Lex sat in the corner of the Talon, ensconced in the latest vintage, red velvet armchair Lana had scavenged from the Salvation Army. It was his favorite-soft and squishy, even though the arms were completely threadbare from wrist down. Lex watched Lana flit from one end of the Talon to the other.
The sheer amount of energy she exerted was disturbing. It didn't make sense for someone who seemed so languid everywhere else to be so relentlessly in motion...but there it was. Zipping back and forth to deliver cappuccino and scones, pouring refills, mixing chai, knocking espresso grounds into the trash, yelling out the back door for the girls to finish their smoke-break and get back on shift.
He understood why Clark had crushed on her for so long. She was a walking contradiction, and that constant vulnerability mixed with occasional fire was addictive. Well, no, that was too strong a word. Intriguing, yes. Addictive was better suited for Clark. Clark, who was nothing less than a walking drug. Everybody felt better around Clark-until they got hooked. Like the girls. Chloe and Lana had both imploded when Clark held out on their desire, when he refused to keep up with their need for a bigger and bigger fix. It wasn't just about sexual attraction; it was about time in his space, like he was doing something to the atmosphere where just breathing his air would get you high.
Lex unconsciously fondled the velvet, a shiver of euphoria shooting straight to his balls. The guy (not boy, not kid, but not a man yet, either) was a drug. And Lex was okay with that. Everyone was addicted to Clark, even Pete. It was the most natural thing in the world. First, you were a little starstruck. When he smiled at you, it was like the world stopped and nothing else mattered. Then, later, you were dumbfounded that Clark was such a goof. Then he would go do that hero thing (again), leaving you starstruck all over again. But then you would see him do something completely stupid, which made him even more real and beautiful than he was in the first place. Lex rubbed his eyes. He was hooked. And so was everyone else, even if they didn't have the scarred veins to recognize it.
Lana whizzed by, offering coffee. He extended the enormous double latte mug for her to fill, then returned it to the bald patch in the velvet pile. She smiled at him in passing, showing unusually sharp canines, before her face hardened into a glare. In a moment, Lana was across the room reading the riot act to a teenaged boy standing in front of the cash register. She was yelling. She was pissed. Lana was ugly when she was angry, and Lex found that weirdly satisfying. With a little effort, he directed his attention back to the quarterly earnings report he pretended to be reading. Maybe the Talon wasn't the best place to be researching new acquisitions, but the scenery was certainly more interesting than his office.
Lex heard the noise level return to normal, and looked up to see Lana behind the counter, arms close around the bawling cashier. After a nod to Rachel to cover the floor, Lex watched Lana pull the other girl through the swinging door to the back. He shook himself, suddenly very aware of being male in a female space. Even with the new Egyptian decor and mostly phallic fertility symbols on every wall, the Talon virtually sighed with softness. Cherry reds, honey golds, twinkling lights, jewel-toned swags...and on days when it was slow, you could smell it, too. Decades of popcorn aroma were infused into the building itself, now mixing with cinnamon and nutmeg-it was pure sexual incense. And that was before the patchouli votives by the espresso machine were lit. It was obscene that nobody even noticed. It was more obscene that most of this had been orchestrated by a sixteen-year-old girl.
Profit to cost ratios didn't seem so interesting anymore. Lex knew the girl hadn't done any of it consciously. It was just another manifestation of her confined sexuality begging for release...not that different, Lex realized, from how he had been at a slightly younger age. At the beginning of prep school he'd imbued everything he touched with innuendo, and he'd touched everything he could. It had been pure, nave pleasure, like playing with a new toy that couldn't possibly be dangerous because it was simply too much fun. Then he'd begun to lose his innocence in earnest, and who knew one could fall so far, so fast?
Lana was pulling up a chair, jittery with too much coffee, or maybe it was stress.
"Are you all right?" he asked, wondering what he'd missed. She was supposed to be working until close.
"Not really? I don't know, to be perfectly honest." She was definitely not okay if she was confiding in him, but he didn't say so. "Do you know where Clark is?"
"Probably off saving something." Lex didn't mean to sound bitter. He'd meant to be funny, but now Lana was meeting his eyes, reflecting his words back.
"Yeah, no kidding," she said.
"What happened up there?"
"Jason," she answered, curling her lip in disgust. "Stacy's psycho ex-boyfriend-slash-stalker was giving her trouble again. And doing it here, which simply crosses the line. I told him if he comes back, we're calling the police. And that I might have to find someone to catch him in a dark alley."
Lex nodded for a moment, then did a double-take, "You did what?"
Lana laughed and shrugged. "It's what you would do, isn't it?"
"What I would do?" He gave her an appraising look. "That would depend, but you're still a kid, Lana." He didn't need to add, And you're not a Luthor.
"Don't tell me you hadn't done worse by the time you were my age."
