Flashpoint

by Hope


Formerly "Later Days," the story's the same, only the title has changed.


"I've said it before, but it bears repeating: more than stadiums for teams already well-housed, more than new government buildings just to prove our own grandeur, what the people of Metropolis need are jobs. If they can't afford to go to feed their families, if they can't afford to be part of the system, then the system's not working." Lex slipped his hands into his pockets, comfortable on a backdrop of statehouse lime and marble. A brilliant autumn sky spread out behind him, and he'd attracted a flock of reporters as if he were their seasonal south.

One of the print journalists thrust his tape recorder a little closer, faltering when Lex looked directly at him. "Ma... Mayor Collins went on record to say that Superman's the best thing to happen to Metropolis in a century. What's your position?"

"Superman performs miracles of morale for the people of this city, I can't deny that." Lex's affable smile smoothed, tilting with a hint of regret. "But we can't afford to ignore that our taxes have been, and will continue to be raised, to pay to rebuild what he destroys, no matter his good intentions. Anyone else?"

The reporters surged, shouting questions over each other, until Lex thanked them and strode past them, strong and tall as he slipped into the driver's side of his Mercedes. Staid and responsible, or at least working on the appearance of it, he'd garaged the Porsches and Lamborghinis months before he'd made his official bid for the mayor's office. Now when the paparazzi caught him on a night on the town, his company trended toward judges rather than starlets and going dancing meant ballrooms instead of clubs. His taste in scotch hadn't changed much.

As soon as he turned onto the highway, he fished his cell phone from the console to call campaign headquarters. "Pull the numbers for the property tax rates for the last twenty years, and get somebody to run the numbers. I want the actual, the average, the adjustments for inflation, and a comparison between our rates and those in Wichita and Gotham."

"Somebody asked the Superman question, huh?" Lana didn't sound worried, just amused. In the background, people chattered until they made white noise, the unmistakable sounds of a very busy office. "You know we already have those numbers, right?"

Gunning the engine, Lex dodged through lanes- the Mercedes might not have the lines of a sports car, but the engine still had plenty of punch. "Run them again. I don't like surprises."

"Whatever you say, Lex." Laughter ran through her voice, then trailed off to distraction. Don't hang up, something just came in." Paper rasped, and Lex could hear her conferring with someone else before she returned to talk to him. "Okay, your three o'clock with the Chamber of Commerce? Moved to noon, tomorrow, but the Metropolis Action League would like to see you. Should I fill the gap?"

-

Spitting concrete dust out of his mouth, Clark wiped a hand down his face and glowered. No, he couldn't be hurt, but it would be nice if, for once, the bad guys decided dropping something heavy on him was a cliche and just got straight to the shooting. No, actually, what would be nice, he decided as he stepped off the ground and sped down a narrow alley to land in front of his quarry, what would be nice would be if they just decided to get a day job. A legal day job, he corrected, picking up both thugs at once and shaking them until they dropped their guns.

A quick blast of heat vision vaporized the weapons and Clark took to flight again, giving these guys the ride of their lives. Streaking over Metropolis, the only thing between them and certain death the collars of their shirts, one screamed like a baby, and it sounded like the other recited a Hail Mary or nine. Dumping them on the front steps of the police station, Clark didn't even try to cushion their landing. That's what they got for knocking a construction scaffolding on top of him.

He stayed long enough to make sure they got cuffed, then sped home to change. One of these days, he'd figure out how to carry his work clothes under the cape, but for the time being, Clark had gotten used to buying two of everything. He wouldn't have even done that, but within three days of starting at the Daily Planet, Lois had noticed his accidental fashion show. She asked enough questions about his random disappearances, he didn't need to court more.

Listening to his messages, Clark took a quick shower and changed, bobbing his head to the sound of his mother's voice reminding him to come home over the weekend for his father's birthday. A wave of homesickness eddied beneath his skin, the blare of the city outside his window jarring against memories of crickets and the wind through trees. He'd go home, and have cake. Maybe bale some hay, and if Indian Summer lasted, walk the creek and tempt crawdads with his toes.

