Lex had seemed okay. Lex had actually seemed particularly tolerant considering he’d woken up to find Clark dozing in his room. Which Clark really hadn’t meant to do – – but the book had just been god-awful boring. He just hadn’t been expecting Lex to sleep so long and he’d needed to make sure he was all right when he awoke.
Needed to make sure he awoke period, because he’d entertained the fear that he might not – – after the almost dying thing. And he’d been determined to brave the lion’s den – – or the Luthor’s – – and wait until he knew for sure.
But Lex had gotten up clear-headed without any obvious mental defect – – yet. Not that it might not crop up – – because, though he didn’t think J’onn would have purposefully hurt Lex or been sloppy with the job, it had been more complicated than he’d said and Clark was absolutely certain that he’d known that going in and neglected to mention it. Maybe Lionel had too. God knew what he’d be willing to risk to achieve a goal.
If they’d known about the physical danger – – and the more he thought about it, the more he figured at least J’onn had to have suspected the trauma of unwrapping a segment of one clinging mentality from another would plunge the body into shock – – they’d had the sense not to mention it to him.
Because drugging and kidnapping a man was okay, but near causing his death was problematic.
Clark smashed a fist into a four by four support beam in the barn. It splintered, predictably, and he hissed through his teeth, hardly seeing the damage done through the film of guilt. One of the horses nickered, not pleased with the volume of his tantrum.
He shut his eyes for a moment, breathing deep, then went over and scratched under a big equine jaw. The horse gave him a baleful look, holding out forgiveness for a scoop of long overdue breakfast grain. Clark doubted Lex would be so willing to let bygones be, if he discovered what had really happened last night.
There were supplies that needed getting from town, so he took the truck, passing the road that led down to the Luthor estate on the route in. He’d check on Lex again later – – subtly – – in ways only he could, since he doubted Lex would take it kindly if he started showing up unexpectedly in person to inquire about his state of mind.
But Clark needed to assure himself that the results of this almost catastrophe had turned out all right. He needed to make sure so he could put it behind him and get Lex back out of his mind, or at the very least shuffled to the corner relegated for disappointments and irritations. It was entirely disconcerting and brought up too many old memories, when he was right up front. It was far too easy to recall better times when Lex wasn’t snarling at him, and didn’t have Lana on his arm and wasn’t actively engaged in terrible things that made Clark’s life difficult. Too easy to remember that he’d always had that uncomfortable awareness of how well Lex wore his clothing, or how embarrassing a draw for the eye the graceful curve of neck into shoulder – – so much more prominent now that he’d seen a great deal more of Lex’s skin than he ever had before. Or laid hands on it.
God. And wasn’t that the most mortifying thing of all? That he couldn’t quite get the memory of the feel of Lex’s skin out of his head. That last night when he damn well should have been looking out for him, his hand had lingered over the places deep bruises had been four days prior – – places that were blemish free now. Silk smooth and supple and it just blew Clark’s mind that a man’s skin could feel like that. Or look like that, stretched taut over svelte muscle and sinew.
Simply embarrassing that ‘that’ was what stuck in his mind.
He was at the feed store, loading up the last of his order, when Chloe called. He leaned against the back of the truck and answered the call.
“You cut and ran on me the other day,” she accused in greeting and he winced.
“Yeah. Sorry about that.” He wasn’t entirely certain he was ready to talk about the Zod infestation with her yet. At least not while he felt so bad about the solution, because she’d only point out all the perfectly legitimate reasons he had for doing it, and he wasn’t looking for justification.
“Are you busy?” she asked.
“Nothing life or death. What’s up?” He’d already lost most of the day, what was a little more wasted time?
“Lois and I found out why Lex was called in to the sheriff’s office.”
“Yeah?” He already knew why, unless Lex had been lying or omitting pertinent facts, which was a high possibility. “Pictures right? Of Lana and some guy.”
“Oh ho, you are on top of the game,” Chloe had that smug tone that said she was still one up on him.
“And?” he asked warily.
“We’re in town. Want to come and meet us at the Talon and we’ll share some interesting news?”
“Give me ten minutes.”
