It took Lex fifteen minutes to work himself free from the chair. Honestly, it wasn’t like he hadn’t enough experience being tied to chairs not to know how to inch his way to freedom. Well, the memory of the experience at any rate, he corrected with just a tad of bitterness. Besides which, Clark had been entirely too generous in his tightening of bonds. Lex hadn’t even lost feeling in his fingers.
It was almost as if he’d been afraid he’d hurt him. Lex had a too clear memory of big inconceivably strong hands on his wrists, warm on his knees. A familiar tingle whispered across his skin. That same irrepressible shiver he’d always gotten when Clark touched him.
He shut his eyes and swore. It was one fucked up, confusing mess when he felt like a thief in his own head. He had never – – the other him had never in all his fevered pursuit of perfecting the cloning of human beings, considered the physiological snarl a man might experience if he happened to discover everything he thought he knew had been downloaded like new software into his head.
He couldn’t begin to imagine how Julian hadn’t fallen apart when he’d discovered the truth. His memories hadn’t even come from any single mind, they’d been put together by an impartial team and implanted, a fantasy life Lex had created in the hopes of garnering familial loyalty that he’d never had in any other aspect of his life.
How fucking desperate was that? Pretty damned. And he could remember every agonizing moment of it. Every emotion, every bit of the pain, every bit of the cold fury that had prompted him to terminate the project – – to terminate the human being who’d been crafted from the long dead remains of his brother.
A moment of utter insanity. Not the first. Not the last. Funny that it was so damned clear now.
Lex took a breath, pushing those thoughts aside because they’d drown him again if he let them, and he couldn’t afford that. He paused in the retrieval of his coat, thinking perhaps something that hadn’t been caught on LuthorCorp security cameras might be a wiser choice. And since Clark had taken liberties with him, the least he could do was return the favor by rifling through Clark’s wardrobe.
There wasn’t much to speak of. The familiar red windbreaker, but damned if he’d be caught dead in it. A thigh length coat that looked like military issue that had been dyed black, with lots of pockets and buckles, that just didn’t seem like something Clark would have picked out himself hung next to it. It would do. He shrugged it on and predictably, it was too large, but beggars could hardly be choosers. There was a pair of sunglasses in the pocket, cheap, but usable. Clark didn’t have a hat or a cap in the place. Too bad, because he wasn’t sure rumors of Lex Luthor being seen around town alive and well would benefit him yet.
He had to take the chance. There were things he needed clarified, but to do that, he had to make a personal appearance. Tess had claimed she’d gotten to all his connections, but there were a few, that short of plain murder – -which he didn’t put past her – – that might be inclined to talk to him. Work for him – – probably not, without the funds to compel loyalty – – but it was only information he was after at the moment.
When he left the apartment and stepped into the hall, the door across from Clark’s opened and a girl stuck her head out. A little older than Clark perhaps, with a face full of freckles. Her hopeful expression drooped a little when she saw him. Very obviously she’d been expecting Clark, maybe even waiting for the sound of his door to catch him in the hall. Likely crushing hard on the very handsome, very oblivious new neighbor across the hall. Predictable.
Lex didn’t even nod at her, just stuffed his hands in his pockets and strode down the hall, bypassing the elevator in favor of the stairs. He slipped the sunglasses on before he stepped out, paused to take his bearings on the sidewalk, then headed west.
Midtown sat at the far edge of New Troy, the largest of Metropolis’ six boroughs, and at the very edge of that sat the city’s most undesirable real estate, Suicide Slums. Not a nice place to visit without muscle or at least hardware to back him up, but one of his most valued underworld contacts conducted business there, so it was an unavoidable risk.
