Disclaimer: Smallville and all related elements, characters and indicia © Tollin-Robbins Productions and Warner Bros. Television, 2002. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Tollin-Robbins Productions and Warner Bros. Television. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.
Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.
Author's Note: This story is set before "Kinetic." The author wishes to acklowledge the best betas of all time: wookie, kathe, perri, yahtzee, victoria, sullivan lane, teri, and everyone along the way who caught typos, continuity errors (damned swords...) Check out the cover.
The Sixth Hour
by Tara LJC O'Shea
"Winter Formal," Chloe said as she dropped into the chair opposite Clark. The Beanery was packed—Saturday in Smallville was pretty hopping, as everyone in the area came into town to do their shopping and catch up with one another.
"Good morning, Chloe. Nice to see you. Beautiful weather we're having, isn't it?" Clark said with a smile as Chloe waved to the waitress. In all the time he had known Chloe, her habit of starting a conversation in the middle never ceased to amaze him. Sometimes, it was as if she assumed everyone could read her mind, and expected them to all know exactly what she was thinking about. The sad part was, they'd known each other long enough that at times, he could do exactly that. But he teased her anyway; mostly because it was funny to watch her get riled. And because she took just as much delight in busting his chops, and turnabout was fair play...
"Coffee with a shot of espresso, " Chloe said to the bored-looking college girl who came over with a pad and pen to take their order.
"Who are you taking to the formal?" Chloe asked, turning back to Clark as she shucked her heavy coat. Officially, according to the groundhog, winter only had a few weeks to go. Unofficially, Kansas was just beginning to shake off a hard winter that still froze puddles solid overnight. Outside, snow had blown into drifts against the buildings and the roofs were blanketed just like in a Christmas card, although Christmas had come and gone.
"No one. Hello—Winter Formal is for upperclassmen, remember?" Clark reminded her, and from the way her eyes were sparkling, he really should have known better.
"Upperclassmen, and the Smallville Torch," she said, pulling out an envelope from the pocket of her coat and handing it with a triumphant smile to Clark. He opened it, and gaped at the tickets inside.
"So, who are you taking to Winter Formal?" she asked, all innocence, and Clark's eyes strayed to Nell's flower shop, where Lana stood outside in front of Whitney Fordman's truck, chatting with the young football player at the wheel. His expression grew wistful as the pretty teen gave her boyfriend a peck on the cheek, and then disappeared into her aunt's store.
"Earth to Clark—unless your buddy Lex can scare up a Metropolis Sharks scout to top the Kansas State guy, I think we know who Lana's going to the dance with."
"I know," Clark said, cupping his chin in his hand. "Believe me, I know. What about you?"
"Well, let's see—Sean tried to trap me in a frozen swimming pool and suck up all of my body heat, and Eric's got about ten years of behavioural therapy ahead of him, thanks to throwing a police car into his house. My dating track record is not the best. I figure: stag. Safer that way."
"What about Pete?"
"Pete's crush du jour, Kelley Mills, will be wearing pink and expects to be picked up at 6pm. Besides, no offence to Pete, but no girl likes to be taller than her prom date."
"It's not prom. It's Winter Formal. And anyway, you are not taller than Pete!"
"You haven't seen the shoes I plan to wear."
"Lemme guess—combat boots?"
"I'll have you know I clean up nicely, thank you."
"I guess I just never pictured you for the prom type. Not after your rant about Homecoming."
"It is true, I normally abhor the Dawson Creek crowd's obsession with spending a small fortune on a dress you'll wear maybe once—twice if you end up a bridesmaid for your cousin Ethel's wedding—and an evening of bad food and worse music, thanks to a DJ who treats the night like a 7th Grade mixer, usually topped off by really ill-advised unprotected sex in the backseat of someone's car out in the middle of a field."
"Normally," Clark repeated, waiting for the punchline. After a rant like that, Chloe always had a punchline.
"Yes. But I got free tickets." Her smile was carefree, and Clark couldn't help but mirror it, even as he shook his head, bemused.
"And the free-ness makes it all okay?"
"Pretty much. Also, hard to have ill-advised unprotected sex in the back of a car in a field when you're going stag. It's a win-win situation."
