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by P L Nunn


Chapter 12


The vault door came off with the sharp crack of snapped bolts and the rumble of dislodged concrete as the frame was yanked from its foundation. Clark took an awkward step back with the thing, trying to figure which way to move with it and not swipe Lex off his feet with the edge in the process. Lex stepped against the wall accommodatingly, more fascinated with Clark's feat of strength than whatever treasures lay hidden with his father's personal vault.

He had the feeling, that aside from the door being big and awkward to handle, the weight of the solid metal thing was no more of a stress on Clark than the weight of the shirt he wore. Simply amazing. And useful. Occasionally over the years, he'd wondered how the Kent's had managed to run a decent sized farm without the benefit of hired hands. Now he knew. Between the speed and the strength, Clark was worth a dozen seasonal workers. A hundred.

He felt a little rush of victory at one more mystery solved. Then he got over it and turned to the matter at hand. He took out his penlight and walked into the vault while Clark was setting the door against the wall. It wasn't a huge vault, like the one in his father's office at LuthorCorp, only about six by six, one wall lined with a dark wood storage system with lots of little drawers and open cubbies, and the other open shelving.

The light glinted off the faceted edge of a chunk of rock and another and another sitting neatly on the middle shelf. Willy old bastard, he thought, even as he heard the crunch of Clark's boots and then Clark's gasp of pain as he got close enough to feel the effects of the meteor rock.

Clark staggered back, rebounded against the edge of the desk and went down rather gracelessly to one knee behind it. He stared at Lex over the top of it. Big shocked green eyes edged with pain. If Lex hadn't seen him recover almost spontaneously from being bashed in the face with it, or say, tied to a cross with a chunk of it against his bare skin, he might have been concerned.

"Looks like my father had a little private collection. I'd keep my distance if I were you." It seemed his father had been planning for the sort of rainy day that might require a great deal of kryptonite. It was all he could do not to laugh out loud and point the obvious out to Clark. All those grating speeches, the insulting comparisons, the high praise and in the end he hadn't trusted Clark anymore than he'd trusted Lex.

Lex shifted the light over the other shelves, priceless antiques, bits of memorabilia, paintings wrapped in crumbling brown paper against the far wall - - and most interesting so far, a set of fine teak boxes each containing guns. One a very old, very valuable semi-automatic .45 caliber Luger, and the other a more user friendly, high tech, .35 Glock with a set of magazines and a box of ammo neatly stacked near by. He picked it up, entirely pleased with the find. Even after all these years, it seemed in workable condition. Hopefully the ammo had passed the test of time as well. He snapped one magazine into the gun and pocketed the other, as well as the box of ammo. Another smaller ammo sized box sat at the back of the shelf. He reached for it, and flipped open the metal lid. A neat little stack of .35 caliber bullets gleamed up at him, all carefully tipped with green.

He took a breath, the implications tumbling in his head. Not a means to incapacitate Clark, but to kill him.


He glanced outside the gaping vault door at Clark, who'd gained his feet and was shifting restlessly at the far side of the room. A very, very nervous Clark, no doubt imagining all the things Lex could do with access to that much kryptonite. But he hadn't fled. Hadn't done anything yet, but gain a relatively safe distance and wait. Idiot. Warming as the implications were that Clark trusted him enough not to take to the hills, it was still entirely moronic to simply stand there and wait while a potential enemy rooted around with the only thing likely to make a dent in his hide.

"So - - so what else is in there?" Clark yelled from across the room.

Lex ignored him and stared at the kryptonite tipped bullets. He should have had these made himself, instead of trusting to an alien made artifact of dubious purpose. Leave it to his father to commission something even Lex had balked at.

Clark, naïve as he was, had trusted Lionel, too. Treacherous old bastard, who'd thrown Clark's integrity in Lex's face on the one hand and had the means to end him in the other.

He could pocket those bullets in their little led box and Clark would never be the wiser. Until it was too late. Or he could use the ammo to his benefit in another way. One infinitely more satisfying than the admittedly chill inducing notion of shooting Clark dead.

He snapped the lid shut and stood in the vault doorway, meeting Clark's worried stare.

"I didn't know he had this stockpile of meteor rock," he said, utter truth. He'd have acquired it for himself long before if he had.

"He - - there had to be - -some reason." Clark didn't sound like he believed it himself.

"Oh, I'm sure," Lex padded into the room, easing around the desk, marking the dents he'd made himself with the fingers of one hand. "The research implications are priceless. Or, he might have simply been safeguarding it. Better that an ally have it than an enemy, right?"

He slid up to Clark, intrigued by the confusion on his face. By the vulnerability on a man so otherwise invulnerable. Save for this one weak spot. Clark was always so easy to play. Easy to make doubt himself, at least momentarily, before his ingrained stubbornness - - those idealistic, mom and apple pie beliefs - - kicked in. Lex pulled the little lead box out of his pocket and held it up in the palm of his hand and released the hounds.

"You have to wonder what sort of research he had planned for these." He flipped the lid.

Clark reacted immediately, going pale, staggering backwards with a groan. His shoulders hit the wall and he stood there, braced against it, close enough to still feel the effect, but not budging further. Lex could see the veins throbbing under normally flawless skin, a tiny little spider web work of pain. He wondered how much pain, from just this little amount? How much hurt Clark had endured lingering near Lana when she'd been wearing the poisonous piece of Clark's homeland that had crushed her parents?

Clark's gaze moved from the box to Lex, big soulful green eyes full of accusation. As if Lex had commissioned the making of the things, instead of Lionel. Just like old times.

He shut the lid with a snap and a growl, the satisfaction he'd been looking for, washed away by an anger so profound he didn't trust himself not to hurl the box and its contents at Clark. He slammed it down on the desk instead, turned on his heel and stalked back into the vault. Clark couldn't venture there and he needed a few precious seconds to pull his composure back together before Clark noticed the tattered edges.

Testily, he yanked open one of the drawers on the other wall, and found a velvet-lined trey of women's jewelry. It took him a moment to focus enough to recognize it for what it was. His mother's. His father had kept it all, of course. Just as he'd kept that gothic painting of her in the great room. God knew how Lionel Luthor had chosen to remember her. With as many fabricated softened edges as his son, Lex supposed.

