Beyond Recognition

by Corinna


Tremendous thanks to Yahtzee and Livia for beta-reading, and the Green Chick for enthusiastic audiencing. Thanks also to RivkaT for the legal advice: it's not her fault that I didn't follow it.


The Daily Planet's newsroom was a jumble of dull metal desks, beige cubicle dividers, and harsh fluorescent lights, but it was the Daily Planet, the best newspaper in the Midwest, one of the five best in the country, and Clark still couldn't believe his good luck at landing a job there right out of college. Or his even better luck that Mr. White had teamed him, the rookie, up with Lois Lane, the youngest reporter on the paper's staff with a Pulitzer to her name.

Lois hadn't taken the idea that she'd be working with a new reporter four years younger than she was well at all; for the first few months Clark's main impression of her had been just long legs and impatience. She mostly still just let him to do the scutwork -- the Google searches, the microfiche runs, the transcription of a hundred telephone interviews. But he could use his powers to zip through those tasks without anyone really noticing anything but that he was good at the job, and even Lois had noticed that. So he was getting more to do every day. He'd even gotten to share the byline on the nursing home story, though she rewrote all his copy before she handed the piece in. Some days, he looked around the newsroom and then squeezed his eyes shut tight and shook his head really fast, like maybe it was all a really good dream and any minute he'd be back at the Met U. Herald, writing about student protests on the Commons and ordering another round of those greasy falafels from the place next door to the office.

"Hey, Smallville!" Lois dropped a thick manila folder on his desk. "Snap out of it! You've got work to do."

Clark pushed his thick black plastic glasses up on his nose and smiled at her. "What's up, Lois?"

"I need you to do a little research on a tip one of my shadier sources gave me. I want to make sure it pans out before I take it any further." Lois nudged her way into Clark's cubicle, forcing him to roll his chair back towards the file cabinet on the far wall. She opened the file, and a lock of her short brown hair fell across her face as she leaned over it. She flipped through the stack of magazine pages and printouts from the Planet's website, taking a few of them out as she went and placing them carefully on his desk.

"Over the last three months, some of the most powerful business executives in the country have been in the news for something other than their quarterly reports," she said as she continued going through the file. "One arrested on embezzlement charges, one stepped down as CEO for unspecified 'personal reasons'" -- Lois's manicured fingers sketched scare quotes in the air as skeptical as her tone of voice -- "one died in a hit-and-run, and another one was found dead in his apartment in St. Louis. The coroner ruled it a suicide."

"Tough time to be Mr. Big," Clark said. "Where's the story?"

A few more pages, and then she stopped. One red fingernail tapped on a faded headline. "There."

Clark's stomach lurched. He could hear his voice crack embarrassingly as he said, "Lex Luthor? What about him?"

"Everyone who's been killed or ruined," Lois said solemnly, "was in direct competition with LexCorp."

"Come on, Lois!" Clark protested. "LexCorp's a multinational conglomerate. Who *isn't* in competition with it?" He reached across her arm for the folder. "What about... Mississippi Bargeworks? Now, that's the name of an untrustworthy company if I've ever heard one. Maybe they want to expand!" He flipped to the next page. "Or, hey! Microsoft!"

"Nobody's spreading rumors about the underworld connections of the head of Mississippi Bargeworks, Clark," Lois said exasperatedly. "And not even Bill Gates has Luthor's reputation for utter ruthlessness when it comes to getting what he wants."

"You're thinking of Lionel Luthor."

"Father and son both. Look, I'm not saying it's any kind of proof. I'm just saying that there may be a connection between these incidents, and I've heard rumblings that suggest the connection is Lex Luthor."

"'Rumblings'? No offense, Lois, but I don't think real underworld types still say things like that."

Surprisingly, this made her laugh. "And you'd know, right?"

But it was Lex who'd taken him to dark bars where they didn't check a teenaged boy's ID or care what sort of deals got made in the scuffed vinyl booths at the back, so Clark just shrugged. "I'll look into LexCorp's dealings with these companies if that's what you want me to do, but I'm telling you now, I'm not going to find anything."

"You think what you want to think, Smallville. I'm the experienced journalist here, and I've got a gut feeling that I'm on to something." She gave him a small smirk. "And, if I'm wrong? I'll buy dinner the next time you have to stay late."