"So, what's your strategy?" Lex asked as Clark set the jars of his mother's prize-winning ("Not bad for a city gal," his mom always joked) canned peaches, jellies and jams down on the Italian marble kitchen countertop. Lex had, per usual, completely cleaned out their stock. Martha Kent joked, much to her husband's annoyance, that the Luthor household was single-handedly keeping Kent's Organic Produce afloat. Clark wondered where it was all going—Lex certainly didn't entertain much, and the gigantic old manor house was almost always empty. But this week, he'd already made four deliveries to the house and he had another two scheduled.
"Strategy?" he echoed as he let the now-empty box dangle from one hand and leaned against the counter.
"It's prom, Clark," Lex said, as if patiently explaining something to a child.
"It's not prom. Prom is in May. It's Winter Formal."
"Prom. Winter Ball. It's a major social event, and will possibly have a defining impact on your future."
"And Lana is going with Whitney," Clark said with a shrug as the maid came over and began shelving the jars.
"You act as if that means something," Lex said as he started walking back towards the main hall of the manor.
Clark's good-natured laughter echoed in the cavernous hall. "It kinda does, actually."
"Clark, Clark, Clark... how many times do I have to remind you not to give up the war over a skirmish?" Lex sighed, and clapped Clark on the shoulder. "So she's technically going with the quarterback. That doesn't mean you don't plan a strategy."
"You're as bad as Chloe."
"Ms. Sullivan seems to have a handle on the situation. You should listen to her."
"I do listen to her," Clark said quickly. "I mean, most of the time."
"When she's not talking about genetic mutations and aliens?"
"You don't believe in aliens?" Clark asked, one eyebrow raised.
"I'm not convinced there's intelligent life on this planet yet."
Clark laughed again. "You're something else, Lex."
"So they say. Think about it, Clark. Whitney won't be in the picture forever, right? He'll graduate, and Lana will still be here. If you play your cards right, here with you."
"I'll just have to keep helping him with his English homework so he gets into a good school, then, huh?"
Lex shook his head in wonder. "You amaze me, Kent."
"I try," Clark said with a broad smile. "So, if you don't mind my asking, why the sudden run on canned peaches?"
"Françoise's making her famous cobbler."
Clark gave him a look.
"I'm throwing a dinner party next week-end. My father's coming," Lex finally admitted. "Annual inspection."
"Of the plant?"
"The plant, me, the house; pretty much everything."
"It can't be that bad. You said he was proud of you over that whole Hardwick thing, right?"
"Yes. The words 'I'm proud of you' did, in fact, pass his lips, and they were directed at me," Lex said, his voice tinged with bitterness. "My father was proud of me for sleeping with and using the daughter of a business associate. It was quite the Kodak moment."
"Well, from what you told me," Clark began, breaking the slightly uncomfortable silence that had stretched between them, "she was pretty much using you, right?"
"More than you know," Lex said, cryptically, and Clark decided to just let that one lie. There was some stuff, he figured, that he really, really just didn't need to know.
"I'm sure it'll be okay," Clark insisted. "You've done a great job with the plant."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Clark. But I learned a long time ago that if my father's determined to find fault with something, nothing can ever really stand in his way. And he's very, very good at finding fault with something when I'm involved."
Clark wanted to reassure his friend, but the fact of the matter was, Lex's assessment of Lionel Luthor was pretty much borne out by the facts. Since Lex had moved to Smallville, Clark had watched Lex drive himself crazy trying to win his father's approval and make the plant a financial success. He'd found a way to cut the budget without layoffs, when any other executive would have gladly fired 20 of their staff instead. That act of defiance seemed to have cost Lex dearly, as the elder Luthor appeared more determined than ever to watch his only child fail. Then with that whole mess with Earl at the Plant, and Level Three, father and son seemed even more at odds with one another. Lionel had used his son, the same way he seemed to use everyone else. That was outside the realm of Clark's own experience. He and his dad may have had their disagreements, but he never doubted for a single second that his father loved him. He wished he could tell Lex that he was just freaking out, and it would all be just fine. But he knew that would be a lie.
"Well, if you need anything—"
"—I know who to call," Lex said with a smile as he opened the front door of the manor open for Clark and froze in his tracks.
A woman stood, leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed. Her curly dark hair was tamed into a tight plait, and her wide mouth was quirked in a wry smile. She wore a tweed jacket over a sand-coloured lambswool turtleneck, and her crisp black slacks and boots were the uniform of every twenty-something woman in Metropolis or Gotham, Lex mused. But she wasn't in Metropolis. Or Gotham. She was standing at his front door, a long black limousine parked in the driveway behind her, its engine still running.