"True," he acknowledged, "but that was Metropolis. And New York. And...nevermind. The point being, this is Smallville, and you haven't had to grow up as fast as I did."
"In some ways, Lex, but it's not like either of us really has parents."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have put it like that. You're right, I always had people around to protect me until the last year or so. It just feels so different now. No Nell, no Whitney, no Clark, not even Chloe, really."
"What do you mean no Clark?" Lex realized he probably shouldn't let that hang. "And you still live with Chloe."
"Chloe and I can't stop fighting. I love her, I really do. But the tension from being in the same room with her is making me crazy. And living there is like...well, I'd almost rather live here." She twirled her fingers through a lock of hair, plainly considering it. "But Clark is...I don't know how to explain it. It's like he never really came back from Metropolis. Does that make any sense?"
"Why do you need him so much?" The words were out before Lex could stop them. He frowned. This conversation was drifting into the realm of Claire's psychobabble, and had absolutely no place in the scope of his public image.
Lana swallowed hard, eyes shining. "Well, aren't you and I in the same boat?" she asked softly. "I mean, how many times has he saved you?"
Lex set his gaze on the opposite wall and studied the huge painting of Anubis. Rows of tiny corpses lined up at the god's feet, awaiting their turn to cross to the underworld. He held himself still, mentally refusing to be in the same boat with Lana. Sharing that boat meant he was condemned to a life of hopeless, unsated craving, and that was unacceptable.
"You're right. I'd be a dead man several times over without him. But I think three months on an island prove I don't need Clark for me to live my life." He gave Lana a hard look. "No matter how many times he saves us, it's still up to us to live our lives."
"I know," and she really was getting close to tears now. "But it's things like Jason today.... Sometimes I just get so tired. Tired of all the stalkers and mutants and car accidents and reporters." She was shaking her head, banishing the thoughts as she spoke them. "Besides you, Clark's the strongest person I know. And there's nothing scary about his strength. He's just, well, he's Clark."
"No, I mean it. You've been through things that I can't even imagine, and you're only a few years older than we are. I just-nevermind. I'm babbling."
"Yes, you were, but thank you."
She dissolved into giggles, suddenly sixteen again. Lex sighed.
"Can I give you some advice, Lana?"
"You, and this place, attract the stalker types for a reason, and I don't think it's all because of the meteor rocks."
"What are you saying?" she asked, stiffening into the defensive posture Lex expected.
"Lana, at your age it's normal to have a lot of intense feelings and not a lot of socially acceptable avenues for expressing them. It's good that you have the Talon to focus on." He nodded at the glittery expanse behind her. "You've made this place very comfortable, very warm and inviting-and successful, too, because evidently you've keyed into something people resonate with."
Lana frowned. "Go on."
"People respond strongly to subconscious stimuli. Incense, for example. Religious iconography, plush textures, rich flavors. Even particular color schemes." Lex gestured at the wall, lowering his voice until she was forced to lean in to hear. "Whether or not you realize it, you chose a deeply sensual palette when you redecorated. On some level, people pick up on that. Some might take it as a signal that you're lonely, that you're pouring all of your life and energy into your work. One might want to give you another outlet for that passion."
Lana was stunned. "Please tell me that's not a proposition." She spoke with half-hearted sarcasm, not knowing whether to act embarrassed, offended, or flattered.
Lex laughed. "No. No offense, but..." He recovered with a media-worthy smile. "You're jailbait. In my old age, I know better. I'm simply offering an explanation for why people bother you. And I think it's a valid theory."
She gave a self-conscious smile, then looked down. "I told you, Clark won't have anything to do with me. He just runs away, like he'd rather be anywhere else."
"Don't tell me Clark Kent and I are the only two healthy, attractive males in Smallville." Lex played it campy to make up for laughing at her. No sense in risking spit in his next cappuccino, and besides, for some reason she was growing on him.
Lana tried to laugh, but it came out strangled. "My whole life's been one giant, negative lesson about sex." She stopped, pursed her lips, and took a deep breath. "My mom cheated on my dad, resulting in me. My biological father didn't really want anything to do with me. With Whitney, I was young and scared, and we never managed to go all the way before he went away and was killed."
Lex nodded, but she wasn't watching. She was intent on stretching the sleeves of her sweater down to cover her hands. "I lost my virginity to Clark, and maybe you didn't need to know that, but since you're his best friend," she shrugged and gave a shy smile, "maybe you already do? But then he turned into a total stranger, and made this grand, melodramatic exit."
Anger was creeping back into her voice. "Even with Nell, I always knew she had an arrangement with your dad. No offense, Lex, but do you know how hard it is to realize your only parental figure is a billionaire's plaything?"
Lex nodded almost imperceptibly, and watched her nostrils flare with repressed fury. "And then? Nell abandons me to move on with her life as soon as she gets into an actual, legitimate relationship with someone." For a split second she almost lost it; instead Lana lunged forward to wipe a stray drop of water from the table between them.
