Clark had been visiting Lex's apartment on Pine Street for five years, and living there himself for almost four months, and he still hadn't figured out that the private elevator up to the penthouse was bugged. Not that Lex minded.
"It's still kind of difficult for him," Clark was saying into the well-concealed microphone, "so if he's, you know, cold, or weird --"
"Lois, you and I slept together." Clark's voice dropped to a pained whisper on the last two words. "For nearly a month."
"The two of you were split up at the time, Clark." Lois sounded defensive.
"I know," Clark said. "I know. But that doesn't mean he likes the thought of it. Look, he agreed to do dinner, the three of us, and that's a step in the right direction. Just, you know, don't judge him on the basis of what he's like tonight, OK? Please?"
Lex snorted at that, turning off the audio feed with a decisive slap, and returned his attention to his computer monitor as the elevator doors dinged open. He heard the sounds of the two of them shedding coats and scarves in the foyer, then walking into the living room; Lois murmured admiringly at the long room's views of the Metropolis skyline.
"Make yourself at home," he could hear Clark say. "The kitchen's right across the hall, second door on the right, and there's a bathroom down the hall to your left, right past Lex's office. I've just got to change; I won't be long."
"Are we meeting up with him here?"
"Lex? No, he said he'd meet us there; it's pretty close to the LexCorp building." Clark's voice faded off towards the master bedroom.
A moment later, he heard high heels on the hardwood floor in the hallway, and the door to his office swung open. "Miss Lane."
"Oh!" Lois was wearing a simple sleeveless blue dress, and a boxy black purse hung from her shoulder. In her right hand, she held a slim silver digital camera. Her eyes went wide with shock when she saw him, but she covered for herself admirably quickly. "I'm sorry; I, uh, was looking for the bathroom."
"It's just at the end of the hallway," he said, standing and walking around to where she stood. "Let me show you." He held the office door open for her, and locked it behind them.
Once he'd escorted Lois to the bathroom, he turned around and made for the master bedroom, where he found Clark in front of the mirror, struggling with his tie. "Hey."
Clark turned to face him with a grin. "Hey! What are you doing here?"
Lex shrugged. "I got roped into a couple of emergency conference calls this afternoon; I thought I'd just take them from home so I didn't get caught in the office too late." He crossed the room to Clark and they kissed lightly.
"Good," Clark said, his hands drifting to Lex's hips. "I'm glad."
"You look nice." One of the drawbacks to being involved with a man who looked like Adonis but who wanted the world to think of him as a stumbling geek was never getting to show him off. But tonight Clark had changed out of his typical journalist's uniform of rumpled oxford and even more rumpled khakis, and was wearing a suit Lex had bought in one of his occasional and futile attempts to get Clark to dress better. The suit fit him beautifully, emphasizing his body's long lines, and the blues of the shirt and tie brought out the blue in his changeable eyes. Of course, Lex thought, Lois already knows what he really looks like. He took a deep breath and straightened Clark's tie for him.
Clark grimaced a little. "I always feel like such a hick there. I thought I should dress up."
Lex had made reservations at Le Savarin, one of the best restaurants in Metropolis, and definitely the most expensive. Clark had suggested Patois, one of their favorites and a far less formal room, but Lex had insisted: "I'm taking your friend out to dinner. It should be the most memorable meal I can manage."
"I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable," Lex said now. "I can call Patois, get us in..."
"No, it's OK. Besides, I think Lois'd be disappointed if we didn't go somewhere really fancy. Speaking of which." He took Lex's hand in his and squeezed it gently. "I should really go keep her company while you get ready. Make sure she doesn't sneak into your office and read through all your files or something." Clark winked and headed for the living room.
Lex quickly changed into a grey suit with a grey shirt that he knew Clark liked. He slipped on a pair of shoes, then just as he reached the door doubled back for the signet ring Clark had given him for his thirtieth birthday the month before: a chunky band of white gold with an emerald at the center. He'd admired it at a Cartier boutique while they waited for one of his watches to be repaired, but when the repairman came out to demonstrate his work Lex had gotten distracted, and he'd forgotten all about the ring until it turned up on the breakfast table. It was an astoundingly extravagant gift for Clark, even given the occasion, but when Lex protested that Clark had to have better things to spend all that money on, he'd just smiled and said, "No, I don't." Lex had worn the ring the next day into a negotiation he'd won handily, and now the bright green stone was the closest thing he had to a good-luck charm.
When he came out into the living room again, Lois and Clark were sitting on one of the long low couches, laughing about something. "Ready?"
"Sure," said Lois, and when Clark stood, he took her hand and helped her up. "Let's go."
"Lex, do you want to take the Benz or --" Clark's eyes went wide, and he put his right hand to his ear.
"Clark?" Lois said, concerned.
"It's... it's the phone!" Clark was shooting Lex distress-signal looks. "I -- I need to go get it!" He nearly broke into a run as he headed back to their bedroom.
Lois turned to Lex. "The phone? I can't hear a phone."
"It's a private line that only rings in our bedroom," Lex said smoothly. "You'd have heard it if you were used to listening for it." This answer seemed to satisfy her, and she sat back down on the couch. "If you'll excuse me, I'm just going to go see who that was."
He forced himself to walk out of the room at a normal pace, but once he was out of Lois's view, he sprinted the last few yards to the bedroom, where Clark was pacing back and forth and talking to thin air.
"Diana, I told you that I couldn't -- not tonight! Look, we both know I'm not the only other person who could... no, no, you're right.... How bad? Yeah, that's -- and... yes, I understand...." He sighed. "OK. I'm on my way." He touched the right side of his head again to turn off the transmitter and turned apologetically to Lex, whose eyes were already wide with anger.
"Lex, there was an earthquake in Bolivia. A huge one, seven point eight. Diana says they need the whole League down there to help out. I can't not go. I'm so sorry." Clark really did look distraught, but Lex was too furious to be mollified by that.
