A Rabble of Butterflies

by Ahlade


This starts with Part 1 of the Rabble.

Lana was devastated by his exit. Somewhere in her mind, whether it was while sipping champagne at the Dolce and Gabbana showroom in Moscow, or taking an Aeroflot flight to Tehran to escape the pernicious attention of the Russian law machine, she had always felt that the persecution was aimed at driving her back to Lex. It had been frightening, certainly, but the feeling of being connected to the spider that sat in the center of the web, the sense of a personal battle with a powerful adversary had given her strength; it had been a cosseting constant in her trail of rich men and exotic destinations, to be taken out and mulled over in secret, knowing that at the end of it all, there was still desire for her, for Lana-- the one who got away. And now that constant had proved to be but a mirage-a vile, impersonal Luthor missile let lose as a matter of principle, not as a mark of vendetta. That hurt, even more than the relentless persecution over five years had.

She cried then, feeling the viscous tears of disuse trailing over her made-up face and burning channels of charcoal into the ivory.

But already her mind was working, her orphan instincts picking up the debris and shaping another dream. She recalled Lex's offer of five years ago, made when she was ready to leave Smallville, the Talon, everything that was familiar, to study at MetU. He wanted her as a lover... he wanted her to be Clark's lover? She had never yet figured out that ambiguity, and had never asked. One just did not spill the crudeness of one's interpretation in its primal gore in front of Lex. Unless of course it was ratified by, impressed by his spoken declaration of intent, and that happened too rarely for Lana. In the personal space of Lex Luthor, the domain to which the term 'relationships' could be applied, (and yes, she believed fervently that once, she had, she had resided in that space) words were severely castrated. They had no meaning save an implausible amount of possibility. They breached her sanity; made her doubt, feel perpetually out of her depth, and her survival in Lexspace was a journey accomplished largely through chance rather than intent. This is why she had run...

Was it her innocence of five years ago that Lex had craved? Or a small-town oasis in his personal life, a mobile Smallville invested in her person, to be reproduced at will anywhere in the world? Maybe the perpetuation of friendships fostered in youth, a coterie of well-wishers with fewer vested interests than what he was used to? Was he looking for a friend and confidante, his homegrown panacea to suspicion and deceit? She rejected the last surmise with disdain, and 'all of the above' with the easy cynicism of a woman who has lived by her wits for longer than she would care to reveal. She had been rejected because she had refused to be a conduit between him and Clark.

It has always been about Clark, says the Lana in her head, as her eyes trailed to the copy of the Daily Planet on the rickety console table in the corner.

Lois Lane descended the steps of her apartment building, bringing with her the smell of lavender. It is an old-fashioned smell-- not a sensory allusion one would associate with the most promising star in journalism in Metropolis. Her dark hair stylishly layered, the tweed suit setting off her figure to perfection, she entered the idling limo .Lex did not like to be kept waiting, and barely looked up from the business report he was scanning on his laptop.

The conversation was like a catechism, with the girl sitting stooped opposite him with her knees joined and feet primly together. His questions are terse and rapid-fire as they eased through the midday traffic towards the heart of the city.

'I see you are following the Yukon story for the Planet.'

'Yes, Perry had some contacts in Russia...'

'Is Kent with you on this one?'

'Yes, he is doing all the ground research.'

'Concentrate on the Abramokov angle...'

'But...'

'A word in Kent's ear should suffice. He was quite the bloodhound, as I recall.' Her tone is sulky as she accedes, and he closes the conversation by turning back to his laptop.

Lex knows that one day she will ask openly the question she internally formulates and rephrases every time she meets him. Why Clark Kent? He does not know whether her usefulness will outlast the answer to that question, but he is prepared to bide his time. For now, he takes his pretty girlfriend to lunch, and instructs his broker to buy as many shares of a particular oil company that may come on the market. He can safely bet that new evidence regarding the ethical misdemeanors of a rival billionaire is about to become known.

The hospital consultancy room was falsely cheery-overly bright colours, touches of home that are to be found in nobody's home. Lana was nervous, feeling the strong, vertiginous pull of inevitability when the consultant comes in. She stood jerkily, her hands smoothing her hair in a gesture she thought had been buried by years of frantically acquired poise.

'Well, your initial blood work report is back, and I have to say that it is... unusual.'

The consultant was gray-haired and sharp looking, her thin, straight frame bearing the responsibility of untold fates. Lana remembered the advertisement of Cancer Research UK that she saw on the endless tube journey to Heathrow, when her funds were low, and all she wanted was to return to the familiar harshness of Metropolis. She recalls the happy smiles of people who have been given the "All Clear", frozen on tin plates over empty seats in the grim train, and that memory has coloured her understanding of cancer. This sharp-featured woman now sitting down and scanning reports could be a benign angel of forgiveness, of fresh chances and new beginnings, or she could pronounce the harsh sentence of chemotherapy and pain. She wonders if her thinking these thoughts has jinxed her own chances of being given the 'all clear', because her bitterness at not having someone to greet her with a happy smile, to form her personal montage of gleeful escape from fate, has swayed the Fates to turn away and pronounce a different sentence...

She suddenly hears her own heart beating and the consultant is speaking with the accelerated rub-dub-lub-dub of her lifeblood in the foreground.

'Yes, very unusual white blood cell activity. Now that in itself is not an indication of cancerous growths, and your biopsy of breast tissue was clear...'

She looked at Lana and spoke slowly, easily, in a manner cultivated so as not to create alarm. All Lana can hear is the blood, now with the increased WBC's, pumping in her ears and all she sees are the wrinkles that radiate from the withered mouth of the woman before her. Her lipstick has bled in a grotesque parody of a mouth and Lana has this trick with water-based concealer that prevents just such...

'unusual readings that we need to study further. '

Her attention snaps back to the words rather than just the movement of the mouth before her.

'all clear, but we need more tests. I recommend you make a series of appointments today. The nurses outside will advice you. Now perhaps you could answer some questions that will help me in the case.'

Lana answered the questions that followed, her nails digging into her palm with frustration, and resignation churning like rabies in her system .Yes, she smokes-- a lot. Yes, she uses her cell phone a lot. No, she has never lived in close proximity to a power plant. Her parents died when she was three, so she has no idea of a family history of the disease. She has already filled out the questionnaire and is about to burst out in indignation when a word catches and snares her.

'radioactivity?'

'I'm sorry, what was that?'

The consultant is trained to be endlessly patient. 'Could you have been exposed to high instances of radioactivity in the recent past?

'I don't know... I do not think so. I've been here for the past month. Before that, I was in my ex-boyfriend's summer residence in Nevanya, in Russia. There were no nuclear power plants there, if that's what you mean... only mountains and lakes.'

At last, she was free to go and wandered slowly through the corridors of the hospital to the busy street outside, her fears unresolved, her unease heightened.

In a daze, she negotiated the scramble of people rushing to lunch or strolling past the shops, and after an eternity of jostling and murmured apologies, found herself outside a bookstore.

She finds a detailed atlas and looks up Nevanya. She calmly looked up the index and opens the desired page, and tracks up the desired coordinates and finds the small town in the mountains. Then her eyes scan the pink, green, and brown of the page around, hoping not to spot the dreaded name, but there it is, in beguilingly innocent small print...

Chernobyl.

The nosebleeds and nausea had started three months ago, when she was alone in the summer home of Alexis Trechsenko, oil billionaire and her boyfriend of the past year. Alexis had been increasingly busy in Moscow, with his new political ambitions and the coming elections making it inconvenient for him to be seen with her. Lana had been banished to the mountains over the summer, a situation she did not mind very much as she was tired of the frantic pace of life she had endured for the past few years.

She remembered the diamond bright dawns in the mountains, with the peaks around the villa barely visible behind the veils of early-morning mist, and the silence that enveloped everything like a cocoon of peace. Now she thinks that silence was rather in the nature of a shroud, and the lack of noise ominous. Where were the birds, her mind frets, and the hum of bees and the crickets at night? Lana is a small town girl, and knows the sounds of nature and she agonizes in frustration now that she did not suspect the silence before. She cannot recall, despite flitting over countless mornings of golden sun and blue sky, a single awakening to birdsong, and now as she frantically looks up information on Chernobyl on the net, she is aware that if it is cancer she must battle with, she has even lesser time than she had thought previously.

As she emailed the Chernobyl Interinform Agency in Kiev, she knows one thing with immense clarity. She needs a better Luthor.

Chloe Sullivan was very seldom surprised, having grown up in Smallville and made powerful enemies at a very young age. However, she confessed to being in danger of being quite close to the unusual emotion that frantic Wednesday afternoon. She was just running the spellchecker on her piece for the Metropolis Herald, when her phone rang. She picked it up fully expecting to get an earful from her photographer for making him go on a wild goose chase after the 'man in blue', Metropolis' latest urban legend, but it was somebody entirely different.

She recognized the breathy intonation despite the sultry edge it had picked up, and the cacophony of the busy newspaper office with its clatter and hum and resident air of desperate urgency.

'L-lana!'

Lana had called her after reading Chloe's byline in the Herald, and wanted to meet up. Chloe was entirely too eager to catch up with the friend who had flown the fold in such dramatic fashion. From being the quiet girl at the local coffee shop (albeit with the world's biggest stalker syndrome) to being the high-flying girlfriend of a series of very rich men, Lana Lang would have many stories to tell.

Chloe fluffed up her hair, reapplied her lipstick, and after pressing 'send' on her email, was out the door in record time.

The wind ruffled Chloe's hair, (now streaked with red, to match her new HydroKa) as she sat at a table on the rooftop restaurant at the Metropolis Bullring, waiting for Lana to appear. The Bullring was tall, and she had a lovely view of the city to her right, with the noise and the urban dirt transformed into a beauteous panorama of silent speed and order. Chloe has often cogitated on this aspect of distance, and once even contributed a piece to the Sunday Herald on the subject.

