Tertium Quid

by RivkaT

Lana comes to the castle on a Friday night early in her senior year. The IRS has been auditing the Talon (Lionel Luthor's doing, according to Lex), and she has paperwork for Lex to sign.

She uses the key Lex gave her, because the servants have retired for the night. The music from Lex's office is loud. It's not until she's just outside the door that she can hear, underneath it, the sound of shattering glass.

Hesitantly, she pushes the door open and steps in.

The office is a shambles. The jagged remains of a crystal decanter and some number of highball glasses lie to one side in a puddle of liquid, while Lex's laptop flickers, canted against the other wall.

Lex's back is to her as he pushes a pile of papers onto the floor. Some float and begin to settle down as he turns, searching for something else to break, and sees her.

"Hello, Lana," he says with a casual smile, and smashes a vase to the floor.

She backs away involuntarily.

"Is something wrong?"

Lana thinks he must be kidding, but she often thinks that Lex is joking in some way she doesn't understand.

Lex steps over to the pool table and picks up a cue, snapping it in two and tossing the pieces aside.

She flinches.

"What's the matter?" he prompts.

He is joking. She's sure of it. Should she ask what's wrong? She's afraid of the answer. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she says instead, her voice barely audible under the pounding of the music. The singer is screeching like his skin's being flayed from his body.

"Do what?" he says, picking up a striped purple ball and pitching it across the room to dent the wall.

"Break things," she says, her voice even smaller.

"Why?" He picks up the eight ball, tossing it up and catching it again. "Are you afraid I'll hurt you?"

Lana remembers that Ann Landers says that a man who breaks things in front of you will hit you, or at least wants to control you through fear he'll hit you. She frowns. "I -"

The ball comes hurtling towards her. All she can do is gape as it whooshes by her left ear, close enough that strands of her hair rise in the wind of its passing. It smashes against the wall behind her as she recovers enough to cringe.

She should turn, she should run, she thinks as four more balls follow, over her head, over her right shoulder, inches from her left elbow, again on the right. But if she runs, he might accidentally hit her. It's like being the knife thrower's assistant, only she didn't volunteer.

He pauses, another ball in his hand, and stares at her like she's something he found on his shoe. She's shaking. She can almost feel how a ball would break her nose or smash her chin.

Lex crosses the distance between them, never breaking eye contact.

"You're a good girl, aren't you, Lana?" he asks, leaning so that he's speaking into her ear.

She feels like there's a tornado in the room and she's watching the funnel approach her. If she's small and inoffensive enough, maybe he won't do anything bad to her. "You seem really upset, Lex. Is there anything I can do?"

She's really proud that she's not crying, even though her voice does tremble.

He smiles again and tosses the ball he's holding to one side. There's a crash and the music shuts off. She wants to look over, but doesn't.

"Do you know, I do believe there is."

When his hands come up to grasp her shoulders, she can't be surprised, though she didn't anticipate it. His hands are hot, burning through her thin cotton sweater .

His mouth is much hotter.

Lana remembers the poetry he's recited to her over the years, words of love and longing from one poet or another. She's never been sure why he does it, but she likes it.

She opens her mouth and kisses him back.

She lets him unbutton her sweater, push her to the carpet, unhook her bra. His fingers know things about her body that she hasn't figured out with eighteen years of practice. She tries to keep quiet, afraid that he'll laugh or stop, but she can't suppress all her little cries. Her skirt and panties come off with a few economical motions. When he sucks on her neck and slides two fingers inside her, she throws her head back against the expensive, smoky-smelling carpet and comes so hard that she feels broken.

He pulls away for a minute, and then he's back. Lex is nothing like Whitney, entering her fast and hard and completely unconcerned. It's been a long time, and it hurts almost as much as it did the first time, but the pain fades quickly with his hands roving over her breasts, down her stomach, between her legs. He's like fire, burning through her body.

Lana has her eyes closed through her second orgasm, and through his. Only a surreptitious glance lets her know that Lex was wearing a condom; she sees him dispose of it in a trashcan that he first has to turn upright. He doesn't move towards her again, and she woozily starts to gather her clothes. After she's dressed and he's refastened his pants, he offers her a hand up off the floor. He smiles at her, close-mouthed, and doesn't speak, so she doesn't.

