“Could you be any slower, Smallville? “Lois hefted the backpack she called a purse, fixing Clark with an impatient glare. If she’d had a handy surface, he was sure she’d be clacking enameled fingertips.
“It’s a possibility,” he muttered, just low enough that she might not hear, and snapped the last of the new batteries into his handheld recorder. He stuffed it in his jacket pocket, in the company of notepad and press pass and joined her.
“You know this is a colossal waste of my time, right?” Lois took up when he fell in behind her on the way to the elevator. “I mean, any intern hack could cover a corporate press conference – – you could write it – – all by yourself – – so why they need the both of us is beyond me. Why isn’t Jerkin in business covering this anyway? – -It’s his beat – – and I have people to talk to that aren’t just going to sit there and wait forever in this city council cover up. I heard that barracuda from the Post is sniffing around the story and damned if I’m letting her beat me to press.”
“His wife’s in labor,” Clark offered helpfully.
Lois looked at him blankly as the elevator doors closed.
“Jerkin,” Clark clarified, in case she’d forgotten the query.
She rolled her eyes, as if simple explanations were not to be trusted. Nor tolerated when she was on the trail of what might turn out to be an above the fold story. He could practically hear her thinking whatever , but she had the self-restraint not to blurt it out in an elevator full of co-workers.
“Look on the bright side,” he said, when they spilled out onto the sidewalk, joining the throngs of other pedestrians about their business in Metropolis’ upper west side. “At least we don’t have to go far to get the story.”
She sniffed, hardly mollified and shaded her eyes to look up at the glass and steel monstrosity towering over the Daily Planet. It was pristine again – -or as pristine as a building that had housed so much bad karma could be. Two months ago the streets below had been littered with glass and debris and body parts, the top floor blown out by the whim of a madman. Reconstruction had finished last month, and the new board had reconvened with their new permanent director of operations and their new major stockholder at the helm.
Clark still wasn’t sure what he thought of that union – – but it was better than – – what had been before. He didn’t think the name. He’d become very good at not thinking the name.
They migrated with the crowd across the street, heading for the LuthorCorp lobby. In through the revolving doors and into a lobby that just screamed mover and shaker.
He’d never been here on actual official business before. Never walked through these doors with a legitimate reason – – with a job to do that required a badge and garnered a paycheck. Always before it had been personal. One way or another.
It made his fists curl a little, remembering the last time he’d been here to confront – – Lex. Go on, he could think it. He wasn’t that much of a girl that a name would make him loose control. God, how could he be so red around the edges angry – – just so damned mad at a dead man – – and grieve at the same time? Lex had been out of control – – stark raving psycho towards the end there – – killing people out of hand – – ruining people’s lives and still – – still he hadn’t been to a funeral that hurt so much since his dad. What sort of sense did that make? None at all.
“Clark!” Lois complained when he tread on the back of her shoe, attention firmly focused inward. She glared back, wiggling her foot back into her heel and paused to take her bearings. LuthorCorp Plaza was a big building. He followed her across the vast space, listening to the clak clak of her heels on marble, trying not to think about anything but the job. Failing, because how did you just shut off memories? He clenched his fists, the bad memories. The ones that always took hold and grasped the hardest, were the ones that always plagued him the worst.
“Geeze, Clark, ease up. You’d think you were headed for a visit with the proctologist instead of a press conference.”
He blinked at Lois and realized they were outside the broad glass doors of Conference room 1-b, where a huge gaggle of press had already gathered inside. The podium beyond was backed by floor to ceiling windows and huge potted trees. Company reps were mingling with the journalists, but no big wigs were in sight. Tess Mercer would be making an appearance, which meant it was a big announcement of some big project or some big revamping of the company. One more step to LuthorCorp’s subsumption by Star Industries. He expected to hear they were changing the name any day, both Tess and Oliver bent on eradicating every trace of the Luthor legacy. What was left of it anyway.
“God, I can’t believe we’re early,” Lois complained. “I was hoping to come into this thing halfway to over and fake it. You’d think, being a subsidiary, that she could just send down a memo. Write up what she wants said and presto, instant article.”
She shouldered her way into the room, a battering ram in three-inch heels, and Clark followed in her wake, casting apologetic looks here and there. She found a place to her liking, and scanned the faces of the competition, sharing little tidbits with Clark about this man’s embarrassing personal habits or that one’s professional faux pas, this dalliance or that. God knew where she’d picked it all up.