Now, however her eyes are drawn inexorably to the imposing bulk of the Luthorcorp building that spears the sky in supreme phallic violence. It dominates her view, its blue-paned mass colouring her vision until she feels impelled to crane her neck to try to pierce the brilliance that crowns the summit as it is lit up by the afternoon sun. She can almost feel the panoptic gaze that emanates from on high, hidden by the dazzle. As if by subtle design, her eyes dip to the revolving globe that tops the Daily Planet, and her mind to days that were simpler and cleaner-- when her future was not clouded by dread antagonism and she could sense no limits to her ambition. The sun is still bright but suddenly all warmth is gone from its rays as she shivers in the breeze that had been so pleasant only a few moments ago.

However, managing a life lived in the shadow of powerful enmity has made her resilient, hardy and very hard to kill. She thinks of herself as a dandelion-- even when her world is disintegrating into wispy nothingness, she knows there will be another summer, another time and place of golden sun and grasping roots. Therefore, she becomes once again Chloe Sullivan, intrepid reporter, and changes her seat so that she now had her back to the Luthorcorp building.

This meant that she could no longer see the entrance to the restaurant, but she has told the headwaiter to direct Lana to her table. She perused the menu and ordered a BullsHit, an exhilarating mix of, amongst other things, lemon grass, vodka and coconut cream, which had been named the year's hottest drink by none other than Vogue. As the waiter turned from her table, she felt a lull in the murmur of conversation and turned to see Lana Lang enter the restaurant. From the reaction of the men around her, she could sense that whatever else may have happened in the intervening years, there certainly had been no decline in the Lana Lang Effect on the Male of the Human Species. Chloe smiled as the memory of the essay, written when she was sixteen, came back to her, as did the laughter she had shared with the essay's principle subject over an emoted reading of the piece in the coziness of the Talon. Chloe felt the years slip away as she embraced Lana with genuine gladness.

'You look lovely Lana.' she said as they sat down. And indeed, in her white halter-neck dress with turquoise accessories, Lana looked breathtaking. Her figure had lost the slim boyishness of her teens, and now she boasted both hips and a bosom that would certainly be responsible for giving the nice man at the adjoining table a crick in the neck.

' Have a BullsHit?' she asked her raven-haired friend.

Lana laughed. 'You do know how that sounded, right? But yes, I would love some BullsHit. I mean, we were both friends with Clark.'

Chloe giggled. ' It's an acquired taste, but we love it.'

The meeting over late lunch exceeded Lana's expectations. Having absconded from Chloe's life so suddenly, she had been uncertain of her reception. She knew how unresponsive and sullen Chloe could be from that horrible summer when Clark had run away from home and she herself had been so tragically in love. She certainly did not want to meet that creature of quiet avoidances and pregnant, brooding silences; the maker of silent trips to the kitchen engineered so that they would never meet on the stairs or in the hallway; two ghosts residing in the same house. However, the Chloe she met was of light, laughter and unlimited snark, the girl she had first made friends with. It was all too easy to talk of Clark after her first broaching of the subject; it was as if the floodgates of reticence had opened after the buildup of a decade. Clark was working at the Daily Planet, and his partner was Lois Lane, Chloe's cousin and now her bitter rival.

Lois's claim to fame was her face and the fact that she was Lex Luthor's girlfriend.

'You know how he likes them-buxom, beautiful and dark. An appraising glance and then 'In fact, I am surprised you did not join the ranks, Lana.'

Lana smiled-- if only Chloe knew how close she had been to being one number in that vast array.

'Anyway now Lois is hotshot stuff. She's done so many exposes on modern business practice that she is the bane of all corporations. All corporations that are not Lexcorp that is. I mean, why does nobody see that?' She muttered darkly. 'The expose I could do on her exposes!' She sighed dramatically.

'Why don't you?' asked Lana, her eyes wide-- she had become an expert at playing the ingnue.

Chloe stirred her drink violently. 'The Herald only does society stuff and harmless gossip, not even Inquisitor type vitriol. Just "we saw last night that Bruce Wayne was with Miss Knightly. Miss Knightly starred in blah blah" and "Lex Luthor was seen lunching with his grandmother". Ok, not that, but you get the drift. Moreover, we really do not have a business section, so my writing anything that did not have to do with 'society' would be criminal. Surely, somebody noticed that Lexcorp bought controlling shares in Signet as soon as Abramokov got in trouble over his relationship with Yukon. It was the same with Imex and with Orion Corp last year. Guess who found the dirt on them? Yes, our very own Pulitzer-prize-winning, Pucci-wearing, prettier than thou Lois Lane!'

As Chloe paused in her rant, Lana gently needled her. 'And to think you used to crash in her dorm all those years ago.'

'I was young, and innocent. Also, I think meteor rocks had fried my brain.'

They parted on excellent terms, with an arrangement to go shopping the next weekend. Lana was by now increasingly anxious about her next meeting. She felt nervous and tense as she waved Chloe off, but the years had made her a consummate actor, and her impersonation of a carefree young thing was impeccable. As Chloe's red HydroKa disappeared around the corner, she straightened her shoulders and crossed the square to her destination.

There is no clutter in Lionel's office, nothing to break the impact of the savagely powerful man before her, only the hardness of steel and the inexorability of glass, the emptiness of white and the blankness of gray. She feels like a specimen under examination, and feels the moisture gather on her upper lip, but knows that nothing of her inner trepidation shows on her face. There is a space of time in that vast office, when she can hear the hum of the air-conditioning, and she waits for his decision. Her cards are on the table, the stakes are very high, and she has no Plan B. Once again, it is only her thudding heart that keeps her company.

'I think you chose the wrong girl.'

'Hmm, and why is that? You are beautiful...' eyes raked her up and down in lazy and intrusive appraisal, but she had become impervious to such scrutiny and was unfazed. '...no doubt, but what else is there to you-apart from a penchant for billionaires, that is.'

She stared calmly back at the man in front of her and sat back in her chair. 'Well, for one,' she said, leaning forward, and feeling the eyes opposite dip inevitably to her cleavage, 'I always keep my end of a bargain. I would never bail. Not for money...', she had his attention now, so she calmly swayed back and crossed her legs, ' and certainly not for some outdated, troublesome, high moral ground.'

She was playing him now, all nervousness gone, like she has played countless men before him, inveigling him with every move of her body, every change of expression, every cadence of her voice. ' I may not be a reporter, but I can certainly go down,' she paused, adjusts her bracelet and meets his eyes again, 'and dig.'

Lionel leant back in arrogant disregard to good manners; she expected nothing else.

'I have no doubts as to your talents. However, the question is, are you in the same position of strength that you were in five years ago, and which you threw away so lamentably?

'As my son no doubt made clear to you, Ms. Lang, opportunity is a fickle friend.'

She was prepared for this assault. 'Lex should have known better. I can do everything I could do five years ago, and much, much more.'

Lionel is amused. And then, in an apparent non sequitur. 'His girlfriend, the good Ms. Lane, is interviewing me tomorrow. Young Kent will no doubt also be there.'

'She has worked long and hard to get this interview, unlike you, who I believe, just walked in and demanded my time. I wonder what made me see you?' He pauses to reflect. 'I must have been in an unusually good mood.'

She smiled sweetly-after all, flirtation is her forte. 'But then, I am not the big corporation slaying bitch am I? And you were curious why Lex went to see me.'

'I admire your forthrightness, amongst other things of course. I like you.' said Lionel, 'but business accepts terms, not fancies and impressions. Were we to come to an understanding, Ms. Lang, what would you want from me?

'Your son has made life... difficult for me. I would want you to back my play.'

'Against my own blood?' His tone is incredulous.

Lana barely bats her eyelashes at the rejoinder. He picked up his pen, signaling her dismissal. 'You will need to prove yourself, of course.'

She gathered her bag and walked around the imposing desk to where he sat. The deep pile of the carpet made her a bit unsteady on her stilettos, but her poise is undiminished.

'You know that interview that is so important, the one that Clark really, really wanted?' she says, leaning into him, her voice dipping sensually ' He won't be here for it.' Then she turns and walks out the office, feeling his gaze on the sway of her hips.

xxxxxxxxxxxx

The morning dawned leaden and angry for Lex. It had the decaying, oppressive quality that harbingered a really hot day in Metropolis, and the weather was only exaggerating his foul mood.

He paced his office in the newly built Lexcorp Tower and shouted at an unseen person on the 'phone. His secretary, knowing that he was in a vile temper. cowered outside the soundproofed office, fidgeting in her seat, knowing from experience that Lex in this mood was better left well alone. Lois had called several times, but Mrs. Bennett knew better than to put her through.

Inside the vast white space of his office, Lex's voice had dipped several octaves to a low clipped tone, and the party suffering his ire had true cause to beware, for beyond the sudden flare of anger, Lex was most dangerous of all.

'You had no details? You considered that a sufficient reason to not inform me yesterday? Did I not ask that all her actions be monitored and reported immediately and yet you failed to report her visit to Luthorcorp? I believe your firm's usefulness has ended. Consider our arrangement terminated, effective now.'

With that, Lex disconnected the line and buzzed his assistant.

'Mrs. Bennett, please send in Ms. Graves.'

Mercy came in almost immediately, sinuous and deadly, and with a voice like wild honey grown thick from disuse. Now she stood silently before his desk, as was her wont, wasting no energy in asking useless questions.

Lex looked out onto the city spread out before him, and to the towering presence of Luthorcorp building in the distance. Then he turned back to his waiting head of security with decision.

'You know Lana Lang. I believe she should no longer remain in Metropolis. In fact, I think her departure should be arranged tonight.'

Mercy nodded and left, knowing that the address and relevant information would be on her palmtop, with the standard encryption.

Lana reads the reply she has received from the Chernobyl Interinform agency. The communication was written in stilted and technical language, and her tired mind had to read it twice before she can make any sense of it.