"Hey," Lois said when they returned. "Everything OK?"
"Look," Clark said, "something's come up."
"Something's come up?" Lois sounded skeptical.
"His aunt Diana," Lex supplied. "She's having an emergency. Clark needs to go help her."
"Oh! Well, I guess we can always do this some other time."
"No, that's all right," Lex said. Clark looked at him in astonishment. "I'd hate to miss a meal at Le Savarin just because Clark's elderly aunt can't remember to take her medication. You and I can go alone."
"Well, uh." Lois turned to Clark in confusion, and then back to Lex. "I guess that works."
"Lex, are you sure?" Clark's expression had shifted from astonishment to dread, and he was slashing his right hand back and forth in a surreptitious but definite cut-it-out gesture.
"Positive, Clark. And you can always join us when you're done." He let himself smile for a moment, the sharp-edged one he'd inherited from his father. "Just think of it as an incentive to finish quickly."
Le Savarin had been Metropolis's finest restaurant back when using garlic was the height of culinary daring in most of the city's kitchens, and now, after an overhaul of the menu in the early nineties, it was again. The dining room, though, was much the same as it had always been, with starched white tablecloths on circular tables and banquettes tucked away in dim nooks against both side walls. There were two stairwells, one on either side of the dining room, up which the waiters brought food on large silver trays from the basement kitchens, and at the center of the room near the door, a matre d' station like a conductor's podium near the door.
"Bon soir, Monsieur Luthor," said the tuxedo-clad man by the podium. "Madame." His double-take at the sight of Lex dressed for an evening on the town and accompanied not by Clark but an unfamiliar woman was admirably slight, no more than a movement of his eyes, but Lois caught it and shifted uncomfortably behind Lex. "Your table is ready for you; would you care to check your coats?"
When Lex nodded, they were led to an alcove at the right of the entrance. Lois fished through her coat pockets for her cell phone, but when she pulled it out, the attendant shook her head. "It won't work in here."
"What?" Lois looked stricken.
"They use a signal-blocking frequency to keep cell phones from going off inside the restaurant," Lex explained. "Your voicemail will still pick up, of course."
"I've never heard of such a thing!" she exclaimed. Lex itched to remind her that the Planet's science section had run a front-page story on the system when Le Savarin first imported it from Hong Kong.
"Is this going to be a problem?" he asked solicitously.
She looked down at the little blue phone and sighed. "No. I guess--"
"Yo yo yo, *coat-check* girl!" came a deep voice behind them. "You got those padded hangers for my furs?"
Lex glanced over his shoulder and saw a short burly white man in an ugly green suit carrying two fur coats across one arm. Clinging to his other arm was a fragile-looking girl with butterscotch skin, dyed platinum blond hair, and a white leather miniskirt and fringed top that left little to the imagination.
"I'll be with you in just a moment, sir," the attendant said.
"Wait?! You know who you're askin' to wait here?"
"No," said Lex said coolly, turning to face them. "Who?"
The man looked taken aback for a moment, then grinned. "Yo, you Lex Luthor, man!" Lex nodded slightly in acknowledgement. "That's cool, man. You go ahead." Lex allowed himself a small smirk as he turned back to the attendant for their coat-check tokens.
"That was interesting," he said when they were finally at their banquette.
"I'll say," said Lois. "Do you know who that was?"
"Serena Pierce!" When Lex looked blank, she prompted, "She's that singer. You know: `Hot, Hot, Baby?'" Lex shook his head. "It was just the biggest song of the summer! Believe me, you'd know it if you heard it."
"If you insist. Who's the ape?"
"That's Jackie Pierce. Her producer-slash-husband."
"*She's* married to him?" Lois nodded. Lex looked towards the center of the dining room, where the Pierces were being seated at a prominently visible table. Serena brushed her hair back over her shoulder and smiled sweetly at the waiter who pulled back her chair. "I hope he's an excellent producer."
"He's supposed to be one of the best. Even if his manners leave something to be desired." She looked over at the couple speculatively. "I heard they always traveled with an entourage. I guess even superstars need the occasional romantic dinner alone."
He decided not to mention that at the restaurant's other tables, there were almost certainly people speculating about Lex Luthor and his date for the evening. Since he'd moved back to Metropolis, his private life had been kept adamantly private, in consideration of Clark's young journalistic career, and he was generally sanguine about anything that set the tabloids haring off in the wrong direction. But he loathed the idea of being linked in the press to Lois Lane, of all people, and he made a mental note to call his publicist in the morning.
Their waiter arrived to murmur about the night's specials. "Only two of you tonight, sir?"
"The third may join us later," Lex said. "But I think you can clear his place for now."
"He does this to you too, huh?" Lois said after the busboy had taken Clark's table setting away.
"Disappear. Clark's always just disappearing at the office, and he always has these weird stories about where he went. I thought it might be his way of trying to get out of stories he didn't want to work on, but..."
Earth's Greatest Hero, Lex thought ruefully. More like Earth's Lousiest Liar.
"Clark has some time-management difficulties," Lex said cautiously. "He volunteers to help people without thinking about how it might conflict with his other responsibilities."
"Then why does he make such lame excuses? `I have a doctor's appointment I forgot about'? `I need to go pick up some photos'?"
An excellent question. "I think that's his parents' influence -- they don't believe you should seek any credit for the good works you do."
"That seems a bit extreme."
"You haven't met his parents."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he'd blundered. He saw the surveillance photos of Lois at brunch with the Kents as vividly as he had the day they'd come across his desk. His chest tightened, and he looked down at his hands.
"I didn't, you know," she said softly. "Not till after."
Lex looked across the room to catch their waiter's eye, and when the man took their order, Lex took some satisfaction in providing Lois with the proper pronunciation for quenelles Lyonnaise and terrine de sanglier au marrons. Lex ordered the lobster tartine for himself and glanced down at his hands again. The emerald glowed dully in the light of the candle in the centerpiece.
