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Chasing Redemption

by P L Nunn

 

Part one

 

It was the trial of the century. Of the new and the old, according to all reports. The sheer speculation and volume of press outpaced the sensationalism of OJ, the morbid public fascination of Lindbergh and the sex scandal of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. The whole world was abuzz. It wasn't often that one of the richest men on the planet, a man that had come within a hair's breadth of the Presidency, a man whose namesake corporation's gross revenue was larger than most good sized industrialized countries sat awaiting judgment by twelve of his - - well, peers was a long stretch - - but combing the country for twelve unbiased billionaires to serve as jury in a Federal court would have been a stretch.

As far as Lex Luthor was concerned, he had no peers. At least that's what Lois kept saying every time the topic came up. She had opinions that she wasn't shy in sharing about the true level of Luthor's contemporaries. Generally her language tended to deteriorate during such comparisons, until Clark had to distract her from the tirade or simply walk out and let her wind down on her own.

Lois had issues with Lex that Clark, who'd spent what seemed a lifetime instead of a decade and a half physically opposing the lumbering behemoth - - the surprisingly agile, lumbering behemoth of the darker side of LexCorp's dealings - - just didn't have. Oh, not that he didn't have issue - - how could he not with a man who was on trial for no less than 50 counts of criminal activities, from malfeasance, illegal human experimentation, bribery of federal officials to unlawful dumping of hazardous material and first-degree murder, among a long list of others? Lois had been instrumental in uncovering a great deal of the information that had led to the initial indictments. The rest had snowballed, as layer after layer was peeled back from the black core of Lex Luthor's illicit activities.

Superman, surprisingly enough had had very little to do with the final downfall, though Clark Kent had shared a byline with Lois Lane on the article that had been the proverbial straw to break the camel's back. It had been an uncharacteristic act of generosity on Lois' part to share that credit when she had done most of the legwork. And in retrospect, as fearless as Lois Lane was, as determined as she'd been on her quest, maybe, just maybe putting that first nail in Lex's coffin had been too frightening a task to take the credit for alone. Lex had had people wiped off the face of the earth for a lot less. Maybe it had been easier to share credit than be in the cross hairs alone.

Besides, it wasn't as if Clark hadn't contributed, it was just that his second full-time job, the one that came with the uniform, demanded a lot of time and attention. He didn't have the luxury that Lois did of obsessively spending every waking moment digging for dirt on one man.

His obsessions with Lex tended to run in other directions.

The federal courts building in Metropolis was the center of a massive influx of press, curiosity seekers, Lex-detractors, Lex-supports, environmental activists, human rights supporters, a half dozen other outraged organizations as well as police and national guard that had been called in for crowd control as well as the well-founded fear that any number of Lex's black-ops teams might attempt a liberation.

Not that they'd attempted it yet, and Lex had been in custody for the month before the trial and the seven weeks after of actual court proceedings.

Clark had sat in this courtroom a good deal of those days, at Lois' side, listening to the list of crimes, some of which seemed far-fetched even to his jaded ears, some of which he knew for a fact had been perpetrated. Lois took notes and made snide comments, so keyed up at some points of testimony that she couldn't quite sit still on the hard backed wooden bench, so angry at others, when the various experts for the defense demolished some bit of key prosecution evidence, that waves of dissatisfaction rolled off her.

Everyone in the packed courtroom emanated emotion - - hate, hope, fear, conviction, grief - - everyone but Lex himself, who sat immaculately tailored between his bevy of lawyers, unflinching, unmoved by the accusations leveled against him. Like he wasn't even paying attention.

But of course he was. Lex Luthor never missed anything. And when he took the stand, there was no rattling him, no bait that worked to shake the façade. No question that he didn't answer smoothly and without hesitation, even if half the answers were probably flat out lies. He'd look at the jury, with those resolute blue eyes, with that smooth, subtle charm he exuded like cologne and some of them, no doubt, would have to question the validity of the claims against such a successful businessman. Against a man whose political aspirations had won him an unheard of percentage of the American vote for a first time independent runner, in the last election. And it had been a clean run, which made it all the more miraculous.

In seven weeks of trial, he'd met Clark's eyes once. Just one flash of long, cool eyes on that first day when Clark had settled near the back of the courtroom with Lois, before he looked away, as if Clark were just one more meaningless observer. Clark in his off the rack suit and his rumpled hair and the glasses that made him look more bookish that he really was, but that gave him that little edge with people who otherwise tended to stare just a bit too long at the lines of his face. Lex had used to look at him like that, before things went to hell, eyes tracing the bone structure, the curve of his lips, the shape of his eyes, like he'd been cataloguing a potential acquisition. Even after, on those chance meetings between reporter and CEO, Lex always let his gaze linger a little - - not fooled at all by thick rimmed glasses, even if there was nothing left but hostility between them.

He didn't look at Superman like that. Oh, there was always fire in his eyes, but it wasn't him appreciating the AI generated optical alterations that changed Clark's features just enough to make Superman a separate entity. After all Lex knew what lay beneath the illusion and the resolutely square-jawed front of Superman just didn't impress him.

But that was okay, because whatever connection Clark had held for that young man fate had brought him together with twenty years past off a bridge in Smallville Kansas, was long gone, doggedly destroyed by Lex's obsessive pursuit of power and the decline of what had once been a somewhat shaky, but clearly present moral compass.

For a lot of years, even after he'd taken on the mantel of Superman, Clark had held onto the thread of hope that Lex wasn't a lost cause - - he'd needed that belief to shore up his own sense of self - - to deny that one huge failure - - that one life that had meant something to him personally, that he hadn't been able to save. The only one that hadn't wanted saving - - that sneered at the concept and sneered at him when he donned the trappings of his alien heritage.

So Clark had stopped trying. Oh, he'd saved the flesh and bone no few times over the years, but the soul was so far beyond his grasp that no amount of otherworldly power could reach it. And he had had a few other things vying for attention. Lex wasn't the only shark in the water after all. Natural disasters and unnatural, Superman did what he could, saved who he could save and mourned the ones he couldn't.

So, no, there was no more connection with Lex Luthor, not anymore, Clark reminded himself quite frequently, even though he sat there, most of those days in the courtroom, trying to wrap his mind about what might be going through Lex's head under that front of cool. At how Lex, who had never particularly liked small spaces - - Clark remembered that very well - - had been dealing with confinement these last weeks in a five by eight cell. How Lex would deal with years of it. Funny thing was, it didn't give him that glow of satisfaction, contemplating it, that it should have. He'd never been as keen at putting Lex behind bars as he had at hindering Lex's darker machinations.

"He's too calm," Lois was saying, snapping Clark back to the here and now. She was vacillating between caffeine and nicotine at a sidewalk café where they were eating lunch while the jury deliberated. She'd taken up smoking again, like she always did under duress. Clark x-rayed her lungs every once in a while in search of the first signs of creeping death, but she'd managed to stave off lung cancer so far. She had her laptop out and was tapping away one handed, at the outlines of an article. He could hear the accompany tap of her foot under the table, all nervous energy trying to find an outlet. If the jury didn't come back today with a verdict, then they'd have to have something to turn in for a page two blurb on the state of the trial. Perry had been depending on him to curb her more venomous reports.

"If it was me, I wouldn't be calm," she was saying. "I'd be sweating bullets through my Armani jacket - - he's been in jail for three months with his funds frozen and all his assets seized - - the LexCorp board has amputated connection with him like he's a gangrenous limb and he's still in designer clothes with the best lawyers money can buy. Where's he getting the money, that's what I'd like to know? You just know he's got secret accounts hidden away all over the world - - but question is, how's he accessing them from prison? God, what I wouldn't give to get inside his head - -" she kept blathering on, pecking away at the keyboard simultaneously, thoughts working on too many different levels to follow easily. So Clark went with her original statement.

"He works well under pressure," Clark finished off his tuna fish on white bread and eyed Lois's half eaten sandwich. Her appetites veered towards caffeine and nicotine when she was this on edge and Lois had a lot riding on this verdict. Her reputation, a Pulitzer maybe, if all her hard work paid off and Lex Luthor was convicted of the crimes she'd help uncover.

"Most cold blooded psychopaths do," Lois sniffed, narrowing her eyes as she read the last few lines of what she'd written. She'd been a witness for the prosecution. So had Superman, early on in the proceedings when the lawyers had been firing the big guns. "I mean, he ought to be sweating a little, what with a possible death penalty at the end of the line. It makes me nervous, him just sitting there like he's judging a second rate talent show. He's got something up his sleeve, I know it. And what's taking so long with the verdict, damn it? It's not like there's a question as to whether he's guilty or not. Two days they've been holed up. What, is the jury being paid by the hour?"

Clark tuned her out a little, staring down the busy street to the rising spire of the courthouse flag. He wondered too. It would be so easy just to focus his hearing a little and listen in on what the sequestered jury was debating - - but easy didn't necessarily mean right. And not taking the easy route, the route that suited his own needs just because he could was what separated him from men like Lex. He'd find out with the rest of the world what course the law had taken.

When the jury finally did come back, after five days of deliberation, the courtroom sat with collectively drawn breaths in anticipation. When the foreman began reading off offenses and verdicts, the buzz began.

On the count of the murder in the first degree - - not guilty. On the first count of conspiracy to murder in the first degree- - not guilty - - And it went on, verdict after verdict came back not guilty, while Lex sat there, easy in his defendant's chair, like he'd never had a doubt. Like a righteous man cleared of culpability or one that knew the game had been fixed.

Lois was white-faced next to Clark, her breathing shallow and fast. Too shocked to even utter complaint. She rose, before the final offenses could be read, and stumbled over Clark to get out, as if the air in the courtroom had become too thin to breathe. He followed her, with one last glance at the back of Lex's smooth head, and stood outside the women's bathroom in concern listening to the sounds of her dry heaving. When she came back out, her face was flushed with color and her eyes had that normal spark of Lois pissed off.

"He fixed it," she declared. "He fucking fixed the trial."

She was probably right. Jury tampering was a small crime in comparison to the rest.