' The authorities responsible for managing the disaster in the three countries affected estimate that people living in an area contaminated with 1 to 5 Ci/km2 absorb an average of less then 1.0 millisieverts per year. Sieverts (Sv) or millisieverts (mSv) are the internationally recognized units used to measure the harmful effects of radiation on the human body (biologically effective dose). Only when soil contamination is over 5 Ci/km2 are people likely to absorb more than 1 to 5 mSv per year. As a comparison: Within the European union the safe limit for people living near a nuclear power plant is 1 mSv per year. We estimate that the radiation fallout in the area around Nevanya in eastern Russia is less than .75 Ci/Km2 on an average, and so do not believe that the absorption or biological dosage of the population living in the areas would exceed the EU safety standards. This means that there is no data to prove that a subject resident in the area in and around the town of Nevanya would be in any danger from radiation fallout, above and beyond acceptable limits.

There was more technobabble and links to other information centers, but it did little to alleviate her concerns. This morning again she had woken up cramped and dripping with sweat, and her nose had bled during the night, and she still had no idea what was happening to her.

It was eleven in the morning, and she had barely managed to drag her reluctant body out of bed. However, she did not mind the disarray of her appearance, the pier glass in her tawdry parlour showed her a wan and defeated countenance. It was perfect for her needs.

Lionel was to be interviewed at two, so she decided to wait another two hours before making her call.

The phone rang at the other end and a brisk voice transferred her to the required extension.

'Clark! Hi... its Lana.'

It worked like a charm. Within a quarter of an hour, she is opening the door to fling herself into the arms of Clark Kent. She did not question how he had made his way across town in the mid-day traffic in ten minutes; she is only aware of a profound sense of relief.' Don't leave me Clark. There is nobody else.'

Her voice is crumpled and pleading and it is as if the past ten years never existed as Clark embraces her with his familiar gentle solicitude and carries her to the chaise lounge. She has conveniently left her medical reports outside so she has to do nothing but sob into the shoulder of his ill-cut coat as he murmurs words of sympathy into her hair.

An hour passes, then two, as he rocks her to sleep, and she can just picture in her mind an angry Lois and an amused Lionel as they wait futilely for Clark Kent to turn up.

In the late afternoon he persuaded her to eat some soup, and they talked-she falteringly and he softly, as if a few decibels alone could shatter her fragility. She tells him enough of the truth that he must already have deduced from the papers strewn about. His concern is evident and for a few moments, she feels qualms of an emotion that she recognizes faintly as regret, but it is an easy twinge to ignore. As night falls outside on the urban dystopia of Lars Town, Lana knows that Clark Kent is still, in many ways, hers to twirl around her little finger.

It is eight in the evening before she finally persuades him to leave, and he does so reluctantly, with repeated instructions to eat well, not to worry and to call him if she needs anything.

As she closed the door behind him, she made another call.

'I do not think Lars town is a nice place for a young girl to live.' she saidwithout preamble, and within five minutes, she has the access code to a luxury apartment in the Pioneer Circus.

She was exhausted when she went to bed, but had the satisfaction of knowing that her day was well spent. Her thoughts are all of Clark as she drifted off to sleep-- his quiet strength, his bumbling ineptitude, his fortuitous rescues; his beautiful eyes and fresh-faced innocence; his kisses and his warm embrace.

In the dark street below, prowled by junkies and tired women flaunting their tired wares, Mercy waited with infinite patience. She was but another shadow in her cat suit and ski mask, and Lars town was a place of deep shadow after dark. Waiting in an alley overrun with stray cats and the smell of putrefaction in the stagnant warmth, she had seen Clark leave the building, and the lights in flat 6 go off. She let another two, patient hours go by during which the tabby in the alley occasionally stropped against her leg in purring affectionate familiarity, and the sporadic traffic in the street died off completely. Then she made her way up the deserted warehouse that flanked Lana's building and stalked steady as a cat across the narrow window ledge, and slowly forced the window open. It was the work of a moment to adjust her eyes to the dark of the parlour and she made her way to the bedroom, her trusty garrote in readiness. She opened the door soundlessly and stepped into the bedroom lit by the patchy moonlight that shone in through the grimy windows. She approached the bed and bent to accomplish her mission when she paused and then abruptly turned around and left.

Her retreat was not as quiet as her entrance, and the window in the parlour slammed shut after her.

Inside, Lana woke up with a start in her bed. She saw that the door to her bedroom is open and warily got up to investigate. She wrapped a sheet around her naked form, and extracted her little gun from under her pillow. Its cold metallic grip felt unfamiliar in her hand-fear is a scarily discombobulating emotion. Heart beating in little frightened flutters she stepped into the parlour and slowly navigated the cluttered space, looking around wildly. Something in her peripheral vision caught her attention and she whipped around to face the pier glass on the wall and gasped in horrifying, heart-stopping shock. Then it was as if she could not breathe-- her head pounded like a locomotive was running through it at full throttle and her body threatened to split into a million fragments with the agonizing, red-hot shards of pain. Blood gushed out her nose in great gouts that shone wetly black in the dimness and she collapsed to the floor.

Mercy ran for two blocks, before she called Lex.

'Well?' he was characteristically terse.

'Unsuccessful. She wasn't there.' Mercy never wasted words.

'But Lex, everybody is wondering who the man in blue is! Don't you want to know who this Good Samaritan in tights is? I could get Clark on the job and in his mysterious shuffle-footed way, he's sure turn something up!'

Lois saw on the screen of her handheld that Lex was far from impressed by her argument. She zoomed in on his face to study his eyes-even though Lex's face gave away exactly what he wanted it to give away, Lois thought she had discovered a particular look where his eyes went even blanker than usual, without in any way effecting their intensity, which usually meant that he had finally found something of riveting interest. Unfortunately, now his eyes looked even more bored than usual.

'Lois, please do not make me doubt my conviction that you possess at least some rudimentary form of intelligence. It is patently obvious that your mysterious messiah is nothing but a cheap advertising gimmick.'

Lois sat on the toilet seat and argued vehemently for the cause. Lex always preferred that they talk shop within the soundproofed confines of the WC. The smell of the sanitation unit made her headache, but she always complied. Now she could feel the migraine spreading slivers of pain on the edge of her consciousness, but kept gamely on.

'He saved two children from a burning building yesterday Lex-there were eyewitnesses. The man flew.'

'As the Batman flies in Gotham.' Lex sounded irritated now, and Lois felt that she had gone too far. 'Ropes and pullies! Also apparently, everybody missed the fact that this spandex-clad buffoon sports the Virgin colours in gay abandon-- it is just the sort of stunt that the mountebank Branson would pull. Tomorrow, when he removes those ridiculous underpants to show the Virgin logo on his toned backside, we can all breathe easy. As of now, I would like you to concentrate on tracking Clark Kent's movements from yesterday. I want every detail, including times and witnesses-I hope you know the drill by now.'

He did not say goodbye, he never did. Lois stared at the white of the blank screen and wearily came out of the ladies' in order to question Clark why he had disappeared on assignment. The persona of nosy and bossy colleague was beginning to feel like second nature. Damn! That mysterious man in blue sounded so interesting-her ticket away from boring corporate affairs to some snappy news, but it was clearly not meant to be. Lois sighed, smoothed her short skirt, and pouted at her reflection. Lex could be so unreasonable. The movement of her hand caused the diamond on her finger to wink in a violent, spearing flash of light, and Lois stared in complacence at the huge rock. Nevertheless, he had his finer points.

Lois stepped into the frantic workspace of the Planet, and spotted her target near the copier, where he was as usual trying to make his six foot four look like four foot six.

' Hey Smallville!'

The laptop that Lana was using to scroll down her search results was state-of-the-art, as was the apartment around her-all modernist minimalism and perfect lines, but the panic that made her fingers clumsy on the mouse was just the same as it was within the shabby confines of Lars Town. It had been two days since she moved to Pioneer Circus, but her mind was still trying to piece together the events of the past few days. She had not been out of her chrome and glass cocoon, preferring to survive on tinned soup rather than brave the chaos that reigned outside the quiet luxury of her new apartment. She knew that this chaos is but a reflection of the turmoil that churns inside her mind, but refused to give way to the swathes of hysteria that threaten to engulf her at the least provocation.

Clark called on her handheld many times a day, but she has not invited him to her new abode. She cannot bear to see him, now, at this time, not when she does not know what she is dealing with. This has happened before, she feels again the strangest sense of dj vu, but it is a macabre parody of the bygone, for the one person she could always turn to before was the one she must now avoid at all costs.

Lana feels threatened by the ghost of Karma, of fated retribution, but swallows down the rising bile and the encroaching claustrophobia, and forces herself to focus on the superficial. She has great practice in this, for in the world of Lana Lang; suppression has been developed into an art form.

Baby steps, she thinks, right click, back, enter new search term...

Finally, after the haze in her head makes it seem that she can no longer comprehend the English language, she find a link that leads her back to Smallville.

Lowell medical supplies, makers of artificial hip joints, knees and plates for the ...

She looked at the glass brick wall before her that reflects her distorted world, a pale girl with eyes dark with terror stares blankly back at her.

' Lowell Medical supplies uses a new patented polymer developed by the founder Dr. Hamish Calvert that he developed while working for Luthorcorp, in 1998. Luthorcorp holds the patent for this new wonder material that uses certain mineral deposits found in the Lowell county to give it unprecedented lightness and 'intelligence' in the manner that the polymer adjusts to the osteal structure of the patient. Laboratory trials were carried out...' And there were a multitude of details in medical jargon meant to conceal but then in letters that blinked out at her in painful intensity, she saw the name she cannot erase from her memory: Smallville Medical Centre.

The buzzing in her head grows louder as she feels her headache pulsating within her skull with every drop of blood that is pumped into her brain. Her mind casts back into the debris of her repressed hurts and pulls out one name from that Sargasso Sea of memories.

Tina Greer.

Aaron never liked working Sundays. It was far too quiet and meant that all of Jean's finicky German attention was turned on him. Stand straight, why are your shoes not polished, is that a tummy I am seeing...those collars my dear! What are you doing? It went on and on and on.

Aaron decided to refold the two shirts that were on display on the stone shelves in the front of the shop. There was no ostentation, no shelves bulging vulgarly with overflowing merchandise. Two shirts, a suit jacket on a hanger and a pair of bespoke shoes could be seen from where Aaron stood, and the place could have been an art gallery for the reverent attention of concealed lighting that was lavished on the few items on display. After all, in the best bespoke tradition, one must ask at Dunett.