Since this was technically his lunch hour, Clark grabbed a package of Pop Tarts from the kitchen before heading back to the office. Taking the back way, he took long bursts of speed to dry his hair, then smoothed his shirt before walking into the Planet building. Yup, he was just a guy in a suit and a pair of wireframe glasses, polishing off the last of his snack when the elevators opened on his floor.

He didn't have a chance to make it to his desk. Lois accosted him with a tape recorder and a teletype sheet. Flapping them both in his face, it took her a second to figure out which one she wanted to rave about first. "Would you listen to this," she demanded, hitting the play button with her thumb. The recorder squealed, then caught up, and Lex's voice complained about Superman and taxes. As soon as he finished, she snapped it off, narrowing her eyes in disgust. "I don't even know where to start..."

"Can I have my tape back now, Miss Lane?" The cub reporter who'd been at the news conference peeked over the top of his cube. Absurdly deferential, he added, "If you're done with it, I mean."

Tossing the recorder to him, Lois whipped around and caught Clark's arm, forcibly escorting him to their shared desk. She still had the teletype to wave, and as long as Lois had some kind of visual aid, she was happy. In a pinch, she could make do with wide gesticulations, but it wasn't quite the same. "And while Luthor's badmouthing Superman, guess what Superman was up to?"

Clark shrugged, sitting down and already reaching for his keyboard. "Kitten up a tree?"

"Breaking up a bank robbery at First Metropolis, that's what." Flinging herself into her own chair, Lois rolled back a few feet, coming to rest against their book shelf. "Miracles of morale, my ass. How about miracles, period?"

Already pecking away at his e-mail, Clark didn't look up. "Write a letter to the editor," he suggested, dipping his head and trying to hide a smile. She could go on for hours about the evils of Lex Luthor, and the wonders of Superman, and it was only interesting the first hundred times. Besides, it wasn't like he could weigh in on the conversation- he knew too much about both subjects. It was safer to play dumb, and let her vent.

Rolling back to her side of the desk, she wrestled the mouse from his hand. Minimizing one window, she opened another and sat back with a victorious flop. "Already done. Well, almost, I need to add a little, but... what do you think?"

Clark skimmed over the first few paragraphs, then rolled his gaze back to her. "I don't think Perry's going to let you get away with calling him an 'ethically-challenged snake' and 'low-life scum.' One or the other, maybe..."

"It's only libel if it's not true," Lois said, snatching up a pencil. "And both of those things are true. C'mon, Smallville, where's the heat? I'm not alone here. You can't stand the guy."

With a sigh, Clark leaned as far back as his chair would go and stared at the ceiling. It was a good, contemplative position- if he fuzzed his focus enough, the pattern on the acoustic tile blended together until it looked like a snowy day from the barn loft back home. He didn't want to talk about Lex. "I don't like Britney Spears either, but that doesn't make her evil."

Lois snorted. "She's pushing thirty in a baby-doll dress, and still singing about being a lonely little girl. She's either crazy or evil, and I'm voting for evil."

-

Waving off a refill on his coffee, Lex leaned his head to the side and examined the men at the table. All older than him, they were jowly men in expensive suits, used to getting their way. Bluish cigar smoke wended between them, a thickscented fog Lex could taste, and would no doubt smell on his suit long after the meeting.

They'd mouthed around a handful of non-issues- privatizing the school system's transportation department, rezoning the lakefront for more office space, before getting to the point. Once the secretary with the coffee pot disappeared, closing thick oak doors behind her, the chairman of the Metropolis League, Cole Mannheim, danced the tips of thick fingers on the table and leaned in. "But what we really want to know is what you're going to do about Superman."

Interesting question. Drawing his gaze across their expectant faces, Lex toyed with the coffee cup before answering. "I assume his vigilance is getting in the way of smooth business operations?"