"You know," Lois hazarded, "Clark was kind of hoping that even after everything, the two of us could be friends." Lex said nothing. "I don't think it's very likely myself, but we ought to at least be able to tell him we tried."
Lex looked up. Lois was resting her chin in her right hand, her head tilted slightly to the side. The candlelight caught the hints of red in her dark brown bob, and her big brown eyes looked amused and self-deprecating and sympathetic all at once. He had never hated anyone, except his father, more.
"So, Miss Lane," he said in his smoothest, most neutral voice, "how long have you lived in Metropolis?"
"You can start," she said, "by calling me Lois."
By the time they finished their appetizers, they had exhausted most of the sources for biographical small talk. The difficulty, Lex thought, for a celebrated journalist and a multimillionaire entrepreneur in trying to establish some conversational common ground was that they already knew the basics of each other's life stories; Lex had read the profile of Lois that appeared in Metropolis magazine, and he was certain she'd studied the Forbes piece on him as well. Eventually, the conversation trailed off into an awkward silence as Lois pushed the last of her asparagus around her plate and Lex surveyed the room. It was early enough in the evening that only about two-thirds of the tables were occupied. The diners were the usual mix of Metropolis society -- bankers, lawyers, businesspeople, most a little flush from the rich food and too much wine. One table, near the back of the room, was taken up by six elderly women, chatting animatedly. He watched them talk for a moment, amused by their effusiveness, before he finally turned his attention back to his own table. Lois had put down her fork and was now studying him.
"Let's move on to the good stuff," she said. "How did you meet Clark?"
Clark had complained more than once about Lois's bluntness, but Lex saw now that it was as much a blessing as a curse: there was no trace of malice in her inquiry, just a double-dose of the standard journalistic inquisitiveness. Which was probably why she and Clark made a good team, since he always thought first before he asked anything, knowing all too well what the wrong question could do.
Lex shrugged. "How does anyone meet? I nearly killed him; he saved my life."
He was still relishing the astonished look on her face when the shouting began.
"Everybody stay where you are! Just stay right where you are!"
A concerned murmur swept through the dining room as everyone turned towards the door. Five men dressed in black, with black cloth eye-masks tied across their faces, ran into the dining room. Four of them took up positions at the corners of the room, brandishing their pistols menacingly; the fifth, the tallest of the men, grabbed the matre d', twisted his arm behind his back, and held a gun beneath his chin.
"Nobody do anything crazy," the tall man said, "and no one has to get hurt. Get everybody in here!"
The two gunmen closest to the stairwells -- the chunkiest of the bunch and one with a shock of white-boy dreadlocks that fell over his mask -- ran downstairs to the kitchen. The other two -- a whip-thin blond and a brunette -- covered the room. Lex dropped his hands beneath the table and slid Clark's signet ring off his hand.
"Lois," he whispered, "If you have anything irreplaceable with you, I'd advise you to hide it carefully now."
"You think it's a robbery?" Lois whispered back.
"What else would it be? This is a room full of the wealthiest people in Metropolis!"
"They haven't said anything about jewelry or money yet. Maybe it's political."
"Political?" he repeated. "What sort of political goals would be served by holding up a five-star French restaurant? Vegetarianism?"
"As you pointed out, Lex, this restaurant is full of the richest -- and most powerful -- people in Metropolis."
Lex gave her his most skeptical look and dropped the ring into his inside jacket pocket.
The gunmen came back up the stairs with the kitchen's five chefs, two dishwashers, and three of the waiters walking in a line with their hands on their heads between them; they led them to two empty tables and motioned for them to sit. A moment later, one of the hostage-takers pulled the coat-check attendant out of her booth and had her join her coworkers.
"That's good," said the tall man, who was still holding the matre d'. "You all just keep doing what you're doing." Everyone in the restaurant turned to watch him. The matre d' was doing a surprisingly good job of maintaining the sang-froid that would normally have been expected of him -- only the sheen of sweat on his forehead suggested how terrifying the experience must be. "Nobody get any stupid ideas here, and we'll be on our way." The other gunmen all converged on one table near the center of the room. "Serena, you're coming with us."
"What?!" Jackie Pierce bellowed. "No fucking way!"
He jumped to his feet, trying to shield her with his own body. The brunette pistol-whipped him across the face -- the sound was loud enough to make Lois gasp a little -- and Jackie fell unconscious to the floor. Serena wailed and dropped to her knees beside him, cradling his head in her lap.
"Leave him here," said the chunky one. "We can do it without him. We're going now."
"We've got no time for this," the tall man said, "Grab her!"
The chunky man and the dreadlocked one took Serena Pierce by the arms are started to lift her, fighting and yelling, to her feet. The sight was pathetic enough that Lex found his usually dormant chivalric impulses being stirred. Several other men in the place clearly felt the same way; Lex saw some of the more gym-toned investment bankers placing their hands palms-down on their tables, waiting for their moment to pounce. The brunette and the blond seemed to sense the change in mood, and their movements became more frantic, turning their guns from table more quickly.
Serena Pierce had just been brought to her feet when the sirens started flashing outside the restaurant's drapery-covered front window. "The building is surrounded!" came the megaphoned command. "Come out with your hands up!"
Lois looked across the table at Lex, astonished. "How did anyone manage to call the cops? It all happened so quickly!"
"There's a panic button at the matre d' station that sounds an alarm at the police station," Lex explained. "They installed it along with the cell phone blocker because they were concerned about not reaching 911 quickly enough with only a few landlines available."
"How do you know this stuff?"
"It was in the Daily Planet," he bit out.
"Oh!" she said, not half as embarrassed as he'd hoped. "I really only read the news pages."
"This is the police," came the megaphoned voice again. "I repeat, you are surrounded."
The tall man took the matre d' to the window, then threw open the heavy white drapes. The street outside was full of police cars, their lights flashing red and blue.
"I want to negotiate," the tall man shouted.