"Alexander the Great, answering his own door? How the mighty have fallen!" she said, dark eyes shining with bemusement.
Lex covered his initial shock immediately, but he knew she'd caught it and marked it. She always would. She always did. "Clark Kent, I'd like you to meet Miranda Caldwell."
"My pleasure," Clark said as he shifted the boxes to his other hand and took the hand the Miranda offered.
"Clark," Lex said, turning to the boy, "can I catch up with you later?"
"Sure," Clark said with a grin, and threw the boxes into the passenger seat of his dad's truck. Lex watched the truck pull out and waited until it was halfway down the never-ending driveway to the highway before he turned back to his unexpected guest.
"How are you, Miranda?" he asked as he ushered her inside.
"I'm in Kansas, Lex," she said, as if she herself could not believe it. "Kansas," she repeated. "What do they grow here—corn?"
"Wheat. They grow wheat."
"I'm in a special circle of hell."
Lex chuckled. Miranda was definitely a city mouse, always had been—flitting from Metropolis to Chicago to New York to Gotham on a whim, never more than 10 minutes from the pulsing heart of an urban sprawl where everything delivered, no one slept, and you couldn't see the stars for the glow of the streetlamps. And once upon a time, he would have been right there with her. But the months he'd spent in Smallville, he'd begun to think of it as home. Certainly, he'd protect it in any way he could. Like a feudal lord looking after his vassals, his father would have said. But he preferred the image of patron to master. The town, and its inhabitants, had grown on him. "What brings you to hell, then?"
"A plane. And then a smaller plane. And then a driver," she said dryly. "Did your father purposely strand you as far away from civilisation as humanly possible?"
"No, for that, he would have had to have me sent to the Luthor plant in Alaska. Which may be my next stop, if I screw this up." He moved to the liquor cabinet, and poured himself a single malt scotch. He held up a glass, but she shook her head. Drink in hand, he joined her on the couch.
"You should have told me you were coming. I would have sent the helicopter."
"I wanted to surprise you," she said, resting her chin in her hand.
"Then you succeeded. I didn't think I'd ever see you again. Not after Milan." He sipped the scotch, watching her reaction out of the corner of his eye. But there wasn't one. She remained cool, calm, and all together collected.
"Times change," she said simply.
"You don't. You look just the same."
"It's only been two years, Lex," she pointed out. "That kind of flattery would be better used when we're both old and grey. Well, old, anyway."
"I heard about your father, Miranda. I'm sorry," he said with heartfelt sympathy, which seemed to take her aback.
"Thank you," she said quietly, her entire demeanour shifting slightly. She glanced at the floor, and absently brushed imaginary lint from her knee.
"I remember how hard it was for me, when my mother died. How are you holding up?"
She shrugged. "You know me. I manage."
"How's Ariel taking it?" he asked carefully, but Miranda only shrugged.
"You know Ariel. Nothing ever slows her down. Not even a funeral," she said with a humourless chuckle. "She sent a lovely floral arrangement."
Silence stretched between them, and Miranda reached for his glass, taking a sip before handing it back to him.
"So why are you here?" he switched gears as he stared at the lipstick on the edge of the cut crystal tumbler. She leaned back, meeting his eyes again.
"I have a business proposition for you. And you're the only boy billionaire I know."
"What about Bruce Wayne?"
"You're the only boy billionaire I've slept with," she said smoothly, her dark eyes never leaving his.
"So you're hoping to cash in, so to speak, on our past?" Lex asked smoothly, turning the glass and taking another sip.
"I'm hoping that you will recognise an excellent business opportunity."
"And that would be?"
"Helping me gain controlling interest of the Daily Planet."
"Ah." Lex turned his tumbler so that the cut crystal and amber liquid within caught the light.
He was very familiar with Miranda Caldwell's obsession with the Planet. Her mother was descended from the Merriweathers, one of the founding families of Metropolis, and a distant relation had been one of the newspaper's founders. Miranda had inherited a chunk of stock and a burning desire to be a part of the family business. Despite several internships, she had yet to publish anything other than obits and puff pieces buried in the back pages. And he knew it rankled her to fetch coffee and do legwork for the staff reporters. He was intimately familiar with what it was like to have no patience for the chain of command. But that didn't mean he was going to hand her a blank cheque.