"There are still the civil suits. And the FDA is still building a case around the Carisine thing. The federal prosecutor will look into this. He's not off the hook."

"He is," Lois insisted. "He'll slither away, just like always and somebody has to stop it. Where are all the vigilante's when you need them? If this was Gothom - -"

He frowned at her, at the implications of that statement and thought with chilling absolution that there probably were people out there - - maybe out in the crowd outside the courthouse that thought the same thing. That wouldn't blink twice about taking justice into their own hands regardless of what the law had declared. He knew a few of those people, who didn't always wait for the law of the land to right wrongs and he didn't condone their actions. He couldn't condone their actions and be what he was.

A wash of noise and motion burst into the hall as the doors of the courtroom opened, spilling out the crowd from within. Court officers and lawyers flanked Lex, bullying their way through the yammering crowd of reporters.

Lois hissed in frustration, slender hands clenched into fists, before the journalist in her won out and she rushed into the fray, recorder in hand, screaming her own questions/acquisitions at the triumphant defendant.

The procession spilled outside to the broad white steps below of the courthouse columns. Clark trailed in the wake, staring out over a sea of faces converging on the little pocket of space around Lex. It was like one of the rallies two years ago when Lex had been wooing the crowd and adored by the masses. Maybe he still was, despite the charges and the rumors and the incontrovertible evidence that had somehow been ignored or bought off or made to seem trivial. But then again, a lot of those faces out there were twisted in as much outrage as Lois' had. A lot of those voices jeered and condemned, no matter the verdict. It was very likely Lex Luthor's reputation would never recover and that was small enough penalty for the things he'd done and gotten away with.

The press was calling for a statement and Lex paused on his way down the steps, considering. Given half a chance, Lex could sway the most discriminating ear and Lex liked to talk. Liked to prove points. Lex liked to debate the merits of his obsessions as if it mattered to him what people thought.

He raised his hands, pale and elegant above the black cuffs of his jacket and the clamor quieted somewhat, the crowd waiting to hear what he had to say, before they started hammering him with questions of their own.

He opened his mouth to speak - - and the sky over his head opened up. Or, rather tore, with a sizzling, hissing sound as the very air seemed to solidify around the edges of a circular rent that dropped several large, solid figures out of nowhere onto the steps next to Lex. Several people went down under the impact, Lex's lead lawyer for one, crumpled under the huge booted feet of a figure that towered a good two feet over the rest of the crowd.

Lex blinked in a moment of unconcealed shock, the most emotion he'd shown in the last two months. One large gloved hand clamped around Lex's elbow and the crowd went just a little wild. If this were an escape attempt it had come just a bit to late to be of use. If it weren't - -

The crowd surged forward even as Clark supersped out of his rumpled suit, depositing it in the blink of an eye inside a rain grate at the top of the courthouse building. When he got back, hovering over the courthouse steps, one of the figures was waving what looked to be a weapon in an arc towards the surging crowd. Something wavery, like heat off a black stretch of summer road issued forth, and the crowd cried out, toppling backwards like so many stalks of corn flattened by a storm. Everyone down for a hundred yards out in a circular pattern around Lex and the four strange beings.

Clark bit back a curse and swooped down. Was there before the last body on the outer ring of the flattened circle fell, jamming the flat of his hand against a broad chest covered in rough, heavy fabric, grabbing the weapon out of the big hand that wielded it, crushing the metal and molded plastic before flinging it away. The man - - he assumed it was a human man, it was hard to tell with the helmet and face plate covering features - - went down, gasping, sporting a few fractured ribs, maybe a broken clavicle. Clark hadn't been particularly gentle what with the possibility of mass murder.

But the people on the ground weren't dead, merely stunned, a multitude of heartbeats confirming the fact.

Clark separated out Lois, heard her cursing dazedly, tangled under the limbs of other fallen reporters, on her back but unhurt. No one seemed mortally wounded, just knocked flat by the pulse.

Clark turned to the other intruders, putting on his stern face.

"Step away from Luthor and put down your weapons."

"I don't need your hel - -" Was as much as Lex managed to snarl before the hand on his arm darted up to his throat, yanking him off his feet and back against the chest of the intruder. Something small and lethal looking pressed against Lex's temple.

"Stand down," the figure growled, when Clark made a forward move. Lex's feet were dangling, his face darkening from the grip around his throat.

"What do you want?" Clark asked, although it was fairly clear that what they wanted was Lex.

"Return transit," the lead figure muttered, speaking perhaps into a helmet-based receiver rather than at anyone here.

The same hissing groan permeated the air and the rent appeared, this time descending like a hand about to swat a fly. From whence they'd come, they were about to return, plus one. Clark clenched his jaw and darted forward.

The world went very, very psychedelic.


It didn't last long. Just long enough to mess with Clark's equilibrium and leave the tracery effects of a vast array of spinning colors dancing behind his eyes. He was standing on solid ground and the bright light of day - - once the residual rainbows flirting with his retina's faded - - had turned very dark and very grey.

Clark spun, shaking off the dizziness and found himself surrounded by a great many more of the big, faceless uniformed figures than had been on the steps of the Metropolis courthouse. There were a lot of unfamiliar weapons trained on him and a lot trained on Lex, who was still in the grip of his captor with about a dozen armed men between him and Clark.

"Resistance will result in immediate elevation of sentence from imprisonment to execution," an unarmed man, without the faceplate or helmet, said, at the edge of the gaggle of armed ones.

He wasn't entirely human. Close, but there was something about the flatness of his face, the stretch of skin that was almost gray in tone that hinted at different origins.

Clark had been operating on reflex thus far, reacting to threat without a lot of contemplation about the whys and wherefores. He'd have lunged into the unknown after anyone in the midst of kidnapping - - stranger or friend or - - obviously - - foe. But he had to question, having first hand knowledge of a lot of Lex's dubious associations if this were some deal gone wrong or retaliation for a Luthor double-cross.

"Who are you?" Clark ignored the weapons, ignored the faceless glares of the surrounding soldiers, ignored Lex struggling doggedly in the grip of a figure half again his size, and looked to the man across the room - - cave. It was a cavern like room they all gathered in, with rough-hewn walls, spotted here and there with fixtures that glowed with yellow light. It was incredibly dense. He could see pockets of space through the rock, but they were few and far between and the breadth of rock overhead seemed endless. They were deep, deep underground then.

"Sentence? What sentence?" The hand around Lex's throat had loosened and granted the breath to complain, Lex proceeded to do just that. "Whoever the hell you think you are, you've stepped on the wrong toes. Assault, kidnapping, infringement within the Earth sphere without EDA approval - -what the hell?"

One of them grabbed Lex's arm and spilled a silvery substance on his hand. It slithered up like mercury on the move to encircle his wrist, despite his frantic efforts to shake it off. Once in place it solidified, hardening into a dull, grey band about two inches wide that circled his wrist without seam.

"What is this? What did you do?" Lex was worrying at the band, plying it with the fingers of his other hand. There was just enough looseness that it turned on his wrist. He looked up, through the forest of bodies separating them at Clark. "Why are you just standing there, you idiot? Isn't this the sort of thing that normally spurs you to action?"

"Who are you people?" Clark repeated his unanswered question. He didn't resist when one of them tugged his arm up and poured a dollop of the same substance on his hand that they'd put on Lex. He wasn't afraid of it. Whatever it was, it didn't reek of any brand of kryptonite, so it was of no harm to him. He'd rip it off when it suited him, but for now, better to let them assume the upper hand and alleviate their fears. They were more likely to reveal their intentions that way. And since he had no idea where he was - - very possibly not even on earth, since rents in the very air tended to lean towards space time anomalies and wormholes that led who knew where - - he was willing to spend a little patience to figure it out.

"I am the Magistrate," the unmasked man said. "And we are Justice."

"Really?" Lex drawled poisonously, having given up his efforts to remove the band. "You strike me more as thugs."

"We observed, waiting for the authorities of your sphere to carry out justice, but they failed in their duty. The wrong is being righted."

"You are not serious?" Lex tried to twist out of the grip on his arm, eyes flashing indignity. "Another half-cocked group of holier than thou vigilante's who think they're above the law? Do you guys give out membership to just any crackpot who crawls out of the woodwork?"

This last he directed at Clark. Clark didn't deign to answer, too busy scouring his memory for any clue to who these people might be. There were a lot of subsidiary factions of the Lantern corps out there - - a lot of rogue factions that didn't necessarily operate under the diction of the corps - - but why any of them would have an interest in an earth-based criminal, he wasn't sure. Unless Lex had been expanding his base of operations. Unless they had nothing to do with the Lantern Corps at all.

"What right do you have to impose your judgment on Earth? Even the Lantern Corps does not interfere in our practices."

"My God, he speaks sense." Lex had managed to shove his way through the gathered figures, or they'd stopped attempting to detain him now that he was 'tagged' with their odd bracelet. He stomped up next to Clark, full of the righteous indignation that a man who perpetrated the things he'd perpetrated, really ought not be so well endowed with.

"The Lantern Corps," the Magistrate said with a sneer that hinted he did indeed have some opinion of that ancient organization. "Has no relevance in the judgment of our Justice. This man is steeped in guilt, has committed crimes against Our interests and judgment has been passed."

"Your interests?" Lex cried. "I don't know who the hell you are. You have no right to pass judgment on me. You're not even my species. You say you represent justice - - then where's my due process? My right to defense?"

"You used it to bypass your own system of justice. It is no longer at your disposal. Sentence is passed. The term is life - - be grateful you were allowed that grace."

"Passed by who, you sanctimonious prick?" Lex shoved his way forward, headed for the Magistrate, and this time the guards took issue. The butt of one of their weapons hit him in the side, no gentle force from a being half a head taller than Clark and Lex gasped, clutching his side, going down to one knee.

What Lex deserved and what Lex didn't deserve was a truly muddled issue in Clark's head - - but Clark was nothing if not a strong believer in fair play and in carrying out the law of his own adopted land, regardless of what some alien interloper thought of the admittedly dubious verdict.

He ripped the weapon out of the offender's hands, flung it hard enough that it shattered against the rock wall of the chamber. Two dozen other weapons rose, trained on him.