Somewhere in the dining room, a phone began to ring.
"Where's the phone?" the tall man demanded.
"It's at my station," the matre d' gasped.
The blond picked up the phone and held the handset in the air. The tall man walked his hostage back to the podium and took it from him.
"Here's the situation," he said. "We've got a restaurant full of hostages, and if you do anything stupid, we'll kill them all." He said this in a matter-of-fact tone that unnerved Lex -- the melodramatic ones were never the ones you had to take seriously. "You get us safe passage out of the city with one hostage, and you get to keep everyone else alive. No, that's it. You let me know when you've got that." He hung up and turned back to the others. "Let her sit back down; it'll be a while."
"What do you want with me?" Serena Pierce cried as the kidnappers let go of her arms. "You hurt my husband, you drag me around --"
"We want you to sing," said the tall man.
"With us," the chunky one said rapturously.
"Oh, God," Lex muttered.
"We have a song," the larger man continued. "It's really good; it could break big internationally. But it needs a female soloist with an amazing voice."
"Like Mariah on `One Sweet Day,'" said the brunette. "Only not so, you know, old."
"A singer like you," said the blond.
"You've got to be crazy to think I'd sing with you!" she said. "You're holding me at gunpoint!"
"We'd never hurt you, Serena," the chunky one reassured. "We're really big fans."
"Yeah?" She looked intrigued and scared in equal measure.
"Yeah!" He nodded. "We've got all of your remixes, even the Japan-only ones."
"'Hot Hot Baby' changed my life," the blond boy added, with a surprisingly shy smile.
"And we've been rehearsing for, like, months," said the dreadlocked one. "We'll do it for you later; you'll see. The solo is totally right in your range, too."
"I have a *three-octave range*!" Serena cried, and her voice climbed so vertiginously Lex had to believe her. "And I only take new material through my manager!"
"This is ridiculous," growled a blond stockbroker who Lex vaguely recognized from the back of the dining room. "You freakos should leave that poor woman alone."
Another man got to his feet menacingly. The brunette trained his gun at him, and the man sat back down. "Anyone else?" the brunette asked.
The stockbroker lunged at the hostage-taker nearest him, the blond, and came close to knocking him down. The two of them grappled for a heartstopping moment, and then a shot rang out, and the man fell to the floor, clutching his thigh as his pants leg turned red.
"The next time," the brunette said with a glare, "I won't aim for the leg."
"Mrs. Pierce," came an urgent and all-too-familiar voice from across the room, "I'm Lois Lane from the Daily Planet -- I was wondering if you'd like to share your thoughts with our three million readers at this difficult time...?"
Lex's jaw dropped. In the upheaval, he hadn't even noticed Lois was gone; from the way she was crouching at the side of Serena Pierce's chair, clutching her purse, pad, and pen, she must have crawled across the room to get to the singer.
"What the hell?" said the tall man. "Get her out of here!"
"Where are we gonna...?"
"Take her to the basement! Lock her in the fridge, or a storage closet." The dreadlocked man had grabbed Lois already, and was walking her to the back stairwell; Lois, remarkably, wasn't struggling.
Lex thought of the headline: LUTHOR RISKS LIFE FOR GALPAL. Then he thought of the look on Clark's face if he didn't. He grimaced, put Clark's green ring back on, and stood.
"I'm Lex Luthor. I'll vouch for Miss Lane's good behavior from here on in."
"Luthor," said the tall man. "I'll have to make sure the police know we have you."
Lois was halfway down the stairs. "Fine," Lex said. "Do that. Miss Lane's not dangerous once you take away her pencils; let her go."
"Not a chance," said the tall man. "You had your chance to keep her on her good behavior; you screwed it up."
"I thought she knew better."
"Now you know she doesn't. And I'm gonna let her stay here?"
The man had a point, Lex had to concede. "Fine. Then take me too."
He heard a murmuring across the room. At the next table over, a southern-accented redhead stage-whispered to her companions, "See, the ones they always say are gay? They're never gay. It's the ones they *don't* talk about..."
"Miss Lane is my guest," Lex said. "I won't have her harmed."
"That's not your decision to make." The dreadlocked man came back up the stairs. "Store Mr. Luthor here the same place you put his... guest."
The dreadlocked man started towards Lex, but Lex turned and walked down the length of the room to meet him. He could feel the other hostages watching him go, so he focused his attention on keeping his back straight and his face blank. I am going to throw Clark off the balcony for this, he told himself, and tried not to think about the fact that Clark would, at best, simply bounce.
At the top of the stairs, Lex sized up his new captor: a full inch shorter than he was, sweating nervous patches through his black shirt, and shaking almost imperceptibly as he waved Lex ahead of him on the staircase. Lex took the stairs slowly and deliberately, one at a time, and at the foot of the stairs he turned right into the large empty kitchen. When his captor had turned as well, Lex wheeled around, brought a hand down on the man's gun arm, and kicked at the side of his legs. The man kicked back, twisting his leg around Lex's and knocking him down. Lex rolled away, breathing hard, and climbed back to his feet.
The dreadlocked man's gun had skidded off towards the center of the kitchen when Lex hit his arm, and now he was trying to watch Lex and find his weapon at the same time, eyes and stance shifting back and forth. Lex waited for a moment when his eyes were turned, and attacked.
He grabbed the man by his upper arms and slammed him into the wall behind him as hard as he could. The man just grunted and kneed Lex in the groin. The intense wave of nausea made him stumble back, and the man swung a wild punch at his face. Lex was seeing bright spots in front of his eyes, but he forced himself to attack again, swinging a right jab and then a left cut at the man's chin. The hours he'd spent with a boxing coach meant that body memory started to kick in at that point, and he was pounding the guy into a pulp, rage and fear and his own pain fueling his blows. When the man fell to the floor unconscious at last, Lex breathed in deeply, flaring his nostrils, and let himself enjoy his triumph. Then he turned to find Lois.