It took a good hour to walk the distance, but he’d always done some of his best thinking while he walked or drove. And there was a lot on his mind. He pried at the edges of his memory – – of his identity – – looking for seams, for the cracks or the blind spots one might expect from a total memory download. But other than the last year, there were none to be found. Of course the important things would be fine focused. He’d expect nothing less from himself – – from his original self – – than to want every Clark related detail transferred, every business fact, every bit of the meteor related memory intact. But if he’d been – – if Lex had been – – he shook his head, hating the fact that he couldn’t even get the terminology right in his head – – desperate and snatching at a last chance to carry on the fight – – then a complete neural download would have been a rushed thing.
It wasn’t like they had the technology, even with all their discoveries in the process of perfecting the cloning process, to transplant a human brain. Though, really, that would be a comforting thought. That would mean it was still him, just in another shell. Because that’s what it felt like – – simply him, completely and irrevocably. Just whole.
That thought hit him and he stumbled a little, shoulder jarring a passer by who cursed and gave him the stink eye in passing. Maybe that was the thing that kept tangling him up, this feeling he couldn’t shake that half the things he’d done, that he’d convinced himself were perfectly rational these last years, were so far from it that he’d had to have been broken somehow. Because he hadn’t always been like that, had he? Hadn’t always been the sort of man that could order a man – – or a woman’s death – – like another man ordered lunch.
And if Clark was right and he had been responsible for taking out the board – – then why? Why in his right mind would he have wiped out a group of people handpicked and loyal to him? Had he been after Tess and they’d simply been collateral damage? How far off the deep end had he been to make that decision? He remembered very clearly a time when he had not believed that the end justified any means. When he’d made the hard decisions but remorse had eaten him up inside. What had happened to that remorse?
He made himself walk again, that frozen numb creeping back again, remembering Patricia Swan’s face when he’d blithely sent her off to meet a death of his planning. Remembering other’s that had been roadblocks on the path to his goal. His father – –
Oh, that murder he could understand, he could still justify even in this new head, it was only the utter cold he’d felt afterwards that added to the chill that wanted to overwhelm him.
How many head injuries, how much electroshock therapy, how many times could a man have his mind subjugated by an alien will, before things got skewed? Before scars were formed and synapses altered that no amount of meteor enhanced healing could repair?
He stopped again back to the wall, outside an old factory building that had been turned into tenements, shaken at the hypothesis. He needed to shake off the weakness, to get his head straight if he were going to accomplish his task. The man he was hoping to meet was keen to the little things, which was why he’d always been so valuable an asset.
He drew a half dozen cleansing breaths and put on his business face. Walked into the tenement, down garbage-strewn stairs to the basement level. People loitered in the hall, outside apartments with open doors, the smell of sweat and drugs heavy in the air. Thugs eyed him warily, gauging whether he brought trouble or new business. The door at the end was metal and sported multiple deadlocks. He rapped on it and waited until he heard the slide of the peephole guard being moved.
Another few moments while the person inside decided on the wisdom of admitting a man supposedly dead.
The sound of clicking locks was answer enough. The door opened, one chain still attached and a dreadlocked black man looked through the crack at him.
“Desmond,” Lex inclined his head.
“Moral dilemmas. That’s what you cause me, coming here, Lex.” Desmond had the hint of an island accent, but Lex wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t fabricated, a part of the mask he wore.
“There’s a bounty on my head already?” he arched a brow.
The man shook his head, dreads swaying, but it was more in disgust than denial, then he slid the chain off the door and stepped back, ushering Lex in.
Lex stepped inside and didn’t look back as Desmond relocked the door behind him. The room smelled of incense and patchouli. Comfortable furniture and high-tech entertainment systems. Desmond might live on the verge of Suicide Slums, but he lived well. As well he ought, from the funds he earned in his ‘consulting’.
“Gives me a shiver, talking to dead men,” Desmond looked him up and down. “But you lookin’ good for fresh out of the grave, eh Lex.”
“It takes its toll. For instance, I’m a little blurry on a few things and I need information from a man who I know always keeps his facts clear.”
“Here’s a fact. Word’s out that talking ’bout Luthor related things is bad for the health. Can’t imagine what talking to the Luthor himself will do for a man’s longevity.”
