Lana was angry. It was a shell of anger used to cover up the fear, the way her anger always was. Outrage was a trick she'd polished from long acquaintance with Clark, but she knew the basics before. Anger controlled loss, one way or another. Currently, her anger stemmed from the hideous suspicion that the meteor shower did more to her than wrenching her life off course. She'd been actively studying the meteors, trying to make connections, for months now - Metropolis had freed her to ask harder questions - and it finally occurred to her that some of those questions needed to be about herself.
Lex understood her need to know. He shared it. So she headed to him for answers.
At the time, Lex couldn't read a report or a newspaper without the feeling that the columns of words weren't quite straight. It was the same with the architecture of the mansion, constantly surprising him in his peripheral vision with a glimpse of the world tilted, off true. He'd replaced most of the old furniture with leather to soften the odd corners, but it was still difficult to look at a door, a picture frame, a piece of paper. He much preferred to examine people, who had never had ninety-degree angles to begin with.
He heard the doors open; even if he hadn't, the security alert would have warned him of an approach. He had ample time to debate whether to look up or continue working. Ultimately, he decided to close the computer just as Lana came in, but he didn't rise. He felt no need to make her nervous when she'd gone to the trouble of coming over.
For her part, Lana barely noticed Lex's expression. She was too busy readying her own defenses and marshalling her questions.
"Lex," she said, before he could speak. Her eyes were even wider than usual, her color high. He could tell that she'd worked herself up to some request. She'd been braver around him five years ago - but that was true of most people he knew, save Clark.
"What is it?" he asked, since he had no interest in watching her struggle. "Is it Clark?"
She shook her head and crossed the carpet to stand in front of his desk. She was wearing a dark green top with black scalloped edging and black jeans, her fashion sense being another thing that had changed for the better in the past five years. She was ready to make her case right there, with a block of glass between them, but she guessed Lex wouldn't leave her standing like a supplicant.
Indeed, Lex rose and circled the desk, leading her over to the couches by the fireplace where, as always, a small fire reminded him that change and destruction were constants. "Tell me," he said as he sat and opened his hands in invitation. "What can I do to help?"
Instead of sitting beside him as she once would have, she went across, guarded form any sudden moves by the thick glass coffee table. Lex felt the guilt only dimly, one star of a thousand behind a scrim of smog.
Lana folded her hands in her lap and stared at them for a minute. Lex wanted to jump in, to tell her that she was starting to worry him, but he was trying to learn patience. Lana would have been annoyed if he'd asked again, even as she wished he'd know her mind and start explaining.
When she spoke, her voice was low and strained. "Meteor rocks cause mutations."
Four words, with a world, a town, of suffering behind them. Lex wondered: Had Lana somehow (Clark) learned about Lex's revamp of Level Three?
"Yes, they do," he said, keeping his expression bland and accepting. The experiments were all for the greater good, a way to seize something beneficial out of the beating green heart of tragedy. He could make her understand.
He'd mistaken her concerns. In those days, Lex rarely knew as much about a situation as he thought he did; thus, so many of his early failures. She leaned forward. "I wore a meteor rock necklace for years, Lex."
He barely controlled the flinch. Immediately he resolved to let her lead, to refrain from giving her ideas. "And you're worried about your health. I can have the best doctors in Metropolis -"
She shook her head, saved from frustration only by her determination to find the truth. "Sometimes meteor mutants seem normal." Lex resisted the urge to run a hand over his head. Lana closed her eyes for a second, gathering her strength, then put everything she had into her pleading look. "I need to know if - if I've been affected."
She was so sincere, he thought, as honest as an open wound. He wanted to reassure her, to remove some of the layers of sadness that clung to her like a spider's cocoon.
"Are you sure about that?" he asked, knowing the question itself was revealing.
Lana faltered a second. Some part of her had hoped to hear a firm denial, even though she would have called it a lie. Having begun this quest, she couldn't stop short of the goal; that would be much worse than accepting a fairytale because it was comforting. "Lex - you promised to tell me the truth. What is it? What do you know?"
So fragile, so strong - everything a man might want to protect and serve. Lex spread his hands. "I don't know anything for certain. I have a theory." He waited. Lana only stared; she knew he'd continue, and he could see that. He was pleased at her trust, which was not to say that he wanted to speak.
"I love you, Lana," he said, the words slipping out easily, for all that they hurt. She gaped, then glared at him, as if suspecting him of trying to distract her. "Everyone loves you. How could we help it?"
He could tell when she figured it out - her shoulders hitched and her head fell, hiding her eyes. She brought her hands to her mouth, cupping them over a silent sob.
When Lana looked up again, she wasn't crying, even if her eyes were wet. "That's why - the Talon, everything? I made you do that?"
Lex shrugged casually. "You didn't know."