When she leaves, she still doesn't know what he was so upset about.

She drives home in a daze. There's a part of her that always feels like it's bleeding. If she doesn't keep smiling, keep working hard and being good, she fears the blood will start to spill out of her where everyone can see. No one can know that she's got these stigmata inside, or they'll see that she's a freak and hate her. Lana knows all about how people will turn on their idols if they see a crack or a dirty smudge of blood.

Lex's touch burned. It cauterized. She can already feel the burnt parts starting to crack and seep blood again, but she thinks maybe if he did it again it would last longer.

When he sees her the next afternoon, stopping by the Talon for a drink and to drop off her signed papers, Lex tells her to call a number he gives her. She does and learns that she has an appointment with a doctor on the other side of town. The doctor, a young woman with severely short brown hair, gives her a shot of Depo-Provera and a list of warnings. All Lana can think is that this means Lex will want her again. She is a bit distracted for days, until Lex suggests that she bring the week's receipts to the castle and she becomes nearly nonfunctional with anticipation.

He leaves a bite on her shoulder and nail marks down her back; she has to buy a terrycloth robe so that Chloe won't see her coming out of the shower and wonder.

Their encounters become less than a pattern and more than a habit. He takes her in his office, in his bedroom, in his cars, in the Talon up against the wall, once in the Torch when he drops by school with some urgent message for Clark. One night she wakes to find him in her bed, one hand over her mouth as his other does something it shouldn't somewhere it shouldn't be. She gets her knees dirty in the men's room of the Pancake House and loses a button in the Kents' barn one time they're both looking for Clark.

"You know, you can tell me anything," Chloe says once, looking at Lana with a concern that has been in her eyes for weeks. "If there's something going on, I'm here for you."

"I know that, Chloe," she says, smiling affectionately, and gives her a hug. Chloe isn't quite satisfied, but she backs off.

When the time comes, she gets another birth-control shot.

At the Christmas party at the Castle, Lex has one dance with her. Bodies held a foot apart, they drift below a sprig of mistletoe. He looks up, smiles, and kisses her high on her cheek before leaving to encourage Clark to ask her for the next dance.

She huddles under Lex's desk while he uses the speakerphone to talk soft and threatening to various business partners. He doesn't need to hit the mute button when he comes in her mouth. When he fucks her in the morning, before he takes his large coffee and drives to the plant, she can often taste alcohol in his mouth.

Lana is careful to let him initiate, never to ask or use any of the words he whispers to her while he moves in and out of her body. She doesn't try not to blush when he orders her to move a certain way or to let him bind her. As long as her innocence isn't used up, Lex will still want her. She's grateful that his need for control and secrecy seem to mean that he won't bring other people into it. She knows she'd let anyone, even Mr. Sullivan, have her if Lex wanted to watch.

Ever since the Christmas party, Clark has been staring at her longingly again, and Lex begins to drop hints about Clark's resurgent interest. Her feelings for Clark are smooth, regular, like scar tissue instead of living skin. She lost her sense of possibility where he was concerned even before things began with Lex.

But Lex has been dropping hints, and one Friday night in February after she closes up the Talon she lets Clark kiss her. They kiss and kiss - Clark dares not do anything more than kiss, and once brush her hair back and cup her head in one large hand - until Lana pulls back and says she has to go home.

She doesn't see either of them over the weekend. On Saturday, Chloe tells her that Clark investigated an abandoned building on the edge of town and found a body there. The resulting mystery involves both Clark and Lex through the next day. It's not until Monday night that Lex calls and asks her to stop by the castle.

They go up to his bedroom as soon as she arrives.

After, when they're lying naked on the bed, Lex props himself up on one elbow. "Clark said the two of you might be moving past friendship."

Lana doesn't say anything. She doesn't know what he wants.

"So what, exactly, happened?" His tone is teasing, but underneath she can hear the tone he uses on people he's about to hurt.

It doesn't make sense. Clark will have told him everything, place and time and approximate percentage of kisses with tongue.

