by Aelita

To Caro for the wonderful beta. (Changes have been made, all remaining mistakes are mine) To Aelora and Sarah for the title (even if they weren't aware that they helped). To all of you on my flist, who reads and comments and gives me more support than I deserve.
AN: This was written after <I>Slumber</i>, but it probably works after <i>Perry</i> even better.

The library is quiet and dark, and smells so much like dust that Clark has to fight the urge to sneeze every five minutes. It's also intensely peaceful and inert, making him reluctant to leave, to go back to the confusing whirlwind of the real world. The routine of school/chores/sleep is more comforting than he'd ever thought, but it's not enough.

It's nice being back home. His mom is very good at pretending that everything is fine. Almost enough for him to ignore the new lines around her eyes and how her smiles look just a little bit forced. He believes her when she says that she had never blamed him. But the loss took a lot out of her, and him running off only made it worse. She may not blame him but he does enough for both of them.

His dad is trying very hard to erase the words that had haunted them both for three months. Too hard, probably, but it's Clark's guilty pleasure, knowing that his parents love him that much. So he does the selfish thing and accepts it, gathers strength from it to just keep going.

He loves Smallville, and there are moments of longing for times when everything was simpler. When Lana was the epitome of happiness, and the rest of the world looked shiny but had little significance. His childhood dreams do little for him now, except bringing a nostalgic smile to his face.

Change is never easy, and it's not always for the best. But it's inevitable and wanting to reverse the change, while very human, is pointless. He isn't naive enough to believe that things can ever get back to the way they were before the summer. More importantly, he isn't sure he wants them to; it makes him think he's growing up.

He can still feel Metropolis thrumming in his veins, addictive in its wicked intensity. One of Atlantis' resident junkies once told him that drugs made everything around you brighter, sharper. After you've tried them, living a life clean felt like watching a black and white movie from far away. You could do it, probably, but it's just wasn't worth it.

Clark now understands what he meant. There was certain pleasure in living for himself alone. Not worrying about anything but how he'd waste his evening. But he doesn't crave Red Kryptonite, not really. What he does miss is the sharp taste of excitement of the big city. Metropolis is alive and passionate in all the ways that Smallville isn't. Bright, colorful lights that stubbornly refused to hide the fact that he wasn't the only freak in the city. Deceptively lazy strolls down the dirty alleys that almost always ended in intoxicating, predatory games. Clubs, filled with pounding music and liquid, drugged dancing. Flashy cars. Power over others. He felt almost god-like, able to do anything with no consequences, and it had little to do with the ring.

Metropolis' summon called for him long after he took off the ring, and he can still hear it resonating when he isn't careful.

He certainly understands Lex's early bitterness about being exiled to Smallville better. Even with all the money he stole and threw around, he knew he'd never reached even close to the Lex's status as the city's favorite child, and he can't imagine what it was like for Lex to give it all up.

He thumbs the cheap, old covers of the books on the shelf. Most of them have dog-eared pages and mysterious stains that each have a story of its own. None of the titles catch his attention and he smiles, humorlessly. He didn't really expect to find "How to Heal Your Best Friend From Being Betrayed and Marooned on an Uninhabited Island for Three Months By His Second Wife Less Than a Year After His First Wife Simply Tried to Kill Him With a Shotgun" but a guy should always hope for everything.

Lex used to say that a lot. "A smart man once said, 'hope for everything but expect nothing." It took Clark four months to drag it out of Lex that the 'smart man' in question wasn't some Greek philosopher, but a fictional character on one of the sci-fi shows Lex used to watch.

It pains Clark that Lex doesn't say that anymore. Lex doesn't say a lot of things he used to. He's changed. Probably more than Clark, even if it's less visible. At first glance, he seems only slightly withdrawn and more resolved.

But first glances are deceiving. Lex talks big; he fills the room with his ambition and confidence, and it's easy to miss that before the summer, there was more to him than that. Clark likes to think that he knows Lex better than most people. He pays more attention to him, and he looks for what's missing, but he can't find it. The only thing he sees is that beneath the mask of determination, Lex's eyes are unfocused and a little lost and it's almost as if he isn't in the room, not entirely.

