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This is one of my favorite non-futurefic SV fic scenarios, the classic 'Lex turns up at the Kent farmhouse in dire straits', given a 6th season twist. It was written in the gap between "Combat" and "Progeny" and has major spoilers for all the show up to that point, especially "Solitude" and the Oracle-Vessel-Zod trilogy.
Clark wasn't listening when the car pulled up, didn't realize anyone had come until the knock on the door. He wondered who it could be. Past ten was awfully late for a delivery or a visit from one of his mother's constituents. Chloe would have called ahead. Lois, maybe, wouldn't have bothered, if an emergency had come up.
But when he opened the door, Lex Luthor was standing on the porch in his black coat. And for an instant, Clark thought that time had slipped its tracks and he was in high school again, and Lex was about to explain how Lionel had disowned him and left him with nowhere to go. He thought that it should be light outside, golden morning, and Lex was asking to come in. "I promise I'm not packing heat," with that sly unlikely smile. "I'm not a criminal mastermind."
But Lex wasn't smiling; his face was closed, and his eyes were cold, not as mad as Zod's freezing glare but just as barren. Maybe Lex's smiles before had been as calculating, and Clark had been too young to see. He wished he knew how he could have been so wrong about someone.
"What are you doing here?" Clark demanded, and then he felt it, acid in his veins, flames against his skin, the unmistakable agony of kryptonite. He staggered back, his hands raised uselessly against the lethal radiation. Stumbled to his knees with his head swimming from the pain, and framed in the doorway he could see Lex Luthor's pallid and black figure, with one hand on the lintel and one hand in his coat pocket and his watching eyes like ice.
"Good evening, Clark," Lex said with ironic, biting courtesy. How did he know? How much did he know?
Clark had had these nightmares for years, long before he had ever heard of 33.1. There would be a van in the driveway, he guessed, probably other men on the porch waiting to drag him out and take him away. He didn't dare call for his mother; if Lex had a gun...but he couldn't move, crumpled on his hands and knees with the kryptonite throbbing through him in excruciating waves.
And then Lex let go of the lintel, and fell. He tipped backwards like a cutout whose support had been kicked out, his body thudding solidly on the porch.
Clark rocked himself back onto his heels, enough to be out of the kryptonite's range. He only crouched there on the entryway rug for a moment, staring at Lex's unmoving form. Peering behind him, expecting to see someone, Chloe or Lois or Jimmy, holding a two-by-four and grinning that they had gotten the drop on Lex Luthor. But there was no one, even when he opened his x-ray vision and scanned the dark yard. No skeletal outlines of friends, or Lex's people, either. Just their truck, and a Ferrari convertible parked crookedly in front of the house.
"Lex?" Clark asked, climbing to his feet, wary of approaching the black, still form on the porch. Kryptonite-induced nausea roiled in the pit of his stomach. "What the hell..."
No one answered. The night was quiet, a cool breeze blowing from the fields. It was too early in the spring for insects. Clark, focusing his hearing, could hear Lex breathing in sharp pants that sounded too short, and his pulse was pounding.
Clark hesitated a beat longer, then hollered upstairs, "Mom! Could you come down? There's a...problem."
Martha immediately came downstairs, in slippers and wrapped in a bathrobe over her pajamas. "What is it? Did I hear the door just now? Who—" and then she stopped and blinked at the open door. "Clark, is that—did you—"
"I didn't touch him," Clark said. "I can't. Mom, he's got meteor rock on him."
"What?" Suddenly pale, Martha stopped in her tracks on the threshold, staring down at Lex's seemingly unconscious form. "Does he..."
Clark shook his head. "I don't know. He just said good evening, and then...fell over."
Martha stayed standing in the doorway, her hand on the knob. "Clark," she said steadily, "go get the shotgun."
"If this is a trick..."
Clark nodded, took a step back to be sure he was out of Lex's sight, then got the gun in half a second. He didn't aim it, just held it, fingers curled around the barrel like he needed both hands to bear it. He could pick up a tractor a thousand times the weight of this bit of metal; it was strange how something that weighed so little could still be so heavy.
Martha took a breath and stepped out onto the porch, crouched over Lex. Called his name and touched his shoulder, and when he didn't respond, she went through his coat pockets. She pulled out a chunk of meteor rock the size of her fist, veined in glimmering green, and rolled it away to the end of the porch, her mouth down-turned in a troubled frown. "Clark?"
Clark took a cautious step forward, felt no twinge and nodded. "That's the only piece," he said. He put down the gun, came closer.
Lex groaned, a faint sound that might have gone unheard, if the night hadn't been so quiet. He didn't try to move, but his breath caught roughly, then continued; Clark heard the stuttering gasp with odd clarity.
"Clark," his mother said, her voice strange. Her hand was on Lex's forehead. "I don't think this is a trick. Lex? Can you hear me, Lex?"
Under the porch light, Lex's face was shiny with sweat and so white the shadows over his closed eyes went bluish. His jaw was clenched, and Clark could feel the fever's heat rolling off him without touching him.
Lex didn't get sick. It was one of the many private, meaningless things Clark knew about him, things he didn't try to remember but wouldn't ever forget. "Maybe he's been poisoned," he said. "It wouldn't be the first time."
It sounded harsh to his own ears, and to his mother's, too; Martha shot him a hard look. But then he hadn't told his mother everything; she still thought this was about Lana, mostly. She knew some of the truth, but she didn't want to know more, didn't want to understand what Lex really was, the things he had done and was doing. She worried about Clark's safety enough; she didn't know how many others Lex had hurt, and would hurt.
But Lex wasn't hurting anyone now; he himself was hurting, and Clark picked Lex up, long legs and black coattails hanging down and his bald head lolling back, and brought him inside. He wasn't wheezing but he was so hot Clark could feel him burning through the coat. Clark laid him on the couch.
Martha had the phone's handset. "We should call the medical center, or else drive him there ourselves—unless you want to take him, Clark—"
"I don't know if it would do any good," Clark said, frowning. Thinking about the chunk of kryptonite on their porch. "Mom, could you get that meteor rock?"
"Of course," Martha said, "we have that lead-lined security box, that should big enough."
Clark nodded. "Could you bring it here, please? I think maybe Lex..."
Clark dragged Lex's coat off his shoulders. Lex was bonelessly limp, like handling a water-logged scarecrow, and Clark lost patience with the buttons on his fancy, sweat-damp shirt. He pinched the sleeve between his fingers instead and tore the silk with a shriek of rent fabric.
"What is it, hon?" his mother asked, coming closer to put her hand on his back, and then she caught her breath. "Oh."
Lex's shoulder was marked, the pale hairless skin veined with streaks darker than bruises that snaked down his arm and up under his shirt, an ugly disfigurement like a creeping rot. It had a silvery sheen in the lamplight, an almost artificial lesion.
"That almost looks like..." Martha began, hesitantly. "What I had, last year."
"I think it might be," Clark said grimly, remembering his mother on this couch, wasting away so frighteningly quickly from a similar infection.
But his mother had been Fine's innocent victim, an attack aimed at him through his loved ones. Lex was not innocent, and likely never had been, and if this were an attack...
He twisted his fist in Lex's shirt collar, hauled his slack figure up off the couch. "Lex." Clark tapped his fingers against Lex's cheek, lightly for him, but still hard enough that Lex's head snapped back. "Wake up," Clark said, not patiently, and gave him a shake.
Lex shuddered all over and his eyes slid open, dark and unfocused in his white wet face.
"What the hell did you do, Lex?" Clark demanded.
Lex blinked, focusing with effort. "Clark," he rasped, and then he went cold and stiff as a corpse, yanking out of Clark's grasp and drawing himself up sitting on the couch. "Apologies for not calling ahead," he said, still breathing in short pants. "I don't mean to impose, Mrs. Kent. Clark."
Clark had wondered, more than once in the last couple years, if Lex might have gone insane again, had another psychotic break that no one had caught. He sounded nothing like he had three years ago, when he had been committed; not panicked and afraid now, but always so calm and controlled and hard. But maybe there were different ways to lose your mind.
Or more likely Clark had always been the crazy one, for believing in a Luthor to begin with. "What happened, Lex? What's wrong with you?"
Lex tilted back his head enough to regard Clark directly, nothing showing in his eyes, though there were lines of pain gathered tight around his mouth. When he spoke it was strained. "Something got...out of hand."
There were very few things problematic enough that Clark could imagine Lex coming to him for help. "Is Lana messed up in this?" Clark asked, barely swallowing panic. "Did you get Lana in trouble?"
Lex shook his head. "Lana's fine. Nothing to do with this. It was a LuthorCorp project."
"33.1," Clark said darkly.
Lex didn't bother faking surprise or ignorance. He only nodded curtly, his shoulders hunched. "One division."
"What did you do?" Clark demanded. Dread coiled in his gut. That Lex would come to him, would admit this much—if this were a trap, he must be damn certain of its success; if there were real danger, then...Clark couldn't imagine what Lex could have done that even he would shy back from. Lex, who had opened himself to Zod; even if he hadn't been totally aware of what devil's deal he had sold his soul to, he had accepted that power so readily, so eagerly. And now, having lost it, he was seeking any other power he could reach, and what dangerous doors might he have unlocked in that quest?
But Lex didn't answer. Instead he narrowed his eyes, and the flat line of his mouth curved a little, satisfied. "Hartford, Connecticut," he said.
"805 Summit Street," Lex went on, "second floor," and maybe it wasn't insanity but delirium. "Lab 2-B; Prototype 71x. I called; they'll have it ready."
"What are you talking about—"
"Bring it here to me."
"You want me to—what the hell are you doing, Lex?"
"You want to know? Bring me that. Now."
"What is it? The cure?"
Lex shuddered again, eyes clenching shut like he was fighting it. "You have half an hour."
"Half an hour..." Behind him Clark heard his mother shift from one foot to another. She was too wise to give away her shock more obviously. Clark's own gut was clenched as he feigned a hesitant chuckle. "Lex, that's impossible—even if I had tickets, it's what, like, a six hour flight to the East Coast? Can't you just have it shipped here?"
"No time." Lex's teeth were gritted. He allowed himself to lean back on the couch.
Clark remembered too well how quickly his mother had succumbed to this condition. How long would it take to bring the cure to Kansas? Even with a LuthorCorp heli-jet it would probably be five or six hours, and Lex might not have that long. "No one can get it here that quickly—"
Lex's eyes snapped open to fix on Clark, lucid but silvery with pain, glittering like the broken edges of a mirror. "You can," he said. "Half an hour. I'm feeling generous," and he made a weird choked sound that couldn't really pass as a laugh.
Clark had him by the shoulders, not sure if he wanted to shake him or shove him down into the couch or just squeeze until Lex actually cried out from the pain, instead of swallowing it. "If this is a trap—"
"It's not a trap, Clark," Lex said, looking him straight in the eye, so directly that Clark had to remind himself that this was Lex, and Lex lied; Lex lied all the time, more than Clark did, and better, too, more comfortably. So well that he never knew when Lex was telling the truth; if Lex had ever told him the truth.
"If I get it," Clark said. He heard his mother behind him open her mouth to say something, but she waited instead, as he continued, "if I bring you this 71x, then you'll tell me what's going on."
"Yes," Lex said, and then he seemed to let go, like he was breathing out not only air but life as well, that rigid control released. His head fell back and his tense body sagged in Clark's grasp. It was so sudden that Clark froze for a second, then focused and realized Lex was still breathing, fast and unevenly, like his pulse.
He lowered Lex's limp figure to the couch cushions. "I'll get the meteor rock," Martha said, hurrying for the closet with the lead box.
Clark stood and moved back. The kryptonite, according to Fine's untrustworthy account, wouldn't impede the infection, but it at least helped the pain. Lex must have figured out that much on his own, to have brought the meteor with him. Little else would do any good; taking him to the hospital would be useless. This wasn't something Earth medicine could handle.
But LuthorCorp...maybe. Maybe Lex's scientists had come up with a cure—maybe Lex's scientists had designed this infection to begin with. It looked almost like Fine's disease, but not exactly, Clark thought, looking once more at Lex's tarnished arm. The shape of the mark was different, a little less organic, branching through his flesh in an almost geometric pattern. Lex had had Fine's ship for a good half a year; who knows what he had gotten from it? His company had worked with viruses before. This might be a new type of weapon. Biological warfare.
For all the rumors about LuthorCorp's misdeeds under Lionel's direction, it hadn't started with the defense contracts until after Lex had established his control of the company. Clark felt ill.
The kryptonite made his skin prickle as his mother brought it into the living room. He withdrew a few more steps, out of the room. Martha set the security box on the coffee table, pushed the table flush to the couch and opened the box. Clark was out of the radiation's range, but he could see the green veins in the meteor glow in response to the infection. Lex exhaled, his breathing slowing as his head unconsciously turned toward the kryptonite.
Martha left him and joined Clark in the kitchen. "Do you think it's a trap?" she asked without preamble.
Clark leaned against the counter, his arms folded. "I don't know. What do you think?"
Martha glanced toward the living room. "He does seem to be actually sick..."
"I believe he's actually sick," Clark said.
"But you think it could be a trap anyway? Clark, do you honestly think Lex would do this to himself?"
"I don't know, Mom. Lex is..." Clark shrugged helplessly. "He's always wanted to know my secrets so badly, and now...he's more willing to do things now. Things that he wouldn't do before." Because he hadn't wanted to? Or simply hadn't been in the position to, before?
"He must be pretty sure he knows your secrets," his mother pointed out. "Some of them, at least, if he expects you to go to Hartford and back in half an hour."
Clark nodded. He had long suspected that Lex had guessed a lot already, even if he had never confirmed it; Lex was as far from stupid as Clark could imagine. Lex's knowledge didn't surprise him as much as Lex needing proof this badly. Unless this wasn't about him at all, and it had been an accident, and Lex had come here because Clark was the only one who could save him.
"We should call Lionel," Martha said.
Clark started. "Mom, I don't know if Lex would want Lionel to know." Lionel didn't need to know Lex's failures. He knew Clark's secrets already, and that was more than enough. Lionel working together with Lex was trouble squared, however helpful he had been at times; and if he were working against his son...
"We don't need to tell him Lex is here," his mother said. "I can ask him if he knows whether LuthorCorp's planned something in Connecticut, at least, if it is a trap. And if it isn't..." She glanced in the living room's direction again, unhappily. "Clark, if you don't get this cure, or if it doesn't work, Lionel has a right to know that his son is..."
"That's a good idea, asking Lionel about Connecticut," Clark said quickly. "And I can call Chloe, ask if she's heard anything about this place in Hartford."
Chloe answered on the third ring and was fascinated by his brief recounting of the evening's events. "So let me get this straight, the billionaire bad guy himself is now crashed on your living room couch, with a hunk of meteor rock instead of a teddy bear?"
"Chloe, he's...he's really sick."
"He's been sick for a while now. In the head, anyway. But he wants you to get him his cure."
"At 805 Summit Street, in Hartford. Connecticut."
"I don't remember any 33.1 hotspots in Connecticut. Let me check." He heard the rapid click of laptop keys. "Hmm," Chloe said. "Okay, got it. Barlowe Tech Labs. They were bought out by a LuthorCorp subsidiary sixteen months ago. But I never pegged them as 33.1; they're not an agricultural or medical or bio-research facility. Looks like they research—huh. Robotics."
"Robotics? Like cyborgs?"
"Doesn't look like it. Their specialty is nanotechnology, you know, nanites, those little tiny robots."
"If it's not biological research..."
"It still might be," Chloe said. "Nanotech is being considered for medical uses, I know. An immune system boost, send a fleet of microscopic robots into your blood like a SWAT team back-up to your white blood cells' police force. It's just theory now, but..."
"But maybe LuthorCorp is putting theory into practice. If Lex thinks something there could save him..."
More typing. "It looks like a small operation," Chloe reported. "No major security, and most of the place is open to the public. They've got pictures up on their website, there's only three labs, and they're small, no reinforced walls...if this is a trap for you, it's a weird place for one. Though maybe that's the point."
"Or maybe it's not a trap."
Chloe breathed out, a hiss of air over the cell phone's speaker. "Clark, even if it's not a set-up, if this was an accident...this is Lex Luthor."
"So maybe..." She hesitated long enough for Clark to begin counting the seconds. He made it to eight before she finished, "Maybe it'd be better. For everyone. If you just let nature take its course."
Clark let go of his own breath. Either his heartbeat was very loud or everything else was very soft. "I thought of that."
"And I can't. Not even if it's Lex."
"Didn't think so." Chloe didn't sound disappointed. More relieved, rather. She almost was cheerful as she cautioned, "Just remember, before you do your hero thing, x-ray the building. If there's any lead paint or pipes or containers big enough to hide kryptonite—"
"I know. I'll be careful. Thanks, Chloe."
"Good luck," Chloe said, "Boyscout," and she hung up before he could protest the codename.
His mother had already finished her end of the inquiry. "Lionel doesn't know anything about a LuthorCorp project in Hartford."
"Or he says he doesn't."
"Clark, he has protected you before..."
"I know he has, Mom." He trusted Lionel not as far as he could throw the man. Much, much less, in fact. But Lionel wouldn't work with Lex to trap him—or Lex wouldn't work with Lionel; Clark wasn't sure which applied, but one was true, he believed. If this weren't really about Clark, however; if this were about Lex, if Lionel knew what had happened to his son, and didn't disapprove...
A long time ago Clark had confessed to Lex that he didn't understand how his family worked. Like many other things in his life, the Luthor family had not become more comprehensible as he grew up.
He glanced through the doorway to the living room. All he could see from this angle was the back of the couch. "Okay. I'm going."
"Clark," his mother said, "be careful," and she kissed his cheek.
Then he was out the door.
It took him a minute and a half to run to Connecticut from Kansas. The dark of night gave way to streamers of light at that speed, car headlights and streetlamps blurring into streaks that flickered by like the frames of a movie. Once in Hartford, it took him another minute to follow the internet map Chloe had sent to his cell phone to 805 Summit Street.
The building, beige cement blocks three stories tall, looked unassuming on the dark street. Heeding Chloe's warning, he x-rayed it, spotting nothing unusual. No lead-shielded rooms, no kryptonite, and no people, save three figures, one pacing each floor—night watchmen, he guessed—and one more person sitting on the top of the stairs up to the second floor.
He tried the front door, found it unlocked. The lights were low, dimmed for the night. He zipped inside, then climbed the stairs at a normal rate. When he turned the corner, the person at the top of the flight called down, "Hey, you're the courier?"
He was a younger guy, maybe five or six years older than Clark, in jeans and a baseball cap. He was playing a PSP, but upon seeing Clark he pocketed the game and hurried down to meet him on the landing between floors. "Been waiting for you almost an hour, man," the guy said.
"You have...the 71x?" Clark asked, just barely remembering Lex's instructions.
"Right here." The guy lifted up a small metal box with a handle, a briefcase the size of a hardcover novel. It looked like a lunchbox. "The case has got the momentum dampeners Mr. Luthor asked for. It's packed like a Faberge egg, you could launch this thing into orbit and it wouldn't get broke. Sign here."
"What?" A pen was stuck into Clark's hand and a clipboard shoved at him. He scrawled his name on the line without thinking, then realized that he had just given proof that he was here. He should have used a fake signature. But then the building was probably wired with cameras anyway, and besides the moment he showed this case to Lex he was confirming he had been here, and...he was thinking too much about this.
"Say," the guy remarked, "you wouldn't know why Mr. Luthor wanted this so urgently, would you? Dave warned him it's an untested prototype, and considering what it can do..."
"No idea," Clark lied. "I'm just the courier." He regarded the man. "You're a lab assistant?"
"Me?" The guy chuckled. "No, man, I'm one of the docs. Just got my degree last year. Mr. Luthor hired me right out of grad school. A personal interview, even. Then he set me up here."
"Oh." Clark tried not to be too awkward or obvious in his staring. He looked like a totally ordinary guy. No scientist's white coat, and his brown eyes were friendly and lacking that rational unfeeling coldness. He didn't look like someone who would willingly work for Lex Luthor. But then Clark himself was working for Lex now, technically. Everyone had their reasons.
"The boss is something," the doctor chattered on. "Can't believe he's only a year older than me. You ever meet him?"
"Yeah," Clark said without thinking. Lex on the riverbank, coughing up water; Lex on the living room couch, pallid and dying. He went on quickly, "Excuse me, it's late, I should get moving."
"Oh, yeah, sorry," the guy said, "let me walk you out. I gotta go anyway, or I'll miss the last bus." He accompanied Clark outside, saw him off with a cheerful, "See you around," and with a wave started for the bus stop at the end of the block.