He picked up a diamond earring and let it dangle, sparkling from his fingers. The people here liked shiny things and nostalgia was the least of what he was feeling. He'd have dug up her bones and Lionel's and bartered them, if he thought it might buy him some advantage here. But he rather thought, a bit of glitter might win him more points.

There was a difference between simply being close to a small amount of exposed kryptonite and having a chunk bashed up against the side of his skull. The former created the sort of pain that Clark liked to compare to what it might feel like to hear nails scratched down a chalk board in the midst of a particularly bad migraine - - (even though he'd never actually had a migraine to compare). The other was - - well, a lot, lot worse.

So it was painful, but not entirely debilitating to stare down at box with little chunks of it. Still, he breathed a sigh of relief when Lex shut the lid and a bigger one when Lex sat the box down and stalked away. Then the relief faded and other things crowded in.

He stared at that innocuous little box and clenched his fists. He didn't want to think abut the reasons those bullets existed. He didn't want to think about the mammoth lack of trust they implied from a man who had supposedly - - in his own twisted way - - been an ally. He hated Lex for smacking him in the face with the blunt truth. Because that truth brought a different sort of pain than the one associated with kryptonite.

Betrayal never felt good, even if it came as no great surprise. It was like it was bred into the Luthor gene to always have that ace up the sleeve no matter what the game. And in Clark's to keep buying the excuses until it came back to bite him so hard there was no recovering.

He felt the fool and it made him angry. He wanted to shake Lex until his teeth rattled for that almost gleeful spark in his eyes when he'd flipped that lid. That predatory gleam at the expectation of shattered faith. Wanted to stalk into that vault and grab hold of him and demand in as hurtful a way as possible, if Lex thought vilifying the man he'd murdered would make the act less of a crime?

Because that's what it was all about, wasn't it? Tarnishing Lionel.

He flexed his fingers, the desire so strong to just get his hands on Lex that he had to grind his teeth at the lack.

But he couldn't get near the vault, filled with poison as it was, and he couldn't really see what Lex was doing inside with the kryptonite messing with his vision and the walls lined with lead.

With access to that much kryptonite - - well, he was within his rights to seriously worry about Lex's intentions when Lex was in as much of a snit as Clark and for no damned apparent reason. Not that Lex needed one, apparently able to go from pleasant to psycho in less time than it took a normal person to settle on one simple emotion.

Well, if Clark was a fool, he wasn't a big enough one to just blindly ignore the existence of cleverly crafted death. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the box, all the simmering resentment focused into a burst of heat vision that melted the led and the bullets inside it into a puddle of slag with the meteor tips safely embedded within.

He turned on his heel and stalked from the study. Out of the penthouse and away from Lex and Lex's little mind games. Down two stories and he kicked in a door to prowl around the darkened mess of a lesser apartment. Made it out to a smaller terrace that had half crumbled away and stood at the ragged edge looking out over the park.

He took a breath. Another, and felt a little shudder of something close to a sob. He pushed it back, chastising himself for letting perfectly predictable things get to him.

Walls lined with led. Lex hadn't done that, Lionel had. To hide the contents of the vault from anyone that happened to have x-ray vision. Lex was a petty bastard, yes, and Clark was angry with him for it, but some of that anger pointed inward. He'd damned well known Lionel was not to be trusted - -had experienced first hand Lionel Luthor's brand of 'betraying' Clark for Clark's own good, and still - - still in the end he'd allowed himself to be swayed by a slick tongue spouting earnest words. Maybe it had been easy to forgive because he'd never had the sort of stake in Lionel that he'd had in - - well, in Lex. Easy to let disappointment slide when it didn't wound to the bone.

He picked up a baseball sized piece of stone and tossed it out over the edge of the balcony. It sailed over the park and landed with a plunk audible only to him at this distance in the lake at the center. Flung another on the same course and spent a little time distracting himself with that pastime.

Lex hadn't made those bullets - - if Lex had, he'd have come prepared to the fortress with more than the Kryptonian artifact, and that bullet he'd fired at Clark in the arctic would have done more than bounce off his skin. And maybe Lex did have reason to be on edge in that penthouse. Clark knew for a fact that some of the childhood memories here hadn't been good ones. And those were the surface ones. Lex had come here looking to uncover hidden truths and maybe he'd found some that hadn't sit particularly right with him. That look in Lex's eye when he'd lost it and started his little spree of violence had been as much shell shock as rage.

Clark had seen it before, Lex pushed beyond his ability to deal with his usual cool rational. Bereft and adrift and desperate. It had been easy to forget these last few years, that usually it had been his father who'd pushed him there. Deliberately and with malice. Weird that maybe four or five years ago, if Lex had snapped and pushed Lionel Luthor out a window - - Clark's first assumption would be have been - - justifiable murder. Not condonable, never condonable - - but, the act of a man pushed past the limits of rational, reasonable action. Back when Lionel had been a right bastard and Lex had just been trying to claw his way out of his control. Back when Clark would have done anything for Lex except confide in him. Back when Clark could hardly stand a day without stopping by the mansion at least once to get his fix of wry advice and easy company and Lex had been his responsibility - - was still his responsibility - - because that's what happened when you saved a life once, you always had that need to look after it forever more.

Big responsibility for a kid. A teenager and he'd had an awful lot of lives that were his to look after. Only some were just a damned lot closer to his heart than others. And sometimes, it had gotten muddled up in his head, where the lines were between protecting himself and protecting them were. It still did. Sometimes he'd made mistakes that had hurt the people he'd loved the most.

There were a lot fewer people to protect now. A lot fewer precious lives. He'd risk his own life to safeguard these pitiful few people here, even if they were all strangers. But even so, they were still, for the most part faceless parts of a whole, where Lex - - Lex was familiar and entirely unpredictable. And manipulative, murderous sociopath that he was, still paramount on Clark's responsibility meter. Even when he went out of his way to wound Clark to make himself feel better.