"Lex, the news today isn't just about papers on street corners any more," Miranda said, dead earnest. "It's wired. It's satellite. It's more. And I can do that. I know it."
"With my money."
"With your support," she corrected him smoothly.
"Which is best represented by my money," he repeated, unrepentant.
"You're a very cynical man."
"No. I'm a shrewd businessman," he countered. "The Daily Planet is an institution. I just don't know if it would be in my best interest —financial or otherwise—to jeopardise an institution." He also chose not to mention his father's own interest in the paper. Somehow, he had a feeling that would not deter her one bit.
"How can you be so sure you would be jeopardising it?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
Lex decided to go with the truth. It seemed the wisest course. "Miranda—you're a twenty-two year old journalism major. What do you know about running any newspaper, let alone a major metropolitan newspaper?"
"Perry White's a dinosaur."
"Perry White's won every journalistic award ever invented."
"I never said he wasn't a good editor—or a good writer. I said he's a dinosaur. Out of touch with the times."
"I'd forgotten about your particular brand of candour."
"Time was, you'd call it bluntness. Time was, it was what you liked about me. Has that changed, too?"
"I wasn't the one who left," he reminded her.
"No. You were the one I found in bed with my sister," she shot back, but without venom. Just the facts, ma'am. Nothing but the facts.
"So I take it you won't be spending the night?" he feigned innocence.
"I always said you were a clever boy."
"Before we go any further," he said as he took another sip of scotch, "I feel I should tell you that if you were counting on your feminine charms, in this particular case, that approach may not be the best way to go."
"Let's just say that I got seriously burned by the last old flame who waltzed into town with a 'business proposition' for me."
"Duly noted." She took the glass from his hand, and knocked back the last swallow of scotch. "Thanks for the drink."
"Arg!" Chloe wadded up the paper she had just taken off the printer and flung it across the Torch offices. It bounced harmlessly off the wall above the fire extinguisher and landed three feet from the waste paper basket, which was fine, because Clark was pretty sure she hadn't actually been aiming for the waste paper basket.
"Something wrong?" he asked, looking up from his own screen where he was supposed to be coding Pete's write up of last week's science fair, but was in fact making a list of all the different ways he could theoretically break every bone in Whitney Fordman's body in such a way that a) he would not be able to take Lana to the Winter Formal and b) it could never be traced back to Clark. So far, he had "attack by crazed yeti" and "accident at monster truck rally" crossed off, and the rest of the screen was blank.
"The lead on the swim team piece sucks," Chloe scowled. "I just can't get a handle on it. And we need another two inches on the Drama Club, and I can't think of a single thing I could print about Smallville High's production 'Guys and Dolls' that wouldn't bring the Wrath of Kwan down on my head, and I hate my life. Have I mentioned I hate my life?"
Clark un-crumpled the printout, and scanned the current front-page story. "Your lead's fine."
"'Smallville High's very own fish-out-of-water netted their first regional championship last Thursday'? Clark, that sucks."
"I think it's snappy."
"I think it's lame. And as editor, I choose to call it 'lame' and reject it out of hand," Chloe snapped as she reached up and snatched the printout from his fingers, re-wadded it up, and this time launched it at the wall behind Pete, who continued to lay out the advertising section at the back of the issue, nonplussed.
"Is something bothering you, Chloe?"
"Oh man," Pete said, looking up from the iMac in his corner of the office, "you shouldn't have asked, buddy. The whole bus ride this morning—"
"You wanna live to see your next birthday, Ross?" Chloe said sweetly, and Pete held up his hands in defeat, and went back to laying out the ad pages. Chloe jabbed at her keyboard with her pencil, scowling, and Clark got up and sat on the edge of her desk.
"Chloe, what's wrong?" he asked as he snatched the writing implement from her fingers and dropped it in her pencil cup.
"Oh, nothing much—just, you know, everything," she said as she leaned back in her chair, sighing. "My dad promised me he'd take me to the big outlet mall off the highway, so I could get a dress for the formal. But he's been working late every night this week, practically living at the plant, so no dress. The formal's this week-end, and I have no idea how I'm getting there or back because Dad's got this big dinner at Stately Luthor Manor and can't drive me, and to top it all off, nobody asked me."
