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Quality Time

by P L Nunn


Chapter Eight


"Don't shoot the messenger," Chloe said with a weak smile, hands held out placatingly, as if she expected Clark to jump down her throat for being the bearer of disconcerting news.

"I'm not - -" Clark took a breath, focusing his vision through the wall to follow Lana down the driveway towards her car. This was not a conversation he needed her inadvertently walking in on. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having period.

Especially not second hand.

"No shooting. I'm not angry at you." Not unless she'd known all along and only just decided to spill. Then he might be justifiably mad. "How long have you known about all of this?"

"I just found out," she assured him. "I was doing some digging about the thing in Mexico and some of my sources talked to some of Ollie's sources and it got back to him that I was interested - - so he gave me a call and told me the rest of the details."

He stood there, with his back to the refrigerator, staring at her across the island counter that separated kitchen from living room, wondering why no one had thought about giving him a call. He tried very hard not to clench his fists. "All right. Share them with me."

"There's not a lot, Clark." She spread her hands on the countertop and looked at him imploringly, maybe knowing how torn he was about this. "Lex has discontinued a lot of his less than legit projects, I know that, and lot of that I think is because of you, but you know he's like a dog with a bone, Clark. We always knew there were the possibilities of more 33.1 facilities out there - - you knew this too - - they were just well hidden."

"Or they didn't exist anymore." Clark said, because Lex had told him that he'd terminated so many of those questionable projects and he wanted to believe the things Lex told him now. He wanted to believe in Lex even though he knew there were things in which they simply didn't see eye to eye.

She gave him a skeptical look, but didn't question the state of his gullibility. "Either or," she conceded. "But they got a hot lead a few weeks ago - - one of LexCorp's dummy companies making regular shipments to South America and to make a long story short, they tracked down the facility in the middle of a desert in Chile. They hit it last week. Freed the prisoners, but couldn't get an information dump, because the network had a contained self-destruct protocol. Apparently the meteor infected scattered when the containment systems failed - - and apparently some of those infected were responsible for the thing with the animals in Mexico and a killing spree in Texas yesterday. Four bystanders died at a truck stop outside Austin."

"God," Clark shut his eyes, a quiver of dismay curling in his belly. "Lex said that he was containing the worst of the worst."

Chloe just stared, worried.

"Why didn't they contact me about all this?" Clark said. "If they were going up against a secure facility and dealing with dangerous mutants - - why not call me?"

"It was Lex's project, Clark." Chloe shook her head at him, as if the answer to that were self-evident. "You lost your objectivity concerning Lex a long time ago."

He stared at her in shock. "You told them - - you told Ollie about me and Lex?"

"No!" Her eyes widened. "I'd never betray your secrets, biological or personal - - you have to know that. But come on, Ollie's got eyes on Lex and Lex is over here a lot and you're at Lex's - - you may be keeping it from the front page of the Inquisitor, but you didn't expect to hide it from people scrutinizing Lex with a fine toothed comb, did you?"

"They don't trust me." Clark clenched his jaw, felt a muscle twitch his cheek. Felt a surge of protective indignation at the idea that Oliver Queen and his cohorts were as obsessively interested in Lex as Lex used to be in all things meteor related. They were treading on his territory damnit, and the fact that they knew it and still went behind his back - - it pissed him off.

What if Lex had been there when they'd hit? Ollie sure as hell didn't have a grain of concern about his welfare. What if Lex had been one of those casualties?

"They trust you," Chloe tried to assure him and he blinked his attention back to her and off of nightmare scenarios. "Ollie knows you. I think maybe he's just not sure you won't give Lex the benefit of the doubt."

"Of course I'd give him the benefit of the doubt - - doesn't that sort of go along with the whole, innocent until proven guilty basic component of the American justice system thing? - - but I wouldn't turn a blind eye. And I'd damn well ask him about it before I jumped the gun - - and how many people are dead, Chloe, because Ollie went in half-cocked without a back-up plan if the shit hit the fan?"

"Clark, there were people being held against their will in a secret facility on foreign soil - - he was probably thinking time was of the essence. You would have too, if we were talking anybody but Lex."

"You're probably right," he admitted and maybe he had been hanging around Lex too long, because once upon a time he would have been so focused on the little injustices that he wouldn't have been able to see the tragic larger irony. "You think me being there would have made a difference what these people did once they were free again?"

She looked torn. "Clark, they didn't know what they were setting loose. "

"If they'd have come to me - -if Ollie had asked - - I would have found out. If I'd confronted him with it, Lex would have told me the truth."

"You're sure of that?"

