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Quality Time

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Three

 

"Pick up, Chloe. Pick up!" Clark hissed at the phone, casting nervous glances at the closed bathroom door.

The phone blithely ignored him, until there was a connection made and Chloe's voice greeted him perkily from the other end.

"Thank God - -" He started in relief, only to have hopes dashed as she rambled on over him.

"- - and I'm not available at the moment. So leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as I am."

Clark groaned, slammed the back of his head against the door jamb a few times waiting for the beep and then whispered urgently.

"Chloe, I need you to call me as soon as you get this. I mean, really, really need to talk to you. It's an emergency."

Going on in detail about the nature of the emergency over the phone just didn't seem prudent, no matter how desperate he was for succor.

He'd started panicking around the time Lana had started hinting that a friendly place to crash for the night would be so very appreciated. Around which time he'd brought up the fact that Chloe, being a woman, would make a much more sympathetic shoulder to cry on, and wouldn't it be great if she and Lana could stay up half the night dissing men in general, together?

"I wouldn't want to intrude," Lana had said. "I mean she and Jimmy are so close now, they need their private time. At least with you, I won't be treading on anyone's toes."

At which he'd stood there, mind swirling with a bevy of possible responses to that statement, any one of which would have set the record straight and let her know exactly whose very sensitive toes she might be treading upon - - and none of which passed his lips.

He wasn't sure if it were possible to be any more of a wuss.

He was standing there, phone clutched in his hand, berating himself over his lack of metaphysical balls, when she came out of the bathroom. He'd given her a pair of drawstring sweat shorts and a T-shirt to wear while her own wet clothing dried over the old radiator. She was lost in them, which was sort of cute and sort of sexy and made Clark's palms itch. There was simply no way, the way his luck tended to run, that this was going to end well.

"Tea?" She smiled at him and he recalled that he'd promised hot tea before she'd retreated to the bathroom and he'd frantically started calling Chloe.

"Oh. Yeah." He ran water from the tap into two cups and stuck them in the microwave.

When the water was hot, he plopped in tea bags, a few spoonfuls of sugar in his, and carried them into the living room, where Lana had curled against a corner of the couch.

"Cup's a little hot," he warned and she took it gingerly, while he sat down against the other arm.

"So - - um, you sure you don't want to talk about - - Greg?" Clark was pretty sure that was the name. Greg Riley, who owned a nursery outside town. A rather big, family nursery that supplied flowers and plants to florists in all the surrounding towns and even as far as Metropolis. Clark didn't know the guy personally, had actively avoided running into him back when he and Lana had first started dating, when Clark still lived at the farm, but from what his mother said, he was decent enough.

"I'm sure," she said softly, sipping her tea. "Tell me about what you've been doing, Clark. I've missed talking with you."

She hadn't exactly missed it, he thought, but purposefully avoided him almost as much as he'd avoided her, after their last, final breakup. Even though they'd ended it on relatively good terms, it had been painful and he understood that better than anyone.

"Well, its pretty boring most of the time," he admitted. "Busy and hectic, but I'm not out running down stories or uncovering breaking news - - more like buried under classifieds with the occasional article in between. I might be in for a promotion soon through - -"

He settled down to talk. She had always been a good listener. He told her about the apartment and how he'd fixed it up, and his favorite Metropolis haunts. She told him about how well the Talon was doing, and that she'd started painting and had even sold a piece or two she'd displayed in the shop. But the gaps in her conversation, the things she left out because she didn't want to talk about Greg Riley were almost as large as the one's Clark didn't mention concerning Lex. And really, if you took Lex out of the equation, Clark's life, aside from the occasional super powered activity, sounded pretty damned boring.

When the clock had rolled past twelve and Chloe still hadn't called him back, he sighed and bit the bullet.

"Listen, I don't want you out driving this late in this weather, so why don't you take the bedroom and I'll sleep on the couch."

"Clark, I don't want to put you out. I know me just showing up on your doorstep, bending your ear is inconvenient - -"

"What are friends for, if not ear bending? It's no inconvenience."

She looked at him with eyes that used to simply make him melt. Now they just made him nervous, because he couldn't shake the feeling that of all the situations that might come up, Lana Lang spending the night at his apartment was the one that, if he found out about, Lex was simply not going to take well. Lex could deal with disaster and calamity without batting an eye, but interpersonal trust issues were a weak point with him.