"Asked you?" Clark echoed.
"To the dance," Chloe said, looking absolutely miserable.
"I thought you were going stag?" Clark asked, confused.
"I am. But it would have been nice to have actually been asked to the dance, you know? To actually feel like I'm actually there because someone wants me there, other than to just take snapshots of Whitney and Lana collecting yet another title and tiara."
"Actually, I already have a drawer full of tiaras, and I'd be just as happy if they elected someone else Queen of the Winter Ball," came a voice from the doorway. Chloe blushed to the roots of her blonde hair as Lana entered the Torch offices, smiling despite Chloe's overheard remark.
"I'm such a total bitch. I'm sorry."
"Hey, I never vote for me, " Lana said with a laugh. "I brought the article on the tutoring program."
"Thanks. I mean it. I just... it's making me slightly crazed, you know? I didn't set out to become a shallow, self-absorbed teen. It just snuck up on me unawares after puberty."
"It happens," Lana said sympathetically. "Nell and I were headed out to the mall after school—we'd be happy to give you a lift."
"Sure. And I may not be the Torch's fashion editor, but I'll even give free, unsolicited advice if you like."
"I can't believe I'm saying this about fashion advice, but that would really be great," Chloe admitted. "I love my Dad, but he went to high school in the early seventies, and I think that says it all right there. And I'm more thrift-store chic, myself. Ball gowns are kinda outside my area of expertise."
"As for the other half of your dilemma," Lana began, tapping her finger against her lips, deep in thought before she whirled on Clark, "Have you asked anyone to the dance yet?"
Clark's mouth went completely dry and he lost the ability to form a coherent sentence.
"Why don't you and Chloe go together?" Lana—oblivious to his paralysis—suggested, a smile lighting up her entire face. It was the smile that nudged him from coma to verbal.
"Sure," he finally managed, smiling, and tuned to Chloe, "I mean, I've got to drop some stuff off at Lex's that night anyway—if you can catch a ride with your dad that far, I can take us to the dance from there."
Chloe blinked rapidly, looking back and forth at Clark, Lana, and then finally at Clark again, a flush rising in her cheeks. "Um... sure. Good. No, this is good. This makes sense, it's convenient, it works for both of us. Sure."
"Great," Clark said, grinning. "In that case, I'll pick you up at Lex's at seven."
"See you then!" Chloe said brightly, and Clark followed Lana out into the hall.
Chloe waited until the door to the Torch offices had firmly shut behind Clark and Lana before she let her head drop to the desktop with an audible 'thud.'
"I hate my life."
"Chloe—why do you let him do that to you?" Pete asked, shaking his head.
"Do what?" she said, still face-planted among the copy for the next issue.
"You know how we're always ragging on Clark, turning into Mr. El Dorko whenever Lana Lang is around?"
"Okay, 'cause I'm getting you matching monogrammed towels, Mrs. El Dorko." Pete shook his head sadly. "You totally have a thing for the boy."
"I do not."
"What stage of grief is denial again?" Pete asked, and she looked up, resting her chin on her fists. "Sullivan, face it: you wanted Clark to ask you to the dance."
"What if I did?" she said, a defensive edge creeping into her voice.
"Why didn't you just Sadie Hawkins his ass?"
"Oh, yeah, right."
"I'm serious. You're all 'Clark, just ask Lana out' all the time. Why not?"
"Because he's Clark," Chloe said, because it was easier than saying what she really meant, which was 'Because I wanted him to really ask me because he wanted to ask me, not because Lana told him to.'
"Well, he finally kinda sorta asked you out."
Her head thumped back down onto the desk. "I'm in hell."
"Thanks for taking Chloe to the mall," Clark said as they wove their way toward the banks of metal lockers through hallways brimming with lunchtime crowds. "I'm sure she really appreciates it."
"I like Chloe; and I'm still feeling like I should make it up to her, over the whole Torch thing," Lana said as she stopped at her locker to get her books for her afternoon classes. Clark leaned against the row of lockers, taking the book from her hands so she could unzip her backpack. "Besides, I think you guys make a cute couple."
"Whoa," Clark stopped, chem lab journal in hand. "Lana, Chloe and I are just friends."
"Funny, that's just what she said," Lana said with a bemused smile as she rescued the chem journal, and zipped the bag back up.
