Lex looked up and caught his breath. "Hi."
"I just--I thought I'd drop by."
Lex stared at Clark, silhouetted in the paneled entryway, absolutely perfect. He was really here. Lex noticed he'd been taken completely off guard, something that was happening far too often lately. "Sorry, I wasn't expecting you." Lex stood and walked toward him. "Come in. Warm yourself up."
"How's it going?" Clark stood there, unmoving, with his hands in his pockets. He wore a thick blue jacket, and his nose and ears were pink with cold.
"Fine, how are you?" Dear God, was he beautiful, still standing near the doorway, where Thomas had delivered him. Like a present. A beautiful living present. And he was here.
"Not bad." Clark shifted slightly, still giving him nothing to go on.
"Good," Lex answered, sinking under the weight of Clark's hesitance. Okay, no handshake, after all...no hug. He redirected himself toward the fireplace. "There's warm cider on the bar. Would you like some?"
"Uh, sure. I'll get it." Clark finally took a few more steps into the room. After an intent stare and a moment of fiddling, he filled a mug from the samovar. "So..." Clark began.
"Yes?" Lex moved to the sofa, daring a small smile.
"You didn't come to dinner Sunday. Mom was disappointed."
"Dad called me to Metropolis. I left her a message...." Perfect. Clark had already put him on the defensive.
The silence stretched as doubt furrowed its way through the room. Why had Lex let Martha talk him into this? He could wrap investors around his little finger; it was absurd that he didn't know how to bridge a gap of months and misery with his best friend. He knew it had been too much to hope for.
"So," Clark asked, filling the void that had been Lex's spot by the fire, "how do we do this?" His tone was almost bitter. Clearly, he didn't want to be here at all.
"They talked to you? Your parents?"
"Yeah." Clark took a long sip of his cider.
"Your mom did quite a number on me," Lex said lightly.
"Really? I'm sorry." He fidgeted with the mug. "Listen, I don't have to be here. I should just...."
He looked up at Lex slowly. "Hm?"
"Don't apologize. You've been through a lot."
The rough edge of Clark's suspicion was new. "What did she tell you?"
"Nothing. Just that you had a rough summer."
"Uh-huh." Clark sounded doubtful.
"But I can see that for myself."
"It's in your eyes. In the way you carry yourself now. You move differently."
"How do I move?" No blush at the mention of his body. That was new, too.
"Like a man who's seen too much. You don't seem like a boy anymore."
His eyes flared. "I don't feel like a boy anymore."
"What happened to you?"
Clark shook his head grimly. "I'm sorry."
This was really it, then. Alone together at last, in a room more crowded with secrets than ever. Lex sighed deeply. How had they gotten so far off course? "No, Clark. I'm sorry."
"For not being there."
Clark's mouth fell open in surprise. "What?"
Lex pulled his gaze from his lower lip to meet the searching look. "I was so wrapped up in the drama with Helen, I let you down." He leaned forward. "I can't tell you how sorry I am."
"No. Lex, you don't understand. It's my fault. I should've...." He trailed off, pacing toward the window.
"Should've what? Forced me to acknowledge what I didn't want to see? You're not a miracle-worker...no matter how many times you've saved my life."
"I could've...I don't know." Clark shoved his hands through his hair and looked at him helplessly. "I wish...."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Lex said. If he could only touch him. If he could only reach out and feel him through the denim and flannel. Not even skin. He needed--maybe he needed to know he was real.
The silence had engulfed them again. Clark was pacing the far side of the room, scanning the bookshelves, staring out the windows. Except now he was back, so close, sitting on the ottoman between the couch and chair.
"I feel guilty as hell." Clark's voice was so low, so full of remorse.
"Don't. It's not worth it."
"You're worth it. I mean, our friendship is. Worth it. To me." The words were barely above a whisper. "I can't stand letting you down."
Lex stared at him, stunned for a moment. "Clark, you don't understand. There was nothing you could have done."
Clark shook his head. "I missed you so much."