There was an open space a block down the street from the Talon that the pick-up could squeeze into. He walked the sidewalk towards the café, and people nodded or smiled as he passed, because everyone knew everyone in town, or knew mothers or fathers or family. And secrets were non-existent – – unless they were the type that you buried deep in the recesses of a storm cellar – – and folk talked about them freely – – because, well, that’s what happened in small towns.
If Chloe and Lois had gotten hold of information from the investigation, then it had probably spread the same way. A deputy talking to a wife and her talking to a friend and so on and so on. It was the same reason the whole county had prematurely convicted Lex of the murder in the first place. Unrelenting gossip.
The scourge of a small town. He wouldn’t miss it the day he got out.
The Talon was moderately full with the pre-dinner crowd, but Chloe and Lois weren’t among them, so he climbed the stairs to the second floor apartment. Lois snatched the door open on the second knock and beamed at him like she’d just finished off the canary. She grabbed his arm and tugged him into the apartment. He allowed the manhandling with a wary look about the room.
Chloe was at the kitchen island, tapping away at her laptop.
“So what’s this interesting news?” He asked, when Lois let him go and went to hover over her cousin’s shoulder.
“My powers of persuasion finally paid off,” Lois declared. She waved what looked like a copy machine copy of a photograph at him. “I got this off an assistant in the D.A.’s office.”
He took it from her, and stared at the picture of Lana at a table with an unfamiliar, middle-aged man. He ran his thumb over the grainy image of Lana and looked back up, waiting for the remainder of their news.
“And I found this,” Chloe said, turning the computer around so Clark could see the screen, which held an archived page from the Daily Planet. “You can thank my infallible memory for this. Well, and the fact that I was paying special attention to anything LexCorp related at the time this article came out.”
The page was from the Planet’s business section, and there was a picture of a group of men on the steps of LuthorCorp. The caption read ‘LuthorCorp buyout of international shipping dynasty’. Chloe indicated one of the men on the steps and Clark held up the photocopy, comparing. It might have been the same man. Both pictures were grainy.
“Okay, I’m biting.”
“He’s a lawyer for a Greek shipping company that Lex bought out about six months ago. A really ugly take over, according to people in the know. He took a family corporation and basically ripped it apart.”
“So why was he meeting with Lana?”
“Got me.” Chloe shrugged,
“Show him, already.” Lois urged.
Chloe’s smile turned shark-like. “I Googled Nikolas Daniakos, the owner of the company, and Lex – – and look what I came up with.”
She brought up another screen with an image search, and there were a lot of pictures that looked like nightclub paparazzi shots. The rich and famous coming and going from the hottest, most exclusive clubs. The ones with Lex in them were hard to miss. Even in a crowd of expensive clothes and attitude, he stood out, but he looked young – – really young, in these pictures. There was the occasional appearance of some celebrity face that Clark actually recognized in some of the shots, but all of them contained a swarthy, dark haired man, obviously a few years older and a stunning olive skinned woman.
“How long ago was this?”
“1998. Supposedly Lex and Nikolas Daniakos and his sister, Sophia were tight for a while back in the day. Rumor of the time had it that he was actually sleeping with the sister and doing a lot of party drugs with the both of them.”
Clark looked closer at the woman in the pictures. Long dark hair, sleepy-eyed sexuality, sleek curves – – she would have been Lex’s type. She looked like a predator to Clark, and so did the man, with his dark, shark’s eyes.
“Then something happened,” Lois took up. “Some big blow-up that involved the police called out to the Daniakos yacht in New York Harbor – – the report of which I might add never got filed – – then Lionel Luthor got into it and the Daniakos got called home to Greece – – on supposed ‘family’ business, but I’m thinking threats were made and they were scared enough of Lionel on his own turf to make scarce for a while.”
“So they did something to Lex,” Clark said slowly.
“Or he did something to them,” Lois interjected, but Clark ignored her, because the Daniakos looked older than he was now by a good span and they didn’t have the aura of victims. Not that Lex did, but – – God, he looked young in the pictures.
“And he retaliated ten years later by taking apart their family company. And then, one of their lawyers meets with Lana on the sly? Why?”
“That’s the question, Smallville,” Lois chided. “Maybe she was giving inside information and he found out about it and had her killed.”
“He didn’t – -“Clark started automatically, then stopped, tightening his mouth. “Lex didn’t even recognize the guy in the photo.”
“He’s lying,” Lois said.
“He told you that?” Chloe asked.