“Take the risk. For old time’s sake. I’ve been generous in the past. I can be in the future. I just need some things cleared up about the last year.”
Desmond thought that over, a clever man. A man who liked to play multiple hands at the same time. But his information network was unrivaled in the dark side Metropolis.
“So what you want to know?”
“Tell me about the incident at LuthorCorp. The explosive one.”
“Tell you?” Desmond laughed. “You know better ‘n anyone.”
“Assume I’ve got some blanks.” Lex clenched his fists inside the jacket pockets.
“I put you into contact with the Toyman myself. That one’s crazier than you, eh. No offense. He done the deed, but the bug in his ear – – that was you.”
Lex nodded, not letting the growing cold in the pit of his gut reach his face. Of course. Always work through intermediaries if you could. Harder to trace back to the source that way. But apparently they had, if Clark knew.
“That girl,” Desmond said. “She had you madder ‘n hell with her thieving. Went over the edge with it, huh?”
Lex narrowed his eyes. “Which girl?”
“The last one you married. That hazy, too?”
“Tell me what you know.”
Just walked about the city for a long time after he’d left Desmond. Surprising how oblivious people were to his presence, when a few years ago he couldn’t have strolled down a city street without someone recognizing him. Maybe it was the belief he was dead. Maybe people were just too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to anyone else.
Maybe it was the clothes.
Glancing at his reflection as he passed a glass-fronted store, he decided, that yes, definitely it was the clothes. Even during his sporadic stays in College, and his forays to the lower rent side of town in the pursuit of more plebian entertainment, he’d never had the inclination to dress like a starving student.
Lex’s sporadic stays in college, he corrected himself with a grim smile at the reflection in the glass. This current body had never worn clothing at all before he’d made his thrift store theft.
He looked away, focusing half his attention on navigating the thickening pedestrian traffic the other half on what he’d leaned from Desmond.
Desmond hadn’t known the intimate details, but he’d heard enough of what had been going on since Lex Luthor had supposedly disappeared in the Arctic to give him the foundation to build guesses upon.
Tess hadn’t lied when she’d claimed he’d – – the original him – -had been gravely injured. Apparently he’d had several plans in motion to regain mobility. The cloning one had been the backup. The primary one had involved the application of a nanite ‘skin‘ so to speak, that would have enhanced human endurance. Enhanced human everything.
It wasn’t new research; he’d started it years ago when he’d been searching for a way to create an army of super soldiers. It had never panned out – – safety wise – – but he hadn’t scrapped the program. Just downsized and outsourced, separating questionable science from LuthorCorp’s public integrity.
Apparently the outsourcing had paid off and apparently Lana had ferreted out the information and taken it upon herself to deprive him of the fruits. Not just destroyed, but donned. Permanently. Which made her a very dangerous woman, indeed. And the crazy bitch had accused him of having a God complex.
She was more dangerous than Clark. Not because of relative power – – There was only so much external enhancement a human body could take without fundamentally breaking down internally, so her abilities would be finite. As opposed to Clark’s alien body which was capable of God knew what and if half of what he’d guessed was true had very few limitations.
No, Lana was dangerous more in a state of mind sort of way. You didn’t go the lengths she had to gain vengeance and power without shedding bits and pieces of sanity along the way. He knew that better than anyone.
More dangerous than Clark.
Ironic that he could think that, after everything he’d believed – – everything he’d done out of fear of alien invasion. But now, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of Clark as ‘destroyer’. As ‘invader’. Clark as a liar and Clark as a pain in his ass, yes – – but Clark as the destroyer of mankind, when Clark couldn’t even stop himself from helping a bitter enemy? No. Just no. Granted the Clark factor still was firmly rooted in the unknown category – – still begged for so many answers to fill in troublesome blanks. And his curiosity hadn’t waned in that respect – – there were just more pressing issues on his mind.
Questioning the validity of one’s own identity could be a real distraction.