The walk-in refrigerator on the kitchen's front wall was, mercifully, empty, but there was a door a few feet down from it with a chair tilted under the handle. Lex pulled it open and found a large storage closet full of pallets of dried pasta, large white bags of rice, and shelves stocked with a range of bottles and jars. Lois was sitting cross-legged at the back, her blue dress falling over her knees, and using a penlight to scribble furiously on the same pad she'd had out upstairs. "Lex?" she said surprisedly, peering up at him from the floor. "What on earth are you doing?"
"I -- " *I've come to rescue you* seemed ridiculous so he said, "I was concerned that you'd be hurt."
"You shouldn't have risked it," she said as she got to her feet. "After all, Superman will be here any minute."
"Superman! It's an attack on a Metropolis landmark -- how could he not come? Besides," she said, lowering her voice to a more confidential tone, "he always turns up when Clark and I are in trouble."
"Does he." Lex knew that Clark hadn't told Lois his secrets, but on a certain level he hadn't been able to imagine that anyone could take Clark to bed, kiss his mouth, touch his skin, and not realize that he was something exceptional. Not to mention the floating in his sleep thing, though that had become less of an issue as he'd gotten older. But Lois didn't know, didn't even seem to guess, and instead of leaving Lex relieved it made him angry. "Well, he's not coming now."
"The whole damned Justice League is dealing with some earthquake in Bolivia; it was on the news."
"He's not coming. If we're going to get out of here, we're going to have to rescue ourselves."
Lex knew that his still-unconscious captor would be quickly missed upstairs, so he was gratified that once she'd grasped the seriousness of the situation, Lois became much more useful in a crisis. While he retrieved the dreadlocked man's gun and put the man himself, still unconscious, in the same storage room he'd chosen as a holding cell, she pulled off her shoes and crawled part of the way up the stairs to see what was going on in the dining room. He was testing the chefs' knives for sharpness and menace value when she came back down, looking amazed. "They're singing."
Lex shook his head. "Sooner or later, that bunch of King of Comedy rejects will realize they're short a man. I don't think they'll just leave us down here with him, but they won't be able to afford to come down here in force because of the other hostages."
"Thus giving us an advantage."
"Precisely. Which weapon do you prefer?" He held out the pistol and a knife. Lois turned pale, but her expression was determined as she took the gun from him. "You know how to fire that?" She nodded. "Good."
"I hope it doesn't come to that," she said.
"We don't have the luxury of such scruples right now," he snapped. "They've already shot one person. If you won't be any good to me in a fight --"
"To you? God, you really are the king of the control freaks, aren't you?"
"I let Clark go," he said, as evenly as he could manage.
Her smile was knowing, and a little sad. "No, you didn't."
The sound of applause from upstairs startled them both. Lois looked down at the gun, putting the safety back on and then off again with a skill he found reassuring.
"Are you going to be all right?" she said. "That's a nasty shiner he gave you."
"I'm fine." His left eye was half-closed by the swelling, but his vision was mostly unblurred. "I heal quickly."
"Your call," she shrugged. "Let's get ready for them."
They crouched down behind one of the dull steel prep stations, clearing the pots and pans off its shelves for a clear shot at the stairs. Lex wished for another gun, or a better place to hide with a knife. "It could be a while," he said. "Better make yourself comfortable."
"I'm fine," she replied. "Strangely enough, stuff like this happens to me all the time." She flashed him a quick grin, then turned suddenly businesslike. "Now, here's what we'll do."
"We're going to need a plan to get out of here. You don't just walk out of hostage situations without a plan."
"You know, you're not the only person here who's ever been taken hostage, Lois. It's not as though it takes any particular expertise."
"My first year in Smallville alone--"
"Am I supposed to --"
"And that's not to mention the members of my immediate family --"
"I'm not impressed by your poor-little-rich-boy psychodramas, Lex. If you had a plan --"
"If you'd listen --"
"If *you'd* listen --"
The phone rang, a harsh electronic trill.
"There's a phone down here?" Lois said, astonished.
When it rang again, they searched for the source of the sound, and found it on the back wall, by a bulletin board and a time clock. Lex motioned for Lois to stay where she was and walked in a ducked-over semi-squat back to the phone. There were three buttons for phone lines, one of which was lit and flashing. In the middle of the next ring, the sound stopped abruptly, and the light went from flashing to a solid yellow glow.
"The police again, no doubt," he said when he'd made his way back to Lois. His ribs ached, and his stomach pulsed with pain. "Maybe they brought Carson Daly in to negotiate."
Lois snorted. "At least they're still talking. I remember one time--"
"Dude?" A hesitant voice from the top of the front stairwell, and Lex clapped his hand over Lois's mouth.
"Dude, you OK down there?"
Lois pulled Lex's hand away with a glare. Silently, she signaled that he should take a position along the side wall that enclosed the stairwell, so he'd be behind anyone who came down the stairs. He couldn't disagree with it strategically, so he gave her a glare intended to communicate "My thoughts exactly," and made his way as quietly as he could to the other side of the room.
"Dude, come on. Brad -- I mean, Mister X, is talking to the cops. We need you up here." The voice got louder, and footsteps dropped on the stairs. Lois aimed her pistol at the foot of the stairs, gripping the gun in both hands. Lex braced himself against the side wall, preparing to strike.
"Dude? Casey?" It was the brunette. Lex grabbed him before he'd gotten three steps across the room.
"Drop the gun. Quietly," he hissed, pressing the knife to the younger man's throat. The gun fell to the floor as his right arm wrapped around the boy's arms and chest, both distressingly well-defined under his touch. "Good. Be smart."
"Fuck you," the brunette growled, and he threw his head back so it butted into Lex's with an audible thunk. Then he pulled himself out of Lex's grasp with a sinuous move that had him bent over backwards before he stood with a turn to face Lex. "Knew those dance lessons were worth it," he grinned, and then he attacked.