"You mean it?" Lex's head was spinning. The conversation was too surreal...so much concealed between them, and then these raw flashes of truth. Why was the truth so unreal?
"The whole time I was in Metropolis I kept thinking I saw you, even though I knew it couldn't be." Clark was staring at the floor. "I kept hoping you'd faked your own death and were really just around the next corner from me."
"The whole time on the island, I kept--" Lex shifted against the sofa. There was no way to say this that would make any sense to him.
"Have you ever really looked into the darkest parts of your soul?"
"For all of the last six months."
"Me too. I think...I don't know." He couldn't get this out. It would just scare Clark off.
"What? What is it?"
"It doesn't matter."
"No, tell me." Clark's eyes were full, pleading almost, like his whole world hinged on the next thing Lex said.
"This is all going to sound strange. I don't know how to say it, and that alone drives me crazy. I'm never this bad with words." He stopped and stood up. He couldn't say this with him sitting so near. "The truth is, I missed you. I couldn't understand why you hadn't been there, why your dad of all people was so nice to me, and yet you didn't show up to be my best man." He stepped closer to the fire. "I wondered if I were being punished."
"Oh God, Lex, no!" The words jumbled together. "I'm so sorry. I wish...." His eyes. He was standing now, crossing the room toward him.
"No, Clark, don't. I don't want you to feel guilty, I just need to say this before it eats me up inside."
"Lex," Clark reached for him.
Lex cringed away. "Clark, I...."
"No, I--I'm sorry. I just wanted...." The hurt in Clark's eyes as he fell back to the couch was palpable. "Never mind."
"I'm still...dealing with physical contact, especially when I'm trying to say this...."
"It hurts. I know."
"I hurt everyone I loved when I left. My parents are trying really hard, but I.... I don't know if it can ever be okay again. Sometimes I think I should just start over somewhere new."
He hadn't just said that. He couldn't have just said that. He couldn't leave. It was...no. Not possible.
And now Clark was looking at him, studying his face. He had to pull it together now. He had to find something to say that made some sense. Any sense at all.
"I'd miss you." Okay, that was a lot more blatant than he'd intended.
"I'm sorry, but I can't believe I failed our friendship so badly that you felt you had to run away. You could have come to me. I would have done everything in the world to make things better."
"I know you would have. But there are parts of my life that I just can't talk about."
Control, Lex. He bit down hard on his lip. "I understand that."
"Do you? Really?" Clark was watching him, the trace of a dare in his eyes.
"We both have more than our fair share of secrets. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's just how life is."
"I hate it."
"I do, too."
"What would happen if we...never mind. That's impossible."
Had Clark really just suggested...? All the ugly facts out in the air between them, all the hidden truths, the skeletons, Lex's need to be near him, all that naked yearning? Walking toward his armchair, he fought for composure. By the time he'd taken his seat and turned his face to Clark, Lex wore a bland smile. "It's not impossible, but it's probably too much for either of us to cope with right now."
Clark sighed. Lex couldn't tell if it were resignation or relief. "You know what I miss?"
"What?" Lex asked.
"Having fun. Just hanging out over coffee or a movie, like we used to."
"Yeah, it was nice."
"You know, it's been a long time since I actually laughed."
Lex nodded. "Me too." Hysterical mania didn't bear mentioning, as this was hard enough already.
"We should fix that." Clark's smile still hit him like sunrise.
Holding the gaze for a long moment, Lex felt something in his chest loosen and melt away. "That sounds like a good idea."
"Want to get a movie?"
"We could see what's opening in Metropolis."
"Uh..." The light in Clark's eyes flickered out. "That would be a bad idea."
"Why?" Lex leaned forward in the chair. "What exactly happened there?"
"Let's just say lots of very bad stuff. Illegal stuff."
"I have a hard time believing Clark Kent would do anything illegal."
Clark shrugged. "Stranger things have happened." That was his stubborn voice, the one he used to hound wall of weird targets with Chloe. Lex watched Clark stand up and return to the bar.
