Preliminaries

by Teaphile


Thanks to my sounding-board at TWoP.


If Lex was a horse he'd be a thoroughbred.

Clark leaned back against the fence and thought about his analogy. Lex was sleek and deceptively athletic, stronger than he seemed at first glance, more than just a pretty face. He was nice to look at, but he'd been bred for one purpose only and he excelled at that purpose. This is where Clark's analogy began to break down, for Lex was bred for intelligence and business acumen, and thoroughbreds were notoriously stupid.

"He's pretty, isn't he?" Chloe joined Clark at the paddock fence, leaning over it from the other side. She fiddled with the show program in her hands, twisting it into odd shapes.

"I was just thinking that," Clark replied. "He looks so majestic up there, so in control of the horse." He ducked as the program flashed by his head. "What?"

Chloe's expression hovered between amusement and mock-anger. "I was talking about the horse, dork."

"Oh." Clark lowered his eyes and watched the little clouds of dust puff around his feet as he shuffled them. Even though he'd admitted it to her a few years back, he was still a little embarrassed that Chloe knew of his infatuation with Lex. He was even more embarrassed that he'd been so caught up in studying Lex that he hadn't even noticed the dark bay gelding his friend was practicing on. The horse was pretty.

"But you're right, you know. Lex is magnificent." Chloe climbed over the fence, disregarding the state of her pencil-slim beige skirt. "Just watch the way the muscles in his thighs ripple as he posts. There ought to be a law that he can only wear breeches."

Clark grinned at her. "Without the jacket."

"Oh, yeah. Completely ruins the view."

Lex noticed them as he brought the gelding to their corner in a series of not-quite-perfectly executed flying changes. He touched his helmet with his whip in salute and slowed his horse to a trot. They rounded a circle and stopped dead just in front of Chloe and Clark. "Is he square?" Lex asked, looking down at the horse's feet.

Clark tilted his head to one side. "Not quite." He smiled up at Lex. "Not that it matters, since you were on the wrong lead for most of that last circuit."

Lex reached out with the whip and tapped Clark lightly on the cheek with it, frowning. "I was not." He turned his glare on Chloe. "Stop laughing, Miss Sullivan, or I'll tell the event coordinators that you'll be taking my place. I don't doubt that you could deal with the cross-country, but the dressage part might be a little above you."

Chloe crossed her hands over her mouth, then dropped them. Her eyes twinkled. "Not saying anything. We were just admiring your form."

Changeable blue eyes leveled at each of them in turn. "Oh you were, were you? And what conclusions did you come to?"

"Just that you should ride more often, Lex," Clark answered. "Charity events are fine, but you seem wellsuited to riding in general."

"You certainly look better in the outfit than most of the people here." Chloe added.

Lex dismounted--giving them a good view of why he should wear only breeches--and patted the gelding on the neck. Watching his two friends out of the corner of his eye, he led the horse to a gate and carelessly flipped the latch open with his whip. Clark caught the gate as it swung easily outward, and held it while the others passed through. He followed, closing the gate behind him, even though there were no other horses in the ring.

Clark heard Lex mutter something, and couldn't let it go by. He nudged Chloe. "What was that, Lex?"

Lex stopped abruptly but didn't face them. "I said--and I must clarify that I was talking not to you, but to my dear friend Archer here--that I wonder why I put up with you two. If I had had you brats disposed of years ago I wouldn't have to listen to you now."

The brats in question each moved to take an arm. "But Lex, don't you love us?" Chloe whined, laying her head on his shoulder.

"We love you." Clark petted the velvet of Lex's cap as one would a dog. Then he caught Lex as Archer shoved him from behind.

"You're all ungrateful. Even the horse." Lex pulled out of their embrace and handed over the gelding's reins to an amused groom.

"Now, Alexander, you should be ashamed of even thinking such a thing." A voice cut in from behind them, and Clark and Chloe turned to stare at the older woman who would dare to chastise Lex Luthor. "All Archer wanted was his hay. Be nice to the dumb animals."

"Hello, Aunt Audrey," Lex replied with a certain oiliness in his voice. He pointed at Clark. "Does that include him?" He was simultaneously whapped from both sides.

Audrey, a slim, tailored woman in her fifties, smiled broadly at the three of them. "I'm sure he couldn't be that dumb if he wants to be your friend."

Taking his helmet off, Lex bent down to kiss the woman on the cheek. "Thanks for the loan of a horse. I'll try to take care of him."

Chloe held out a hand. "Chloe Sullivan." She continued to speak as they shook hands. "You might want to take your horse back now, before he rides it off a bridge, or into a cornfield, or...." She was cut off as Clark's hand slapped across her mouth.

"Make nice to our host, Chlo. He's paying for us to be here to witness his humiliation this weekend." Clark drew back his hand quickly after Chloe licked it. He looked at it for a moment, then casually wiped it on her hair.

Lex offered his arm to his aunt, completely ignoring Chloe's squeal. "Was I that obnoxious at nineteen?"

Clark shot a glare at Lex, and dodged Chloe's fists. He continued to listen to Lex and his aunt, intrigued by this relative Lex had never mentioned.

"I wouldn't know," she said, "I missed your entire adolescence. I'm sorry, Lex. I wish I'd realised what was going on." Clark diverted his attention from tickling Chloe--which made her squirm delightfully in his arms--to see them walking arm-in-arm towards the parking lot.

"I'm just glad you've moved back to the US. Hell, I'm glad you've moved back to this continent. Lunch?"

"That's why I'm here. Are they coming?"

"Do they have to? Clark!" Clark looked up, pretending he hadn't been listening. "Lunch!" Lex laughed as Clark tossed Chloe over his shoulder and loped towards them.

"Let me down!" Chloe yelped, pounding on Clark's back.

Audrey shook her head. "Clark, that's no way to treat a lady."

Lex's eyes shone as he looked at his aunt. "Oh, Chloe's no lady." He dodged as Clark turned Chloe to face him so he could be the target of her fists.

Clark finally let Chloe down in front of the car, and she brushed herself off with all the dignity she could assume. She turned on Lex, waggling a finger at him. "You won't think that way when you see my gown for the ball tonight, that's all I have to say."