Clark felt a flush creep up his neck. "But, we really are. Just friends."
Lana gave him a measured look as she slung her bag over her shoulder. "How long have you known Chloe?"
"Ever since she and her dad moved here."
"And you've never, you know..." Lana's eyes sparkled, "thought of her as a pretty girl?"
"Sure, Chloe's pretty," Clark shrugged. "And she's gonna make some lucky—if possibly insane—guy a great girlfriend someday. But she's like the sister I never had."
"So it was like kissing your sister?" Lana asked in a stage whisper, and the flush blossomed into a full-blown blush.
"But that wasn't Chloe, that—" he glanced around, and dropped his voice so they wouldn't be overheard, "that was Kyle. I mean, Kyle could do this thing—"
"Do you really believe in hypnosis?" Lana interrupted him, and Clark realised that Chloe must not have told Lana the 'Wall of Weird' version of events, exactly.
"I guess," Clark said.
"The thing I always read about hypnosis is that you can't ever make someone do anything they wouldn't normally do."
She gave him another warm smile, and then was swallowed by the crowd as the forth period bell rang, leaving Clark confused, embarrassed, and late for gym class.
Lex took the Styrofoam cup of cappuccino from the smiling waitress, leaving three dollars on the counter as he turned and surveyed the crowd at the Beanery. Catching sight of a familiar face, he strode over to a small table in the corner.
"How long are you in town for?" he asked as Miranda glanced up from the stack of newspapers in her lap.
"However long it takes to wear down your resistance," she said matter-of-factly, sipping her coffee as he pulled out the unused chair and sat down.
He picked up the Smallville Ledger from the stack, paging through it idly. "There are some lovely old townhouses for sale on the east side of town that just need a little fixing up to be habitable, and I can recommend an excellent contractor."
"I have found the one corner of the Earth where Starbucks holds no sway. Who knows? Maybe I will take up residence. Know of any openings at the Smallville Ledger?"
"I hear they're looking for someone to cover the Spring Garden Walk," Lex suggested, completely deadpan.
"How do you live here?" she asked, her sweeping gesture covering not only the coffee house, but the entire town.
"My father told me the Caesars of Rome used to send their sons out to the farthest flung corners of the empire, to learn how the world worked."
"I always saw Lionel Luthor more like Henry Plantagenet than Julius Caesar. Of course, the only question is which son does that make you?" She cocked her head slightly, a finger pressed to her lips.
"With my luck, probably Geoffrey," Lex admitted with a wry smile. "Truth be told, I've come to appreciate the simplicity of bucolic life. Also, I have more money than God, and have everything flown in from Metropolis."
She laughed. It was a good laugh—genuine. Nothing about it screamed liquored up socialite looking to bag a billionaire. He remembered that laugh. It had been two years since he'd heard it. "My father's arriving tomorrow, and I'm having a small dinner party Saturday night," he said casually.
"Is the Ledger looking for a society page editor too, or was that an invitation?"
"Cocktails at seven, and dinner's at eight."
"I haven't seen your father since my deb ball."
"Wish I could say the same." Lex dropped the weekly paper back on the table, and leaned forward, giving her his full, undivided attention. "Why are you so interested in the Planet?"
"Because it's the best," she said, taking another sip of coffee.
"No, that's what I would say if someone asked why I was interested in the Planet. Try again." She gave him a quizzical look. "C'mon, Miranda. Humour me."
"Because it's the only thing I've ever shared with a mother I never knew," she said quietly, staring down at the masthead.
"Getting closer. I almost bought that one. But keep trying."
Her head snapped up, colour flooding her cheeks, and Lex was fairly sure that if looks could kill, they'd be zipping up the body bag right about now. Folding the newspapers under her arm, Miranda got up and stalked out of the Beanery just as Clark entered, Pete and Chloe in tow.
"What was that about?" Clark asked as Chloe and Pete waited at the counter to place their orders.
"Don't worry about it—nothing candy, flowers, and about $3 million won't fix," Lex waved his concern away. "So, Clark, do you own a tux?"
Clark looked confused, and Lex chuckled.
"Winter Formal is two days away and counting, remember?"
"Believe me—I know. Lana took Chloe shopping. I think Chloe is composing an epic of Homeric proportions about the evil of fluorescent lights in changing rooms. Which reminds me, is it okay of Chloe tags along with her dad to dinner Saturday, and I pick her up when I drop off the produce?"
