered how much easier his life would be if Lex stayed here and fiddled with the equipment. It was unlikely that Sweet or his men would venture this far out and give him trouble, which would leave Clark free for a nice long stint gathering weak sunlight in the air shaft and then an uninterrupted day filling carts and collecting chits. He'd need to gather a good number now, if he were to continue to do his part to help feed the neediest as well as purchase supplies to help with the renovation of the neglected equipment.

He watched Lex inserting the cleaned circuit board back into its slot and offered his perfectly reasonable option.

"So I hide out here and you bring me back food and supplies?" Lex hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his pants and canted a look that might have been disgust - - Clark wasn't entirely sure, because it really was a good idea and one that worked very much to Lex's benefit - - in Clark's direction.

"Yes," Clark agreed warily, a little distracted by the way Lex's thumb drew down the top of his trousers and revealed a slice of pale flesh. An interesting slice where the hip met the lower abdomen and veered down towards - -

"I don't think so," Lex sniffed disdainfully.

Clark blinked, jerking his eyes back up to Lex's face and let out a breath of frustration. "Why not?"

"Excuse me if the idea of being 'kept' is abhorrent to me. It's entirely possible I'll have to reside here for the foreseeable future and reputation is everything in this sort of society. Being able to walk freely without having to rely on your status to keep the thugs off my back would be preferable. Besides," Lex waved an airy hand. "In a few weeks, if you continue to decline from lack of proper sunlight, you might have to rely on me."

Clark snorted softly. That was unlikely, but he did see Lex's point. He'd gotten knocked down yesterday and Clark could appreciate the idea of getting right back up and showing the population at large that there was no fear. A good front was often as successful in taking control of a situation as simple physical power.

Still, if this sub-station were repairable, the sooner they got it working, the sooner everyone's life would be easier.

"So," Lex said, pushing off the edge of machinery he'd been leaning against and brushing off his hands in the manner of a man with a plan. "Why don't you go do what you need to do in this air shaft you've found, then come find me later in the mines. I'd like to get back here before the light panels dim and have a few hours to work, so I wouldn't be adverse to a little help from you finding a vein and filling a cart to further those ends."

Clark set his jaw at Lex's assumption that he'd jump because Lex commanded it. Simple male ego was no less prominent in Kryptonian's than humans. Lex had his pride and Clark was not devoid of his own and Clark's plan hadn't been that terrible, Lex's reputation issues aside.

"Why don't you stay here while I recharge and then we'll go back to the hub together." Clark felt the need to make a counter offer.

Lex breezed past him, towards the shaft outside the machine chamber, apparently in no mood for negotiation. "No. Put the door back when you leave just in case."

Clark ground his teeth, thinking curse words that he'd never actually say. His irritation was soothed somewhat when Lex stopped at the intersection of paths thirty feet down the tunnel, perplexed. Clark hadn't given him much time to take note of the passage on the way here.

Clark stepped out into the tunnel, a smile that was completely beyond his control widening his lips. Lex's expression darkened, faced with two choices. Either wander around, aimlessly lost- - and the chances of there were high since there were a lot of abandoned shafts and tunnels at this end of the mine - - or ask Clark for directions.

They stood there for a moment, at an impasse that only one of them had much appreciation for, until Lex finally hissed through his teeth and snapped. "How do I get back?"

"Left past six intersections. At the seventh one take the right passage. Take the fifth left down and there'll be a long stretch of track that will eventually feed out to the active mine." Clark had impeccable memory for things like that. There wasn't a place on earth or off, once visited, that he couldn't find his way back to.

"Did you need me to repeat?" He asked sweetly. Lex just narrowed his eyes and stalked off down the left passage. Clark's grin widened, the first real rush of amusement he'd felt since coming here.

It would take Lex at least a half hour/forty-five minutes to reach the populated mine, which gave Clark a great deal of leisure to reach his little air shaft and hover in the wan light. Lex was right, he hadn't been spending enough time absorbing these foreign rays to fully gain the energy his body demanded. He wasn't sure if it were the nature of this sun's radiation or simply the filtered measure of it he was allowing himself, but if he were to stave off the dwindling of his strength, he'd need to allow himself more time here.

Or find a more direct source.

.

 

 

 

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