The Magistrate held up a hand.

"I can't allow this," Clark said, in full Superman voice. "This man's crimes, whatever they may be, are punishable by the courts of our land, not you."

"You are his minion?"

"No!" Clark said, no small bit offended. He heard a short, pained burst of laughter from Lex.

"You have assaulted a correctional officer in the attempt of this man to escape rightful sentencing - -"

"I disarmed a man that had attacked a crowd of innocent bystanders." He assumed they were speaking of the one on the steps of the courthouse.

"Your term will be six cycles in Bakarak."

"What?"

Lex was still chuckling, rocking a little on his knees, clutching his side, either a little hysterical - - doubtful - - or finding misplaced humor in Clark's own sentencing.

"You tried and convicted me - - just like that?"

"He's the Magistrate, remember?" Lex gasped through his gallows humor.

"I am the Magistrate," the Magistrate reiterated with a narrow eyed glance at Lex for preempting his pious claim.

Clark had had enough. If he had to bust through half a mile of solid rock he was getting out of here. If they wanted to keep Lex, they could have him. Well, maybe until Clark could figure out where the hell they were and how to get back home.

"Take them to processing,"

Clark tensed, ready to send guards flying. The Magistrate stilled him with a few words.

"Your bracelets are synced now. Any attempt at escape will result in the detonation of the explosive substance within. There will be little left but residue afterwards."

"Fucking fantastic," Lex muttered at Clark's feet. Clark lifted his wrist and peered at the innocuous looking band.

"Your bracelets will be detonated at the discretion of any correctional officer or any attack upon a correctional officer," the Magistrate went on. "Your bracelets will detonate if you pass the sensors surrounding this or the Bakarak penal facility. If any one of the sensors is destroyed the bracelets of all inmates will detonate before escape is allowed. The bracelet of each convict is linked with that of a partnered inmate - - if either bracelet is triggered, the other will also detonate. So think long and hard before you test our patience, for you will not suffer the consequences alone."

Lex had stopped chuckling, suddenly going very, very still as he turned the possibility of that over in his head. Clark could still get out, and an exploding bracelet wouldn't do much more than scuff the uniform - - of course Lex would end up scattered in bits and pieces.

Clark looked down at Lex, frown deepening. It would be little better than cold blooded murder, taking the easy route and forcing his way out of here and no matter who it was that would pay for that act of liberation, it wasn't something Clark was prepared to do.

"So maybe it wasn't such a good idea to let them put the damned band on your wrist, genius." Lex commented, as a guard hauled him to his feet and propelled him forward. He glanced over his shoulder, blue eyes narrow and caustic. "Is it another of those bizarre alien anomalies that when your muscles swell, your brain functions shrink?"

Clark glared, briefly reconsidering the whole leaving Lex to explode issue.

They tried to shove Clark forward and he paused just long enough to let them know he wasn't shovable, before moving ahead on his own. They were led to a spot on the floor surrounded by a graven circle while all but four of the guards, who accompanied them within it, looked on. The air sizzled again, parting above them and descending.

A moment later they were someplace else. A deeper someplace. Clark could feel it in the heaviness of the air, the sense of incredible weight above him. The guards waiting for them were free of faceplates and their uniforms though, similar to the others, were somehow more worn.

They were pushed - - well, Lex was pushed out of the circle and Clark chose to step out on his own with a warning look at the man who'd bruised his hand on the small of his back - - out into the receiving room. The air sizzled again and the face-plated guards who'd brought them here disappeared.

"This way," one of the new guards directed.

"Where is this?" Lex demanded that hint of imperiousness in his tone that always tended to set Clark's teeth at edge when it was directed at him. The guards apparently didn't like it much either. Lex got cuffed on the ear, grasped by the collar and pulled down a corridor that looked to have been carved out of solid rock. It was braced here and there by dull metal buttresses and lit by the same light panels embedded in the rock. Solar powered, Clark guessed, from the warm yellow light they emitted.

They were taken to a small room with plain metal benches and a desk, which sat before a gated room that seemed to be dedicated to storage.

"Strip." They were told.

"You must be joking," Lex scoffed at the order, all ruffled pride and suicidal scorn. Clark shifted just enough for his shoulder to absorb the blow aimed for Lex's head this time and Lex glared unappreciatively.

"Strip and place your clothing and belongings in the boxes. They will be returned to you upon completion of your sentence," The guard behind the desk expounded and several of the others smirked as if actual completion of sentences were a far-fetched thing.

"I don't need your charity," Lex hissed at Clark, even as he unwillingly shucked off his jacket.

"I don't need to cart you around when you're suffering from a fractured skull."

Lex glared, then took a second look as Clark pulled off the uniform top and the AI generated facial distortion cut out. It wasn't like Lex didn't know, but he'd never seen the sudden shift from Superman to Clark Kent. His mouth thinned, as if it were offensive to him somehow and he turned away, yanking angrily at his tie.

If the superman suit muddied Clark's true appearance, then the work of Lex's expert tailors did much the same to his to a lesser degree. Granted there was no alien techware to alter his features, but the stern cut of his suits, the broad shouldered jackets and the line of his pants did much to alter the public perception of Lex Luthor.

There was a lot less of him than the clothes hinted. Lex had gone to a lot of trouble to put forth the image of a mature man that the American public could trust with the leadership of their country during the election campaign. No easy thing for a man who looked a healthy ten years or more younger than his actual age - - but then that was the work of kryptonite exposure. Lex didn't get sick. Lex recovered from things that medically were unrecoverable. Lex's normal aging processes seemed to have stalled somewhere around thirty. So Lex went to lengths to bypass a natural - - well, unnatural if you wanted to be entirely honest - - disadvantage when it came to the political arena.

Clark found himself staring. He'd seen Lex in swim trunks in their younger days, and had on occasion burst in to confront Lex over something in the middle of the night and seen him half naked under the sheets, but he'd never seen the full package - - so to speak - - and the total lack of hair was sort of - - well - - wow.

It made Lex look so much more naked than Clark felt, secure in his size and his healthy shock of black pubes and the treasure trail leading up his own belly to his navel. Lex might have looked the oddity, all hairless skin from head to toe, if he hadn't been put together so damned nicely. All long, lean muscle, hard in the right places, the smooth hint of curve in all those others that compelled the eye.

Clark had to force himself to look away, because it just wasn't right to be so fascinated by the bare skin of a man that had been his enemy for the decade and a half.

"I'll expect these cleaned and pressed when I return for them," Lex said, all casual malice as he placed his clothing in the metal box on the counter. The grey faced man behind it sniffed, shoving a set of much less elegant garments across towards Lex. "You won't be getting out, inmate. Even if you weren't in for life - - the mines, they eat away the life of stronger men than you in a cycle or two."

Lex smiled thinly, brushing past Clark as he went to don the new clothes. Clark put the suit in a box. There was a transmitter in the belt that the League could track once they realized he was missing. If the depth of this place - - the location itself - - was trackable.

The prison clothing was dour and durable. Drawstring trousers, rubber soled shoes, sleeveless under-shirts and long sleeved shirts made of the same material as the trousers. Clark's was big enough in the shoulders that he assumed that this prison saw its fair share of large inmates. It was missing a button in the middle.

"Take care of those clothes," the supply master said. "They're all you'll get for free. Replacements will cost you work chits and those're spent on better things - - like food."

"Chits?" Clark asked, watching the box with his suit disappear into the back in the hands of a gray-faced guard.

"Orientation is down below." The supply master waved a hand, and now that Clark and Lex were dressed in their prison finery, the guards that had escorted them in motioned for them to proceed out again.

They were directed into yet one more graven circle and a brief moment later they were someplace else. This time the air was filled with heat and the grinding sound of machinery.

They stood in a mammoth chamber, a mind-bogglingly huge cavern of hewn rock dominated by the monstrous bulk of a great, grinding machine the size of a skyscraper. It was like some nightmarish contraption, dull brown layers that groaned and belched heat and flame from corroded exhaust ports, with half hidden gears and rotating chains the sections of which were the size of city buses. Huge tanker ship sized cables and pipes ran out through the stone, either feeding something in or something out of the machine. It was fifty stories high at least, and the very tip of it bled foul smoke out through a gap in the cavern ceiling. A tiny slice of night sky almost obscured by smoke. But a way out, none the less, for someone who could defy gravity. If that someone weren't concerned for the sensor beacons that the Magistrate had warned of and exploding sullen arch nemesis's.

Later. Later he'd examine the boundaries of these sensors and see what sort of leash he was presently allowing himself to be kept on. Right now, he turned his attention back to the lower, more assessable levels of the great contraption. Dozens of conveyer belts fed into the lowest level. They were piled with rock and ore of some type that was consumed by the fires inside the machine. The belts fed up through individual tunnels that sloped down into darkness.

Lex was staring too, eyes devouring details of the massive thing that Clark probably didn't even register as important. But then, Lex had always had a thing for toys.

Their guards led them down a narrow catwalk towards the mouth of one such tunnel, this one without a moving belt, just stone walls and a thick metal door a dozen feet in. The door jerked and screeched open after a moment and they passed inside, confronted by another metal hatch. They waited while the first closed, and when it was secure, the second haltingly pulled back into the wall. Beyond it was a long sloping walk down, broken up by the occasional hatch.

When they reached the bottom, they found themselves at what appeared to be a central hub where men labored to push carts heavy with raw ore up towards a collection point, where other men saw that the ore was transferred to the belts that took it up through the tunnels to the machine.

A very large - - not even close to human-sized - - guard ambled over, and passed a handheld device over first Clark's wrist band, and then Lex's. He looked at it for confirmation, then nodded, satisfied.

"These are the rules," he rumbled without preamble. "One cart of ore a day gets you rations. Every cart after that, you earn a chit, which you can use for extra rations or supplies or save towards early release." He tapped Clark's wristband with a finger thick as three of Clark's and said. "Band stores your earnings. How you get your ore, what you do with your rations - - that's up to you. Attack a guard and your band detonates. Pass a sensor and your band and your band-mate's band detonates. Mess with a sensor and everyone's band detonates. So don't fuck with the sensors. Other than that &endash; " And he grinned at them, revealing big blunt teeth the size of silver dollars and much the same color. "You're on your own. Live or die or starve, it don't much matter to me."