The knowledge of what he's asking for comes suddenly, as does the idea of how best to go about it. She feels like Newton after the apple hit him, full of sudden insights about Lex that she'll examine later.

Lana rolls over and pulls her clothes off of the floor. Lex makes a noise, but she looks at him and he shuts up. She sits on the bed, fastening her bra, scooting into her panties and skirt, rebuttoning her shirt. Bemused, Lex follows her lead, even putting his shoes back on.

When she looks at him invitingly, he sits on the side of the bed next to her.

She turns her head, gazing up at him, her lips parted, waiting.

At last he leans in, hesitant, and brushes his lips across hers. She closes her eyes and kisses him back. Kisses like earlier kisses with Whitney on the porch where Nell could see them, chaste moist kisses that slide into deeper kisses one slow degree at a time. When he reaches for her shoulder, she takes his hand and moves it to her hair. A tiny sound escapes him, but he keeps kissing her. His fingers slide through strands of her hair, ghosting along her scalp.

She pulls back, breaking the kiss, and stands. "I have to go home," she says, breathless. She does not look at his face.

Before she's taken two steps away, Lex throws her back on the bed. He rips her panties off - she didn't know that actually happened; she'll have red marks for days - and fucks her harder than he ever has. She cries out, grinding against him, and digs her nails into the back of his shirt with such force that two of them break.

Her orgasm seems to last for an hour.

After that, sessions with Clark are almost intolerably arousing, knowing what's going to happen after Clark tells Lex. She feels special, magical. She knows now that Lex fills the air around him with fire because he is absolute zero, a nuclear reactor generating heat he can't keep for himself. Fire, ice, they're the same in the end; nothing can warm him and either will overwhelm her senses, keep her writhing underneath him.

There's an inherent difficulty with the arrangement, though: while Clark is eternally patient, Lex is not. He wants progress. It's like a striptease, she thinks, going a little bit further every time.

Clark talks about Lex a lot. Sometimes he slips up and calls Pete his best friend, but it's habit. He's always turning over some new tidbit of information Lex taught him, like a blue jay collecting shiny things for its nest. Clark doesn't need her to do much more than nod, yes, very interesting, yes, he is smart and generous and even nosier than you think. Yes, he surely does date glamorous women and yes, it's a pity it always goes so wrong. Yes, there's got to be someone out there who's just right for him, maybe just around the corner (maybe sitting beside you on the porch), but until then he's got to keep Lex company. Lana is so understanding that her teeth hurt. At least she no longer expects Clark to keep appointments; she sees him when she sees him and she sees Lex when she doesn't. She sees Lex when she closes her eyes and lets Clark do what he wants.

She teaches Clark how to touch her, things she learned from Lex. Then she feeds them back to Lex, who somehow matches Clark's tremulousness exactly. She doesn't teach Clark everything Lex does, of course. Clark would never ask how she knew certain tricks, but serious perversity might still make him suspicious.

The day she gives Lex the kind of sloppy, half-hearted blow job she used to give back in the beginning, he's happier than she's ever seen him. He takes her into a locked room full of complicated equipment, meteor rocks, and blue light, and fucks her for nearly an hour, bent over a table that faces a blown-up version of Clark's driver's license picture. All the next day, she can't sit down any more than she can stop smiling, even when Chloe asks.

Really, it's more like being Shahrazad than performing a striptease. She knows that when she's told the last story with her body, everything will change. It won't go well for her, nor for Clark.

Lana is sorry about that. She loves Clark as a friend, as a savior. He doesn't deserve what's going to happen. There's nothing she can do. Lex has a plan for her, and she doesn't have an alternative to it. She burns for him and his cool blue world. The promise of the fire is that nothing will ever be worse, that the scars will be her insulation because her skin isn't good enough any more.

She thinks that what will probably happen is that Lex will arrange for them to be Found Out, and Clark will suffer terribly from the double betrayal.

That's not exactly how it happens.

It's the night before graduation. They're up in Clark's barn. Clark is more aggressive than usual, his hands roving and squeezing without asking permission. Lana thinks he's afraid that he'll lose her once he goes off to Met U.