He grabbed her finger. "Just get in the car. All of you, before I rescind the invitations." They obeyed as Lex got behind the wheel of the BMW he'd rented for just this purpose: hauling around his friends on a weekend trip to New York.

The group didn't linger over lunch; Lex had to be back early to change and warm up for the first part of the three-day event, the dressage. Clark followed Lex up to his hotel suite as the two women left to explore the farm, chatting amiably about the article Chloe was writing for The Kansas Equine Journal.

They entered the suite and Lex immediately collapsed on the couch.

"Tired?" Clark asked, sitting in the big armchair next to him.

Lex shook his head, craning his neck to see Clark. "Not particularly."

"I like your aunt. Is she your mother's sister?"

"My mother's cousin. She's technically my first cousin once removed. It's just easier to call her aunt." Lex rolled onto his stomach, facing Clark. "I'm fine, Clark."

Clark shrugged innocently. "I never said you weren't. What's your ride time?"

"Two." He looked at his watch. "It's nearly one. I have to get changed." He sat up on the edge of the couch and stuck out a foot towards Clark. "Make yourself useful and pull my boots off."

"Why Lex, I thought you'd never ask." Clark grasped Lex's ankle firmly and started to tug.

"Smartass. Just get the boots off so I can dress."

Roughly fifteen minutes later Lex reappeared from the bedroom dressed in full Grand Prix regalia: pristine white breeches, black tailcoat, white shirt and full stock, polished black boots, and top hat. He carried a long black whip in his left hand, which he menaced Clark with after hearing his wolf-whistle. "Shut up. Am I missing anything?"

Clark examined Lex closely. "Doesn't look like it. I'm glad you explained all this to me on the plane, because, well, this is pretty strange, Lex."

Lex grinned. "I know. It's the most formal of the equestrian disciplines. I could probably go out to dinner in a Parisian restaurant like this and no one would bat an eye."

"And the other guys never beat you up for this, in college?" Clark stole Lex's hat, putting it on his own head and mugging in the mirror over the fireplace.

"Surprisingly, no." Lex took his hat back and fished his white gloves out of a pocket in the crown. "Except for the one guy whose girlfriend was also on the team."

Clark looked Lex over one more time. "I feel underdressed."

"You are," Lex said, returning the look. "Go change. I'll head downstairs." He opened the door, handing Clark his keycard as he did.

Clark pocketed it automatically. "What should I wear?"

"Put on your navy cashmere that I bought you for Christmas. That'll be formal enough for a fall event."

"Okay." Clark watched Lex walk down the hall, then practically sprinted for his own room to change.

Clark joined Chloe and Audrey in the stands a few minutes later, and regretted being early as soon as Chloe snapped her third picture of him. She was bouncing around in her seat, craning her head to see everything she could.

"Chloe." She didn't respond, so Clark tried again. "Chloe!" He grabbed her camera, shutting it off as he did.

"Aren't you excited, Clark? I'm so excited." The grin on her face was infectious.

"Yeah, I got that. You're excited. So am I, but I think a certain amount of decorum is required here." He sat down beside her, flashing a smile at Audrey on the way. Over Chloe's head, he asked, "Have you seen Lex?"

Audrey pointed across the ring, to the far field. "He's warming up over there, I think. He'll be the fifth in. Is he nervous?"

Chloe shook her head. "Lex, nervous? Never. Nothing gets through his icy demeanor."

Clark ignored her. "So, Audrey, Lex told us a little about dressage, but will you be giving a running commentary, so we know what to look for?" Clark was truly interested. He'd never seen a sport so complicated. It didn't surprise him at all that Lex would take it up; the control it required, over both the horse and the rider's own actions, was remarkably like the control Lex exuded daily. Clark tuned out the noise around him, and was able to hear the judges talking in their booth at one end of the ring. They didn't seem to be taking the competition seriously; it wasn't necessary to. They just had to give general scores and try to keep everyone happy.

Eventually the first rider came in, and Audrey explained the pattern each team was to follow. It looked simple but, she said, it was really very difficult for the rider. Most of the entrants had competed seriously at some point in their careers and had performed much more difficult tests; this particular test was of middling difficulty. By the time Lex and his mount entered the ring, Clark felt like an expert in evaluating the manoeuvers. He thought Lex did well, but not the best so far, and Audrey confirmed his opinion.

Chloe seemed uninterested in the competition, and happily wielded her camera and her notepad, taking down everything from what celebrities were in attendance to what the flowers around the ring looked like. As Lex saluted the judges at the end of his test, she turned to Audrey. "Would it be rude to go now? I want some pictures of Lex and Archer for my article."

They stood and made their way through the stands to the stable area. Lex was still patting Archer jovially on the neck when they found him, a delighted grin on his face. "Aud, I can't thank you enough for this jewel of a horse. He knew the test better than I did!" He fed the gelding a chunk of carrot he'd gotten somewhere, and laughed when Archer nuzzled him for more.

Audrey patted the horse as well, then said to Chloe, "Hurry up and take your pictures, dear. This boy needs to be walked out."

Chloe obeyed, taking a half-dozen pictures in various poses. When she was finished a groom came to take Archer, leaving the four of them to relax, or, in Chloe's case, run around getting quotations from the various participants and organizers. They spent the rest of the afternoon in a glow of friendly satisfaction.

Part Two

If Clark was a horse he'd be a Dutch Warmblood. His strength and power were obvious, even to those who didn't know him. He was tall, handsome, and carried himself as if all he was built to do was run.

Chloe had studied up on horses and horsemanship in preparation for this charity weekend. She wanted to know everything that was going on and she knew that Lex wouldn't necessarily have the time to teach them. So she'd read books and watched videos of Olympic three-day eventing. She felt secure in her assessment of Clark as a warmblood; okay, he didn't have to be Dutch, but he was definitely one of the breeds that had draught blood in them. His size and muscle definition, as well as the fact that he looked like he should be clumsy but was quite graceful, told her that.