Clark was past Ohio by the time the doctor reached the corner. He made it back to Smallville in fifty-eight seconds, counting them by, with the case cradled between his arms against his chest.
His mother was in the living room, sitting in the armchair reading paperwork and taking notes on a yellow pad, with more files stacked next to the lamp. When she looked up and saw Clark standing in the entryway, she got up, went to the box on the coffee table and closed the lid over the kryptonite.
"He hasn't woken up," she told him, as Clark bent over the couch. Lex was curled on his side, under an afghan Martha must have spread over him, his arms crossed over his chest and his fingers digging into his biceps.
He was too tense to really be asleep, and when Clark touched his shoulder he came to like a string snapping, head jerking up whiplash-fast. Though for a moment he looked dazed, completely confused about where he was or what was happening. Then Lex caught himself, narrowed his glare at Clark as he drew himself sitting. He checked his watch. "Seven minutes to spare. Impressive," and his smile was thin and cold as the first frost. "Do you have it?"
Clark dropped the metal case down on the coffee table, harder than necessary. "Here," he said.
"Good," Lex said, and snapped open the latches on the case—no lock, Clark realized; the metal had stymied his x-ray vision but he could have just opened it and made sure nothing dangerous was inside. He should have checked, but the young doctor had seemed so casually friendly, he had almost forgotten that this was likely a trap.
But there was no kryptonite inside, no weapon as far as Clark could see, just a case of molded foam padding, holding a single-shot injector and a small vial of a clear liquid. Lex took out the vial, held it toward the lamp. Clark, focusing, could see clusters of tiny gray flecks suspended in the liquid, smaller than a human would be able to see.
"My coat," Lex muttered distractedly, "in the pocket—" He squirmed to drag out the black coat bundled under him, dug through its lining and pulled out a small electronic device, an enhanced cell phone. Flipping open a port on the device, he set the vial to it. Clark, standing over him, saw that Lex's hands were shaking; he pressed his elbows to his chest to steady them as he carefully punched keys and peered at the tiny display.
"What're you doing?" Clark demanded, but Lex only shook his head, not refusing but preoccupied, like he hadn't actually registered the question, just distracting noise. When Clark listened, he could make out a nearly inaudible whining hum, like the omnipresent drone of power lines or radio waves, something he was only just learning to tune into.
"What are you doing?" Clark repeated, more forcefully, and would have grabbed the device away from Lex, except that then Lex pushed a button and the noise stopped.
Lex hit a couple more keys, squinted at the display and then sank back against the couch cushions, his eyes fluttering closed. "Program accepted. Thank God," he breathed, his breath hitching. Opening his eyes again, he stiffly reached to return the vial to the case. The sleeve Clark had ripped hung down in a tattered banner as he extended his arm. Underneath the maroon silk, the dark markings streaked his pale skin, more than there had been before, and farther advanced down his arm. And Clark hadn't been gone half an hour.
"I brought you it like you wanted," Clark grated. "Now what's going on?"
Lex's eyes were blue-gray, reflecting more light than shadows as he angled his head up toward Clark and said, "You have to listen. You brought it; you agreed. And once it's explained—you'll have to do it."
"I don't have to do anything you tell me to." It was as much a lie as anything else he might tell Lex. Some things Clark did have to do; he didn't have a choice, being who he was.
And Lex, being Lex, knew when he lied. Lex always had known. At one time that had hurt Clark more than anything, having to lie when his friend could tell. Now Lex only nodded again, tight lips pulling into a smirk. "This, you'll have to. There's a LuthorCorp facility on the Granville border. In," he turned his wrist to check his watch, "seven hours and thirty-two minutes, you will take this there," and he waved at the box with the vial. "There will—"
"What the hell is this, Lex?" Clark cut him off. "What's at your lab—more victims of this thing, needing the cure? Or experiment subjects? What?"
"The cure?" The angle of Lex's head made it a question, even if his tone stayed flat.
"Whatever's in that vial—how are you supposed to take it? Should it be injected?" Clark turned the case towards him, picked up the vial and reached for the injector. "Or do you want to test it on someone else first, before risking it on yourself? Is it that dangerous?"
"Clark," his mother said quietly.
Lex didn't move to stop him. "It's not a cure," he said. "It's a possible solution."
Clark stopped. "It's not?" He pressed the vial and injector back into their places in the foam. "Then what's the cure, Lex?"
"There isn't one."
"What do you mean, there isn't one?"
"If a cure exists," Lex said, calm and reasonable for all his breath hissed in his throat like trapped steam, "then I don't have it, and likely don't have time to find it. Yesterday and today's research has turned up no hints. There's nothing like this infection on Earth. No theoretical treatments."
Of course not; it had originally been a Kryptonian-engineered disease. "You made something you didn't have a treatment for?"
"I made?" Lex's voice shook for the first time, and not from the fever. He looked incredulous, under that barely repressed suffering. "This wasn't LuthorCorp's creation. You think I'm so stupid I'd infect myself?"
"Maybe it was an accident. Did one of your victims decide turnabout is fair play, Lex?"
"I didn't inflict this on any human being," Lex said through gritted teeth. "We were attacked. Three of my people died in agony, yesterday and today, in spite of every medical opinion I could gather."
"You'll see." Lex's voice dropped, flattened. "If you don't already know."
Clark's shiver had nothing to do with Lex's ice-cold rage. "Was it Fine?" he asked.
Lex breathed in, breathed out, staring at Clark as if Clark was burning to ash before his eyes. As if going to Hartford and back in ten impossible minutes hadn't cinched the deal but those three words had, in a way Clark didn't understand. For all that he had thought he hated Lex, for all that he knew Lex hated him, he had never imagined seeing that look in Lex's eyes. Like he was dead and gone and buried, so long ago that Lex couldn't even remember his name.
"No," Lex said, so soft and calm and terrible. "Not Fine again. But close enough." Another breath, hissing out between his teeth, and then Lex said, "You know what Fine was."
"He was my enemy," Clark said. "Our enemy, the Earth's enemy—I tried to warn you, Lex, that he'd double-crossed you, but you wouldn't listen..." He grabbed Lex by the arms, wrenched him up, not bothering to be cautious. "Were you working with him, Lex? Teaming up with someone like Fine again? Is that how this happened to you?"
"Clark, please," his mother was saying somewhere behind him, too far away for Clark to listen to her.
Lex didn't try to pull away, let himself be shaken like a doll while he met Clark's glare steadily. "I'd never partner with such a monster," he said, in a low, absolute growl, and when he said monster Clark could see his own reflection in the mirror of Lex's gray eyes.
He let Lex go, sank back and found himself sitting on the edge of the coffee table, pulled up close to the couch. Staring at Lex's white face and his clenched fists and the blot of the infection winding creeping tendrils up Lex's neck, past the collar of his shirt.
"Lex," he said, and of all the questions he was supposed to ask, the only one Clark could find the words for was, "if that's not a cure and your doctors couldn't find a treatment, what are you going to do?"
Lex's eyes changed. Clark couldn't say how they did, only that something shifted in those colorless recesses, like water moving under ice. "I'm going to die," he said.
Clark barely felt his mother's hand on his shoulder. He could bear the weight of a building falling on him; the insignificant pressure of a human touch was only noticeable if he concentrated.
"There must be something..." Martha began.
"There's five hours," Lex said, not any differently than he had said anything else. "Maybe as many as six. My immune system is compensating better than average, but not enough to make a significant difference."
"Six hours," Clark's mother said, faintly.
"What is this, Lex?" Clark reached for the case with the vial, shoved it towards Lex. "What is this, if it isn't a cure? You called it the solution."
"Yes. The solution to the thing that did this. To stop it before it's too late."
"To stop it—to make it cure you?"
"Impossible," Lex said.
"Why?" That was a solution, Clark knew. Killing one of Fine's embodiments had cured his mother.
But Lex shook his head. "The monster is out of reach, for another seven and a half hours. Even you couldn't touch it."
Seven and a half hours. An hour and a half too late. There was something coiling in Clark's stomach, colder than Lex's eyes. "Then why are you here, Lex?"
Lex stared at him strangely. Like he might be the one dying but at least he knew how to tell time. "Because six hours aren't enough for me to come up with a foolproof plan, and whatever you are, whatever your reasons, you've saved our planet enough times before that you're the best bet we have now."
Clark banged twice on the Talon apartment door before he thought to x-ray inside and see if Chloe or Lois was already asleep. By then, if she had been in bed, Chloe was up and approaching, so he waited for her to slide the latch and open the door. She was in pajamas but the look she gave him was sharp, not muzzy with sleep. "Clark? What is it? Come in."
Clark ducked into the apartment, not sure if he was moving too fast or not fast enough. He felt jittery, uncomfortable in his impenetrable skin. Almost so that he wondered if Lex might have infected him with something; this wasn't the same as the floating anxiety of the silver kryptonite, and certainly not the giddy freedom of red K, but it didn't feel natural, either. Like the heart-pounding tension when he was racing to save someone, but that never lasted more than a few seconds, and now it was going on and on, playing on his nerves, stringing him out.
But then, Lex was the one infected, not likely to be doing any infecting now. And wouldn't ever again after tonight, anyway.
"You're in luck, Lois is visiting friends in Metropolis tonight," Chloe said. "She'd kill you for barging in this late—Clark? What's wrong? How'd that thing in Connecticut go, it wasn't a trap, was it?"
Clark shook his head. "No, it wasn't a trap."
"Good." Chloe looked relieved. "I would've felt terrible if I'd helped send you into a LuthorCorp cage. So you got Lex's antidote?"
"It wasn't a cure, either," Clark said. "Chloe, there isn't a cure."
"Okay." Chloe pushed him toward one of the stools around the counter. "Maybe you better sit down and fill me in."
Atypically she didn't ask many questions, listening as Clark caught her up on the new revelations since he had called her. When he was done, she rubbed her temples as if she were trying to massage her brain into a higher gear. "Lex Luthor was screwed over by a cousin of Milton Fine's."
"Or a duplicate. Or a back-up copy, or something. As far as I get it, Fine was some kind of Kryptonian artificial intelligence. Raya called him a 'Brainiac'."
"So this might be another program, MS Fine Version 2.0. Which is why Lex is trying to take it down with nanotechnology, advanced AI robotics—fight fire with fire. But Lex wants you to be the one to get his LuthorCorp nanites into Mr. 2.0. Why you, Clark?"
"Because Lex knows what I am. Or what I can do, anyway. If this thing is anything like Fine was, you know it's as strong as a Kryptonian, with the same powers, but no weaknesses."
"Clark," Chloe said, "have you thought that maybe this is the trap? Making you fetch the nanites was just to set you up, get you onboard, and it's really fighting this Brainiac thing that's the test? That LexCorp facility he's sending you to is probably wired with a million cameras. Lex suspects you now, but this way he'll have total proof of what you are."
"If that's what he's after, why did he let himself get infected?"
Chloe shrugged. "That could be a trick. If he's really working with Fine 2.0, then they could've faked this disease. Or else it's real, but 2.0 is going to call his space-virus dogs off Lex as soon as you show up."
"Or else Lex was double-crossed, and he's going to be dead by the time I can fight this thing."
"Lex Luthor is supposed to have died plenty of times before. It never takes." Chloe cocked her head up at him. "Maybe if you went and took out this guy now, before he's ready for you...?"
"I can't get to him," Clark said. "I went to the facility, but it's like Lex told me. He's out of reach."
"Out of reach how? On the moon out of reach? In the phantom zone out of reach? In the bath and not taking calls out of reach?"
"Behind a force-field out of reach."
Chloe rocked back on her heels, her socks sliding on the tile. "A force-field. Like, Star Trek?"
"The facility's closed off, but I jumped the fence and went inside. And there's—a force-field, just like Lex said. Well, he said it was a kind of contained-energy electrostatic stasis shield, but..." Clark shrugged. "It looks like a bubble, sort of rippling and reflective. I couldn't see through it."
"And you couldn't punch through it or anything?"
"Lex warned me that if I tried to break through it, I risked releasing all the energy contained in it. Explosively."
"That doesn't sound good."
"He said the EMP pulse alone would knock out all power and electronics across Kansas and most of the bordering states, and the blast..."
"Okay, yeah, not good. So why doesn't he just turn it off?"
"It doesn't work like that. Once it's up, there's no way to affect it. You can only wait for the power source to expire." Clark checked his watch. "Which will be in about seven hours from now, according to Lex." An hour and a half after Lex...he could visualize that countdown when he looked at his watch, as if the numbers were marked in red. He put down his arm and looked away.
"It's got to be a plan, Clark," Chloe said. "Why would Lex have set this thing off, if he seriously thought he was going to be—gone, by the time it came down?"
"I don't know. Maybe he didn't have a choice."
"Maybe he was double-crossed, and he's not the one who started up the force-field."
"Lex said he wasn't working with the, uh, Fine 2.0," Clark said.
"This is Lex. Does he even know how to tell the truth anymore?"
Clark watched Chloe pace in front of him, back and forth, quick contemplative strides. "I think he's dying, Chloe. And there isn't a cure."
Chloe quit mid-step, plunked down on the arm of the sofa and let go a sighing breath that puffed out her cheeks. "That's... It could still all be a trick."
"It doesn't make sense. If Lex was trying to trick me with this, then why didn't he infect you, or Mom, or Lana, or even Lois or Jimmy—someone who he knew I'd care about."
"Lana—God, what about Lana, Clark?" Chloe stood as suddenly as she had sat a moment before. "Is she mixed up in this?"
"Lex said she wasn't." Which said nothing, really, and he could see that doubt in Chloe's face. Wondered why he had let himself believe it—though Lex would have told him if Lana was in danger. It would have been another way to control him, Lana always was; Lex had been using her to get to him for a year now. "Maybe you could call her, Chloe, ask if she's okay. But don't—I don't think she needs to know what's going on, if she doesn't already."
"You can't protect her forever, Clark. Especially not if Lex dies, that's going to be kind of hard to hide from her." But Chloe sat down again, partially appeased. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to be there this morning when the forcefield comes down. If it is another Brainiac, I'll have to stop it. Somehow. Either with Lex's nanites or something else. I'll find a way."
Clark shook his head. "Chloe, could you do some searches, ask your contacts in medical research? Maybe someone's seen this infection before. Or anything like it. If they have some idea...not a cure, even, but a treatment that might slow it down..."
"I can look," Chloe said slowly, "but we're talking about an extraterrestrial infection. Most doctors wouldn't even believe it exists. And besides, there's no way my Google-fu can compare to a team of LuthorCorp scientists—he's probably got a hundred people working on this thing. If it's not just a hoax."
"I know, I know, but could you try?" Clark said, jumping up from the stool. "Just in case, if they missed something—and you know what this is, more than they might, if there's a chance—"
"Clark!" Chloe had to all but stand on her toes to put her hands on his shoulders. She bore her minimal weight down until she got him to meet her eyes. "Clark, I'll do what I can. Promise."
"Okay," Clark said. "Okay. Sorry, Chloe. Thanks."
"No problem. I like all-nighters as much as the next co-ed—it's the only time I'll ever see a sunrise, right?"
His smile didn't feel as natural as it usually did with Chloe, forced instead of heartfelt, and Chloe of course didn't miss it.
"Hey," she said, her hands moving down to rest on his arm. "Clark. It's going to be okay." She made a little chuckle. "Old habits die hard, huh."
"What do you mean?"
Chloe shrugged. "How many times have you saved Lex Luthor's life? Before you even knew him, and then when we thought he was our friend, and even now..."
"That's not—it doesn't—"
"It's okay, Clark. Heck, how many times have you saved me? I'm not complaining! It's what you do. Even when it's a guy who wouldn't lift a finger now to save you—that's what makes you the hero." She smacked his bicep, gave him a shove toward the door. "Go and see what else you can find about this. Ask Lex. He should be talking now, if he's serious, most people aren't going to lie when they're on their—when they're in that condition. I'll call Lana and then get on this medical angle. And maybe see if I can dig up anything on that place in Granville, find out where LuthorCorp got their Starfleet tech."
"Okay," Clark said, allowing himself to be propelled toward the exit. He stopped in the doorway. "Chloe, thank you. Really."
"Like I have a chance against the Kent puppy eyes. I'm going to put on more coffee, but if you haven't heard back from me in a couple hours, run over or give me a call, make sure I haven't conked out over the keyboard. Don't want to miss that sunrise..." Chloe, opening the door, stopped with her hand on the knob, her eyes going distant.
"Nothing." She shook her head, blonde hair whipping her cheeks. "Just thinking what it'd be like, if I knew I wouldn't be getting to see the sun come up again...nothing. Forget it. Good luck, Clark."
"You, too," Clark said, and left.
He was back at the farm before she could blink, before he could think. Too quickly, and he stopped in the driveway, listening to the shadowy quiet of coming midnight, the wind through the fields.
Most of the house was dark. The living room curtains were drawn, lamplight glowing blue through the cloth. He focused his x-ray vision, saw the skeletal outline reclined on the couch. There was a blur to that figure, unclear spots that pulsed red in his special sight, in throbbing contrast to the sickening green of the kryptonite. The infection, coiling around and through the body like the roots of a weed strangling a plant.
A visible corruption, as if in confirmation of the unseen darkness in Lex's heart; and Clark shuddered, standing alone in the driveway.
The second figure would be his mother, also in the living room, sitting in a chair drawn close to the couch. As he watched she leaned forward with her arms tucked around herself in a protective hug. Clark cocked his head and listened for the distant vibration of their voices through the night.
Lex was on the phone, as he had been when Clark had left, this time speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, or maybe Italian. Only a few words, and then he was interrupted by a choked gasp. His teeth clacked shut and he cursed, "Son of a bitch," through them, in English, which sounded strange because Lex so rarely swore. Stranger because Lex's voice was so hoarse as to be almost unrecognizable, not smooth but ragged, and his breaths sounded harshly in his lungs.
"Lex," his mother said, "You should...rest..."
Hesitantly, and Clark thought Lex would curse at her, too; but instead he snapped the phone shut with an audible click and said, still hoarse but terribly formal, "I am sorry for the inconvenience. Once Clark returns, and I'm sure everything's explained, I'll be leaving."
"No, you won't be, not in this condition. Would you like some water? Tea?" and how could his mother sound so calm?
Maybe Lex thought it weird, too; his cough might have been an approximation of a laugh. "I'm...no. Thanks."
"Are you sure? Should we contact the hospital, at least, there must be something they could give you for the pain—"
"There's nothing," Lex said. "My three people—the first man died of multiple organ failure from an oral analgesic. Blood tests proved that any foreign chemical compound introduced into the body...reacts badly. It was pure luck we found the radiation from the meteor rocks has a suppressant effect...though that only goes so far." He fell silent.
"Will you be calling Lana soon?" Martha asked after a moment.
"No. Not tonight," Lex replied.
"Lex, she is your..."
"It won't give her any more closure than the funeral will. And less guilt for her that she doesn't know before."
Lex's voice was tight but the pain was only physical; there was no emotion in it. "Guilt for not feeling the hurt or grief that might be expected. That she might expect from herself."
"The reading of the will will be in three days, seventy-two hours after my death. You'll be asked to attend. There'll be a delivery for you before that, an epistle with documentation."
"Oh, I don't think...we couldn't take..."
"I know better than to ask for Clark, but I hope you will go. But you'll have to sign before the reading. To swear that you've read what's sent to you. As Lana will sign. Neither of you can be expected to accept, until you know what you're accepting. Until you understand."
"Understand what?" his mother asked.
"Please," Lex said, maybe with a thread of feeling, though Clark couldn't tell what it was or if it was real. "Even if you don't go to hear the will, say you'll read what's sent."
"I'll read it, Lex," Martha said after a moment. Watching the outline of her skeleton through the wall, Clark saw her reach out, saw the bones of her fingers curl around Lex's blurred and blemished hand.
"Thank you," Lex said, such a raspy whisper that Clark barely heard it.
Either it was an act, a flawless, false, Oscar-worthy swan song; or it was true, and this was real.
He was at the Luthor mansion in less than a second. It was only a few miles and he had been going there longer than he had been going to the Talon. His feet knew every ridge and rut in the path, every fence to hop and hedge to dodge, even at speeds too high for him to see before reacting.
Clark stood in the field outside the fence, out of range of the front gate cameras or the watchmen on the grounds. He could enter too quickly to be caught on film, as he had so many times before, but tonight he shouldn't risk setting off any alarms. Instead he just gazed at the castle, peering through the stone. He saw a couple asleep in the adjacent servant's bungalow, a few guards walking the halls. The office was empty, no light on in the window facing him. In a second-floor bedroom one figure reclined on the wide bed: Lana, asleep for the night.