When she asks, "Do you want to ...?" he looks at her with intense, wet-eyed gratitude, and fumbles for a condom that he's probably carried around for the two years since Pete gave it to him as a joke.

Clark spends a long time getting her ready. She moans out loud again and again, glad that Mr. and Mrs. Kent have graciously gone to visit relatives to give Clark some privacy.

The act itself is sweet, tender. She feels an immense surge of protectiveness for him as he looms above her, straining not to hurt her.

When it's over, she surprises herself by crying. Clark is half insane with worry; she soothes him as best she can, saying truthfully that she's not hurt. It's just that it's really hit her that everything is about to end. It turns out that there's a difference between knowing that intellectually and feeling it in her bones, between her legs.

The tears pass, and she's lying in his arms, half asleep.

"I have to tell you something," he says. She blinks up at him, shadowy and almost faceless with only faint moonlight and stars to illuminate him.

Then he tells her everything.

He hasn't finished speaking when Lana realizes what this means. If Lex asks her what Clark's secret is, she'll tell him. He hasn't asked yet, but he'll know how vulnerable Clark would be right after losing his virginity and he might well demand to hear the conversation.

She sees Clark, spread out and slit open like a frog from biology class. Bolting upright, she grabs her dress and pulls it on, not bothering to zip it up, and hurries down the stairs, making it outside just in time to vomit up her last three meals.

She's hanging on to the side of the barn when Clark approaches.

"Lana?" he asks, and the pain in his voice is terrible to hear.

"It's not what you think," she says, wiping her mouth, unable to look at him. "Clark - you have to believe me."

"Then what is it?" His voice is bitter. He thinks he's going to be lied to, the way he's lied to her for years.

She squares her shoulders and looks at him. His shirt is flapping loose around his chest and his jeans are only half done up. Lex, she thinks, would kill for this.

"You can't ever tell Lex. Ever," she says.

"What?" Now he's confused. She can see how it might seem like a non sequitur.

"You have to stay away from him," she insists. "He's -"

Clark tells Lex everything. No, not everything, she mentally corrects herself, on the verge of laughter as much as tears. But everything that happens with her.

"I'm sorry," she says and laughs unsteadily. "I'm just so afraid for you. If anybody, anybody at all, found out, I'm afraid they'd try to - use you. Hurt you."

Clark nods seriously. "Don't worry," he says, reaching out to her. Lana lets herself be drawn against his body, pressing her head against his still-sweaty chest. "I'm careful. Lex is a great guy, but I'm not ready to tell him yet."

Her laugh turns into a hiccup, and she swallows hard before she breaks down entirely.

"But I trust -"

She stops him with a hand over his mouth before he can say anything that will destroy her and flees as soon as he stops frowning.

Graduation day scrolls by around Lana while she feels fixed in place. People attribute her distraction to the fact that her friends are leaving for college while she is committed to Smallville.

Clark keeps shooting worried glances at her. She smiles, and lets him kiss her after they've both had their pictures taken with their caps and gowns. She rolls her diploma between sweaty hands. Nell says she's so proud of Lana.

Breaking Clark's heart is one thing. That's only a feeling. It's not literal.

Lana has always known that death is hovering over her shoulder, waiting to take more people she loves. Maybe she'd hoped it would pick Lex, maybe that's why she let herself do those things with him. Now death is counting eeny-meeny-miney-moe, catch a tiger by the toe. It's not done choosing yet, but it will be soon.

Clark has always been there to protect her, except for when she refused protection and accepted Lex. Lana has to do the same for him.

She could leave, hide in some big city. Lex would find her, though. She only has two skills of note - she can run a coffee shop and deep throat - and Lex taught them both to her.

Her mind is like a bird in a cage, dashing itself against the bars. She could take Mr. Kent's shotgun - but Lex would see it. Especially now, when they both know that the end is near, he'll be alert for any sudden false moves on her part. He has to understand, after all, that she is desperate for him. Even without that, Lex's exes aren't exactly famous for going quietly.

It is hard for Lana to believe that she is plotting Lex's death. At least she has a perfectly plausible explanation that doesn't involve Clark. Lex could drive anyone mad with jealousy, hatred or desire.