She watched him approach across the courtyard. The three of them hadn't been able to get rooms in the same wing of the hotel; someone somewhere had messed up the reservations, and Luthor money was only good when it wasn't outclassed by the older, horsey money that ruled this part of the country. They'd agreed to meet at her room before heading down to the ballroom, which was in her wing. Chloe was sure the men had wanted to meet in her suite because they thought she wouldn't be ready. She'd been too excited to wait, however, and had been ready for the half-hour she'd spent watching the other patrons out the window. Clark, for once looking comfortable in a tux, wove his way through the gathering throngs.

Tearing her eyes away from her friend, Chloe answered the knock on her door, assuming it was Audrey, whose room was just down the hall. When she opened the door, however, Lex stepped in, looking as collected as usual in his own black dinner jacket, vest, and tie.

Chloe blushed slightly as she felt his eyes skim her body, taking in the pumpkin-coloured velvet sheath she wore with her mother's pearls. "Do I pass inspection?"

Lex frowned. "Hmm...I'm not sure." He paced slowly around her, taking her in from all angles. "I guess so. Congratulations, you really are a lady." He picked up her hand and placed a lingering kiss on her knuckles.

She poked him lightly on the shoulder. "Don't sound so surprised. You've seen me in formal wear before."

He dropped her hand. "Yes, but I've also seen you in overalls and mud. It's quite a contrast to see you like this."

"You, on the other hand, always look perfect." Chloe cocked her head to one side. "How do you do it, Lex Luthor?"

He grinned wickedly and started to reply, but cut himself off when the door opened behind him.

Clark popped his head in, then the rest of his body followed. "Am I late?" he asked, closing the door.

Chloe choked back a laugh at his appearance. His tie was undone, and he still wore the dusty brown boots he'd had on at the farm that afternoon. "Clark?" she started, and then was unable to continue.

Luckily for her, Lex was accustomed to his behaviour. He flashed her a grin. "He's always like this, Chlo. Just get used to it."

Clark looked around the room, as if thinking. "Is this the first time we've all been dressed-up together?"

Lex studied each of them. "You know, I think it is." He reached up and started to tie Clark's tie for him, as had become ritual. They both pretended that Clark never got it straight. "We've been out in every pair, but never as a threesome." He finished the tie and smoothed down Clark's lapels affectionately, getting a smile in return.

Chloe cleared her throat. "Well, I guess there's a first time for everything. Now, Clark, where are your shoes?"

Clark brought the box out from behind his back. "It's starting to rain out there, so I thought I'd wear my boots instead."

"Good. Now Chloe and I don't have to pretend we don't know you," Lex said.

"He's still not quite ready." Chloe disappeared into her bedroom as she spoke, coming back out a few moments later carrying a large tube. She squirted a little pomade into her hand and put down the tube. She slicked her hands together and approached Clark where he sat changing his shoes.

He looked up at her suspiciously. "What's that?"

"Just a little something for your hair. Trust me." She ran her wet fingers through the longish strands of hair, molding them into curls that sat back off his face. "There." She turned to Lex. "What do you think?"

"Now he's perfect. Do you think we'll see him again tonight, or will the heiresses spirit him off?"

Wiping her hands on a damp towel, Chloe thought for a moment. "The next time we see him will be in a New York Times engagement notice."

Clark stood. "Guys...."

"I think we've embarrassed him, don't you Chloe?" Lex said, with mischief in his tone.

Chloe leaned back against Lex's chest, crossed her arms, and studied Clark. "It's not that hard to do, is it?"

Clark narrowed his eyes, stepping closer to the other two. He pressed up to Chloe, trapping her against Lex.

"Guys?" she asked hesitantly.

She felt Lex's hands caress her bare arms. "Yes, Chloe?" he whispered in her ear.

Clark leaned down to her other ear. "You look amazing, Chlo."

Chloe felt herself flush with both men breathing on her neck. She'd pretty much learned to ignore the waves of sensuality they each gave off, but both of them together, directing those waves at her, was a bit much. She threw both hands up in the air and sidled out from between them. "Okay, I give up, point taken. No embarrassing Clark."

Another knock sounded on the door, and Chloe opened it to receive Audrey. She looked the three young people up and down analytically, then smiled in approval. "It's time to go, or we'll miss dinner," she reminded them.

Chloe picked up her purse, threw her wrap around her bare shoulders, and they set off to the ball together.

They entered the dining room and were immediately greeted by a waiter who, without being told their names, led them directly to their table. He introduced them to the others already seated there: an older woman and her twenty-something daughter, who was competing. The daughter, Chloe noted as she took her seat to the girl's left, was already checking out both Clark and Lex. She suspected the two would be in for an interesting evening. She raised that estimation to 'farcical' when she noticed the mother checking them out as well. Luckily for the two men they were seated between Audrey and Chloe, so they were somewhat protected. Still, the table was small enough for conversation, so they didn't have anywhere to hide.

Dinner was served and Chloe turned her attention away from her people-watching to enjoy her food. The entree was seared tuna, and she didn't want to even think about how many chefs the kitchen had to have in order to perfectly sear three-hundred tuna steaks all at the same time. She'd been to some lavish charity dinners with Lex before, but never like this. This weekend reset the bar for her; Metropolis suddenly seemed trite in comparison.

She turned to Linda, who had been silent for a while as the others talked. "Did I hear you say that you go to Columbia?"

Linda smiled brightly. "Yes. I'm majoring in psychology."

"Tell me," Chloe said, dodging the waiter serving dessert, "what's it like, living in Manhattan?"

Linda answered at length, and Chloe found her attention wandering again. She managed to keep up her end of the conversation, but started noticing again what the others were doing. Lex was discussing horses with Audrey and the mother, and Clark was half-listening to both conversations. During a pause in Linda's dissertation Clark nudged Chloe's elbow.

"You thinking about transferring?" He asked jokingly, gesturing in Linda's direction.

"Actually, I am." Chloe replied as she drew patterns in her creme brulee with her spoon.

Clark looked faintly startled. "Oh. Umm...I didn't realise you weren't happy at MetU."

