Lionel glanced through the file one more time.
It might have as well been typed up by a thousand comically-dressed monkeys for all the information it offered.
He rubbed his eyes, tiredly. The evening twilight slowly started filling his office, chasing away the uncomfortable brightness of doubt. Lionel had been growing more fond of night lately. The dark made it easier to ignore the 62-point headlines in every newspaper in the state. It made it easier to avoid the pity in some people's gazes, and triumph in the carefully hidden smiles of others.
The dark made it easier to pretend that was he saw in the reflection of his eyes was steady optimism and confidence, not reluctantly downing capitulation.
Three weeks and thousands of dollars wasted, and he still had no idea if his son was even alive. They found the remnants of the plane. They found one of the pilots floating with a bullet firmly lodged in his unutilized brain. But no traces of the second pilot, nor of Helen.
And no traces of Lex.
The last seven reports were laced with veiled suggestions that it was time to presume Lex dead.
He threw the folder on the desk and flexed his fingers. Grabbing the two metal stress balls with his left hand, he rotated them absentmindedly.
His son was not dead. Lex was a Luthor. He'd survived car crashes, kidnappers, terrorists and psychos with guns and axes with flair. Lex had a destiny and he wouldn't allow something as ridiculous as a plane crash to stop him from achieving it.
Lionel refused to accept it.
He bit down on the urge to throw the balls against something breakable and placed them into the decorated wooden box gently. Rising from the chair, he walked toward the bar. He wasn't sure which one of the three crystal decanters contained Armagnac but decided he didn't care. Lionel didn't stop pouring until the expensive brandy splashed over the rim and only then did he notice that his hands were shaking. Slowly he placed both the bottle and the tumbler on the glass top of the bar. He clasped the metal railing tightly, until his fingers spasmed with pain, and tried to pull himself together.
Somehow, he managed to miss the sound of the opening door.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say that you're all broken up about my untimely demise." Mocking and familiar drawl, and for a moment he thought he was imagining it. Lionel twisted around and the air rushed out of his lungs.
Half-hidden in the shadows, Lex was leaning against the doorway, casually. A brief flash of surreal obscurity, but Lex's presence was very solid, very real and right there. He looked a little thinner but unharmed, and very much alive. His hands were in his pockets, and his lips curved in something one might call a smile-if that one was blind, stupid and knew nothing about Lex.
Suddenly, the dark was not as comforting any more.
"Lex." His voice cracked, and he sighed deeply, knowing that at this moment he needed his control more than ever. Lionel took a step toward his son and the shift brought Lex's eyes into light. The usually intense silver was murky, bruised with something disturbing and acrimonious, and it stopped him from moving any closer.
His sudden hesitation didn't pass unnoticed. Lionel didn't think that the addition of acidic amusement made his son's expression any more welcoming.
"What, no hug? Careful, dad. I might conclude that you're not happy to see me."
Not an overly-veiled threat, and spoken in such a casual tone that Lionel had to clench down on a desire to fall back. Not many people could weave death threats into a conversation as easily as discussions of weather, with a gentle, almost teasing smile, and still manage to sound ominous.
Typically, there was nothing he liked better than a nice round of repartee.
Typically, however, he hadn't spent three weeks wondering whether his son was alive.
The conversation had barely started and Lionel already felt exhausted. Sighing, he allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes for a moment.
Lex was alive.
His son was alive and standing right in front of him.
Convinced that Lionel was the one who tried to kill him.
Lionel opened his eyes but kept his gaze low, away from his son's face.
He'd feel later. Now was the time for damage control.
"I know what you're thinking, son, and it's not true."
"The human mind is an amazing thing. It's capable of processing hundreds of different thoughts with an astounding speed." A wide, haughty smile curved Lex's lips, confirming Lionel's suspicions. "I'm afraid you'll have to clarify what you're implying, father."
"I didn't try to have you killed."
For years Lionel had tried to teach his son how to hide his emotions and thoughts, keep them from showing on his face. Lex's innate passion often overruled his training, throwing everything he attempted to conceal into his eyes.
He looked up, prepared to meet his son's gaze steadily and confidently. He encountered a stranger's eyes, the color of steel and about as hot-blooded.
For the first time, Lionel had no idea what was going through Lex's mind.
A good judge of human psyche, Lionel often found his ability to predict his opponent reactions helpful in planning the next move.
The loss of advantage was unnerving, to say the least.
The silence lasted for far too long, fouling the air with the dangerous edge of unspoken threats and untrustworthy admissions.
Finally, Lex tilted his head and folded his arms across his chest; a pose that should have looked completely relaxed, yet was anything but.