When she gets out of bed at two am that night and researches on Chloe's computer, she doesn't bother to erase the cache even though Chloe showed her how. This isn't something she plans to get away with.

There's a container of antifreeze in the garage, on a shelf with other automotive supplies. Lana pours it into an insulated thermos and thanks her good fortune that Lex takes his coffee with a lot of sugar.

The Talon has an old coffee pot that barely works, kept around in case of an emergency with the newer and better equipment. She makes the coffee with antifreeze instead of water - it smells okay, though she doesn't dare taste it - and has it waiting for Lex, who suggests that she drop by the mansion after he's done working. When he's gone, she throws the pot into the dumpster. Then she worries about someone finding an apparently working coffee pot and taking it home, so she climbs in, pulls it out, and smashes it to pieces.

Actually, she keeps smashing long after it's clearly unnecessary.

Lana waits all day. She waits for the police, or Clark, or anyone to rush in and tell her the big news about Smallville's savior. Instead, classmates come by for a last goodbye, regular customers buy coffee and pastry, and one of the waitresses breaks an entire tray full of mugs.

By the time the Talon empties, she's as nervous as a girl in a slasher movie, jumping at every stray sound, even the clunks of the dishwasher as it cycles through the last load of the night. She'll have to go home soon, or else Chloe and Mr. Sullivan will worry.

Before Clark broke her world open, she'd been thinking that she'd move in above the Talon, saving money on rent, and learn what it was like to live on her own. The thought that she's likely to have a roommate or two in the near future makes her smile in a way that hurts her face.

There's a knock at the door.

Lana takes a deep breath and goes to meet her fate.

It's Lex. She stares at him, mouth open like a fish, until he knocks again, smirking at her.

Her hands shake, and she has to try twice to get the security lock undone.

Lex steps in, forcing her back, and they move like that until she's nearly up against the counter. The door is still open, she sees over his shoulder, but that doesn't reassure her at all.

"Lex," she says and, hearing her own tremulousness, knows it was a mistake.

His hand strikes out like a snake, closing hard on her upper arm. She moves back involuntarily, but it doesn't help.

"Did you know that I was in Smallville during the meteor shower?" he asks, not relaxing his grip on her.

She shakes her head.

"I lost my hair the day you lost your parents. But another thing that happened to me was that I became very, very healthy. Almost invulnerable, you might say. So imagine my surprise when I began puking my guts out nearly as soon as I got to the plant this morning."

Lana shudders, which makes Lex smile.

"You've been a very bad girl," he says, almost indulgently.

"Lex, I -"

"Shh," he says and releases her. "Clark used to watch you through the telescope in his barn, you know."

She blinks. Clark did what?

"Meaning that there's a direct line of sight between your room in Nell's old house and the window in the barn. Do you know what a directional microphone is, Lana?"

He guides her to a seat before she collapses. Her mind is empty of any idea what to do next. Other than, probably, die. She's going to go like her parents, Whitney, Emily, everyone else. Uselessly, worthlessly. God doesn't like her; whether He has some unknowable reason or rolled heavenly dice makes no difference. She set herself on fire for Clark, just so she'd do something once, and no one saw the light.

Lex squats down beside her, looking completely comfortable. "So the question arises: Whatever am I going to do with you?"

She's trembling with a treble dose of the fear and arousal she always feels around him. "Finish it," she says without thinking.

His eyes widen. He thinks for a moment, then smiles. "You're much more interesting than I thought at first. Clark has no idea, does he."

He's not asking her.

So she stands and leads him over to the couch. "Do you want to ...?" she asks, and it begins.

Lex has even brought a condom. He takes a long time with her, almost as if it's on his own account and not just responding to Clark's cues. She's still shuddering, Lex mostly on top of her and showing no inclination to move, his hand moving idly through her hair, when she hears the chimes of the front door.


It's not supposed to be Chloe who checks up on Lana late at night and finds them. Lex looks nearly as befuddled as she is as they both grab for their clothes, neither of them bothering with underwear.

Chloe, having looked behind the counter and peeked into the kitchen, turns and sees them. Her eyes go anime-huge, the whites visible all the way around.