Chloe dropped the spoon and gazed up at Clark, noticing his distress. "It's not that I'm not happy, it's just that I'm suddenly realising that although Metropolis is the biggest city in Kansas, it's still pretty smalltown."

"Oh."

Chloe studied her hands as she searched for words to express how she felt. "I mean, this is the first time I've been to New York, and all I've seen is the airport and a few expressways on the way up here. I feel like I should be doing more, travelling more. Like Lex."

Lex swiveled his head to face her. "What about me?"

"You've done and seen so much, and I'm still just Chloe from Smallville, you know?"

"There's nothing wrong with that," he answered seriously.

Chloe shook her head. "Lex, I love you, but you know that's bull. You've got a career, a 'destiny' as you so melodramatically put it, but I have to build my life from scratch. I don't want to be Dorothy without the cyclone." She laughed. "And I'm so confused right now that I'm mixing metaphors."

Clark covered her hand with his. "Chloe, you can't even apply to Columbia until January, so why don't you just enjoy the rest of the weekend and think about it later?"

Lex stood and held out his own hand. "Clark's right. There's dancing and much merriment to be had right now. The angst can come later."

Standing, she placed her other hand in his and the three made their way to the ballroom, which was just as elegant as the dining room. The floor was burnished hardwood, and the walls were covered in a pale pink paper set off by white moldings and trim. It looked like pictures she'd seen of French chateaux. She couldn't hold back a sigh when she saw the mural behind the bandstand.

"Impressive, isn't it?" said a masculine voice behind her. She turned to find her friends had been replaced by a young, very handsome blond man with a charming smile.

"Yes. I've never seen anything like it." Chloe'd meant to act jaded this evening, but found she couldn't. She held out a hand to the man. "Chloe Sullivan," she said.

"Henry Amundsen." He took her hand and shook it gently. "I just wanted to ask you if I could have a dance. Unless you're taken, of course." He nodded towards Lex and Clark, who were talking over by the tables.

"Who, them? They're just friends." She glanced at them one more time, then smiled at Henry. "I'd be glad to dance with you."

He nodded his head slightly, and said, "I'll see you on the floor then."

Chloe joined the other two, who were discussing strategies for dealing with what Lex charmingly referred to as 'vultures'. She stood behind Lex, trying not to clue him in to her presence.

"...you, on the other hand, will be a target for the bored matrons more than their daughters." He told Clark, pointing out one or two obvious candidates. "You don't have money, so the fathers wouldn't dare let their girls date you, no matter how good-looking and personable you are." He smiled enigmatically. "Oh, and watch out for that Chloe Sullivan. She's a gold-digger who'll rip your heart out."

"All right, so I'm no good at sneaking up on people." Chloe came around to face the two men.

Lex pointed to the wall he was facing. "It's easier in a room without mirrors."

"I'll remember that the next time I need to eavesdrop on you giving Clark bad advice."

A gentle clapping cut off anything Lex was about to say, and Chloe turned to face the bandstand, where a podium was set up. A grey-haired man in a dark suit stood behind a podium and addressed the crowd. He talked about the charity, the generosity of various guests, and the fine community of horsemanship.

Uninterested, Chloe tuned him out and watched the crowd again. She'd been afraid that she'd be dressed inappropriately, but a quick scan of all the women her age revealed that her dress and hair were fine. She was proud of her ability to blend in with such an aristocratic group; it helped that her dress was a designer original borrowed from her roommate, but even so she felt she wore it well. Looking at the men in the room she realised that she'd underestimated the number of young ones here. She took note of a few famous faces; she didn't have her note pad, but she was trying to cultivate her memory skills anyway.

So caught up was Chloe in her reverie that she was startled when Lex's name was called. She looked around and caught Clark's smile. He'd noticed that she'd phased out, so he leaned over and whispered in her ear, "He's in third place." She smiled a thanks back at him and joined in the restrained clapping as the fifthplace name was called.

The speaker left the podium and the music started up. The ball was underway.

Some hours later Chloe was very tired and just a little stunned. She'd danced with easily half the young men in the room and a few of the older ones, too. She was torn between slumping down in a chair at an available table or just calling it a night and going back to her room. Craning her neck she looked around the large room for the guys. She was sure they wouldn't just leave her there, despite the fact that her room was in the same building. She spotted Clark at a table looking distinctly nervous, having found one of the bored, rich matrons Lex had warned him about. Chloe shook her head in amusement and went to rescue him.

She slid into the chair next to him, ignoring the older woman. "Clark, honey," she said, tangling both hands in his hair, "I'm bored." Sneaking a glance at Clark's companion, she drew his head forward and cooed against his lips, "Let's go find Lex and have some fun."

A little subtler than he used to be, Clark caught on and grazed his mouth over hers. "Okay. Where do you think Lexy-baby is?"

"Dunno. Maybe he's being wicked. Let's go find out!" Chloe drew Clark up out of his chair and pulled him quickly into the lobby, where they both dissolved into laughter.

"Something I should know about?" Lex sounded amused as he joined them from behind.

Clark winked at Chloe and sidled up behind Lex, wrapping an arm around his waist. Chloe insinuated herself under Lex's other arm and leaned up to murmur, "We were just speculating on where our sugar daddy went."

Drawing a finger down the back of Lex's head and under his collar, Clark whispered, "And if he was being bad. Without us."

Lex narrowed his eyes and Chloe had to fight not to laugh. "What have you two been taking, and why didn't you bring me any?"

Clark did laugh then, and, letting go of Lex, he pointed into the ballroom. "Chloe rescued me from Mrs. Murchison. Unfortunately, you now have a reputation."

"We'll be the talk of the weekend," Chloe said. "At the moment, though, I'm just about worn out, so I think I'll go up to my room."

Clark and Lex exchanged glances. "We'll walk you up," Lex offered.

As they entered the elevator Chloe noticed the slightly worried looks they wore. "Guys? Is something wrong?"

The two men exchanged that look again--the one Chloe was sure meant they could read each others' minds- -and Lex spoke up. "Henry Amundsen was asking each of us some very...pointed questions about you."

Clark nodded. "We talked it over and thought he might be a threat to you. Better safe than sorry."