His feet were starting to hurt. Pounding the sidewalks for hours on end in cheap sneakers was bound to have repercussions. It occurred to him, that his fortunes had been astronomically good, not to have been spotted by someone on Tess’s payroll. She’d have the local law in her pocket as well, because he’d had them in his. Metropolis had been his playground, his city and he’d paid well for it and now all those resources were in the hands of a woman who wanted him dead. So maybe being in this new body had revitalized his karma somehow, because Lex Luthor’s luck had been as unfortunate as a man’s could be before, when it came to avoiding life-threatening trouble.
Or maybe it was just that old adage about Fools and luck, he thought wryly, pausing by the window of a quaint little sidewalk café. Taking a walking tour of Metropolis with a bounty on his head hadn’t been the smartest move he could have taken.
The smells coming out of the café were wonderful and his stomach rumbled accordingly. He was hungry. It hit him suddenly just how much. It had been close to 24 hours since he’d woken – -if that’s what you wanted to call it – – and since then he’d consumed a cup of coffee, which he’d subsequently thrown back up. All his body had been running off of, were the fumes of the embryonic fluids that had sustained it during growth.
Morbid thought. He shuddered, those terrible images of cloning chambers flashing through his head again. Almost it was enough to kill appetite, but the body’s demands were stronger. Weird though, that now that he’d dragged the thought to the forefront, he could almost taste the chemical flavor of it at the back of his throat. Smell it on his skin.
He swallowed back bile and considered options. There were damned few that didn’t involve common thievery. Damned few that wouldn’t send up red flags. He wouldn’t be surprised if Desmond hadn’t made a call soon after he’d left, a practical man that knew very well which way the winds of power blew.
Tess was running with a full sail now backed by the considerable might of Star industries. Lex was dead in the water, no safe harbor in sight.
Save one and that was in enemy territory. Still better an enemy he could trust than dubious alliances easily swayed by the highest bidder.
He was heading towards mid-town before he’d even finished the rationalization.
Funny that when it came down to believing the words out of Clark’s mouth, he always listened with a jaded ear, but if it came to a matter of trusting Clark to be there – – trusting Clark to protect a life – – he had no reservations that it would be done. Even after he’d discovered the truth – – as angry as he’d been – – he’d rushed to that confrontation without hesitation or even sane precaution, because he’d known – -just fucking known – – that Clark didn’t have it in him deliver the killing blow. Not when he was in his right mind at any rate.
It took him a while to get his bearings and retrace the way to Clark’s Clinton Street address. The fact that he was living in the city was no less amazing than the fact that he was working here. Lex had truly despaired that he would never sever the ties that bound him to the family farm. He’d always known, even before he suspected Clark of being more than a mere Smallville mutant, with that gut instinct that never failed him, that Clark was meant for better things than toiling the earth. He wouldn’t have wasted his time otherwise, regardless that the boy had been beautiful and earnest and owed a debt.
He was saved the uncomfortable prospect of having to buzz up and request entry to the building from Clark, by the same neighbor girl who’d popped her head out at him this morning, approaching with two armfuls of groceries.
“Let me help you,” he said smoothly, extracting a bag before she had the chance to accept the offer. She smiled at him a little weakly, using her key to open the foyer door. He walked in behind her, as if he had every legitimate reason to be there.
She shifted nervously on the ride up the elevator, surreptitiously eyeing him from under her lashes. Of course she’d remember him from earlier. He wasn’t exactly non-descript.
“So you’re a friend of Clark’s?” she finally blurted between second and third floors.
“That’s a simple question that requires a complicated answer.” Sometimes honesty tended to be more evasive than outright fabrication.
She blinked at him, not understanding. But that was all right, her comprehension of the situation was the least of his concerns. He handed her back the grocery bag at the door to her apartment, steeled his nerves and turned to rap on Clark’s door.
It was snatched open before he could get in the third knock and he stared up, knuckles posed, into a surly green glower.