For a moment his vision flipped, as it did occasionally in a way he had yet to master, and he was seeing not her skeleton but Lana herself through the walls, better than he ever could have with his telescope. A child's toy; he was growing up, not into a human but something else, someone who didn't need a telescope. But Lana was still a girl in sleep, young and peaceful, satin sheets wrapped around her and wayward strands of dark hair falling across her oval face.
Tranquil, safe. She didn't know anything. Or else she knew everything, knew it was a trick, knew not to worry. Clark closed his eyes, turned away. Last year's grass rustled under his sneakers, with new shoots poking up between the dead brown. The castle was quiet, but for the footsteps of the guards echoing through the empty halls, and Lana's soft, even breathing, calm and regular.
She was probably used to Lex not being around when she went to bed. Clark had seen Lex up at all hours, had more than once met him well past midnight, still fully dressed and working. With all the terrible things he was doing with LuthorCorp now, he must be no less busy.
Four years ago, right before Dr. Swann had contacted him, before he had ever heard the word Krypton, Clark had dreamed of the caves, and awoken lying in the road a mile from here. Lex had been bending over him, saying his name, his face in the headlights of his car all confused concern. It had been the same time of year, the same crisp night air, that special cloudy deep darkness of the sky a few hours before dawn.
Lex had questions, of course, questions Clark couldn't answer, or wouldn't; but Lex had only asked a couple, and then no more. Instead he had stopped the car, and they had gotten out in an overgrown field to trudge through the mist, dew-laden grass trailing at their pants legs, walking side by side up the shallow slope. Clark hadn't asked where they were going, and Lex maybe wouldn't have answered him; maybe wouldn't have been able to say, anymore than Clark had been able to tell him why he had been outside that night instead of in his bed. Not the same forces drawing him, but drawn all the same.
At the low crest of the hill, they had stopped walking. Clark had sat in the grass, heedless of getting his sweatpants damp, and Lex had crouched beside him in his leather loafers and cashmere coat. "It's quiet," he'd observed, in the hushed tone that everyone is reduced to in the unbreakable peace of a countryside night.
"Yeah," Clark had replied. He hadn't been able to hear much more than a normal human, back then.
"I wish I had grown up here," Lex had said.
"You're growing up here now," Clark had told him, and Lex had smiled at him, wide and open-mouthed, soft shadows and a gleam of teeth in the hazy darkness.
For an hour they had sat there, side by side, and Clark had talked about school and Lana and not knowing who he might become, and Lex had talked about work and Helen and not knowing who he was becoming. By the end of the hour, Lex had slid down to sit beside him, unconcerned with grass stains on black cashmere, so they were shoulder to shoulder. Clark, leaning against Lex, had looked over to see Lex's face so close to his, smooth planes in muted twilight blues, his mouth curved and content. Lex's eyes had been darker than the sky behind him, and Clark had wondered, if he dipped his head down to Lex's, what would happen.
Then Lex had stood. "The sun's coming up," Lex had said, "and don't your parents get up with it?" and smiling in the gray morning light, he had reached down to give Clark a hand up. "Let's get you home."
The sun would rise over the mansion in a few hours, like it did every morning. Lana would probably sleep through it. Not many people got up to watch the dawn; even Clark usually waited until the sun was on the horizon. He could still easily finish his morning chores before breakfast. For a while he had been trying to get up earlier, to lessen the chances that some intrepid tabloid photographer might catch him on film, but he didn't always bother.
If he knew he wouldn't get to see sunrise again...
The night was so quiet it swallowed the sound of his heart. In the sky overhead, the half moon and a few stars shone through the gauzy clouds. He could smell the new grass crushed under his rubber soles. Like a thousand other spring nights, growing up in Smallville, and every ordinary detail was as vivid and beautiful and unforgettable as every other time.
Clark waited in the dark silence, watching the castle's solid stone, for a few more minutes, until he couldn't be alone anymore.
Martha met him on the threshold to the living room. "He just fell asleep," she told him in an undertone. "He was working until a few minutes ago, making calls—Clark, some of what he was telling his people..." Her eyes were troubled.
Clark wondered what was bothering her, if it was what Lex was revealing, or just that it had sounded final. He could have asked but didn't want to. It couldn't matter now, really, whether his mother learned the truth about Lex or not. Whether he learned anything more than what he already knew.
It occurred to him that Oliver would want him to ask. This might be the last chance to learn 33.1's darkest secrets. If 33.1 would even exist without its head.
If Lex would tell him the truth anyway. Why start now?
"How's he doing?" Clark asked instead.
She shook her head. "Clark, he...he must be in a lot of pain. Even with the kryptonite, I remember how excruciating..."
"It's okay, Mom," Clark said, engulfing her in a hug automatically, needing it as much as she did. She had survived this thing; she was alive now. And Lex... "He'll...Chloe's looking, but Lex was right, I can't get to what did this; the force-field—"
His mother leaned her head on his chest, holding him back tightly. "Oh, honey," she said. "You're doing everything you can, I know."
"Chloe thinks it might all be a trick. Some scheme of his."
"I don't know," Martha said. "Do you really think..."
"I don't know either. It's Lex, but..." Clark shrugged helplessly. "It's Lex."
"He wants to talk to you. It sounded like he has more to tell you about this thing he wants you to fight, but Clark, I think you should let him rest for now, at least for a little while—he's hurting so much and his fever's so high, not everything he was saying was making sense."
Clark remembered Lex delirious, his induced madness when Lionel had been drugging his scotch, fighting for coherency, lucid one minute and lost the next. Lex had frightened him badly then, seeing him like that, so confused when always before he had been in control.
Lex frightened him now, but in an entirely different way, a way his younger, naive self wouldn't have imagined.
"It's okay, Mom," Clark said. "I'll watch him now. You can go to bed."
"I have some paperwork to get done," Martha said. "Since I'm up already. If you need anything..."
He hugged her again, a quick squeeze. Then she retreated to the sun porch where she had established her makeshift office, and he went to the living room. The kryptonite gleamed malevolently in its open box. Clark skirted around the coffee table, feeling a twinge in his gut that might only be psychological. Phobia of the color green, there was probably a word for that. Chloe could look it up. He took the armchair farthest from the table, pulled it around to face the couch.
Lex was curled on his side under a couple afghans. He looked even paler, if it were possible to be paler than bone-white, and sicker than ever with his face bathed in the kryptonite's green glimmer. The unnatural gray-dark streaks of the infection had climbed his neck and were licking at his jawline like flames.
Clark picked up a magazine from the rack under the window, a copy of Newsweek a couple weeks old, from his mother's complimentary subscription. He had read it already; he didn't really read a word of it now, his eyes continuously straying from the glossy pages to the couch. To Lex, shivering under the blankets, his hands clenched around the pillow, long fingers digging into the cushioning.
There was no clock in the living room, but Clark could hear the kitchen clock above the sink, the faint hum of its battery, and the second hand clicking in its circuits around the clock face. Ticking seconds past one by one, every one closer to sunrise, until he was picturing himself zipping over to tear the clock off the wall, tear the second hand off the clock face, as if without that accounting time would stop.
He should be doing something. Anything would be more productive than sitting and staring—deathwatch; and maybe Lex had known, maybe this was why he had come, so that his final hours would be spent tormenting Clark, torturing him with his ineffectiveness, his failure.
For the last couple years, Clark had told himself that it wasn't personal, that what Lex did, the things he chose to do, had little to do with Clark in the end. That Lex's bitterness toward him was only a side-effect and not a cause, no more than his anger and disappointment with Lex ultimately affected who Clark was or what he chose to do. He would be Clark Kent even if he had never met Lex Luthor. And this was what Lex Luthor was always going to be, with or without him.
Lex had told him he didn't matter. Lex had forgotten their friendship, as Clark had, those years of lies that didn't mean anything, in the end. That was part of growing up, learning what didn't mean as much as once you had believed it did.
Once, he wouldn't have been sitting here. He would have been running around the world, back to Chloe or the force-field, or to Oliver or to a doctor or to someone or something that could solve this; sure that there would be a way, must be a way, had to be a way to save his friend. He had been sure he was invincible and anything was possible, and he would not have given up, not for any reason. Wouldn't give up on anyone, but most especially not Lex. Not his best friend, never.
That was how he had believed that Lex was his best friend, more than the hours they spent talking, more than the gifts Lex gave him or tried to give him. More even than the pounding in his blood when Lex looked at him dark-eyed and intent, the heat that would rise in his face and through his body that even now he hadn't come to terms with. More than any of that, it was because Clark had known he would do anything for Lex, would do anything to save Lex no matter the danger or the reason. He couldn't tell Lex the truth, couldn't betray his parents like that, but anything, anything else, if Lex had only asked.
"The stuff of legends," Lex had said, and Clark had smiled, because he had understood, had known then that Lex felt it, too, whatever it was between them.
Whatever it was that didn't matter now. That must have never really mattered, for Lex to have so easily thrown it away.
Unless Lex had been lying, and really Lex still believed. Maybe he had come here because he thought Clark was still young and ignorant enough to try to do anything, still too naive to give up.
Or maybe Lex had never expected to be saved, but still believed in him anyway.
"You've saved our planet enough times before that you're the best bet we have now."
Clark was lost in his own thoughts, such that he didn't notice immediately when Lex slipped from quiet, tense unconsciousness to a restless doze. He didn't realize it until Lex's head started tossing on the pillow, strange soft noises garbled in his throat between his too-short breaths, like whimpers.
"Lex," Clark said, "wake up, you're dreaming," but Lex didn't awaken. Clark repeated himself, raising his voice, and took a step forward before he remembered the kryptonite between them. He stopped and studied Lex across the coffee table, green shining on his sweat-spotted face as his head turned back and forth in quick violent motions. As if he were saying no, again and again. Lex's hands clutched spasmodically at the afghans, ripped them off and threw the blankets to the floor, not like he was hot but like they were bonds he was struggling against.
"Lex," Clark tried again, and when that did nothing, he chucked the magazine in his hand at just the angle to hit the lid of the metal box. It clacked shut, safely shielding the kryptonite, and Clark moved, stepping on and over the coffee table just in time to catch Lex before he thrashed himself off the couch.
Lex threw up his arm to block Clark. Clark caught the blow easily, allowing his arm some give before Lex's wrist snapped; he had swung with enough force to toss a normal man over the couch. And Lex was still asleep, his eyes closed and his expression strained and unaware, and his body radiating the fever's heat. Even when Clark grabbed his flailing arms and pushed him down into the couch cushions, Lex didn't wake up, though he struggled wildly, kicking and bucking against Clark's hold like he was convulsing.
Lex was strong. Not Zod-strong, not inhumanly strong; but stronger than an ordinary man should be, much stronger than a sleeping, dying man ought to be, and Clark worried that if he had to hold on much tighter he might hurt Lex. "Lex!" he said again, hooked his fingers around Lex's wrists to hold both of them in one hand, and with his other hand he carefully slapped Lex's cheek. "Wake up!"
The whimpers in Lex's throat were less garbled now, resolving into words, "No," and "Prepared," and "Turned me into one of them" and "He's coming." Clark remembered fighting Lex in the barn, with Zod's power but Lex's will. One of the few times Lex had attacked him—Lex had pulled a gun on him more than once, uselessly; but had never struck him except for those rare times they were physically matched. Only when he knew he had a chance of winning.
"Lex!" Clark said, as Lex twisted against his grip, and slapped him again, so that a spot of red bloomed on his pale cheek. Lex's eyes rolled open, glazed gray like a cement wall, pupils contracted to points.
"Kal-El," he rasped, a threat or a curse.
Clark let go, and Lex dropped back to the couch cushions, staring up at him but not seeing him, not seeing anything. Still dreaming, even if half-awake.
"Lex?" Clark asked, getting off the couch to sink down onto the coffee table, watching him.
Lex stared back, mute. It took far too long for any real awareness to trickle back into his glassy eyes, for him to be looking at Clark instead of invisible demons behind him or inside him. When finally he came to, it was with a sharp exhalation. He glanced down at his fists, knotted in the couch cushion; looked back up at Clark and said, with the last air rattling in his chest, "Did I hurt you?"
A flat inquiry, emotionless. "You couldn't really hurt me," Clark said, like a confession.
Lex's gaze darted pointedly to the metal box on the coffee table. "Okay, you could have," Clark admitted, "but you didn't, don't worry." Though Lex didn't actually sound worried, just assessing facts.
Lex didn't say Good or anything like an apology, only nodded. "I never shared a bed with Lana without taking a sedative," he said, in the weird disconnected tone he used to use when he talked with Clark about his childhood, the careful distance that was never quite as complete as he wanted it to be. "Not after Dark Thursday."
Clark frowned. "You mean you always have...dreams like that?"
"Not every night," Lex said, dismissively. He was slouched on the couch almost lazily, breathing in deliberate, even breaths, inhaling and then exhaling through his mouth. But when his hands rose to his unbuttoned collar, as if he had some idea of neatening the sweat-stained silk, they were shaking so hard he couldn't grasp a button.
Clark reached down, picked up the fallen afghans and spread them over his legs. "Lex," he said, and was unable to help the anxious thrum in his voice, unable to keep himself from asking, "I thought you didn't remember what happened when you were taken by Zod. That's what Lana said..." Had insisted, though Lionel had questioned that. Clark had doubted he did; if Lex remembered for sure what Clark was, surely Lex would have tried something. But maybe he hadn't gone after Clark for some other reason.
But Lex shook his head. "I don't remember anything consciously. Maybe subconsciously I do. Or else my imagination is recreating the scenario."
"What do you see? In your dreams?"
"I don't know." His voice was steady, but very tight, like his focus was narrowed to just the syllables his mouth was making. "I never remember them, either."
"But you called me..." Clark hesitated. "What Zod called me."
Lex searched his face. "Kal-El?" he asked quietly.
It was a shock to hear it in Lex's low voice now, as shocking it had been to see Zod's mad eyes staring at him out of Lex's face. "How do you know that name, if you don't remember anything?"
"I heard it a year before Fine abducted me," Lex said. "From my father, during his...episodes. And from the aliens in the cave."
"The man and woman from the ship, on the day of the meteor shower. More of your kind, like Zod."
"Zod's servants," Clark remembered. "I didn't know you'd ever seen them."
"They were looking for you—for Kal-El, but it wasn't a difficult inference to make. Only later I...had reason to believe I was mistaken. I wasn't, though."
"No, you weren't," Clark said.
"You're one of them." Lex might have sounded condemning. Or just terribly tired. "Like they were, like I became."
"No." Clark shook his head hard. "I'm the same species, but I'm not one of them. They're criminals—even on the world I came from, they were imprisoned felons. Monsters. Zod was the worst one..."
"Of course not," Lex said, his voice scratchy with something that sounded like laughter but wasn't. "Not you. Whatever you were born as, you wouldn't become a monster."
Clark said, "Zod wasn't you, Lex." What Lex had allowed himself to become, maybe even wanted to become; but not who he was.
Lex didn't answer. Clark leaned forward. "Mom said you needed to talk to me. To tell me more about the Brainiac."
"The Brain Inter-Active Construct. The thing that did this to you." The marks mottling Lex's neck reflected eerie silver highlights in the lamplight, and the pattern covered his whole arm now, from shoulder to wrist under the torn sleeve, a patchwork of pale skin and dark infection. Clark swallowed. "It's Kryptonian—Krypton, that's what my people's planet was called. They made the Brainiac, lots of them, maybe. I don't know why this one came here to Earth. Maybe it was looking for me..."
"I summoned it," Lex said.
Clark stared at him. "What?"
"Last year, I triangulated the probable point of origin of Fine's ship, and sent a high-frequency signal along that vector. Like a sonar pulse, probing to see what was there. There shouldn't have been any response for decades, given the distances involved. They must be monitoring signals from this solar system. Three days ago the thing arrived."
"Three days ago—but you told me you set off that force-field only this morning."
"I believed I had it otherwise contained." Lex's jaw worked. "I was mistaken. I ordered the field to be initiated before it could escape."
"Why didn't you just destroy it then?" Clark demanded. "Or before it killed those three people yesterday?"
"Annihilation was the initial objective. It proved...ineffective."
Fine had risen from the seeming dead more than once. Clark still wasn't entirely convinced the being was really gone. "But you really think that," and he pointed to the little metal case on the table, next to the water pitcher, "will be effective?"
"If you know another way," and Lex's eyes were bright hard gray, glittering with accusation that was harder to take than the anger or bitterness.
The dagger which had apparently destroyed Fine had almost permanently wrecked the Fortress as well, and Clark didn't know where to get another one anyway. But Lex had a solution—he was still used to Lex having answers, after all this time. "No, I don't. If your nanites will work—"
"Seventy percent probability of termination, according to the analysis." Lex said. "As long as they can be introduced directly into the bloodstream. Or whatever passes for such in that thing. If the skin can be pierced—the injector's needle is diamond-tipped, but it might not be enough."
Clark eyed the case doubtfully. "Seventy percent..." And destroying it would be too late for Lex anyway. "Why don't you just have another force-field put up around it, when this one goes down, until there's a sure way to take it out?"
"Not an option." Lex closed his eyes for a moment, not as if he were sleepy so much as marshalling himself. "The energy required to generate such a shield can only be produced by a nuclear fusion reaction."
"I didn't think we could do fusion—"
"Humans can't," Lex said. "Except by thermonuclear explosion, which is what was used."
"Explosion?" Clark repeated, aghast. "A bomb—?"
"A large-scale thermonuclear device using the Tellar-Ulam configuration—the exact model is classified. If the shield generator failed to channel the energy, then the resultant blast should have been enough to take out the thing."
"You set off a hydrogen bomb in Granville?!"
"It was a risk," Lex said. "A calculated risk."
"If the force-field hadn't worked, how many thousands of people could've died—"
"Millions," Lex said succinctly. "Metropolis would have been in range. Approximately 2.1 million radiation fatalities." He shrugged. "Give or take. Less than one percent of America's population."
Almost everyone he knew. Almost everyone he had ever met, and two million more than he probably ever could meet. It was an unfathomable number. Give or take. "God—Lex, God, what were you...how could you..." Clark felt like he couldn't breathe. Like he might be sick if he tried. "What could be worth that risk, Lex? What could possibly be worth that, even to you?"
"Six point six billion, approximately," Lex said, flat and cold and pitiless.
The taste of bile was choking and sour in the back of Clark's throat. "So this was all for money. You're already a billionaire—"
"Not dollars." Lex's gaze on him was strange, abstract but too steady to be delirious. "Lives. Six point six billion human beings. My people on this Earth."
Clark shuddered. "No. How dare you—you can't say that now. Not after all the things you've done—is that how you're justifying it? Is that how you've convinced all those scientists, all those people, to work for you? Lex Luthor, trying to save the world. Two million people, Lex, you could have killed two million of those lives. Those human beings. Just because you wanted—whatever the hell you thought the Brainiac could give you."
Lex's face, white and drawn with pain, closed like a door had been slammed, shutting out any guilt, any possibility of remorse. He pulled himself up sitting on the couch. "At 7:06 AM, the stasis shield drops," he said. "You'll be in Granville, with that," and he pointed to the case. "You'll stop this thing." He pushed off the afghans, shifted his legs off the couch to set his feet on the floor.
"I'll stop it," Clark bleakly agreed; then, "Lex, what are you—"
Lex grabbed the back of the couch, levered himself to an awkward approximation of standing upright. "Things to do," he said, hissing through clenched teeth, "have to—not much time—"
The spasm which shook him caused him more surprise than pain, to tell by his dazed look the second before he slumped. Clark caught Lex, dropped him back on the couch. "You're not going anywhere." His skin was hot to the touch, too hot, so hot his body might combust and burn through his shirt. "Here, drink this," and Clark picked up the glass of water.
Lex was gasping in quick whistling breaths. He squeezed his eyes shut and—did something, enacted his will over his body and forced himself fully conscious again, his exhalations slowed and his spine straight like a steel rod. Clark slipped one arm under his shoulders, tilted him vertical to put the glass to his lips, and Lex drank, only a few drops before he sputtered and shoved Clark away.
"Won't do any damn good anyway," he said. "Where's my phone?"
"On the coffee table," Clark said, took the cellular phone and handed it to him. Lex grabbed it in two trembling hands, brought it close to his chest and concentrated on his breathing.
"The kryptonite," Clark said. "The meteor rock, I mean. It's in there." He indicated the security box. "It'll help," but Lex already had figured that out himself, hadn't he. "I'll be—around," Clark said, and left the living room before Lex could open the box and flood him with the radiation.