Which meant Clark was just screwed, because ignoring things like - - well, gut deep feelings of responsibility - - was something that was beyond even his superhuman abilities. Sooner or later he always caved.

Clark swore a little under his breath as the realization settled in and kicked a big chunk of rubble off the edge of the building. It sailed out over the park and landed with a rustle of trees on the other side of the lake. He scowled a little at missing the target, scowled more at himself for the overwhelming urge to go back upstairs and try to - - what? - - come to terms with Lex, make nice with him, get into another in a long line of arguments that would leave him wanting to go out and destroy something?

He stomped back up the stairs regardless, normal speed because he was in no hurry to get there, and came to a stop at the landing leading up to the penthouse. Lex sat on top step, in the wan light of a high, shattered window. Maybe being in the penthouse alone had been too much for him. Maybe he'd just paused on his way down to try and figure out how he was going to get past the missing section of stairwell without Clark's assistance.

Clark did a quick sweep, looking for traces of kryptonite, but there were none. Nor any little spots of vision obscuring lead that might be concealing it. Aside from a couple of guns and various loot in his pockets, Lex was clean. Which made Clark feel guilty for thinking the worst. Even if there was precedent.

Lex looked down at Clark, wan, storm grey eyes, mouth a tight line. "I'm sorry - -"

"You should be," Clark grumbled almost simultaneously. "That was a crappy stunt to pull."

Lex sucked the inside of his cheek and stared down. The grey light made him seem really pale against the black of his sweater and coat.

"I've gotten used," Lex said slowly, like he was really contemplating the words or like they came hard for him. "To being on the offensive with you. Its hard to remember sometimes - - that everything worth fighting over is dust."

Clark shifted, not knowing how to respond past the lump in his throat. On the offensive. He knew that feeling. He felt the knot of anger easing off. "Yeah. I can relate to that."

"I think," Lex said, staring past Clark at the cracks in the stairwell wall. "That the ghosts here are trying a bit too hard to get inside my head. And that - -"

He trailed off, taking a shuddery breath, clenching pale fists against his knees and gathering the edges of self-control. Clark took a step up the stairs, the remaining resentment easing away in the face of something he hadn't seen in Lex in a very long time. The vulnerability he'd used to expose every now and again when Clark had pushed for naked truth.

"And that what?" He stopped four steps down, eye level with Lex.

Lex's gaze drifted down to meet his, gauging, weighing things Clark could only guess at. Finally he shrugged, lackadaisical movement and said. "Makes me a little crazy. A little scared."

Clark sat down, a step lower than the one Lex occupied and ventured. "This wasn't a nice place to grow up in?"

Dark and expensive and cut off from the outside, sunlight filtered through cut crystal windows and stained glass.

"No," Lex said simply, eyes far away again. "I'd thought - - I'd let myself believe otherwise - - but, no."

"I'm sorry," Clark said and meant it. He remembered that child from the pathways of Lex's memory, that innocent that had held faith in him, which he'd failed. Because he hadn't been there to make a difference way back when and when he had, he'd been too young and too stupid to make the right decisions.

"You could have been on the farm, shoveling shit and mucking slop with me." He ventured a smile.

Lex's eyes locked onto his the way they'd used to, like Clark's smiles held the mystery of the universe, then the corner of his mouth twitched. Wan smile. Wan look of bitter amusement. "That would have been preferable."

They sat for a while, silence more appropriate than casual conversation. Finally Clark asked. "Do you want to head back?"

"No," Lex said. "I want to go to LuthorCorp."

As good ideas went, this wasn't one. Clark felt in his gut. Not with evening coming on and the ruckus the folk who lived within the depths of LuthorCorp had initiated the last time they'd been stirred up.

But Lex swore he just wanted to scout around - - to find some vantage and see what came to life within the depths when night fell and Clark figured that was harmless enough. He was curious too. It was just he was used to dealing with dangerous situations by himself and he didn't know what sorts of people he was dealing with that might cause him trouble. He'd really rather go and take a look-see himself and report back, only Lex gave him a look at the suggestion that teetered between scathing and condescending. And even if he used his better judgment and went alone despite Lex's preferences, he doubted Lex would just sit idly by waiting for him to come back. Lex tended to be proactive when Lex wanted something and Lex was set on this course.

So he ended up about six floors up, in somebody's demolished corner office of the Daily Planet, sitting at the edge of a hole in the wall next to Lex. Lex had pulled out a compact, high-techy looking monocular that he'd had to have had with him since the artic, since Clark doubted it was the sort of thing Lionel would have had in his safe - - along with all the kryptonite - - and was using it to spy into the nooks and crannies around LuthorCorp Plaza.

Clark could have told him nothing was moving. At least around the outside edges. There were shapes within, and a lot of heartbeats, but it was hard to distinguish details within the guts of such a massive structure.

He mentioned this once, but Lex didn't lower the spyglass, so Clark pressed his lips tight, still clinging to a shred of annoyance and sat back to contemplated the haze over the city skyline. He'd have to ask, when he got back to the compound, if they ever had sunny days here. Damned depressing if not and another good reason to relocate to some more welcoming place where sunlight wasn't an oft-heard rumor.

He thought about that for a while, as the shadows lengthened, the reinhabiting of Smallville. Rebuilding from the ground up and making something good out of something terrible. Giving these people a life that didn't involve scratching out a cold, miserable existence. That didn't involve fighting for survival in a haven where things and people lurked with no intentions but foul. Clark held no delusions about his own skills at organization, but Lex was a master at it, if Clark could just get him focused on something other than the past.

Not easy. An uphill battle if the goings on inside his own head were any indication. It was damned hard to let go of some things. Especially when Lex keep feeling the need to aggravate them.

His attention drifted down to the back of Lex's neck, bared above the neck of his sweater when he'd removed his coat to use as padding for his elbows while he lay sniper style, spying upon the building across the street. Smooth sweep of muscle and tendon that was just sort of - - graceful. Maybe it was the lack of hair that made the lines so clean. Maybe it was just the way Lex was constructed, because without the camouflage of the coat, the clean lines swept all the way down to the dip at the small of his back and up the other side.