He tuned her out. He’d gotten good over the months of filtering out the bitching and picking up on the actual important stuff. Easier sometimes to concentrate on the way she smelled than absorbing the mile a minute way her mouth seemed to run.
She liked Lavender. Peaches and strawberries had been Lana’s preference. He wasn’t sure which he liked better. Lex had always smelled of the subtle musk of expensive cologne and the underlying sense of something earthier beneath – –
He frowned at the reminiscence wondering what corner of his brain had unearthed that. It was the place.
He turned his attention back to Lois, looking for distraction, but she was onto one of her bitter little dissertations concerning Oliver and Tess and he heard enough of that every time some society page gossip crossed her desk. It bothered Clark more than it ought to sometimes, considering whatever fleeting attraction they’d shared for a while there had turned cold after Lana’s painfully short insertion back into his life. He didn’t like to think of that any more than he liked to dwell on Lex. The things Lex had done – – the method of his demise. So many terrible things in so short a time.
So he focused elsewhere, listening to the ambient sounds only he could hear through layers of glass and steel. The laughter of children city blocks distant, the screech of tires and the thudding impact as someone got rear-ended, the wail of sirens, the distant chug of a train pulling into Metropolis station. Closer still, multiple retorts.
Once you heard the thump of a gun fired with a silencer, it was hard to forget. He cocked his head, zeroing in on that sound. It wasn’t just close it was in the building, maybe coming from one of the higher floors.
“I’ll be right back,” he interrupted Lois mid-complaint and was backing away before she had the chance to form a question.
Lex hitched a ride from Gotham on a Wayne Industries flat bed hauling construction materials to Metropolis. It was an eight-hour trip and he spent most of it ignoring the driver’s running commentary about landmarks of interest along the route and tuning out the non-stop country.
There were still fuzzy spots in his memory, he could feel them, much like prodding Novocain deadened spots with the tongue after a particularly grueling trip to the dentist. The time between the Arctic and his awakening in Gotham was still a complete blank and he had to wonder if it wasn’t his own mind trying to protect itself by blocking out something horrendously traumatic. Supposedly the mind did that, nature’s way of retaining sanity in otherwise sanity draining situations.
He recalled various doctors telling him just such the last time he’d lost huge chunks of memory – – only, he thought slowly, slumped against the door of a truck cab that smelled a little too much like old beer and sweat – -that had been a lie.
Oh, he’d always known there’d been more to it than the tales his father had told after he’d been un-institutionalized, but gut instinct and actually remembering were two different things. That time in Belle Reeve had always been as big a blank as the one he was suffering now.
But not now. Now that he thought about it, it came to him, like the sun burning away fog, exactly what had transpired. The details crisp and clear and painful and so damned obvious that he wondered how he could have ever lost them. Granted, the times he’d been heavily drugged were still blurry, but the other specifics – – his father’s poison veiled with parental concern – – Clark’s betrayal and then his foiled attempt to make things right. Clark’s powers. That had been the first time he’d ever seen them. How much time and effort could have been spared if he’d only retained that memory?
Why did he remember now? What had happened to him that a portion of his life that his father had tried damned hard to erase flowed back, smooth as fine wine? He had the chilling fear that they – – whoever they were – – had messed with his brain. And no matter the advantage of regained memory, the notion of anyone inside his head without his consent was infuriating. Frightening
The idea of that great a loss of control over the most basic of things made his teeth ache. It was hard to stop dwelling on it, but obsessive circle thinking did tend to make time pass quickly.
The driver dropped him off on Lombardy Street, outside the construction site the contents of the flatbed were destined for. It was drizzling just a little, so pulling up the hood of the jacket as he walked through the streets of a city where the chances of recognition were higher than Gotham, was not out of place.
He stuffed his hands in the jacket pockets and headed uptown, destination fixed in his mind. Pedestrian traffic began to thicken the closer he got to the heart of the city. He was just one of a hundred. A thousand. Tens of thousands. And for the moment, that was more than fine. Anonymity worked to his benefit, because he damn sure didn’t want Tess to know he was coming.
He wanted to see the shock on her face when he walked into her office and demanded explanation.