Through clenched teeth, she said, "Top all of that with the horde of obsessive freaks who've come after me, and you might understand why I'm not really seeing what good sex is, anyway." She crumpled the napkin into a tiny ball. "I really don't get it."
Lex watched her for a moment before he spoke. "Interesting." She was glowering with pent up rage, and Lex was fighting not to show how impressed he was.
"You surprised me."
"Surprised that I'm aware of when I'm being screwed over? Congratulations, you're just like the rest of the town." She threw her hair back, glaring. "Everyone's so enamored of the magical myth of the fairy princess."
"So change it."
"Find your power."
"I don't have any."
He watched her begin to pout, then raised an eyebrow. "I don't buy it. That self-defense class is working. You took down Stacy's ex at the register well enough, and you put her back together afterwards. Lana, do you realize you were threatening to have him taken out in a dark alley when you sat down here? Plus, you're learning how to manage this place."
"With lots of help."
"Which is still more than most people your age can say."
"Take a look at the areas of your life where you are in control, and cultivate them. Then look at the areas of your life where you're not in control, and weed them out." He smiled. "It's just like chess."
"Chess...right." Lana smiled. "You and your metaphors...."
"Actually, it came from rehab...but it works for chess, too." Lana blinked, speechless at the unprompted confession. Lex grinned and glanced at the counter. "You know, you should get back up there. The next rush is due any minute."
Lana nodded, tentatively offering her hand as she stood. Lex shook it, smiled a little, and nodded when she smiled in return. A moment later, she was a whirl of motion across the floor, back in manager mode. Lex reached for his tepid coffee. Lana was going to make a fine businesswoman some day, if she ever got brave enough. Maybe pouring her repressed sex drive into the Talon wasn't a bad thing for her at all. Except for the stalker-factor, of course. He watched as Stacy logged off the register and pulled Lana into a lingering hug. Lana walked her out to the street, clearly checking the dark sidewalks for signs of Jason. Anger suited her a lot better than pining after Clark.
Lex glanced again at the clock on the wall, exhaling slowly. He was such a hypocrite. Clark had stood him up again. No doubt he was off saving the world, as usual. Or at least saving someone else. Lex thought that thirty minutes of playing coach to the new and improved Lana Lang should take at least some of the edge off. It didn't. The old Lex Luthor had mainlined solace. The new and improved Lex...was nothing more than a myth, wasn't he? He was clean, yes, technically. He was done with the spoon, strap, and syringe for good; but Lex knew better than to believe his own publicity. Strip off the workaholic faade, and he was just as haunted with need as he'd ever been. Possibly more so. After all, wasn't he just mainlining Clark Kent now, taking what he could get whenever he could scrounge it?
Lex was staring at Anubis again, suddenly cold. The jackal-eyes stared back with both a promise and a dare. How many times had he cheated death now? Even if Lex was unusually hard to kill, how many times had Clark been there to make the difference? The numbers were absurd. No wonder Anubis' eyes seemed to follow him. Blinking, Lex noticed they were precisely the same eyes as the Sandman's sister, Death. She'd been his favorite Gaiman character when he'd first read the series, and recurring dreams of her had gone hand in hand with the purging of his innocence. But in all of his brushes with mortality, he'd never caught sight of anything like her, nor the black-eyed god in the portrait, nor angels, nor demons, nothing. Not even when he'd truly drowned. There was only Clark on that riverbank, calling him back to his life.
Lex rubbed his face and checked the time again. Over an hour late now, and not a soul to be seen from the Talon's front window. He began to fit his paperwork back into its portfolio. Dryly, he wondered if Lana would notice that his counsel to discard what one couldn't control was good for business, but was hell on close relationships. He smiled a goodbye at her as he left, then drove the Porsche back to his colossally empty home.
Lex flipped on the remote and checked the supply of orange juice. Maybe Clark would call, after all. Or maybe Lex would get drunk enough to call Clark and demand an apology-or at least to check in and see if everything was all right. That wasn't unreasonable. Friends did that, and they were definitely friends, assuming there was a reason why he'd been stood up. Again. On the other hand, it was just possible that he could down enough vodka to confess...to admit that he couldn't stand to live like this, where his every breath was a prayer for the scent of Clark's skin, and every shudder of craving was a plea for salvation. But he knew what that would achieve, and he knew he couldn't stand it if Clark shut him out.
For a time, Lex stared into his fourth (or was it eighth?) screwdriver in slow-dawning distress. He'd lost his thread again. He thought he'd gone through all of this before, but now he felt himself in uncharted territory. At what point did redemption and addiction coincide and switch places? At what point had it become normal for him to lose himself over a teenaged boy?
Later, Lex gripped the edge of the bar, surveying the wreckage of broken glass and statuary, gauging the depth to his new rock bottom.
Then his cell rang.
Doubt left no shadow, and the air Lex breathed was sweet with apology.
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