"Tell me," Lex said. "I promise you have nothing to worry about. I won't tell anyone."
Clark stalled, playing with the valve and the steaming flow of cider. "I...I felt like my world was crashing in, so I kind of just left my life behind. I might have done some stuff that, um, impaired my judgment. I might have stolen a lot of money. And some other stuff."
"That's difficult to imagine."
"You think I'm making this up?"
"I'm not doubting you, Clark. I can see in your face what it did to you. It's just that you're the least criminal person I've ever known. You're the one person who--"
"Never mind, it's not important." Oh, was he slipping. He hadn't meant to head down this road at all.
"Yes it is." Clark sat back down on the couch, balancing his mug on the ottoman. "Tell me."
"You know business with my father is a perpetual war. I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, all in the name of getting a leg up on the next battle. What I liked most about our friendship was that you weren't involved in the war."
"Except that I was. Constantly."
Lex met his eyes for a moment, then looked away. "I didn't mean for that to happen."
"It's not your fault. I know your dad took an interest in me. Mom found out back when she was working for him." Clark was on his feet again, prowling around the room. "I guess I shouldn't have told you that."
"No, you absolutely should have told me that. You should have told me a long time ago." Lex was standing now, too, taut and angry.
"No! Don't you see, Clark? My father uses everyone he can as pawns against me. He was using you. To get to me. I'm certain he was using your mother in the same way. Don't you know how dangerous he is? How could you not have told me when you found out?"
"...I thought I could handle it."
"Don't you remember Spiderman? 'With great power comes great responsibility.' That's my responsibility."
"No, Lex. It's not."
"Yes, it is. You're my responsibility."
"No, I'm not! You can't take that on yourself. It's not fair to either of us."
"I've put you at risk." They were both shouting now.
"I put myself at plenty of risk all on my own. And my family. And Chloe, Lana, Pete, and you. Everyone. Just by being who I am."
"Let me help you." Lex was pleading. To hell with dignity.
"I can! You think I don't have influence? If I can't protect my own, what good is it?"
"It's not good for anything if it gets you killed!"
"Who threatened you?"
"It's not important."
"The hell it isn't. Your mother spent over two hours here the other day pounding it into my skull that we're part of the same family, Clark. Don't tell me I shouldn't be concerned over threats to you."
"She did?" That stopped him cold.
"You didn't know?"
"I didn't know what she said. Only that she came here and that she wants me to start seeing...seeing my friends again."
Lex nodded, watching him, watching the firelight shimmer on his face. The hard set of his jaw was gone. The steel in his eyes had faded, too, lost to green softness.
Clark's voice was quiet, the hope unreserved. "So, family? Really? Like real family?"
"And you--you said yes?"
"That's what I'm saying."
Clark was suddenly there, pulling him into a hug.
Lex forced himself not to fight the embrace, but the more he gave himself over to it, the more he felt the strength of Clark's arms around him, the scent of his skin against him, his need and his fear, and his balance slipping. A shudder wracked through him.
"You ok?" Clark pulled back, palms still framing his shoulders.
"I will be." Lex sat quickly, before he fell and before Clark could see his erection, as if he hadn't already felt it.
"Can I do anything?"
Lex gave Clark the look that sent the help running. "Tell me who threatened you."
Clark paced the room again. He looked more like a caged tiger than ever. "When I was in Metropolis, I did some work for a man. I didn't deliver the goods, though, and he came after me later at the farm. He tried to hurt my parents, but I gave him what he wanted. Then he went away." He shrugged.
"Who was it?"
"It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me. How can I help you if you don't tell me the truth?"
Clark swallowed hard. "The truth is a lot to ask for, Lex."
"Was it my father?"
There was no way to hide his relief. "Then who?"
"Well, it must have been someone important if he followed you all the way back to Smallville, Clark. That's beyond the scope of a petty gangster. And you do tend to attract the attention of the bigger fish in the pond."
"It doesn't matter. He's dead now anyway."
"You swindled Morgan Edge?"
