xXx

She did as Lex suggested, albeit unwillingly; she simply couldn't fight off the encroaching tiredness that seemed reluctant to leave her. She lapsed back into the realm of haunting echoes and visages, went back to fighting a fight that she simply could not win.

At some point, driven away perhaps by her utter weariness and by her body's need of healing, the dreams fled and left her in the grip of a deep and untroubled slumber. When next she woke it was slowly, eyes fluttering open to fix upon the dimness of the fluorescent panel lights directly over her bed. For a while she simply very still, gaze unfocused, gathering thoughts both dire and perturbing, trying to get a grasp on the situation, trying to remember where she had gone wrong in order to wind up here. Long minutes had passed before a throat was quietly cleared, and her gaze flew once more to the corner of the room.

"Lex," she said, surprised. She had not honestly thought he would remain, though he'd said he would.

"Good morning," he replied, and from the huskiness of his voice she guessed he'd just recently woken from his own sleep. Most of his form was still shrouded in shadow, and as she watched his body unfolded itself from where it had been draped in the chair and stood. He crossed the room to the door, and adjusted the small dial that controlled the light switch. Chloe screwed her eyes shut as her surroundings were bathed in the harsh, artificial light, and when she opened them again Lex was seated once more in the chair, one leg outstretched and the other crossed over it.

Knowing he was waiting for her to tell him what he wanted, she quickly asked, "What time is it?"

He glanced down at the expensive watch adorning his wrist. "It's 9:00 am. Friday morning."

Friday morning … it had been Tuesday she'd been in her room, standing at her small desk sorting through the myriad of articles that needed editing for the next edition of the Torch when her window had exploded …

"How do you feel?"

Lex's question abruptly reined her disturbing reminiscing in, forcing her to focus on what issues were currently at hand: Lex Luthor, son of the man who wanted her dead. Son of the man that had –although indirectly- been the reason her father was currently unemployed. Son of the man that had played on her emotions, on her girlish infatuation for her best friend, and blackmailed her into espionage. And now the son wanted the truth from her, a truth that had in part placed him in a mental institution only a few months ago …

"I feel," she said, looking studiously at the wall, at anything but him, "Like I've been shot."

He made a sound, one of amusement or acknowledgement she couldn't tell. Please leave, she found herself wishing silently, fervently. Leave and don't ask me questions I can't give you the answer to. He wouldn't go until he had what he wanted, she knew; though he lacked most of the unscrupulous, undesirable traits of his father, he had inherited the iron clad, subtle stubbornness that made Lionel Luthor such a force to reckon with both within the corporate world and without. It was tempting, so very tempting, to spill her secrets to Lex, to tell him everything that had weighed so heavily on her these past few long months. She ached to share her burden, to dispense of the guilt and the fear that riddled her mind every minute of every day. But she couldn't, she simply couldn't; Lionel had gone to extreme lengths to ensure his son would forget what it was Chloe herself had divulged, and the knowledge that she was partially to blame in Lex's imprisonment was something that haunted her constantly.

She wouldn't let it happen again.

Even at the cost of your own life, Chloe? The question, unbidden, came to her from the reaches of her mind desperate for a reprieve from this private hell she'd ensnared herself in. Ignoring that part of her, ignoring the question and trying strongly to ignore the subsequent answer, she cast her attention back at Lex.

He was motionless, a picture of casual elegance lounging in what had to be an uncomfortable chair. It was something she'd admired him for, his ability to appear totally at ease and completely poised in any situation; it was something she'd wished she were able to do. Arms folded across his chest, features now revealed to her in the brightness of the lights, he watched her with an inscrutable calm that Chloe found intensely unnerving.

As though sensing her discomfort, he chose that moment to speak. "Are you ready to tell me why my father wants you dead, Chloe?"

Ah, the words she'd been dreading, spoken without any preamble. Desperate, she moved her eyes about the room, trying to formulate an outright denial, fighting the urge to reveal to him all she knew. "Lex," she said, and stopped, unable to continue. At a complete loss, she looked to him again with eyes that silently beseeched him to leave, to forget what he'd discovered, to simply let her be.