It was lunch hour when he reached Temple Street at the heart of the business district, and the streets were flooded with both auto and flesh and blood traffic. LuthorCorp rose stoically above the manic migrations, gleaming tower even on an overcast day. He didn’t dare the front door. Too much security, too many cameras attached to security systems with some of the best facial recognition software in existence. He’d been a bit – – paranoid – – the last year or so, of unwanted people traipsing into the heart of his operation. Even though the ones that really mattered always seemed to manage it regardless.
Clark of course, had methods at his disposal beyond the normal trespasser.
He knew of an unmonitored way in. A personal escape route that led from the LuthorCorp executive floor private elevator to an exit across the street in the Daily Planet parking garage, which was lucky to have one old security guard dozing on duty, much less more modern surveillance.
Lex strolled in unmolested, walked down to the bottom level, and entered his personal security code into a panel hidden behind a plaque and waited for the cleverly disguised old maintenance door to open. When it didn’t immediately respond, he began to get the first pricklings of anxiety. But before the feeling could mature the access panel flicked green and the door slid smoothly open, revealing the narrow passage beyond.
It was a straight shot to a set of elevator doors that would respond to only one set of fingerprints and one retinal scan. This time it accepted his input instantly.
The doors slid open to the cool familiarity of the executive elevator. He stepped inside and felt a sense of calm descend. He was back in familiar territory. Granted, enemy territory at the moment, but if Tess thought she could outmaneuver him, even with Oliver Queen to back her up, she was due for a painful bout of reeducation.
The executive elevator opened to a private hallway around the corner from main reception. Priceless artwork on the walls. Soft carpet underfoot. Comfortable chairs situated across from select pieces that no one that worked for him ever had the leisure of spare time to sit and enjoy. His favorite Monet wasn’t in its spot, replaced instead by some unspecified piece that might have been a Pollock. It occurred to him that the explosion that had taken out the board of directors might have destroyed quite a bit of irreplaceable art as well.
One more thing Tess had to answer for. He’d really liked that Monet.
There was a private entrance to his office – – and knowing Tess, she would most certainly have appropriated his space – – to the right of the elevator. A dozen steps and he was at the door.
It was unlocked, which stirred a little stab of unease, but he was too focused on his goal to head it. He strode into the office with all the confidence of a man on a holy mission and caught her sitting behind his vast, glass-topped desk in his ergonomically designed chair.
“I see you’ve made yourself at home, Ms. Mercer.” Formality seemed more appropriate for this sort of situation.
She looked up at him, fingers poised over her keyboard, eyes widening slightly. Not nearly the surprise or dismay he’d been hoping for. Of course, he was hardly dressed to impress, with his thrift store attire and it was entirely likely that she knew damn well he wasn’t dead.
“I’ve been expecting you.” She leaned back, canting her head a little in her appraisal, damned cool and calm. It was marginally unnerving. One section of his mind started going over the ways he’d screwed himself in his haste, while the other zeroed in on dealing with his usurper.
“I would imagine you have. Guilt will do that do you. Always waiting for the other shoe to fall. What made you think you could get away with selling me out?”
She drew a breath and rose, a little anger flashing across her face.
“Selling out?” she seethed and tapped the side of her temple with a manicured finger. “Does the term ‘optical implant’ ring any bells? ‘Sell out’ would imply there was trust to begin with, wouldn’t it?”
Oh. That. Actually, until she’d mentioned it, he hadn’t remembered that little detail at all. Now that he thought about it, it had seemed a good idea at the time, though from the look in her eyes and the apparent wrath the discovery had brought down, he guessed he’d been wrong on that count. Lex could commiserate, having his own head messed with one too many times to ever take it lightly. He’d have rained fire down upon anyone who tried a similar stunt with him. And really – – what the fuck had been going through his mind when he started playing god with the people on his own team?
What he expressed instead was – – “So you were the subject of a little experiment. Haven’t we all been, one way or another? Get over it. You didn’t think working for me would be a walk in the park, did you? I thought you were capable of handling a little on the job stress, Tess. You failed me. You stole from me. And that I don’t forgive.”
Something changed in her face. The anger drained away, replaced by something cold and calculating. The skin on the back of his neck prickled.
“Working for you? Stole from you? ” She laughed. “I think you’re a little confused, Lex. You don’t get it, do you? I don’t answer to you. Nobody answers to you, because you’re not even real.”