"It's not that," Frankie Gigante lied, spooning sugar into his coffee, one finger delicately lifted. "What kind of example does he set, huh? Does what he wants, when he wants to, and who's to say he's not using those powers of his in an untoward fashion, just when nobody can see?"

Rolling his lips into a faint smile, Lex straightened in his chair. "Yes, who's to say?" Besides Jonathan and Martha Kent and Pete Ross... all the official keepers of Clark's secret, an intimate circle that didn't begin to include him. Now that he thought about it, it might have been nice to have a little coffee to wash the sour taste from his mouth.

The businessmen relaxed at that response, and Mannheim rubbed the edge of the table with a telling fervor. "Glad you agree. See, we've been working on a project, I think it might interest you."

-

The issues that matter. The man you can trust.

Peeling the campaign poster off the bus stop, Clark rolled it up before throwing it away. It seemed like bad luck to tear Lex's face in half, even if people weren't supposed to post flyers on public structures. Somebody should tell his campaign manager that, Clark decided, because it seemed like every available surface in Metropolis had Lex's face plastered on it.

Clark stopped at a hot dog cart and counted out a handful of change. He had to admit, he'd probably vote for him, if it weren't Lex. He still radiated charisma, and sometimes when Clark caught glimpses of him at a distance, or on the news, he felt fifteen all over again and awed by everything about him. Lex would probably win Metropolis, the same way he'd won over Smallville: focus on the people, the numbers, the facts. He promised impossible things, and made them happen.

It's what he did without saying anything that was the problem. Maybe "the issues that matter" interested Lex, but Clark very much doubted he was the man to trust. Meteor rocks and flowers, hidden vaults with secret plans, nosy excops and even nosier reporters, all set loose on people he'd had the gall to call friends. For somebody as smart as Lex was supposed to be, Clark thought he had a talent for making incredibly stupid decisions.

So much curiosity, and not enough common sense, the only silver lining Clark could shake out of Lex running for mayor was that it might give Superman new and more interesting things to do. After all, who knew what kryptonite might do to the alligators purportedly living in the sewers?

Shaking it off, Clark devoured the first hot dog, then fished through his pocket again. Producing forty seven cents and a linty breath mint, he smiled an apology at the vendor then started toward home. He still had a birthday present to buy, an article about the Gigante crime family to finish, and patrols to run. Somebody else could worry about Lex, Clark had done his time.

-

The glow of a monitor reflecting on his face, Lex watched Mannheim's animated sequence again, then shook his head. Playing on repeat, a geometric Superman swooped down to pick up a box, again and again, it exploded. A close-up of the explosion played in a smaller window, green needle shrapnel penetrating the red S, green liquid coursing through Superman's theoretical innards until his speculative heart seized and stopped.

An impressive fantasy, Lex pursed his lips. "Very imaginative, gentlemen, and destined for failure." Smoothing his tie, he turned his gaze on the businessmen surrounding him. "Or did you forget he can destroy something from a hundred yards away just by looking at it?"

Gigante snorted, a thick, gummy sound that made Lex's skin crawl. "That's the just the concept. You gotta see the prototype to appreciate the beauty of it." Shuffling out of the room, he returned a moment later, cradling an infant in his beefy arms. Round and golden, the baby cooed, stretching fat little fingers. Touching its button nose, Gigante grinned at Lex. "Favors me, don't you think?"

"I hope you're not suggesting..."

Before Lex could finish, Gigante threw the baby at him. Panic tightened in his chest. Adrenaline thrumming, he opened his arms to catch it. Smoothing the crying, wiggling bundle against his chest, Lex shuddered. It was cold, and heavy, and it took him a moment to realize it smelled not of baby powder but latex. Leaning his head back to examine it, and little glass eyes stared back at him.

"You probably don't want to kiss that one," Mannheim said, chuckling under his breath. "Amazing, isn't it? Does everything but wet its diapers."