It wasn't his fault. He'd been burned an awful lot. It had just become easier for him to accept that eventual betrayal was a normal part of a relationship, than to believe that some people simply didn't swing that way. Lex would come to the worst possible conclusions, because that's what he had been conditioned to do and Clark was damned and determined to avoid that. Which meant getting up at dawn if he had to, running over to Chloe's and begging her to take Lana off his hands.

"Okay, but I'll take the couch." Lana yielded.

"No way." He shook his head, firm in his chivalry. "Just let me go pick up a few things."

Sheets definitely needed changing after last night and the chances of Lex having performed housekeeping chores before he'd left this morning were pretty damned low. He slipped into the bedroom, supersped his way through a linen change - - looked around to make sure there was nothing that screamed Lex.

By the time Lana got to the doorway, he was standing there with an extra pillow and a throw for the couch.

"That's a - - really big bed, Clark." She blinked at it. It did sort of dwarf the room.

Clark glanced over his shoulder and flushed a little, remembering very explicitly the things done in that overlarge bed. "All those years of sleeping in a twin - - I - - um - - yeah, it is sort of - - so anyway, I'm just gonna shut this."

He pulled the door closed behind him and shut his eyes, berating himself for being a babbling fool.

He collapsed full-length on the couch, shifting the pillow to a more comfortable position under his head. He stared at the ceiling, trying to block out the sounds of Lana in the other room, that he couldn't help but hear. He focused on other things instead, the sounds of distant dogs barking, of sirens, of late night arguments, of the patter of lazy rain hitting a thousand rooftops.

If he got up early enough, and got in touch with Chloe, she could come over and talk Lana into returning with her before Lex was even out of bed, across town in his glittering penthouse apartment.

Clark shut his eyes and drifted.

And woke to the ringing of his cell. He sat up, immediately awake and aware and was across the room to the kitchen counter where he'd left his phone by the end of the first ring.

"Clark, what's wrong?" Chloe's worried voice threaded into his ear.

The light coming in through the back door was bright and clearly closer to noon than dawn. He looked at the clock on the kitchen wall in a panic.

8:57.

God. He'd overslept in a huge way.

"Chloe where were you?" he whisper complained into the phone.

"Is everything okay?" she countered. "You said emergency. You sounded upset."

He took a breath and chanced a brief look through the walls and into his bedroom to make sure Lana was not about to walk out on him. She was still asleep, exhausted probably from a long and emotionally trying day.

"Lana's here."

There was a moment of silence, then. "'Here' as in at your place?"

"Yes," Clark practically hissed. "She had some kind of fight with her boyfriend. She wouldn't tell me about what. She just showed up here last night, really upset and - - "

"She stayed the night?" Chloe interrupted.

"I slept on the couch." Clark said defensively. "You have to come over and talk her into going back to your place."

"Clark, Jimmy's here."

"Jimmy's not going to loose his freaking mind," Clark said, no small bit of desperation seeping into his voice. "Because Lana Lang sleeps in your bed."

Another long pause, while she considered. "He might even like it." Chloe finally said, a bit of wry humor in her tone. "Okay, I concede that your boyfriend is likely to have more problems than mine. Give me forty-five minutes and I'll just happen to show up at your apartment."

"Thank you. I owe you."

"Yeah, well, I'll put it on your tab."

Leaning on the counter, he breathed a sigh of something close to relief. He took advantage of the closed bedroom door and slipped into the bathroom. He showered in record time and put on the jeans and T from last night, since he didn't have access to the rest of his clothing. He scooped coffee into the machine and stood in the kitchen watching the dribble of dark liquid start to fill the pot.

He'd downed his first cup by the time he heard Lana stirring. The caffeine did nothing for him, but he liked the taste and Lex had gotten him hooked on the really good stuff, which Lex thankfully kept him stocked up in, since Clark had the suspicion that the stuff in the brown paper bags Lex brought over was probably way out of Clark's price range.

Lana came out of the bedroom, with soft, sleepy eyes and tousled hair that was about as far from bed head as it was possible to get. It wasn't even natural how she could wake up looking better than she went to sleep. He'd seen Chloe enough times, just roused and not happy about it, looking in serious need of a comb and a bit of bathroom time, to know that most women just did not roll out of bed looking like Lana Lang.

"Hey," she said softly, smiling at him. She'd shed his sweat shorts for bed and was just in his T-shirt. Granted it hit her about mid-thigh - - but still - - she was wearing nothing but his shirt.