Clark has never been as happy as he was the second he realized that Lex was alive. To paraphrase Lex, three months of fear and feeling like a part of him was torn away was almost worth it to see Lex alive again.

But deep down he misses the old Lex.

Lex, who once called him in the middle of school day because he'd read somewhere that it was possible to melt metals in a microwave, and he needed Clark to buy him some at the local hardware store. He'd blown up his microwave trying to melt silver in it, but he managed to melt solder and make grapes glow. Clark remembers Lex's face and how much younger it looked when Lex was too engrossed to hide his anticipation. He remembers Lex's smile and how it makes his eyes softer and playful, and that Lex bites his lower lip when he's impatient and doesn't care that someone might see him.

This Lex jokes about his bad taste in women and how a man hasn't lived until he's seen his name carved on a tombstone, with a smile that almost looks like a real one. The curve of the lip is right and there is that tiny hint of a laugh line under his left eye. Except Clark has seen Lex's genuine smile and the parody makes his chest hurt.

He wonders what'll happen if he drops by the mansion now, with some solder and silver, saying that he needs help with chemistry. And then he remembers that Lex isn't even at the mansion. Lex is in Metropolis, making nice with his father, and that scares Clark even more. He wants to say he's happy Lex is reconciling with his family, except he is not, because he doesn't understand it. Doesn't understand what Lex is doing, doesn't understand why, but doesn't ask because in his mind he sees the Lex who is so angry with him, he cuts their friendship off with a blade.

Lex is probably in some meeting right now and calling him wouldn't be good. Clark knows it, but he pulls out his new cell and stares at it, wanting to call and... something. Just hear Lex's voice, because moments like this one he needs to hear the proof. That Lex is alive and that he is still Clark's friend.

The sudden ringing startles Clark into almost dropping the cell, but when he sees the number of the caller, he smiles and turns it on eagerly.

"I need cream." The statement is unexpected, to say the least, but Lex's voice is... impatient, anxious, and Lex's. Lex sounds like he does when he wants to play and it's like the best Christmas present ever. Clark knows he is grinning like a fool but doesn't care.

"Hi, Lex, yes, I'm well, thank you for asking. And how are you this fine morning?"

Lex sighs irritatedly into the phone, but Clark can hear the smile underneath and it's ok. "It's late afternoon and I'm terrible. I need cream. Haven't you been listening?"

"Do I want to know?" He doesn't really care, as long as he gets to be there for whatever reason it is.

"Probably no, but you will anyway. As soon as you bring me..." a pause filled with sound of shuffling papers, "...two quarts."

Lex disconnects without saying anything else, and it makes Clark grin wider. Because this is exactly what he was wishing for, and maybe there is someone listening to him after all.

Clark finds Lex in the kitchen. He's pacing in front of the fridge, wearing a white lab coat and holding yellow gloves that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. Which isn't as strange as the fact that on the counter Clark sees eggs, sugar, vanilla and instant coffee. There is also a metal container that Clark eyes warily.

"Clark." There is a hint of a smile on Lex's face, made perfect by the slight teeth indentations on the lower lip.

Clark nods his greeting and then points at the container. "What's that?"

Lex peeks into the bag Clark brought, frowning slightly as he takes the cream out. After a brief glance at the back of the carton, he opens it and pours its contents into a big metal bowl. "Liquid nitrogen."

Clark blinks at the nonchalant answer. Of course. As if there is a kitchen out there that doesn't have at least a couple of cups of liquid nitrogen in it. How silly of him to ask.

"And why do we need liquid nitrogen?"

That earns him an incredulous look. "To make ice cream, of course."

Clark's chemistry knowledge is limited, but he remembers that nitrogen is cold. So putting products into it might help them freeze faster. Which makes some sense. And which is exactly why Clark must be missing something. When it comes to Lex's experiments, complicated is the way to go.

"We're going to use it instead of ice?"

Lex stops measuring sugar, and the look he gives Clark sends a clear signal of what he thinks about Smallville High chemistry department. "Nitrogen will turn to gas at this temperatures before the ingredients freeze properly. We need to mix it into the mixture."

"You're making nitrogen flavored ice cream for desert? Is your father visiting?" Oh, crap. Less than five minutes in the mansion and his mouth is already getting him in trouble.