Chloe laughed a little. "Come on, what could happen in a big, busy place like this? I'll bet there's staff everywhere." The elevator dinged at their floor, and the three walked the distance to her room. She deftly slipped the keycard through the reader, and opened the door to find the room filled with lit candles. "What the...," she started, and then noticed the figure on the couch.

Lex and Clark immediately moved in front of her, but Chloe shoved her way between them and confronted Henry. "What are you doing here?"

He rose from the couch and smiled as if they were the only two people in the room. "I wanted to see you again."

Clark flanked Chloe. "How did you get in?" he asked. "The room was locked."

Henry winked at him. "Money. Greases all kinds of wheels. You'd think you'd know that by now, considering the company you keep."

"Get out." Lex's voice was cold.

"Perhaps you should ask Miss Sullivan her opinion. After all, she danced with me, flirted with me, told me she'd like to see me again. Are you sure she doesn't want you two to leave instead?"

Chloe advanced a single step. "Mr. Amundsen, get out of my room now, or I'll call hotel security. Then I'll call the newspapers."

He smiled again and left without saying anything more.

Shocked, Chloe slumped down on the chair; she didn't want to touch the couch right now. It seemed tainted. Lex flipped on the lights as Clark extinguished and put away the candles. Chloe barely noticed their activity. She hadn't been this scared since the time she was kidnapped and buried alive. She hadn't thought anything could frighten her that much again. This incident, though, came very close. Adrenaline rushed through her and she stood and paced the thickly carpeted floor, oddly disappointed that her shoes made no noise. She could feel their eyes on her, and knew her friends were worried. She took a deep breath. "Could the both of you, maybe...."

Clark ran a soothing hand down her arm. "What, Chloe?"

She looked up at him, and over at Lex. "Could you both spend the night here?"

"You should be safe now," Clark said, and gestured to the door. "Just put the--"

Chloe cut him off. "There's no chain on the door."

Lex shook his head. "All the modern conveniences. Why have a chain when you can use the intercom?" He gestured at the grey box on the wall beside the door. "It's completely useless for this problem."

"Could you, please?" Chloe was very close to groveling, and far closer to tears than she wanted to be.

"Of course."

"Anything for you, Chlo."

Chloe, still in a daze, moved vaguely around the bathroom getting ready for bed. She finally slipped on her old flannel sleep pants and a battered T-shirt, and felt slightly better, more like her real self. She reentered the living area to find Clark and Lex speaking quietly near the desk. They'd shed jackets, ties, and vests, and cufflinks, belts, and wallets littered the desk. Even shoeless, with their white shirts untucked and French cuffs hanging down around their hands, they managed to look far more elegant than Chloe had ever felt.

She approached them to find that they were discussing sleeping arrangements. With a weak smile she interrupted. "Hey...."

They looked at her expectantly. Chloe gestured to the bedroom. "The bed's a king. There's plenty of room for three."

Lex frowned. "Are you sure? After what just happened...." He waved a hand towards the door.

"After what just happened I really don't want to be alone." She didn't. If she was alone in the dark she'd imagine all sorts of things.

With nods they acquiesced, and soon were snuggled in the bed, and Chloe fell asleep feeling safe and warm between them.

She woke slightly to sunlight filtering through her eyelids, but she decided she could sleep in a little more. She shifted, noticing both the hand resting on her stomach, just under the edge of her shirt, and the hot breath in her ear. Still a little groggy, she wondered when she'd got back together with Jim. The hand moved, and so did the hand she just discovered on her thigh, as well as the one in her hair. Wait...three hands? When did Jim grow another hand? That thought shocked her wide-awake, and her eyes snapped open just as a pair of soft lips closed over her earlobe. She let out a relieved sigh when she realised that the hands belonged to her best friends, and weren't doing any damage. The lips, however, which were on Clark's side of the bed, were neither comforting nor distressing, but actually quite arousing.

Wondering idly if she should just go back to sleep, Chloe heard a knock on the door. She checked the clock and noticed that it was nearing nine, and remembered her breakfast date with Audrey. She gently extricated herself, marveling at how the guys had managed to each get an arm under her neck without waking her. Clark's left hand had been the one in her hair, as Lex's right hand was happily entwined in Clark's hair. They were both smiling, and Clark shifted towards Lex when she moved. As quietly as she could she opened the door for Audrey and then crept back to the bedroom. She gathered up some clothing and her camera, daring to snap a picture as she did so. Leaving the bedroom door ajar she got dressed in the bathroom.

Chloe was just following Audrey into the hall when she heard "Shit!" and the loud thud that signaled a body hitting the floor. She peeked into the bedroom to find Clark on the floor, a stunned expression on his face. Lex, on the bed, looked equally shocked.

Chloe really wanted to know what happened, yet really didn't. To Audrey's questioning look she replied, "I'll tell you in a bit," and they left the suite in search of coffee.

Part Three

If Chloe was a horse she'd be a particularly recalcitrant quarterhorse mare Lex once knew. She was pretty in a flashy way, and she knew it. She had the flashy personality to match, making her twice the woman anyone else was. Getting to know her was hard, but once you did the rewards were incredible. She always kept you on your toes.

Lex found himself thinking of her when he should have been thinking of the horse under him and the crosscountry course ahead of him. Since the two teenagers had moved to Metropolis for university he'd seen much more of them than he had when they'd all been living in Smallville together. They'd become real friends, the three of them, and Lex never regretted a moment, even when the other two tormented him. He'd promised himself he'd never do anything to harm that friendship. What had happened that morning might drive Chloe away.

He'd awakened with Clark kissing him, lips warm and soft, tongue probing gently, and his heart had soared until he realised that Clark was still mostly asleep. Lex thought he'd totally buried those urges in friendship. Sure, he still flirted with him, but he flirted with Chloe too, and that didn't mean he wanted to...well, actually it did. She'd become an intriguing, sexy woman, and he'd make a move on her if he thought it wouldn't jeopardize what the three of them had together, which was rapidly becoming the most important facet of his life. If he could, he'd have them both, and that thought led to new and interesting places.