The cold, bare stone and aged wood interior of Dunett was an icon of exclusivity in Metropolis; unfortunately, it meant very lonely and difficulty stretches of boredom for its staff. Aaron stood at attention at his designated place, knowing that even though Jean looked like he was a taxidermist's dummy lost in the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe, he would immediately know if Aaron as much as shifted weight from one foot to the other. Therefore, Aaron waited and waited for the interminable day to end, so that he could go and chat up that wonderful Aussie waiter at Tim's... Jean interrupted his daydreams of all the varied charms of the waiter 'I am going to lunch. Keep alert and dzo not slouch!'

He was just contemplating the rival merits of Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp when his attention was drawn by a truly admirable behind, clad in jeans and sneakers, in one of the mirrored walls of the store that reflected the traffic on the quiet boulevard outside. He did not think Mr. Toned Behind would step in-jeans and sneakers seldom came into Dunetts, but perhaps this was his day, for the steps faltered and then came determinedly through the glass doors. He fully expected the intrepid young man to be intimidated by the suited elegance of Bruce standing in full majesty outside the double doors, but the door was smarty opened by an almost bowing Bruce, and the young man strode in. It was then that Aaron's breath hitched in his throat as he turned from looking at the reflection in the wall towards the real thing-- and took in Sexy Lexy in all his spendour.

He almost ran in his eagerness to serve the hottest billionaire on the planet (he did not belong to the Wayners, thank you very much), Oh! Jean would be sooo mad at missing Lex Luthor. Aaron never got a look in when Lex normally came in, what with Jean taking him to the private enclosure to be measured and spending *waay *to much time with him in the changing room, Aaron thought. But now Jean was not here and perhaps he would have a chance to measure Lex's inseam, hmm...

But it turned out Lex was looking for ready to wear, not bespoke, so Aaron ran to show him the new Prada stuff, after all there was still the chance of helping him with the jacket and smoothing it over his shoulders...

'Lana!'

'Oh! Hi Chloe! I thought we were meeting at three at the mall.'

'Fancy running into you here!' said the perky blonde as she caught up with Lana.' Ooh! I see you've started the shopping already!' Chloe indicated the large bag that Lana carried.

'Oh! Just picking up something for a neighbour. You know, making friends at the new place. You must come sometime.'

Chloe looked in concern at Lana who seemed oddly restless, but she quickly carried on 'I am so glad that they finally unfroze my bank accounts. Lars Town was really getting me down. How have you been? What's up with Lois and the Lionel Luthor Interview?'

Chloe immediately launched into a tirade against conniving bitches who slept there way to exclusive interviews, and Lana smiled as she hailed a passing cab and bustled her wildly gesticulating companion into it.

Aaron was sulking. He had been so eager to recount his big encounter and successful sale story to Jean, and now all his pleasure had been ruined by the stupid, over made up, saggy old Hun. How was he to know that Lex's bespoke suits were ready for first fittings and that he was meant to buzz Jean every time a VVIP client came in? He'd only been working here two months! Now Jean was tightlipped and angry and would surely fire him come next month, and a suitable replacement misinformed and bullied into submission.

Because he knew his fate was decided, Aaron allowed himself a toss of the head-- *that * for the old German goat, wanting all the good customers to himself... Now he was calling Lex's office, no doubt to emphasize the incompetence of the staff that served him and ingratiating himself further into the graces of the Incomparable Lex. Aaron sighed-whatever may happen now, at least he had basked in the glory of the Lexian church.

But there was the prissy German mincing towards him from his office, no doubt to pass sentence.

'I dzo not know what you think you are doing, but dzo not ever assume things again. You see a bald man and you think he is the Lex Luthor?'

'B..But...' Aaron could only stutter.

'Would the Lex Luthor wear jeans? Would he carry cash like some cheap nouveau riche, tasteless yuppie?'

Deep breath, and really Jean was turning quite frightfully red. 'And he would never ever ever buy trousers with a fold up!'

Jean came and stood in Aaron's personal space, spectacles glinting maliciously up at him 'I just spoke to his office apologizing that he was not told about his fittings and would he kindly come again,' here he tapped Aaron on the chest with an accusing finger. 'I was told that yes, Mr. Luthor had it scheduled to visit us next Wednesday, but that he was in meetings all day today at his office, and had certainly not visited us. You made me look a fool!'

Jean turned away and moved one shoe on display on an artfully broken Doric column, one millimeter to the right.

'Really, you should stick to folding shirts. Now, dzo not slouch, and stop that thing you are doing with your mouth. It makes you very ugly.'

Chloe and Lana had a desperately cheery day out shopping; it was as if both were attempting to recreate the severely under-funded but mythically wonderful trips to the Metropolis malls when they were living together in Smallville. Lana dragged a reluctant Chloe to the new Pucci store, the blonde vehemently protesting that she would never buy a label that the lowly Lois wore, but walked out a quarter of an hour later, cooing to a pair of quilted boots.

Lana purchased a new evening gown in ivory and silver at the Cavalli store, and made a few salesgirls very happy indeed. Then exhausted yet satisfied in a manner that only a good day's shopping can make two women, they made their way to the new Italian coffee shop that had opened its doors only a fortnight ago at the Redmoon Mall.

Chloe sighed and gently laid her new boots protectively close to where she sat and sighed in satisfaction as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee assailed her senses. Lana, having spent a small fortune, had earned the privilege of home delivery, so carried nothing but her tan Balenciaga and a small frown on her face. This Chloe noticed, despite her caffeine deprived condition, and probed gently for the reason. Then Lana opened up. Chloe learnt of the mysterious headaches and the bouts of nausea, the strange biopsy reports and the looming threat of the big C word.

Chloe was sympathetic and held her friend's hand, her eyes showing the intensity of her support. 'I wondered if you could find something out.' said Lana tentatively, looking at Chloe with eyes that showed exhaustion and worry despite the expert use of cosmetics.

'Anything to help.' said Chloe, recognizing the seriousness of the moment.

'I can't really mention this to anyone, what with the meteor rocks being considered as so much ...' she moved her hands in an extravagant gesture of dismissal.

' "If it can't be explained there is nothing to explain"' said Chloe sotto voce.

Lana nodded 'But you've always been interested in them. So, I can ask you. Maybe you have sources that know something.' She fumbled for a minute in the depths of her bag and drew out some papers that she passed to Chloe.

'These are the emails I received from the Chernobyl Interinform agency. They say that the level of radiation fall out and the biological absorption rate at Nevanya is too low to be considered dangerous. But I thought, what about the meteor rocks, I've been exposed to them since I was a child, I-I actually wore one next to my skin till I was sixteen! Could that have effected my system in such a way that even a small dose of radiation could make me vulnerable?' she looked at Chloe with her forehead creased with worry.

'I'll find out all I can Lana. I still have a few contacts...'

Lana seemed to want to get it all out as soon as possible 'And then there is another thing.' She spoke hurriedly, her voice tinged with the beginnings of hysteria. 'You know when Lex had that unfortunate... thing, when he had that nervous breakdown. And I was in hospital with my spine broken?'

Chloe nodded.

'I found out something about the company that made the plate that went into my leg. Lowell Medical Supplies. They use a polymer that I think has the meteor rocks in it. Can you find out something about it?'

'Sure, if its making you sick we must find out what's happening. What about your medical reports? Do they say anything?'

Lana shook her head, making her hair dance in a travesty of good heath and youth 'Nothing as of now. I have to have more tests.' She smiled ruefully 'They're not actually looking for mutations caused by rocks from outer space.'

After that, Lana made a complete withdrawal from the subject and would speak of nothing but the excellence of her new apartment, and how Chloe simply must come for dinner one day. Chloe complied, sensing that Lana did not want to dwell too much on the exigencies of her condition, and joined her friend in a discussion about the rival merits of curtains and blinds.

From an upper level Mercy watched the two girls as they talked animatedly. She spoke quietly into her discreet mouthpiece, her stance casual, her attitude languid-- she could be just another shopper resting for a moment behind the ornamental palms, preparing for an assault on another packed store.

'Target acquired. She is with Chloe Sullivan.' She listened as the person at the other end spoke at some length.

Mercy's voice did not rise, nor her manner of delivery change 'She was untraced for two hours because nobody actually saw her come out of the building. She was found because Sullivan was being followed.'

'Yes, I will keep her in sight. Will attempt termination on the return journey.'

'So, you went to see this "Lana" sweetheart of yours and left me on my own for the Lionel Luthor interview. We're partners Kent-- you just don't do that!' Lois was having even lesser success than usual in this talk with Clark, and Lex was getting anxious for information. She knew from experience how unpleasant Lex's anxiety could be for the rest of the world, and therefore continued to flog an increasingly dead horse.

The horse in question adopting the personality traits of a mule, thought Lois, madly mixing metaphors in her caffeine buzzed brain. Clark, in his own stodgy, calm, dense way was completely unperturbed, and refused to understand the reason for her excited questioning.

He rubbed the bride of his nose and said resignedly 'It's been five days Lois. Give it a rest. I did leave a message on your handheld-you just didn't take it. And I told you Lana is not well, and she has no one else in the city-or in the world. What would you have me do, just carry on with the job while a friend is dying?'

Lois was adamant 'Well you wouldn't have run quite so fast or stayed so long if it hadn't been Ms. Lang. Why didn't she call one of her old boyfriends in?' she huffed, before turning back to her screen.

Then she gave up the pretense of typing, took up her coffee mug, crossed her legs and renewed her assault on Fortress Kent.

'So did you see the fire on Seventeenth when you came back from Lars Town? It was around eight wasn't it? Did you by any chance see the "guy in blue?"'

To this question too Clark returned his oft-tried method of complete denial 'No I did not see the fire. Was too busy trying to find a cab and cursing the traffic to take detours to check out fires. Reached you to do research fatigue by nine, didn't I? And I did not see anyone in blue, except myself that is.' said Clark pointing to his 'uniform' of blue Oxford shirting.