Lex sets the metal spoon aside and looks at Clark, with something that's too much of an apology. Lex isn't the one who is supposed to be apologizing. Clark opens his mouth to say that but isn't really sure how to, and Lex beats him to it.

"Clark, I know you aren't exactly ecstatic about my sudden reunion with my father."

"I am fine with it as long as it's what you want." Right words, but he could never lie well to Lex.

"No, you're not." Lex leans against the dark marble, and he isn't trying to hide the bitter resignation.


"Clark, don't tell me something just because you think I want to hear it. Just... don't. I've had enough lies, white or otherwise, to last a few lifetimes." There is an edge of anger in his voice that makes Clark recoil, and feel very sorry that his big mouth dragged them into this dangerous territory. Lex must see it, because his face softens, and he rubs his forehead, suddenly looking very tired. "It's fine, really. I'm not sure I understand it myself entirely." His eyes grow distant, just the way Clark hates it. But there is nothing he can do except stand there and wait. "Whenever I used to fuck up, my father would swoop in, to fix things if needed, or, if I managed to fix them myself, to just spend some quality time insulting me and explaining how much of a disappointment I am. But the point is... he'd always come, be it an overnight flight to England, five-minute walk to MetU or three-hour drive to Smallville. It took me a while to understand. Wasted and delirious, I wasn't mad at him because I truly believed that he marooned me on that island. I was mad because he didn't come this time."

Lex glances at him, with something that would've looked like vulnerability on anyone else, but on Lex looks like a bleeding wound, because when it comes to Lex, that's what it takes to strip away layers of natural confidence and ingrained control. And Clark thinks about late-night phone calls to his mother and realizes that maybe he does understand better than he thought. There comes a point in every child's life when he stops needing his parents to survive in this strange, confusing world. But he will never stop needing or wanting them in his life. Clark has been so focused on his fear of Lionel's influence on Lex, that he'd forgotten that Lionel had been a constant in Lex's entire life. And Lex had managed to become his own person nevertheless. Maybe all Lex wants is to stop fighting with his father. Or maybe not. But at the end of the day, he will still be Lex. Too stubborn and proud to be forced into any mold, even the gold one carved by his father.

"I've said it before, Lex, I will never understand Luthor family dynamics. But even I understand that."

Lex gives him an enigmatic little smirk, which doesn't tell Clark anything except that Lex isn't mad with him, and puts on the gloves. "You better step back, Clark. I'm about to start adding the liquid in and you don't want it to spill on you. It has an ability to freeze body parts solid."

Clark leans against the fridge, and watches his best friend play mad scientist. Lex's every move is fast, confident and efficient. But it's more than that - Clark doesn't remember many times when Lex wasn't fast, confident and efficient - Lex looks relaxed and there is a ghost of that smile that Clark had missed so much. It's not... enough yet. But it's a step forward.

Lex is also talking. An impromptu lecture on rapid freezing and how it prevents bad ice crystals from forming, leaving you with microcrystalline ice cream that is smooth and light. Come to think of it, Clark probably shouldn't be so amused by it, except Lex is surrounded by clouds of water vapor, like a bad horror movie, and the sparkle in his eyes tells Clark that he knows it. Clark is very impressed that they both manage to avoid the obvious jokes about Frankenstein and Igor.

A few minutes later, they are both standing over the bowl, looking at its contents dubiously.

"Well, it was... fast."

Lex's mouth curls up on one side. "I'm more worried about it killing the cook."

Clark gapes at him. "I thought you said it's safe."

Lex shrugs and cautiously slides a finger into the bowl, scooping up a bit of brown-colored mass. Eyeing it suspiciously, he licks it off before Clark can stop him. Not that he was planning to, because Lex sucking on his finger? Is the stuff fantasies are made off.

"You can stop staring at me, Clark. This ice cream really is safe." A sly grin tells Clark that Lex knows a lot more about why Clark was staring at him than he is letting on. Lex takes out two spoons, and throws one to Clark. "And is actually pretty good."

They eat in companionable quiet, and Clark uses this time to inspect Lex as discreetly as he can.