Holding the baby... no, doll at arms' length, Lex tried to shake off the cold tickle of revulsion creeping down his spine. Exquisite craftsmanship, its wires and switches were so deftly hidden that holding the doll gave Lex the impression of holding a dead, but animate, child. When Gigante took it from him, Lex pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his hands. "It's quite the work of art."

"Winslow Schott's a little nutty, but he makes wonderful toys," Mannheim said. Back to business, he leaned over the computer to punch up another animated model. "How could Superman resist that kind of bait, I ask you? And the way we've got this baby..." He trailed off to laugh at himself before continuing. "Wired, one way or the other, it's going off. Pressure switch, mercury switch, altitude switch, and if all that fails, a timer. What do you think about that?"

"I have to admit, it's ingenious." Sizing Mannheim up with a lazy gaze, Lex shrugged. "My only question is, what do you need me for?"

"Funding," Gigante said, earning a sharp look from Mannheim. "It takes a specialist to build a device like this. Those specialists, they don't come cheap."

Turning back to the animation, Lex watched geometric Superman die again before replying. "Name your price, gentlemen."

-

Plopping a red, flap-eared hat on her head, Chloe spun around with her arms out wide. Modeling it with expansive gestures, she smiled up at Clark. "Well?"

"The Elmer Fudd look, I like it." He laughed and ducked around her. Heading down the next aisle, he tried not to breathe. Catfish bait, deer lure, bug repellant- he could smell all of them through their packaging. It was worse than the detergent aisle at the grocery store, only instead of an assault of spring fresh, it was battery by blood-cheese and DDT.

Chloe rounded the corner, still wearing the hat. "So, what do we get the farmer who has everything?" She picked a pair safety-orange hunting overalls off a rack, running her fingers along the elaborate quilting on the bib. Waiting until she had Clark's attention again, she flapped them out for display. "My search is over."

"When have you ever seen my dad wear overalls," Clark asked, crouching down to unfasten the clasps on a tackle box. Thrusting thick fingers into the drawers, he took it apart piece by piece. His dad had been using a battered black lunch box for his lures for as long as he could remember, and he'd learned some of his very first cuss words watching Jonathan prick his fingers on tangled hooks. A spot for everything, and nothing his dad would ever buy himself- it was pretty close to perfect.

"Never. Therefore, he doesn't own any, therefore, they are the ideal gift." Despite that, she hung them back on the rack and disappeared. A few moments later, the shrill scream of a duck call filled the air, followed by laughter. "I can't believe you never told me how much fun the manly man department at Wicklow's could be."

Sliding the tackle box off the shelf, Clark tucked it under his arm. "I was afraid you couldn't handle it." Peeking around the shelves, he watched as Chloe lifted a plastic jar of rubber nightcrawlers over her head, shaking them, then huddling down to try to see them glow in the shadows of her arms. "Guess I was right."

"Sorry, Clark. Now that I've had a taste of the bizarre mysteries here, I'm never leaving." She shook the jar again. Peering at the tangle of lures, she tipped her head from one side, to the other, her eyes nearly crossing in her examination. "What are these things made out of, anyway?"

"Snips, snails. Puppy dog tails, that kind of stuff." Clark took the jar and set it back on the shelf. "Come on. If we hurry, we can catch the 8.30 show."

With one last glance at shelves full of glistening, glittering lures, Chloe followed him to the cash register. "As appealing as an extended appreciation of all things Clark Kent sounds, I'm going to have to take a rain check. Lana's actually getting off early for once."

Making a non-committal noise under his breath, Clark put the tackle box on the counter, leaning against it to look down at her. Trying for subtle and neutrally interested, Clark let his gaze wander to the ceiling. "How is Lana, anyway?"