'You know what I mean' said Lois. 'The Inquisitor ran another piece on him yesterday. Lex says it's an advertising stunt. Virgin.'

Clark removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, and said blandly 'So it must be true.'

Lois looked at him sharply 'What do you mean!'

'Exactly what I said. Lex is very sharp' said Clark as he turned back to his keyboard.

'Well you should know.' said Lois as she too resumed her work. 'Apparently you were the best of friends back in Cowville. I wonder what happened...'the last observation trailing off in an obvious attempt to get Clark to fill in the query with a suitably voluble expedition into past hurts and betrayals.

Clark, of course, remained immune to the lure of the unanswered question.

'Why don't you ask him?' he said.

Back at the Mall, Chloe bid farewell to Lana, as she had to go and cover a charity event at the Metropolis Polo Club. Lana excused herself saying she had to do some more shopping and reentered the bustle of frantic shoppers after kissing Chloe goodbye. Mercy tailed her with ease until she went into the chaotic confines of Benetton on a weekend. The store had only one entrance, so Mercy positioned herself opposite.

She waited and waited, even her endless patience wearing thin. She finally entered the store and went to the counter. 'Hi. A friend of mine, really pretty brunette-small.' Her enquiry, made with as much bonhomie she could muster led to nothing. Nobody had noticed Lana, and she was certainly not in the store any more. Nothing. Mercy was perplexed, but Lex was furious.

In the evening, she had copies of the cctv discs running on her computer. Lex paced the office behind her, his annoyance palpable in the rigidity of his expression.

'There! I have her... she picks up the clothes and moves off to right . Towards the changing rooms at the back at 16:41. That's camera 5.'She inserted the disc for camera 5. There was nothing but a white background.

Mercy turned back towards Lex, and even her monumental calm seemed to be cracking 'Camera 5 wasn't working.'

' If there is no other exit, she must make her way through the range of cameras 3 and 4 to get out. Keep scanning until you spot her or someone of her build-- she may be disguised.' Lex's instructions were delivered calmly and dispassionately.

Mercy nodded and turned back to the computer, feeding in fresh alert parameters to the video tracking software.

'Pause that!'

Reacting immediately, Mercy hit the pause button.

Lex pointed towards the hustle of people caught by the distorting angle of the camera lens ' The Balenciaga, the tan one. Lana was carrying that.'

Mercy looked at the woman on the screen who was holding the bag and moving towards the exit. She was a size ten, red-haired, old.

She zoomed in and corrected the image distortion with a series of expert commands.

As the woman came into focus, Lex's face grew even more pinched and tense.

It was Martha Kent.

Lois was almost sobbing. She was clad in a pale yellow sheath dress, and some Luthor diamonds that could have bought a small city, but she knew from her perfectly pedicured feet to her perfectly coiffed head, that Lex was not pleased.

They stood on the wide terrace of the Metropolis Polo Club, presenting the picture of the perfect couple, with Lex leaning protectively towards her and whispering sweet nothings into her hair. Only when one was Lois did one realize that the protective leaning could so easily be threatening looming, and the whispered nothings were actually quite substantial threats.

Her fingers gripped the champagne flute in such desperate tension that her hand was hurting with the unaccustomed exertion of strength. Lois deliberately loosened her grip and took a composing breath.

'That's all he tells me, Lex! And he was back by nine. I remember because I had him look up Metron for the Lionel article, and he worked till midnight to make up for the day. Gus the night watchman saw him leave past midnight. I cannot get any inconsistencies in his story at all.'

Lex was blandness itself as he took her glass and placed it on a passing waiter's tray. 'He is obviously lying. He was in Lana's apartment at midnight. I want more information. Why is he hiding that?'

He looked down at her and said softly. 'Did you find out about his mother?'

'Yes, though that was hard to bring up in a conversation when I was rushing out to get ready for this, and dumping all my work on him...'Lois paused, and continued hurriedly on seeing Lex's expression in the half light. 'S-she's still in Smallville. I called and found out. She picked up the phone. '

'Having met her so many times and knowing her so intimately, you would, of course, know it was her.' Lex mocked.

He stared long and hard into the orange lights of the club as they tried to light up the extensive grounds now covered in darkness, while Lois' embarrassed blush stained her cheek and spread its telling ruddiness to her neck and bosom. She tried so hard to be composed in her company, but when he spoke to her just so-God she really should be annoyed and outraged, not feel so weak-kneed and... but Lex was speaking again, his voice holding her in thrall. She remembered long-forgotten images of Nag and Darzee in an overgrown garden. Kipling's Jungle Book. Images flashed but her mind was full of Lex's mouth as it enunciated each syllable with lethal precision and his cold eyes whispered dangerous allure. Lois always caught the Harlequin romance tinge in her self-referential moments of truth, but always her brain refused to be reigned in.

' I guess you will just have to work harder, Lois.' he said, his breath whispering on her cheek, his hand rubbing sensuous circles on the nape of her neck, and all she could do was nod breathlessly as his other hand slipped around her waist.

From the shadows of the bright lights that lit the Metropolis Polo Club, Chloe Sullivan patrolled the ranks of the deprived. Her working black trousers and practical shoes, merged into invisibility against the light and sparkle of the Metropolis elite. She swatted away a few persistent bugs, deluded into circling the lawn lights until they burnt their wings in a short sizzle of death. Chloe watched, her eyes searching for a lone socialite whom she might accost and get a few choice quotes. She did not rate her chances high. The event at the Polo Club was Old Money, very restrained and with no big-mouthed page three aspirants who would dole away easy gossip for one gape-mouthed picture in the tabloids.

Therefore, Chloe circled the garden paths, soaking up the atmosphere, composing long and stilted periods in her head that would distinguish this event from countless other she had already covered. She looked around her in frustration, wishing her photographer had not disappeared with quite so much alacrity after the staidly circulating waiters bearing hors d'oeuvres.

Then it was as if her senses went on overload and she could feel the coolness of perspiration on her lower back. She sensed him. She turned slowly, deliberately subverting the instinct to whip back and thus alert him to her presence.

He was looking straight at her and straight through her. Fierce, primordial rage rose in her, at last breaking the rigid bounds set in it by years of 'moving on'. In that moment, as he passed her, a beautiful girl on his arm, in full leonine disdain, she felt every threat, every piece of lowly blackmail, every betrayal and every snub she had ever received in her career at once and with all the original intensity. 'Moving on' and Zen meditation and cooling draughts of mint tea, and all the fatalist justification of karma went tearing away on the red haze of building rage. It seemed that she would scream and attack him borne on the sudden uncontrollable flood of memory mired in emotion, but then he was but a disappearing silhouette in the yellow light, and she was standing panting with her nails digging into her palm. Only the crickets in the shrubs accentuated the silence of the night, broken by a titter of polite amusement. Chloe felt completely disoriented. Had she screamed out her outrage, she asked the silence, were they ignoring her tasteless betrayal of pariah-hood? Had *he * felt it -the roiling, surging, vitriolic hatred that had stood by him, though only for a few moments?

Then the leveling oil of cynicism returned to calm her-- he probably would have felt it had she expressed passionate love, or even nonchalant neutrality. Lionel and hatred were probably associated words in every consciousness present at this gathering.

She spotted one candidate immediately; her cousin Lois, resplendent with diamonds around her neck and Lex on her arm, came winding down a path lit with fairy lights. Chloe beat a strategic retreat behind some flowering wisteria, for she did not intend to compete her sensible Nine Wests against Lois' Choos.

Lionel Luthor was not overly perturbed to see Lex at the gathering of Metropolis's beautiful and rich. The pleasure of accosting Lex with a carefully cultivated veneer of parental concern was long lost to him, for Lex had learnt the art of dissimilitude from none other than the master, and would be sure to carry on the pretence with absurd and ill-satisfying ease. Therefore, Lionel left him well alone, concentrating instead on his charming companion for the evening. His mood was further elevated when his handheld buzzed and he saw Lana's ID, before the picture showed Clark Kent lounging in her new apartment. The call was then disconnected and Lionel turned back to Priase once again.

Lana sank back on her leather couch, carefully switching off the handheld. Then she relaxed and saw the hand on the back of the couch shrink back from large and hairy to the familiar contours of femininity. Curled up in an embryonic ball, she felt her head explode in pain while her nose vented her lifeblood with pulsating vigour. She fought off the encroaching darkness and retained consciousness through the process, and got off the couch trembling, yet triumphant.

Then with a satisfied smile she pulled off the large brown khakis she wore and put them away in a laundry basket. She retained the blue shirt though, and went to the large window that made up one entire wall of the living room and pulled up the blinds. The buzzing insect colony of Metropolis at night came into view and she saw herself reflected in the broad expanse of the super-strong plate glass, foreshadowing the entire city.

' You need to work harder at this Lois. Perhaps there is a lack of commitment?'

Chloe shrank further into the darkness, reporter instincts clashing with her need to distance herself from the vicious world she had tried to leave behind.

'Lex, I'm doing everything I can. Clark is just so so..It's hard!'

The couple sauntered forward on the winding path and then paused almost in front of the wisteria-clad tree that Chloe was crouched behind.

'I thought you told me his sexual inclinations tended more towards... and yet he is Lana's bed in the middle of the night.' Lex's murmurs were getting blander and blander in tone, and Chloe had to strain her ears before she could hear the words. Lois's higher pitched and protesting voice was mush easier to follow.

'But...' Lois was obviously not getting a word in.

Chloe peeked between two clusters of bloom and saw Lex trace the outline of Lois's ear with one indolent finger.

'Perhaps I should have listened to Lana. At least she still has Clark at her disposal.'

Lois shivered, and in the shadows, so did Chloe. She eased further back into the velvety darkness.

'Why don't you go home? Harris will drop you back.' Just like that, Lois departed and Chloe relaxed where she stood, her shoes buried in garden mould, and the pollen from the abundant blooms around her threatening to make her sneeze. It seemed to her as if the fragrant dark was full of her abnormally loud breathing. She could smell his cologne, overlaid as it was by the rich tones of Lois' Joy and the drowsy whiff of the wisteria and the crushed grass. The sense memory was immediate-bees wax and polished floors in the Smallville castle, reheated coffee and fluorescent buzzing at the Torch, purple and style, and infinite cunning, all Lex, all power, all vulnerable. She breathed him in again and realized the subtle difference-the vulnerability had mutated.