"This is the orientation?" Lex asked dubiously. "Dig or starve? Don't fuck with the sensors?"

"Pretty much." The big guard said, looking down his flat nose at Lex, then added with a suggestive sneer. "If meeting the quota is too hard for some - - there's always the option of barter to keep from starving. Come here at the beginning of cycle shift to get your tools. Return them at endshift or forfeit your chits until they're paid off. Shift's half over today, so you get grace chits for first day's rations. Ask an inmate where ration distribution is. Understand?"

Lex was scowling, staring down at the slow influx of men struggling to push heavy, ore laden carts up the incline towards the hub. A lot of the faces stared up at them at the edge of the tunnel leading out with unconcealed curiosity and some with outright hostility.

"Understood," Clark said.

The big guard nodded, and turned his attention back to the arrival of ore. Clark focused his vision, seeing past the tunnels snaking their way up to the hub, to larger spaces within. Warrens within warrens, carved out of rock over time. It was hard to see through, no common rock, and he thought that the greater part of this system of caverns was made up of the ore that fed the great machine. Finding a vein would be no problem. Harvesting it would be the work of a few moments for him - - though he imagined, from the density of the stuff that those with more mortal strengths would have a harder time of it. And then there was the competition of finding an easy vein and drawing from it when a thousand others were desperately seeking to fill their own quotas.

And there were a lot of heartbeats thudding within the sprawling recesses of these mines, along with the constant reverberation of rock being broken, of men toiling to survive.

Lex was moving down the walk, a faint swagger to his gait that suggested a man who held supreme confidence - - or one who wanted to put forth the front - - towards a tunnel that most of the men who had labored with their carts up hill were exiting through.

Clark followed after, watching a pair of raw-boned, skinny men struggle to push a heavy cart up the incline towards the hub. A big man with a cart all his own was fast on their heels. So it appeared the weak combined their efforts to gain a fraction of what one strong man easily earned.

The prison mines were apparently their own little encapsulated system of capitalism. The weak getting weaker and the strong thriving. A frightening concept in a world where apparently inmates made their own law with no governing hand to limit the excess of the power hungry. Lex just might fit in here after all.

The downhill tunnel was devoid of more than a teasing hint of light. It was close and low ceilinged and dark. All he could see where the silhouetted figures of the men trudging down the tunnel ahead of him. Flickering light signaled the end of the tunnel, and beyond lay a large, irregularly shaped cavern, sporadically dotted with the embedded solar panels, but they were hardly enough to provide decent illumination. Dozens and dozens of tunnels, both large and small spiraled out from this central chamber and the walls were lined with nooks, some concealed with hanging blankets, that no doubt served as sleeping places. Men gathered in distinguishable packs, only a portion human seeming. There were some species Clark was familiar with from his work with the Justice League and some that were completely foreign. The one thing they all had in common was the caged look of animals with no chance at freedom. How many were unjustly imprisoned, at the whim of a group that considered itself above the laws of other worlds and how many entirely deserving this punishment?

A group of big men sauntered towards them. All of them thick with muscle and sweat and the palpable scent of threat. The reception committee, obviously.

"New meat," one of them laughed, a rough, rumbling sound.

"Pretty," another commented, and Clark wasn't sure whom they were talking about.

"Clean," Another said and Clark figured that one covered both him and Lex, because they were fairly sparkling cleanliness compared to the grime coating these men's skin and clothing.

Lex stopped his forward momentum, casually letting his gaze travel across the pack of inmates, then beyond, taking in the other scattered men, the dark nooks, and the various tunnels leading out of this central cavern.

"So who's in charge down here?" Lex asked, turning his attention back to the gathered group.

"You takin' a survey, little man?" One of them laughed, crowding in close and trying to intimidate. Clark could have told them Lex didn't intimidate.

"No," Lex sniffed and wrinkled his nose, as if the odor wafting from the man were more of a problem than his closeness. "I just like to know the political climate of the places I find myself interned."

"Political climate?" Another one barked in amusement and shuffled forward. Not the biggest of the lot, not much taller than Clark himself, but there was something sharp and mean in his eyes. And the men around him gave way a little, like any pack would to the alpha male. "We got us a literate man here."

He looked down at Lex, then with much the same dismissal as Lex had used in his casual glance at them, he moved past him towards Clark.

"What about you? You a literate man, too? Gonna try and impress us with words?"

Clark shrugged, meeting narrow black eyes. "Not so much. I'm just here to serve my time."

The man continued to stare and when Clark didn't flinch from the intimidating gaze, a faint, cruel smile touched the corners of the man's mouth. "That so? What's your name, Just Here to Serve my Time?"

Clark hesitated, wary of the tenuous shelter of a secret identity. The AI alterations were gone, but it was doubtful anyone here would ever have the chance to compare Superman and Clark Kent. Still - -

"Kal-el. My name's Kal-el. Your's?"

The man laughed, closer to honest amusement this time. "Sweet. You can call me Sweet." Clark lifted a brow at the blatantly contrary name. He was afraid to ask how the man had come by it.

"And you, little man," Sweet turned back to Lex, who had been watching the interaction with Clark with a tight frown. "You can call me sir, just like the rest of the scuts."

Lex lifted a brow, not liking that one bit. He opened his mouth to reply and shut it abruptly when Sweet stepped close and placed a big hand on his bald head. Lex, Clark knew, had a thing against people touching him - - especially his head - - like he'd had it done too often as a child when he lacked the authority to complain bitterly against the indignity, to ever be comfortable with it.

"Smooth as a new hatched babe. Nice."

Lex didn't slap away the hand, he just stood there instead, with cold, dangerous eyes that clearly claimed, I maybe look smaller and weaker than the rest of you, but test me and find out just how venomous I am. It was a look that generally cowed acquaintances and competitors, both above and below the board. There was a reason Lex Luthor's name was spoken with reverence and or blackest spite in the paths of the criminal underworld - - however reputation went a long way and he didn't have one here. All he had was a big ego, a sharp mind and little enough physical threat to back it up.

"Take your hand off me," he said softly.

"What was that?" Sweet bent a little as if he hadn't heard.

Lex scowled and Clark heard the increased rate of his pulse. Anger, he thought, rather than fear. "You heard me."

Sweet moved his hand, letting it fall on Lex's shoulder. "See, the thing you got to learn here, literate man, is to be polite. I didn't hear, please?"

There was a soft drone of laughter from the surrounding men, the eager look in their eyes of a pack hoping for a kill. Sweet had evaluated Clark and found him somewhere above the level of prey - - for the time being - - but Lex had fallen into that category - - maybe because of his stature, maybe because he'd pissed Sweet off.

Lex kept his gaze fixed on the bigger man's and perhaps that was the only thing, that lack of apparent fear that kept them from taking him down then and there. But Lex was nothing if not adaptable and Lex knew how to go with the flow, even if it meant a certain lack of dignity.

"Please," he said, level and calm.

Sweet smiled and his big thumb stroked the side of Lex's neck idly, while he considered. "It's a hard life here, for those not suited - - a short life for those without the means of protection. There's easier labor than mining ore for those with talent, eh? Might find life more comfortable if you're polite and you cooperate."

Lex didn't flinch. Didn't move. Clark felt a little curl of tension at the pit of his belly, a little nub of indignation over the proposition.

"Take your hand off." Clark said it without really thinking, stepping up beside Sweet, while the rest of the pack tensed at the challenge. Lex didn't look at him, though his lips tightened.

"You staking claim, Kal?" Sweet asked.

Clark held up the band on his wrist. "No claim. He and I are band-mates. I've got a vested interest."

"And here I thought you and I could be on equitable terms." Sweet casually shoved Lex backwards, into the arms of the closest man in the group behind him. Lex snarled and twisted, as more than one set of hands snatched at him. They weren't serious about it though, and he slithered free, putting distance between them and him, flushed and glaring at the lot, Clark included.

"First night's a freebee," Sweet said, waving a big hand. "Settle in. Enjoy the scenery. Tomorrow - - tomorrow's a whole different matter."

They ambled away, a few casting threatening glances over their shoulders. Clark stood there, still a little tight from that inexplicable anger.

"If I want your fucking help, I'll fucking well ask for it. " Lex was pissed. Lex's language didn't usually deteriorate into a profanity per sentence unless his composure was severely shaken.

"It looked like you needed it," Clark said crossly. A dozen sets of furtive eyes were staring. Wary, curious men that loitered at the edges of the light, afraid to bring notice down upon themselves.

"I had it under control," Lex snapped, and stalked a few paces, before hesitating, maybe trying to figure out just where it was he wanted to go.

"Whatever," Clark muttered, irritation turning back to its rightful target.

"Fuck your whatevers," Lex turned on him, spitting mad, and Clark wasn't sure if it were embarrassment over the incident with Sweet's gang, or something else fueling it. "You're always - - always - -where you're least wanted and yet you fail to show up when your presence would actually be of benefit."

"What are you ranting about?" Clark was beginning to get pissed himself. He was here because of Lex. He was enduring this - - allowing this imprisonment because of Lex - - so would it be too much for Lex to show a little gratitude - - or at the very least not attack him in a frothing rage?

"Where were you when they stormed the Colorado compound?"

"What?" That caught him off guard. When the feds had collected their evidence and moved in to take Lex, he'd been at the Luthor compound outside of Colorado Springs. Clark, as well as a good deal of the Justice League had been otherwise occupied off planet. He hadn't heard about the incident until he'd returned to the League Satellite days later. Lex himself had been injured - - the first casualty - - taken out by an overeager federal sniper.

After that, all hell had broken loose. There had been losses on both sides. The only reason Lex hadn't been charged with the body count on the Federal side, was because they'd gone in under a sloppy warrant on privately owned land and a green agent had fired the first shot without orders, precipitating a legitimate defense on the part of Lex's security.

Seven deaths. Two federal agents and five LexCorp security. Among them, Lex's head of security, Mercy Graves.