"I'm sure." And he was, damnit, despite the occasional little flickers of uncertainty. He knew Lex was no angel. He knew Lex loved his shades of grey - - but he also knew Lex was no monster. And that though pure altruism was a damned far stretch, Lex believed in the concept of greater good - - even if it meant some unfortunate along the way was probably going to get screwed. Even if it meant he fought tooth and nail with Clark over divergent ideology.

And Clark could live with that, because the alternative was unacceptable. The alternative was fighting with Lex and not being able to hold a reasonable debate, not being able to listen to Lex's brilliant and sometimes skewed logic and pick out the reasonable points and bounce his own opinions back and have Lex actually consider them - - sometimes even act on them. Of not making up at the end of the day - - of simply not having Lex.

"And what would you have done if he told you?" she asked, and he blinked, not sure how she meant that. She took a breath, gave him a pained little smile. "Let it slide? Gone down there and shut it down yourself? Slapped his wrist? What do you do, when you find out your boyfriend is actively imprisoning and experimenting on other human beings?"

"He wasn't experimenting," Clark said softly and he believed that. Lex's lies always came cool and calm, never in the heat of outrage and indignity. Nothing Lex had said to him in the back yard had been a lie - - he'd stake his life on it.

Almost he could hate her for that little stab of cold logic. Until he talked to Lex, until he heard Lex's side of this disastrous little story, until he got uncolored facts, he honestly couldn't answer the question of what he might have done.

Lex's internal clock was normally quite accurate, but then crammed into the too small trunk of a car, unable to find a modicum of comfort, unable to properly breath in stifling heat, with a duct tape gag plastered across his mouth, he was seriously losing time - - or gaining it.

When the car finally stopped, and the trunk popped open he expected the long light of evening - - because it honestly had seemed like hours and hours of hell - - but the world outside was painfully bright, and the sun still high in the sky. Maybe not much past noon, which meant it had only been a few hours. Which meant a few hundred miles outside of Metropolis at best.

The slam of the car door, the crunch of boots in gravel and Garrison Rule blocked out the sun. Lex blinked up and glared - - but God, it was hard to keep up the derisive look when his eyes were watering from the sudden flood of light and keeping up appearances was running a distant second to outright terror.

Rule reached down and hauled Lex out of the trunk, as careless of him as he might be a bag of dirty laundry. Over the rim of the trunk and Lex hit the ground. The impact drove air from his lungs and gravel bit through the thin silk shirt, gouging his shoulder.

He lay, breathing hard through his nose, staring at Rule's boots and the boy's ratty tennis shoes, when he came around from the passenger side. They were in an unkempt lot, at the back of what looked to be an abandoned warehouse or factory building. There was an old faded, logo of a farmer and a mule on the side under an array of filthy windows, but the type had long chipped away. He didn't recognize the place, but he thought it could have been in Granville or Enerton. The distance was about right, and both had been agriculturally inclined factory towns, before the economy had driven those industries into decline.

Rule dragged Lex up, got a shoulder against his mid-section and hauled him off his feet with a grunt, not nearly as strong when he was simple flesh and bone. The boy trudged along in his wake, but all Lex could see of him, ass up and head down across Rule's shoulder, was the tips of his shoes. Then the kid ran ahead, and he heard the grate of rusty hinges protesting, as a door was forced open.

Then they were in shadow and inside it smelled of dust and disuse. A big, open space, with a hard packed dirt floor covered in so much dust it seemed unlikely that a human foot had trod upon it for years.

Rule dropped him, and Lex managed not to land on the same shoulder he'd hit the ground with upon his exodus from the Porsche trunk. He rolled onto the side that didn't feel bruised to the bone and took in the place from a right side up viewpoint. Rusted barrels against the walls, rotting wooden crates, old equipment decades past its prime and rusting in the shadows, holes in the tin roof, here and there that let in a modicum of light. A dead place good for nothing but demolition, but Rule seemed to know it.

Rule stood for a moment and breathed in the stale air like a man coming home, then headed for a chain hanging from the ceiling with a hook on the end, like it was an old friend. He reached up and touched it, fingers trailing over the bottom links and the flecked stains there. Rust stains maybe, or more frightening, perhaps aged splotches of dried blood.

They'd apprehended Rule close to four years ago and honestly Lex hadn't been interested so much in where the man had committed his atrocities as he'd been in removing him from public circulation and seeing what made him tick. This warehouse, with its hard packed floors and its dusty stench of decay might have been one of his haunts. One of the places where he'd taken his victims and taken them apart.

"You hungry kid?" Rule's voice broke the silence and Lex started a little, twisting his head a little to look at the boy.

The kid shrugged, as if food held as little interest for him as anything else that wasn't covered in blood.

"I know a place in town- - makes great burgers. If it's still there. Been a few years since I've been back."