Lex looks exhausted. There are soft shadows under his eyes, and it's more visible how wired he is, now when he's pretending to be at rest. So much unleashed energy that it can't be natural, not even on Lex. Clark has to wonder when was the last time Lex had some decent sleep, and is almost sorry that he didn't suggest strawberry ice cream instead of coffee.

Lex's cell rings, interrupting the silence. A frown mars Lex's brow, when he sees the number. He glances at Clark as he gets up, apologetic grin in place. "I have to take this." Clark feels like something heavy just found a residence in his chest and for a moment he's afraid that this afternoon is over. But Lex touches his shoulder as he passes him. "I'll be right back, ok?"

Lex is asking him, like there is even a slight chance that Clark would say no. Clark nods, too relieved to speak, and kills time by playing with his slowly melting ice cream.

Clark isn't sure how long passes, but the ice cream has turned into a coffee-scented puddle, and the kitchen is dark enough that he thinks about turning on the light. He wonders if Lex is still on the phone or if he simply forgotten about him, and wow, doesn't that feel like a blow to his stomach. He has two choices, he can leave or he can go find Lex.

The first one really isn't much of an option.

Clark pauses at the entrance to the office and watches Lex, who is standing in front of the fireplace, staring into it but undoubtedly not seeing it.

The office seems even darker than the kitchen, or maybe it's the reddish flames that make it appear that way. Sometime, while he was here, Lex managed to lose the white lab coat and he is wearing a dark burgundy sweater that makes Clark shift uncomfortably. Clark glances at the sword on the wall, and he knows it's fake - he held it and watched Lex play with it - but for a brief moment, he feels it shatter against his skin, and he can hear Lex yell. He gets an almost overwhelming urge to melt the damn thing with his heat vision but something stops him.

Lex used to always sense when there was someone in the room and the fact that Clark has been standing there for five minutes, unnoticed, scares him a little. He calls Lex's name but Lex doesn't move, not even his breathing changes, and that's like even a worse nightmare. Because he'd rather have Lex be mad at him, than ignore him. He wants to grab Lex, and shake him out of whatever trance he'd worked himself into.

He reigns in his impatience, walks into the room and claps Lex on the shoulder. Simple touch - he used to do it often with Lex and Lex always welcomed it from him - but Lex twists from under his hand in a move that is too graceful to be anything but a fighting maneuver, and is five feet away before Clark understands what happened. They both freeze, but Clark sees the tightness in Lex's body that tells him how much effort it took for Lex to stop where he does. Panic flashes in dark gray eyes, bruised with something Clark can't identify, but, god, he never wants to see it in Lex's eyes again.

No, that's not true. Clark knows what it is, knows the words for it, but he won't use them. Not when it comes to Lex, because that would be too much like giving up on him. Clark can't give up on Lex, but he really didn't know, didn't even consider a possibility.

Lex walks around with easy confidence that makes him look compelling and invincible. Clark had watched Lex face meteor mutants and violent gunmen with cool sarcasm and unbreakable control, shaken up only when something threatened those under his protection. And Clark can't even imagine what could've happened on that island to put that edge of madness in his eyes.

Clark realizes that his hand is still lifted and lowers it quickly. That - whatever it was - is gone in a blink and Lex is watching him with a shuttered, unreadable expression. His fingers are rubbing his lower lip and he looks so absentminded, that Clark has to wonder if he's even aware that he's doing it.

"Have you ever had a nightmare that was so real that when you woke up, you had bruises?" Lex's whisper sounds strangled, and it hits Clark that Lex, when he came back from the island, had a bruise right where his fingers are now resting. "At least now I know why Louis' hands felt so familiar." He murmurs to the side, so softly that Clark is pretty sure he wasn't supposed to hear it.

Lex swallows and takes a deep breath, pulling himself together until he's there again, in the room, and it's an almost tangible change in the air. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... You just startled me."

Clark nods, mutely because they both know that's a lie and he doesn't really know what to say.

Another soft sigh, and Lex looks up at him with the painfully familiar exhaustion-and is it really a shock now that Lex always looks so tired? Clark can't even imagine how much energy it takes to walk around like nothing is wrong, like Lex isn't fighting for his sanity during every contact, every conversation.