Clark regretted those casualties, but he hadn't, until this moment, considered that someone - - that Lex - - might hold him accountable for his absence. But maybe there was reason. Once he'd taken up the mantel of Superman - - once Lex had started his crusade for the pursuit of power - - and Clark would be kidding himself if he didn't admit that that hadn't really gone into full operating mode until Superman revealed himself to the world - - Clark had taken it upon himself to be front and center in the efforts to decommission illegitimate Luther projects. So maybe he should have been keeping a closer eye.

"I'm sorry, Lex. I'm sorry you lost people - - I'm sorry Mercy died - -"

"Don't - -" Lex growled at him, stabbing a finger at him, eyes so dark with emotion the blue was overshadowed by murky shades of storm cloud gray. "I don't want your damned guilt."

The finger trembled, and Clark stood there, staring down, waiting for Lex to say something else, but he didn't. Lex didn't want his guilt, he just wanted to condemn him for something that even Clark wasn't convinced was his fault. Lex had apparently been holding on to this for a long time and Lex needed to condemn somebody. And the both of them were always the easiest targets for condemnation when the need rose in the other.

Lex pressed his mouth flat, when Clark didn't respond, muscle ticking in his jaw, and turned on his heel.

Clark watched him go, disappearing down one of the passages leading out of this large central chamber. Keeping Lex and Lex's ambitions, from hurting people was a responsibility Clark had willingly accepted - - taken up long before he'd become Superman. Keeping Lex himself safe wasn't necessarily as high a priority - - not anymore. No matter if Clark habitually tended to show up when Lex's life was in peril.

If Lex wanted to split off from the obvious safety of Clark's presence and go off on his own into what had already proven dangerous territory. That was Lex's choice. Clark was only his keeper when he was breaking the law. Damnit.

Clark eyed Lex's passage until the ore laden rock grew too dense to follow him anymore, then clenched his jaw at the subtle throb of irritation that just wouldn't go away and turned his attention to the other inmates in the cavern.

There was a trio of men, skinny and staved looking who loitered near one of the tunnels leading away from the ore depot. He started towards them, and almost, he could see them visibly flinch, two of them immediately turning to scurry away down a dark passage. The third hesitated. Maybe braver than the others, maybe just too tired to run from confrontation.

"Hey," Clark said and the man eyed him with sullen wariness. "The guard back there, he said we should ask another inmate where ration distribution is. Where everything is, I guess. He wasn't much for detail. I guess he's of the sink or swim persuasion."

"That's Darox," the man said, twitching a little about the shoulders. "He's head night shift guard. He - -he's not much for lending a helping hand."

"Yeah, I picked up on that." Clark smiled and extended a hand. "I'm Kal-el."

The skinny man hesitated, staring down at the proffered hand like Clark was holding out a handful of dead rodents. Apparently not a lot of willing skin-to-skin contact went on around here.

"Its okay," Clark said, dropping his hand. The man twitched a little more, all nerves and uncertainty. The guy looked maybe fifty, but in a place like this, the youth might be sucked right out of a body, so the lines on a man's face were deceiving.

"Keever," the man said. "I'm Keever."

"Good to meet you, Keever," Clark waved a hand around the cavern, to the nooks and crannies in the walls. "Is this where we find a place to sleep?"

"Here? No. The old timers and those that don't mind dayshift and night shift rolling carts through constantly, sleep up there. Most find places deeper in - -or make their own. Or take a niche from somebody else, if they can. But rock's rock, when you're sleeping on it and not many can earn the chits to buy blankets and such. Follow me. I'll show you were to get rations."

Clark followed the man down the central tunnel. Only one out of every two or three light panel seemed to work, which left the passage as shadowy as a dark alley in Suicide Slums and likely as dangerous with figures loitering in the recesses. Keever scurried past the narrow, deeper side passages as if he feared what lurked within them. They passed a trickle of water that issued from a crack in the wall and gathered in a small natural basin on the floor. A few men gathered there, cupping water in their hands and drinking.

"Water's free," Keever explained. "There's springs all over and for those that feel the need there's the grotto where you can wash body or clothing. Dangerous to go alone though, even for a big man like yourself. Some of the gangs - -they take their entertainments there."

They passed several downward leading passages where Clark could hear the sounds of rock being broken.

"Ore's safest mined down on the lower levels - -where the walls are still thick. The best pockets are closer up, but the likes of Sweet and his gang tend to claim those. The rest of us, we dig the deeper veins."

They moved aside to let a man struggling to push a cart pass. There was a track on the ground, that seemed like more than a simple set of rails - - seemed more like the moving conveyer that the ore was dumped on, but there was no life to it and it took sheer manpower to move the carts.

Keever walked for a while, the ambling pace of a man reserving precious energy and Clark idly focused his hearing, listening to the various layers of sounds whispering through the warren of tunnels and caverns. Without conscious thought, he singled out a familiar heat beat, and frowned a little at the reflexive action. He took a moment, regardless to determine that the rhythm was steady, without the thudding tempo of panic.

"Here it is," Keever drew his attention back as the tunnel widened, becoming more populated, and fed into another a broad carven room. There rough tables to the sides, with plank benches where men sat and ate, and a two lines waiting to be served at heavily grated windows at the rear. One line seemed to be food and the other, shorter one seemed to be for supplies. There were only a few large inmates in the latter.

"You can trade chits for rations whenever you feel - -if you've got them to trade." Keever said, as they shifted in line.

"What happens to those that can't earn their chit - - the old and the weak?" Clark asked.

Keever winced, eyes shifting away. "Some do scut work for crumbs, some barter bodily favors to those that want it - - and those that can't do neither, starve."

"There's no medical facility? The guards don't care for the sick and dying or wounded?"

Keever laughed. "If they're feeling generous, they might put a dying man out of his misery, but that's as far as they go."

God. Clark narrowed his eyes angrily. No one deserved such an end and damned if he'd allow this place to continue on. It was just a matter of bypassing the problematic explosive bands everyone wore on their wrists.

Clark reached the front of the line, and Keever directed him to pass his band under a scanner embedded in the rock face. A bread bowl filled with a pungent thick stew was pushed forward.

Keever eyed it like it was gold, and even if Clark hadn't had enhanced hearing, he'd have heard the rumble of the man's stomach.

"Here." Clark handed it over. "You need this more than I do."

Keever gaped, not quite believing the act of generosity, but he didn't hesitate taking it, and hankered down on a bench to begin consumption, scooping thick stew into his mouth with his fingers. Clark sat down across from him, watching the flow of tired men. There were a lot that simply hovered at the outskirts, watching those that waited in line with chits to their name to trade for food. Some of the bigger men came away from the window with more than the bread bowl. Loaves of bread and cheese and fruit. Apparently the stew laden bread bowl was the basic sustenance, and anyone with gourmet tastes better work hard to earn the chits to appease it. Lex was going to be one unhappy camper.

Keever finished every crumb of the bread bowl, licking his fingers afterwards in satisfaction. Clark figured it had been a while since he'd had a whole portion all his own. Afterwards the grateful man was more liberal with his information. He explained the safe areas and those protected fiercely by the 'gangs' that roamed the mines. There were factions down here as in any confined society, which vied for dominance. Sweet's was one of the strongest and Sweet himself was not a man to be crossed.

Keever pointed out markers on the walls that indicated what level and what section of the mines they were in, as well as the markers that denoted dangerous areas or tunnels that had been mined out. The best spots were owned by the gangs, and those not affiliated were forced to chip their ore out of less fruitful veins. Keever showed Clark some of those places where men toiled with crude picks to break dull grey ore apart from brown rock.

Clark helped a skinny inmate lift a large chunk of ore into a half filled cart and the man stared furtively afterwards, as if he expected Clark to claim the whole of the cart. Clark held up his hands to show no ill intent and backed away, while Keever stared in just as much cagey amazement.

When Clark asked where the 'grotto' the man had mentioned was, Keefer hesitated in leading the way, then shrugged apparently deciding that Clark's company lent him some small bit of protection.

It was down a level, a huge humid chamber smelling slightly of sulfur, surprisingly warm compared to the chill of the rest of the mines. A large underground lake dominated what was apparently a completely natural cavern. Stalagmites rose from the floor here and there, and their counterparts dripped from the high ceiling. Clark used his vision to see how deep the lake was. Shallow at the edges and deep towards the far wall, narrow channels flowing out to some other underground reservoir.

A few men were actually in the shallows, using hands to scrub the filth of their bodies, but most loitered around the edges, eying the cavern's other occupants with territorial malice. There were sounds, in the dark nooks and crannies beyond the reach of the few light panels mounted in stalagmites around the lake, of goings on between men that Clark preferred not to dwell on.

"The whole lake is apparently warmed," a familiar voice said and Clark turned to find Lex, in the company of a few non-descript seeming inmates just inside the grotto entrance. Of course Lex would find his own sources of information. Lex had a talent for worming his way into people's trust.

Lex strolled forward, waving an expansive hand at the placid water surface, as if he were giving a tour of some personal property. "Which makes me worry about the source of heat it would take to warm this much water. We're either sitting on top of a very live pocket of geological activity or this water is part of a coolant source for that ridiculous rock eating machine. Scenario one, there's a major geological event in the near future. Scenario two the water is possibly contaminated by passage through that machine. Not a pretty picture, either way."

He brushed past Clark and stood surveying the lake. After a moment he turned and gave Keever a pointed stare. "How long has this mine served as a prison facility?"

If Clark were a lesser man or one that looked upon people as either assets or detriments, he might feel a little miffed that Lex was trolling a source of information that he had cultivated. But maybe that was the reporter in him churning below the surface.

"Nobody here knows," Keever said. "Least nobody alive to tell and the guards, they don't share. But I can tell you there's levels and levels of mined out shafts above."

"So a very long time." Lex surmised.

Keever shrugged warily.

"So where are these sensors the guards warned us about?" Lex asked casually, but Clark knew the little gives well enough to tell it wasn't a casual inquiry at all.

"Up top," Keever waved a hand vaguely towards the ceiling. "On the surface, is what I hear. Anyone goes above ground and - - well, splat."