"Hello, Ms. Sullivan," Lex says, sounding as if he's ready to give an interview even though his face is still moving through various expressions of surprise and disquiet. Lana looks at the floor, buttoning one more button at her throat.

Chloe laughs, loud and unsteady. She laughs for a while, Lex looking at her expectantly now that his expression is under control.

"This," she says, "is fabulous. Here I thought I was the big betrayer, reporting to Lionel Luthor, but I didn't know anything, did I?"

Lex's eyes flicker with interest. "What was the nature of your reporting?"

She ignores him, focusing on Lana. "I mean, if he's anything like his father, it's not like I blame you or anything."

They both watch Lana as her face flames with humiliation. "Any time you'd care to make the comparison, Ms. Sullivan, my door is always open," Lex murmurs and now she really wants to kill him, regardless of what he knows.

Chloe, despite her smirk at Lex's aside, is just getting started with her rant. "What next? Is Pete secretly collecting information for the Department of Homeland Security? Is Mrs. Kent about to give an exclusive to the Inquisitor? 'I Mothered a Meteor Mutant,'" she mock-quotes and snorts at her own humor.

"Shut up!" Lana finds herself yelling. "Just shut up!"

Chloe moves back, pretending to be scared. "Ooh, the princess has claws. We're in trouble now."

Lana's fists are clenched and she has rarely wanted to use Lex's self-defense training more. Chloe had never accepted that Clark didn't love her, no matter how many times she swore she had - and this is all stupid, irrelevant when the issue is Clark's survival, not who he goes to bed with.

Finish it, a dispassionate voice in her head says again.

"Fine," she says and stalks over to the phone behind the counter. Mrs. Kent answers on the third ring. "I'm sorry to be calling so late," she says, and watches the surprise grow on the others' faces. "But can you ask Clark to come to the Talon? Chloe and I have something to tell him."

Lex looks offended to have been left out, but he can deal with it. She only mentioned Chloe so that Clark wouldn't run too fast.

Lana spends the time waiting by making too-strong coffee. Lex and Chloe whisper in the corner, on the couch where she and Lex just had sex, until Lex comes over and fills a mug with her coffee. He pours in at least an ounce of sugar, stirs it, and lifts the mug in her direction. "L'chaim," he says, some incomprehensible Lex toast, and drinks. She looks away.

Clark arrives smiling and pink-cheeked. His face flashes with curiousity when he sees Lex, standing between Lana and Chloe like some poisoned no-man's land. "Hi, guys. What's going on?"

"Yes, Lana," Lex drawls. "We're all wondering why you've called us here today."

If it wouldn't be too much trouble, she'd slap him. "Clark. Lex has been listening in on you. He hears the things you say in the barn."

There. She's beginning to feel the weight of her concerns dropping away. Her own misdeeds (it wasn't infidelity, she thinks, because Lex wanted it and she wasn't really with Clark, but she knows that's only one point of view) are less important. Clark probably won't even have time to think about her while he's dealing with Lex.

Clark's eyes light up with fear. He turns away from her. "Lex?" he asks plaintively, and it's obvious that he wants a denial. Lana even thinks he might choose to believe it. She understands the motivation.

"What Lana has omitted is the means by which she discovered my little intelligence operation," Lex says instead, and Clark takes it like a punch to a gut.

No, she thinks and nearly loses it again, Clark takes it like a human would take a punch to the gut.

Chloe is watching avidly. Lana wonders what, exactly, she thinks her expiration date is if she learns much more while Lex is in the room.

"Lex, how could you," Clark says, not yet furious, still hurt.

Lex shrugs. "It was easy enough. Easy as your lies, Clark. Easy as convincing Lana here to spread her legs for me - well, no, that might have been easier."

Now Clark's gaze bounces back to her. She nods calmly.

Clark falls apart. It's nothing physical; he doesn't even stagger back. Something in his face changes, buckles, dies out.

Then his rage begins to rise.

Lana sees Lex's wisdom in not getting rid of Chloe yet. If Clark maintains even a shred of self-control, he can't do anything more than human in front of her. Tomorrow, Lana guesses, Lex will have himself a meteor rock bodyguard. For all she knows, he has it stashed nearby already.