"Morning. I - - uh - - there's coffee." And your clothes are dry. Right over there. He smiled back, swallowing, trying not to look pointedly at her things next to the radiator.

"It smells wonderful." She complimented and headed towards him instead. He poured her a cup, and she doctored it to her liking while he looked at the hands of the clock and willed them to move faster.

He got himself a second cup, just to have something to do with his hands.

"This is a quiet neighborhood," she remarked, filling his awkward silence. "I didn't get a good look last night, but from what I could see out the bedroom window, it's very nice."

"Yeah. It's an old neighborhood. A lot of retired folks live on the street. I was lucky to get this apartment."

She took another sip, her eyes drifting, as if things other than the state of his street were passing through her head. She sat her cup down and looked back at him solemnly.

"I feel bad for showing up the way I did." She stepped closer, and for a second he found himself looking down at the part of her hair, until she looked up with big, earnest eyes. "You don't know how much I appreciate you letting me stay. Talking with you last night made me feel so much better. You always make me feel so - - safe, Clark."

She leaned in a little, and her fingertips just ghosted the front of his shirt. And for a moment, it felt good, having her look at him that way, having her feel secure in his presence the way he'd always fantasized about when they were younger. If only he'd ever wanted her physically as much as he'd wanted the idea of her mentally, things might have been different.

But then again, maybe not. Maybe he'd never have been really happy without the challenge and the passion of what he had now. Maybe he'd never have been really happy without Lex.

Maybe if he hadn't been in the midst of a quiet panic over Lana he might have heard the back door, might have had time to step away, even at human speeds and put a little distance between them. But then again, he hadn't had a desperate ear out. He'd been expecting Chloe at best. Certainly no other visitor before ten in the morning.

The back door swung open on well-oiled hinges and Clark and Lana both turned in surprise to stare at Lex, who had stopped on the verge of stepping over the threshold, his hand on the knob, his eyes momentarily wide, until he donned a flat look of disinterest.

Crap. Crapcrapcrap.

"Lex - -" Clark took that desperate step backwards, his own eyes feeling like saucers in his head.

"I'm interrupting." Lex said smoothly, and with patently false sincerity. His gaze traveled slowly over Lana, from her sleep tousled hair to her bare legs protruding from the hem of Clark's T-shirt.

The coffee felt like it was going to come back up.

"No!" Clark said, voice an octave or two higher than normal.

"Lex." Lana said, a tense little smile on her lips. "I didn't know you and Clark were talking again."

"Didn't you?" Lex hadn't looked at Clark yet. He let his gaze drift over now, and there was the flicker of something very cold and very dangerous in the depths of hazel eyes gone decidedly dark.

Clark couldn't think of a damned thing to say, with Lex staring at him with that unforgiving expression and Lana looking between the two with a little furrow of question between her brows.

"Clark?" Lana sidled a little closer to the spot Clark had retreated to, like she was taking up sides in some unspoken war. "Is something wrong?"

He hadn't had the desire to push a girl away so badly since he'd been six and convinced they carried cooties.

Lex lifted a brow, so deeply into the realm of not amused that Clark could practically feel it emanating from his pores.

"I'll let you get back to it, then," Lex said, turned sharply on his heels and headed back across the patio towards the steps.

"Clark," Lana had her hand on his arm with curious concern. "What was that all about?"

He felt a little short of breath. It was a novel experience. Very carefully, he removed her hand. "Listen, I need to - -" Chase down Lex and grovel? Try and get in a word of explanation past the jagged ice? "I just - - I'll be right back."

He left her standing there, and it took everything he had not to use his speed to go after Lex.

As it was, he pelted down the back steps and across the yard to the drive, where Lex had pulled up inside the fence, like he always did, to avoid his cars, with their often-distinctive license plates, being seen from the road. It was an open topped Jaguar convertible today.

Lex was in the car, with the key at the ignition when Clark reached the driver's side door.

"Damnit, Lex, would you just let me explain?" Clark gripped the edge of the windshield, fingers coming close to denting metal.

"Get your hand off my car." Lex said flatly, turning the ignition. The Jaguar purred to life like the fine tuned beast it was.

"Lex, its not what it looked like," Clark cried and realized even as he said it that that was probably the most clichéd 'caught in the act' lines of all time.

Lex gave him a fast, furious look that clearly said, he concurred and jerked the car into reverse. Clark felt the car jerk against him, heard tires spin, and the frame of the windshield did actually buckle a little before he realized he was holding it back.