In the stairwell, out of range of the kryptonite and out of the line of sight of the couch, Clark leaned his head against the wall. Closed his eyes and pretended that the only thing he could see wasn't dark patterns of rot marring smooth pale skin, like oil spreading through water, toxins polluting a clear river.
The LuthorCorp plant's runoff contaminating the town, poisoning the people—but it had never been the plant, really; it had always been the kryptonite. He and Pete had swum in the river summer after summer and never suffered for it.
The only person the river had come close to killing was Lex, and Clark had saved him then.
Old habits, Chloe had said.
Two point one million lives might have been the cost for that one life.
In the other room he could hear Lex's voice, thin and strained and fierce all the same. "Petrovich? —Yes, I know the time. This couldn't wait; you'll be quiet and listen. Concerning the Medea Initiative, you're to be granted complete autonomous control, effective tomorrow. Conditional on the immediate cancellation of your nightly laser neurosurgery trials." A breath too soft to be a gasp, too quick to permit pain. "Yes, I know about your side project. I've tolerated it before but it will cease now, or there will be consequences. Am I understood—"
Clark stopped listening.
Clark didn't wait for Chloe to say hello. "Do you have anything?"
"Not yet, sorry." Chloe yawned, her voice over the phone tinny and sleepy but healthy. Not pained; alive. "Though I've been looking into the Granville facility—seems like something's up there. There's been people and trucks coming through for the past few days, according to a friend of mine who lives a half a mile up the road from the place. And there were a few unexplained power surges on the grid—"
"The Brainiac came three days ago," Clark told her. "Lex was studying it or something, but it got out of his control. That's when he set off the forcefield." Which could have decimated Granville and Smallville and half of Metropolis. Chloe's friend up the road from the facility probably wouldn't have felt a thing. You're not supposed to, at ground zero.
Two point one million people. Just a calculated risk.
Had Lex been there, when the field was set off, taking that calculated risk himself, or had he ordered the attempt from a safe distance, maybe in the blast-shielded panic room in the mansion? Had he known then that he was infected, that setting off the field had been signing his own death warrant, or had he not realized his mistake until it was too late?
"Three days—so Lex would've had time to make a deal with it," Chloe mused.
"I don't know if this is a trick, Chloe," Clark said. "Lex has been calling a lot of his people, different places around the world..."
"Shutting down 33.1? Trying to clear his conscience before the end?"
"No, that's not what it sounds like," Clark admitted. "Just—taking care of things. Like he's making sure they'll keep running after he's... After."
"Or maybe pushing them to find him a cure?"
"Maybe." He didn't want to look at his watch. It was well past midnight by now. Five, six hours at the most, Lex had said, and the seconds kept clicking past with every uneven breath he drew. "You haven't found anything?"
"Not on the cure front, no. Outer space AI flu isn't exactly a priority in modern medicine—"
"There's got to be something," Clark said, keeping his voice low with effort. "You know people researching all kinds of crazy things no one would believe in, one of them has to have—"
"Maybe, but it's so late, I'm having a hell of a time getting hold of anyone, and there's too little time..."
She didn't sound upset, hardly annoyed. Like this wasn't even as important as one of her articles, like this deadline mattered less than the Daily Planet's press time. "You have to try! Even if you don't want to, if you want me to trust you again after this, I have to believe you're really trying—"
"I'm trying, Clark." Chloe gulped, a sharp liquid swallow. "You have to believe me, I am trying."
And now she was hurting, and Clark felt as if someone had slammed his stomach with a kryptonite sledgehammer. It took so much control not to slip and crush the phone in his too-strong fingers; he felt as if he were holding Chloe's heart in his other hand, just as fragile, his grip just as clumsy. "Chloe, I'm sorry, oh, Chloe, I didn't mean..."
"I don't want Lex to die, Clark," Chloe told him. "What I said before, I was wrong, I didn't mean it. Whatever he is, whatever he's done, he's still a person. He's still a guy we used to know. Maybe he deserves this, I don't know. It doesn't matter. It's...it's wrong. It's too weird to think he might not be there anymore, that's why I keep saying it's a trick. Because it doesn't seem like it could be real. But then," and she let go a shaky breath, almost like a giggle, "unreal stuff happens every day. This is Smallville."
"It's real," Clark said. "If you saw him—it's real."
"I'll keep looking, I promise. Whatever I can do. But..."
"I know. I believe you, Chloe."
"I'm here for you, Clark. Always. Just believe that."
"I do," Clark said softly.
"Tell Lex I don't want him to die," Chloe said, so quickly it was hard to understand, and then she hung up.
Clark was starting for the door when his mother said behind him, "Clark."
She was standing in the sun porch doorway. He turned back toward her, ashamed. "Sorry if I disturbed you, I didn't mean to be yelling."
"Where are you going?"
He shrugged. "I just...maybe there's something I can do with the force-field. Or something else. I have to try..."
Martha nodded. "Then I'll sit up with Lex."
"It's okay, Mom. I don't think he..." Lex was silent in the other room, no longer threatening anyone on the phone, and Clark's heart skipped a beat before he focused his hearing on his breathing, ragged but constant for now. "He might not want company."
"I don't think he would have come here, if that were really true," Martha said.
"Lex came to talk to me, to make me—"
"He could have tried calling you first, instead of coming right over. He wanted to be here. With somebody." His mother sighed, looking almost as tired as Lex. The shadows cast on her face deepened lines to grooves, made her face old in a way that scared Clark, as frightened as he had been last year, when she had been the one dying. "I know you and Lex aren't close anymore, but whatever you think about him...no one should have to die alone."
"It still could be a trick," Clark said, not knowing why, when he didn't believe that himself.
His mother could tell he was lying, but she didn't tell him how unkind he was being, to think so badly of the dying—she shook her head at him, but she didn't look disappointed. Only sad. "Oh, Clark..."
"I'll—I'll come back," he said, not saying when. Not looking back.
It might yet be a trick. Even if he didn't believe it. He had been wrong about Lex before. Had he ever really been right about Lex before?
By sunrise they would know, either way; now, Clark was running again, too fast to think.
Too fast to notice when the wind he was slicing through like a diver became biting and bitter with cold, but he realized finally that the light-streaked darkness was giving way to a deep bluish glow, the glimmer of starlight off snow. He slowed to a jog, still faster than a speeding car, to find himself in a valley. Rocky, icebound mountains loomed over him and the wind howled through the crevices like a lonely wolf.
Clark blinked, then began to run again. He knew where he was going now, as he hadn't before. His lightning feet carried him through the gorges and over the summits until there was nothing but ice and snow, stretching unbroken for miles, shimmering under a clear, black, star-studded sky.
Before him loomed the Fortress, its colossal latticework of crystals rimed with frost, dull and lifeless as stone. Inside was no warmer than out on the snowfield, but he didn't notice the cold, only the sudden quiet, the wind muted to nothing, so his ears rang from the silence. His footsteps sounded heavy and clumsy, crushing countless snowflakes as he tread to the Fortress's heart. The crystals were still dark, little more than a museum display of worthless faux quartz.
Clark curled his fingers around the stone in his jacket pocket, the smooth carved ridges of his father's crest. He had been keeping Raya's crystal with him for the past few months, for many reasons. Because he never knew when a Zoner might attack. Because it was a memento of her, confirmation that he had gotten her back for that brief time, before losing her again. Because it reminded him of who, of what, he really was, who and what his biological parents were, and as long as he had tried to forget and refuse that truth, he couldn't deny it forever.
For a long time now Clark had felt as if he were moving toward something—as if he were falling and getting closer to the ground, as if he were a bullet or a cannonball hurtling through the air and the target was approaching. His destiny, the truth about not what he was, but what he was going to be; for a long time it had terrified him, but when he touched the smooth blue-hued facets, when he looked at the crest shining in the sunlight and thought of everything it represented, the future felt possible, and not so terrible after all.
For all these reasons, he kept the crystal with him, but for this most of all: eventually he knew he would have to come back here, and this wasn't that much sooner than expected. He usually would have waited for daybreak, for sunlight to glisten clear and vibrant through the Fortress's diamond white, but there wasn't time now.
There should be enough power stored in the crest to resurrect the Fortress, Raya had told him, and hopefully he hadn't drained too much of it fighting the Zoners. Clark took the crystal from his pocket, set it to the darkened cluster. There was a niche on top in the exact right shape, as if designed to fit this piece. It clinked like glass when he placed it.
At first nothing happened; then the crystal began to warm under his touch, glowing to life until its light shone rosy through the flesh and blood of his hand. It was hot now, burning, as it had when he had clasped the crest to Zod's hand, driving him out of Lex's body, leaving nothing but his father's mark branded red on Lex's palm. Then that too had faded, as the last of the Kryptonian powers had left him.
There had been that single moment, when Lex had lay there in the grass unmoving, that Clark had been afraid to touch him, not wanting to know—"Lex is dead," Zod had told him, but it had been a lie. Lex had shivered, had breathed, and Clark had run him to the Smallville medical center, put him on a convenient stretcher and disappeared without being noticed amid the chaos then. Not wanting to be there when Lex woke up, not wanting to know who would wake up, a powerless Zod, or Lex, or nothing.
Sometimes Clark wondered if Zod had been telling the truth after all, if Lex's body breathed and walked and talked but was really dead inside. His eyes looked that way, like there was nothing left in them. But then he had been like that before Zod had taken him. When he had confronted Clark in the barn, his voice had been Lex's, and his accusing words; but his eyes had been empty. Zod hadn't needed to murder him; if Lex was dead it was because he had already killed himself.
Or maybe Clark had ever only imagined anything alive in him.
Lex wouldn't breathe again after tonight. Wouldn't tell Clark anything again, truth or lies.
When Clark looked down, the crest was cool in his hand again, and the array of crystals were shining with a pure white light, illuminating the grotto. He removed the crest, returned it to his pocket as he stepped back.
"My son," Jor-El's voice resonated through the chamber, filling the space with undeniable presence. "You have at last returned for your training."
Clark swallowed. His father—his real father, his dad—used to talk to him like a man even when he was a kid, had treated him with a respect that had made him want to be as adult and responsible as he could be. Even when Clark had been very young, for as long as he could remember, he had been so eager to grow up and make his dad proud.
Jor-El always made him feel as if he were five years old and never would grow up, could never be the man his father wanted as a son. Maybe because he was too human; maybe because he wasn't supposed to become a man at all, not by Jor-El's reckoning, but something greater than that. The closest he came to understanding what having Lionel Luthor as a father must be like was when he talked to Jor-El.
But he was a man now, whether or not Jor-El approved; his real dad had, and that was what mattered. "I will come for my training, I swear," Clark said, "but not just yet. I still have things to take care of first. Now I need your help."
Jor-El said nothing. That was better than Clark might have expected. He turned a circle, as ever not sure if he should face the bank of crystals or somewhere else. Jor-El's voice always seemed to come from everywhere, not any one place. "You know that man last year. Milton Fine, Zod's servant."
"The Brain Inter-Active Construct."
"Yeah, him. We destroyed him, but were there any others like him?"
Jor-El was silent for a moment. "What was destroyed was one avatar of the Brainiac intellect. There may be others."
"Would they all be working for Zod? Or would they work for other people, too?"
"Brainiac was designed to be a servant for Krypton. Not for one man. The loyalty to Zod was a corruption of the original programming."
"So a Brainiac could be, uh, reprogrammed to work for someone else? For a human, even?"
"It is...unlikely, but possible."
Clark wondered what it cost Jor-El to concede that, with his opinions about humans being what they were. Then again, Jor-El didn't know Lex Luthor. "Last year, you remember my mom—my human mother. Fine infected her with—this condition. These dark markings on the body that were spreading and killing her. He told me it was a Kryptonian disease, that it was used for torture..."
"I know of this. It is not a disease in the sense of a biological contagion. Rather, it is a lethal contamination of organic tissue with the Brainiac entity."
"You mean it's literally a computer virus. I should just have Chloe put up a firewall."
Jor-El paused, and Clark almost might have smiled, if it wouldn't have been too wrong. "Never mind. This contamination, how do you cure it?"
"There is no cure."
"Then how do you stop it?"
"The contamination in its initial stages feeds off the host organism's metabolism on a cellular level. When metabolic functions cease, the contamination cannot progress."
"When the metabolism ceases—that's...death."
"Yes." Jor-El's voice was dispassionate as always. "Fortunately the metabolic energy of a human's body is too low to fuel the contamination long enough for it to become self-sustaining."
Clark shook his head. "How else do you stop it? How do you get rid of it?"
"The destruction of the individual Brainiac avatar responsible will extinguish the contamination."
"That's how I saved Mom. But that's not an option here. What else will cure it?"
He was asking the wrong questions. Dealing with Jor-El was like programming a computer, or asking a genie for a wish; you had to word everything carefully. Maybe if he could speak Kryptonian it would be easier to make himself understood. "There must be something else."
"There is not."
"No, there has to be. It doesn't have to be a cure—how can you slow it down? So the contamination doesn't spread as fast. Even just for a couple hours."
"There is a way to retard the progress in the early stages," Jor-El suggested.
"It requires levels of radiation that would be instantly lethal to a human being."
"No." Clark shook his head again. He wanted to shout it, loud enough to make the crystals reverberate, but stopped himself. Attacking Chloe had only hurt her, and anger would be even less help here. "There's got to be another way—a non-lethal way. Some other kind of radiation—the kryptonite helps—"
"Kryptonite has no effect on Brainiac. It only desensitizes the contaminated organic tissue."
If he didn't keep his fists clenched at his side, pressed to his thighs, he would be too tempted to smash them into the glowing crystal array. "But there has to be something. Please."
"There is not, Kal-El." Jor-El's tone was indistinguishable from before, and yet it sounded like an apology.
Clark stood in the frozen cold of the Fortress, his breath issuing from his mouth in white plumes. He half-expected Jor-El to ask him who was infected, was it his mother again, or a friend, or someone else. His enemy. But of course Jor-El asked nothing.
It probably didn't matter to him. Seen one human, seen them all. Jor-El might have spent last year occasionally possessing Lionel Luthor, but he had probably never even spoken to Lionel's human son.
"I'll return for my training soon," Clark said dully. Raya's crystal crest felt like a lump of lead, weighing down his pocket. He drew a deep breath of air that would have burned a human's lungs with the cold, and started to run again.
His next breath he took in Granville, warm and heavy with mist and new grass. There were at least a dozen guards stationed on the grounds between the tall chainlink fence and the LuthorCorp facility; Lex was taking no chances. Clark leapt over the fence and avoided the watchmen with ease. He had broken the padlock on a side door when he had come earlier tonight; it hadn't been noticed yet. Probably wouldn't be until morning. Too late then.
Moving too fast for any motion sensors to detect him, he slipped inside the building.
Halfway down the hall he reached the force-field. It was as he had seen it before, a blank, shimming expanse rising from the floor and curving up to through ceiling, a wedge of a perfect sphere. It reflected light in a rippling, erratic warp, cycling through distortions like an always-shifting funhouse mirror, his image growing tall and thin and then short and squat, doubled and tripled and then not there at all.
He hadn't dared touch it before, heeding Lex's warnings. Now he debated. If there were a chance of getting through it—perhaps if he moved at his absolute fastest speed—he wouldn't have to wait, if he could get inside, take out the Brainiac before the field came down—
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Clark took half a second to get safely on the other side of the fence, out of hearing range of any guards, then answered, "Mom?"
"Clark," Martha said, only a little quiver in her voice, "are you going to be coming home soon? I think..."
In another instant he was back at the farmhouse, standing in the kitchen with the back door rattling behind him.
In the living room, his mother was saying, "Clark's coming, Lex—he'll be back any time now."
From the kitchen, he could see them through the wall. Lex's low voice was blurred and indistinct. "Have to tell him...tell you..."
"You can tell us. We're here, Lex. Whatever you have to say, we'll listen." His mother's hand was on Lex's forehead, like she was smoothing back hair that hadn't been there for eighteen years. The kryptonite was resting on Lex's chest, shading them both in green, crazy lime highlights in Martha's auburn hair.
"I had to do it," Lex said, suddenly louder, clearer. "Everything—this wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want to come here—I had to."
"It's all right," his mother said. "Clark will be here. He's trying so hard, you know how he is. He'd save you, if there were any way..."
Clark didn't really realize he had moved, didn't really feel the impact, or hear the sound of wood cracking. Just the crash of the kitchen table falling to the floor in pieces, and the glass vase shattering on the hardwood, and he was standing over the splintered wreckage with no marks on his fists.
"Shh, Lex," his mother said in the living room, completely calm. "That wasn't anything to worry about. Just lie down. You need to rest."
"That was..." Lex sounded faint, uncertain.
"It's okay," his mother said, in her best mother's voice, music to soothe any beast. "It's going to be okay."
"Mom," Lex said, lost.
"I'm here, honey," Martha whispered to him. "Go to sleep."
Lex's eyes closed, but Clark couldn't tell if he were really asleep, if he had even really been awake. Then his vision phased out without warning and he was staring at the kitchen wall, listening to his mother walk in, the rubber soles of her slippers clapping on the waxed floor.
"I—I'm sorry," he said. The table was only a couple years old, a replacement bought after the meteor shower, but his mom and dad had picked it out together, an almost perfect match to the one inherited from his grandparents. They had been so pleased about their lucky find when they had gotten home.
"Clark." His mother wrapped her arms around him, and Clark wondered, as he had so often before, how she could be so fearless, so brave; how she dared come close enough even to touch him, when the proof that he could kill her with a twitch was in the wood and glass shards at their feet.
He turned into her embrace, dropped his cheek to the top of her head and closed his eyes and breathed in. She smelled like hay and lilac shampoo and ink and warmth, all the things his mother was supposed to smell like. She was so small in his arms but she was still stronger than anyone he knew. He only wished he were that strong. "I went to the Fortress, but Jor-El doesn't know a cure. He just says Lex will..."
His mother's hand stroked his hair gently, fingers carding through his thick curls, like she used to when he was little, holding him while he cried after other kids had made fun of him, after he and Pete had fought. "Oh, honey," she said, but she didn't lie that it would be okay. Instead she said quietly, "Lex didn't come to you for a cure. That's not why he's here."
"He told me," Martha said. "He doesn't believe there's any cure to find. He has doctors looking, but...there's so little time. He doesn't want you to save him. He just wants your help with that problem at his facility. And something else, too, I think, though he won't say so."
"What?" Clark said, afraid to ask, making himself anyway. "Forgiveness?" Lex couldn't ask for that. Not after the things he had done, not after Zod and everything else that had happened this year. Not when he wouldn't show any regret or remorse, not when he wasn't even now making an effort to change. If he had sworn to close 33.1, instead of trying to ensure that it lasted after he was gone, a terrible legacy he refused to relinquish even in death...
But his mother turned her head under his cheek. "I don't think he even wants that much, Clark. He just wanted to see you."
"He wants me to see," Clark said. "He wants me to know I've failed—in the end, I failed him..." Lex watching him in the barn, his eyes so dark and angry; Zod's power in his body but Lex's eyes, Lex's words. "You've always seen yourself as my savior," Lex had told him, with so much hatred that he was almost smiling from it, smirking at the empty joke of their friendship. "That's why you cling to the idea that there's still some good in me. You don't want to face the fact that you might've failed."
"No," his mother said. "You're not failing him. As long as you're here—he wants to be with you, Clark. I think in the end, that's what he really wants. To be with a friend."
"We're not friends," Clark said. "We haven't been for a while." If they ever had been. And that hurt as much as any failure, squeezing tight in his chest.
"I don't know if it's that easy to stop caring about someone," Martha said.
Clark felt like he couldn't breathe, standing in the warm yellow kitchen with his arms around his mother, the air stuck in his lungs like glue so he had to fight to force it out. "I don't want to see him die." He was shuddering just from the effort of breathing, like he was in pain though nothing was hurting him. Nothing could hurt him; he was invulnerable. Even the Brainiac contamination probably wouldn't kill him, that was how strong his body was, but he wasn't strong enough to stop shuddering. "I don't want him to die. I don't want Lex to die, Mom."
"I know, baby," his mother said, rubbing his back, and he thought she might be crying a little, the way her voice was soft and choked. "I know, I'm so sorry."
She kept holding him until he was finally strong enough to pull away, strong enough to realize how pathetic and selfish he was being, when he wasn't even hurt, when he couldn't even be hurt. His mother kept her hands on his arms, gazing up into his face. "Clark," she said, "it's all right to be angry, and it's all right to be sad, too. But right now...there's only a couple more hours..."
"I know," he said, but his eyes slipped off her, to the floor, the pieces of the broken table littered across the hardwood.
"We'll take care of that tomorrow," his mother told him, reassuring, but so tired.