There was a small click as Lex flipped out his handheld and spoke softly into it. 'I believe Lana may yet be useful. Continue observation.'

Silence.

Chloe realized she was stuck there until he decided to leave. Then finally, when she felt she must expose herself with an explosive sneeze that would rouse the birds out of the tress for miles around, she heard Lex stir and walk velvet-footed towards the main building. She waited agonizing minutes before she could trust herself to move. The bark of the tree chafed her back as she stood straight after what seemed interminable years of awkward squatting.

She felt instinctively protective of her friend, her concern accentuated by the threat of disease that lay siege on Lana. Then there was the unconscious urge to range against the Luthor name-- so Lex was not Lionel, but the principle was the same. Clark was obviously still a huge cause of disagreement between the Luthors, and a continuous source of interest. As she fumbled with her handheld and tried to find Lana's number, Chloe tried to recall exactly when she had laid aside her probing of Clark's secrets. Was it when she had finally left Smallville, her dad jobless, her friends all strangers? When she realized she was never picked for responsible positions on the college papers, when she could not get a job in any area of journalism that she found meaningful, when her daily struggle against bills and depression killed her crusader-like enthusiasm and turned it into the bitter drudgery of deadlines... She could not remember the exact moment, and she felt at this moment the bitter irony, for she realized that the canker that had tainted her life, had infected her with that baleful linking with Lionel, and to think that years on, she had deserted the original premise of that thesis.

And where *was * Lana? Why was she not answering?

Finally, Lana picked up, and her smiling face appeared on the screen.

'Lana, Hi! I must see you immediately. I'm coming over.'

Only for a moment Lana looked undecided and then nodded assent.

Twenty minutes later Chloe was seated in the beige and white elegance of Lana's apartment, nursing a raspberry and echinacea infusion in a bright ceramic mug. Lana sat curled opposite, in track pants and tank top, hugging herself in a nervous gesture of yore.

Chloe had just recounted what she heard, and Lana was digesting the information.

She spoke in a dazed monotone 'I heard someone in the flat in Lars Town--- the day before I moved here. It could have been...'

'But at least you are safe for now. He's called off the hounds for the moment. I expect he will get in touch with you though.' said Chloe, looking intently at Lana through the rising steam of her mug.

'And all because Clark came to see me...'said Lana, almost as if speaking to herself.

'Clark Kent' said Chloe, enunciating the syllables as if by naming the man she could garner his full import, everything he stood for, and listening as if hearing the name for the first time.

'He has always been between us, you know. We've never actually bothered to compare notes.'

Lana looked up at this, staring intently at Chloe.

Chloe continued, holding Lana's gaze, leaning forward in her intensity 'Even though he has saved us both very many times, in dramatic and often inexplicable ways.'

'He's also been a good friend to us both Chloe.'

'And we have both been almost killed because of him Lana. Don't you think its time to find out why?'

The air in the apartment tingled with the significance of the moment, and Chloe knew that this was going to be a memorable moment, a turning point. She did not know to what end, but she knew that something was being crafted that had them both leaning forward, with their breath coming in short gasps of anticipation.

Lana finally broke the silence, and wiped her hands on her thighs, the contact giving her solace.

'If Clark is a meteor freak and doesn't want anyone to know, that's his business.'

Chloe was adamant, she shook her hair out of her face, making it stand in odd flicks and spikes forming a spatter of shadow on the white walls, in the light cast by the tall reading lamp that was the only illumination where they sat.

Lana noticed every dip and rise of the shadow, every energetic bob of Chloe's head, thus distancing herself from the issue lying naked between them, hoping that passing moments would cover its immediacy. She also knew she hoped in vain.

Chloe spoke fast, trying to get it out before the ennui of disuse set in again. 'God knows I've been happy to let things be; I don't want to dig into his life. But we know that we cannot apply the same rules to him as we do to other people. We cannot walk away from it; we're puppets on a chain. We cannot afford to play Gandhi. Because like it or not, we are linked to each other and to him. Perhaps we'd be more in control if we knew what it was that Lex wants or...' here she looked down 'Lionel wanted.'

'Wants.' Lana looked back at her. 'I mean, he would hardly have given up ...' Chloe was too busy shedding the burden of her admission to notice Lana's slip.

Chloe set down her mug. 'No, I hardly think that is likely.'

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Lana is writhed on the slowness of satin, feeling it whisper beneath her naked skin, under her thighs, her shoulders. She was splayed out in abandon, an O'Keefe on a black background, feeling the ripe burden of her lust weighing her down and yet making her weightless with anticipation. He loomed over her in the dark, power, potential, and penetration and she wanted him with whimpering urgency. He is slow, he always is-- refusing to give up control, trailing ghost fingers on her inner thigh, breathing Donne onto her burning skin, but refusing to confront her need.

She may have screamed out her frustration, but Chloe comes up and silences her with sweet kisses that taste of the sun and ripening corn. The tongue that sends sensation shivering through her entire body comforts her and she had forgotten kisses could be like this. Then Chloe bends her golden head and trails the wispy softness of her hair down the fullness of Lana's breasts, her nipples agonizing with arousal, over her palpitating abdomen to the legs taut with hope.

She takes him between lips that are pink with youth and laughter, nipping joking reminders on engorged flesh. Her green eyes are all-knowing, a Lolita-like awareness that makes the sensation of her mouth even more depraved. A practiced tongue dances knowledgably while deft motions of her palette, making silken hair dance an undulating ballet of light.

She is slick with lust and the acquaintance of years and envelops him with the generosity of the womb. He is frantic and fast, slamming into opportunity that he must kill to possess again. She merely moves with him, nursing flesh jiggling with the force of his charge, drawing him in like a clamp, face contorted by the ecstasy of experience, sweat running through red hair as her nails carve an intaglio of need on his unblemished skin.

'Le-ex!' he cries, tousled hair falling back on the pillow, red-lipped ardor dissolving into white-toothed passion as he is gently pried open. Layers, one after another. Finger by finger, pale body against wanton golden limbs, cold gray eyes gazing into green, bald head gracing dark curls, then the head is in and he is in the head and all Clark can do is rejoice in the pain as ever so slowly he is taken. Shreds of sanity fly out in beads of sweat that roll off his trembling body. Suddenly, the rhythmic tempo of the obscene slapping of flesh against flesh ceases and with one thrust, he is impaled.

His eyes fly open to see leather and dark glasses insolently grinning as his lifeblood flows out and pools around them, sliming them in a grotesque birthing. It coagulates and sticks them together, forming a macabre Gemini, and then he can no longer breathe as Clark ravages him with his mouth and tongue, refusing to let go, rabid dog at road kill. The taste of blood runs in salty warmth down his throat and chokes him with its putrefied richness.

With a gasp Lana wakes up, her nose trailing ribbons of gore, her body aching and sweaty, her forearms bulging with Clark's strength, and her mind full of dream.

She looked complacently at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes traced the lines of her green gown, cunningly contrived in shades of green chiffon, scooping down dangerously at the back until it met a smooth expanse of sinuous skirt, and dipped a languorous approval. She knew she looked breathtaking, and as she clasped the emeralds and diamonds choker around her neck, she had the flush of assurance that only a woman wearing Galliano and Garrard's could have.

She held out one perfectly manicured hand in front of her and draped the cold, glittering weight of the matching bracelet around her wrist. The fastening closed with a decisive snap, just as the door opened behind her and the donor of all the largesse entered the dressing room. Lionel too, was in full evening dress, as was required of every guest invited to the very select Harry Winston Charity Gala.

Lana had been pleasantly surprised that morning to be informed that Lionel wanted her to accompany him to the event, and even more pleasantly ecstatic to find the gown and the jewels waiting for her at the Luthor residence.

Now as she put the finishing touches on her toilet, Lana did not acknowledge his presence, save to pout 'When I saw this set at the Garrard's retrospective at the V&A, there was a ring that went with it.'

Lionel smiled and drew a jewel box from his pocket and put it on the dressing table. 'This one perhaps?'

Lana opened the black leather clad box and picked up the ring nestled inside. The Aab-e-Noor diamond glinted wickedly at her, ringed by a dozen princess-cut emeralds. Her woman's heart could not resist fluttering in an odd delight at the sight of the wonderful jewel, each of its 200 odd carats redolent of war, bloodshed, betrayal and death. Her hand trembled as she slipped on the ring, and was glad that it was a snug fit. It would be hard to explain the loss of ten million dollars worth of carbon.

She smiled up at Lionel.

'You do know how to make a girl happy.'

Lionel kneaded her bare shoulder, and said ' I never shy away from a good investment.'

Then as she stood up in a swirl of silk and glitter of jewels 'I believe my son will truly rue turning you down.'

Lana paused as he draped a lace and silk wrap around her shoulders and then said 'I presume Clark will be there.'

' I understand he will be representing the Planet'

Flashbulbs and white light caused blobs of red light to dance before her eyes as she tried not to blink, while Lionel glided smoothly up the red carpet, impervious to the hubbub at their arrival. She followed in a whispering, flashing blaze, careful to present her best angle to the popping bulbs. As she was about to pass into the chandeliered majesty of the venue, she caught a glimpse of a pale face in the darkness outside, and read the sharp pain of betrayal in Chloe's eyes. Then she was within the echoing quiet of the marble halls of the museum, Lionel swept her forward into the milling elite, and everything outside the pillared halls fell away.

Lana smiled incessantly through the evening, a part of her feeling empowered by the envious gazes of women, who valued her jewels at a glance and looked again to see the face that was graced by such splendor. The men evaluated her as an accessory to Lionel Luthor, but that is a role she was used to. Finally, she caught sight of Lex, and is oddly pleased that he had been watching her. As her gaze met his intense scrutiny, he acknowledged her with a raised flute, and she dipped her eyes in response. He made his slow and deliberate way through the crowd to her, and though she tried to find Lionel in the crowd, he was nowhere to be seen.