"I understand why you'd be hesitant, especially when you take into account what's just happened to you. But trust me, Chloe, just because this lackey failed to complete the job doesn't mean my father won't be sending another to finish it."

Though she'd already realized as much as he'd just said, Chloe couldn't help but blanch as she heard her fears spoken aloud. Seizing her reaction for emphasis, Lex stood and strode to the side of her bed, perching himself on the edge near the middle. "You've got to think rationally about this. Whatever he's got on you, it's not worth your life."

No, Chloe thought, averting her face as hot tears flooded her eyes, it's not. There was a momentary silence as she struggled to control the fear, the sorrow, which was clawing its way up inside of her, wanting a release.

"Chloe."

The soft yet authoritative insistence in his tone made her turn her head back to him reluctantly. His grey gaze, solemn yet undeniably concerned, made her want to cling to him as a lifeline in this reality that was so rapidly unraveling around her. "I won't stand idly by and watch as my father tries to destroy your life. I've done that too often in the past. I can help you."

"No," she said after a long moment, her voice wavering despite her best efforts to keep it from doing so, "You can't."

Lex drew back and rose to his feet, exasperation and other, darker things flitting momentarily across his face. "He'll kill you eventually." He said grimly, purposefully, trying to frighten her into revealing her secret.

Chloe closed her eyes. She already knew that. Lex began to speak again, but abruptly fell silent, and Chloe re-opened her eyes to find that the room to her door had moved. Seeing who stood in the doorway, a huge bouquet of pink and red roses in one hand and a look of complete, apprehensive adoration on his face, made the tears Chloe was fighting so hard to keep in check spill over break loose and trace moist paths down the pallor of her cheeks.

"Dad," she managed to choke out before she erupted into quiet sobs, and then her father was there, enveloping her in an embrace of roses.

xXx

Her father remained with her most of the day, constantly hovering at her side, asking her at least twice a minute if she felt okay. Her reassurances did little to persuade him, but she didn't mind; there was something about her father's presence that made her feel –ridiculously- safe. She cherished the feeling, because it was something she'd sorely missed in the weeks previous.

Lex had left shortly after her father's entrance, saying merely that he'd dropped by to wish Chloe well. The silent message in his eyes as he left warned Chloe that they weren't by any means through; he would return, and he would hound her for what it was she so unwilling to give. He understood, at least, that whatever it was she was entangled in she hadn't included her father, and he seemed content to leave it at that. Her father, however, was another matter, and as he asked her over and over again what happened the day she was shot she realized that neither Clark nor Lex had told anybody that her assailant had in fact been under the former employ of Lionel Luthor. She was grateful for that; for the same reasons she refused to tell Lex what he wished to know she wouldn't tell her father anything of the situation she was in, because to do so was to place him in danger. And so she merely acted as bewildered as he, saying over and over again she didn't know why someone would try and snipe her in her bedroom. Her father seemed to accept her feigned ignorance, and she was inwardly relieved.

It was nearing evening when Clark appeared, knocking hesitantly on the door. Her father ushered him enthusiastically, and urging him to bring his chair – the same chair Lex had occupied- closer to the bed. Clark obeyed, smiling his oh-so-familiar uncertain smile, and joined in the pleasant camaraderie of father and daughter. Inbetween chuckles and indignant exclamations, Chloe caught the glances Clark gave her, the looks of worry and concern. He wanted, she knew, to talk to her about the incident, perhaps even to tell her that her shooter was linked to her greatest enemy. Clark knew of her deal with the devil, and would have put two and two together instantly. The thought of what he'd say, of the way he'd admonish her for hiding the truth, of the way he'd take it upon himself to protect her, made something deep inside her ache.

She couldn't keep putting people in danger this way.

"Well, I'd better be off. Chloe's probably tired of me by now," her father, Gabe, said finally, standing and giving Clark a self-deprecating smile.

"No, I'm not," Chloe said, but her father waved off her protest with a grin.

"I know. But I need to get going; there's a lot of stuff to be done at home. I'll leave you here with Clark. Good night, sweetheart."

"Actually," Chloe blurted as her father bent down to kiss her cheek, "I'm pretty tired. I'm still not feeling all that great."