"Better hit that ATM now, then." Clark rolled his chair back up to his desk, and pulled the file pages in front of him.

That night, there was a fire at the Chicago Hilton in the middle of a conference on rebuilding investor confidence. Jonathan Follard, the CEO of Mississippi Bargeworks, was burned across fifty percent of his body and taken to the trauma center at Mitchell Hospital. An insurance company executive died of smoke inhalation on the scene. Lex Luthor was at a fundraiser for the Lillian Luthor Center for the Arts in Metropolis, hundreds of miles away. His expressions of shock and remorse on the evening news looked genuine even to Clark. But still, he couldn't sleep, and Lois's words were rattling around inside his head. Finally, he suited up and headed to Chicago, just to find out what had really happened.


"Definitely arson."

"How --?" Lois asked. "I mean, the Chicago fire department isn't saying anything for sure yet."

"I have contacts," Clark said, and tried to look mysterious. Really, the firefighters probably weren't supposed to have told him anything, but the suit cut through a lot of people's resistance.

"Oh-ho! I guess that school paper's a great place to meet confidential sources, huh?" She gave him a lopsided grin that was equal parts amused and intrigued, and he could feel himself blushing in response. "Anything else?"

He cleared his throat and tried to sound professional. "Uh, just that whoever it was knew what they were doing. Which means a pro, probably."

"Which means this was no petty personal grudge getting worked out." Her face shone with excitement. "This was serious business. Emphasis on the business."

Clark sighed and leaned back a little against Lois's desk. In the time he'd been at the Planet he'd already learned, mostly the hard way, that her journalistic instincts were good ones. But he knew things she didn't about Lex, knew the soft rueful smile behind the public mask and the reason he wore that Napoleon watch, and maybe it was time for Clark to trust his own instincts on this one. "Lois, I'm not saying it's a bad theory, honest. But it doesn't fit. He's not an evil man. He -- he was giving out scholarships to art students last night!"

She rolled her eyes dismissively at that. "Yeah. So did the Borgias."

And wasn't that exactly what Lex would have said if he were in Lois's place? The thought was enough to keep him going despite the defensive tone in his voice that was probably hurting his argument. "A-and, you know, maybe he does want to take out the competition, but he'd want to do it by outsmarting everyone else, not by killing them off. And he'd want everyone to know it was him, too."

"You sound pretty sure of yourself, Smallville. Is there something you're not telling me?"

Oh, boy was there ever. "I... I knew Lex. A little. He started LexCorp in Smallville, and, well, it's small. You know people. My mom even worked for his dad, after he was blinded in the tornado in '02." The look on Lex's face as he stood over Roger Nixon's body came back to him unbidden, and he swallowed hard against it. "I just don't believe Lex could ever kill another person. Not unless it was a life-or-death situation. I don't think he could do it."

"Oh, Clark." The look on Lois's face was surprisingly gentle. "I'm sure that Lex Luthor was really nice to you and your parents. But you know that sometimes being a good reporter means setting personal feelings aside. You follow the story where it leads you. That's the job. You know that."

"But--"

She pressed a hand against his forearm. "Look. You don't have to tell me that I'm running on instinct here. And that this story still relies way too much on the say-so of guys you'd normally cross the street to avoid. But I think there's something there, so I've got to follow the story. Besides, if I'm wrong, don't you want to be the one who proves that, too?" She looked almost beguiling. "Defend Luthor's honor and show me up, all at the same time."

Clark pulled away and shrugged his arms protectively across his chest. "It's just -- it's such a big jump, Lois. A bunch of dead or disgraced businessmen, and that means Lex did it? Why? I mean, aren't there just gonna be other people running those same companies?"

Lois brightened again, all business. "That's exactly the question I've been trying to answer myself."

"And?"

"It's like the man said -- follow the money." She turned to her computer and clicked over to the Planet's business section. "Now, you have to figure that the companies these eight men ran are all taking a hit in the market right now, right? There's blood in the water. So who's buying?" She hit a few keys on the keyboard and the screen changed. "I got Mario to set up a couple of agents for me to track the news on these companies' stocks."

Clark didn't say that he thought Mario would have built Lois a supercomputer if he thought it would get her to go out with him, but he allowed himself a little grin as he moved closer to read the screen over her shoulder.