'I see you decided against resuming the coffee business.' his tone was neutral, and she knows she is but a pawn in the middle of an unusual move. His eyes analyzed her.

She knew then that it would be churlish to be pettily annoyed with him-- pawns show no emotion, and they have no agenda.

'I decided these would suit me better than an apron.' she replied instead, putting a posed hand to her throat.

The Aab-e-noor blinked fire into his eyes as he looked down at her, and she felt again the breathlessness of girlhood-- emotional memory kicking into gear.

'I believe that was purchased as gift to my mother. Just before she was diagnosed with her condition.'

It takes all her mental control not to snatch her hand off display and hide it in the folds of her skirt. She casually trailed the weight of the ring down her bosom and brought it up for a deliberate inspection.

'How unfortunate.' she murmured.

'But I think its been reset. Personally, I preferred the earlier setting.'

'Oh! I think I like it as it is.' she breathed, just as Lionel appeared behind Lex, but she felt she has somehow missed her cue card, botched her lines.

'Lex! What a pleasant surprise. I believe you know Miss Lang?'

' Dad. It is always nice to stumble upon a family gathering. Yes, I have met Miss Lang. I am sure we shall be mutually surprised again at the Governor's lunch tomorrow, Dad.'

With that, Lex turned and walked away, while Lionel slipped his arm possessively around Lana's waist and guided her to the lit gardens, in the courtyard of the museum.

After a few stilted words spoken to her, Lionel was soon engaged in a conversation with a business rival, and Lana found herself free to roam the formal paths of the garden, now lit by trails of fairy lights and lanterns in the trees.

She turned from examining a fat cherub spouting water and made out an ill at ease tall man lounging in the shrubbery, at the end of the path. She thought it was Clark and made her way to him, composing explanations for Lionel-Lana would always be Clark's princess.

He was lost to the world when she put her hand out to him. As he turned, she felt a curious dj vu of a bumbling Clark dropping book after book as he stuttered apologies at her.

She put her hand out to him again, 'Clark are you ok?'

He looked perplexed at seeing her and finally gasped, as if seeing her after a long mental process. ' Hi Lana. N..nice necklace... ring. Nice ring'. Then just as she was about to deliver a suitable explanation for her jewels, he batted her away.

'I have to.. I have to go..'

His face gleamed sickly in the lights cast by the lanterns, and Lana watched in bewilderment as he took a few lurching steps away from her. Before he could go any further, the waiters milling at the wine bar at the edge of the lawn placed their covered trays on the ground beside him and held him up as he almost collapsed to the ground.

'Clark! What is happening? Are you sick?' Feeling ineffectual and left behind, Lana rushed towards the strange tableau being played out before her.

He writhed on the grass as Lana sank in a pool of silk next to him 'Clark, are you ok? Clark?'

Another waiter came to her and helped her up. 'It is ok, miss, we will take care of it. Perhaps you should return to the party. We do not want an incident. The young man has been taken ill-perhaps a stomach bug. We'll handle it.'

Lana let herself be led away, her skirts now mired in dew and clinging to her frozen legs. She looked back as they reached the entrance to the main wing of the museum.

Now there was no sign of Clark or of the waiters. Suddenly Lionel spoke from behind the Byzantine effigies.

'Ah! Lana, my dear. I believe it is time to go home.'

In the secluded quiet of Lexcorp, Lois waited impatiently for Lex to see her. She itched for a smoke, yet the hawk-like gaze of Mrs. Bennett meant that she could not disregard the no-smoking sign. Moreover, Lex hated the smell so she resisted the urge, even though nervous tension made the muscles in her shoulders and back cramp into agonizing knots.

At last, Bennett looked up at her and inclined her head in a gesture that meant she should go into the office. She stood quickly and went in, breath hitched in her throat. Lex was seated behind his vast, very clean desk, looking at the screen on his computer. A lazy wave of the hand indicated she should sit and she complied, wary of the menacing presence of Mercy in the background.

As always, the conversation started without preamble.

'So Clark has not turned up at work for the past couple of days.'

'H-his handheld cannot be traced and no message at the Planet. Perry's filed a missing person's.'

'Did you see him at the gala?'

'Only for a few minutes. I was with you most..,'

'Did any of the Planet staff see him leave?'

'There was only Jimmy, and he didn't see anything.' Then Lex put down the screen of his computer and focused on her.

'The reason I have called you here Lois, is because I find that our relationship can no longer be sustained on a meaningful level.' A slow leaning forward and a deliberate steepling of fingers.

'You are not what I am looking for at this stage of my life, and I fear we must both move on for our mutual benefit.'

'What! You...you're breaking up with me?'

Lois' voice broke as she said the words. She had always known this day would come, but still found it overwhelming. She felt relief, to be out of a game she so rarely saw the point of, but she heard too the snide remarks and sarcasm laced comments that the breakup would cause. She saw in a flash all the doors that would be closed to her now she was no longer Lex Luthor's girlfriend. All the boutiques that would no longer extend her unlimited credit. All the magazines that would put her picture on the going down barometer...

'You can't do this to me.'

She hadn't meant it to sound so accusing and as Lex raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch, she quickly backtracked. Thoughts flooded into her head but none of them in the shape of a coherent argument.

'I mean, I've always done what you asked. I've been useful...'She sounded whiny, she should not sound whiny. Cosmo said not to sound whiny.

'But alas, not useful enough. Ms. Graves will show you out.'

'This' thought Lois as she walked over the vast span of featureless carpet, 'is what is called an end of a chapter.' Funny, she had never thought them to be so unexpected, or marked-so unexpectedly marked. At least she got to keep the jewelry, and the riverside apartment, and maybe Gucci wouldn't take her off the preferred customer lists till next year. And if she hurried, she could really make that Amex Black count.

She hurried out of the glass and steel lobby of Lexcorp, and hailed a taxi.

'The Redmoon mall. And step on it.'

'I had to. He held my treatment hostage. I couldn't bear the thought of being poor and suffering, Chloe. I just couldn't. These past years, I have known what being truly alone is, and how scary the world is and about being nobody's favourite person, and no one ever cuts you any slack... I've been an orphan a long time-and I can't tell you how that fear ate into me. Even when I was in Smallville. You know, the homecoming queen, the town princess, I always felt the horror of being excluded, of being alone. So even though he was the enemy and evil and manipulative-he was familiar... Oh! I can't say this. You won't understand.'

The last words of Lana's rant were borne away by the wind that whipped her hair into straggly ends of static and snarls. She turned a crumpled face to Chloe, wiped of all trace of makeup-swollen and imperfect, and wet with the rain that was just beginning to fall, banishing the heat wave that had gripped Metropolis in its suppurating haze for the past month.

Chloe however, was adamant. The sharp wind whipped through her hair, and she buried herself deeper in her jacket, trying to trace solace in its worn texture. She watched the swirling current of the river as the wind whipped the water into contusions of oily reflections, while her mind muddled along with the viscous flow of the tamed river. A part of her regretted coming here to meet Lana. She did not want to be betrayed again; but another part wanted closure, wanted explanations, and so she stood with her flimsy summer skirt flapping against her pale legs in a staccato rhythm of discomfort, while Lana attempted catharsis by shouting an explanation against the various background noises.

Chloe let the sounds of the cars buzzing off to pleasant and anticipated destinations lengthen the moments they stood like that. Two women standing slightly apart on a rain swept pavement looking onto a turbulent river, lit by the vast city around, and the orange gleam of a wet urban night.

As another vehicle approached and then zoomed off in a sound byte of speed, Chloe finally turned to look at Lana.

'You could have come to me.'

'I did once, and I caused you so much hurt. I didn't want to do that again.'

Lana must've whispered the words, for they came at her in the familiar dipping, drowning cadence-vulnerable and vastly irritating, and despite the lack of volume she heard the words clearly, so maybe her mind was shaping that answer, and Lana had said something entirely different...

'And what did he expect from you? The pleasure of your company?' She retaliated, with a surge of carefully nursed venom.

This time Lana stepped closer, and there was no denying her words. 'You know what he wanted from me. He wanted the same thing from you.'

Now it was Chloe's turn to look away.

'Clark.'

But the sound was torn away by the thunder that lay pale the cityscape in its incandescent stab of light, and the storm burst.

Lois clutched furious hands around her now-ruined suede Marni coat as the water ran over her toes in her matching pink mules. She shivered as the wind buffeted her wet body with chilling intensity. She tried to move under the shelter of the decorative moulding, but the drops felt fatter and wetter on her head there, so she moved back onto the chewing gum strewn pavement, braving the weather till Jimmy decided to come home. He wasn't exactly answering his handheld after her fifth frantic call, so all she could do was wait and stew in her rage.

Her mind still struggled to grasp the perfidy of Lex. After dropping her like last year's bag, he had not only stopped all her cards, but her apartment apparently belonged to him, through some twisted process of percentage of down payment represented-she still didn't know the exact procedure, but she now found herself homeless. Her face still burnt at her embarrassment at the Mall; her card had been on the hot card list of every boutique, and all of them seemed to have changed their policy regarding credit. Even Pucci-the label she had made her own, and that was the cruelest cut of all.

Lois hoped fervently that Perry's inherent dislike of Lex would mean that she kept her job, though at this late hour, hungry and tired, she was feeling less and less certain of Perry's power to resist Lex.

At last, an old Ford Steetka parked itself on the opposite side of the road and Jimmy came strolling over.

'You look like a wet cat.' He said. They were the sweetest words she had ever heard.

xxxxxxxxxxxxx

'Ah! Lana. You do seem to have developed a habit of coming here unannounced. Not that it's not a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?' Lionel's manner was aggressively urbane, as he greeted her in his office.

Lana sat down opposite him, looking down at the scrubbed clean city lit by a bright sun after the previous night's thunderstorm.

'It's Clark. I can't find him. He's not here, hasn't been at work, is not in Smallville. He always comes when I call. I think he's sick.'