"You should go to bed, Mom," Clark said. "You need some sleep—I won't leave again. I promise."
His mother hesitated, still watching him, but at last she said, "All right. But Clark, come wake me up in an hour or two. Before..."
"I will," he told her.
She leaned up to kiss his cheek. "I love you, honey."
"I love you, Mom," he answered, and watched her climb the stairs, hovering at the bottom as if he were afraid she might trip and fall.
Then he went to the living room.
Lex was not on the couch.
Lex was almost to the threshold of the entryway and more or less on his feet, one hand braced on the armchair, hunched until he was almost doubled over and panting.
"Lex?" Clark demanded, and charged forward before Lex could fall, without thinking and too quickly. The meteor rock was wedged in the crook of Lex's elbow, and Clark was within range of the radiation before he realized it. He dropped to his knees as if pole-axed, unable to help his groan.
Lex turned, stared down at him with his eyes glittering in the kryptonite's pulsating glow. They were wide with a terrible comprehension, as his gaze went from Clark to the meteor rock's angry, hungry light. His lips moved. "'Their home is their poison'," Lex said, "so it's true."
"Lex," Clark gasped, trying to remain kneeling, falling to the floor at Lex's feet instead. He couldn't muster enough voice to call for his mother. He hadn't been this close to the meteor rock earlier tonight, and the throbbing agony was such that he could barely think, seeing everything through a blurred green filter of pain.
This is what Lex wanted, Clark realized in that insane moment; this is why he came, after all. To see Clark suffer as he was suffering; to punish Clark as he had been punished, for all those years of mistakes and lies and false friendship.
To see Clark die, as he was dying; Lex was raising his hand, and weak as he was now, he still might have strength enough to put his hands around Clark's throat. To choke the life from his vulnerable body, as Clark had made to strangle him not so long before, in his wrong mind and his wrong emotions and he had done so much wrong, for years, but this mistake worst of all. This failure worst of all.
"No," Lex said, barely a whisper, "no, this isn't why I'm here," and with a sharp, jerky motion he threw the meteor rock away, cast it as far from himself as he could. Clark heard it thump on the rug and roll until it bumped into the baseboard under the window.
That was far enough for him to be out of its range, and Clark breathed in and blinked at the sudden absence of pain. He shot to his feet just as Lex's eyes rolled back, in time to catch him as his legs folded and he collapsed.
Clark lowered them both to the floor carefully, cradling Lex's head in his palm so he wouldn't bump it against the lintel. Dark veined patterns ran up his neck, curling around the back of his naked scalp. The contaminated skin was so smooth to the touch it was almost oily. "Lex—what was this, Lex, what were you doing? What were you trying to do?"
Lex shouldn't feel so slack in his arms, so empty. Like he was hollow—no one weighed very much, to Clark's muscles, but Lex shouldn't be this light, like everything he was was draining from him. He wasn't as hot as he had been; the fever was finally breaking. Clark remembered what Jor-El had said about a human's metabolism having too little energy to feed the contamination for long, and thought that couldn't be a good thing. A fever was one way a body fought off infection; if Lex's body were giving up that fight...
Lex coughed, moved, not the violence of his nightmares before but a calmer awakening. In the angle of lamplight on the floor, his eyes were the gray-blue of a muddy river, glassy yet intent. He raised one hand to Clark's face, and for an instant Clark was six years in the past. "I could've sworn I hit you."
Instead, Lex said, "God," so hushed and dazed it could have been a prayer, "you're always so beautiful."
"I was so angry," Lex said, and he wasn't seeing Clark at all, obviously; Clark couldn't guess where he was, who he thought he was talking to, "so upset, so frightened, when I found out, when I realized—horrified to think that you could be...that was why, I had to know..."
"It's okay, Lex," Clark said; it wasn't that Lex was babbling, but there was something so desperate in his voice, so unnatural and unfamiliar that Clark needed to stop it.
Lex shook his head, confused refusal. "I didn't want to—I had to, I didn't—only wanted to be with you—"
"Lex," and Clark caught Lex's hand, closed his fingers around Lex's clammy cold ones. "It's me, Lex. Not Lana," or whoever he thought he was seeing. "It's just me. Clark."
Lex blinked up at him. "I know," he said, bizarrely rational, and tried to sit up.
Clark automatically slung an arm around his shoulders to help him, so he felt the tremor which racked Lex, his body seizing and his hand still in Clark's gripping tight. Clark lifted him up and brought him to the couch without thinking, without giving him time to even notice the transition. Lex stared at him dizzily, head propped up on the pillows, shuddering in the spasm's aftermath.
"The kryptonite," Clark said, looking for where it had rolled, "the meteor rock, I mean, it will help—I'll go get Mom, I can't carry it, but—"
"No." Lex's grip on his hand of course wasn't enough to hold him, but Clark stopped, looked down as Lex struggled to sit up, struggled to full awareness. "Don't bother," Lex said, "doesn't do much good by now. Progressive neural inhibition shuts down the pain receptors anyway. There's maybe an hour left of semi-lucid consciousness, then a rapidly declining coma."
Clark didn't know how anyone could say that so calmly, like he was giving the diagnosis for a lab rat. Though Lex's long fingers were curled around Clark's tight enough to be hurting a normal person, knuckles bleached white. "I could bring you to the hospital," Clark said. "Or to the mansion, or anywhere you want—there's got to be something they could do. You were studying this, you could still find a cure—"
Lex's dry cough was nearly a laugh. "I have a dozen doctors in three different countries working on the problem. I'm to be contacted the second there's a breakthrough. There's nothing continued observation could give them that they don't already have." His eyes were hooded and stony as he looked at Clark. "Unless you know more."
Clark shook his head hard. "The only way to stop this is to destroy the Brainiac that caused it."
"We theorized that was the case."
"If you guessed, why'd you put up that force-field? Why didn't you just find a way to destroy it?"
"There weren't a lot of options." Lex closed his eyes. "It was intending to infiltrate the defense systems of the planet's nuclear powers, and considering how quickly Fine's virus spread world-wide, there was no time for deliberation. I couldn't be confident of containing it with anything less than the stasis shield. I had hoped cutting off any connection with its victims would help, but the other infected man died anyway."
Would he still have raised the field, if he had known the risk to himself? Clark didn't want to ask. "I was thinking I could try to go through the field," Clark said, "if I can get inside and kill the Brainiac before it comes down—"
"No," Lex told him. "Too dangerous. Even if breaching the shield doesn't explosively release any remaining energy, there's a chance the attempt could disrupt your molecular bonds. I have doubts even your physiology could survive that."
"But what are the chances of that? At least I could try—"
"Clark," Lex said, and something in his voice was soft, almost weirdly kind. Like the gently teasing tone Lex used to have years ago, talking with him about Lana, offering advice on surviving those far too simple adolescent quandaries that used to be his only concerns. "This isn't why I came. I told you why I'm here. I didn't expect you to have a cure—if I'd been sure you did, I would have come much sooner. I'd have forced it from you even if you didn't want to give it to me."
"Why wouldn't I give it to you?" Clark asked, bewildered.
Lex's tone might have nearly been teasing but there was no joke in his hard expression. "We haven't been friends for a long time."
"So? We weren't friends last year, either—I still wouldn't just let you die. Not if there was something I could do."
He could see the understanding appear in Lex's eyes, like light flashing over a mirror. "When the Green Arrow shot me. It was you."
"But you've tried to kill me since then."
"That..." Clark shifted uncomfortably. "I wasn't in my right mind then. And I still..."
"You didn't do it." Lex studied Clark's hands, considering. "It wouldn't have taken you even a second, if you'd been serious."
"I didn't...that wasn't what I wanted, really," Clark said, his gut twisting at the thought of what he had wanted to do under the red kryptonite's influence. Lex's skin hot under his hands, Lex shoving and struggling against him and nowhere near strong enough to stop him... "Besides, before that—God, Lex, if I couldn't kill you even to save the world, why would I let you die now?"
Maybe it was another spasm, that Lex's whole body stiffened, that Lex's head twisted toward him with a jerk and his voice was only a rasp. "What do you mean?"
"You know. When Zod came. The dagger, when I almost tried to...when you fought me in the barn, and Fine was there, and I..."
"I don't know." Lex's face was a perfect blank, empty of anything, except his eyes were widened, lids pulled back.
"You have to remember some of it—when you had the Kryptonian powers, but before Zod possessed you—you came to me, attacked me. It was you, it wasn't Zod. You called me Clark, you..."
"I don't remember. I don't remember anything after I was taken by Fine's ship," Lex said. "Lana told me I had the alien abilities for a time, but I have no memory of that. Or of how Zod took me."
"Fine took you to prepare you as Zod's vessel," Clark explained. "And I had a dagger that I was supposed to kill you with, so Zod couldn't use your body. But I couldn't do it, Lex. Maybe I should have, but I couldn't."
"You couldn't." Lex bowed his head. "You couldn't."
"I couldn't kill you. And I wouldn't let you die."
"I thought—I used to think you were strong," Lex said, his tone eerily close to his vicious bitterness that very night. "The iron willpower to kill a friend," Lex had taunted him, as if he had been daring Clark, urging him into it. He had wanted Clark angry enough not to think, just to react, all part of the plan to release Zod from his prison, to bring Zod back to life.
But Lex didn't remember that plan now, and Lex sounded angry. Angry, maybe, that Clark could have spared his life then, only to be watching him die now. "Lex, if there were any way—"
"Eighteen thousand," Lex said. His voice was dead. His head came up and his eyes pinning Clark weren't blue or gray or black or any color at all, like glass panes, and whatever was behind them was indescribable. "Eighteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-one deaths on Dark Thursday, worldwide, directly attributable to the blackouts, the riots, the quakes, and the classified Pentagon attack."
"What..." Clark felt a spiraling void inside, like he was a seed bag with a tear and everything in him was pouring out, loose and worthless on the ground.
"Another estimated twenty thousand deaths in the week following, indirectly attributable to the disasters," Lex said. "No official count of non-fatal casualties, but hospitals around the world were overloaded for weeks. And the property damage is still being calculated—"
"But it's over!" Clark cried, cutting the monotone litany short.
"Over?" Lex angled his head as if he were confused, his voice still utterly even. "The funerals are over. Not the rest. On the order of two hundred insurance companies filed for bankruptcy at the year's end. Construction firms—"
"It was terrible," Clark said, remembering too well the weeks of sleepless nights he had spent in Metropolis and other places, trying to rebuild, trying to do whatever he could. "It was terrible that it happened, but it's over—"
"It never should have happened!" and Lex's voice finally rose, a dam overflowing. "You could have stopped it—you could have kept it from ever happening, but you didn't."
"I couldn't kill—"
"One life." Lex's eyes were wide enough that the irises showed as circles, dark enough to absorb any light. "One life, ten lives, a thousand lives—if that's the price that must be paid, then you have to be strong enough to pay it."
"Your life, Lex. I'd have had to kill you—"
"I would have killed myself." Lex was shaking. Clark could see him shivering, and yet his voice was absolutely steady. "If I'd understood what Fine turned me into—do you think my life is worth anything, Clark? After the things you know I've done—after what I did that day—"
"Zod wasn't you, Lex," Clark said. He had said it before, but he heard it differently now, so hollow inside that it whistled through him like the wolf-howl wind in the mountains far north. Realizing the truth as he spoke it. "You weren't Zod—you didn't want to become Zod. You didn't want that power, did you. That wasn't why you were working with Fine."
The fury animating Lex was burning up, burning down; he slumped back against the couch, and even in the lamp's yellow glow his face was ashen. "I was never working with Fine," he said. "I knew what he was—guessed—from the beginning. Had to go along with it—someone had to. If not me, someone else would have. If it was me...I thought I could handle it. I thought I could double-cross him, produce enough vaccine to ruin his plan of attack. I didn't understand until it was too late. Until I woke up at the medical center and it was over and I..."
"It wasn't you, Lex. It wasn't your fault." Clark hadn't thought he would say that to Lex, not for years.
Lex shook his head anyway. "My fault, your fault." Despite the hysterical edge to his voice, his eyes were still black empty holes. "Our fault—I thought I could trust you. I thought you were strong, but—"
"It's not our fault. It was Zod, and Fine—he planned everything, he betrayed you, he manipulated me. He knew I wouldn't do it. I never would." Clark dropped his head to stare at his own hands. "If it had been me, if I'd been the vessel, I would have. I could have killed myself. And maybe you could've killed me, if you'd had the dagger, but me—I don't ever want to be strong enough to be able to kill a friend."
Lex said nothing.
"The price you have to pay...if your bomb had gone off in Granville, those two million who might have died—or the people you keep in 33.1—God, Lex, is that the price you mean? Peoples' lives?"
"It's high," Lex said. His eyes were closed, head tilted back. His mouth was a straight line, expressionless. "You think I don't know how high it is?"
"But...you think it has to be paid."
"Someone has to pay it. I can. You know what you are, Clark. You know what you can do. What Fine did, what Zod did. The human race might not survive, unless we find a way to defeat them—if I can't find a way, my people might not live until the next generation."
"They're my people, too, Lex," Clark said, and because Lex wasn't looking at him he took his shoulder, so Lex's eyes opened. "I live on Earth, too, even if I wasn't born here. The human race is my race. And we're not going to disappear."
"Zod is gone, Lex! I sent him—back where he came from. He's not coming back. And there's no one out there like him—there's no more like me out there. Didn't you know that? I'm the last one. Krypton, the planet I came from, it was destroyed a long time ago. Humans aren't just my adopted people; they're the only people I have."
Lex was staring at him. Not uncomprehending; understanding too well. "You didn't know," Clark said slowly. "You didn't know...you thought there was going to be an invasion. That Zod was just the first one, and even though he was gone—"
"I didn't know he was gone," Lex said, a strange deliberate enunciation, like he was having to consciously remember how to make his tongue shape the words. "There was a good chance, once I had been a host, that I could become one again—if he came back, or if he had only gone dormant inside me—anytime—"
"He's gone," Clark said. He wanted to tighten his hand around Lex's shoulder until it stopped his shaking, hold him still and upright and strong, instead of so terribly, terribly fragile. "You weren't Zod, Lex, and he's gone, he's gone for good, he'll never come back."
"If you're lying—" Threatening, even horizontal on a couch, too weak to sit up and getting weaker; only Lex could manage that, with the ferocity in his storm cloud eyes—"if you're lying to me—"
"I'm not," Clark told him, "I'm not lying to you now." And that should have been terrifying, being flayed open, all his secrets stripped from him. Instead he felt like he had been hooded like a tame hawk, like he had been bound and blindfolded and was now stretching in the sunlight. Like he could fly and who cared if the world saw him. "Why would I lie, when you know my secrets anyway?"
"Why'd you ever lie?" Lex asked. It didn't sound rhetorical.
"Because I was afraid," Clark said, and that sounded so stupid, so selfish and gutless he was ashamed. All but wished he had just lied again, and God, he was such a coward...
But Lex's face was almost slack, gazing at Clark like he hadn't for too long, so openly, the way he used to when they had first met and the simplest things Clark said would startle him with their understanding. Because for all the distance between their worlds, physical or social or metaphorical, sometimes Lex had understood him when no one else could, and sometimes he understood Lex in a way that maybe no one else had. As if in spite of all that distance, sometimes it was just the two of them, standing somewhere no one else could stand.
They hadn't stood together for years; but now Lex said, "I'm afraid." His hands and the back of his head were streaked with the silver-dark glitter of the infection, and he was shivering even with Clark's hand bearing down, pressing him into the cushions; and Lex said, eyes wide and jaw clenched, "I'm afraid, every day. If they come tomorrow, and I'm not ready, if I haven't done everything I could have done—if I fail... I'm not enough. Only one man, but I'm the only one who knows, no one else realizes, no one else believes. Billions of us, but there's only me, and if I fail—"
"It's not only you," Clark said. "It's never been only you; I've been here all along." Without really thinking about it, he pulled Lex up, pulled him into his arms, into a rough hug. Lex stiffened at first—afraid, of Clark's intent or of Clark's alien strength or just afraid—but then he relaxed, let his head drop to Clark's shoulder and sank into it the way he always sank into embraces, like he wasn't going to let go, would take whatever comfort he could as long as he was allowed.
Which wouldn't be much longer; he felt hollow, so frail, and cold, too, shivering from that as much as nerve damage or anything else—you got cold when you were tired, when your metabolism was shutting down; and Clark didn't want to let go. "This is my home, my world, my people," he told Lex, "and I'm going to protect it, protect us, whatever comes—the Brainiac, I swear I'll stop it before it hurts anyone else, and I'll stop anything else that comes, always. And I have friends, too—we're all going to protect the world. You're not alone, Lex."
"I was so afraid you were one of them," Lex said, only a mumble. "I thought that you were lying like any spy. The aliens I saw in the cave were searching for you... It wasn't until much later that I realized you were against Fine, and I...I was so grateful you weren't the real enemy, even if I couldn't trust you and you would never trust me again..."
"I didn't know," Clark said. "I didn't get it—I thought you were my enemy. Worse than anyone else would be, because I knew you, and that made it so much harder to fight you."
"But you fought me. Faced me." Lex took a shuddering breath. "I remember—during Zod, that's all I remember. My hand was burning, and I was looking at you...I thought I imagined it."
"No," Clark answered him, "I was there." Lex's eyes had been open for that moment after Zod vanished into the crystal crest, Clark remembered; staring at him, but so blankly he hadn't thought Lex had been conscious. "I found a way to drive out Zod."
"You saved me, again," Lex said.
"Too late," Clark said, thinking of all the thousands who died that day, and after that. Fine's fault. His fault. And Lex was shivering still, even with Clark folding his arms around him like he could hold in what warmth was left in him. "And not enough."
He lifted up Lex, too quickly for Lex to move or say anything, lay down on the couch with Lex on top of him, pulled to the strong, living heat of his own body, and drew the blankets over them. It was warm, but that never bothered Clark anymore than cold did, and maybe it would be enough to still those painful shivers. For this little while longer.
"I'm sorry," Clark said. "I'm sorry, I don't know what to do, there isn't anything, I'm sorry—"
"Clark," Lex silenced him. He could feel Lex exhale, breathe in again, rattling and shallow. He was tensed, every fiber of him locked and tight. "I didn't come here for that," Lex said. "I didn't come here to hurt you—I didn't think you'd care."
"God." Clark breathed out himself, rubbing Lex's back, trying to ease him, trying not to think of the dark unnatural patterns that were marking his skin under the shirt. "What, did you think I was going to be happy? That I'd be happy if you..."
"I thought you'd be relieved," Lex said. "I thought, if you knew for sure I was gone, that it wasn't a trick, you might believe me..."
"Oh, God, Lex." Clark realized he was laughing, weird laughter that was as breathless and hard to swallow as a sob, a weird laugh because it wasn't funny, not at all, but he couldn't stop it. "It's not—this isn't a trick, is it," he said, when he finally had managed to cut himself off.
"No," Lex said. "It's not."
Lex's head was tucked on Clark's shoulder, the bare crown of his head almost to Clark's chin. When he turned his head his lips nearly brushed that smooth bald skin. "I wanted it to be," Clark admitted quietly. "I didn't think it was, but I wanted it to be a trick, some plan of yours...something."
"So do I, believe me," Lex murmured, and Clark had to choke back another wrong laugh.
"I'm glad you came," he said to Lex instead. "I'm glad you're here. I'm glad I got to...I'm glad to see you again."
Lex was relaxing against him, his frame looser now, and the shivers were fading to intermittent tremors. He didn't answer.
Every breath Clark took, he felt the inconsequential weight of Lex rising and falling on his chest. Each breath was closer to the last Lex would take, and Clark wanted to stop, would hold his breath forever if it would pause time, but it wouldn't; it wouldn't do any good.
"Lex," he said, "do you remember, a few years ago...it was very early in the morning, still dark, and we walked out behind Taylor's field together."
"I found you lying in the road at three A.M.," Lex said.
"I was sleep-walking," Clark said. "Or something...I think I went to the caves. You probably guessed that, right? You knew something weird was going on with me and the caves, back then."
"You scared me," Lex said, his weary soft voice sharpening. "Finding you unconscious, twice, and you lied to me about it, not the way you usually lied, you were so nervous...I knew it wasn't drugs, I knew it was so much bigger than that, but I didn't know what to do."
"I wish I could've told you then. I wish I could've showed you." And no more chances to show him now. "I just..." Clark swallowed. "But anyway. In the field, after you found me in the road. We talked, and then it was almost dawn, and you said I should be getting home. Except we didn't leave right away, we just stood there. We watched the sun come up."
"I was up to see dawn plenty of times," Lex said. "In the mansion over the fields; over the Metropolis skyline, the view from the penthouse..."