"But I manipulated you!"
He took a chance and came around the table to sit next to her, not touching but close, leaning over in imitation of her posture. "All interactions are manipulative, Lana. People use whatever they have - charm, good looks, money, power, a great fastball - to get other people to do what they want."
He paused, gathering his thoughts, letting her own logic work. "People don't love for rational reasons in the first place - God knows you've been a better friend to me than the women I married."
She looked at him sharply, her face even more beautiful in its stark grief. "How long have you known?"
He risked more and reached for her hand, small and cool under his fingers. "It's hard to say when it first occurred to me. I wondered why you were so often a target - not just meteor mutants, Jason Teague too. I realized there was a lot of love in the kind of hate they felt -" oh, he knew that well - "and the pieces just fit together."
"So none of it was real," she said. Her voice was clear glass, with a fracture at the edge.
Lex took her chin in his free hand and turned her face back to him. "It's entirely real," he said, then let her go before the moment became awkward.
"If I hadn't worn that necklace -"
"And if you'd been born in New York City they never would have loved you either. Counterfactuals won't give you the answer here."
She didn't look convinced.
"For what it's worth, I'm fairly sure that Chloe also guessed - and she hasn't left, either, even though she knows that distance would break the hold. The effect dissipates with time and separation. But she chose Metropolis over a dozen other colleges, and she chose to invite you back into her life even after she'd moved. She knows what she feels about you is just as real as any other emotion."
She stared at him as if he'd just ripped off his face and shown her a new one. "Have you and Chloe ... talked about me?"
He almost snorted, but turned it into a shake of his head. "Miss Sullivan and I aren't that close. No, I'm simply aware of her meteor-related researches and her intuitive insights into the mysteries of Smallville. It can't have escaped her attention that the three of us - Clark, you, and me - are almost always at the center of meteor trouble. Clark is Clark, I represent wealth and power to meteor-affected people. And then there's you."
Lana's face had lost color, though some glow remained. "I can't believe I never - how could I not know? It's so obvious when you say it -" She wanted to curl into a ball and dry up, crumple and blow away. Lies, all of it, even when they thought they were telling her the truth - a betrayal she'd engineered, nobody to blame but the meteors and her own stupid heart.
Lex didn't blink as he reevaluated his strategy to moderate her overreaction. "That's not what I meant at all. You must know that you're a beautiful, exciting woman. Why wouldn't you accept love? You have every reason. And human nature is to feel that our own character is responsible for our circumstances." Lex put every dreg of belief he had into his voice. One thing no one could ever make him doubt - not Clark, not his father, not Helen nor any of the many others who'd betrayed him - was that he was a leader, a man with the power to inspire others to greatness. His belief could move mountains because it could move men. He summoned that faith now.
He looked into Lana's eyes, wet and dark and full of promise, like the first sight of the soil emerging from melting snow in springtime. "What's a good reason to love someone? Beauty?" She shook her head slightly - she knew the answer was no, love of beauty alone was shallow. "Kindness? But no one is kind all the time - does that mean no one deserves to be loved? Love is grace, Lana. And it's a grace too often denied for you to regret that you have it."
The whisper of the fire in the grate and the steady electronic hum of Lex's computer were the only sounds as Lana considered Lex's words. For Lex, this was going as well as could be expected, possibly better - she'd come to him for the truth, regardless of his feelings for her, and that trust was his best recourse where Lana was concerned.
Lana did not reveal to Lex, then or ever, her exact reasoning. Meteor rocks changed people - Greg Arkin became part-bug; it wasn't an illusion he put in people's heads. Maybe then the meteor rocks made her loveable, not just loved. After all, Clark loved her.
(Lana was far from stupid or unobservant. She, like most of humanity, simply had an impressive ability to ignore relevant facts. Many people fear to think, "I'm not sure I love my wife," or "My son is stealing from me," because, if they thought about it, action might be required. In this case the unthinkable was more dramatic: "Clark isn't a meteor mutant, but he's not normal either." Regardless of the exotic subject matter, the mechanism was the same. It was dangerous even to think so close to Clark's difference, but now it was important to her self-concept.)
If Clark loved her, then it was real, from Whitney to Lex and all the ones in between. And all the ones who'd follow.
This part of her decision was not conscious, though Lana had already dimly glimpsed the issue. She'd always have her pick of men - and the occasional woman - but she'd always need protection from the runners-up. It did not occur to her, even after she'd seen all of Lex's meteor-based experiments, that her power could or should be blunted.
"You love me," she said, waiting for confirmation - the same uncertainty that pushed the meteor rocks to give her a softer power than most.
Lex had learned that vulnerabilities not eliminated had to be dealt with more forthrightly. "Yes."
"Even though I've done horrible things." She was not thinking of Isobel, though Lex remembered.