Lionel merely raised his eyebrows.

'Are you saying my trust in you was misplaced? Reporting that Clark is not to be found is not your job. Finding him is.'

Lionel could never be taken for granted, so Lana formulated her next words carefully. 'I know. I'm not making excuses. But you have the resources to trace him. He was sick. I saw it - at the Gala. They took him away; he had a stomach bug or something.'

'Who took him away?'

'Waiters... But I called the caterers and they knew nothing of this. I tried to trace him at the hospitals.' She shook her head in exasperation. 'His boss filed a MPR yesterday.'

'Is there a point to this rambling?'

'I think he was kidnapped. He could have been taken while he was weak...'

'Ah! I see. And who do you think perpetrated this outrage.'

'Who else? Lex.'

'I see. Lana you grow more valuable with every passing day. I will initiate enquiries. But I hope you realize that wild allegations against my son can be termed dangerous libel.'

Lana met his gaze steadily 'If you mean did I tell Chloe of my suspicions, the answer is no.' Lionel seemed satisfied with the answer, though she worried if she had appeared too clever.

' It seems we understand each other reasonably well. I will see you later tonight.'

The city looked washed and clean in the morning sun and the trees were in full foliage. Some of the greenery looked too green-violently verdant after the rain, as if transported to some Amazonian forest from the grim dirt of Metropolis.

She felt as if she too had been transported into a new world, where everything was unfamiliar and new, had to be remembered and recognized again in the harsh light of day. As if the usual habit of existence had been wiped away by the storm and she must negotiate her place in the world again...

This strange distance, like waking from a dream, also gave her a new perspective. Though it was unsettling, she felt that after a long, long time she could see the problem. Beyond the day-to-day business of living, she could see what was wrong, and how she could change it. The pavement with its geometric slabs in unerringly straight lines, told her that she that her destination was this way. It was time to claim her life back. If it didn't come easily, she would wrest it back. After all, this was life -- there really wasn't anything further left to lose. What had she been so afraid of?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The barn was just the same. With its ambient smell of animals, hay, earth, old wood, ropes and paint. The slight undertone of grease, the underlying tang of manure that one detected in an olfactory raiding party and then tried to make its recognizable whiff get lost in the general smell of the barn, of home, of solicitude and concern. Of losses made tangible with every creak of weathered wood, of loneliness driven home with every sunset watched together. Of jealousy made solid and permeating the air with the crackling ozone of unease. Let me in, Clark! Let me in, wails a lost soul outside. But Clark remains immune, on his Parnassus of family and unconcern for the outsiders.

Children who go home to Christmas trees full of store-bought decorations, to forgotten birthdays and uneasy silences of bare tolerance, of Christian charity... Of kindnesses and soft-stepping unobtrusiveness, of painful and binding agreeableness that never wants to impose, that may never give into willful tantrums... The Lana Lang's of the world...

'Clark? Is that you?'

'Mom?'

Martha climbed the creaky steps, her face creased in joy.

'Oh! Clark, we've been waiting for your phone call, you didn't come for dinner yesterday. Are you Ok? You look tired.

'I'm alright, mom. Really.' Clarks voice was muffled through the rough cotton shoulder of Martha's shirt.

'Well, Jonathan certainly will be happy to see you. He wants to re-fence Barnaby's field. He could do with a hand. Are you staying long?'

Martha chatted happily as she descended the steps and made her way out into the brilliant sunshine of the yard. Clark followed slowly after, grinning at the blue sky.

'I never want to leave, mom.' he whispered to the chickens pecking in the dirt.

The evening sun slanted through the shaded windows of the Luthorcorp office. It shone on the expensive carpet, and showed that nothing could keep dust away from the pile. Not even the fact that the carpet graced the 75th floor office of a billionaire.

A billionaire who was sprawled on the expensive carpet, leaking blood into its extravagant pile, in a crooked formation of limbs and awkwardly surprised face-frozen in the absurd-forever.

Until the worms changed that configuration.

'Con-figur-ation. Configuration.' The titter rose high and was silenced by the quiet.

Then the door opened.

'God! What did you do?'

'He was broken.' The girl slowly got up and dropped the knife on to the blood soaked carpet, where it fell with an obscenely wet thunk. She trailed bloody footsteps to the middle of the office, and then back, undecided-the edge of the room was too far away, the dead man's desk too near.

'My father, Lex. He died a broken man after he fired him. Debt-ridden and diseased. His daughter, his daughter who was supposed to work at the Planet and win a Pulitzer works at a rag. He did it. He destroys lives. Mine, Dad's, Lana's. I did right. I know I did right. Right? He destroyed your life too.'

She looked up with large eyes, from which dripped desperation and resolve. no tears. And the knowledge of sanity breached. He knew that look too well.

Chloe sagged to the floor, legs sticking out in a weird parody of the corpse before her.

'Foe!' she cried, pointing with one red-stained hand.

Lex looked away from the arresting and indecent spectacle of madness before him, averted his eyes from the perversion of the loss of normal rationality. He knew how the radiance of madness could blind.

' I will take care of it.'

She looked uncomprehendingly at him, still rocking to the compelling music of her own trauma.

He got out the sanitizing unit and vacuumed up the bloodstains. Moved the body onto a priceless Anatolian kilim from the other end of the office and rolled it up into a less offending, more disposable bundle. His father flopped over-- he was far more pliable when dead, and easily flopped into position.

He opened the vault with the override code he had acquired after months of painstaking research. In the temperature controlled cryo environment of the inner vault, he also found what he had suspected he would find there. He dragged Lionel's body into the now steaming interior of the vault and pushed it into narrow space between the cryo-cubicle and the vault walls, and laid the murder weapon atop the body. He closed both doors behind him and finished cleaning the blood from the carpet. Chloe's footprints, even the inoffensive dirt went into the sucking vortex of the cleaner. Lex was certain this was not the first body of evidence it had sucked up.

He turned finally to the girl still rocking silently on the floor.

'Go take a shower. You will find some women's clothes in the cupboard on the right.'

She got up slowly, and he guided her to the bathroom door.

'Strip'

She did. Everything came off--shoes, skirt, top, undergarments, and he put everything into the maw that led to the incinerator on the roof. She meanwhile, made her way to the shower cubicle and turned on the water. He closed the door behind her and went to examine the office again for evidence.

'Lex? '

If he was surprised at being seen in his father's office with a cleaning system humming in his hand, his face did not show it. With deliberate ease, he switched off the device and laid it in its particular niche, activated the 'incinerate contents' option and closed the concealing hatch.

The renewed silence highlighted his walk to the large desk, his languid donning of his jacket. Lois fidgeted in place and then burst out.

'Where's Lionel? He was supposed to meet me here at five.'

'On a Sunday evening? What would you have with you that would make him cancel golf with the German ambassador?'

If Lois was nonplussed, she recovered quickly. Only Lex could have noticed the imperceptible tightening of her fingers over her quilted Chanel bag.

'What are you doing here?' She bluffed instead, trying to remind herself that she no longer worked for him.

His blandness was unimpaired.

'Visiting my father. I believe you should answer that question.'

'I have business. With him.'

He sauntered slowly towards her. ' Perhaps to form an alliance against me?'

He was very close now, and it took all of Lois's will power not to back away.

'Not everything is about you.' she said through clenched teeth.

He backed away, as if suddenly advised of the correctness of her position.

'I concede that. Yet, this is definitely about me. Reports on Cadmus to be exact. Now, I don't know if this is a personal failing, but I really, really dislike that.' His voice was smooth as silk, and Lois felt all the hair on her arms and neck stand up on end.

' I don't know what you are talking about.'

He just looked at her with that diabolical smirk, and she longed to punch it off his face.

'I'm going to wait for Lionel.'

'I think you will give me that report. Now.' He advanced towards her, hand outstretched in natural command.

She held the bag clutched before her, and then drew the gun out.

'I don't think so. Just stay away from me.'

'Hand me the disk. I know you have not been able to copy it or read it, so I won't hurt you.'

'I will shoot if you come any closer'

'Go ahead. I ...'

There was no report. Only an inane 'phut' as the little pellet drove itself into living tissue and made it dead.

The evening sun slanted through the shaded windows of the Luthorcorp office. It shone on the expensive carpet, and showed that nothing could keep dust away from the pile. Not even the fact that the carpet graced the 75th floor office of a billionaire.

A billionaire was sprawled on the expensive carpet, leaking blood into its extravagant pile, in a crooked formation of limbs and awkwardly surprised face-frozen in the absurd-forever.

Then the door opened.

'Oh God! Ms. Lane! You have murdered my son.'

'I.. no he couldn't be dead! Lex heals really fast.'

Chloe emerged from the bathroom, pale and shriveled from the incessant pounding of the water. She took in the new tableau before her and reverted to the blissful fuzziness of destroyed reason.

'What? No! I...in there he..' then with great penetration she looked at Lois. At the small gun in her hand.

'You killed Lex. Lois, you killed Lex.'

'It was an accident.'

But Chloe looked lost and bewildered in the red silk dress she wore, incongruously with shoes too large for her. She looked like Minnie Mouse in a strange parody of an animated universe. Then in another animated double take she looked at the man before her and at the vault door 'But you-- you I killed you. I did...'

The police came and took away the body. And Lois and Chloe. Chloe was to go to Belle Reeve, as a sponsored patient of Luthorcorp.

Lionel went to the vault and smiled as the iris scan and thumb print blinked green and the heavy door slid open. Inside he could see the long hair of a body rolled in a carpet. He could also see the imperceptible glow of the green meteors as Clark slept like Snow White, in his cold, cold bed.

He turned and shut the door with decision.

Suddenly the 'phone on the desk rang. He casually pressed the speaker button.

The connection crackled and then another voice echoed in the hush of the office.

'Wrangle here, Mr. Luthor. It's regarding subject 3. He has been spotted near his home, in Smallville. I thought I should inform you.'

'Ah! Yes, subject 3. The subject was released with my permission. Please discontinue all observation of the subject. I mean all observation.'

The silence hovered, and then 'Yes, sir.'

'Good.'


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