"You've personally heard of that happening?" Lex asked.

Keever nervously worried at the band on his skinny wrist. It had been there so long, the skin underneath was white and scarred looking. "Last time was about - - five cycles ago. Man went crazy - - well, crazier than most down here at any rate - - dug his way into an upshoot and climbed to the surface. Might never have known he'd ever made it up there, save his bond-mate's bracelet 'sploded right in the middle of a dig. Took the ceiling down on five men where he was mining. Guards told us later what had happened."

"Are they as old as this mine?"

Keever shrugged, not knowing and Lex sucked on the inside of his cheek for a moment, possibilities churning behind blue eyes. It made Clark nervous, that look.

"So lets say that hypothetically," Lex finally said. "Someone had access to a brute with inhuman strengths and the capacity of flight that was able to reach these sensors and disable them - - ?"

"Don't even think it!" Keever hissed sharply eyes darting around desperately to see if anyone had overheard Lex's hypothetical. "They'll tear you apart, if they hear you talking like that."

Lex took a breath, tightening his lips. "Does anyone actually have proof that this threat they hold over our heads is a real one? If this mine were to sustain that multitude of mini explosions, it's likely the structure would weaken and collapse and they'd loose their personal as well as a valuable source of raw material. I assume this ore we're supposed to be mining is valuable and not simply an endless exercise in futility."

Keever was still staring, wide-eyed and disturbed at the turn of conversation. He was likely to spook himself and spread the warning that they had a madman down here contemplating mass suicide. And a mass effort to tear Lex limb from limb would make Clark's life a whole lot more difficult that it had already become.

"It's okay," Clark smiled calmingly, moving in between Lex and Keever. "Nobody's thinking about getting near the sensors. He just talks too much."

Keever backed away, apparently having had as much of their company as he could stand. The little group of men Lex had been talking with had already dispersed.

Clark turned on Lex, fixing him with an accusing stare.

"Damnit, Lex - - do you just automatically set foot someplace and start figuring out ways to stir up trouble?"

"If you don't ask questions, you don't learn anything." Lex said dryly, tossing him a haughty look. "I'd think that would be a concept you'd comprehend, given your present source of employment."

"Yeah, but not the sort that incite mass panic."

Lex waved a dismissive hand and with one last look at the lake, he strode past Clark towards the tunnel leading out.

"You don't believe that the whole exploding population is anything more than a nasty rumor started by the institution to keep the inmates in line, do you? If we are sitting under a warren of previously mined tunnels and shafts, every inmate simultaneously blowing up would bring the ceiling down, so the speak, and the magistrates and whoever they work for would lose what I assume to be a profitable operation."

"Yeah," Clark countered, stalking along in Lex's wake. "But do you really want to test the theory when your life's on the line, too?"

"I test theories with my life on the line all the time."

Clark ground his teeth in frustration and consoled himself with the simple fact that this was one theory that Lex wouldn't be able to test even if he wanted to, because getting up to the surface was likely near impossible for anyone not of the super powered variety.

Lex kept walking, following branching paths at random it seemed, and Clark kept following, glowering at his back, until Lex finally stopped in his tracks and spun, glaring back. "Why are you heeling me? If I'd wanted a gigantic alien dog, I'd have spawned one in the lab."

Clark really had no idea. It wasn't like he couldn't have made better use of his time super speeding through the mines, exploring the boundaries of his new environment. Perhaps it was simple prudence - - or ingrained habit - - to keep track of Lex and what Lex was up to, just in case he decided to incite a riot or demolish the prison mine by tampering with things better left untampered. Maybe Lex was just the one familiar thing here and keeping close offered some small bit of comfort. Maybe Clark just didn't like the sounds coming from deep down in some of those dark passages and those instincts of his that very much resembled those of a vigilant watch dog insisted he stay close enough to protect that one familiar thing.

Of course if Lex was going to be a prick . . .

He let Lex stalk off on his own and stood for a moment, listening to the sound of soft footfalls blending in eventually with the sound of other feet, the squeal of cart wheels, the constant chipping of picks against rock, the grunts and labored breathing of men, the occasional keening cry of someone in pain, or rage or passion, or deepest despair.

He shut his eyes and blocked it out. All of it, pulling back his senses until all that got through was the heavy silence of the immediate area. He took a breath of stale, cool air and proceeded into the mines.

He used his speed, mapping the tunnels and caverns, pinpointing the shafts that led upwards, to the abandoned warren of passages above. Layer after layer of them, telling just how old this place was. He found a vent that led to the surface that no one not blessed with vertical flight might have traversed and marked it for future reference. If this place lay under the crust of a planet that circled a yellow sun, even sparse access to the light would serve his Spartan needs. He didn't test the limits of the sensors though, and stayed a good distance from the surface itself.

He found sealed chambers on the current populated levels as well as the ones above that housed machinery, most of which was quietly gathering dust. He wasn't mechanically enough inclined to guess what use it might have held. Lex might be better equipped to make an educated guess.

Clark was better with people. Clark had always been better with people. He figured, from his circuit of the mines that there might be a thousand inmates here. A thousand men toiling endlessly to supply ore to a machine that did - - what? He dearly would have liked to see what was on the surface. He settled for walking among the last of the struggling night shifters, the weak and the old that banded together out of necessity to fill a single mine cart, lending a helping hand here and there, asking men that looked as if they'd seen years here, what they knew of what lay beyond. None of them were more informed than him, who'd just arrived. No one who'd ever served his time and gotten out had ever come back to share tidings of what lay outside of this place. None knew more about the magistrates and their organization than what Clark had heard from the lips of the magistrate he and Lex had encountered. Which was practically nothing.

By day shift, when the solar powered lights in the tunnel walls brightened perceptively Clark had helped fill a dozen or more carts, helped push half that many up the steep paths towards the central hub and gained no small bit of wary gratitude.

He went, in the company of a surly crowd of inmates to the hub, to get the tools of the trade. A pick and a cart and no few hostile glances as he made his way through the crowd. Someone tried to jostle him on the way out, a big body, taller and heavier than his own, not quite human and no doubt used to making an impact. Clark held fast, having a problem with bullies in general, and the man rebounded, surprised.

"You pushed me, scut," the man cried, all offended dignity.

"I didn't," Clark denied, putting on the implacable Superman stare.

"You start something with Kraiser, Kraiser will finish it," the big man muttered darkly, shoving past Clark with his own cart and pick. This time Clark gave way enough to let him pass. Being the immovable object didn't always pay, after all.

"That look doesn't work quiet so well without the suit and the stone face." Lex sauntered up from behind, late to the hub from wherever he'd holed up for the night, looking no worse for wear. "It just makes you look sullen."

"Thanks for the tip," Clark muttered.

"But overall, sullen is better than that mask of pious righteousness you tend to wear like a badge."

Clark frowned as Lex moved past, not certain if that particular observation held the shadow of an actual compliment. He recalled a time - - rather too vividly sometimes - - when Lex had been free with them. It had been so long since they'd spoken with anything other than unadulterated animosity, that it was hard to pick apart the traces of anything less.

Lex came back from the acquisition of tools with a scowl. He didn't make a complaint, though, aside from a raised brow, when he saw Clark hovering at the edge of the hub. Just clanked past with a mining cart that looked as if it had seen better centuries.

Tempting scorn, Clark followed. Deciphering why was a lost cause. Sometimes you just had to go with instinct.

Like a great deal of the other non-affiliated inmates, they passed the tunnels that led to the easiest access mining sites, moving by the glowering bulks of large inmates loitering by shaft entrances to ward off those looking to infringe on territory.

Finally Lex settled on a narrow shaft leading downward. There were a few inmates chipping away at the rock walls at the end that eyed them warily.

Lex stared blackly at the walls, contemplating awful things if the look on his face was any indication. He glanced back finally, at Clark with much the same expression.

"Can you see the ore pockets?"

Clark could, by the very density of the ore compared to the surrounding rock. He nodded warily and Lex rolled his eyes, as if he were dealing with a particularly slow child.

"Then why not make life easier and point a vein out?"

"I don't know, it would almost be like cheating - - using an unfair advantage and all."

Lex turned to face him full on, eyes flaring with incredulity. "You're worried about an unfair advantage now? Who exactly would you be using that unfair advantage against? Are we in some sort of race that I'm unaware of? Or do you simply prefer to keep the information to yourself. I could understand that better that this 'it would be cheating' bullshit."

"There's a vein there." Clark stabbed a finger at the wall to Lex's right.

Lex lifted a brow and smiled one of his humorless smiles, pleased to have gotten what he wanted. He went to pull the pick ax out of the cart and it gave Clark some small bit of satisfaction when the weight of it caught him off guard and he had to go in with both hands to heft the thing out.

"This is barbaric," Lex muttered in complaint.

Clark, needing to balance the scales wondered back to the other struggling inmates and casually made suggestions about easier places to chip away at. He doubted they took him seriously, from the way they held their picks defensively and backed to guard their sparsely filled carts.

He went back to the portion of tunnel, where Lex had made a few test strikes with the pick and discovered just how hard the surrounding rock really was. He was talking to himself, not happy at all.

It would have been easier for Clark to simply smash a fist into the rock to break it apart, but he was wary of showing his true strength. He picked up the ax and swung it carefully enough to shatter rock and not the metal of the tool. Rock gysered out of a respectable sized hole.

Lex looked across the tunnel at him and glowered, no doubt a complaint about those 'unfair advantages' Clark had been talking about, hovering on the tip of his tongue. But there were some things Clark simply couldn't help and when you could bench press tanker ships, holding your strength down to human standards was sometimes easier said than done.

"Obviously," Lex said, venting his frustrations towards the establishment rather than Clark for a change as he swung his pick down again against unyielding rock. "They have advanced technology, yet this is what they provide us to work with?"

"Maybe it's more about the punishment than efficiency?" Clark offered.