"Yes," he said, and kissed her.
She pulled back, but not away. "Even though I've done horrible things to you."
"Yes," he said. The fire crackled beside them, flames eating away at the wood, as beautiful in its way as Lana in hers. He kissed her again, and this time she did not pull away.
Lana was not greatly experienced, but she was very responsive. Lex kept it simple, mostly slow and gentle, always concentrated on one place, so she wouldn't lose track of who or what this was. His hand on her breast, his thigh between her legs. His mouth on her clit, her taste just as different as any woman's. His hands cupping her ass as he entered her, watching her eyes flutter shut.
Her fingers clutched his shoulders, her nails uncalculatedly cutting into his skin. The sensations he was generating, blue electricity running through every limb, were so intense she almost tried to pull away. It wasn't safe to feel this much.
He hadn't dared pause to reach for a condom - she'd have been unhappy that he carried one close to hand anyway - and he wondered how he'd love a child they made. Sex was usually a time when he stopped thinking, leaving analysis until later. But Lana was - of course - another story. This is what I want, he thought as she said his name in between moans. It's not my father's doing, not my weakness.
Beneath him, Lana trembled like water as he shifted to change the angle of penetration. Lex thought that she might love him back if he did everything right.
He touched her like a safecracker, feeling his way to the right combination by delicate attentive touches. She wasn't thinking of anything outside her body. Who could blame her? Nineteen years old, inducted briefly into the miracle of sex by Clark, then abandoned. Even if Lex had been only adequate, she would have been consumed by the pleasure her own body was capable of generating. Lana was pure - and this was purity, pure desire, a fire so hot it consumed every nerve, every synapse. She was shaking, surrendered to desire like a sacrifice to an older god.
When Lana cried out and clenched around him, Lex thought he'd better finish soon. She was warm and heavenly, but he wanted more than a one-time fuck. He moved faster. The silk of her hair caught on his fingers, sleek as a well-fed cat's. He wanted to tell her she was his, to feel her body acknowledge it, but he couldn't risk that yet. Lana thought she wanted certainty, but the objective evidence was to the contrary.
Lana was so sensitive now that every thrust made her gasp, made her thighs jump against his. Lex took her hands and pushed them over her head, feeling the heat from the fire against his fingertips. They lay palm to palm - he was not trying to shackle her, just to cover her hands with his, their fingers joined like warp and weft. She felt tears start, amazement and gratitude and the awareness of an irreversible decision all mingled together along with the wavelets of pleasure that continued to lap at her.
The orgasm built and crested in him, pleasure like a fountain of diamond drops. For a moment, his mind was as clear as bulletproof glass, as still as a frozen pond.
He kissed her, coming down, and her soft smile made the landing easier. As he moved off her, he pulled his discarded shirt up to keep her from chill, and she clutched the collar to her chest. Already the mansion's air felt cool and threatening against her skin.
"I'm afraid to tell Clark. About this," she added when he didn't immediately react.
Another man might have been annoyed at the mention of the ex-lover as the first thing she'd said since she screamed out his name. "I want to tell Clark," he said, then tried to make it gentler with a rueful smile.
"I don't want to hurt him."
"Lex!" She was scandalized, a little afraid, a little thrilled. He had to be careful or he'd lose the woman she was to the woman she wanted to be.
"I promised you the truth, Lana. It's not nice but it is honest."
She considered that. "All right," she said, smiling up at him just a little, pleased by his trust. "But - I should tell him."
In the long run, Lex thought, Lana's way of breaking the news was going to hurt Clark more. Not that he had a problem with that, and it might well save him from another beat-down. Head injuries were so 2001.
He nodded. "You'll do what you think is best." There was a strand of hair on her cheek, a dark line like a meteor trail in the sky. He brushed it away, earning a more tender smile. His trust was sunlight to her; like a sunflower, she felt herself turning to him.
"I'm going to take care of you," Lex promised her. "I know that we'll be good together."
Lana reached over to bring his face to hers again. She kissed him - the first real initiative she'd shown, immensely reassuring to Lex. Her hand moved over his chest, exploring the textures he hadn't given her time to investigate on her own.
As he returned to his dedicated exegesis of her body, Lex felt whole, after so long in tatters. There were still pieces missing - bites taken by Julian and his mother, whole mouthfuls by Clark and his father - but he didn't need to tell himself the truth. He'd let the meteor rocks give him this feeling, just like love, only better. He would bind Lana to him with every secret in his possession. The matter of Clark, alone -
Lana sighed underneath him, her eyes closed as she arched up into his touch.
"I will always love you. I will never leave you."
She looked up at him, so grateful. She hadn't understood that those were her second and third wishes from the genie that haunted Smallville. She didn't think that someday, she might not want them so much.
"I'll do everything for you," he promised.
And meant it.
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