"I've seen sunrise a lot, too," Clark said. "Farm chores, you know. But then...that was the only time I watched it come up with you. The first sunlight, there's something special about it. You maybe forget to notice it, when you're up to see it all the time. But it's different than any other light. Clearer. You can see so far. And I...I wish I had seen you in that light more."
Lex's eyes were closed, and he didn't say anything for so long that Clark thought he might have fallen asleep. He stayed carefully unmoving, his arms around Lex's quiet form, not knowing if he should wake him, if it would be easier if Lex just slept, painlessly slipped away. But then Lex said softly, "I missed you, Clark."
"I missed you," Clark said. "A lot." He shifted his arms, not because they were getting stiff but because he wanted to hold Lex a little closer, if he could. "Does it...does it hurt very much?"
"No." Lex sighed. His head was resting heavier against Clark's shoulder; he wasn't bothering trying to lift it anymore, and his voice was low and vague, not too slurred, but like he was talking half-asleep. Not really Lex's voice with all its cool strong confidence—but Lex, still. "Neural signal degradation. An unexpected side-effect, I'm sure, this wasn't designed for human anatomy or brain chemistry. It doesn't hurt anymore. Are my fingers moving?"
"My right hand."
Clark reached over one hand, slipped it into Lex's. Lex's hand grasped his, weakly curling in to interlace their fingers together. "You're holding my hand," Clark said.
"I can't feel it," Lex said.
Lex's hand was cold. Clark felt colder, turned to ice even under the blankets. "But you can move it..."
"Loss of sensation isn't equivalent to paralysis. I've been lucky. Englid—one of my men, he went blind and deaf four hours before he lost consciousness. Even when he stopped screaming from the pain, he kept yelling that he couldn't see or hear."
Lex's eyes opened; Clark could see hazy gray-blue through the auburn lashes. "I can still see."
Clark closed his own eyes, reddish darkness behind his lids. "Lex, are you afraid?"
"Definitely." He didn't sound it. He sounded worn-out and drowsy and drifting. "I'm afraid I forgot too many things I needed to have done today. I'm afraid I didn't properly prepare for this; I was too damn arrogant to really believe I was going to die anytime soon. I'm afraid that thing, the Brainiac, will hurt you, even if you manage to destroy it, and if you can't..."
"But—what about you? Are you afraid of...of what's going to happen after..."
"Do your people—Kryptonians—believe in an afterlife?"
"I don't know," Clark said. "I don't know if they even had religion or anything." They had the Phantom Zone, but that was something other than a home for ghosts. And there might have been something...spiritual about Raya, about her devotion, but he had learned so little from her in the brief time they had had.
"Do you believe in one?"
"I don't know," Clark said again. His parents had never said much to him about church or what was talked about there. He remembered one time when he was eight, after Pete had come back from Sunday school in an explanatory mood, asking his mother whether freaks who couldn't get hurt still had souls that could be hurt. His mother had only told him to be as good a boy as he could be.
He had seen some evidence of ghosts, and people who had come back from the dead, though that had been more a medical miracle, not so much a holy one.
He didn't actually know if he could die.
"Do you believe..." Clark began.
"All I'm afraid of," Lex said, "is that there might be something."
"But if there was..." Didn't most people find it a comfort, thinking of going to a better place, a heaven where they could meet everyone they lost? If he could see his dad again...
"If there's anything after," Lex said, and his voice was still soft and dream-like, "I know what it is. I've seen it. An endless, endless boneyard, with no one else standing and no graves, just the corpses rotting to dust under red clouds, and there's blood falling from the sky. That's the place I've made for myself, and I knew when I was carving it. I thought—if someone needed to do it, if someone had to stand under that sky, then there was so much blood on me already, what did it matter if there was more. But now...I'm afraid."
Lex wasn't shaking anymore, but when Clark shivered it was hard enough for both of them. "You're not going to Hell, Lex."
"No, not if there isn't one to go to," Lex said, and he might have even been amused.
"You won't. No matter what you've done, you're not—you don't deserve... You're not evil."
"Do you believe in justice, Clark?" Lex asked, with his head against Clark's shoulder and his body so still and cold. "The universe has its laws. Order to chaos. Equal and opposite reactions, conservation of energy. Balance. Maybe there's just death. But there still must be a reckoning."
"The price paid?"
"Someone had to pay it. And there was too much blood to ever wash off me anyway." His hands moved a little, scraping down the sides of his shirt under the blankets, like he was trying to wipe something away.
Clark wrapped his hands around Lex's wrists, stilled them. "No, not on you. Zod's blood isn't on you—that wasn't what you wanted. That wasn't your fault. You were trying—if I'd understood, if I'd trusted you, I could have warned you. It was my fault, Lex, that blood fell on me. I couldn't find a way to stop Fine. And I couldn't kill you. Maybe I couldn't have killed anyone like that, or anyone I knew. Or maybe it was because it was you. But I couldn't kill you. Even though your father told me to, and Fine told me to, and my father told me—"
"Your father?" Lex asked, fuzzily.
"Not my dad, my biological father. Jor-El, the Kryptonian."
"Jor-El," Lex repeated, as if it possibly could be important, in this last little while.
"All of them told me, to save the world, I had to kill you. But I couldn't. Even for the world. And I couldn't find another way, either, until it was too late. It's not your fault, Lex. It's mine. It's my fault."
"No," Lex said. He brought up one hand to Clark's face, numb fingers blindly crossing his lips to quiet them. "Not only yours. Mine just as much."
"How can you say—"
"Because if it had been you," Lex said, "if I had the dagger, and you were the sacrifice, maybe I couldn't have. Even to save the world. Not if it was you."
"You're not going to Hell, Lex," Clark said. "But—but if you do, then wait."
"Wait for me." Clark tilted his head on the pillows, until his cheek was resting against the top of Lex's head, bare skin and the hard curve of skull underneath. "I'll come save you. Somehow. I swear."
Lex's breath hitched. "You already saved me, Clark. Too many times."
"Not enough." Old habits, Chloe had said. Clark wondered how he would ever be able to forgive himself for breaking this one. "If you'd told me—if I'd have listened to you—I could have helped you, Lex. You could have helped me, we could've fought together instead of against each other. Against Fine, against Zod, the Zoners, everything. I thought you were the villain, I thought you were the one I was destined to be against. But we were really on the same side all along..."
"I thought you were the enemy," Lex said. "I should have known—I should have trusted you."
"You trusted me enough to come tonight."
"The last resort." Lex's voice was fading bit by bit, like sand through an hourglass, a little less each second. It quivered a moment now, nearly a chuckle that subsided into silence; then Lex said, without warning, "Clark. The shut-down code is your birthday."
"You'll know," Lex said, blurred and obscure. "Just remember."
"Be careful." Lex sounded out of breath, even so quiet. "Don't be caught off-guard, don't assume, it looks human but it isn't. It's dangerous, you have to be careful. If the nanites are ineffective—"
"If they don't work," Clark told him, "then I'll find another way. I'll stop it before anyone else gets hurt."
Clark wrapped his fingers around Lex's again. This time Lex's didn't grasp back, even weakly, his hand cool and limp in Clark's. He didn't ask if Lex could feel it. His other hand was on Lex's back, stroking in gentle circles as his ribs rose and fell, such short and shallow breaths. Could Lex feel that touch, even? Through the stained silk Clark could make out the difference in textures, smooth skin, and the wrongly slippery silver and dark of the infection that wasn't hurting Lex anymore, that wouldn't cause him any more pain.
He should have so much more to say. So many things he wanted to tell Lex, so many times that he had missed Lex, missed talking with him, missed seeing him, just missed being with him. If they had talked more, if they had listened more, trusted more—so many regrets, but there wasn't any point in saying them. Lex already knew all of them.
Instead Clark was thinking of sunrise, the clearest morning light. Was thinking of the cave, black and white paint scratched on rough stone, two monstrous shapes twined together in their inescapable eternal struggle, holding onto one another and not letting go. Was thinking of the rose and ambers of sunset, standing in the barn loft with Lex beside him. Lex in golden light, smiling at him.
He hadn't ever wanted a legend. He had just wanted a friend.
"Clark?" Lex asked, hardly even a whisper, oddly questioning.
"I'm here, Lex."
"Do you believe a man can fly?"
Lex's eyes, holding his, dark and then clear and then dark again in the castle's unfamiliar light and shadows. Lex in his white fencing uniform, strange and supple and the way he had moved was so different that Clark hadn't been able to stop looking. Lex had been only twenty-one then, as Clark would be in another month. Clark had been fifteen and he had never met anyone like this man who should have killed him, who he had saved instead.
He was twenty now and old enough to know he would never meet anyone like him again.
"Yeah," Clark said. "I do."
He had before. He would fly again someday, over Smallville, over Metropolis. Over the whole world.
It would be silent, in the high thin air above the clouds; silent, and cold, and he knew he didn't want to be alone.
"So do I," Lex said.
"I'm going to save you, Lex," Clark said. He touched his fingers to Lex's smooth cold cheek, and didn't know if he was going into denial or rewriting destiny or just affirming a vow made before he could remember.
Lex turned his head a little, into Clark's touch, and then his eyes closed and he breathed out, and in again, slower than before. He didn't move, and when Clark called his name, he already knew Lex wouldn't answer.
He heard his mother's footsteps on the stairs as he said Lex's name again. Looked up and saw her standing with one hand on the banister and the other going to her mouth, her hair still straight and neat, not mussed with sleep, and her eyes teary.
His own were so dry they ached, and his throat was parched and raw. "Mom," he asked her, "can you go get my old winter coat? I'm going to save Lex now."
The cavern was just as cold, just as quiet; but the first predawn light was glimmering through the translucent white. "You're going to do something," Clark told the Fortress's silence, his voice ringing through the ice and crystal.
In his arms, Lex was still and limp; breathing, but barely, a faint whitish mist frosting his bluing lips. He was so deeply unconscious he hadn't stirred when Clark had pushed him into his old coat, the heavy wool one he hadn't worn in years since the winter never bothered him anyway; hadn't moved when Clark had carried him to the caves.
A rapidly declining coma, Lex had said, and then death; and all his technology and money and doctors and scientists couldn't do anything. But he was still alive yet, and there had to be a way.
"That is the former vessel of Zod," Jor-El's voice sounded through the Fortress. Not disapproving, merely observing.
"That wasn't his choice," Clark said, "Fine, the Brainiac, used him. And now another one is trying to kill him, but you're going to do something about that."
"The only way to purge the contamination is to purge the Brainiac avatar responsible."
"I know. And I'm going to do that, but you need to make sure he lives until I can. Just a couple hours more."
"At this rate of decline," Jor-El said, observing, uncaring, "his metabolic processes will cease within a quarter of that time."
"You have to slow that down. Put him in stasis, or something."
"I cannot. If it were a human disease, it would be possible. But any interference by this system with the Brainiac infection would only accelerate the condition, as well as run the risk of contaminating the Fortress."
"There has to be another way," Clark said. "You said radiation could stop the progression—"
"Even a healthy human body could not endure the levels of radiation necessary."
"Then you have to make him strong enough to handle it. Or strong enough to survive the contamination for a little longer..." The human metabolism was too weak to sustain the infection, Jor-El had said. Would a Kryptonian metabolism be strong enough? Clark wasn't susceptible to any Earth diseases—neither was Lex; but Lex was still human, even if the meteors had changed him.
Lex had had Kryptonian powers before, the superhuman strength and endurance. Not his choice, Fine's betrayal; but if he had those powers now, would he survive?
Clark wanted to see that Lex again, with his bitter black glare and his voice so full of hate, with those unnatural powers and all his anger, deserved or undeserved; would do anything to have that Lex back, instead of the silent unmoving figure in his arms, his cheeks white in the freezing air but he wasn't even shivering anymore.
"You gave our powers to a human before—to my dad, for a little while," Clark said, facing the crystal array and closing his mind to the terrible consequences of that bargain, in the end. "Can't you do that now? Not all the powers, just enough strength for him to live."
Jor-El's answer came after a pause so slight Clark almost missed it. "The Brainiac can take advantage of any such interface. The power transference would have a high chance of also transmitting the contamination."
The Fortress had interfaced with Brainiac before, and had thus released Zod from the Phantom Zone. For all he knew, that was this Brainiac's goal as well, or something even worse. No, that was too dangerous. He couldn't dare take that chance; and Lex wouldn't, either. I would have killed myself.
Lex hadn't come to Clark to be saved. Lex didn't care if he was saved, was beyond caring about anything now. Even if Clark failed, Lex had forgiven him for that failure.
After everything Lex had done, not as Zod, but the crimes he himself had willingly committed, the people he had hurt, might have killed—maybe he deserved this anyway. The balance he had talked about, the laws of physics, a reaction for every action. Let nature take its course. Lex had known the price he was paying. Was willing to pay it.
Clark didn't care.
"What about my power?" he asked. "My abilities have been transferred before. Stolen from me, by this reaction with kryptonite and electricity—could you do the same thing? Transfer some of my powers?"
Again, the Fortress hesitated a fraction of a second. "It is not an established procedure."
"But it's possible?"
"It is possible."
"Then do it." Dangerous to wish on the genie like that; he had screwed this up too many times before, making one of Jor-El's offered decisions too quickly. But he could hear Lex's heartbeat, slow and uneven in his chest, and getting slower, that much longer for each beat to follow the one before, until finally one wouldn't come at all. "Give him enough of my power for him survive for another day." Another sunrise.
Hopefully that would leave Clark with enough strength to face the Brainiac. If not—together he and Lex could come up with something.
"Kal-El," the Fortress pronounced, "while the possibility of success exists, it is not a certainty with such a—"
"Do you know of any other way to save him?"
At another time, Clark might have taken some small, sour satisfaction in Jor-El's resigned, "I do not." Might have felt an unkind measure of victory, that after having been his long-dead Kryptonian sire's puppet, he dared order him now.
But Lex's body weighed next to nothing in his arms and there was so little time left. Even the Fortress couldn't resurrect the dead. He knew that too well.
"Do it," Clark said, and heard the crystals vibrate, resonating with his voice. "Now."
Jor-El did not answer, and Clark was braced to repeat himself when light flashed around him. He thought he saw an electric bolt stabbing out from the crystal array, brilliant and jagged, and then he was lost in blinding, burning white.
He couldn't hear, couldn't feel; he could only see, and all he could see was a brightness like sunlight on snow, times a thousand, a million. Unending brilliance, like being in the center of a star.
Gradually he became aware of something other than light, faint shadows breaking the white constancy. There was something pushing against his back, something shoving him against a hard, cold surface—gravity, forcing him down against the ground. The frozen floor was rough and solid against his head, his back, his legs and arms, hard and uneven through his jeans and shirt.
Every part of him ached, and when he tried to move a stabbing, fiery pang shot through his chest, as bad as if he had been pierced by a shard of kryptonite. Worse than being beaten when he was normal and could feel the sore aftermath of a punch to the gut.
Infinitely less then the pain of feeling a best friend take his last breath.
Lex wasn't in his arms. He was lying on the floor of the Fortress and there was nothing on top of him, nothing under his hands but loose rocks and chunks of ice, when he worked his fingers. Clark opened his mouth, tried to find the air to speak but there was nothing in his lungs. He couldn't see anything when he tried to look, only dark and light pulsing, no shapes or forms.
But when he listened, there was sound again—there was a voice, rasping and hoarse as his own probably would be like, with his throat scraped raw, but it wasn't him. "Clark. Clark! God, Clark, open your eyes, look at me—"
Clark opened his eyes. Colors and shadows above him swam into focus, pale skin and ice-gray eyes, stark and vivid against the whites of the crystal cavern.
"Clark," Lex said, "what the hell did you do?"
"Lex," Clark said, and brought up his arms—it hurt to move, but not as much as it had, and it felt better than anything to put his hands to Lex's face, to curve his fingers around Lex's cheeks and see Lex's eyes widen. Open and aware; Lex was conscious again, and astonished, as Clark sat up to press his lips to Lex's.
When he drew back he felt the puff of air from Lex's mouth against his face, and grinned at that extra proof of life.
"I—should be dead. I shouldn't have woken up again." Lex brought up his own hands and pressed them to Clark's, still around his cheeks. His bare palms were cold, dusted with ice flecks that melted against Clark's skin. Lex was shivering, ice coating his eyelashes and his lips as pallid as his face, but his eyes on Clark's for that instant were dark and hot, and Clark didn't want to look away, didn't want to move.
Didn't want to feel that too-smooth wrongness when his fingertips brushed the back of Lex's head. The collar of the old wool coat was high enough to hide most of Lex's neck, but when Clark pushed the folds aside he saw the streaks of the infection still marring his skin.
Lex shoved up one sleeve to examine his own wrist, the unnatural dark pattern now extending to the back of his hand. "So. Not a cure," he said shortly, through chattering teeth.
"We better get you back," Clark said worriedly. The cold wasn't bothering him, but whatever strength Lex had gotten from him must not have included invulnerability. Hypothermia wasn't as exotic as a Kryptonian contamination, but not any less lethal.
Lex, kneeling on the stone floor, wrapped his arms tightly over his chest and looked around himself. Crystalline spires reflected white in his widening eyes as his jaw dropped. "W-where is this?"
"The Arctic, somewhere." Clark braced his hand against the floor to push himself to his feet, only to groan involuntarily at the sudden burn in his abdomen, not as sharp or agonizing as before, but enough to interrupt him.
"C-Clark?" Lex's head twisted back toward him from where he was staring at the main array.
Clark pulled up his shirt, bent his neck to look at his stomach. He already had a decent guess, so wasn't too startled to see the ragged dark shape across his skin, like a splotch of paint, gleaming a weird oily silver in the crystals' glow.
Lex reached out his hand, clumsy with cold, pressed his freezing fingers to Clark's marked belly. "Clark," and his voice was low and calm enough to be very angry, even with his teeth chattering so badly, "what did you d-do?"
"The conduit opened for the power transference also allowed for the transmission of the Brainiac contamination," Jor-El said; the so even flatness of his tone might have been dissatisfaction, or disappointment, or else Clark was imagining feeling where none ever was.
Lex's head jerked around, seeking the voice's indiscernible source. "What's that—"
"Jor-El," Clark said. He got to his feet. The twinge of the contamination wasn't that bad, if he was prepared for it.
Trust Lex to remember that, whatever condition he had been in. "You didn't give him all my power," Clark verified with the Fortress.
"No abilities were transferred, only metabolic energy. In five days of yellow sunlight you will be fully restored. However, the Brainiac contamination will overwhelm your system within three days."
"What—" Lex stopped glaring at the crystal array and glared up at Clark instead.
"I'm not going to give it that long," Clark said, facing the array. "What about Lex? How long does he have?"
"Approximately eight more hours. Though at the present rate of hypothermic deterioration, it will be a tenth of that before his metabolism entirely ceases."
Lex looked like he had fury enough to fuel him for at least twice that long, but he was also shivering too hard to stand. "We have to get out of here, before you freeze to—before you freeze." Clark put his hand to the crystal array. "Send us back," he ordered.
"No, wait just a—" he heard Lex say, but there was another blinding white flash, and when it faded Clark was standing before the dais, his hand outstretched over the octagonal key in its slot, as when he had transported them to the Fortress.
The cool of a Kansas spring night felt like a sauna after the bitter arctic cold. Lex, kneeling on the stone floor beside him, slowly unfolded his arms and looked around. "The caves?" he asked, taking hold of the dais to pull himself to his feet. His eyes went to the metal octagon as Clark withdrew it. "That—"
"It's the key to get to the Fortress," Clark said. "The fastest way there." He put the key back in his pocket, where it clinked against Raya's crystal.
Lex turned a full circle, dizzily, then walked away without another word, his back to Clark and his steps unsteady, though he didn't reach for the wall for balance. He walked out of the chamber and through the cave, past the painted walls, the Kryptonian writing and the other symbols, the warnings and prophecies. Their destinies, inscribed on stone long before either of them had been born.
If it weren't for Lex, the cave with its unavoidable portents might have been demolished years ago. Maybe allowing them to stay written, to stay real with all their terrible meaning, had been one of Lex's mistakes. Or Clark's own.
Lex didn't look at any of the paintings, didn't stop until he was in the field outside the cave. Clark followed him.
The sun had just slipped above the flat horizon, casting long violet shadows as it burned away the mist. Lex faced it, his eyes closed and his head tilted back, pale skin glowing golden in that pure light. For that moment the dark marks on his skin might have only been shadows, shade that would vanish if he turned in the sunlight.