Lex paused, the head of the pick ax on the ground as he looked at Clark as if Clark had spoken some dire blasphemy. "Nothing is more important than efficiency. Being trapped down here is punishment enough. Did you see that machine they're feeding the ore into? - - It looked as if it was on its last leg. And all we saw were guards - - no maintenance workers. And have you looked at these carts and the tracks running all over? I think they're supposed to move the carts electo-magnetically - - or some close approximation, instead of having men break their backs pushing the damned things all the way back to the hub. It's like they inherited this place and that equipment and don't have a clue how to maintain it."

"It makes sense," Clark said, and it did. Lex was nothing if not reasonable, with a mind tailored for analytical thinking. He forgot that sometimes, dealing with the paranoid, obsessive side of Lex that spawned illegal research and dangerous schemes. "What do you think that machine does?"

Lex shrugged, swinging the pick again and wincing at the vibration that no doubt traveled up his arms. Lex was in good shape - - Clark had seen just how good, up close and personal when they'd stripped down - - but he didn't have the sort of thick muscle or excess body weight that would absorb that sort of repeated impact. Most of the men here didn't, worn down to flesh and bone, which meant not only did they live a life of hard labor, their bodies were no doubt constantly bruised to the bone.

"Power source of some sort," Lex theorized, grimacing as he struck again at the rock. "Or possibly, depending on what exactly this ore we're slaving away to get them, is - - some sort of refinery."

"To use for what?" Clark worked free a large chunk of gray ore and tossed it into his cart with a clatter.

"How would I possibly know," Lex said. "Unless you think you can get me into the machine chamber to take a closer look."

Clark wasn't sure he could get himself into that chamber without the risk of setting of the wristbands and setting the place on high alert. He wasn't ready to risk that yet.

Lex sniffed at the lack of response and glared pointedly at the growing mound of ore in Clark's cart and the definitive lack in his own.

"I thought you said there was a vein of ore here? Little white lie?"

"There is, it's just not right at the surface. I don't lie."

Lex gave him a withering look at that proclamation and Clark recanted sullenly.

"Okay, I don't lie about anything but - - you know. And that's not really so much a lie as a - - as a non-disclosure to protect my privacy and you know it."

"Funny, I claim similar non-disclosures all the time and still get labeled a villain. Is it the costume that gets you the free pass? Sex does tend to distract and the tights don't leave a lot to the imagination."

"It's a uniform and it's perfectly discreet," Clark retorted, even though - - God - - the first few months of going out in it had had him feeling sort of like an exhibitionist.

"And don't talk to me about lying, Lex." He snapped, feeling a need to strike back verbally that Superman generally never had to resort to. Superman wasn't into banter, he was into quickly and efficiently doing what needed to be done and leaving the clean up to the authorities. But then again, it had been a long time since either Superman or Clark Kent had been forced into Lex Luthor's company for a prolonged period of time. It made his blood rush in ways that even a down and dirty battle with some hyped up evil doer couldn't accomplish.

Lex lifted a brow and smiled coldly at him, waiting for him to expound.

Clark was happy to, having built up a great deal of frustration over the last weeks of sitting in a courtroom listening to Lex's lawyers spin spiel after spiel.

"You sat in that court under oath and lied, time after time, Lex. Your witnesses lied, your lawyer lied. So don't talk to me about stretching the truth to protect something that isn't hurting anybody."

"You know about these lies - - how?" Lex asked. "Gut feeling? Because Lois Lane told you it was so? Because you saw evidence with your own eyes to prove otherwise? Or because you just know me so well that you assume that every charge they brought against me had to be gospel?"

"My God, Lex. I've lost count on how many illegal labs and unsanctioned weapons projects I've had to personally deal with. Of how many people endangered."

"And I have to thank you for that. Generally when the federal government moves in to disable a legally questionable project, they're picky about securing evidence for later use. You just plow in with your usual grace and don't leave much in the way of substantial proof. Oh, and by the way, those endangered people are usually not endangered until the walls come tumbling down, thank you very much. My safety specs have never been anything but top notch."

"So you're denying that you lied in court? That you fixed the outcome of the trial somehow?"

"I'm not denying anything of the sort," Lex said airily, chipping away. He knocked free a bit of ore and stopped to pick it up and turn the rock in his hands, as if by just looking at the unfamiliar mineral he might discern the true nature of its value to their wardens.

Apparently, nothing came to mind, because he tossed it into his cart with a clatter and turned with a scowl to face Clark. After a moment of God knew what going through his head, he said. "The Federal Prosecution blatantly secured perjured testimony from several of its key witnesses to fortify trumped up or imaginary charges - - I responded in kind. You think your nail-biting bitch of a partner just happened to stumble upon half the information she used in her little expose that brought certain - - activities of mine, to the public eye? They used her, you simpleton. They set her up to set me up, get it? They probably even used you."

"I don't believe it," Clark said, offended on behalf of the whole justice system. "There's no way they wanted you badly enough to drum up false charges."

Lex laughed. "Don't be naïve. If I weren't so public a figure, there wouldn't have even been a trial. I'd have been whisked away under the guise of National Security and very likely contained indefinitely without the benefit of a trail - - very much like this, actually - - but with more questions."

"Why?" Clark asked dubiously.

"Information," Lex said. "It all comes down to information. Information I have that the certain extremely high placed people in certain very discreet, very elite sectors of the government would dearly like to know. You think they wouldn't stoop to blackmail and entrapment to secure a vital source of information? You think I wouldn't stoop to a little bit of barter to avoid a jail sentence that there is no way certain other parties would let me survive to serve?"

"What sort of information?" Clark asked doubtfully and Lex lifted a brow that plainly said Clark was a fool if he thought Lex was spilling that.

"You're lying," Clark said, lifting his chin resolutely. He couldn't believe what Lex was implying. That the trail had indeed been fixed, but not by Lex - - but by the very government that had tried him. His government didn't do that sort of thing. His government played by the book.

"Fuck you." Lex said coolly, this telltale hint of strain in his voice that said no small bit of emotion boiled beneath the surface. "I don't expect you to believe anything anyone one has to say that doesn't fit with your own sanctimonious world view... I stopped expecting you to understand anything that doesn't live up to your inhumanly rigid standards of black and white a long time ago. I'm tired of you - - you alien freak - - so why don't you go find someplace else to break rock."

Which seemed a perfectly wonderful idea, the air in this particular little area having acquired a poisonous taint.

If there was one thing Clark really hated about Lex, it was the whole alien overlord in the making, rant. And Lex had gotten it down to an art form in the last decade since Superman's appearance. Clark had never been sure if Lex truly believed the propaganda his machine spouted, or if he'd engineered it just to piss off Clark. Because thing was, out of all the people out there that might have reason to be paranoid about the super powered alien among them, Lex Luthor who damn well knew the man behind the suit, knew very well that Clark Kent was not of the world domination persuasion. Lex was just very, very good at inventing rationale to support his crusades.

With a last powerful strike of pick to rock, which crumbled a rather large section of wall, Clark slapped his pick ax atop the ore in his cart and stomped off to more peaceful climes.

He found a deserted area down a dark, deep shaft that any normal man - - even a large, well endowed one - - would have struggled to maneuver a full cart up and began to take out his frustration upon innocent rock. It wasn't that he didn't think the Federal government wouldn't overlook one crime to stop a larger one - - it happened all the time, turning criminals against criminals with the offers of immunity and witness protection. It was just the notion that they'd go beyond lawfully sanctioned deals to false allegations and blackmail and tampering with court proceedings. It was ridiculous. A blatant fabrication on Lex's part - - and yet, even he had to admit - - some of those charges had involved offenses that were just - - sloppy. And Lex was anything but sloppy. Lex covered his tracks and Lex had fail-safes.

He delivered his first cart of ore to the hub not long after the day shift had begun, thoughts churning blackly as he held out his wrist for the load to be registered. He returned to his dark little corner of mine shaft, dwelling on that first piece of hard evidence Lois had uncovered almost twelve months ago that had set her so doggedly on this current crusade to expose the darker side of LexCorp. Had it come too easily? A carefully planted breadcrumb by some inventive government mole to set her following a path of their making - - their public spearhead to put pressure upon a man that wasn't easily pressured?

He lost track of the loads of ore he dumped onto the conveyer until the guards began eying him curiously. He figured he ought to slow down, or attract notice he honestly didn't want. He checked in his cart and pick, and walked the warren of shafts and tunnels.

He slipped away, and into the little upshot shaft he'd discovered, and hovered for a long time in the weak light dribbling down.

A yellow sun, but not his yellow sun. There was a subtle difference to the feel of the energy his body absorbed - - though he was hard pressed to determine the nature of the disparity save that it was weaker, but then that might have been the lack of direct rays. It was better than nothing and though eventually he would dip below full potential if all he had to rely upon was this wan trickle of yellow light, it would be enough to sustain him. Fair was fair, after all, since everyone else down in the mines was surviving off a bare minimum of sustenance as well.

He returned to the mines, and tried to lend a helping hand here and there, but the majority of inmates were so wary of abuse or outright theft that they rebuffed him. He found Keever working with another man to fill a shared cart and casually weakened a section of rock with a pocket of ore to make their work easier. He stopped a beating in a dark byway, two skinny desperate looking men kicking another on the ground, but got no thanks for it, the victim swinging at him himself as he shakily gained his feet and scurried off into the darkness. He heard a man crying, quiet forlorn sobs, and saw a body curled in a niche devoid of threat - - simply beaten down to abject depression by the place itself - - and veered away, respectful of tattered pride.

He could understand the feeling. This place was a drain for optimism. He'd hardly been here a full day and already he was morose.

There was a subtle dimming of the lights, as the solar power they used to illuminate the mines weakened with the setting of the foreign sun. Those that had filled their quota filtered out of the hub, slouch shouldered and exhausted, heading towards the distribution center to trade the fruits of their labor for food. Others, still worked well into the night shift, desperately filling their carts, one small chunk at a time to gain that all important chit that would ease the ache of empty bellies.

If need be, Clark could survive for quite some time on the energy the rays of a yellow sun afforded him. But his body did require solid foods and offered ghost complaints when denied. He passed his bracelet under the scanner and got a bread bowl of stew.