"Two of them were presidents of banks that were already in the middle of a merger," Lois continued. "Plenty of vultures circling that one, including LexCorp Financial Services. But the others? There've been major purchases of the stocks of all of these companies at -- pardon the expression -- fire-sale prices. And the big buyers are the same three corporations. We figure out who's behind them, we've got a motive." Another two clicks and the three names were at the center of Lois's browser window. "Arvanta. Illumor. Who comes up with these names? And the Julian Group."

The screen swam in front of him.

"So, I was thinking --"

"Uh... Lois?"

She was already doing some other complicated maneuver with the news-tracking software. "Yeah?"

Clark squeezed his eyes shut for a second, then looked back at the screen. The Julian Group. "Lois. I think we have a lead."


A quick trip to the library confirmed that Arvanta, Illumor, and the Julian Group were all shell corporations, incorporated in Kansas and wholly owned by one Alexander J. Luthor, resident in Metropolis. A few more days of research into LexCorp followed, but Mr. White still wasn't impressed, and gave Clark and Lois a long lecture about how making a quick buck wasn't proof of anything, but the queasy feeling Clark had been carrying around in his stomach for days still wouldn't go away. He wished he could just pick up the phone and call Lex; find out this was all just some dumb misunderstanding. Maybe even laugh with him about it the way they used to. But that was all a long time ago.

He'd been fifteen when Lex barreled his way into his life, turned it upside-down, and changed him and his hometown for good. He'd been eighteen when the lies upon lies became too much for either of them to bear any longer. He couldn't even remember now what it had been that precipitated the break: some stupid little argument, the final weight on the lever that pulled them apart. But it wasn't long after that fight that Lex's father had suffered an incapacitating stroke, and Lex returned to Metropolis to take over both the man's companies and his role in the society pages. They hadn't even said goodbye.

At the time, he'd blamed Lex for everything -- for all the ways he'd prodded and lied and followed agendas he never bothered mentioning till after the fact. For the way Lex never said anything without meaning at least one other thing as well. Now, at twenty-three, after some distance and a bunch of growing up, Clark could see that things had been a lot more complicated, and a lot less one-sided. He knew he bore some responsibility himself for all the times he'd demanded more from Lex than he could give in return, and all the lies he'd so inexpertly insisted Lex believe. He thought he should tell Lex that too, if he could find some way to do it without revealing the truths he still needed to keep hidden. But figuring that one out would have to wait. This story wasn't the way to reintroduce himself.

"So how are we going to get to the bottom of this?" Clark asked. He and Lois were at Tostada's, a Tex-Mex place near the Planet with bright murals on the walls and great guacamole, and they were downing margaritas and the chicken fajita special at a pretty alarming pace.

"I don't know. You're the one who knew him; what do you think?"

Clark remembered long afternoons at the mansion, and the look in Lex's eyes when he got his fifth, tenth, twentieth checkmate. "I think that on my best day, I wasn't half as clever as he is all the time." He took another long swig of margarita. "What about you? You're the one with the Pulitzer; what do you think?"

And that was a mistake; he knew it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. The only good thing about this whole awful investigation had been Lois treating him like an equal over the last couple of days, taking him seriously. And he had to go and screw it up by reminding her that they weren't partners, not really, and the way she blushed high and angry on her cheekbones suggested she'd heard all the same jokes he had about how Lois Lane couldn't even write a check without dragging her Pulitzer into it. "I think," she said, "that outsmarting a potential criminal mastermind isn't what the Planet pays me to do. But I do have an idea of who can help us."

"Who?"

He was ridiculously happy to see a smile edge back across her face. "I think this sounds like a job for Superman!"

"Oh," he said dejectedly. "Yeah."


He should've gone with basic black, Clark told himself for the millionth time. Traditional Kryptonian battle colors had seemed like a good idea at the time, but he hadn't been imagining hiding under a tarp on the mezzanine overlooking the LexCorp building's lobby, trying to be inconspicuous.

Lois's best source in gangland had hinted that he knew precisely who to talk to in order to light a fire under Lex Luthor. And sure enough, after just a week, Lois had called Clark at home, telling him they had to find Superman right away: her source had heard something serious was going down at LexCorp. He'd snuck into the building through the parking garage, super-speeding it up the stairs to the mezzanine level, grateful that the painting work he'd spotted during his reconnaissance mission two days earlier was still underway. Slowly, he'd inched the tarps closer to the balcony that overlooked the classical white marble of the lobby. There were rows of slender Doric columns on either side of the wide space, and a black granite desk at the center of the far wall, where normally three security officers stood guard in front of the elevator banks. At ten at night, there was only one. At midnight, even he packed up and went home.