"Oh no, we're not doing this again. If you want to know what Lex is up to, ask Lana yourself. I refuse to play the part of your go-between." Jutting out her lower lip, she blew a puff of air to clear her bangs from her eyes. With the hunting cap still on, the maneuver was less than successful. "I know you guys are all wrapped up with this inexplicable arch-nemesis thing, but I've got to tell you, Clark. It's getting kind of old for the rest of us."

"We have our reasons," Clark said, pushing enough money at the clerk to cover the tackle box, and Chloe's new, ridiculous hat. He could feel Chloe rolling her eyes at him, even picture it in his mind, the expansive way her entire body would shimmy with annoyance. Taking his bag, Clark turned and pulled the cap down over her eyes. "Forget I asked. Tell me about the hideous Llama Woman of Borneo, instead. Did she really spit when you interviewed her?"

-

Lex couldn't remember the last time he saw a sunrise. His days began before dawn, in that hazy, twilight time when fog dared to creep into the city, and all the lights kept him from seeing the stars. Some of that had come to Smallville; intervening years and his father's interests were determined to turn quiet Americana into the suburbs of a city too far for a commute. Ticky tacky rows of nearly identical houses wound around streets named after trees and flowers, with a few Caesars lurking in the cul de sacs, just for variety.

Past the mall, past the Megaplex, Smallville finally looked like itself again on the long curve of the State Road that turned into Hickory Lane. Long jade fields shivered in the wake of the Mercedes, and brilliant bursts of golden, crimson light reflected in it rear view mirror. Easing the brake with a soft touch, he rounded a corner, squinting past the reflection of sunrise in his eyes to make out the road's confines.

Past a fence, greyed with age, past a mailbox with a new coat of paint, Lex slowed still more, and stopped several yards away from the house. His skin seemed too tight, squeezing his thighs and bowing his shoulders as he let himself out of the car and started the slow walk to the porch. Dust swirled in the air when he strode through it. Up the stairs, hand poised to knock on the door frame, memories felt like deja vu when Lex caught the hint of apple and spice lingering warm within.

"You're not welcome here." Emerging from the hall, Jonathan Kent didn't approach the door. Still rugged and strong in spite of the silver flecking his once-gold hair, he stood straight, and his voice echoed.

Pursing his lips, Lex spread his hand on the doorframe. "I need to speak to Clark."

"You have some nerve." Jonathan still didn't approach, but he moved. Bristling under the skin, his fingers playing at the button-hem of his flannel shirt. With an imperious tip of his head, Jonathan shooed at Lex with lifted eyebrows and a frown set so deep that it drew shadows in the lines around his mouth. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Get in your car, turn around, and go back to Metropolis."

Interrupted by a rumble of feet on the stairs, Jonathan held out a hand to stay Clark before he walked into the kitchen. An absurd gesture, one better suited to stilling knee-high children than full grown men, Clark made a face until he saw the reason for it. "What are you doing here, Lex?"

"He's just leaving," Jonathan said.

Letting his hand slip from the door, Lex straightened his tie. For all the coolness in his eyes, he couldn't hide the hint of red burning the tips of his ears, a pulsebeat tell of anger and frustration. Smooth brow furrowed, he looked from father to son. "Before you ride me out of town with a shotgun, why don't you consider the fact that I wouldn't subject myself to this kind of warm welcome without a compelling reason?"

Then, Jonathan did move. Sharp, short steps, cutting the space between them in a moment. "More like an excuse, you mean. You always had an excuse, well I for one am sick of Lex Luthor's..."

"Dad, your heart." Clark put a hand on his father's shoulder, casting a dark look at Lex. Except for the glasses, he looked the same. Maybe a little older in the eyes, but his cheeks were still smooth, and he still spoke with a soft reverence when addressing Jonathan. "I'll take care of it."

Jonathan hesitated, then shot Lex another ugly glare before turning away. As soon as he was gone, Clark took his place, the screen separating him from Lex. Standing in the place his father just abandoned, Clark made no move to open the door. "What do you want?"