But Lex's back was straight and stiff, his shoulders tense. "I'm sorry," Clark said. "It must hurt, but it won't be much longer—as soon as I kill the Brainiac—"
"Will you be strong enough to manage it?" Lex asked, his eyes still closed, his voice even. "Being infected—contaminated—as well, now?"
"No, I'll be okay. It's not that bad yet," Clark said. "I still have most of my strength." And getting more back now, standing in the sun, drinking in the warm rays. He always felt strongest in sunlight. The dull ache in his stomach was easy to ignore, here in the light. "And we'll both be fine, once it's gone."
"You shouldn't have risked it."
Lex sounded angry. Clark couldn't be. "It was the only way."
"The only way was for you to fight to the best of your capabilities, and for me to—"
"No," Clark said. "That wasn't the right way. I wouldn't pay that price."
"It wasn't your choice."
"Was it your choice? Do you really want to die, Lex?"
"What do you think I deserve, Clark?"
"I don't know," Clark said. "I can't decide that. But if someone has to pay the price—I don't know why it just has to be you. You're not the only one who wants to save the world."
Lex turned his face from the new sun to Clark. Pain showed in the lines between his brows, around his mouth; but his eyes were clear.
He looked at Clark for a long moment, and when he spoke his voice wasn't angry anymore. "You're right," he said quietly, "it is different. This light."
"You're smiling," Lex said.
"I know." Clark could feel it in his cheeks. He didn't bother trying to stop. He didn't know if he could, and didn't want to anyway.
"If you can't defeat this thing," Lex said flatly, turning away, "you won't have that much longer than me—"
"It's going to be okay, Lex," Clark said.
"Okay, for you to sacrifice everything? If the thing gets away, if you can't destroy it—"
"If I can't take the Brainiac out, then you'll have to."
"Me?" Lex repeated.
"You kept it contained this long, Lex; could anyone else have done that? And you have these nanites—I wouldn't know how to destroy it myself, you're the one who figured that out."
Lex's voice was even; if he was in pain then he was walling it off, closing it away. "So you trust me to take care of it, even knowing what I might do. I'm your last resort. Understandable."
"That's not why I saved you," Clark told him.
Lex's eyes, gazing out over the fields as the sun streamed over the tilled earth, flicked back to him. "Then why?"
"Because it was the right thing to do."
For too long Clark had been uncomfortable questioning himself, had avoided any self-contemplation, for fear of being unable to disentangle what he wanted to do from what he should be doing. Unable to separate his conscience from his heart, separate the responsibility of his powers from the demands of his ego. Was he fighting the Zoners because they needed to be stopped before they hurt people, or because it was an excuse to hide from Jor-El's promised destiny? Was he so reluctant to join Oliver and his crew because he decried their methods, or because he was afraid of getting caught? He didn't know; he hadn't wanted to ask.
But this—this, he didn't have to ask. Lex was alive; it had been the right choice, whatever happened now. "Some things you just know are the right thing. You feel it. You know what I mean?"
Lex shook his head, a curt negative, but he was lying. Clark knew he was, because Lex had always known what he meant, had always understood what he was talking about. They hadn't ever stopped understanding; they had just stopped talking. "You can't just do what's right," Lex said. "It's not that simple."
"But it's not simple," Clark said. "A lot of the time it's too difficult to see what's the right choice, if there is a right choice; and sometimes every choice hurts—but sometimes you know. You know, Lex—you knew before; you must know now. Even with everything that you thought you needed to do, you must have done something because it was the right thing, and you could feel it."
"I can't afford to do what's right. I do what's necessary. What has to be done." Lex's face was set and drawn and his eyes were colorless, and Clark's smile faltered as he realized that maybe Lex didn't know anymore; that maybe Lex hadn't only been ignoring but had totally stopped feeling whatever it was, conscience or heart, the best and most important part of a man. That Lex might have made himself numb, might have smothered that best part, for the sake of his necessary things.
But Lex had said himself that the price was high, could still understand what price he was paying. And Lex shut his eyes now over bleak stone gray, and said, "Coming to you."
"It was the right thing to do. It always was—even when I fully knew how you were lying to me, it was still right to trust you. I've always known that. Even if only as the final contingency plan. It felt right." Lex opened his eyes, glanced sidelong at Clark. "If you know what I mean."
Clark knew his grin came back wider than before, felt it in his cheeks and could see it in Lex's eyes, though Lex didn't smile back. But when Clark reached out and found Lex's hand, Lex's fingers curled around his for a moment, a strong, living grip.
"It was the right thing to do, Lex," Clark said. "It'll always be the right thing to do."
"I shouldn't have come," Lex said. His hand slipped out of Clark's, extended towards Clark's torso, where his shirt was pulled down over the shadowy mark of the infection. But he drew back before touching him. "Right or wrong—it was too great a risk."
"I'm glad you came," Clark said fiercely, and he grabbed Lex's hand again, held on tight enough that Lex would have to yank himself free. "I'm so glad you came, if you hadn't..."
Lex was standing in sunlight but his eyes went dark, black and hot like burning coal. "Thank you, Clark," he said, low enough to barely be heard over the sounds of morning, the wind over the rolling fields and the birds in the weeds and brush. Hushed enough that Clark leaned forward to hear him better, so their faces were only a foot apart, and the curves and planes of Lex's features were defined purely and precisely by the clear light. The scar on his top lip was outlined, distinct in the set of his lips. He wasn't smiling; his expression was too honest for that. Real gratitude, real pain. Something else, too, just as real.
Then Lex turned away. "What time is it?" he asked. "We have to get going..." He took a couple steps away, towards the road.
Clark heard Lex's breath catch before he saw his face twist, moved to support him automatically and fast enough to raise a ripple of wind through the growing grass. Lex's legs didn't fold, but he steadied himself against Clark's proffered shoulder, only long enough to regain his breath. Then he straightened up again, stiffly, checked his watch and said, "It's twenty of seven, less than half an hour before the shield decays—"
"It's okay, that's plenty of time," Clark told him, blocking Lex from making a run for the road that probably would have laid him flat in his condition. "I just need to go grab your nanites, and then get to Granville."
He picked Lex up in his arms—not for the first time tonight, but the first time Lex was really aware for it, and he went rigid, tense rather than limp and boneless. Maybe just from the shock of realizing how easily Clark could throw him around. His jaw was as set as the rest of him; Clark didn't think it was with fear, not with Lex, but couldn't say what it was.
Pain, maybe; Clark could feel the infection in his own body, duller than the agony of kryptonite, endurable but unpleasant, even with the sunlight washing over him. Lex had been granted only a fraction of his strength, and the contamination was winding up his spine and down his limbs; Clark could only guess at how much it was really hurting him.
"Hold on," Clark said, not knowing what else he should warn about, and ran home. He was careful to keep his speed down, not wanting to flatten his passenger with the velocity, but still far faster than any car could drive, even Lex at his most reckless.
When he stopped in the driveway in front of the farmhouse, Lex's pulse was thudding so fast Clark nearly panicked. But Lex was still conscious and he found his footing without much trouble when Clark put him down, though Clark kept a hold on his arms to be sure. Lex's face wasn't white but flushed with windburn, and he gripped Clark's arms back, hard. "That—that was like nothing I've experienced before," he said, sounding dazed.
"Actually you just experienced it a little while ago," Clark mentioned, "when I took you to the caves. Though I guess you wouldn't remember that..."
"No," Lex said, "I don't," and he laughed. It was a real laugh, startling, and startled; Lex wasn't expecting it any more than Clark, from the look on his face. If he was hurting, it didn't matter in that moment, and Clark almost laughed, too. The Brainiac's contamination was nothing; he hadn't felt this good, this happy, this right, in a long time.
"I meant it, what I said before," Clark said. "I missed you, Lex. A lot."
Lex reached up, threaded his hand through Clark's hair to draw his head down. He leaned forward until his forehead was against Clark's, closed his eyes. "You shouldn't have risked it, Clark," he said softly. "But...you're right about the sunrise. And I'm glad I got to see you in that light one time more."
"More than once more," Clark promised. "But there's only twenty minutes left—I better go."
He pulled away and zipped inside the house. His mother got up from the couch as the door banged open and shut behind him, rubbing sleep from her eyes. "Clark?"
"Yeah, but I have to go," Clark told her, as he retrieved the mini metal briefcase from the coffee table. He checked to make sure the vial and injector were intact, then shut and latched it again. "I'll be back as soon as I've taken care of the thing. Oh, and Lex is going to be okay. He's outside now. We're both going to be fine, once the Brainiac is gone."
"What? You both—Clark—" His mother blinked, put out her hand toward him.
"Sorry, Mom," Clark said, meaning it. He moved to her lightning-quick, hugged her and kissed her cheek. "I love you."
For a moment he thought she was going to keep her arms around him; then she dropped them, let him go. "I love you, honey," Martha said, and stepped out of his way.
A minute later Clark was in Granville, standing before the shimmering, impenetrable bubble of the force-field.
Lex had been waiting for him outside the house, caught between the moments Clark dashed through with his mouth open, mid-word. Clark had passed him, had passed the town border before that word could be finished, but the memory of Lex's face was with him now, the look in Lex's eyes. Astonishment, amazement, for all that he had already known what Clark was, what he could do.
Like the way Lex had stared at him in the very beginning, on the bank of the river, soaking wet and half-drowned and too surprised to even be grateful for his life. Like the look in Lex's eyes in Morgan Edge's driveway, that epiphany which was later erased: drugged and halfway out of his mind and stunned almost to laughter, almost to tears.
Lex had told him he didn't matter. Lex had been lying. Clark had seen that in Lex's face, the frozen split second he had passed him by. Even knowing the truth, Lex still watched him with such wonder.
Fifteen minutes until the force-field fell. He opened the case, took out the injector and inserted the vial of nanites into it, then set aside the case. The injector was tiny in his big hand; he could shatter it with a sneeze or a flick of a finger. It felt useless, too fragile to be of any good against what he was about to face.
Appearances could be deceiving. No doubt the Brainiac had thought the human he had struck down was as fragile and useless.
Ten minutes, and the surface of the shield was losing its shimmer; he could only see a blurred shade of himself in the ripples, like a wind-blown pond getting too choppy to reflect the scenery. It occurred to Clark that no guards had come across him, and when he listened he couldn't hear any in the halls that weren't blocked off by the field. There had been twice as many as before on the ground outside, difficult to dodge around, but none inside. They must have been under orders to vacate the area. Give him a clear arena.
His abdomen throbbed with the infection's dull burn. He pressed his hand over it, his other hand clutching the injector like a talisman. The pain shouldn't slow him down too much. But Fine had been fast, and strong, and Clark couldn't help the icy trickle running down his back. Fear, eating at him worse than the contamination.
It was the waiting. He wasn't used to waiting; that was the hazard of his speed, he guessed.
He didn't want to look at his watch again. He had counted by far too many seconds tonight already, and he didn't want to think about that. Ever again, if he could help it.
It would be better if he didn't have to wait alone.
Five minutes, and he wasn't alone. Clark identified the approaching footsteps without thinking, not a security guard's tramping boots but a lighter step. Quick, confident strides, spoiled by a stumble here, then there; and Clark didn't need to use his x-ray vision to know Lex had come to stand with him, even before he turned the corner and came into sight.
Lex didn't look afraid, not even nervous; he looked out of breath, harried and annoyed. The collar on his black coat was turned up and the sleeves pulled down, hiding most of the dark streaks marring his skin.
"How'd you get past the guards?" Clark asked without thinking.
Lex stopped before him, stared at him cock-eyed. "This is a LuthorCorp facility."
"They were under standing orders to allow you entrance. I take it you didn't take advantage."
"Uh. No. I'm sort of used to..." He had been sneaking or breaking past Lex's security for a few years now. Clark shrugged, embarrassed. "Um, old habits. I'm sorry your guards are so easy to get around?"
Lex snorted, undignified and incongruous. Like they were joking around, safe in Clark's loft, years ago. Like there weren't pained lines etched on his brow; like they weren't standing in front of a force-field powered by a hydrogen bomb, waiting for a fight that might decide the fate of the world.
"But how'd you even get here, Lex?" Clark asked. "It's a twenty-five minute drive."
"Eight minutes," Lex said, "if you're speaking of the physical rather than legal limits of a Ferrari Spider's maneuverability and speed. I'm going to see this thing ended." His tone was not a challenge but a flat statement of fact. He studied the field before them, checked his watch. "Three minutes."
"Do we have to wait that long?" Clark asked. Lex looked at him, and Clark said, "If it's coming down, doesn't that mean the energy's almost gone anyway? I could just break through..."
"You can't wait three minutes?"
"I've waited enough today," Clark said.
He didn't have to say more; Lex gave him a look that showed he understood everything. One of his old looks, so intent Clark almost had to look away, so quick he didn't have time to. But he wondered how Lex's eyes could ever seem empty, when they were so full now that Clark couldn't name half of what was there. Apology, gratitude, sympathy; maybe regret, maybe anger. Maybe something that couldn't be named.
"Not worth the risk," Lex said. "It's only a little longer."
Clark looked at his watch, looked at the field, the ripples moving over its bizarre surface. He couldn't see himself or Lex standing beside him in the distortions, just shimmers of color. He couldn't see anything behind it, either; his x-ray vision only gave him a headache.
One minute, and Lex said, "Be careful. Whatever it looks like, whatever it says, it's not human."
"I remember Fine."
"This thing isn't Fine." Lex pointed to the injector in Clark's hand. "Just make sure you get those nanites into it. However you can."
"Got it. Lex..." Clark moved to step before Lex. "If this doesn't work—if I can't do it—I'm sorry."
Lex just looked at him, his jaw clenched tight and streaked with dark unnatural patterns. "You should have another eight hours, even if I fail," Clark reminded him.
"The world won't have that long." Lex took the last step towards him, not touching again, but so close that Clark couldn't have moved without bumping against him. His eyes searched Clark's. "But you're not going to fail."
He wasn't smiling. He wasn't lying, either. If anyone could make things true just by saying them, then it was Lex, and when Clark said, "Okay," he meant it.
Lex turned his head enough to see the field, undulating like white rapids. Nodded at what he saw and took a step back, and only his hands at his sides, balled into fists, betrayed anything beyond controlled calm. "Now," he said.
Clark wrapped his hand protectively around the injector, and strode forth into battle.
For a second he felt pressure against him, the last of the force-field. Then, like sand giving way underfoot, there was nothing and he was tumbling forward. Light, hot and bright, washed over him. He was standing in the corridor with nothing in front of him but a door, a heavy metal portal, swung open on big hinges.
Clark charged forward through the double set of doors, into a wide chamber the size of a school gym, with ceilings as high. The first thing he saw in the middle of that broad, empty space was a ship, black and sleek. Under the overhead spotlights it shimmered with the same silvery sheen marring Lex's skin, the contamination now imprinted on his own stomach.
A figure stood before the ship. Not Milton Fine. Much shorter and smaller, with ash blonde hair pulled back in a braid and a rosy complexion, a heart-shaped face and startlingly indigo eyes.
Not even a woman, just a girl, practically; she looked younger than Clark, with only a hint of curves under the loose white blouse and beige slacks. There was something terribly familiar about her, though he had never seen her face before. As he had felt looking at Fine, looking at Raya. Human, but not, somehow; that which was alien in him recognizing the alien she was as well. She spread her hands and smiled at him.
It was a small and terrible smile, as empty as Zod's, and crueler than Lex's ever could be. "So," she said, and her voice was a soft, melodious alto that burned like dry ice, "you're the tame Kryptonian that was promised to me."
Her blue eyes, brilliant over her pink cheeks, moved from Clark to behind him, and her smile curved, that much crueler. "And here I thought you were reneging on our deal, after the little trick with the energy shield."
Clark looked back. Lex was standing in the doorway behind him, blocking the lights from the corridor, so his shadow stretched long across the cement floor, almost to Clark's feet. He wasn't looking at Clark but past him, to the Brainiac, and his steady voice was as cold as hers. "I thought you were reneging, when you attacked my people and myself."
"Attacked?" She tilted her head inquiringly. "It was only intended as an incentive. You were deliberately delaying..."
She moved, towards Lex, faster than he would have been able to see or react to. Clark moved faster still, lunging to intercept with one arm tucked to his side, shielding the injector until he was sure he had a good target.
The woman, the Brainiac, saw him coming, for all he was going at the speed of a bullet, the air slowed to sludge around him. She turned her head, brought up her arm to block his blow. A clean block, as even the strongest human never could have managed, and he stumbled, shoved aside.
She was off-balanced, too, her charge interrupted and her attention redirected. She straightened up and smiled again, a monster's smile on a girl's face. "Strong, son of Krypton," she said. "It might be worth trading this world for you after all."
Clark swung at her; she blocked again, just as quickly, then threw a kick that he only just managed to stay standing through, followed by an elbow jab he barely avoided.
"Whatever it says, it's not human," Lex had told him—so that he would ignore what she said, would think she was lying? Clark could feel Lex watching him, even if his human eyes would have trouble following the speed of their exchanges
Lex, who was supposed to have been dead by now, and that had been no trick; but he might have arranged a bargain even after his death. A final betrayal.
He had given Clark the nanites, a fighting chance. "You're the best bet we have now." Unless that had only been a trick, a way to convince him. Lex's last resort.
Not a betrayal; it would be one more price that Lex thought he had to pay. Another sin for him to be damned for, but Clark wasn't going to allow that. He had stood by and watched Lex fall too many times; now Lex was watching him, and Clark was not going to fall, was not going to fail, whatever the price or the plan was.
Clark waited an eye-blink for her to close in for the next strike, then threw a punch with all his strength behind it, braced against the floor. The cement would give way before his legs would, and this blow would slam through any move she made to block.
She didn't try to block; instead she caught his fist in both her small hands. It drove her back, cement crumbling like loose dirt under her boots. Her indigo eyes opened further, round and childlike, staring at him with her hands clutched around his fist, sliding down to circle his wrist. "Oh," she said, almost a purr, "so that's how the human survived this long—by stealing your strength. Didn't you realize the dangers of transference? How convenient for me."
She raised one hand, and fire stabbed through Clark's gut. With the rush of adrenaline, or whatever Kryptonians had in their blood instead, he had almost been able to ignore the contamination's ache, but now it flared up, throbbing with the gleam in her blue eyes. Worse than anything he could remember—more agonizing than when he had been shot with a kryptonite bullet, a thousand times worse. It burned like he was being devoured by acid inside, immolated by flames that blazed from his belly through his limbs, through his whole body.
He couldn't breathe, couldn't hear his own pulse. Dimly he was aware of the floor under him, shapes over him: her small figure, the black mass of the ship behind her. It hurt to try to see, hurt to move. Hurt as much to lie still, on and on and on. He couldn't be unconscious because if he were he wouldn't know he was hurting, but he couldn't really be conscious, either.
Vibrations on the floor: footsteps. In the air: voices. Fragments of words sounded in his ears; he could barely make sense of them. "So the deal's fulfilled?"
"Yes, it's fulfilled." Clark couldn't see the blue eyes flash, but the pain spiked, impossibly worse; he would have cried out if there had been any air in his lungs to cry with. "You can go; I'll be taking this one and leaving your world."
"Like hell," and it was as sharp as broken glass, as relentless as an avalanche.
For an instant the miasma cleared enough for Clark to see Lex standing over him, facing the woman with his shoulders squared under his black coat, angry and dying and braver than Clark could ever be.
Something in Lex's hand; Clark had the impression of a glittering arc, the shine of light on metal, and violent motion. A grunt, a rattling impact. Then the pain was receding, not cutting off like when kryptonite was shielded behind lead, but lapping back like a tide going out. He could breathe again, could turn his head.
He saw boots treading across the floor, level with his eyes. The Brainiac was walking away from him, going toward the wall where Lex was crumpled at the base. There was a dent in the metal lining above his head where he had been tossed, negligently, like one would throw aside a newspaper with a disappointing headline. Lex was still conscious, struggling to pick himself off the floor. Blood trickled from one corner of his mouth; he wiped it away with his sleeve and pushed himself standing to face her.
His voice was still composed, as even as his legs were unsteady. "You never meant to honor any deal. As soon as you got what you wanted, you would have killed me and attacked the world."
"Will kill you, and will eradicate your world," she corrected. "Very perceptive."
"I've dealt with one of you before."
"Yes, you have, haven't you." She was beside Lex now, grabbed him by the throat with one hand and effortlessly hoisted him into the air over her head. "How any of your pathetic race could damage us—that was why I came, you know. Not because of some silly signal from your primitive technology, but because we registered the destruction of a part of us. We knew nothing of your transmission until I arrived in this system and followed it to its source, looking for clues. But it wasn't you, was it, who destroyed us; it was the Kryptonian."