Clark was starting to wonder about the best way to get himself out of the building before the first early arrivals started to come in when a large, broad-shouldered man in a leather jacket stepped out of the stairwell down to the parking levels. The man checked his watch, looked around, checked his watch again, and leaned against one of the lobby pillars to wait. Clark committed as much about the man to memory as he could: work boots, black jeans, a red T-shirt with a faded black logo on it, brown hair and blue eyes. He looked like he was trying to look nonchalant, but he was tense and flushed.

They stayed like that for two hours, the man watching for someone or something, Clark watching the man. Finally, the elevator doors chimed, loud in the quiet space, and Lex stepped out into the lobby. Clark caught his breath.

Lex was wearing a black suit and a purple shirt, like the ones he'd worn so often in Smallville. He'd traded his boyish leanness for a new solidity through his chest and arms, though he walked with the same snake-hipped self-confidence Clark remembered. His features were etched more deeply in his face now; there were lines starting to form on his forehead and around his blue-gray eyes, and a firmer set to his mouth. He was still the most handsome man Clark had ever seen, and he was smiling a little to himself before he realized it.

"Luthor." The man stepped towards Lex, and a lurch in his stomach reminded Clark of why he was here, why he was hiding, and what Lois was hoping he'd find. Follow the story, he told himself as he took long steadying breaths. Do your job. Follow the story.

Lex looked the man up and down dismissively. "What are you doing here?"

"I needed to talk to you. It's bad news."

"I don't talk to anyone in a public place."

"Public? It's your own building, in the middle of the night. No one's here." Lex turned to go, but the man blocked his path. "Luthor, there's big trouble. You said it would all be taken care of."

"It is."

"It isn't! Are you listening to me? The FBI's in it now -- they're adding two and two, and I got people telling me they're getting to four. I need to get the hell out of the country."

"I don't know why you feel the need to share your cowardice with me, but I have nothing to say to you." Lex's voice was like steel. "Now if you'll excuse me--"

"You got nothing to say to me? Maybe I've got something to say to the cops. Tell them all about the business trips I've been going on. You want that?" The man stared Lex down, trying to intimidate him. Clark could have told him that it wasn't going to work.

"You're a maniac," Lex said coolly. "I haven't been accosted by a maniac in quite a while, and I'd forgotten how very much I don't like it."

"You sonofa*bitch*!" The man lunged at Lex, who feinted gracefully to the left. Clark pulled back the tarpaulin as quietly as he could and prepared to move. The man swung around to attack Lex again, but he staggered back instead, eyes wide and mouth open, gasping for air. Lex smoothed his tie down as he watched him collapse to the floor.

Horrified, Clark flew down to where the man lay convulsing. Lex froze for a moment, and then broke for the door. Clark grabbed him and pulled him backwards. Their eyes met, and Lex's widened with something Clark hoped wasn't recognition. He gasped a little as Clark pushed him backwards, hard enough that Lex stumbled across the lobby to the elevators. He jabbed at the call button hard several times, and pressed himself against the wall defensively.

"Don't even think it." The man's lips were turning blue and his mouth smelled of bitter almonds. Clark had read enough of his mom's Agatha Christie mysteries to know that meant he couldn't help him. He sped across the lobby, grabbing Lex by the lapels and shaking him hard. "What the hell did you do to him?"

"You're... you're...." Lex's head whipsawed back and forth. "I don't... know what... you're talking about."

Clark ran his X-ray vision up and down Lex's body, looking for the trigger device he knew had to be there. He saw only what he'd expect -- wallet, belt, keys, tiepin -- and a pair of handcuffs in Lex's left jacket pocket. Lex didn't even blink when he fished them out.

"I'm already late for a previously scheduled engagement," he said evenly, "and the young lady in question will be distressed if I arrive without those. Now, if you'll--"

"You're not going anywhere." Seeing him still so composed and coolly distant was turning Clark's horror into rage. "You killed that man."

Lex's eyes flashed with amusement. "Me? You must have seen what happened. I didn't lay a finger on him."