Archer shifted under him as a groom applied thick grease to the gelding's chest and forelegs to protect him from the solid obstacles. Lex focused again on the task at hand, adjusting his heavy-duty helmet and making sure his padding was well secured. If he was going to fall off--and the odds were good that most competitors would--he wanted to know he'd walk away from it. The groom finished his job and Lex thanked him, then guided Archer to the waiting area.

Once again he was to ride fifth. The ground was muddy from the previous night's rain, but wouldn't be too churned up yet by the other horses when he rode. He felt a moment of pity for the riders farther down the list, but figured that anything that increased his chance of winning could only be good. The official waved him on, and he started the course.

The obstacles were designed to test the horse and rider; they were all around four feet high and solid enough that the horse couldn't knock them down. Thus the grease, which covered the hind legs as well, so the horse slid over instead of ripping its legs open. Riding at a fast canter and flying over the jumps left Lex wondering why he'd ever quit this sport. It was almost as good as driving. In fact, in some ways it was better, because no matter how expensive a car was it would never have a personality.

Lex remembered why he'd quit the moment the water jump loomed before him. He'd walked the course earlier, but it wasn't practical for every rider to practice it. It was too hard on the horse anyway, to run a cross-country course twice in as many days. So he had a totally new perspective on this jump; it looked much bigger now than it had that morning. Archer still seemed full of energy, though, so he might have a chance at getting over it. Lex sighted for the lowest part of the jump, counted strides, and felt Archer's hind leg slip out from under him at take-off. They rose into the air twisted at an odd angle, and Lex thought he heard Chloe calling his name as he catapulted over Archer's head and fell the six feet into the water below.

He felt giddy as the water closed over his head and he gently bumped the firm clay bottom of the pond. The water was cold and exhilarating, but he soon remembered where he was, planted his feet on the bottom and surged up out of the water hoping that Archer wouldn't flail around in his direction and kick him. He looked for the horse and saw him standing, held by an official, on dry land. Lex took the reins and got back on, determined to carry on and finish the course.

Not surprisingly at all, his aunt and friends were waiting for him at the end. They fussed and fidgeted around him, and Clark and Chloe practically had all his padding off before he even dismounted. He just grinned at them and patted Archer as a groom and Audrey led him away.

Chloe turned a stern frown on him as she removed his helmet. "We are never doing this again."

"But it's fun."

Clark gave him a light push. "Only you would think nearly dying is fun."

"I didn't nearly die. I wasn't even close." Lex glanced slyly at his friends before continuing. "Only one or two people die per year in this sport."

"That doesn't mean it has to be you," Chloe said. "Clark, I think he hit his head. Take him back to the change room and get him cleaned up. I have to watch the rest of the riders." She pulled her camera out of her bag and trotted off to the stands.

Lex wobbled a little as they headed towards the clubhouse, and Clark took a firm grip on his elbow to steady him, not letting go. "I think you really did hit your head."

"Nah. My legs are just trying to figure out this whole 'walking' thing again." Lex pushed open the heavy clubhouse doors and was greeted with applause from the crowd in the lobby bar. Confused, he smiled a little, then noticed the closed-circuit television mounted on the wall. They'd obviously seen his spectacular fall at fence number six. He smiled more broadly then, and took the glass he was handed as they walked past.

"Everyone who falls gets a free drink," the bartender explained.

Amused, Lex took a sip of what turned out to be a good cognac. "How many so far?"

The bartender gestured at a chalkboard above the bar. "Everyone. But we're only seven riders in."

Lex laughed again and led Clark upstairs to the private lounge that had been made available to the riders. He handed Clark the glass and stripped off his wet shirt and the rest of his padding, tossing it on a metal rack near the lockers. He stopped, and looked down.

"Do you need help with your boots again?" Clark asked, giving him his drink.

"Probably." He sat and sipped while Clark struggled with the suction created by wet leather on cotton, finally getting both boots free. "Or I could have just used the bootjack over there." He indicated a spot on the floor next to the lockers.

Clark just glared at him. "Go shower now. I'll hold your drink."

Without regard for who might walk in the door next Lex stripped off his breeches and underwear and tossed them on the same rack as his shirt. He grabbed a towel from a pile near the shower doors and opened one. Inside, as he expected, was a full washroom with a separate shower stall. As he turned the water on and waited for it to heat, he noticed Clark peering in curiously. "Come in, Clark. And close the door behind you." Clark obeyed, absently sipping at the cognac.

Lex frowned at him. "Stop drinking my drink. Give it here." He snatched the glass from Clark and carried it into the shower. Oddly enough, there was a ledge in the tile that was in the perfect place to keep water from getting in the alcohol. As he let the steaming water cascade over his body, he wondered if that was its sole purpose.

"Lex?" he heard from outside the stall door.

"Yes, Clark?"

"You're drinking in the shower."

"Yes, Clark."

"Don't you think that's a little decadent, even for you?"

"Not at all. Decadent would be if you were washing me while I was drinking in the shower." Lex winced. He hadn't meant to flirt with Clark that day. Habit was habit, though, and never to be second-guessed. He heard the outside door creak open, then shut, and thought Clark had left.

"Lex?" The shadow reappeared at the frosted shower door. "Do you want me to?"

Lex took a deep breath and ducked his head under the water one last time before shutting it off.

"I guess that answers that question," he heard Clark mutter as he opened the door.

Grabbing the towel off the vanity and wrapping it about his hips, Lex confronted his friend. "Never in public, Clark. Never." It sounded sterner than he'd intended, but Clark knew him well enough not to be offended by it. He hoped.

Clark smiled at him, the smile that meant 'you just said something silly, and I'm about to call you on it'. "I checked first. There's no one out there."

"The point, Clark, is that anyone could have walked in at any time. Mrs. Murchison from last night, my aunt, Chloe...."

"Oh god, Chloe." Clark slumped against the vanity, plainly upset at the thought.

"Exactly." Lex moved closer, facing Clark. His expression gentled. "This morning was...I don't have the words right now. I wanted you for so long, and I still do, but I don't want to hurt us. The three of us."

Clark nodded almost sadly. "You don't want to hurt Chloe."