Clark looked put out. It was a look Lex had come to be familiar with. He almost expected some accusation that he’d been out performing nefarious deeds. Instead, what he got, was a hand on the lapel of his ‘borrowed’ jacket pulling him out of the hall and into the apartment and an irritated, “I told you to stay put.”
“No,” Lex said calmly, as Clark shut the door and took up where he’d left off with the accusing glare. “You tied me to a chair. Not the same thing.”
Clark had the decency to flinch a little at that. But his lips were still thin with tension and there was the faintest sound of knuckles popping as he clenched big fists, so the assumption that he was more than a little pissed was probably a good one.
Lex had had several methods of dealing with a pissed off Clark Kent in the latter years, most of which involved seeing how far he could push him over the edge into snapping and betraying something useful or interesting. But then, there’d been a lot of anger and hurt involved in that way of thinking and at the moment, Lex wasn’t looking for a raw nerve to prod so much as a safe haven to try and organize his thoughts.
And food. Food would be a nice bonus. And maybe a shower, to wash off the stench of the hybridization chamber.
“What did you go and do?” Clark was asking – -had maybe asked more than once, because there was a wary look easing in amidst the annoyance, as if he suspected Lex wasn’t all there. Astute guess. “And why did you come back here?”
“Nothing dastardly, I assure you.” He didn’t know how to glibly answer the other. There was no pat answer. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Clark blinked, surprise washing away the other emotion. He was so easy to read, face just so damned open, even when he tried to conceal the things he felt. He tried to cover the curiosity, the concern with a scowl, but Lex knew softening when he saw it.
“Are you – – okay?” Clark didn’t want to ask it, that was clear, but he couldn’t help himself. Clark was oblivious to a lot of things, but one thing he had been keen on, Lex had to admit, was Lex. Maybe he sensed the difference. Maybe his alien enhanced senses picked up the stench of the lab on Lex’s skin. Maybe he noticed the lack of the scar. Maybe it was subtler than that, but it struck Lex with a mind numbing dismay – – that once he did know the truth – – all bets were off. If he’d had reason to hate the original – – the carbon copy would be dismissed and reviled.
“Fine. I’m fine. I needed to get my bearings. I needed to – – find out a few things. She’s taken everything, Clark. Covered all her bases as well as I ever could have. Until I can figure out how – – I just need a place to sit down and take stock.”
“And you think you can find it with me? After what you did? After all the things you did?”
He swallowed, at a loss to explain questionable choices without revealing the terrible truth. Clark couldn’t know. Of all people, Clark couldn’t know.
“No. It was presumptuous of me to expect anything of you. I’m sorry.”
He idly considered going across the hall and knocking on the neighbor girl’s door. He was an old hand at commiserating with women who mourned the lack of Clark Kent.
Clark muttered something that might have been a curse and held out an arm, blocking any retreat towards the door. “I don’t know what you’re up to and I’m probably gonna regret it, but I’m not going to be responsible for you going out and getting killed.”
He looked up at Clark, met green eyes glistening with conflicting emotion, tried to keep his own calm and cool – – but then again, calm and cool wasn’t the way to win him points with Clark. Maybe stricken was a better way to go. And it wouldn’t take nearly the effort – – just a lowering of shields.
“You won’t regret it.”
Clark huffed, drew his brows and pointed out the obvious. “That’s my coat.”
The relief Lex felt was – -surprising. Powerful enough to make his knees weak. Or maybe that was just the hunger.
“I thought I needed a change in disguise,” he said wryly. “So what are the chances of getting that cup of coffee you started making earlier?”
Clark opened his mouth, shut it, as if he had no earthly idea what to make of the request.
“It’s been a while,” Lex said, because sometimes Clark needed little nudges to make certain connections. “Since I’ve had anything on my stomach.”
Clark let out a breath, then without a word turned on his heel and headed towards the kitchenette.
“I haven’t had the chance to get to the market lately,” his voice was edged with hostility, but still he offered. “I can order out.”
Lex noted a fair number of takeout boxes in the trashcan and figured Clark ordered out quite a lot.