"And people spontaneously drop dead of cyanide poisoning all the time."

"Just the one, apparently."

Back home, when Lex had lied to him, it was upsetting, even angering, but it was part of their relationship; the lies, like the truths, were intimate ones. This was so different: Lex was playing a part, playing it for the security cameras and, Clark realized with a start, maybe even for the stranger in the superhero costume. Once, he would have been certain that Lex would know him anywhere. But Lex wasn't acting like he knew him now, and a man who'd killed for Lex was lying dead on the lobby floor. Maybe a lot of things had changed beyond recognition. And Clark had made an idiot of himself trying to convince Lois otherwise. "Luthor," he said, almost spitting the name out. "It ends here."

"Alien," Lex spat back. "I don't take orders from anybody."

"You'll be taking them from the police," Clark growled. Lex winced just a little as Clark's hand clamped down on his left arm, and Clark tried not to be glad. He forced Lex back to the center of the lobby and up against one of the columns. In a second, he had Lex's arms pulled behind him and his wrists locked in the cuffs. Normally, Clark would have flown him right to the police station, but he wanted Lex to have to look at what he'd done for a while.

"The police? There's been no crime committed here." Lex's voice was mild, but he was already struggling against the cuffs.

"That's for the D.A. to decide, not you."

"Actually, it would be for a jury to decide, if it ever got that far. You might want to learn that if you'll be playing at unlicensed police work for much longer. And if you do take me in for questioning? It would make for a long and tedious night, and at the end, there'd still be nothing but your bizarre accusations to any of it. I'm bored just thinking about it." Lex shifted a bit, and turned to look Clark in the eye. He wore a calculating expression that Clark had long ago learned to be wary of. "I'm sure we could come to some alternate arrangement."

"I'm not for sale, Luthor."

"Everyone's for sale, Superman. The righteous politician, the virtuous farmer... even you. It's just that for some of us, the price can't be measured in dollars." Lex leaned almost conspiratorially towards him, pulling just a little more against the cuffs and circling away from the sight of the corpse. "You don't need more fame, and you won't take money, so it's something else. But it's something."

"You're disgusting." There were thick computer and telephone cables built into the reception desk; Clark broke through the granite to rip out several long spans of it and carried them back to the pillar where Lex stood chained. He pushed Lex back where he wanted him and started winding the black cable around his chest.

Lex kept talking as though none of it was happening. "So what is it? Love?" He drew the word out mockingly. "That would explain why you stay in this city when you could live anywhere in the world."

"Metropolis is my home."

"No place on this planet is your home," Lex said sharply. "Try again."

Clark pulled the first knot tight enough to hurt.

"Is it the lovely Miss Lane? Are you hoping to give her another exclusive?" He made it sound depraved. "Or is it the boy? Clark Kent?"

He froze. Hearing his name in Lex's mouth, in that low voice that always meant sex -- it wasn't something he'd expected, and his head spun from it. His ribs felt like they were being squeezed together in his chest, and he could feel his face flushing red.

"Clark." Lex's chuckle was soft and breathy. "Yes. Clark's very pretty. Not as pretty as he was at sixteen, of course, but who among us is?"

"Shut up, Luthor." He tried to focus on the cables in his hand, on the pile of obituaries on his desk at the Planet, on anything other than the grey-blue eyes he could feel boring into him.

"Oh, I would, Superman, I would, but I don't think you want me to." Lex murmured. "I think you want to know what he's like. The way he sounds. You know, he makes this little hitching sound when you fuck him -- I've never heard anything quite like it." Lex's smile was knowing and sharp. "He's so pathetically eager to please. Don't you want him to please you?"

Clark remembered the touch of Lex's long fingers on the bones of his spine, Lex's breath against his neck, that pale body pressed against his own. "You... you bastard."

"Look at you. I can see how much you want it." Lex's eyes were bright, and his voice was almost hypnotic. "And I can give it to you. Everything. I can tell you what he likes. How he likes it. What to say. I can make him beg you for more."

Clark was angry and ashamed and unbearably turned on. "That's enough." He wound two more lengths of cable around Lex's body, trying not to touch him. His eyes were hot and stinging, and he wanted to lash out at something: pull down the columns like Samson, blow out the plate glass from the entryway and watch it rain down on the sidewalk, break Lex's ribs to finally see him flinch. He cinched the last knot closed. "You watch what you say, Luthor," he warned. "You have no idea what I'm capable of."