"The dynamic we have is more important than sex. We each give each other things the others can't." Lex paused, searching for a way to say what he had to. "To be completely honest, I love Chloe. I don't want to choose between you. I can't choose between you." He couldn't meet Clark's eyes, sure he'd just hurt him.

Lex felt a single finger on his chin, tilting his face up. "I love her too, Lex. I'm pretty sure she feels the same way about the both of us. Conflicted, but willing to live with it."

Hope filled Lex. "Yes. That's it."

Clark's eyes crinkled at the corners. Lex was sure Clark was smiling, too, but couldn't tear his gaze away from those eyes to check. "So what do we do?" Clark asked.

Lex leaned against the counter. "First, you go get my clothes, which I foolishly left in a locker. Then I get dressed and we pretend this conversation never happened. We meet Chloe downstairs, and go about our weekend the way we planned it."

"That's it?"

"Yes." He nodded, then found himself being kissed again. Lips brushed his, a tongue flicked out to stroke inside, finding all his ticklish spots. He pulled Clark against him and scratched lightly up his neck, making him shiver. As he arched away Lex nibbled gently up the long neck that had compelled him for so long. He caught Clark's mouth in a kiss again, then broke away.

"You sure?" Clark panted, looking down between them to where Lex's towel had fallen.

Lex looked too, then gathered his determination. "Yes."

Clark backed off, and with his hand on the doorknob, said simply, "Okay."

They didn't speak of it again over the course of the afternoon, although Lex caught Chloe throwing suspicious glances at them from time to time. He wondered how she knew, if she knew, and what he could do to rectify the situation if she confronted them.

Another gala dinner was planned for that evening, but none of the three of them were interested in attending. They gathered in Chloe's room once again, having decided to order room service and stay in. They ate and talked, bantering as usual, and Lex started to think he'd misinterpreted Chloe's looks that afternoon; maybe she knew nothing of what had happened between him and Clark. Maybe everything would be all right. Lex relaxed back on the couch and watched as Clark idly flipped channels, looking for something all of them would enjoy, which Lex knew wasn't going to be easy. He was just about to ask Clark to stop at Red Dwarf, when a small plastic bottle of black rum landed in his lap. He looked at it suspiciously, then at Chloe, whose head was buried in the bar fridge.

Another bottle came flying past him to smack into Clark's shoulder. "Hey!" he cried.

"Chloe?" Lex asked, flipping the bottle in his hand. "What's this about?"

She smiled sweetly. "We're going to get trashed."

"Do you remember what happened the last time we all got drunk together?"

Clark burst out laughing. "Love, love will keep us together...," he sang in a convincing falsetto.

Chloe glared at him, then at Lex, to whom she tossed another bottle. "Maybe the karaoke bar was a bad idea," she said. "But we had fun, didn't we?" She wrinkled her forehead as if she couldn't remember.

Lex turned the bottle over. Vodka this time. "You certainly did."

"I had fun watching you have fun." Clark said, getting up and joining Chloe at the fridge. He started pulling out mixers and snacks, taking them over to the table near the couch. "You're so cute when you're drunk. You get all serious and everything."

"I do not!" Chloe cracked open a bottle of Gentleman Jack and poured what looked like two ounces into a lowball. She took a sip, and Lex was amused to see that she still winced a little at straight whiskey. She'd decided about six months earlier to give up girlie drinks in favour of neat hard liquor, thinking it made her look tough. Sometimes Lex wondered when she'd take up smoking cigars.

Clark, on the other hand, liked girlie drinks, and was happily mixing something that required the black rum Lex still had in his lap. Lex gave up resisting and took the bottle over so Clark could make his cloyingly sweet concoction of fruit juice and frothy liqueurs. He stirred up a whiskey sour for himself and sat back down.

Chloe sat beside him, and downed another slug of her drink, wincing less this time.

"So, Chloe, why precisely do you want us to get drunk?" Lex asked her. He tried to catch her eye, but she kept flicking her gaze away from him. Every few moments it would land on Clark, then quickly divert to the floor.

"No reason," she answered casually. "I just thought it would be fun, that's all. I thought we could really let loose, you know."

Clark joined them, bracketing Chloe on the other side. "Does this have anything to do with what you were talking about last night, about changing schools?"

"Nope." She picked up the remote from where Clark had dropped it, and flipped channels. "Oh look! It's that movie, with that guy. Let's watch." She settled back, knees pulled up under her, and ended the conversation.

Several drinks and an extremely bad movie later, Lex knew what Chloe was up to. She lay snuggled into his chest, with her legs slung over Clark's, cradling her last drink. She had them effectively pinned down, and every time he or Clark tried to move, she'd whine a little about disturbing her. Clark was absently rubbing her feet, and Chloe looked half-asleep.

"Chloe," Lex whispered, stroking her hair lightly.

"Yeah?"

"If you want us to stay the night, you just have to ask." Clark shot Lex a startled glance; obviously he hadn't clued in to Chloe's desperate attempts to make them fall asleep on the couch.

She craned her neck to look up at him sadly. "Really?"

"Really. There's no need to get us too drunk and sleepy to go back to our rooms." He brushed her cheek with the back of his finger, causing her to smile.

"Thanks." She looked over Clark. "You too?"

He nodded, patting her leg. "Absolutely. I'm your hero, remember?"

Chloe sat up and hugged first Clark, then Lex. Settling back in between them, she said quietly, "I love you guys."

Clark kissed her cheek. "We love you too, Chlo."

Lex stood and stretched. "Well, as sweet as this is, I have to get up early in the morning." He gestured towards the bedroom. "May I?"

Chloe nodded, and they said their goodnights. In the bedroom Lex stripped down to his underwear and slipped between the sheets. He drifted asleep to the sound of his friends voices.

Lex woke to a bizarre feeling of deja vu. This time, however, the lips against his were feminine, and he could smell the faint perfume of Chloe's moisturizer and feel a breast pressed up against his right side. The hands on him were the same as yesterday: one gliding up and down his chest and the other cradling his neck. He lay on his back, and his friends had been possessed.