"Yeah, I could go for a burger," the kid said.

Rule nodded. "Good. We'll grab a bite and pick up a few things in town."

He strolled over to Lex, grabbed the back of his collar and dragged him across the floor, towards that dangling chain. It was useless to fight, the mind knew that, but the body rebelled regardless, and he twisted, trying to shed the grip, trying to dig his heels in and impede progress.

Rule laughed at him, all malice. Dropped him a few yards from the hook and crouched down to rip the tape from his mouth. It hurt, but it was a distant pain and superceded by desperation.

"You don't want to do this," Lex was gasping as soon as he was free to form the words, but his voice sounded thin to his own ears, and scared. He hated it, the fear he couldn't hide. "No matter how much you want your revenge, I can make it worth your while not to take it. Name your price - - your wildest dream - -both of you. I can make it happen - -"

"You don't wanna go up on the hook?" Rule followed the glances Lex couldn't help directing at the gently swinging chain.

He took a rasping breath, shook his head slowly, not sure if any answer was the right one.

"Okay," Rule smiled and stood. "He don't wanna go up on the hook, Gordy. Let's put him in the ground instead, then."

The kid's mouth curled up at the corners.

"Son of a bitch - - no!" Lex cried, but the protest was eaten up by the deep groan of the earth splitting not far away. Eaten up by the boy's toneless giggles. It trembled under him, bits of dirt raining down as a trench formed as if it had been gouged by the hand of some invisible giant.

Rule grabbed him by the ankles, Lex fighting it the entire way, dragged him the few feet to the edge of the pit the boy had created, then kicked him over the edge with a boot between his shoulder blades. A short fall, against cold, hard earth, but enough to jab the cuffs into his lower back. It was grave deep almost, maybe a few feet shy of the customary six-foot trench most bodies were interred in. If he started screaming now, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop. He didn't want to die in the midst of a fit of hysteria. He didn't want to die at all, but the chances were starting to look good.

Something hit his face. The end of a long, coiled piece of clear tubing that Rule had pulled out of the tattered backpack. Rule crouched at the lip of the pit - - Lex refused to use the term grave - - and held the other end in his rawboned hand.

"Take it in your mouth, Lex."

Lex stared up, not getting it, near hysteria - - he'd already seen a man buried alive today - - slowing his uptake.

"Last chance," Rule said wistfully.

Dirt was beginning to fill in the pit at the whim of the boy standing at the head of the hole, slithering over Lex's legs like a living substance.

God. God. If he started babbling ineffectual threats or begging for mercy they weren't inclined to give, he'd lose the tenuous lifeline they'd offered. He made a desperate grab after the end of the plastic tubing. Got dirt in his mouth in his efforts, but caught the tube with his teeth and latched on as dirt cascaded over his head.

Shut his eyes and sobbed - - simply couldn't help it - - heavy earth, moist like wet clay, pressing around him like a body mold, gripping tight enough that he could only take shallow little half breaths, and those were a battle, dragging air through five or more feet of tubing that couldn't have been more than a half inch at best. It didn't help when the panic set in, the utter, incapacitating dread of the earth pressing down - - of helplessness that was the stuff of nightmare.

Hyperventilation robbed him of proper air, and if his jaw hadn't been forced shut by the pressure of all encompassing earth he might have lost his hold on the airline. As it was, he just lost his hold on full-consciousness, driven into a faint by oxygen deprivation. Came back drawing air desperately through the tube in his mouth, seeing stars behind his lids that God knew were hallucinations, because there was nothing but compressed darkness and earth all around him. He almost fell back into hyperventilation again, screaming on the inside, twitching ineffectually because the tight pack of the earth didn't allow him to anything else.

He forced it back - - reciting mantra in his head. Rites to calm anxiety he hadn't had to use since childhood - - since those days after his mother's death - - that terrible, terrible day they'd put her in the earth - - and there'd been no one to temper Lionel's expectations.

The only trouble was, his father's disapproval had never entailed live burial. Reciting the periodic table, or listing the full succession of Roman emperors from the first Romulus to the last simply weren't enough of a distraction to fit the bill. It couldn't block out the fact that he was fucking - - entombed - - by cold earth. That he was hanging onto life by a thready source of air that he had to work to gain.

He'd used to imagine his mother, trapped underground in her gleaming box of mahogany and pearl - - used to spent countless nights, curled in his bed in the old Penthouse in Metropolis - - thinking that it was some terrible mistake - - that she'd wake up in that box and no one would hear her cries to be let out.

None of those imaginings had been like this - - even the mind of a morbid thirteen year old hadn't been able to fathom this. He felt himself spiraling down the dark path to hysteria again, logic and calm and rational so far gone he couldn't even recall the flavor of their presence.