It hit Clark, where he was staring and he jerked his eyes away. Embarrassment warred with irritation. That's what he got for sitting here wasting time doing nothing. Idle hands and idle minds - - as his dad used to say - - were a magnet for trouble. And staring at Lex's ass was nothing but.

"I was fifteen when my father commissioned the building of LuthorCorp plaza," Lex said, monocular still pressed to his eye.

"Uh, yeah?" Clark blinked, flustered and not even knowing why.

"There was heavy opposition. The old Metropolis station used to stand there and the Metropolis Historical society was up in arms. They tried to block the demolition in court for months and then miraculously, dropped the efforts. Your guess is as good as mine why - - well, perhaps not quite as good - - but you get the insinuation. It took four years to finish, from ground breaking to occupancy. The tallest building in the Midwest. His crowning achievement."

"When I was fifteen, my dad put up a new water tower." Clark felt stupid the moment the words left his mouth. The days of easy joking between them were long gone. But Lex put down the monocular and canted his head at him, a quizzical look in his eyes that finally settled on amused.

"I remember that. I remember being told that, though I might not recognize it, there was real work being done and not to distract honest, hard working boys from their chores."

"No, he didn't say that?"

Lex ached a brow. "Verbatim. I swear to God."

Clark rolled his eyes, a little embarrassed again, but the honest kind that didn't involve inappropriate focuses of attention. It was exactly the sort of thing his dad would have said to Lex when Clark or his mom hadn't been around to curb his enthusiasm for chasing away all things Luthor. Back when Lex had been exactly the sort of distraction that Clark would have happily ditched 'honest' work to engage.

"Sorry about that." He hunched his shoulder a little helplessly. "He had sort of a vendetta."

"I'm aware. It took you two weeks to finish the thing. Why didn't you just use your abilities to speed it along?"

Clark flinched a little from habit, denial such an old friend that it hovered on the tip of his tongue. He swallowed it down and shrugged. "I could have, but the neighbors would have noticed a thirty foot water tower just popping up one day. You would have noticed. Chloe would have. Pete. Anybody driving past. Number one rule was not to attract attention. Besides, sometimes doing a job slow, taking time and effort in the work makes the final product more satisfying."

"That sounds like a Jonathan Kentism."

"No. It's a Clark Kentism - - but, yeah, I learned it from him. I learned a lot of things from him."

Lex looked down, turning the monocular in his fingers. Long fingers, pale and uncallused. Not the hands of a man that had ever had to work long at anything that involved physical labor. Elegant hands, that were surprisingly versatile nonetheless. Lex had proved that over the years.

"I'm glad you did," Lex said, "Overprotective, prejudiced ass that he was, better him than the likes of my father, teaching you the difference between right and wrong."

Clark opened his mouth, instinctive onslaught of tension, because there were so many things that broached dangerous ground in that statement, but Lex cut him off. "Don't. Whatever you thought he was - - whatever he shaped himself into being to get within your good graces, whether it was real or an act - - that wasn't the man he was for most of his life. He knew you were coming and he wanted you and God help us all if he'd have been the one to teach you the meaning of restraint."

Lex clenched his fists, maybe thinking through implications and Clark swallowed, conjuring up a few himself. Hard as it was to admit, Lex was right. It had been the infusion of his biological father's influence that had set Lionel Luthor on the path - - granted, the twisted path - - of helping Clark. Without that influence - - he shuddered to think. Look what he'd done to his own son in his efforts to exert control. And Clark had known. One of the heaviest burdens of guilt he shouldered, to this day, was that knowledge and his failure to act on it. So much guilt that afterwards, he'd barely been able to look Lex in the eye. So much guilt that he'd half convinced himself it had been the right thing to do.

"When your dad put you in Belle Reeve, I knew - - I knew he'd set you up and because you'd seen me use my powers - I let him," Clark blurted out.

Lex's fingers froze on the monocular, his gaze narrowing, his face shutting down, a cold mask of non-emotion. Caught off guard with that admission, maybe, and trying to process. The silence was deafening and probably a lot shorter than it seemed, but Clark couldn't stop himself from filling it, now that he'd started.

"I knew it was the wrong thing to do and I let them convince me otherwise anyway and by the time I couldn't stand it any more and went to get you out - - it was too late. He'd - - your dad had already messed with your head."

"And you lied to my face afterwards," Lex added softly. Dangerous quiet tone.

"I'm sorry," Clark said. "It just seemed - - you didn't remember - - so - -"

"So why rock the boat when my father had unknowingly taken care of your problem for you while he was covering up his own? I don't blame you. I'd have done the same, I imagine. But then, everything I learned about tricky moral dilemmas was gleaned at the knee of Lionel Luthor. So I'm guessing my father and yours had more in common than we first assumed."

"That's not true. My dad was trying to protect me, yours was protecting himself."

Lex gave him a humorless grin. "Either way my head ended up on the chopping block. Metaphorically speaking."

That hurt. But it was truth. Everybody had benefited from that situation but Lex. And that Lex, the one that had trusted Clark enough to come to him for help, had deserved better. He was still trying to hash out in his head what this one deserved.

An honest apology at the very least. "I'm sorr- -"

"What the hell is that?" Lex had the monocular back up to his eye. "Can you hear that?"

Clark blinked, unraveling his attention from the narrow focus of dealing with prickly Lex-issues. The fact that Lex had heard it before him was a little embarrassing to say the least, but sure enough he heard the tinny sound of music.

It drifted up from the street outside Luthorcorp, accompanied by the swaying flicker of flame fueled light. It had gotten dark quick and Clark hadn't even noticed. There were figures moving in the shadows of the lobby. He narrowed his vision and saw the shapes of people in the near darkness. Hard to tell if they were all 'normal' since seeing in the dark wasn't one of his talents.