Lex raised his eyebrows at him. "Clark." His face was devoid of kindness.
Clark dug the toe of his boot into the rug. "You don't have to say it like that."
"Am I wrong?"
"No. I've already said too much."
Lex forced himself to hold his tongue, but couldn't repress the hurt look. Nobody got under his skin like this, except possibly Clark's mother.
"I'm sorry." Clark's eyes were so full of guilt.
"Why won't you tell me?"
"Would you rather I lied to you?"
"Why don't you trust me, Clark? After everything we've been through, why can't you just trust me?"
"I'm really sorry."
Lex stood, heading for the bar, then changed his mind and paced back to the window. He could come clean. He had to, if he was going to get Clark to open up at all. "On the island, I had what they call a psychotic break."
He would get this out if it killed him. "I was delusional. I thought I had malaria, but I didn't. I was just crazy."
"You're the...." He paced.
Or maybe not. With Clark's eyes fixed on him, he felt so small. "I'm sorry, I can't do this." It wouldn't work. There was too much held back behind that dam, and...there was no way. He wouldn't survive the flood.
"Hey." Clark's hand was on his arm. Somehow they were together now in the center of the room. "Family, right?"
Was this what it meant, beyond his father's endless tyranny and Martha's culinary impositions? How could this be real? "You're the most decent person I know." Those weren't the words he wanted, either.
"You're not evil, Lex." His voice was so soft.
Lex shook his head and stepped away from him. "I told you that on the island, I had to face my dark side. But in doing so, I kind of had to embrace it, too."
Clark took a step toward him. "You're not a bad person."
"Your faith in me is probably ill-founded."
"No. I don't believe that."
How could anyone resist such conviction? "You make me want to be good." Again, way too corny. And honest. How did Clark make him do that?
"You are good. You already are."
They looked at each other and all Lex felt was the pain in his chest. He shook his head again. This wasn't possible. "You don't understand." Lex moved toward the fire.
"Yes, I think I do." Clark followed, standing next to him. "It hurts. You've got a lot to process. So do I. I'm ashamed of what I did, but there's nothing else to do but keep moving forward."
"You sound like your dad."
"Sometimes he's actually right."
He made a face. "Could be."
"You're not alone in this."
"Now you sound like your mom."
"Are you detecting a pattern here?" There was that smile again, gently teasing him now.
"Just possibly." Lex stared into the flames, forcing himself to relax a little.
"Do you think we'll ever get back to normal again? You and me?" Clark asked.
"I think I'd rather create a new state of normal, to be honest. Like your mom said, neither of us are the same people we were a year ago."
"She said that, huh?"
"Yeah," Lex answered.
"I wish..." Clark took the poker from the rack and bent to stab at the burning logs.
"What?" Lex asked.
"I wish I hadn't let you down."
"I wish the same thing for you, too."
"So, what do we do now?"
Lex glanced at him and smiled. "Family, right?"
Clark smiled back. "That kind of makes us like brothers, then, doesn't it?"
"I suppose." Lex hesitated and steadied himself against the mantel. "Though I'm not sure I like that term." At all. Under any circumstances. Unless it kept Jonathan from plowing him under the back forty.
"How come?" Clark still knelt in front of the fire.
Lex looked down at him, his face clouding over. In the back of his throat he felt the echo, the old burning need for a fix to coax him down from stained backroom ceilings. It was like craving air and it was killing him all over again, but he would take it, and endure it, and Clark would never know. At last he spoke, "I don't have a very good track record with siblings."
"Oh, right. That's reasonable," he paused. "So, how about cousins?" Clark winked at him. "I don't have any of those, either."
Lex grinned slowly. Clark Kent had just winked at him. "You're the only true friend I ever had, Clark. That's the only label that matters to me."
"Really." This was happening. He hadn't blown it apart. Despite everything, Clark had saved him again.
A happy grin spread over Clark's face. "You still have Gladius in here, right?" he asked, moving toward the media center.
Lex smiled. "I do."
"Excellent. Let's see how fast I can take you."
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