"That's okay. I'll stop by tomorrow," Clark said as he stood and moved the chair back to its original position, and as he followed her father to the door he gave her a look that was very similar in its content to the one Lex had bestowed upon her as he'd left. He said, in a soft voice audible only to the two of them as he paused on the threshold of her room, "We have a lot to talk about."

Chloe's heart sank, but instead she graced him with a small, unsteady smile, and the one he in return gave her was one of sadness. She couldn't help but wonder at that as the door closed behind them and she was left alone again, and she couldn't help but dread what awaited her tomorrow.

How was she going to keep the people she cared about from becoming mixed up in this mess – her mess?

xXx

The next morning she was informed by the doctor that came to check her condition that she would be released in the afternoon, and that her father had already been informed. She was torn between relief and dread at the news; while she hadn't felt safe in the hospital, outside its walls she was most certainly an open target yet again. She wasn't given time to dwell on her concerns, though, because from late morning until well afternoon she was besieged with visitors. While most of them were from school, two were acquaintances she had made during her short-lived stint as a columnist for The Daily Planet; their presence both surprised her and filled her with a rush of warmth that they cared. Her room was now fairly flooded with flowers, and after her last visitor had left she climbed out of the bed and made her way somewhat unsteadily over to examine the bouquets. There were several from her father, all of them roses, and some carnations in a myriad of hues from Lana. The staff from The Daily Planet had sent her a nice arrangement, as had her school. She came upon an exquisite bouquet of exotic looking orchids with a small, embossed card that read simply "Heal quickly, Chloe." It was signed by Lex. Smiling faintly as she surveyed all the flora cluttering the room, she suddenly felt less alone than she had before.

"Up and walking around, I see."

That voice -that low voice with the slight, distinguishing rasp- whipped Chloe's head around with a gasp. Lionel Luthor stood in the open door, impeccable and imperious in his foreign designer suit and the long dark coat that fell to hang about his ankles. As he stepped into the room Chloe retreated quickly around the bed so that it stood, a pathetic barrier, between herself and the man that wanted her dead. Once inside he cast a swift glance around, taking in everything Chloe had just been admiring, and when his gaze returned to her it was accompanied with an insincere and unpleasant smile.

"Glad to see you're healing fast, Miss Sullivan."

Staring at him, hating him, she struggled to control the scream of rage fighting its way up her throat. Instead she said tersely, "I just bet you are."

His eyebrows went up, and his smile widened. "Such hostility! I only came by to wish you well."

"You," Chloe snarled, hands gripping the metal railing along the edge of her bed so tight her fingers ached, "are the reason I'm in here."

They stared at each other a long moment; his smile faded, and as it did so a cold and clinical gleam grew in his eyes. "It wouldn't be prudent," he said finally, words clipped and sharp, "to accuse someone like me of something that absurd."

"Prudent," Chloe repeated with a sound that was half snort, half sob. If she'd been even a trifle prudent in the past, she wouldn't be in this mess now.

"Something," Lionel said, taking first one step and then another in her direction, circling the bed, "that you obviously aren't capable of being."

She groped blindly for the small button on the cord with which she could summon somebody, anybody, to come to her aid. Watching her, Lionel stopped where he was and shook his head. "It would be foolish, Miss Sullivan, to call the nurse in here over nothing."

"Get. Out." Chloe said in a voice that trembled, holding the call button in a tight death-grip.

"All in due time. There's a reason I'm here, of course. I-"

"Hello, Dad." At the sound of the new voice, Lex's voice, Chloe felt her legs go weak with relief. The Luthor heir stood in the doorway, hands within the pockets of his navy thigh length coat, his own small version of an unfriendly smile twisting his lips as his father turned to face him.

"Lex." Lionel greeted, and it was astounding to Chloe how swiftly his voice could go from vaguely threatening to hearty and welcoming. "I just stopped by to see how Miss Sullivan was faring before I left for Metropolis."

"She doesn't look like she's enjoying herself," Lex remarked idly, eyes flicking over to Chloe were she stood on the other side of the bed, face pale and breath coming quickly, before fixing again on his father.