“And you believed him?” Lois exclaimed, like Clark was the most gullible man on earth.
He gave her a narrow glare and she lifted a brow.
“I’m just saying,” she said. “That what Lex Luthor says and what he does aren’t always one and the same.”
“Since when are you the expert, Lois?” He snapped, on edge and not even knowing why. Maybe it was the culpability he couldn’t shake that made him feel responsible for Lex. Maybe it was the fact that he’d had Lex’s life in his hands an awful lot this week, which made him defensive of it.
“What the hell, Clark?” Lois bristled at his tone. “Just because he gets his ass kicked by a few local rednecks – – you’re suddenly his number one fan?”
“And just because you’ve got a grudge and a press pass, you think your opinions are gospel?”
Lois swelled up with indignant rage, mouth open to fire a return salvo.
“Children.” Chloe stood up, leveling looks at the both of them. “As entertaining as a knock down drag out between the two of you might be – – he’s got the weight on you, Lo, so I’d put my money on him.”
“Yeah?” Lois huffed, glaring at Clark. “Waste of good money then, because I’d kick his ass.”
Clark snorted, but he kept thinking about those pictures and what Lex hadn’t told him. Maybe Lex really hadn’t recognized the lawyer – – maybe he didn’t even realize the connection. Or he knew damned well and hadn’t wanted to share the information. Which pissed him off, but not enough to buy Lois’ crackpot theory. Either way, if these people had had something to do with Lana’s death, Clark wanted to know about it.
“I’ll keep looking into this,” Chloe promised.
“Okay.” It was either flop down on the sofa and spend the evening listening to Chloe and Lois hash out theories, or head for the door and maybe get a little work done.
He headed for the door. Fighting with Lois the rest of the afternoon wasn’t a big draw. Chloe trailed in his wake, clearly wanting to ask him things that she couldn’t in front of Lois.
She followed him downstairs to the café, while Lois, still miffed, nonchalantly lingered on the balcony overhead, pretending not to notice them at all.
“So are you going to let me in on what’s going on?” Chloe asked quietly.
“It’s taken care of,” he said and she gave him an expectant look, wanting more.
“Hey, Kent,” a raucous voice called from across the room. Jake of linebacker fame stood with a few of his cronies, chatting up a pair of high school age girls.
“How’s your boyfriend?” Jake said it with the sort of sneer in his voice that dared Clark to make an issue of something that had obviously been covered up. But his buddies laughed, low and conspiratorially, like they knew exactly the inference. Jake was wearing the same letterman jacket he had that night, and there was a smear of dark, dried something on the sleeve. Blood. Spattered from when he’d been pummeling Lex into the ground.
“Shit,” Chloe said under her breath. “Is he one of – -?”
But Clark hardly heard her through the rushing blood in his ears. He covered the space in a dozen measured strides that he didn’t really remember taking, and smashed a fist into Jake’s face. He pulled the punch a fraction of a second before it landed, the shock on the linebacker’s eyes as he saw the blow coming, dredging up some semblance of Clark’s common sense. Still bone cracked and blood spattered and the big man tumbled backwards, taking two of his friends and a table and chairs with him as he fell.
Clark stood there, dismay that he might have killed a man battling with the anger that still made his fists curl at his side.
“Sumbitch. Sumbitch.” Jake’s nasal cries as he struggled against the tangle of limbs and overturned furniture, alleviated the concern of manslaughter charges. “Y’broke my fuckin’ nose.”
People were gathering, mesmerized by the blood and the violence, as people tended to be.
“So, file charges,” Clark suggested. “Maybe I’ll give a statement of my own.”
Jake glared at him, fingers clutching his bleeding nose. Chloe had her hands on Clark’s arm, tugging ineffectually. Lois did too, and he hadn’t even noticed her approach.
They got him moving, through the crowd of onlookers and out the door. Once he hit the sidewalk his hands started shaking. He hadn’t just done that. He hadn’t just smashed in somebody’s face because of a taunt thrown across a room full of people.
“Are you okay?” Chloe was asking. If he was okay? It was laughable. He felt sick.
“Damn, Smallville, you’ve got a mean right, there. You took down three guys and a table.” Lois still had hold of his left arm and it was odd that he could feel her fingers, but he hadn’t really noticed the impact of his fist breaking a nose.