The brunette knew more about fighting than the first one had -- enough, at least, to grab and immobilize Lex's knife arm before attacking. Lex struggled against him, kicking fiercely, but the brunette squeezed his wrist hard, twisting it, and the knife dropped from his hand. The brunette smiled, and Lex swung at him with his other fist as hard as he could. The punch landed in the center of the younger man's sternum, and he let go of Lex's wrist with a grunt. Lex saw his opening, and moved for it, but the brunette landed a strong right hook to his side, and Lex was doubled over by the searing pain. He hadn't taken a kidney punch in a very long time, and it didn't get any easier.
He got swift kicks to the chest and stomach as he tried to right himself, and he staggered backwards, trying not to make too much noise. He was starting to pull himself back up again to standing when he heard a thump, and a series of grunts: quiet, low, and definitely feminine. He looked up and saw Lois landing a series of rapid martial arts blows on the brunette's chest, legs, and arms. Her final kick dropped him to the ground, looking woozy.
"You took dance?" Lois said, her eyes narrowing. "I took karate." She pulled her gun out of her purse, which she'd slung crossways across her back. "Get up."
Lex ended up half-dragging the man over to the storage closet where his dreadlocked friend was still unconscious. "Casey?" the brunette gasped. He tried to pull out of Lex's grasp, but this time Lex had him secure.
Lois went over to the dreadlocked gunman and leaned over his head, one hand on his chest. "He's breathing normally, he'll be fine," she said, coming back to the closet door. "God, Lex. Have you ever considered anger-management therapy?"
"Actually," said Lex, "there's kind of a funny story there." He shoved the brunette into the storage closet with as much force as he could. Lois braced the door with the same chair her captor had used.
"Good work," he managed. His head hurt, and he was sure he'd have a bruise on his chest in the morning. "Clark never mentioned that you'd studied the martial arts."
"Clark's main contribution to any fight tends to be the running-away part," Lois said wryly. "You'd think, with all those farmboy muscles..."
"Be that as it may," Lex interrupted, "we have two guns, and two reasonably skilled fighters. It's time to take the fight back upstairs."
"Are you sure you're up to it, Lex?"
"Positive," he bristled. "You do another reconnaissance pass, I'll finish catching my breath, and then we'll go."
She gave him a long, hard, skeptical look, but finally she nodded and went back up the stairs. Lex crossed the kitchen as quietly as he could, making his way back to the telephone.
The yellow light of the main phone line was still lit. Lex swallowed hard and pushed a button for one of the secondary lines out. The cops or the hostage-takers, someone was bound to notice, but he had to take the risk.
"Hi. You've reached the voicemail box for Clark Kent." Clark's voice was even sunny on his outgoing message. "Leave a message at the tone, or press five to send a page."
Lex jammed the five button down, and when the tone sounded, he punched in his emergency code: 11677, LL 911 upside-down. He'd only ever used the code once before. The crisis then had involved a lonely night, some chilled champagne, and new 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets that desperately needed breaking in; it certainly felt like a goddamned emergency to Lex at the time. The voicemail system beeped, acknowledging his page, and Lex hung up. Whatever the Fortress AI did when it got the page in order to route it to Clark, he hoped it would do it quickly.
"Big guy's still on the phone," Lois said, brushing some dust off the front of her skirt. "We need to go. I'll take the front stairs and the fat guy; you take the little blond kid near the back."
"That still leaves the ringleader," Lex pointed out. "You know, the one with the gun to a man's head."
"He let the maitre d' sit down. I guess we just have to hope his back is turned."
The stairs were dusty, and trying not to cough only made Lex more aware of the aches in his chest and stomach. *Don't think about that now*, he told himself. *It's almost over; Clark will be here soon*.
In the dining room, the tall man was still on the phone, his head and shoulders half-curled around the receiver. "No, no fucking helicopter," he was saying. "A sedan. And no one following us." Every so often, he'd glare back at the dining room, pointing his gun towards the hostages or at Serena Pierce, who was now sitting, legs and arms crossed angrily, a few feet from him. The other two gunmen, trying to cover the room alone, kept turning around in sharp twirls that might have come from their stage routine. The hostages, for their parts, looked mostly tired and stressed. Lex knew all too well how noticeable a bald scalp could be even under the dim lights of a restaurant, so the first time the blond's back was fully turned to the stairs, he clambered up into the dining room, concealing himself behind the table of elderly women he'd noticed earlier.
"Oh!" The woman who he'd crawled closest to tried to turn her startled gasp into a convincing cough when she saw who it was. Lex winced, but the gunmen didn't seem to notice.
"What's going on?" she hissed down at him. She was a tall woman, with her white hair pulled back in a bun and a sharp nose that gave her an imperious look. Lex pulled the gun out from the back of his waistband and, with an exaggerated shushing finger against his mouth, showed it to her.
She nodded, more determined than relieved, and Lex wondered what she was thinking. She leaned over the table towards her friends, and nodded minutely in his direction. They seemed to grasp the situation immediately, and knowing surreptitious nods went around the group. Two of the women took their napkins off their laps; a third pushed her glasses more firmly on the bridge of her nose.
"Really," Lex whispered up at them, "don't do anything." Clark would be there soon; he had to be.
"Don't worry, dear," the white-haired woman smiled, and collapsed, face-first, onto the table. The noise of jostled glass and china mixed with the screams of her friends.
"Help! Help! Do something. It's her heart!"
"Nobody move," the blond commanded. "I'll check on her."
One of the other women, a steely-eyed matron in a Chanel suit, shot Lex a glare that said, "Now, you fool!" He rose to a crouch and cocked the gun just as the blond boy came around to his side of the table.
"Brad!" the boy yelled. He and Lex had their guns trained on one another.
Something crashed on the other side of the room. The Chanel-suited woman took a small vial out of her pocket and sprayed it in the boy's face. He screamed, dropping his gun to swipe at his reddened eyes, and one of the stockbrokers tackled him to the ground. Across the room, Lex saw Lois and a dark-haired man grabbing hold of the chunky gunman from behind.