"I need to speak to Superman, Clark. I was wondering if you knew where I might find him." Each word smooth and cool, Lex's gaze never wavered. It was easier to see now, the way Clark's pale eyes darkened right before he started to tell a lie.

"No clue. Take out an ad in the Planet."

"And Lois calls herself an investigative journalist," Lex said, taking a step back. Behind him, the end of dawn burned away under the rising sun, full sunlight leaching the color from his skin.

Pushing the door open, Clark slipped onto the porch. He forced Lex back with small steps, move or be moved, until they stood away from the house, casting short shadows on Martha's tomato patch. "It's my dad's birthday, and I don't want you upsetting him."

Lex exhaled a thin laugh. "A masterful change of subject, Clark. I'm impressed."

"I'm not fooling around. Just go home and leave my family alone." Towering over Lex, Clark shoved his hands in his pockets, deep and hard. He didn't seem quite as young like this, sharp edges filling in the softness around his mouth.

"I'm not interested in your family. I'm interested in Superman." Lex pulled his shoulders back, working out the tension tightening beneath his skin. "Then again, what's in a name, really? Superman, Clark Kent... did you really think I wouldn't notice? The glasses aren't much of a disguise."

Temper frayed, Clark yanked a hand from his pocket, cutting it through the air. "I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't care. Go home, Lex."

Turning on his heel, Lex crunched over gravel as he started back toward his car. Producing his keys, he waved them before hitting the remote, casual-lazy. "It's times like these when I wonder why I ever left Smallville. Being reviled certainly had its advantages." Opening the door, he looked back with a faint, cold smile. "Send your partner my regards, won't you? She makes me feel at home."

-

"It's not much, but I hope you like it," Lana said, leaning over the picnic table to slip a small package into Jonathan's hands. Eyes sparkling as he worked his fingers under the tape, Lana brushed the blunt ends of her bobbed hair behind her ears. Chloe rubbed her hand against the small of Lana's back, basking in the warmth of Lana's excitement.

Already surrounded by a tackle box, a balloon bouquet, a pair of salt and pepper shakers for a collection he pretended he didn't have, and a very small jar of peanuts ("It's your birthday," Martha had said, holding up a warning finger, "But don't overdo it.") Jonathan reigned over his quiet, family birthday party with a broad smile.

"You shouldn't have," Martha said, brushing a bobbing, silvery balloon away.

Jonathan nudged his wife. "It's my birthday, and if Lana thinks she should have..."

Before he could finish, two cell phones went off in short succession, and with sheepish smiles, Lana and Chloe both murmured apologies and retreated from the table. Glancing back and forth from his dad, to his friends, Clark didn't intentionally eavesdrop, but since he could hear church bells in the next county, it wasn't hard to make out bits and pieces of their conversations.

"I'm sorry, who did you say you were again," Lana asked, turning in a small circle, shifting in uncomfortable, apologetic shrugs when she caught sight of the Kents amidst her rotations.

More emphatic, Chloe's mouth dropped open and she pointed at her phone for Lana's benefit. "You've got to be kidding me."

"No, I understand that," Lana said, her glance darting back and forth. "I only arrange Mr. Luthor's appearance schedule. What he does in his personal time..."

"Whoa, run that by me again." Pressing a finger against her ear, Chloe bent a little at the waist, as if that would somehow improve her reception. "The SWAT team?"

When Lana took another half turn, Clark raised a hand to catch her attention, then mouthed, 'What's going on?' She shook her head in reply, disbelief narrowing her eyes. "Again, I have no comment."

"No, you send somebody to take pictures right now, but I'm going to write the story." Grinding her foot against the grass, Chloe rolled her eyes expansively, making her hand bite at the air in disgust at whoever insisted on going on and on at the other end of the line. "I said I'd be there, I'll be there. I am the original go-to girl, and I'm hanging up on you now."

Rising from his seat on the bench, Clark smiled in confusion when Chloe and Lana hung up at the same time. "What's going on?"