Chloe was still looking at him, concerned in a way that Lois wasn’t – – knowing things Lois didn’t.
“I – – I didn’t meant to do that,” he said, because he needed to say something.
“Hey, it happens.” Lois shrugged it off. “I hit people all the time. And that guy deserved it.”
He shook his head, pulling out of their grasp, striding down the sidewalk towards his truck. Just wanting to get home – – by himself, so he could figure out where his head was at.
It was Saturday morning and there was a light layer of snow – – not frost – – but actual snow on the ground outside the mansion. Not even technically winter yet and they were already getting snow. It boded ill for a temperate season to come.
Lex needed to get out regardless. Needed to work off a building sense of tension that went beyond the overall stress of the last five weeks. He’d woken with it, caught in the throes of a dream he remembered with more clarity than he’d been able to recall a dream in months. A great many months.
6 o’clock and he was awake with little chance of falling back to sleep. But then, he’d gotten enough sleep yesterday for two people – – with Clark sitting watch like a determined guard dog, which he still found inexplicable. And fascinating.
He took the service road that circled the entirety of the estate grounds. Twice around was a mile. He ran until the cold was a distant memory and the ache in his ribs couldn’t take it anymore.
His stamina was shot to hell, he thought, gasping after breath on the back steps of the mansion. He used to be able to make the circuit a dozen times without feeling as if he were about to die. He’d managed five today and it hurt. But then, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the time or the inclination to just get out and run. There had always been too many vital concerns – – things that he couldn’t put off to take the time to simply cater to his body’s needs. And he’d always liked to run. Liked the escape of it where there was only the path and the solitude of his own thoughts.
He’d run with Lana, back when they’d been in like with each other, back when he’d been able to laugh – – and he paused, leaning against the cold stone banister at that unexpected reflection – – that he’d been happier when he’d liked his wife, than when he’d loved her. It was an odd little epiphany that he missed the girl more than he missed the woman and he stood there for a while, breath fogging the air, turning that over in his head uncomfortably.
He considered it on the way upstairs to the shower. Took the possibility apart, while hot water streamed down his body – – when exactly he’d stopped liking Lana for Lana, for a girl who’d believed in what he’d believed in for a time, who’d been the one honest thing he could rely on, and started simply needing her. Like air – – or more accurately armor – – against what?
Clark came to mind, but he couldn’t fathom why. Because Clark was the enemy. Clark was a threat. But the notions were like placards he remembered reading in the rearview mirror as he passed them on the road. Meaningless.
He pressed his hands against the warm tiles of the shower and stared at the water sluicing down the drain. An honest shiver of doubt assailed him. Lex tried to pin down the source of the uncertainty, but it was elusive, like grasping after something in the fog and having it dissolve in his fingers.
He bared his teeth and drove a fist into the tile. It hurt and the tile was unfazed by the aggression.
He shook out the hand; shut the water off, because it felt like it was seeping into his brain and the feeling was eerily familiar and uncomfortable. He didn’t feel lightheaded, but there was a vague sense of disassociation – – as if something were missing – – some vital element or purpose that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Lex drew a long, deep breath and let it out slowly, gathering his focus. He’d make an appointment Monday and find out what sort of pharmaceutical solution it would take to make this problem go away.
He dressed for comfort, having no intention of seeing anyone today closer than the impersonal distance of a video feed allowed. A ribbed sweater, fine and warm, now that the heat of the shower and the exertion of the run had dissipated. He hesitated with his hand on a pair of dark slacks, eye drawn to the folded pair of borrowed jeans lying on the shelf under the row of clothes.
He ran a hand over soft, faded denim. They didn’t have the scent that kept triggering old associations in his memory. Too much time had passed since they’d clung to Clark’s skin. But they had a hole in the back pocket that a boy’s wallet might have rubbed, and a rip in the knee with dangling strings that had probably been perpetrated during some bit of youthful horseplay.
Lex had tried very hard not to entertain inappropriate thoughts about Clark when he’d been fifteen – – even if he hadn’t always succeeded. Imagining him younger, the flesh that would have shown through that hole, the worn spot by the inner thigh, was patently criminal.