"It's ok, Clark, you can touch me." He offers Clark his hand with a smile that five minutes ago Clark would've called sad. But now he sees more, understands better, and he compares it to fine crystal with a thin, almost invisible crack. Beautiful, but handle it without care and it'll explode into thousands of tiny shards, leaving everyone around bleeding and scarred. "I promise not to freak out on you any more."

Clark wants to grin and joke it off with mentions of Lex's speed and requests for fighting lessons, but he can't. He's been breaking for Lex every time he's seen him for the last month and this... this scares him too fucking much. It's selfish and unfair, but he needs Lex strong. He tries to hide who he is from Lex, but the truth is, he knows that Lex always has his back. That whenever Clark stumbles, Lex is there, providing support, protection, information - whatever Clark asks for, Lex gives. Clark needs Lex there. "Lex, I..." the words clutter in his throat, almost choking him.

He must look... he doesn't even know. But whatever it is Lex sees on his face worries him. Lex steps closer to him, slowly, as if he's afraid to spook Clark. "Clark, I swear, it's ok. It's fine." He's close enough that all Clark has to do is shift, and they'll be touching. "Clark." Clark looks him in the eyes, searching for something. Reassurance. Strength. He finds calm instead. "Touch me. Please." Stern, almost an order, but Clark can hear a plea underneath and he realizes that Lex needs it as much as he does. "I think we both need to remember."

Clark isn't sure what he means but he gradually lifts his hand, passing up Lex's arm and reaching for his face instead. "Remember what?"

He can read the surprise on Lex's face but Lex is calm and that's enough of permission. "The difference between reality and a dream." Clark touches the soft cheek and is rewarded with a soft gasp and a flutter of a heartbeat.

Clark gets it. Lex means nightmare, not dream, but it only makes this more important. "You're real." His whisper probably startles Clark more than it does Lex. He thinks it might be a good time to shut up, but he can't. "I had a nigh... nightmare. You were so angry with me. You..." his throat feels swollen and he has to swallow before he's able to continue. "You hated me."

There is something wrong about the fact that Clark is better at handling the nightmares where his best friend is dead than the ones where he hates him.

"I could never..." Lex pauses, hundreds of possibilities flashing in his eyes. The resulting smile is self-depreciating and not reassuring at all, but Lex isn't moving away and that's significant in ways Clark isn't sure his clouded mind understands right now. "I probably could. But not enough to forget."

"Forget what?" Lex's skin is cool and smooth under his fingers. Grounding, and Clark can breathe again. Lex tilts his head into Clark's hand, just a fraction of an inch, and it's almost unnoticeable. It's a caress, and Clark realizes that his eyes are half-closed and he is whispering, afraid to ruin the moment.

"Who you are." Lex wraps his fingers around Clark's wrist, stroking the more sensitive skin inside with his thumb. "Who you are to me." Lex's eyes are wide and Clark can see in them things that Lex won't say, isn't ready to say. And it's ok, because Clark isn't sure he's ready to hear them. "I lost myself on that island, lost... everyone, but I didn't forget you."

Lex leans back, until Clark's fingers are touching empty air, but Lex's hand is still holding Clark's, tighter now. As if Lex doesn't want to let go any more than Clark does. "It's not a good time, Clark. I can't..." Lex sounds sharp and... fragile. "I can't be with you. Not until I remember who I am."

Clark understands that. Relationships of any kind are complicated, and the last thing Lex needs right now is another complication. Especially alien-sized, super-strong complication, that has been lying to him for years. Clark has been more honest with Lex after the summer, but he knows that he'll have to be completely honest if he wants to be with Lex and Lex isn't ready yet. He needs the time and the distance to heal. Clark's mind flashes to his own nightmares, and he thinks that maybe they both do. Clark needs Lex, but now that he knows that he will have him, he can wait.

Lex's voice is the definition of promise, when he whispers, "But it's already a better time than it was this morning."

Clark nods. Leaning forward, he brushes his lips against where his fingers were touching a moment ago. A brief, intoxicating graze that makes them both shiver and for a second, Clark can swear the room around them glows.

When he pulls back, Lex is smiling. Little, soft smile that makes him look younger and playful, and his eyes luminous with want and anticipation.

Clark licks his lips, finding traces of ice cream, Lex, and something that makes him think of happiness. He wonders if this is what hope tastes like.

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