But Clark's anger is directed at Lana. As she watches his face shift from white to red and back again, she thinks that Lex lacked sufficient self-confidence. There is nothing Clark cannot forgive Lex, as long as he has somewhere else to put his fury.

If Clark hurts her (kills her), he'll become Lex's creature, tamed and guided and soothed by the only man he's ever met with the strength of will he needs, because he'll give up on developing that will for himself. If Clark becomes Lex's creature, he will probably survive Lex.

It turns out that Lana doesn't give a damn about what that will mean for the rest of the world. She's a citizen of Smallville, not the world.

She steps forward until she's half a foot from Clark. Clark is breathing hard, his nose flaring as he attempts and fails to control his anger.

When she tugs at his hand, he doesn't resist. She brings it to her throat. "Whatever you do," she whispers - this is just for him, even if she's stuck with witnesses - "stop lying to yourself." Clark never did take her down from that pedestal, him and the rest of the town with their pity and their china-doll caution, never letting her be a person, never letting her be anything but beautifully grieved. She'd been telling him otherwise for years, but Clark never listens unless he already agrees. She realizes that she hates him for that, just a little.

He's shaking with anger. She feels his fingers tighten fractionally, then relax. Another time. Once more. Again. She'll have bruises for sure. If she's not dead.

At last, Clark rips his hand away, panting, and spins away from her. "I can't -" he says.

She hears him start to cry as she walks up to Chloe and grabs her arm. "Come on," she says.

Lex is looking at her with raw admiration. What he doesn't get is that Lana has always known how to lose, and when you study that sort of thing with enough dedication, you tend to forget how to keep. She is a genius of losing; her love is loss. She is strong enough to bleed and bleed and still survive, but neither Lex nor Clark can match that strength. Let them hang together, or hang separately. She's done. She is charcoal at the center and ash at the edges.

Lana hustles Chloe, who is still stunned by her apparent death wish, out of the Talon and drives them back home. Chloe has a reckoning of her own coming, and whether it will be tallied by Lex or by Lex and Clark together Lana is sure the payment will be unpleasant. Chloe starts to talk several times, but Lana just ignores her.

The next day, Lana starts moving her things to the old storage room at the top of the Talon's building. She still isn't talking to Chloe, who is increasingly desperate for a forgiveness that's not within Lana's power to grant.

She doesn't see Lex for over a week. She doesn't even think about trying to see Clark.

When Lex comes into the Talon, he does so uncertainly, as if she might kick him out. She considers it, but that seems needlessly arrogant. Theatrical, like Lex is theatrical and Lana is not. She pours him coffee, plenty of sugar, and he smiles at her when he takes it.

"Hello," he says at last, because he's still impatient.


"I think that's my smug smile you're wearing."

It wouldn't be the only thing of yours I've had, she thinks and sees the same thought spark in his sky-bright eyes. Again, he's reluctantly respectful, and waits for her to answer. "How's Clark?" she asks.

Lex grins, back on territory of which he deems himself the master. "Still a little shocky, but he'll be fine. You should go see him before we leave for Metropolis."

She expected as much. Even the Ledger says it would make sense for Lex to go back to the city, and now the one thing the financial reporters don't know is about to change.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Like what?" She's really not sure what he means, but also she deserves to tease.

"Like you're the one who wins here." Lex is finally looking at her as if she were a puzzle worth solving. Funny, how it's only after - because - she doesn't care any more.

"Because I am," she says, hearing victory in her voice like honey. "I found out that there's nothing I can't stand to lose. You'll never be like that. You'll never be able to give him up, and you'll spend the rest of your life making sure he doesn't find that out. My life is going to be easy. It doesn't have to hurt any more."

Lex stares at her and, after a long unblinking pause, shakes his head. "Lana Lang, Zen Machiavellian. You should definitely visit Metropolis. Not soon, but someday."

She shrugs and pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. "Maybe I will."

The twisted little smile he gives her as he takes his coffee and turns to go reminds her of the taste of the air right before a heat wave breaks into a thunderstorm. It feels like change.

It feels like freedom.


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