"Damn, I can't see from this angle." Lex pushed himself up, snagging his coat and heading out of the office. Clark hissed in frustration, took one more look at the figures emerging into the street and hurried to follow. Damn Lex anyway, for brushing off what had been a really, really big admission on Clark's part. For once a little more anger and accusation wouldn't have hurt Clark's feelings, because he'd held onto this guilt for a damned long time and it deserved more than fleeting attention.

Lex chose an office six doors down, where the outside wall was mostly gone and the floor when stepped on creaked ominously. He crouched down, closer to the ragged edge than a man ought to get who wasn't indestructible, and brought the monocular up again.

"Outwardly, I'm not seeing any noticeable mutations," Lex murmured. "But there are only - -what - - six or eight of them in my line of sight. What can you make out?"

Clark took a breath, pushing past frayed nerves and squinted, but the darkness ate up too much detail. He wondered if Lex's spyglass had night-vision. Probably. It wasn't like Lex had ever skimped in the hardware department. "Not much. I don't see in the dark. There are more of them inside though."

Lex lowered the monocular an inch or two and glanced back at Clark. "Really? No night-vision?"

"I can't sing on key, either," Clark said dryly.

Clark saw a glint of white as Lex flashed a grin.

Then the floor gave out. With a crack like muffled gunfire the outside supports just crumbled and stone and metal and plaster tumbled down, taking flesh and bone with it.

Clark launched himself forward, got an arm around Lex, and snatched after a handhold to stop the descent. Got hold of something jagged and metal, but it tore loose under their combined weight and they plummeted.

Almost he could feel a stirring in the air, as if it were about to give up its hold on him. Or maybe it was his body, trying to defy gravity, but his mind took over in a panic and the sensation faded. It was all he could do then to control the fall, position himself to take the brunt of the impact when they hit, then roll and cover Lex as best he could as the debris rained down.

It cracked over his back, sliding down, and he shuddered, braced on his elbows to keep from crushing the human body under him. Lex shuddered, breathing harsh and rapid, heart thudding so hard Clark could feel it against his own chest.

"S'okay. S'okay," he breathed against the side of Lex's head after the last jar and plunk of falling debris had faded. God, he hoped it was okay, that nothing had crushed an unprotected limb, that the impact of the Clark-cushioned fall hadn't shattered bones. He needed to move, to shift the weight off his back and see for himself, only he wasn't entirely sure how to go about it safely.

"Fuck - -" Lex said softly, breath tickly and warm against Clark's neck. "I lost my monoc- -"

"Shhh." Clark silenced him the only way he could, hands free, ducking his head and whispering the warning against Lex's mouth. They were coming. He could hear their exclamations and the sounds of multiple bodies scrambling across old debris and new to examine the collapse. It was dark enough and there was enough rubble covering them, that they might not notice.

Lex's lips moved slightly under his, a slight exhalation of breath, surprise maybe, or protest. They were soft. Really, surprisingly soft.

"What?" Warm breath mingled with his own. A bare whisper, but loud enough, when some of those approaching might have enhanced senses. But Lex never could just take a thing at face value without questioning. It was his nature.

"Company," Clark breathed back, risking the explanation because he wasn't sure Lex would let it go and shut up otherwise. Clark was uncomfortably aware of the feel of Lex's mouth, too intimate a way to exchange information. He turned his head marginally, needing to distance himself the only way he could, which put Lex's lips at the side of his jaw, breath tickling the lobe of his ear.


It was a sensitive spot. Apparently a very sensitive spot. His toes curled a little of their own accord. There was this vague little stirring of interest in the most embarrassing spot possible - - at the most inopportune time - - and Clark vehemently willed it away.

There were voices out there and the shifting of rubble as bodies moved across it. He felt the broken slab across his shoulders give, as someone stepped upon it and thought now would be a really bad time to shift his hips upward to put a little extra space between him and Lex. He shut his eyes and concentrated on being still. Lex heard them too, now. Clark could sense it in the intake of breath and the way his body tensed.

He heard snippets of conversation, but it was hard to piece it together when his attention kept snapping back to the tickle of lips against his ear and the completely inappropriate awareness of the places his body was pressing into Lex's. Which, considering the position, was just about everywhere. Damn Lex anyway for never being satisfied. Needed a better angle, Clark's ass.

Apparently, the searchers figured nothing alive was under the rubble, because after a cursory inspection, they wandered off. He listened to the retreat, angled his head as much as he could to look through the layers of wreckage and see if anyone lingered. But they'd ambled off back in the direction of LuthorCorp and tinny strands of music that he couldn't quite place.

Getting out of this situation couldn't happen soon enough.


There was a moment's silence. Too long of a moment, where Clark thought maybe there had been some injury incurred and Lex had finally succumbed to it, but then.

"Yes?" Rigid tone. The one Lex used when he was less than happy and trying not to broadcast it.

Figuring it out would make Clark's head spin. Was it delayed-anger over the earlier admission? Or God help him maybe because Lex had noticed the humiliating hint of a boner in Clark's jeans. Absolutely mortifying, even if it hadn't been Lex. He ground his teeth and explained. "I'm going to try and lift up the right side. I want you to see if you can squeeze out when there's room. But not until I'm sure its stable, okay?"

"Your right or my right?"

"Umm - - mine. Your left. Just stay under me, until I tell you, okay?"

Another beat of silence, then. "Fine."

Clark eased up, no great strain as far as shifting the weight went, but damn hard to try and do it quietly and gently enough not to create more of a mess than they already had. There was a waft of fresh air, a sliver of grey amidst the pitch black under the debris.

"Now. Go now." There was a slice of freedom. Lex shimmied out under Clark's arm and crawled for it. Got out with only a few trickles of rubble cascading down and Clark breathed a sigh of relief.

Pretty easy to get himself out after Lex was gone. He just pushed himself the rest of the way up, rubble cascading off his back until he was free of it. Then it was only a matter of getting out of there quickly, before they decided to come back and reinvestigate, if they'd heard the sounds.

He found Lex in the dark, squinting at him through the shadows.

"We need to go," Clark whispered. Chances were his allotment of good luck for the day had just been used up.

"You're not hurt at all?" Lex sounded less concerned than clinically curious.