Chloe gathered her purse, and with an expectant look from Lana, handed hers over, too. "You'll never believe this..." Her gaze drifted toward Jonathan, and she corrected with a little shrug. "Or maybe you will. The police got a tip about a plot to kill Superman..."

Stunned as she slipped her phone back into her purse, Lana finished Chloe's sentence. "And they think Lex is involved."

-

Littered with yellow tape and squad cars, the street in front of Rouse's Sweet Tooth candy store had become a staging ground for the Metropolis Police Department. Cherry lights flashed, lighting up dusk blue and red strobes, making an exciting and attractive backdrop for the reporters that had gathered just on the other side of the police lines. Sirens and humming helicopter blades roared together, and occasionally, someone calling herself Sergeant Russert would bleat meaningless reassurances over a megaphone. All in all, it was a law enforcement circus.

Inside, Frankie Gigante flipped the blinds closed again, leaving them to clatter like cards being shuffled. All the color had drained from his usually sanguine face, and he set his mouth into a grimace. "Now they've got sharpshooters out there."

Lounging against a glass counter, Lex considered a jar of all day suckers. His mother had bought him one once, and he could remember the sticky, creamed-orange flavor of it if he thought hard enough. He wondered if one would stop a bullet. "Not entirely unexpected."

Mannheim paced behind the counter, and every so often, he'd punch the keys of the old-fashioned register just to make them chime. That particular blow shook the box of Schott's deadly baby dolls, and beneath all the other noise polluting the air, they started to fuss. "Somebody talked."

"Really? What gave you that impression," Lex asked, pushing the jar across the counter with little, deliberate touches. His tie dangled like a limp weed from his neck, the first two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned. The police had cut the power to the store hours ago, and sweat shimmered on his skin.

"You think this is some kind of joke, Luthor?" Gigante peeked past the blinds again, obsessed with tallying just how many people were waiting out there for them to emerge. "I bet it was that little piece of shit mick Maguire. Never fucking trust the Irish."

"Eloquently put." Starting toward the back of the store, Lex swallowed a smile as he inspected the drink cooler. It didn't seem they were going anywhere for a while, so he slid the door open and leaned in. Breathing in the chill, Lex savored the brief respite from the stink of sweat and fear, then fished around until he found a bottle of mineral water. It wasn't Ty Nant, but it would do.

Chinging the register again, Mannheim gritted his teeth. "This is unacceptable. I'm a respectable businessman!"

"You and me both," Gigante said, going for the blinds one more time. He squinted when one of the cops turned a flood light on the window, then turned his head away from the sudden intrusion of megawatt brightness.

"And I'm running for mayor. I doubt that makes much difference to the authorities." Lex rubbed the lip of the bottle against his own, rolling it in short quarter-strokes before taking a sip. "Do you think it's a good idea to stand in front of the window?"

"Where else is he going to stand?" Mannheim took another swing at the register, jerking his hand back to shake the sting out of it. "Two steps to the left or right, and we're giving each other piggyback rides."

Gigante snapped, reaching out to grab Mannheim's wrist before he thumped the register again. "Knock it the fuck off already, you're giving me a migraine."

Lex rubbed the bottle against his throat, resting his back against the cooler. He closed his eyes, smoothing condensation over his skin, listening to the cacophony outside growing louder by the moment. While Gigante and Mannheim bickered over the harm or relative lack thereof in beating the everliving shit out of the register, Lex worked on relaxing his muscles one by one. When he finally achieved a comfortable slump, he looked them over. "I don't know about the two of you, but I pay people to deal with things like these, so I'm going to stand back here, finish my water, then surrender."

Gigante and Mannheim turned at once to shout down that idea, but they were both blown to the floor when the shaded picture window exploded. A blinding burst of light turned everything negative, shelves rattling with a concussive blast. The sharp, sweet scent of black powder and dry smoke filled the small shop, and after that, the only thing Lex could hear was the echo of it pounding in his head. Black-gloved hands appeared from nowhere, leathered fingers digging into his arms to lift him.