It was bland and mostly made up of some sort of root vegetable that was close to a turnip but not quite. All in all not as foul tasting as it looked. The bread wasn't half bad.

He was finishing the last of the stew soaked bread when a fight broke out across the room. A clash of two inmates that men scattered away from in panic. It was over quickly enough, as one man went down, bleeding copiously from a shattered nose. The victor sauntered off and the loser picked himself up painfully, and limped out afterwards under the speculative glowers of other men whose predatory instincts were perked by the scent of spilled blood.

The men shuffled back to their places, the sullen tempo of the mess returning to normal. Clark saw Lex weeding his way through the mulling collection of furtive men around the entrance of the hall. He wasn't hard to miss amidst in a crowd of men dusky with stubble and unshorn hair.

Lex paused past the entrance, eyes moving about the room with casual indifference. There was a subtle lack of energy to his movements though, compared to this morning - - the hollow, stiff motions of a man who was trying hard to hide fatigue. Lex didn't like to broadcast his weaknesses at the best of times - - with the threat looming in every darkened crevice here, he'd be particularly reluctant.

His gaze found Clark, hesitated briefly, then passed on, before he moved forward towards the food line. Clark wondered if he'd eaten yesterday, using that free chit the guards had been so kind as to provide. When he left the serving window, with bread bowl in hand, he headed pointedly away from the side of the room where Clark still lingered. Apparently he was still pissed - - which was perfectly fine with Clark. Perfectly fine.

Clark scowled, irritated with himself for feeling slighted by the cold shoulder of a man he'd been at odds with for at least the last fifteen years.

Lex stopped his movement towards an empty spot at a table when several inmates blocked his path. Clark cocked his head, tensing a little in his own spot when he recognized Sweet and several of the large inmates that had confronted them when they'd first entered the prison mine.

He missed the first part of what was said, but focused his hearing and caught the ending of Sweet remarking that it looked as if Lex had gotten lucky and made his first day's quota.

"You make it sound as if that's a difficult feat," Lex returned calmly, not breaking gazes with the larger man.

Sweet laughed, amused. "You find a rich pocket your first day, did you? Give it time, little man and a stretch of working on an empty belly 'cause of not meeting the quota - - you'll sing a different tune."

Lex shrugged, not denying the big inmate's claim. He made to move around, but Sweet clamped a hand on his shoulder. "You think about my offer, scut?"

Lex looked down at the offending fingers, the arch of a brow radiating scorn. "You're not my type."

Sweet laughed again, but there was less amusement in the face of Lex's refusal to back down.

"Sooner or later," Sweet stepped closer, bending to whisper in Lex's ear. "I'm everybody's type."

Then he stepped back and slapped the bread bowl out of Lex's hands, grinning as it hit the floor between their feet, spattering stew.

"Lookit what I done. Sorry 'bout that." he stepped onto the bread, and stew squished out under his shoe.

Lex snarled, that look in his eyes that he got sometimes when he'd been pushed past the limits of his usual cool composure. Clark rose, even as Lex shoved Sweet backwards. The big man staggered back a step, no doubt surprised that someone had had the guts to strike back. Then he bristled, swelling and the men behind him did, sensing violence about to descend.

Clark was there, faster than he probably should have moved, but then it was doubtful anyone had noticed, all eyes on Lex and Sweet's crew. He wrapped a hand around Lex's upper arm and pulled him back - - not exactly gently - - but leaving no room for argument. Stepped into the spot Lex had occupied while Lex was cursing him from behind and met Sweet's small, dark eyes.

"You deserved that," he said. "So call it even and back off and you and I won't have a problem."

"You and me already have a problem," Sweet growled. "But not as big a problem as him and me - -hear that, scut?"

"Perfectly," Lex said tightly, eyes glittering malice that made Clark shiver a little. Sweet had no idea.

"Be seeing you," Sweet promised before sauntering off. The crowd hastily cleared a path for him and his bully boys, men turning away to avoid gaining the attention of a man no doubt on the prowl for someone to take his frustrations out upon.

Clark took a breath and looked down. He was standing in the edges of Lex's spilled dinner. He stepped back, and looked at Lex, feeling a sudden surge of something close to guilt.

"I have extra chits - - I could get you another - -"

"Don't even say it." Lex snapped, eyes so cold, Clark could almost physically feel the chill. Lex started to turn away, but apparently the need to expound overcame his attempt at cold dismissal. "What could have possibly made you think I needed your help - - much less your charity?"

"I don't know," Clark snapped back. "Maybe the fact that you don't have the sense to back down when four guys twice your size are just begging for a reason to pummel you into the ground."

"Oh, fuck off," Lex waved a hand angrily and Clark caught a glimpse of a palm covered with the angry red of blisters. Lex had spent most of his life behind a desk, so far up the food chain that physical labor was a novelty item, occasional engaged in for amusement's sake but never taken past the point of casual indulgence. A day swinging a pick had ravaged his hands.

Clark pressed his mouth and avoided a comment that would just piss Lex off more than he already was. Lex didn't even glance at the mess on the floor - - his hard earned compensation - - and maybe he had spent that free chit yesterday, or maybe he was just saving it, because he didn't head back for a replacement. He just set his shoulders stubbornly and melted into the crowd.

Clark took a breath, feeling a muscle tick in the side of his jaw that didn't seem to want to stop. He wasn't entirely sure if he were angry at Lex for being irritable and hard to get along with or angry with Lex for letting ego and pride override common sense. Maybe both. The former Clark had gotten used to over the years, and the latter - - well, on those occasions when Lex's ambitions, personal desires and obsessions overrode his better judgment - - and over the years he'd made a lot of bad decisions based on those urges - - he'd generally had a phalanx of bodyguards, minions and lawyers to deal with the aftermath. None of those were here now to back him up when he chose to push the local 'powers that be' into what was likely to be a very unpleasant pursuit of retaliation. What he was thinking was as beyond Clark now as it was twenty years past.

God, but Lex just made Clark's teeth itch.

Clark shook stew off of his prison issue shoes and stalked over to the supply window. He must have had a look on his face, because inmates cast him wary looks and made way. There was a surly guard behind thick the wire mesh and scuffed plexi plating of a window.

"What do you want?" the guard growled, while Clark used his vision to scan the contents of the storage area behind the man. There were a variety of articles that a man might find useful to make life easier in this pit - -but he doubted most would ever earn the excess chits to get them. He shoved his bracelet under the scanner and made his request, then went to the rations window and used his remaining chits to purchase food. If Lex didn't want his charity - - that was perfectly fine - - there were those in greater need.

Aside from breaking through the wall between kitchens and convicts, inciting a riot and probably causing the guards to initiate a mass triggering of the explosive bracelets - - his small act of generosity was the best he could do. Tomorrow he'd hunt the mines for the weakest seeming and do what he could for them.

At the moment though, he'd depleted his supply of chits, so left the rations hall, the object of many a guarded stare and listened for a more familiar presence. He found Lex talking with a group of inmates and tracked the sound of his heartbeat to one of the large intersecting tunnels where the inert tracks met and branched out again.

There was a gathering of other presences in the shadows of those intersecting tunnels, men waiting here to see what things of interest other men came out of the rations hall with. Sweet lingered in one of those dark entrances, well into the shadows, lurking with his own thick skulled pack.

Clark strode out, staring into the shadows of that one tunnel meaningfully. They wouldn't retreat of course, not if they were intent on a goal. Neither Clark nor Lex had proven themselves a great enough threat not to attack. Not yet. It would come to that, Clark was sure - - because status' were at stake.

Whatever Lex had been saying, he stopped, pointedly, when Clark came up. None of the inmates he'd been speaking with seemed particularly bereft at the cease of conversation. Clark jutted his chin towards the tunnel where Sweet and his men loitered and Lex's eyes flicked that way.

"I know," Lex shrugged, all false disinterest.

"Don't wonder off by yourself," Clark said.

Almost, Lex laughed. He cut it short with a faint smirk. "What you don't want me to be the star of my own little beating and gang rape? That's sweet. You think they need a deep, dark place to make a move? He's just contemplating all the reasons why I'm not showing fear - - wondering what I know that he doesn't - - what I'm hiding that might work to his detriment."

"He didn't strike me as that insightful a guy." Clark muttered.

"He won't dwell on it for long," Lex shrugged. "He can't afford to and keep his reputation."

"Just don't be a fool," Clark said.

"Am I ever a fool? Some things just can't be avoided forever. Just survived." Lex lifted a brow at him. Weird how that earlier offended anger had melted, but then maybe it was sinking in that the lights would be dimming soon and there were a lot of those deep dark places Lex had mentioned that a man could be dragged to, where no one would hear him scream.

Clark felt that nerve begin to twitch again and fought it back with a passion. He looked over Lex's head for a moment, towards that tunnel with its waiting predators, feeling a swell of angry heat behind his eyes. He forced that back down as well.

"Here," Clark thrust out his hand and the little foil packet of salve and a thin role of gauze, that he'd gotten from Supply. "For your hands."

Lex stared down at it. Opened his mouth, then shut it, whatever had been hovering on the tip of his tongue drying up. His gaze flicked back up, the ever present disdain that had become common place in his eyes when he looked at Clark replaced by honest surprise. Perhaps even the tiniest bit of confusion, before he gathered his composure and the shields came back down.

"I told you, I don't need your - -"

"Please, Lex," Clark said, dipping his head a little to try and catch that bit of unfortified Lex that had leaked through a moment before. "Just - - take it, okay?"

Lex stared at him a moment more, blue eyes trying to burrow into Clark's skull and uncover ulterior motive. Needing to find it maybe, because it was easier for him to understand, than the more disturbing notion that Clark gave a damn. Hell, that plain truth disturbed Clark, because it wasn't just the simple need to lend a helping hand that spurred this. Nothing was ever simple when it involved Lex.

But Lex surprised him, reaching out and taking Clark's offerings with a barely perceptible nod. Clark, who'd gotten very, very good at the stoneface over the years of playing Superman, didn't show an iota of satisfaction. But he felt it.

Strangely enough, that little, personal capitulation felt better than the sense of accomplishment that came with demolishing a secret lab.

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