"Yes, well, I was just leaving. I believe she's had a lot of visitors today already, I have no wish to tire her out." The elder Luthor brushed past his son, stopped, and turned to nod in Chloe's direction. "Get well soon, Miss Sullivan."

Lex watched as his father left the room; Chloe made her way back around the bed and collapsed onto it, noticing in a vaguely detached way that her hands were shaking. Fisting them in her lap, she grit her teeth against the overwhelming weakness and futility she felt in the aftermath of Lionel's presence. She was a strong person –she always had been. But Lionel Luthor could strip that from her in a heartbeat, could lay her soul bare in only a few moments, and she hated that he could do that almost as much as she hated him.

"I'm sorry," Lex said from the doorway, and Chloe looked up at him blankly. "For my father," he added. "I'm sorry that he came here."

"It's not your fault, Lex."

He didn't respond to that, instead entering the room and moving to look at her collection of flowers, which had grown considerably in the hours since he'd last been there. With his back to her, he asked almost conversationally, "What did my father have to say?"

Chloe was saved from answering by a quiet knock on the door; both she and Lex looked to find Clark standing there. He nodded at Lex and smiled at Chloe as he entered, holding out for her his own bouquet. Chloe took them with an exclamation; further examination revealed they were calla lilies, her favorite type of flower. "Clark!" She said, beaming, Lionel Luthor momentarily forgotten. "How did you know?"

"Lana told me." Clark replied, tucking his hands in his pockets and smiling somewhat proudly.

"Excellent taste," Lex said. He reached out to take the lilies from her and set them on the small table with the rest of the flowers.

"How are you feeling?" Clark asked Chloe.

"Good. Better," she amended quickly as Clark raised an eyebrow at her blithe remark. "Much better than I did. They're letting me go home today."

"Is home the best place for you?" Lex asked from the corner, where he'd settled down again into the chair.

"It's – it's my home, Lex. Where else would I go?"

"I think you should take some things into consideration, Chloe. Obviously home isn't the safest place to be, considering what just happened to you."

Chloe opened her mouth, closed it, and looked to Clark for aid. But her best friend was nodding his head in agreement with what Lex was saying. "He has a point, Chloe. What's to say you won't be attacked again?"

"I can't go anywhere else," she said a little wildly, as she began to realize what exactly her two male friends were getting at.

"Actually, you can," Lex said.

Chloe shook her head. She knew now where this was going. "I'm going home," she said as firmly as she could, and when both Lex and Clark scowled she began to protest further but stopped when she saw Lana in the doorway, a black duffel bag in one hand.

Ignoring Clark's reaction to Lana's appearance just as she always did, Chloe asked, "Is my dad coming, Lana?"

"Actually, I'm your ride home." Lana offered a quick smile at both the males in the room and moved to sit beside Chloe on the bed. "He was going to come, but he's sort of busy setting up a surprise for you and asked me to come instead."

"I like surprises," Chloe said with a grin she honestly hoped looked genuine; it was hard enough to cope with both Clark and Lex knowing –partially- the truth of the situation she was in, and she had decided that there was absolutely no way she could involve Lana as well.

"You'll like this one," Lana said mysteriously, a ghost of her own grin flitting about her mouth. "Are you feeling well enough to come home?"

"Yes." Chloe said at the same time Lex made a noise of disapproval. Glaring at him, Chloe gestured to the door. "You two boys get out of here. I need to change and get ready to go."

"Chloe," Clark said in a tone of pleading, but Chloe shook her head.

"I'm going home, and I want to go now. I'm tired of this place. I'll see you two later."

She didn't watch as the two males left the room. When they had gone without further argument, closing the door behind them, Lana asked softly, "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. They're just – they're just being themselves. Overprotective."

"Ah." Lana nodded her head knowingly; she knew that aspect of Clark and Lex all too well. She handed Chloe the duffel bag. "Here's some clothes I brought you. I'll wait outside while you change."

"Thanks, Lana." Chloe said, and was surprised when her friend enfolded her in a very abrupt, very tight hug.

"I was so scared for you, Chloe," she whispered when she pulled away, expression solemn. She rose to her feet left the room, closing the door as she did so.

"So was I," Chloe said quietly.

xXx