"I know you're awake, Lex." Clark's voice in his ear again, and did Clark have some fascination with them? He must, because he licked the ear he spoke to.

Chloe trailed a path of kisses down his neck. "Open your eyes," she said huskily, shifting her weight slightly, and now he could feel her thigh over his, pressed into his groin. She wasn't wearing much, just a wisp of cotton.

"C'mon, Lex," Clark said, pressing closer to Lex's left side, grinding his erection into Lex's hip. "If you don't, Chloe and I will finish what we started. Without you."

Lex snapped his eyes open. "Get off me."

Startled, they both obeyed. "What...?" Clark began.

Lex didn't let him finish. He sat up and crawled off the end of the bed. "I am not a toy. I am not a...bridge between the two of you. I will not be manipulated." Furious, he stalked towards the bathroom, gathering his clothes as he went.

"Lex, if you love us at all you'll listen to what we have to say." Chloe's voice stopped him, and suddenly he was in their arms again. He stared at the hardwood floor, tracing the grain with his eyes.

"Look at me." Clark moved around to face Lex, and Lex couldn't avoid looking up. "You know I want you. We went through that yesterday. You want me. Chloe wants both of us, and I want her."

Lex tried to pull away, but Clark held him fast. "Sometimes, Clark, it doesn't matter who wants whom. I can't lose either of you, and this is a sure way to lose you both. You said it yourself: conflicted, but willing to live with it."

Chloe placed a hand on the side of Lex's face. "Clark and I talked it over last night, and we both want more. We think this can work."

"And if it doesn't? You have your family and other friends to fall back on. Don't you see that you two are all I've got? I would rather never have sex again than risk that."

"It's no risk, Lex." Clark wrapped his arms around Lex as he spoke. "We've already been together for years in every way but this one. We can share."

"Can we try?" Chloe pleaded. "We'll be your friends, no matter what. It is possible."

Lex was on the verge of agreeing when the bedside alarm buzzed. "I'll think about it," he said, smiling. "But you're going to have to let me go right now. I have to go ride my horsie one more time."

"Horsie?" Two voices chorused behind him as he left the bedroom.

The show-jumping portion of the event went blessedly quickly. Lex and Archer were the last team, and they did well, only knocking down one fence. Lex snickered to himself when he realised that the fence they knocked had the Luthor Corp logo on it. He'd be getting a phone call from his father about that one, to discuss symbolism and sour grapes. Especially telling was the giant grin on his face as he rode away from the course. That picture would make the papers, complete with an analysis of his intentions towards his father's company.

Once again he was met at the gate by his maybe-soon-to-be lovers, who showered him with praise and Archer with pats and carrots. After handing the horse over to a groom, they headed to the clubhouse to wait while the organizers tallied the points. They would announce the winners at a luncheon on the lawn of the stable. Lex changed, then spent the remaining time answering questions for Chloe's article. He figured it would turn out well, if he could keep her accurate.

Eventually the hour came and a sumptuous champagne lunch was served. They ate, making small talk with their table companions, a pair of old-money brothers Lex hadn't yet met. The brothers, Thomas and Jacob, were both handsome and charming, and Lex carefully watched Chloe's reactions as they flirted with her. She seemed completely neutral to them, and Lex reassured himself that she was committed to pursuing this odd threesome. He wasn't worried about Clark; Clark hadn't dated seriously since his sophomore year of high school. Thinking it through a bit more, Lex realised that Clark had been totally committed to him even then. Chloe, though, was more likely to be attracted to his lifestyle than to him personally. She was the wild card, the unknown.

Lex had other concerns, too. His business, for one, might be affected by his love life. He could try to stay out of the public eye, but at some point attention would be drawn to his living arrangements. The papers had already linked him romantically with both Clark and Chloe, only to be embarrassed when he showed up at a function with the other one. If they were living together, spin-control would get more difficult. Should he hide their relationship? Certainly he couldn't come right out and make statements; the legality of the arrangement was suspect. He'd have to check that out. His second concern had to do with their parents. The Kents had warmed to Lex somewhat over the years, and couldn't object to Clark moving in with him as a friend. They'd eventually have to be told about the relationship, and about Chloe's involvement. That thought led to the worst concern of all: Gabe Sullivan. How does one tell a valued employee that one wants to enter an extremely unconventional relationship with his daughter?

Somehow, Lex realised, while mulling over the problems he had decided to go ahead with it. They'd have to be discreet for a year or so, but to the public not much would change. If both moved in with him the situation would seem more innocent than if one did. He thought they could handle it.

His train of thought was broken by the event coordinator taking up the microphone at the head table. He started off by thanking everyone, by name, and already Lex was bored. His boredom disappeared when his name was called; he'd taken second place. He plastered a not-so-fake smile on his face and strode to the head table to accept his prize. The little crystal horse statue was cute, and the bottle of '98 Chateau Latour promised to be delicious. He nearly dropped the wine, though, when his aunt handed him a sheaf of papers that he recognized. He recovered from his shock enough to let her lead him to one side.

"You're giving me Archer?" Lex looked at the papers one more time. They were definitely the horse's registry.

"You worked so well with him, and I need the stall space. My barn is crowded enough."

"But you could sell him. He's worth more than most of my cars."

Audrey gazed at him seriously. "Do you not want him, Lex?"

Lex started to nod, but it turned into a shake of his head. "I don't know if I'll have time to ride him," he said mournfully.

"Then give me the papers back. He's too good a horse to be wasted." She took the pages back and slid them into her handbag. "You can always come visit him. Bring your friends."

Lex felt himself grinning stupidly. "Yes, I can. Or you could move to Metropolis."

"Not a chance, Lex."

"It was worth a try." He kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks."

Lex took his leave of Audrey and wandered back to the table, prizes in hand. Most of the guests had filtered away, and Clark and Chloe were alone. Lex set the bottle and statue on the table and rubbed his hands together briskly. "So. Shall we pack, get back to Metropolis, and then get you two moved in with me?"

"Lex?" Chloe asked.

He tried to look innocent. "Oh, did I forget to tell you? My answer is yes. We can try."

END



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