He screamed again, this muffled sound inside his head. A new mantra that he couldn't shake - - Please - - God - - please please please - - Clark.



It wasn't surprising that Lex wasn't answering his cell. Lex in a snit tended to give the term 'cold shoulder' whole new meaning. Clark was usually more than happy to give him the space to calm down, because getting ripped to verbal shreds was not high on his list of fulfilling activities and Lex could be damned vicious when he was feeling wronged and adversarial.

And if this had been a fight about finances - - and his refusal to accept charity, or say an equally embarrassing misunderstanding about one of Lex's public 'dates' - - the ones he went on to give the gossip rags something to speculate about other than the amount of time he spent with his close male friend, Clark would have given it more time to blow over.

This one was more important. This one had to do with life and death and trust and Clark really, really wished Lex would pick up the phone. Or just go home or to the office, where Clark might corner him into talking.

But Lex was proving unpredictable and Clark had checked the penthouse and then his offices in the adjoining building to no avail. Twice. Standing out on the terrace the second penthouse trip and wracking his mind trying to figure out where Lex might head to work off a little righteous indignation.

They'd been talking about buying cars, and Lex did like to spend money when he was feeling down - - were there any car shows in town this weekend - - had Lex mentioned any new models of his old favorites due for release? Of course tossing around money like it was confetti wasn't limited to automobiles - - it wasn't like Metropolis didn't cater to the rich and pissed off - - Lex could be anywhere.

He stuck his hands in his pockets as he was pacing and his fingers came into contact with a set of keys not usually nestled within his pocket. He stopped, pulling them out - - the distinctive little Porsche symbol on the ring. He stared for a moment, confused. If he had Lex's keys - - how had Lex taken the car? The car had been gone, right? He'd taken for granted that it was, because Lex had been gone.

Almost before he'd finished the thought, he was on the sidewalk outside his brownstone, next to the old elm whose roots buckled the sidewalk. There was a motorcycle in the spot, wheels resting on the cracked asphalt surface of the road. A lot of spidery cracks that might have radiated out from the tree roots, if the tree roots had gone through a sudden growth spurt, because there was a good deal of new rubble along the little splits - - and a few little octagonal shaped pieces of thick glass.

Clark crouched down, plucking a piece of glass up. Safety glass. The sort they used in car windshields and windows. He clenched his fist around the shard and stood, looking up and down the length of the street in concern. How long had it been since Lex had stormed off? A few hours?

Mrs. Dawson across the street was doing gardening, her big brimmed hat obscuring her head, but she was mostly deaf and half blind and barely noticed people standing right in front of her. One of the neighborhood kids was cutting grass a few houses down - - had maybe been making the rounds that morning, trimming lawns for money. A teenaged boy would have noticed that Porsche.

"Sure, I saw that car." The kid gave him an impatient look, like Clark was really cutting into his time, when Clark trudged up the narrow strip of inclined lawn to inquire.

"You see it leave?" Clark had to yell to be heard over the mower, which the kid refused to cut off.

"Yeah. You doin' a survey?" The kid admitted with this sort of smirk that clearly said if Clark had asked for details, maybe he might have gotten them. Maybe not. He started to push the mower up the hill and Clark reached out and caught the handle, stopping the progress dead.

He didn't repeat the question, just stared, waiting while the kid tried to figure out why the mower wouldn't even lurch when he put his weight against it. Clark didn't ever recall being that ornery when he'd been that age.

"Yeah, I saw it pull off. I was down the street. The one guy - - the bald one that usually pulls up where you live in like a different sweet ride every week," And the kid gave him a look that clearly said that in and of itself was enough to be suspicious of, then went on. "He drove off with these two other guys. Didn't recognize them at all."

"What? They walked up to him off the street?" Clark asked - - pulse speeding up.

The boy shrugged. "Yeah. Looked sorta grungy. Think it was a car jacking?"

Clark took a breath, the concept of that making him a little dizzy. He let go the mower and walked away from the kid blindly, back towards the brownstone, head spinning.

What if Lex hadn't answered his calls because he hadn't been able to? What if Lex were in trouble? He felt himself start to vibrate a little, nerves going taut, muscles bunching and he had to force a few deep breaths to calm down.

Before he started flying off the handle he needed to get a grip and approach this rationally. He had Lex's secretaries number, so first thing to do was give her a call and explain - - god, how did he explain that he'd misplaced her boss? - - and see if Lex had called her. God knew she generally knew more about what Lex was up to than Clark. Then he needed to track down Chloe and get Oliver's new number and find out exactly what he knew about these escaped mutants - - because in the world he lived in only fools believed in coincidence.





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