Clark frowned a little, and shook his head. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to come back into close physical contact with Lex just yet, so super speeding them out of there might present a problem. They could retreat the normal way, keeping to the shadows of the Daily Planet and then high tailing it down 31st as fast as human feet would allow.

He started that way, risking a hand on Lex's elbow to get him moving in the right direction. Lex didn't protest, maybe more shaken up by the fall and the subsequent live burial under debris than he was letting on. They made the corner of the Planet, safely beyond the easy sight of anyone loitering outside the L.

A shadow detached it self from the broader band of shadows ahead of them.

Clark skidded to a stop, peering into the darkness as more forms emerged, moving out silently from the gaping breaks in ground floor windows and walls.

"Fuck," Lex said very quietly behind him and Clark seconded that sentiment non-verbally.

"Told you I scented something fresher than crumbly bones under there." A female voice purred. "Looks like fresh meat tonight."

Freaks, as it turned out, was not an overestimation of the general appearance of the denizens of the L. Granted, Lex had already had first hand experience with two highly unusual specimens, but the majority of these were no less unsettling, if not more.

They weren't all physically different - - for the most part - - but they'd gone to efforts to accentuate the abnormalities. Facial scarring, and piercing were the most mundane of the alterations. The worst went beyond the ability of human manipulation. The darkness hid the details, but physical deformation was clearly evident. Altered bone structure, tumorous growths, the glimpse of open lesions on some, half hidden by dirty bandages or piece meal clothing.

There were maybe a dozen that he could see off hand, lurking in the shadows, skulking in the darkness like uncertain scavengers while the more predatory among them confronted the intruders in their domain more directly.

He recognized the woman from before. The one he'd shot in his failed attempt to infiltrate the L the first time around. He shouldn't be surprised she'd scented them out, considering her other animalistic traits.

"Its them," she hissed, weaving around an oddly lanky, corpse colored man that had to have been at least a good handful of inches taller than Clark. "The ones that hurt me and Tink."

"We don't want any trouble," Clark announced, as if that particular mission statement had ever worked in any situation that Lex and probably even Clark, had ever encountered. But trust Clark to stick to tried and true cliché.

There were soft little sniggers of amusement from some of them at just that, but the majority just stared, humorless, shadowed eyes in the darkness. The tall one, glided forward, odd movements as if bones and joints were shifting under his skin that shouldn't have, overly long arms that were scarred on the insides with rows and rows of bone-white, scar tissue ridges. Long, lank black hair trailed over his boney shoulders, matted at the ends, embedded with bits of bone and metal. There was a burn scar on his right cheek between the studs in his flesh, in the shape of the LuthorCorp logo. It was unnerving, standing there trying not to flinch, while something that could have been the star of his own horror film advanced.

"You know what we do to those that invade our privacy?" The tall man purred.

The others were moving too, spurred on by his momentum, the slow circling of hunters gauging prey. Clark tensed, flexing his hands nervously, turning his head to follow the movements.

"Blood and guts. Meat on a spit. Screaming, live meat." The woman chanted and a few others seconded that suggestion. Unsettling, yes, but not particularly frightening. Not with Clark standing right there. The realization of which rattled Lex more than grisly threats - - because when had he developed this ridiculous faith in Clark Kent's reliability in safeguarding his life. He'd had legions of bodyguards which he hadn't particularly trusted to get him to point A to point B in one piece and they'd been on his payroll and of the same species. He'd mull that hypocrisy over when he had the time to properly confuse the issue, but at the moment there were other things demanding attention.

The woman brushed up against Lex, and he saw the scab of the healing bullet wound. "Haven't forgotten my promises, have you? Gonna chew you up and spit you out."

Not if he put a bullet between her eyes. He smiled at her humorlessly and caressed grip of the newly acquired Glock in his pocket.

Peripherally Lex was aware of Clark's expression hardening and he hoped, willed, Clark to stand his ground and not freak out and whisk them out of there before Lex had the chance to do a little gauging of his own.

He didn't take his eyes off the tall one, who was moving close enough to smell, close enough that Lex had to cant his head back, when the man got up in Clark's personal space, lifting a hand with freakishly long fingers - -was there an extra joint? - - Yes, most certainly an extra joint - - to brush a bit of dust off the shoulder of Clark's jacket.

"Aren't you just - - wholesome? A fine, big slab of meat." The man leaned in close, inhaling. Clark flinched a little, not liking the invasion of personal space one bit. Lex wasn't entirely sure he cared for it either.

"What do you want?" Clark ground out.

"Just a little fun. We haven't had a party in a while, have we? Too long since we've had guests in the L. The Laughing Man, he'll like you."

There was a chorus of agreement, a heightening of the razor sharp expectation in the air.

"That's an interesting brand," Lex commented. "Fashion accessory or gang mark?"

Eyes that were pale, pale blue in their shadowed pits, flicked to him, derisive. Then narrowed and looked harder. He slid away from Clark, circling around behind, trailing a hand across Clark's shoulders as he went. Lex could practically hear Clark's teeth grinding. Then he stopped paying attention because the long hands landed on him, fingers whispering along the wool of his collar and across the back of his neck.

"Where have I seen you before, humm?" The man leaned down, breath against the side of Lex's temple. Lex's hand tightened on the gun of its own accord.

"I told you Mrak, he's the one shot me and Tink." The woman reminded.

"Shut up. That's not it - - there's something - -"

"I think I'd remember," Lex said coolly, fighting off the urge to cringe each time the man's thumb stroked across the nape of his neck. If the hand moved up to the no man's land of his scalp, he was going to take out the gun and shoot him. "You have a certain - - memorable - - quality to you. Perhaps there's someone we could talk to with a bit more authority. Who's this Laughing Man?"

Mrak laughed. Others did. The sort of schoolyard humor that bullies used when a whole world of trouble was about to come down on some poor unsuspecting victim's head.

"Oh, you'll meet him," Mrak said, close enough that Lex felt the flick of his tongue against his ear. The skin tingled a little before turning oddly numb. Okay, that was it. Getting categorized in the role of victim just wasn't going to gain him points with these people. He flicked the safety off the Glock and started to pull it out.