Lex's feet were dangling a few inches off the floor, and his hands were clawing at her fingers, fighting to loosen her hold enough to breathe. "Yet you are dangerous," she went on. "Weak, but clever—what was this you attacked me with?" In her other hand she held up something that shone silver. Polished steel: a knife blade. Clark couldn't focus his x-ray vision, but it looked like an ordinary knife. But Lex was far too smart to go after a super-powered alien AI with just a butterfly knife.
And the Brainiac knew it. "You knew your guns were useless; you couldn't possibly think a bit of pointy metal would do any good. So what were you trying to do? What was your plot with this?"
Her fingers loosened enough to allow Lex to rasp, "Like I'd tell you."
She shook him, hard enough to snap him back against the wall, another echoing thud ringing through the metal paneling. She still was smiling that small, brutal smile. Clark tried to push himself to his feet, didn't quite make it to his knees. The ship was in front of him and he put his hand to it to keep himself vertical. Its surface was skin-temperature and slicker than soapy plastic. His whole body was aching, shooting pangs making his limbs tremble, and his abdomen was on fire.
Lex's face was mottled red and white and streaked with dark, but he shook his head, panted, "Only...chance...we have—"
"You have no chance," she said, and dropped Lex into a heap on the floor, black coat and long legs sprawled awkwardly. "But you will tell me what you were planning."
She lifted her hand over him, one finger idly crooked, and Lex choked, his body seizing up and his back arching to crack his head against the floor. His eyes were open, stretched sightlessly wide, and his hands scrabbled on the cement, grasping and twitching.
"Stop it," Clark gasped out, pulling himself up into a crouch and plumbing himself to find the strength to stand, to rush at her and stop this, before Lex—"Don't—"
The Brainiac spared him a glance, her eyes neon bright in her heart-shaped face. "It won't be long," she said. "I'll burn through whatever energy he drew from you in minutes. His body's mostly mine already; he'll open his mind to me before the end. And then I can give you my full attention." Her eyes flashed, and Clark curled inward at the surge of lightning pain.
But however badly the contamination hurt him, it had to be that much worse for Lex. He wasn't moving, body locked frozen in a contorted arc. The thing with a woman's shape was crouched over him, her voice frigidly musical, like the pure singing of a wine glass. "Maybe you've found a way to destroy us. You must be eradicated before you can. Just as the Kryptonians were, all of your dangerous species will be annihilated with your own clever toys, those primitively cunning nuclear devices of yours. But first you'll tell me what secret weapon you devised here." She swung the knife in a glittering circle before Lex's face. "What is this?"
Clark could see Lex's frame relax a fraction, knew that she had suppressed the worst of it to let him speak. And he could see Lex's eyes, stone-hard even filmed with pain, so he knew Lex wasn't going to answer. Instead Lex's mouth split in a rictus, a death's-head grimace, and his gray gaze passed her to seek out Clark for an instant. "The last resort," he gasped.
"What does it do?" she said, still cool, and stood to kick him hard in the gut.
Lex made a hoarse, guttural noise, like a scream without a voice. Through clenched teeth he choked out, "Won't—tell you—"
The last resort. He was Lex's last resort, his final contingency plan. Clark looked down at his hand. He still held the injector, the vial of nanites miraculously unbroken. But it wouldn't do him any good. He wasn't even sure he could stand; he wasn't strong or fast enough to take on the Brainiac, even with Lex's distraction, not when she could strike him down with a snap of her fingers. If he hadn't been infected...Lex had had a plan; he had known Clark would be a match for this thing, but he hadn't known that Clark would save him. Hadn't known that Clark would help pay the price he had tried pay by himself.
Lex made another strangled sound, coiled into a ball, trembling. Clark wanted to close his eyes, but wouldn't. He couldn't abandon Lex to this. Wouldn't let himself stop listening for Lex's pounding pulse, skipping beats in time with the flashing of her eyes—even with her head turned away from him, her glare on Lex, he could almost see that cruel flame...
No—he could see it; and that wasn't a sympathetic vision. There was a dim blue light, throbbing like a migraine against his eyes. Clark looked up and saw the long, low shape of the black ship in front of him. Markings on the flat underside were glowing and fading, shades darker than the Brainiac's eyes but the same deep blue hue.
The marks were Kryptonian glyphs; upside down he had trouble reading them, but he could make out "Krypton" and a few symbols he thought might mean "Brain" and "Inter-Active."
Clark remembered Fine emerging from his ship, remembered the many copies of Fine wandering around even after he had been killed twice over. A Brainiac avatar, Jor-El had called Fine: one piece of the whole construct, and this woman was another piece. But Brainiac was an artificial intelligence; the human—or Kryptonian, rather—form was only a projection. The real avatar...
He put his hand against the ship's smooth surface again, the sleek, curved plane of the hull. Though it looked like it shimmered in the light, he couldn't make out any reflection of himself or his hand in the pitch-black surface. It didn't feel like metal or plastic; it was rock-solid, but the warmth of it almost made it seem alive.
The Brainiac was bending over Lex, murmuring threats in her cool alto. Ignoring him. Clark picked up the injector, pried out the vial and wrapped his fingers around the little glass container. Then he drew back his fist and pounded it directly into the ship's side with all the strength he could muster.
It burst through the hull, fissures cracking the flawless ebon surface around the blow, and his hand plunged in to halfway up his forearm. The ship felt solid inside, no hollow spaces, just a thick tough mass against his hand as he forced open his fingers. His palm was wet; he could feel the jagged edges of the broken vial scraping his skin without cutting. The clear, viscous liquid suspending the nanites was dripping through his fingers, into the ship's interior.
Then the figure of the Brainiac slammed into him, shoulder-first, with the force of a runaway locomotive for all her head only came as high as his chin. Clark's arm was ripped from the ship as he was thrown sprawling to the floor, with the woman looming over him. "What are you doing?" She didn't sound as calm now, though her lips were still drawn into a smirking smile.
Clark lifted his head enough to see the ship. The hole he had punched in the hull was already gone, the fissures sealing over even as he watched, with a bright silvery slickness that faded back into the utter black of the ship.
"You think you can hurt me that easily, son of Krypton?" she said. "Your people made me stronger than that."
"Oh, did they?" Behind her, Lex had somehow pulled himself to his feet. His shoulders were heaving and blood was dripping from his lips, seeping from one eye, red rivulets running over the dark laced through his skin. He was white-faced and shivering and his voice was as hoarse as if he had been screaming the whole night long, but the gleam in his eyes was nothing less than triumphant. "Won't tell you," he said, panting, "but we'll show you."
Her lip curled. "You won't live long enough to," she said, and Lex gasped and fell as her hand raised. Clark staggered to his feet, ignoring the pain to plow forward, not knowing what he could do now, only knowing he had to stop her, before—
She screamed. Not a sound a human woman could make, but a much higher shriek, like the whistle of a kettle, endlessly long, her head tilted back and her mouth gaping wide. Behind her, the ship started to shake as if it were caught in an earthquake, rocking wildly on its struts. Cracks appeared across the black surface, light shining through with a sun's radiance.
The Brainiac's scream became louder and even higher-pitched, until it was almost too high to hear; it didn't seem to be coming from her mouth anymore, but from the ship itself, a deafening squeal.
Clark threw himself forward, over Lex's huddled form on the floor, just as the ship exploded in a burst of light and sound. He didn't feel anything hit his back, no shrapnel from the black hull, only the burning shock wave of the explosion, shoving him down. The pain in his gut from the contamination flared again, forcing the air from his lungs.
Then that pain was gone, and the light and sound were gone, like a switch had been hit. For a moment the absence of sensation was so much that he thought he had gone deaf and blind and numb, but then he realized he still could hear, still could see and feel.
He looked behind him. The ship and the woman both were gone, leaving no trace but gray scorch marks on the floor and a stench like burnt rubber. Clark poked his stomach but felt nothing; pulled up his shirt and saw no dark blotch, only tanned skin.
"Lex!" When he looked down, Lex was wan and bloody still, but there was nothing under the blood but plain skin. Clark yanked open his coat and shirt to bare some of his chest, enough to see the untouched flesh, smooth and pale. He splayed his hand over that expanse, the swell of sleek muscle and the curved ridge of collar bone, felt Lex's ribs rise and fall as he breathed.
Lex's eyes slipped open almost lazily; he blinked at Clark in hazy bewilderment, rasped, "Clark?"
"We did it, Lex." Clark had to gasp to catch his breath. Maybe panting from the exertion or maybe on the verge of sobs, or laughter, he didn't know. "It worked. She's gone, it's gone."
Lex looked confused; then his eyes snapped fully open and he sat up, jerkily, grimacing at the effort with his brow furrowed. "Clark, you should—"
Clark heard the sound, mechanisms shifting in the walls, in the floor under his feet, but he didn't realize the meaning of it. Didn't understand until he felt the burn—at first he thought it was the Brainiac's contamination, somehow come back. Then he saw the green glow.
Panels in the metal-lined walls had slid open, and behind them were bars set in metal clasps, shimmering translucent green. Refined meteor rock ore—kryptonite, as much as Clark had ever seen in one place, surrounding him on all sides, and all of it pulsing in response to his blood.
Useless against the Brainiac. Clark was the only one on Earth so vulnerable to the meteor rocks.
Clark thought he might be getting used to the feeling of the cement floor, the chill of the artificial stone under his cheek. No less comfortable than his bed; he was so damn tired, so tired the pain felt far away, like he was one space removed from his body. He couldn't move; there was nowhere he could go, the radiation streaming over him from all sides.
Lex was kneeling over him, his face illuminated in nauseating lime hues. Lex didn't look good in green; Clark had seen too much of him in that light tonight. He closed his eyes. He should have known, should have been more careful. Should have known Lex had a contingency plan, even when he wasn't going to be around to execute it.
Vaguely, Clark had a momentary recollection, Lex's voice, slurred and weak—"The code...You'll know. Just remember," but he was too exhausted and pained to try.
"Damn it all," Lex said over him, and raised his voice to say something that didn't make sense, just a string of meaningless numbers.
No, not meaningless—day, month, year; a date Clark easily recognized.
There was the squeal of metal on metal and the shielding came back down over the kryptonite, blocking the deadly radiation.
Clark sat up. Lex had slid back until he could lean his back to the wall, watching Clark with expressionless gray eyes.
"The last resort?" Clark asked. It was very quiet now, as quiet as the empty night. There were guards on the grounds outside, but this chamber must be soundproofed. Other than the faint, masking whir of fans and machinery, he could only hear his breathing, and Lex's, and the reverberation of his voice off the metal walls, paneling over the lead shielding the kryptonite.
"The very last resort," Lex said. "Automatic, upon the event of your successful neutralization of the threat."
"So you knew all along about the kryptonite. What it does to me."
"It was a hypothesis." One corner of Lex's mouth quirked, not enough to be a smile. "A calculated risk."
"Why weren't you sure?" Clark thought that maybe he should stand up. Thought that maybe he should run while he could. Thought that maybe he should be angry. "Why didn't you test it sooner?"
Lex closed his eyes, rocked his head back against the wall. "Carelessness. I know quite well how dangerous you are; I should have secured you a year ago."
"But you didn't."
"I couldn't make this personal," Lex said, strained, like maintaining that even tone was as terrible a trial as anything else these past hours. "Using 33.1 for personal gain, for my own selfish reasons—that's what my father was doing when he started the research; all he ever would have done with it. Letting emotion instead of reason, desire instead of necessity, decide the course...I couldn't risk making that mistake."
"But if you knew what I was," Clark said, "if you really thought I was dangerous—how could that be personal?"
Lex's eyes opened, rested on him. "It was you, Clark," he said quietly. "How could it not be personal?"
"You should go," Lex said. "The door's unlocked. With the bulkheads down, the containment crew will assume the secondary objective was a failure and won't come immediately, but they'll be ordered in an hour after the shield's dispersal regardless."
Clark stared at him incredulously. "And just leave you here alone to wait for them?"
"There's no reason you should worry your mother longer than necessary."
"If I go now," Clark asked slowly, "how long will I have? Before you send another 'containment crew' over to the farm?
Lex didn't flinch, his gaze steady on Clark. "That depends."
"Depends on what, Lex? On whether you think I'll know how to defend myself? On whether you have another contingency plan to save the world? Or on whether it still would be personal, after everything that just happened?"
"Do you expect me to change my mind, Clark?" Lex's voice was ironic and uncompromising. "Did you think I'll stop what I've been doing, knowing better than ever the danger that's out there? Shall I turn my back, close my eyes and cover my ears and hope that we're this lucky the next time the planet's in danger?"
"No," Clark said. "I don't expect you to turn your back. If the world gets in danger again, I expect you to help me to save it."
Lex was still staring at him, but with something else in his eyes, other than the confidence of righteous fury.
"I don't think I could've done this without you, Lex," Clark said. "If that Brainiac had come for me, and I hadn't been ready; or if it had attacked the world, set off missiles before I even knew it was there—you stopped it, when maybe I couldn't have, on my own. But you couldn't handle it by yourself, either; that's why you had to come to me."
"So what do you propose?" Lex said, forcing his mouth into a smirk. It looked painful, uncomfortable on his wan and tired features. "An alliance? Do you understand how I convinced that thing to work with me? I said I wanted its technology, told it there was an alien on this planet and I could capture him, control him, would trade him..."
"But you didn't mean it," Clark said. "You never really meant to bargain with her."
Lex looked at him like they were a thousand miles apart, a million; like Clark was not only an alien species but not even a living thing. "What more do you need to see? The cages I've designed for you—there's more than one; I couldn't be absolutely sure, after all, what would hold you. Or the instruments I've created to test the limits of your abilities; or the protocols I have in place, the instructions I left in the event of my death to verify your secrets, however possible... I know better than to trust you, and you should know better than to trust me again. And you want to be my ally? You want us to work together again?"
"No," Clark said.
Lex shut his eyes, leaned his head back again. "You've never been stupid, anyway. Get out of here, Clark."
"No," Clark said again. He got up, no longer stiff though still tired, walked over to the wall and sat down next to Lex. "The shut-down code was my birthday, Lex. You told me to remember it, and I probably would have in time, before your team showed up. They wouldn't have caught me, even if you hadn't been here."
"I was delirious," Lex said.
"It was the right thing to do.
"A man on his deathbed will try anything to redeem himself before the void takes him."
"You're not dying now, Lex." Clark smiled as he said it. Wondering how he could, when not ten hours before the kryptonite behind the lead-lined walls around him had been his worst nightmare. He remembered his fears, opening the door, seeing Lex standing there with the kryptonite. Lex's cages for him, those instruments, the planned experiments: everything he had feared for most of his life, being revealed as the alien, the enemy, and helpless to defend himself.
But there were worse things. He leaned towards Lex, enough that their shoulders touched. Lex, sitting beside him, warm and breathing and alive.
Lex didn't shift back, enduring Clark's shoulder against his; but when he spoke it was hard as diamond. "Unshielded meteor radiation is nearly as dangerous to humans as to you; why would I endure it now, unnecessarily? I know your weakness. I could capture you at any time. You think your friends will be able to protect you?" His voice took on a taunting lilt. "What your mother doesn't know hasn't hurt her, yet. And oh, Ms. Sullivan will do what she can, but I can assure you, the measures planned for her—"
"No," Clark said firmly.
"It's not going to work. I've tried hating you for the past year. I didn't like it at all. I'm not going to do it again."
Lex laughed, or tried to laugh, tried for a harsh, cruel chuckle that broke instead, his voice cracking and failing. His shoulder against Clark's shook from it. "You're not..."
"I'm not going to hate you," Clark said. "And I'm not going to be your ally, either—I want to be, but the things you're doing now, too many of them are wrong, even if you think they're necessary. It's necessary to do the right thing, Lex, that's as important as anything else. And the right thing is to not hurt people; to stop things that are hurting people. I'll stop you, if I have to, if you won't stop yourself. But I'm not going to hate you. I'm going to be your friend. Like we used to be."
"My friend?" Lex almost might have laughed again.
"Why not? After tonight, the things you said, everything that happened..."
"So you saved my life," Lex said. "Does that really make us friends?"
"Well, it did before, didn't it," Clark said.
"I could attack you." Lex sounded rough, hoarsely out of breath. "You might have saved my life, but I could still capture you. Use you. Destroy you. Or I could go after your family and your friends, the things I could do to them..."
"You could," Clark said. "But you won't. I'd stop you, if you tried, but you won't. Because that would be personal, wouldn't it. And not necessary."
Now Lex was laughing again, voicelessly, but Clark could feel him quivering with it. Unless it wasn't laughter.
"I want to be your friend again," Clark said. He wasn't looking at Lex but up at the ceiling. The walls were lined with lead but there was none in the roof, and he could see through the tiling to the sun outside, bright in a clear blue sky. It was a beautiful day. "I want to talk with you like we did tonight, like we used to all the time. I want to see you around town and smile and mean it. I want to hang out with you and play pool or basketball or a video game, or just do nothing. But if you don't want to—if you don't want to talk to me, if you don't want to see me, if you want to hate me—that's okay. You'll still be my friend, even if I'm not yours. And if you ever need my help, to save you or to save the world, I'll be there."
Lex said nothing, not laughing, gone still. Then he asked, "Why?" with hardly any voice left. "That's the right thing to do?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "And it's what I want to do, too."
He heard Lex exhale, leaving him slumped against Clark's shoulder, like the strength Clark had transferred to him was drawn out with his breath and he had none of his own left, after the long night. "I've missed you, Clark," he said, so quietly that Clark might not have heard it, if he hadn't been what he was. "I've missed being friends. Being with you."
"I know," Clark said, thinking of Lex knocking on the farmhouse door last night. Less than ten hours ago. A lifetime; Lex's lifetime. But Lex was alive now.
He looked over, down at Lex's face. Lex's eyes were half-closed, heavy with fatigue. The florescent floodlights were harsh on his skin, shading his complexion with unnatural grays and chartreuse. Lips, nose, lashes, bare scalp: every feature outlined in stark relief, nothing like the misty soft blues of early morning. There were flaws, pores and creases that were invisible in gentler lights; faint lines that were more than just exhaustion and the remnants of pain. Lex was getting older—still a young man, for all he had done, for all he was doing; but not as young as he had been when he had met Clark, and maybe he looked older now than he should.
Maybe he was older than he should be. Clark felt like that himself sometimes, like he could be just a college kid now, partying and studying, having fun in the present and looking towards the future; he could be, if he were anyone else, but he was who he was, and there was so much else he must do. The present was passing by, second by second and day by day; the future in front of him was not only his, not just his choice. There was always the responsibility of his gifts, as his dad would want him to take on, as his father insisted he assume.
Necessary things. Right things. All the things they had to do.
Saving the world was the necessary thing to do, and the right thing to do; but no one said he had to do it alone.
"Clark?" Lex asked, pulling open his eyes, raising his head.
Clark leaned over, as he hadn't four years ago, tilted his head and brushed his lips against Lex's, soft and cool. Brought up his hand to Lex's face, touched his cheek.
Before, in the Fortress, Lex had only stared at him. But now Lex twisted toward him, fingers tangling in Clark's hair, curving around the back of his head to draw him down, to push their mouths together. Lex's mouth was open and hot and wet, inviting, sucking at his lips and tongue, sucking him in. His hand was on Lex's thigh, expensive blend slacks rough and wrinkled, sliding against the smooth skin underneath.
Then they were apart. Lex's eyes were bright, and he was almost smiling, his wet lips slightly parted. He didn't say anything, but he studied Clark's face, searched his eyes.
Clark's hand was still on Lex's thigh, resting there warmly. Four years ago Clark would have been blushing but he wasn't now, no heat rising in his cheeks.
Four years ago it would have been nothing like this. There was no field of grass, no mist, no rising sun here; just cement and metal, fans humming and fluorescents gleaming down. Just him and Lex here, four years older, solid and real, exhausted and wounded. Alive. Lex wasn't looking away and he wasn't either. Lex's eyes were dark like secrets and Clark was smiling, could feel laughter bubbling up in him like a spring.
"So," Clark said, "your guys are going to be here soon, huh."
"Yes," Lex said. "We should go."
"Don't you want to wait for them, give them instructions?"
Some hidden feeling played on Lex's lips. "They already have their instructions. For the next days, the next weeks. Years, even. I didn't have a chance to take care of everything, but enough for one day, at least. Tomorrow, perhaps...I might have new instructions. Today..."
Clark stood, reached his hand down. Lex took it, let himself be levered to his feet. He didn't say anything when Clark didn't let go, just intertwined his fingers with Clark's.
"Today," Clark said, "you have no plans," and smiling, he pulled Lex outside into the sunlight.
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