Damn. Damaging Lex's toys was not the way to endearment.

"Get your fucking hand off my fucking car." Lex ground out, an odd little tremor in his voice that you just didn't usually hear from him. His hands were white knuckled on the steering wheel. There were driving gloves on the seat next to him that he hadn't taken the time to put on.

Clark removed his hand, wincing a little at the bend in the frame. There were the faintest spidery cracks in the glass where pressure had been applied.

"Lex, she just showed - -" Was as far as Clark got before the car was shooting backwards.

He was standing close enough that the front tires rolled over his bare toes with an almost comical little lurch. Not that Lex slowed down. He swerved out onto the road with a squealing of tires and came very close to clipping Chloe, who was coming up the drive, from the street where she'd parked.

He stood there red-faced and sick as the Jag tore down the quiet street. Mrs. McClusky's wizened face was clearly pressed to the back window and God knew if Lana were upstairs looking down.

He found that he really didn't care. If it had been a backcountry Smallville road, he'd have gone after Lex already. Metropolis streets weren't exactly conducive for chasing down cars on foot and remaining anonymous.

"So, I'm guessing I'm a few minutes too late?" Chloe said with more sympathy than sarcasm in her tone, which was the only reason Clark didn't glare. She was looking down at his feet, one of which sported a neat set of tire treads.

"That did not just happen," he said numbly.

"Yeah, I think it did." Chloe glanced back towards the street, then up at him. "Do I even want to know what set him off?"

Bad timing? Bad judgment? A total lack of anything resembling courage?

"I gave her one of my shirts to wear - - she was wet last night - - she was standing really close and he walked in."

"Ouch."

"I've gotta go talk to him."

"Then I'll be the bearer of bad news and say I came over to tell you you've got to go and do some emergency research for your senior staffer."

That was as good an excuse as any. He started towards the steps.

"Oh, and you want to hear some news from the world of weird and disturbing?"

He really didn't, attention very firmly fixed on how he was going to mollify Lex, but Chloe went on anyway.

"This hasn't reached the associated press yet, because so far there are no reliable witnesses and just a lot of off the wall hearsay but I got it through the underground grapevine. Yesterday a small town in Mexico was literally swarmed - - biblical sense swarmed - - by local wildlife. Everything from insects, to snakes, spiders, scorpions. Local livestock even went mad. My source doesn't know the details because most of the people who were there are dead or not able to talk, but it seems like a stranger wandered into town and got rousted by the local law and that's how this started."

"Mutant?" Clark stopped mid-way up the steps, interest caught despite himself.

"Sounds like to me. Like Smallville's own junior political wanna be, Bee-girl, but with wider range. Want the kicker? There were reports from neighboring towns of unmarked black helicopters heading towards the disturbance - - government or private sector is anybodies guess - - but an hour later, an anonymous request for emergency assistance went out to the Mexican authorities and when they got there, they found the surviving population of the town out cold, as well as an awful lot of the creepy critters that had gone on the rampage littering the streets. When the animals revived, they were back to normal.

"I would guess, whoever was in those choppers gassed the whole place to take down the meta-human, swiped him up and then called in help."

"How many people died?"

"I don't know." She moved past him on the steps, then stopped on the one above him to look him in the eye. "But I'm looking into it."

When they stepped back into Clark's apartment, Lana had changed back into her own clothing. She greeted Chloe with a surprised smile and a hug.

"What brings you to the big city?" Chloe asked. "Why didn't you call me and let you know you were coming?"

Lana shrugged helplessly. "It was sort of spur of the moment. I just needed to get away for a while."

"That bad?" Chloe winced sympathetically and hugged Lana again. "You can tell me all about it over lunch."

Lana glanced at Clark, who was rooting for sneakers and socks under the coffee table. "Well, I was hoping to spend the day with Clark - -its been so long since we've seen each other - -"

"Well, I'm definitely the bearer of bad news then. I came by to let him know his supervisor is screaming for him to double check some research for the Sunday edition."

"Oh," Lana said softly, and she looked so crestfallen that Clark's gut lurched a little in guilt. Not enough to stray from his course.

"I'm sorry," he said. "If it looks like I might be able to finish up early, I'll give a call. Could you lock up when you leave?"

He palmed his meteorite and backed away, the smile he generally wore when he was lying through his teeth plastered on his face. You'd think Lana would have learned to distinguish it by now.

Maybe she had and was just too polite to call him on it.

 

 

 

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