Clark bristled and he hesitated.

"Listen, we didn't come here looking for a fight," Clark had apparently had as much as he was willing to stand there and tolerate. He put a hand against the tall man's shoulder and gave a gentle push, which made the man stagger a step or two back. "But you're going to get one if you don't back off."

Clark shifted forward enough to get a shoulder between Lex and Mrak. Lex might have been offended at the lack of confidence in his ability to deal with prickly problems, if intrigue hadn't taken precedence. If he didn't know better, he'd almost think there was something almost proprietary mixed in with Clark's unerring need to protect.

Certainly, he had no qualms admitting he was completely territorial in Clark related matters and had been since - -oh, several days after the incident involving car/boy/river, but it opened up an entirely new world of speculation with the knowledge that Clark suffered from the same.

Not that he ought to be surprised. Even before the deterioration of their friendship, Clark had always assumed he had rights to Lex's privacy and Lex's personal business. And Lex hadn't particularly discouraged it, because - - well, he'd liked the honest interest of a boy with no ulterior motives. And he'd liked the boy, even before the unquenchable curiosity had set in and given him more of a reason to extend Clark courtesies he offered no one else.

Courtesies that he'd still extended one way or another, up until the day he'd confronted Clark in the Arctic. Old habits that were hard to break. Old affections that were so ingrained that even conflict and betrayal couldn't dislodge them.

Clark was no less stubborn and that knowledge felt just a little bit like triumph. Not that the feeling lingered, what with other distractions.

The tall Freak hissed in offense at Clark's intrusion, drew in a breath and spit. A translucent glob of saliva hit Clark's arm and the red cloth of the jacket began to sizzle. Clark let out a little surprised sound, aghast at the damage to a twenty-dollar windbreaker and slapped at the smoking spot. Lex had the feeling anyone else might have experienced a burn of no small magnitude from touching what was apparently highly toxic spit.

Clark just glared and the Freaks glared back. But, before Lex could come up with something that might defuse the situation or at the very least take advantage of heightened emotions as a way to ferret out more useful information, one of them, a spiky haired, bleached blonde behind Mrak, cried out, clapped his hands together in front of him and created an instantaneous wave of violent concussion.

It was the trigger that made all hell break loose.

Lex had time to feel the very outside edges of it to the marrow of his bones, before big arms curled around him and a solid body inserted itself between him and the brunt of the impact. He still felt it. Like he'd been standing in front of the biggest goddamned speaker on the face of the planet when somebody hit a power chord.

Clark didn't stagger. Even when the wall of the building beyond them shuddered and splintered a little. He could see Clark's mouth moving when he spun around, could see the mouths of the freaks open in excitement fueled screams - - but all he could hear was the ringing in his ears. It vaguely reminded him of his clubbing days, right down to the ghoulish collection of stander by, if you counted some of the more bizarre, underground locales he'd frequented when rebellion against the establishment (i.e. dear old dad) had been the name of the game.

He pulled the gun out, even as someone - - several someone's - - rushed towards them. There was something in the air - - shimmery and almost opaque that descended towards them, disgorged from between the hands of one of the freaks. Clark jerked him out of the path of it before he could get a bead on the nearest target. The ground where they'd stood, developed a sort of crystalline coat, which shattered like thin ice when the onrushing freaks tread upon it.

Clark blocked a blow with an upraised arm, and the man who'd delivered it rebounded backwards, holding possibly shattered knuckles, soundlessly howling. He knocked a couple more away, and it was obvious from the way he was moving, that he was holding back, trying hard not to hurt them.

Lex had no problem in that department. He put a bullet into the shoulder of the Freak bearing down on him, looked around trying to find Mrak, found him pretty much standing where he'd been when everything fell to pieces.

"You tell the Laughing man, I want to talk with him," he yelled it, hoping it got past the clamor, because God knew he barely heard himself speak. Whoever this Laughing Man was, everyone from Slick's people to the Freak's seemed to defer to him, and if he was in control of the L, then Lex very much wanted a meet and greet.

Mrak's wide mouth spread in a twisted grin and a tiny little marionette of a woman slunk up from behind him and curled her fingers like an old woman trying to work out the arthritis. Every sliver of concrete and chunk of rubble smaller than a baseball within a three-foot radius of her trembled and rose from the earth. She panted, revealing jagged, sharpened teeth and jerked. The shower of debris came flying forward.

Lex swore and dove behind the closest cover. Hit the ground behind Clark, less than gracefully and still felt like bits and pieces of the shrapnel got past Clark's impenetrable body and lanced him. But that might have just been nerves. He still had the gun in his hand though, and twisted around to get off a shot quicker than the next round of debris could reach him.

It didn't look like he was going to win that draw.

"Son of . . ."

Then the shrapnel was gone and the target wasn't there anymore - - none of the targets- - and he had that sudden, uncomfortably familiar sensation of whole body whiplash again. The one that came hand in hand with the annoying feeling of complete lack of control and being swept up without consent on his part and whisked away faster than the human mind could comprehend.

When he blinked again, what he did see was the broken skyline of Metropolis from a great deal higher up than he'd just been - - maybe part of that sickening feeling had been the lurch in his gut as it tried to catch up to the leap Clark must have made to get up this high - - Clark claimed he couldn't fly - - but Jesus, jumping twenty stories amounted almost to the same thing.

". . . a bitch." Lex really felt the need to finish off that sentiment.

He dug his fingers into Clark's jacket, fighting the urge to wrap both arms around Clark's neck and cling for dear life - - because, God, he'd just fallen off the side of a building and once was enough for one day.

"I told you that was a bad idea."

"Put me down."

They were somewhere in on the east side, a good twenty - - thirty blocks from LuthorCorp, because he saw the remains of Metropolis Stadium not far away. It was starting to mist again. He wasn't nearly so aware of the water accumulating on his bare scalp as he was of Clark's - - well, of Clark as a whole, arm under his knees and around his back and his mind flitted back to the full frontal press under the pile of rubble, which hadn't been nearly as uncomfortable a situation as you might think, all things considered. The pile of rubble balanced over them had surprisingly enough not been the first and foremost thing on Lex's mind - - once he'd been able to think again, after yet another near death experience. Honestly, he ought to be used enough to them now, not to be slowed down by little things like the onrush of adrenalin and momentary bouts of paralyzing fear.