He narrowed his eyes, looking for a weapon as she moved around the desk, but there were nothing but curves under her tailored suit. “Why? Because you’ve convinced the world I’m dead? One public appearance and that illusion is shattered.”
“No, you moron, it’s because you’re not Lex Luthor. You’re nothing but a skin-job a dying man created in a lab in the hopes of having one more chance at immortality.”
He laughed. He had to laugh at the ludicrous claim, because otherwise the knot in his gut would rise up and strangle him. “That’s a creative claim. I’d think you could do better with all my resources at you disposal.”
“You really don’t know, do you?” she circled him, far enough away that he couldn’t easily make a grab for her. Wary of him even with that predatory glint in her eye that he’d so appreciated when he’d started grooming her. “Did you think you’d just managed to miraculously heal from the sorts of injuries you incurred in the Arctic? Even with your particular brand of – – genetic alteration – – you weren’t coming back from that. He wasn’t coming back.”
He stared at her blankly, wondering if she were spewing the mother of all bull or if she did know what had happened to him after the Arctic.
“Do you even remember that?” she arched a brow and must have picked something up from his face because she laughed and nodded, as if pieces he couldn’t even see were clicking into place. “Of course not. The process was interrupted before neural download was completed. There would be gaps in your implanted memories.”
“You’re lying.” He felt cold and that knot was growing. It felt like a fist in his stomach.
“You’re not Lex Luthor. You’re a thing he grew in a pod created out of his genetic material. His scientists downloaded his neural imprint into you after he was dead. You do understand that, don’t you? That Lex Luthor is dead and you’re nothing more than an incomplete carbon copy. A very well crafted copy, granted, I’ll give you that. You look like he did before all the years of stressing over alien invasion wore him down. ”
“Take a look in a mirror, if you don’t believe me. You’re flawless.” She smiled, tongue flicking out and licking her upper lip. It was a pointed gesture and he didn’t miss it. He kept himself from reaching up and feeling for the scar on his own. He wouldn’t give her that satisfaction.
“But I’m afraid, as successful as the experiment seems to have turned out – – your existence has no benefit to this company and the direction we wish to take it in. We’re no longer in the business of cloning – – that was Lex’s little obsession – – so all projects have been and will be terminated.”
He wanted to grab her – – wrap his hands around her throat and strangle the bitch until she retracted this ridiculous fiction and admitted the real truth. Because it was a lie. He was Lex Luthor. He was real. Real. Not something manufactured that could be discarded as easily as spoilt meat – – God.
He felt sick and lightheaded, the claws of a terrible, terrible deed raking at the edges of his memory. He shook it off and took a step towards her.
The bitch kicked him. A roundhouse blow in heels and a tailored skirt, that caught him in the ear and sent him staggering against the desk. He could barely hear her screaming for security through the subsequent ringing.
He saw them crowding through the doors to the office though, as if they’d been waiting for her signal to rush in. They probably had. He’d probably given himself up the moment he’d entered his security code in the Planet parking garage.
Fool. Fool. Maybe he wasn’t the real thing, to have made such a reckless mistake.
He flung her laptop at the closest security goon and it hit the man dead center across the throat. Lucky shot. The man staggered, and Lex snatched the gun from his hand, whirled in the confusion of too many bodies trying to converge on one point and grabbed Tess by the hair, yanking her against him and jamming the gun under her chin. She grunted, tense against him.
Men stopped moving, guns trained on him warily.
“How far do you think you’re going to get?” she asked, and hissed when he tightened his fingers in her hair. “I’ve emptied every account Lex had. Every secret asset has been terminated or appropriated. No one out there will help you, because they either all have good reason to hate Lex Luthor, or in the case of those scant few he didn’t alienate or abuse, they’re afraid the company will crush them if they do. And it will.”
“Shut up, Tess.”
“Its Ms. Mercer to soulless things created in labs.”
He ought to shoot her, he really ought. But then they’d shoot him and he needed to be alive to hash things out in his head. He backed out into the hall, dragging her with him. The secretary had already cleared out when security had rushed in and the way was clear to the main elevator. He got his back to it and pressed the call button. Pulled her into the car with him and pressed the ground floor button.
“You won’t make it out of this building alive,” Tess whispered, right before he shoved her out of the closing doors and into the arms of her hovering security.