"The hit has your fingerprints all over, father. Your invitation. Your plane. Your pilots."
"You expect me to believe that it was all Helen's idea? Dad, please. I've lived with her. She was a smart woman, but something like that? Completely out of her league." There was a hint of strange dazedness in Lex's voice. As if he didn't expect this but wasn't really surprised.
"You misunderstand. The hit wasn't on you. It was on your wife." Lionel could've sworn that Lex even stopped breathing. Turning toward the windows, Lionel stared at his city, seeking support in the knowledge of his own power over its existence. In the corner of the glass, the reflection of his son rivaled statues in its stillness. "The pilots were supposed to drug both of you and then get you out to safety before the crash. I...I still don't know what went wrong."
Lionel would've done anything to avoid this confession but he knew his son. Hide from it, fight it, but Lex was a Luthor. Sharp, intuitive and vengeful. Sooner or later he would find out everything.
He'd had this conversation in his mind plenty of times in the last three weeks, trying to predict his son's reaction.
He didn't expect laughter. Loud, unhinged, with an edge that sent shivers up his spine. Lionel turned around and stared, unsure of what to do or say next.
The laughter stopped as suddenly as it started. Lex looked up. His eyes retained the edge from the laugh, sharp, and crazed enough to cut even through Lionel's thick defenses.
It caused Lionel to wonder what had happened exactly to his son in the three weeks he'd been missing.
He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Guilt was something he refused to feel but...
He still didn't want to know.
Lex uncurled from the doorway and took a couple of steps into the office. "That's rich, dad." He strolled to the bar and inspected the full tumbler Lionel abandoned earlier. With an almost invisible shrug, he took a clean one and splashed some liquor into it.
"It's astounding how much introspection an individual might accomplish when forced into an entire week of complete isolation. I had some great strategies laid out." Lex chuckled wistfully. "Fortunately for you, I went after the surviving pilot first." Lex turned around, leaned against the bar and looked at Lionel. "Though I don't believe 'surviving' still applies." The statement was added in a slightly distracted tone. An unimportant afterthought.
Lionel swallowed, trying to keep the sudden, unexpected flare of fear from showing. "You knew."
Lex didn't seem to notice. "He was very forthcoming with information. After some motivation, of course." Shark's grin that looked perfectly in place on his son's lips. "Of course I knew. You're still alive." Sudden change back to the same casual, almost friendly manner, and if Lionel didn't know his son this well, he'd think that Lex was kidding. As it is, he found himself incapable of moving. Lex toasted him with the glass. "He told me what and when and how. The amount he charged Helen for the information. The minor but fascinating fact that my wife didn't even bother trying to buy my life as well." Something very dangerous flickered in his eyes; something Lex didn't bother hiding. "What he couldn't tell me was why. So what did she have on you, dad?"
Lionel hesitated. "You might not be aware of it, but Dr. Bryce's previous relationship was with Dr. Johansen. He is one of the head scientists on the cloning project. She managed to gather some incriminating evidence. But she was smart enough to keep her mouth shut until she found some protection." He hoped that Lex would leave it at that, though he doubted it would be the case.
Lex nodded in understanding. "Meaning me. She knew when she got involved with me that if something happened, I'd investigate." Lex arched his brows and took a small sip, licking his lips with appreciation. "Mmm...good year. The hundred grand was a pay-off, not an attempt to bribe. Can't say I'm overly surprised. So why go through all the trouble? Why not just hire some maniac to kill her?"
"I tried. The imbecile didn't succeed."
Lex chuckled. "Paul. You should have tried someone less sociopathic and with more brains."
Lionel shook his head. "I couldn't afford to make it anything but an accident. In case of a failure, I couldn't let her find out it came from me."
"She would've exposed you. Still, it doesn't exactly answer my question. Why not just kill her in Smallville? Or during one of her trips to Metropolis?"
"She arranged it so that in case of her death, you would receive the information. I had to make sure you were unreachable when she died."
He could feel Lex's intense gaze on him. "I already knew about the cloning. What aren't you telling me, dad? No, wait. Don't tell me." Obviously false seriousness. "You have little clones of me running around. Just in case I don't make it out of one of my wonderful adventures. Like a plane crash."
Lionel smiled, unrepentant. "I do have your DNA on file." Lex's grin looked completely unsurprised. "But no."
"Why didn't you use it?" Lionel didn't miss the faint display of vulnerability, when Lex's gaze flickered away before he asked the question.
"I knew you weren't dead." He wasn't sure what Lex would read in that statement, but the cynical chuckle didn't shock him.