The white-haired woman sat back up, smoothing some stray hairs back in place. "An excellent diversion, Margaret," one of her friends said, and she smiled modestly.
Lex was already looking for the ringleader, the tall man named Brad. Brad had now taken Serena Pierce as his hostage, and was holding his gun against her jaw. Slowly, he was backing the two of them towards Le Savarin's front door.
"Turn yourself in, Brad," Lex called. "They'll go easier on you."
"Fuck you, Luthor," he shouted back. "I'm getting out of here, and I'm starting a new group. This isn't over yet."
Normally, that was the sort of comment that got made just a moment before Superman arrived, cape flaring behind him. But there was still no sign of Clark, and Lex was really starting to wonder if Clark had taken his page seriously.
"You think you can live this down?" Lois was shouting now as she walked closer to Brad and the door, and Lex grimaced with annoyance as every eye in the room turned to her. "Even if you make it out of here. You're kidnapping Serena Pierce! No one's gonna touch your demo with a ten-foot pole even after you get out of jail."
"No one's gonna even know it was me."
"I will," said Lex. "I own three radio stations, the LexCorp Satellite Radio Network, and ten percent of Crystal Channel Entertainment. I know your voice. I know your face. You think I'm ever going to let you get on the air?"
Brad screamed, a wordless cry of frustration and rage. He turned his gun away from Serena Pierce; Lex barely had enough time to duck before he fired.
"Gun!" shouted one of the elderly women as everyone dove for the floor. *Now would be good, Clark,* Lex thought as he continued to crawl towards the door. Now would work.
Another scream from the front of the room, this one of pain, and for a sickening moment Lex was certain Serena Pierce was dead. But then the scream came again: lower and definitely male. Lex dared a look above the tabletops, and what he saw had him sprinting to the door in a flash.
Brad was bleeding from deep fingernail scratches on his face and his gun arm. He was hunched protective around himself, almost doubled-up, and one of his feet kept hopping off the floor, as though to leave it flat would be unbearably painful.
"What the --?"
Serena Pierce smiled sweetly up at Lex. "I might be skinny, but you don't never fuck with a Bushwick girl."
Lex shook his head in admiration; the motion made him slightly nauseated from dizziness. "Give it up, Brad. You got beat by a girl."
"By a diva," Brad said, and surrendered his gun.
Lois and her dark-haired helper had joined the group at the front of the room. "Are you all right, Mrs. Pierce?"
"I'm not giving any interviews tonight," Serena Pierce said, and placed a small bloodied hand on Lex's arm. "Let's go find the cops."
The other hostages were getting to their feet and gathering their things. Lex and Serena went out first, with Lois and the dark-haired man keeping hold of Brad just a step behind them. They opened the restaurant's door to a blinding white spotlight and a phalanx of armed police officers
"Don't shoot!" Lex called, hands up. His throat felt raw and dry, and the dizziness had gotten worse. "We're all OK."
There was a familiar noise, like the wind rushing through an orchard, and then in front of the line of police officers, there was Superman, resplendent in his suit and cape. His eyes widened as he took in the scene.
"You!" Lex wheezed at him. "Talk about your fucking sense of timing!" And then everything went black.
The next thing Lex knew, he was sitting on a comfortable low couch, and something cold was being gently pressed against his eyes.
"Shh," Lois said. "Clark will be home soon. Superman went to go get him."
"Clark. Superman went to get Clark. Lex, do you have a concussion? What year is it?"
Lex shook his head. "I'm fine. Mmmf."
"Uh-huh. Whatever. I'll let Clark deal with you."
Lex put an exploratory hand up to his forehead. The icepack, on inspection, proved to be a bag of frozen organic peas. "It was the best thing I could find," Lois said.
"It's fine," Lex said. "Thank you." He looked around at his comfortably familiar living room with a sensation not unlike relief. "There's a liquor cabinet on the wall behind me; I think we both could use a drink."
"That I can manage. What's your poison?"
Lois returned with his Scotch and what looked like bourbon for herself and sat down on the far edge of the sofa, folding her legs underneath her. They sipped their drinks in silence.
"You know," Lex eventually said, "when Clark suggested that we have dinner, I did tell him I thought it might turn into a disaster. But somehow this particular set of disasters never occurred to me."
Lois snorted. "I told him it was a dumb idea too. But that never stops him."
"He believes the best of people. Even when he probably shouldn't."
Lois looked down at her drink and didn't reply. Lex took another sip of his Scotch and gazed out at the city skyline.
Finally, Lois spoke. "This isn't what I expected."
"This apartment." She waved her glass at her surroundings. "It's not what I thought it would be like."
"Not large enough?"
"Hah. I just thought it would be... sleeker. More like the LexCorp building."
"It was. I had it redone when Clark moved in. We did."
"Clark picked this?"
"No." He could understand her disbelief; Clark's own apartment had been furnished in hand-me-downs and milk-crates. "My designer did. Clark told him the sorts of things he liked, and we worked from there."
"Huh." Lois looked around again, taking the place in more deeply this time, and Lex looked with her. The furniture was still mostly the modernist style he liked, but the warm new upholstery, the rugs on the hardwood floors, the mementos scattered on end tables -- all these things were Clark's influence. He wondered what Lois made of it. "You did all this when he moved in?"
"It was finished before he moved, but yes. I wanted it to be our home. Not him living in mine." His head was throbbing, so he took another sip of Scotch.
"That was thoughtful of you." She sounded almost surprised.
"Clark keeps telling me that good relationships are built on compromise."
"He's a good man," Lois said.
"Yes," Lex said. "He is."
"He deserves to be happy."
"Yes," Lex said cautiously. "I agree."
"Good. You remember that." She took a long drink of her bourbon. He had a harsh response half-formed, something about whose place it was to worry about such things, when she continued. "He was a real mess when you left, you know."