He leaned his head against the cool brass above the control panel, the sudden filtered silence inside the car a balm to the chaos inside his head. She was a lying bitch. A manipulative one. If she’d wanted to get under his skin, she’d found a sure way. Because honestly, it was something he would have done. Without hesitation. God knew he’d gotten the techniques down pat.
A cloned body would be the perfect genetic double of an original, sans any defects incurred through physical injury.
He looked up into his reflection in polished brass. It was hard to see the tiny details, but the line of his lip looked unmarred. He lifted a finger, hesitating only a moment before he touched the place a childhood scar should have been. And wasn’t.
Fuck. His mind blanked. Everything blanked, and if not for the corner of the car, he might have slumped altogether at the shock.
The elevator pinged, the light over the door illuminating at a floor not even close to ground.
Fuck again, because why hadn’t he considered that they’d just take control of the car and take him straight to his execution. He backed against the far wall and brought up the gun, lifted a second hand to steady it when the first refused to stop shaking.
A janitor with a cleaning cart stared at him in shock. Lex let out a gust of breath and pushed past him, out onto one of the floors that housed rented office space. He shoved the gun into his jacket pocket and ran. The stairwell would be the safest way down. He sideswiped a woman with an armful of folders and papers went flying. There was a shout from behind. The thud of heavy feet.
He turned a corner and ran full tilt, heading towards the red exit light above the stairwell. Pelted downstairs three at a time and hoped to hell he didn’t misstep and do Tess’s work for her by taking a headlong tumble.
Something whistled past him from above and chipped concrete next to his head. He hadn’t heard the shot. He ducked and continued down, until he heard the sound of footsteps running up from below, then cursed and made for the door on the next level.
Floor 33. The lights were dim and there was plastic on the floor to protect from the dust of construction. Bad luck, because security might hesitate shooting him outright if there were people in offices to witness plain murder. There were other stairwells. They were plentiful in a building this size and they couldn’t cover them all on short notice. Another shot tore through unpainted sheet rock and another and Lex threw himself bodily through hanging plastic that separated the hall from an office space in the midst of renovation.
He slipped through the other side, thinking he’d been on the southeast stairwell and that the southwest one would be his best gamble. He ducked out into a hall, and found himself staring down two black-suited security. He brought out his gun and started shooting and they dove separate ways. He took the opportunity to pelt down the hall in the other direction. A bullet whizzed past his ear as he skidded around a corner and he half laughed at Tess’s bad luck in hiring men who couldn’t hit a target running down a relatively narrow straight hall.
Then he ran into an unexpected wall and rebounded hard enough to land flat on his ass on the floor, stars dancing around the edges of his vision. He blinked and stared up through the center of them at Clark Kent.
Clark Kent, standing there, in a sports jacket which looked as if it might have been slept in, and a tie – – an actual tie – – and pens sticking out the jacket pocket and a press pass clipped to his lapel – – if Lex were taking a little long to process – -well, it had been a trying afternoon. Running into Clark Kent out of the blue wasn’t nearly so hard a pill to swallow as being told he’d been cooked up in a lab in a desperate attempt to make a legacy live on.
“Lex!” Clark finally got his voice, after staring down with wide, shocked eyes for a few heartbeats and hissed out the name like he was spitting out worms he’d mistakenly taken for pasta. His gaze went to the gun still in Lex’s hand and narrowed.
Before Lex could register the movement, he’d crouched and wrenched it out of his hand.
“What have you done?” Clark demanded.
Of course. “I haven’t done anything.” He scrambled to his feet, body still reeling from the impact. He couldn’t deal with Clark now. He moved around him, figuring Clark might delay the men on his heels long enough for him to make the next corner and gain a respectable lead. Clark caught his arm, swung him up against the wall and there was just no twisting out of that grip.
“LuthorCorp security is trying to kill me,” he snapped in desperation. “And I’d really prefer to avoid that, so either let me go so I can avoid it myself or help me.
Clark’s eyes narrowed again, and he turned his head, looking past Lex at the wall over his head. Lex could hear the footsteps now, almost to the corner. Heard one of them talking into his headset: ‘We’re on his tail. He’s headed towards the southwest stairwell. Intersect from below.’
God. His routes of escape were dwindling. Which just left – – Clark. “Please. I can explain – – just – – help me. Please.”