Hacking on the smoke, Lex sucked in shallow breaths as soon as the cooler air outside hit his face. When he blinked, he could see the flash painted on the inside of his eyelids, and his vision wasn't much better with his eyes open. Indistinct shapes moved around him, pushing him to walk toward something he couldn't see. It wasn't until he was pushed down to sit on the edge of a gurney that someone took the water bottle from his hand.

-

"Why'd you do it, Lex?"

Clark leaned in the doorway, holding up the wall with a broad, flannel-clad shoulder. He hadn't been able to catch up until now- with Chloe and Lana on their way to Metropolis, there would be no way to explain it if he beat them there, and from the reports on KMET, the police didn't need Superman's help. Watching Lex button his shirt, he waited in silence for an answer.

Continuing to dress, Lex didn't look up. "I'm not taking questions tonight, Mr. Kent, but my representatives will be making a statement shortly."

With a disgusted sigh, Clark plucked Lex's jacket from the wall hook and tossed it to him. "I'm here as a friend."

Lex shrugged into the jacket, then slid to his feet. Shaking out his hands to settle his clothes back to their familiar fit, he turned his wrist over to tighten his watch's band. "We're not friends anymore."

The words, though true, still stung, prickling at the hair on the back of Clark's neck. He itched to do something, to help in some way, but Lex was perfectly capable of dressing himself. Instead, he offered a non-apology, an explanation. "You lied to me."

"Still standing on the high moral ground of honesty, Clark?" Lex walked around the hospital bed, opening the bedside drawer to retrieve his wallet. "I'm a little tired, maybe we can play this round another time."

"I'm not picking a fight, Lex." Frustrated, Clark ran his fingers through his hair, pushing dark waves off his forehead. "I just want to know why you did it. You hate Superman."

Patting his pockets, Lex finally looked up at him. A pale butterfly bandage decorated one cheek, just beneath a slowly purpling half-moon decorating his eye. In spite of the injuries, he managed to look mostly impeccable. "I don't hate you. You just need someone to remind you that you're fallible."

Clark shifted off the wall, dropping his hands and staring at his feet. "You could have been killed."

"You would have been." Closing one button on his jacket, Lex smoothed his hands over it. Taking one last quick inventory of the room, Lex brushed past him.

Just a brief contact, it coursed electric along Clark's skin, almost as potent as the first time Lex touched him, fingers over fingers, a lead box between them, offered as a gift. That had been about a million years ago, give or take. Chest tight when he took a breath, Clark called after him. "Lex, wait."

He stopped, presenting Clark with nothing but a black expanse of Armani and pale skin. "I'm tired, Clark. I want to go home."

"How long have you been working for the police?" Clark's sneakers squeaked on the medicinally clean floor. There were a hundred reporters outside dying to ask the same question, and a hundred more like it. Clark knew he'd hear every single one of them, asked and answered in Lois' brassy voice, probably until he was sick of the details, but he wanted to hear it first from Lex.

Dipping his head, Lex's shoulder shook with a silent smile. "Once. And just this once." Finally, he rolled his head to meet Clark's gaze. "Have you ever worn a wire? I don't recommend it."

Clark offered a weak smile. "They probably didn't have to shave you though, right?"

Motionless for a moment, Lex smiled suddenly, a brilliant flash that. "No. There were no razors involved. Just flash grenades. Another experience I don't recommend."

Falling into step next to Lex seemed natural. They walked through the back corridors of the hospital quietly, avoiding the media crush swarming in the lobby. When the reporters' clamoring voices faded, Clark finally looked over at him, mapping the age on his face, the delicate trace of lines that creased the corners of his eyes. "I owe you dinner, at least."

Ever restless, Lex returned the gaze, dipping to consider Clark's mouth before shifting back up to meet his eyes. "At least."



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