"I know," he said. Guilt tore at him unexpectedly, sharper than the physical aches. "It was a mistake."
They were silent again as the heat cycled on with an audible click. "You did a good job back there," Lex said.
"Thanks," Lois shrugged. "I've had to get good at it, with my job."
"I... I'm glad Clark has someone like you watching out for him." And as hard as it was to admit, it was true, and he figured the smile and blush it got out of her would have to win him some points with Clark when he finally got home.
There was a loud noise on the terrace, a thump of heavy shoes hitting slate. "Thanks a lot, Superman!" Clark called out unconvincingly. Lex put down his Scotch and covered his eyes with his hand.
Lois stood as Clark rushed into the living room, dressed now in the flannel shirt and jeans he still wore at home. "My God, Lex!" Clark dropped to his knees in front of Lex, taking Lex's face between his hands. All the fear and concern that Superman could never show shone from his eyes.
Lex knew he looked terrible: his left eye had swollen even further, and he was bruised and worn and grubby. But he put a comforting hand on Clark's wrist and tried to smile. "I'm OK," he said. "Really."
"Jesus," Clark said, and pulled Lex into a hug. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"Shh," Lex whispered back, running a hand through Clark's hair. "It's OK. I'm OK."
Behind them, Lois cleared her throat, and Clark jumped to his feet. "Lois! Perry's been beeping me like crazy since you guys walked out of the restaurant. It's already on the wires; he wants it written up as soon as possible. Are -- wait, are you OK? Are you up to it?"
"Yeah," Lois said, "I am. Your boyfriend here did most of the heavy rescuing work."
Clark grinned, and turned to look at Lex. "Is that so?"
"Lois held her own," Lex said.
"I should get going," she said.
"What? No; we can do it from here. My office is right over there, on your right, and you can log right in to the Planet network from there. I'll be there in a little bit, and--"
Clark nodded. "It's the easiest way. Go! Call Perry -- he's number five on the speed-dial."
Lois hurried down the hall and Clark sat down next to Lex, taking him in his arms. "God, Lex."
"She's staying here?" Lex asked, pulling out of the embrace.
"She has to get the story in. And you ought to be in bed anyway. Oh!" Clark fumbled with his jeans pocket. "Why I took so long getting in back here. I called Dr. Gallo, had him call in a prescription for you." He pulled out a translucent orange vial.
"Percocet," Lex said, reading the label. "You do love me."
Clark smiled. "Damn skippy." His expression turned serious as he put a comforting hand on Lex's neck. "I really am sorry. Sucre is just... it's in pretty bad shape right now, and I figured you and Lois were just about to kill one another. I never would've thought there was someone else trying to really kill you both."
It's OK, Clark." Lex took the pill bottle and struggled with it for a moment. Clark took it back and popped it open. "We did fine. I can hold my own in a fight, you know."
"I know, I know. Fourteen years old, Navy SEAL, dental work..."
"Mock if you like, but I can take care of myself. I don't need you to rescue me every time there's trouble." He fished a pill out of the bottle. "I just like having you around; the suit's very decorative."
Clark's expression was vaguely amused. "I know. And you had lots of help even without me: Lois, Serena Pierce, and the entire Metropolis Country Club Self-Defense for Seniors class. I did a talk for those ladies just last week; they're feisty."
"Is that who they were? That explains a lot." Lex wanted to wash the pill down with Scotch, but he swallowed it dry rather than deal with Clark's objections. "What about the guy helping Lois?"
"Dunno. Ask her; he got her number."
"There are stranger ways to meet, Speed Racer."
Clark grinned and leaned in for another soft kiss, but Lex took control of it, pushing his tongue through Clark's wide lips and tasting his mouth. Clark made an appreciative noise that sent a jolt of desire straight through him. "Clark. Send her home, and we'll go to bed."
"Send her home, Clark. I want you all to myself."
Clark's eyes were big and serious. "You have me."
Something in Lex's stomach that hadn't been affected by all the pummeling earlier lurched and flipped over. He swallowed hard, and smiled. "I know." He reached over to pull Clark into another kiss, harder and more insistent than the last, and when Clark started to pull back, Lex used the motion to lever himself onto Clark's lap.
"Lex," Clark warned.
"Come on. The Percocet's making me so relaxed already; we could fuck right here." He ground his hips against Clark's to make his point, and smiled when Clark bucked up a little in response.
"Unh." Clark's hands ran appreciatively up his arms. "The Percocet's gonna have you asleep in five minutes, Lex."
"Don't be stupid. I eat those things like candy."
"You used to," Clark corrected. "Ten years ago. Now you fall asleep on the couch when you take a double dose of Advil."
And it was true that the room was turning softer, pastel and fuzzy-edged like some bad Monet, and his head was feeling heavier than it had even a few minutes earlier. But the pain had stopped, and looking down at Clark he felt tender and possessive and desirous all at once. "It'll be so good. Trust me."
Clark snorted. "Like I trust you to stay out of trouble, Lex?"
"That," Lex said defensively, "was Lois's fault. She's nice enough, but she's pushy and controlling and she runs towards danger rather than away from it."
"Mmm," Clark wrapped his hands around Lex's neck and kissed him. "I can't help having a type."
Lex laughed at that, and it felt like bubbles floating up through his chest. "That's not funny."
"Yes, it is."
And Clark's smile was so pretty and the room was turning so slowly on an axis that Lex had to reach down again and kiss him, a trail of kisses down his jaw as he pulled at the buttons on Clark's shirt. "It's really not."
"You really are in a frisky mood tonight. I should leave you to face the bad guys on your own more often."
"Frisky?" Lex asked. "You say `frisky'?" His eyelids were so heavy it was easier to let them shut.
"Yes." Clark's voice was coming from very far away. "And I say `dagnabit' sometimes, too, when I'm really upset. You have a problem with that?"
"No," Lex said, leaning in for one more kiss. "After all, nobody's perfect."
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