In no way could he explain. In no way did he ever want to admit to Clark or anyone else the truth he was beginning suspect as real. Shame. Shame. Shame. But he didn’t want to die and making promises he had no intention of keeping had become commonplace for him. For Lex. No. He was Lex. His hands were shaking, he couldn’t stop them. Everything wanted to shudder to pieces.
Clark’s scowl deepened even as he tightened his arm. There was a rush and a loss of equilibrium and when vision cleared they were someplace else.
Lex barely had the chance to register the close walls and rancid smell of some dark alley, before his back was against the bricks, balls of his feet barely touching the ground, Clark’s hand tight on his neck.
“You son of bitch!” Clark was yelling at him, eyes wild, cheeks red with emotion. “You lying, manipulative – – all this time! All this time you let everyone think you were dead. Why? What are you planning? How many people are going to die this time or have their lives ruined?”
Just one, Lex thought, if Clark didn’t loosen his grip. He clawed at Clark’s thick wrist to no avail. How in the hell was he supposed to come up with a decent answer when Clark insisted on strangling him? How the hell was he supposed to think at all when his mind kept stalling on the concept that he was something another man had made in a lab.
He stopped fighting Clark – -useless to attempt it anyway – – and maybe going limp in Clark’s grip drove the fact home that he was in the process of suffocating, because Clark’s fingers loosened and he yanked his hands away, as if Lex had grown too hot to touch of a sudden.
Lex crumpled, knees giving out, and he knelt there in the filth of an alley God knew how far from LuthorCorp and tried to catch his breath. Clark stood over him, glaring down, hands clenching and unclenching as if it took some great effort on his part not to reach down and do Lex physical harm.
“I went to your funeral,” Clark said, voice trembling with rage fueled emotion. “After everything you’d done – – to me, to Lana, to every innocent you hurt – – I couldn’t stop myself from going to your funeral. I thought it was the least – -” He shook his head, not even able to finish the thought. “God damn you for proving me wrong one more time.”
“Was it nice? The second time around?” Lex asked dully, half his attention still spiraling down that dark pit of disassociation. Images flashed through his mind, of sequencing gels, the oozing stench of artificial embryonic fluids that filled Hybridization chambers. Of bodies in various stages of development lined up like vegetables in a garden, tended by merciless men in sterile masks who would terminate growth at the first sign of abnormality.
His orders. He remembered giving those orders. Weed out the rejects and only proceed with perfect specimen growths. They were only slabs of organic matter, after all. Created for a specific purpose. Things without rights to be nurtured or destroyed at a whim. The uneasiness took a turn towards nausea.
“It was better than the one you gave your father,” Clark was saying, bitterness heavy in his voice. “You must have gotten a kick out of watching everyone mourn. Though I’d bet you money there was nobody there that really did.”
Lex stared up at him, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he – -that the original version of him – – was in the ground somewhere. Rotting. Falling to pieces. It was unreal.
No, he was unreal. One of those slabs of meat grown in a hybridization chamber. Just like countless others. Just like – –
Julian. That memory came crashing back. His own personal foray into the macabre. Raising the dead because he could and terminating it for much the same reasons. Because clones were the property of the men who made them – – because something whipped up in a test tube didn’t have the rights of a man conceived between a man and woman. Because he’d believed that – – Lex had believed that – – before he’d been the one inside that artificially grown skin.
It made him sick to the marrow of his bones now. That Tess was only doing what he – -what Lex – – had done before her. Terminating a project that had gone awry. Terminating.
He doubled over, dry-heaving. Nothing on his stomach but coffee to bring up. He’d never had a solid meal. He remembered a thousand meals, a varied palate of tastes and yet, he’d never actually eaten a solid bit of it. Only the fluids that had been pumped into his system. Only the memories of the man that had donated the genetic material his body had been grown from, implanted into his mind, to draw from.
Clark was staring at him, distaste mingled with something close to suspicion. He took a step backwards, big and awkward in his rumpled suit. “I swear to God – -if you try to hurt any of my friends – – if you come after me – -” he didn’t finish. Maybe he didn’t know how to level a proper threat without active rage to back him up. And then he was just gone, not bothering to hide the miraculous speed anymore.
Lex clutched his gut and vomited up the last of the coffee flavored bile.