"Very well, now I'm intrigued. Who could it be then? The President? No, you decided to bring back Albert Einstein? Give Mother Theresa back to humanity? Or maybe just make a backup copy of yourself?" Sarcasm thick enough to cut.
For the first time in his life, Lionel was unable to look at his son. Crystal slid out of suddenly clumsy fingers, and Lionel watched as the tumbler bounced softly off the rug; the amber liquid staining the ivory-colored wool. The sharp scent of alcohol, that Lionel typically found invigorating, now made him feel slightly nauseated.
Lionel gazed up, slowly. Lex was deadly pale and staring at him.
"You will kill the project. Or I will kill you." Quiet. Flat. Absolutely nothing but steel in Lex's voice. And Lionel had to push aside the abrupt, inappropriate flash of pride.
Lionel had no doubt that Lex meant it.
"It's already closed."
Without breaking eye contact, Lex took a few slow steps closer to him.
"I am not kidding, dad." Lex looked taut and tense and about as harmless as a cobra about to strike. "If I find out-and I will find out-that you continued even one tiny nuance of that experiment, what I'm doing to Helen will look like a fucking walk in the park compared to what I'll do to you." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I've warned you before, you have no idea what I'm capable of. Don't make me prove it to you."
It took everything he had, but Lionel forced himself to bow his head. Just a fraction of an inch, and no one but Lex would've noticed that unimaginable sign of submission.
Their war was not over; but Lionel had admitted his defeat in this battle.
Or at least allowed Lex to think so.
"I take it you know where Helen is then?" Lionel managed to ask with detached interest, but he knew that Lex wasn't fooled.
Lex's shoulders visibly relaxed. His gaze stayed sharp and inspecting, but Lionel could see that they had reached their own, Luthor version of peace. He was not forgiven-Lionel wasn't stupid enough to believe that-but most likely given the benefit of the doubt. For now it was enough.
"Helen and I are playing a little game of cat and mouse. She runs. I stay far enough away to give her hope, but close enough for her to feel my breath on her neck." Another cold and cutting smile. "Don't worry about her, dad. My memories of Dante are slightly hazy, but, if I remember correctly, her reservation at Level Nine will keep a little bit longer."
"How did you find her? My men have been looking for her since day one."
Lex returned back to the bar and poured two drinks. When Lex walked over and offered Lionel one, he took it unflinchingly.
"I know. Call them off." Lex sauntered to one of the leather chairs, settling in it comfortably. "Helen's family owned a ch'teau in France. She didn't think I knew about it and tried to hide away there." He shrugged with a charming smile. "As I said before, she is not the most challenging advisory. I was almost disappointed at how easy it was to find her." His grin widened, looking slightly wistful, yet predatory. "I had to make the hunt more creative to make up for it."
Lionel took the chair across from Lex and they sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying their drinks.
Lionel had to fight to keep his hands from shaking because it was hitting him more and more with each passing second.
His son was alive.
He had to break the silence while he was still capable of keeping his emotions in check.
"Will you be staying in Metropolis?"
Lex blinked, breaking his stare away from the window. "Yes. For a few days." He glanced at his watch. "I have another meeting in an hour." He rose and started toward the door. His hand on the knob, he turned around. "Did you find the information Helen prepared for me?"
The request seemed sudden but Lionel knew a test when he heard one. He taught the boy, after all. He made his way toward the safe, omitting his empty tumbler on the desk on the way. Opening it, he found a thick, blue folder. He walked to where his son was standing and offered it to him.
Lionel waited until Lex took some random document out before speaking. "I found a lot more than this in the mansion." Lex looked up, squinting with suspicion. "I have to say, I'm impressed, son. All this time, I believed that you had simple family envy toward the Kents. I had never considered the possibility that they were research subjects."
He didn't miss the flair of annoyance on Lex's face. "Don't push it, dad. What I said about the Kents still stands. They're mine." Lex placed the papers back into the folder and waved it in the air. "It would be terrible if this file got into the wrong hands, wouldn't it? Have a good night."
Lionel waited until Lex opened the door before speaking. "Son. It really is great having you back."
Lex paused but didn't turn around. "That remains to be seen." Lionel watched the door close after Lex and smiled.
His son was alive.
He had also become more dangerous.
Lex had learned too much today because Lionel needed him and was forced to reveal the information.
But Lionel had a few cards up his sleeves.
He told Lex that his previous cloning project was closed.
He didn't tell him that the reason for that was because he had a much better test subject now.
He made a mental note to make sure that no loose ends remained that could lead Lex to the present location of the Kent boy.
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