"Oh, but, Superman," Lex said, a triumphant half-smile sliding up the edges of his mouth, "I do."


Clark wore his very best suit, the charcoal gray one he'd bought for his college graduation, to Lex Luthor's arraignment. Lex sat at the defendant's table surrounded by sleek attorneys, his linen suit of winter white making him all the more impossible to miss among the black and grey crowd of counselors.

Clark was sitting near the back of the press section, using his bulk for once to take up as much room as he reasonably could until Lois arrived half an hour late, her hair still damp from the shower and her blue dress wrinkled. "Thanks," she whispered as she slid into the space he'd saved for her, "did I miss anything?"

"No. Luthor's lead counsel and the DA got called into the judge's chambers pretty much immediately. We've all just been sitting here waiting."

"Phew. I tell you, Smallville, it's these NPR pledge drives -- they're so boring, you fall back to sleep! I'm changing my alarm clock to a rock station till it's over." Lois made a face as she reached into her bag for her pad and pen. "Ugh. Someone should tell Luthor that white is not his color."

Clark remembered making love after Lex's fencing lesson, the gear still scattered across the training room and Lex's jacket only half-undone. He dug his fingernails into his palm until it hurt. "Geez, Lois," he said, "did we get put on the fashion beat? Because, you know, I can't tell an Armani from a hole in the wall."

Lois snorted. "Straight boys. You're all alike."

The door to the judge's chambers swung open and everyone got to their feet. The judge looked annoyed as she took her seat again and gaveled the court into session. "Let's get this over with. Read the charges."

"The State of Kansas versus Alexander Joseph Luthor, the charge is one count of murder in the first degree," the court clerk announced.

"Mr. Bendecker, how does your client plead?"

"Not guilty." Lex's lead counsel was a grey-haired man with aristocratic features. "Your Honor, I have here a motion to suppress the hearsay testimony of the extraterrestrial creature known as Superman."

"Your Honor, the State would like to renew the objections made in chambers--"

"Overruled, Ms. Reynolds. Motion granted."

"Since these charges are based entirely on the extravagant assumptions drawn by the District Attorney's office from this testimony," Bendecker continued, "we would ask that all charges against my client be set aside."

"Your Honor," objected the prosecutor, jumping to her feet again, "Superman can provide direct eyewitness testimony as to the murder of John Taylor --"

"A death which the Medical Examiner's office is not even willing to unequivocally categorize as murder," Bendecker retorted. "There's nothing but proximity to the decedent to suggest that my client was even involved. By that logic, Superman himself could as easily be charged with his death." Lex smoothed down his tie, but his expression stayed fixed as Bendecker went on. "Your Honor, that these charges have even made it to the arraignment phase is a testament to the sad lengths the District Attorney's office will go for publicity, and nothing else."

"As much as it pains me to admit it," sighed the judge, "Mr. Bendecker has a point. I hereby order the charges against Mr. Luthor dismissed without prejudice. Ms. Reynolds, tell your bosses to bring their `A' game from now on."

The gavel went down again, and the press section was suddenly a flurry of noise and motion. Cell phones were flipped open and tape recorders pulled out as the crowd of journalists surged towards the courthouse steps for the lawyers' statements to the press. Clark followed the crowd out as far as the courtroom door, then stopped and tapped Lois's shoulder. "You go ahead. I -- I, uh, need to... I'll be right there."

Lois gave him a look that made it clear she thought he'd gone insane, but she hurried on to rejoin the pack without him. Clark moved towards the front of the courtroom, where Lex was still congratulating his attorneys. When he noticed that Clark was there, he stepped away from the group to join him.

"Clark Kent." Lex's eyes flickered with an amused expression Clark couldn't quite name. "It's been... so long."

"Lex. Are you going to gloat now?"

"Gloat, Clark?" Lex's eyebrows went up in a performance of surprise. "A potential miscarriage of justice was averted here today. I might celebrate that, but I see no occasion for gloating. And you can quote me on that."

He turned to go, but Clark grabbed his arm, almost too hard, and pulled Lex back towards him. "Off the record, Lex? Maybe we can't prove it, but we know what you did. And next time, you won't walk away."