"I don't think they're following," Clark said, after a moment of ignoring Lex's request. Then, he tightened his arms and stepped off the edge of the building.

Fuck. Just - - fuck. There was nothing else to do but press his face against Clark's shoulder and mouth curses as they plummeted. The impact when they hit, was not as jarring as expected. Lex supposed Clark had been better prepared for the landing this time, what with no truck load of rubble following them down.

"You - - prick." It was the best he could do, with his heart lodged somewhere in the vicinity of his Adam's apple.

"Sorry," Clark said, but he didn't sound like he meant it. He let Lex down, but it took a few embarrassing seconds for him to convince his arms to uncurl from around Clark's neck. He took a step back, and it was a lot cooler and damper and the ground a little less steady with the lack of Clark.

Clark stood there, shifting a little, looking pointedly at the burn in his jacket sleeve, what might have been the stain of a blush on his cheeks.

"So, umm &endash; you okay?" Clark asked.

Lex took a breath and took stock. He'd done more damage when he'd dove headlong out of the way of the onrushing cloud of rubble than he'd taken in the fall off the Daily Planet. His knee stung and his hip where he'd landed. Other than that, he was in surprisingly good shape, considering their afternoon. He hadn't lost his new gun during Clark's supersonic escape, so he wasn't going to complain.

He shrugged and cast a resentful eye up at the mist that was rapidly evolving into a full-fledged rain.

"Fine," he said and started walking.

"You're limping." Clark caught up and stated the obvious.

"I'm human. I bruise."

Clark didn't have anything to say to that. Affronted maybe at the implication that he wasn't. As if being human were the best thing an invulnerable being with god-like powers could conceive of being. Ridiculous. And entirely Clark.

"It's not your fault. I did it all on my own." The need to pacify rushed up unbidden.

Clark walked along for a while in silence, fingers stuffed into jean pockets, rain starting to glisten in his hair. The water beaded off Lex's coat, but his shirt was soaking through. He wasn't sure if it were water or blood that felt like it was trickling down from the ache in his hip.

"Some of them were really messed up," Clark said, filling the silence.

Understatement. Lex kept walking.

"Maybe even sick," Clark continued.

"Radiation poisoning."

Clark blinked and faltered. "Radiation? I thought - - it wasn't nuclear - - what happened?"

"It wasn't." Lex spied a promising shelter under a portico covering a set of wide stone steps. Not deep enough to hide unsavory, crawly things, dry enough and close enough to get him off his feet. He headed that way. "If I had to guess, I'd say what we were seeing was the result of prolonged exposure."

"But, " Clark followed him up the steps, into the deeper shadows by the doors. "None of Slick's people showed any effects - -"

Lex turned to look at him through the darkness. "Close contact, Clark. And a different sort of radiation. The sort that in short reactive bursts might cause the right man to say - - be able to walk through walls, or turn a four acre lake into ice mid-summer."

"Kryptonite?" Clark's face paled.

"Not everyone exposed gained unique abilities. Some just - - died. Eventually. The murder rate in Smallville got its fair share of press. Those that died from more - -natural - - causes, not so much."

"God." Clark dropped of a sudden, collapsing cross-legged against still stout doors, water streaming down his face that might almost have been tears. His eyes looked haunted enough to make it a possibility. Guilt that he wore like a hair shirt and now that Lex knew all those carefully hidden truths, he wanted nothing more than to point a finger and heap on the condemnation. It would have been so redeeming to place blame. To vindicate everything he'd done in the face of his fears and place the root of the blame at the feet of the man responsible.

Only that man wasn't Clark.

"It's not your fault. "

Clark cast an incredulous look up at him, because Lex had to be the last person on earth he'd expected to hear that from. "How can you say that?"

"Unless I was right all along - - unless you did come here with the express purpose of wiping out the existing population to clear the slate for colonization - -" he held up a hand when Clark opened his mouth to deny it and continued on. "Unless all of that is true, then nothing that happened in the course of your arrival or subsequently afterwards can be directly blamed on you. So let's say I believe you when you claim ignorance of your people and their motives - - You were an infant stuffed into a ship and cast towards safe haven. It was bad luck and good physics that dragged so much of your homeland along with you. Not design. And even if it were, it wasn't your design."

"And when Crazy people come here looking to start trouble because of who I am . .?"

Lex rolled his eyes. As much as he liked played Devil's Advocate and there weren't many situations where he wouldn't delve into the role - - Clark in the midst of a bout of self-deprecation made him inevitably want to reach for a drink.

"The term 'Crazy people' is sort of self-evident, Clark. Was I to blame every time some lunatic came after me?"

Clark took a little too long to think that one over and Lex waved a hand in frustration and slid down the door next to Clark.

They sat there for a while in the stoop, listening to the rain.

"Are you angry - - " Clark asked finally, tentatively into that rhythmic silence. "About the Belle Reeve thing?"

Almost Lex laughed. Honestly, he hadn't had the time to give it much thought. It hadn't surprised him much, the admission. He'd figured out eventually what his father had done to him and Clark's lies had become commonplace. He would have forgiven him regardless, if he'd come forward with the truth, because betrayal was part and partial of any relationship. There were just degrees of it - - forgivable treacheries as opposed to the ones that started blood feuds.

"Would it matter if I was?"

"Yeah," Clark said after a moment. "I think it would."

Lex didn't know what to say to that. He hadn't expected it and it left something raw in its wake. Maybe he ought to work up a little anger, since Clark so obviously wanted something to feel guilty about. And hadn't anger always been Lex's best defense against pain?

He pulled his coat tighter across his chest and thought about all the comfortable places lost to him by time and the machinations of Kryptonian technology. A bed would be nice. A few painkillers wouldn't hurt. Funny how you missed the little things more than the big.




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