As good as Lex was at filling awkward silences – – and really, it was as much a learned talent as a natural gift – – finding a causal topic of conversation that wouldn’t sound trite was currently beyond him. Silence was a more comfortable option.
So he laid the coat across the back of a chair and sat down. It felt good, the weight off his feet. It was likely, he had a blister. Another novelty. He leaned his head back, shut his eyes and listened to Clark order Chinese.
“I’m guessing you still like beef and broccoli.” Clark stood over him, cup of coffee in hand, sullen, wary look in his eyes.
“Why wouldn’t I?” A little tinge of defensiveness crept up before he was fully aware of it. He took a breath and pushed it down, reaching up for the cup in Clark’s hands. “Yes. You remembered.”
Clark shrugged. “It was the only thing you ever ordered.”
“It was the only thing Smallville’s one and only Chinese restaurant made that was worth a damn.”
Clark shifted, uncomfortable with the memories of the times before the suspicion and anger and betrayals had ripped friendship to shreds.
Clark sat down on the sofa opposite him, forearms on knees, that thinking look on his face that hadn’t changed that much from the one he’d worn when he was sixteen and mulling over a problem.
“Why’d you do it, Lex?” he finally asked. “I can understand you coming after me, but why bring Lana into it?”
Lex took a careful sip of coffee, vaguely surprised that Clark had remembered how he took that, as well.
Desmond hadn’t known all the dirty details, but he’d known enough for Lex to make assumptions. To piece together the way the original’s mind might have been working when he’d been wrecking his havoc.
“I don’t suppose it occurred to you, that I was responding in kind? That she’d been actively spying on, stealing from and attacking me since before the divorce, with very little retaliation on my part. Perhaps I thought it was overdue.”
“That’s beside the point,” Clark said with a huff. “You poisoned her with kryptonite just to keep us apart.”
Had he? Actually, warped mind or no, that had been a brilliant move. He had to keep himself from laughing at the irony. It might get him kicked out before the Chinese arrived.
“You’re right, I crossed a line.” He said somberly. “What I really should have been doing was suing her ass for industrial espionage and theft.”
“I take it she’s okay.” He had to make the assumption since Clark hadn’t beaten him to a pulp at first meeting.
“Yes,” Clark admitted sullenly. “She won’t talk to me. I get sick if she’s closer than ten feet – – so she left.”
“She left. Well, that says a lot about her level of commitment to your relationship, doesn’t it?”
Clark’s head jerked up and he rose. Still wounded, Lex realized and still prickly. He never had taken well to acknowledging Lana’s faults. A male defending a female that never really had been his.
Lex held up his free hand, willing to placate. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for and not my business.”
Though really, it was. Clark was his business. Lana still was, through the very destructive nature of her actions. He had to wonder though, in the clear light of rational, who he’d been trying to keep from whom, with the kryptonite ploy. He wasn’t entirely sure he cared who Lana fucked anymore – – with the exception, very possibly, of Oliver Queen.
Clark on the other hand – – the idea of Clark engaging in anything other than abstinence just sat wrong with him.
“How can you just be – – just be so calm about it now?” Clark demanded, still towering over Lex, fists still clenched. Damned big, and damned threatening when he was pissed, even if the alien abilities hadn’t been an issue.
“I don’t know,” Lex said, careful to work just that calm into his voice. “Maybe I’m not that man anymore. Maybe trauma and circumstance pushed me over the edge into something ugly and I’m – – better now.”
Clark stared, disbelieving. Not understanding. How could he understand without all the cold facts lain out and Lex wasn’t willing to share that particular information. It occurred to him of a sudden, how Clark must have felt – – a teenager with a terrible secret, afraid of condemnation, afraid of attack. Lies had been the only recourse to protecting himself from possible rejection from the people that mattered.
Easy to understand now that he had his own secret shame, how vital it was keep up the charade of humanity.
Clark shook his head finally. “I’m gonna go pick up the food.”