"Off the record? Next you'll be telling me I'm among friends." Lex's eyes were blazing now, but he didn't pull away. "Remember this, Clark: whatever you might believe, I'm walking out of this courtroom a free man. Not even Superman can stop me. We both now that now."

"You think you've scared him off? You think you've won, Lex?" Clark shook his head. "I don't believe you've turned into this."

"I don't believe you're surprised. I'm a successful businessman and a respected scientific innovator."

"A murderer."

"A man to whom an extraterrestrial vigilante has taken an inexplicable dislike," Lex corrected. "But, then again, Clark, you should understand that completely. You never trusted me yourself."

Clark didn't know what to say to that, so he stepped back silently and let Lex's arm drop.

Lex smoothed down the wrinkles in his suit with a wry smile. "You should look into wire rims; they'd suit you better. Oh, and give my best to your parents, Clark. I trust they're well?" And then the dark flock of lawyers surrounded him again and bore him away.

Clark slumped down onto the nearest of the hard wooden gallery benches. He could already hear the reporters outside the courthouse, shouting questions over the noise of two dozen clicking cameras, but he couldn't bring himself to join them. The last week, he hadn't let himself think about anything other than his patrols and writing up their article. He'd done everything Lois asked him to as they tried, and failed, to prove Taylor's role in the attacks and to link him to Lex. He'd let the answering machine pick up in his apartment and avoided his office voicemail, ducking calls from home and from Chloe, anxious for him from London. He'd forced himself to think of Lex in the abstract, a file folder full of notes and a combination of keys on his laptop. But now, seeing him again and hearing his voice, everything was horribly real again, and the implications of it all felt overwhelming.

Not even Superman can stop me, he'd said. Clark wasn't so sure he was wrong about that. But he knew that Superman would have to try. He could see it all now: confronting Lex in back alleys and boardrooms and courts of law. Too late to stop him again and again and again. And all the time, he'd have to wonder how this happened. Why Lex had changed. If he could have done anything to stop this all long before it started. He sighed, and wished wildly that he could burn the suit and run somewhere where no one would ever need his help again. Maybe the North Pole would do.

"Clark?" Lois's high heels thudded dully against the industrial linoleum flooring as she walked towards him. "I called in the basic story, but we should get back and fill it out -- Perry wants it up on the web site as soon as possible."

"Okay," he said, not moving.

She slid into the seat directly in front of his and twisted around to try to catch his eye. "Is it that he got off? Or that he was the one getting caught in the first place?" Clark hunched further into himself, and Lois sighed.

"Clark. I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone else at the Planet, and if you repeat it, I'll deny the whole thing. Okay?" That got him to look up a bit, and she gave him a small reassuring smile. "Good. Now, one of my first big stories was about a drug ring operating out of Metropolis University Hospital. There was a doctor involved, one of my dad's friends -- a guy who'd come to dinner at my parents' house all the time when I was a kid. And I didn't want it to be him; I mean, I wanted the story, but I didn't want him to be the story, you know? But he was. He lost his job and his license. And I told myself that it was his own damn fault, I told myself I was doing the right thing, and even my parents told me I shouldn't blame myself. But for a couple of months after, every time I had a nightmare, he was in there somewhere, accusing me." She sighed. "There's something really terrible about what we do for a living, Smallville. But that doesn't make it any less necessary to do it."

"I don't know..." He looked up again. "Maybe I'm not cut out for it, Lois."

"Don't be ridiculous. We wouldn't work so well together if you weren't." She smiled again at his startled look. "Yeah, and don't tell Perry I said that, all right? He thinks he's infallible already."

He tried to smile in response. "Thank you, Lois. That means a lot to me. I just... it's really hard."

"Yeah," she said. "It is. It gets a little easier with experience, though. I promise." She brightened and jumped to her feet. "And next time, we'll get the bald bastard. What do you say?"

"Okay," he said, and this time he almost meant it.

"Good." She reached her hands out to him, and he let her pull him out of his seat. "Come on. I tell you what. Even though I won -- and I've been very good about not gloating about that, have you noticed? -- I'm buying you dinner tonight. Sound good?"

"Sounds great," he said, and it did.

"All right. Then let's go. We've got a paper to put out!"

And with that, she was gone, a blue cotton blur. Clark laughed a little to himself at her energy. He looked around the courtroom one more time, taking everything in. Then he closed his eyes tight, shook his head a little, and followed Lois out.



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