He picked up the jeans regardless, compelled by the imaginary sense of familiarity, when he was feeling quietly unfamiliar in his own head this morning. He pulled them on, and the sweater and a pair of soft Italian loafers. It felt good, dressing down for a change – – a minor stress reliever in and of itself.
He went downstairs and the staff was out and about today, back to normal routine and he hadn’t gotten around yet to asking Mrs. Drake if he’d given them the day off yesterday. Security was studiously ‘not’ present, but then they weren’t supposed to be. Lana hadn’t liked to see ominous armed men in the house, so he’d catered to her wishes to a degree, increasing electronic measures and decreasing human ones.
He got a cup of coffee from the kitchen and went to his study. Settled at his desk and turned on his laptop. He responded to emails, made a few notes on his calendar and considered a few calls. His father phoned around noon, but Lex ignored it, not feeling obligated to talk business with Lionel on a Saturday and refusing to engage in conversation about anything else.
He went over LuthorCorp secure files to see what his father had been up to, and found nothing overly suspicious. He had people watching Lionel’s moves, but his father had the tendency to worm his way past measures taken to hinder his influence.
LuthorCorp stock was holding. It was low, but not disastrously so. LexCorp stock was still floundering and it was almost a physical pain to check the downward spiral.
He got another call and he sat for a second, phone in hand after reading the name on the caller ID.
“Mr. Mueller.” He picked up, knowing very well that the man on the other end had no tolerance for idle pleasantries.
“I have the names.” The cold, level voice over the line of a man who made his living getting blood on his hands so the people that hired him didn’t have to dirty their own. “Do you want to know them?”
“No,” Lex said, pulse racing as fast as it had the first time he’d sought out this man – – this very frightening man – – to deal with an obstacle in his path some ten months ago.
He changed his mind. “Yes. Who are they?”
“Thomas and Clancy Briggs. Jake Smith. Christopher Tucker. Should I pursue the matter?”
Should he quietly and efficiently see to it that those four men didn’t live to the see another month, was what he was asking. And Lex had set him on their trail, coldly furious and wanting retaliation the day after. Four lives just like that and four days ago, he hadn’t blinked at the thought of ordering it. He sat here now, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat – – trying to remember the justification he’d had when he’d called Mueller. They’d wrecked his car and beat the crap out of him, but that wasn’t why he’d orchestrated their demise – – no, he’d done that because he’d been fucking furious that they’d had the gall to humiliate him on top of it. Four lives because a handful of drunken local has beens had pissed on a Luthor.
A word from him and it would be done. Just like that, and he could go back to business as usual – – remorse a distant, contained thing. He teetered on the precipice of panic, remembering other problems this man had solved for him – – impediments to his goals that had to be removed. But sitting there, with the morning sun warming the office from the high windows, with a old, soft sweater and jeans that felt like some sort of haven, he couldn’t seem to make the scales balance out in his head. Validation he was almost certain he’d felt every time he’d set Mr. Mueller in motion just wasn’t registering now.
“No,” he said. “Do not pursue the matter further. Payment for full services will be deposited as usual.”
He hung up. Sat there, while his hands shook, remembering faces and names and orders given like he was recalling moments from a movie- – surreal, because he could place himself in the script, but the motivations behind the motivations were lost to him.
He rose, pacing the length of the room, on the verge of abandoning the office altogether, then turning and stalking towards the bar. It was early to start drinking – – but what the hell? Maybe half drunk he could organize thoughts better than he was managing sober.
He downed two tumblers and barely tasted the scotch. The phone rang again and he cast a narrow glance towards the desk. It wasn’t in him to simply ignore it without knowing at least who had the balls to intrude upon his Saturday. He put the empty glass down and stalked over to look down at the incoming number.
Clark. He smothered a bitter laugh and considered ignoring it. It kept ringing. Another ring and voice mail would cut in and Clark could talk to that. Add his message to whatever Lionel had wanted to say.
He snatched it up before that last ring finished vibrating the phone on the desk.
“What do you want?”
There was a pause on the other end. Clark digesting his non-attempts at telephone courtesy.
“I need to talk to you,” Clark finally said, sounding like he was on a mission. Fuck that.
“It’s the middle of the day. I’m conscious. Don’t break the streak, Clark. Bad luck.” He hung up. Stared at the phone expecting an irate call back, but it didn’t ring.
Almost, he was disappointed.