Lex raised an eyebrow. "You're going to the dance with Chloe?"
"I'm her ride," Clark said quickly. "We're just going as friends."
"I see," Lex said, sure from Clark's reaction that it was obviously a sore point with him right now. He filed that away for later, when Ms. Sullivan was not ten feet away, loading her coffee with sugar and cocoa.
"Who did you go to prom with?" Clark asked, most likely in an attempt to steer the conversation away from dangerous territory.
"I went to an all male boarding school. Closest thing we got to prom was when they would bus in the Academy of the Sacred Heart girls for the Homecoming dance."
"And it wasn't the same?"
"From what I understand of the world and how it works, I'd have to say no," Lex said wryly. "Plus, nuns? Not conducive to what I would normally call a riotously good time."
"Was Miranda one of those Catholic school girls?"
Lex chuckled at the mental picture, then shook his head. "No, I met Miranda and her sister Ariel when we were kids. Our fathers worked together, and we had a lot in common after my mother died. The twins' mother died in childbirth."
"Identical. Down to the last mole," Lex said as he polished off the last of his cappuccino.
"I won't ask how you know that," Clark said, eyes sparkling, and Lex smiled.
"You're always a gentleman, Clark. From what I remember, Dr. Caldwell was not the most attentive of fathers. On their fifteenth birthday, he gave them gold and sapphire ID bracelets so he could tell them apart."
"Did they help?"
"I could always tell them apart," Lex said as Chloe and Pete Ross came over, coffee in hand. "So, I hear the Smallville Torch will be attending the Ball and Mr. Kent here will be driving the pumpkin?"
"I even got new glass boogie shoes," Chloe confirmed with a grin.
"Don't get her started on shopping," Pete warned. "You'll get the 'The world of High Fashion discriminates against real women with real women's bodies' rant, and it just never, ever ends."
Chloe kicked Pete in the shin lightly with one Doc Martin-clad foot. "Allow me to lay all your fears to rest. I will not be showing up for the Winter Formal in a potato sack."
"I'm sure you would be radiant in burlap," Lex assured her, and was rewarded with a blush.
"I tried to go for making a dress entirely out of duct tape, but Lana would have none of it. That girl's a marathon shopper. I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel after the first three fluffy meringue disasters. But she made me try on half of Dillard's and I think all of Parisian until we found something she considered 'acceptable.'"
"I'm sure you'll look great, Chloe," Clark reassured her.
"Thank you, Clark," she said with a genuine smile, and then turned and stuck her tongue out at Pete. "And high fashion does cater to size-0 teenaged girls armed with their mother's credit cards who are starving themselves to achieve Donner Party-chic, and it is evil, and just for that, I'm gonna pull you off of girl's basketball and assign you to cover the Chess Club's next match."
"Never pays to piss off the boss," Lex informed the crest-fallen Pete with a smile. "Speaking of which, I should be going. My father arrives in the morning, and I have to make sure the heads of his enemies are decorating the gate."
"He was kidding, right?" Pete asked as Lex stepped outside into the bright winter sunshine, and Clark grinned.
"With Lex, you never can tell."
Lex shielded his eyes from the weak but bright winter sun as the helicopter touched down. If Lionel Luthor could have ridden down from the sky on a beam of light, he would have. The private chopper was the next best thing.
"I'm glad you could be here, Clark," Lex said as his father exited the chopper, black coat flapping in the wind like crow's wings. Lionel was supposed to have arrived that morning, and Lex had been at the plant since eight in the morning, but he'd gotten calls all day from a battalion of secretaries telling him his father would be delayed. Lex knew that his father just loved to make him wait. Anticipation does half your work for you, he'd always told his son.
"Hey, what are friends for?" The young man grinned. Clark had called him that afternoon to ask how the inspection had gone, and when Lex told him it hadn't—yet—the teen had offered to tag along as 'moral support.' Lex had given in to a momentary whim and let him. Who knew? Maybe Lionel would restrain himself in front of witnesses. Lex doubted it, and the idea of having his father tear him a new one in front of his only friend was only slightly less appealing than going through with the inspection with no one at all there to support him. So he'd gone with the lesser of two evils.
"I wasn't aware that this tour was open to the public," Lionel said as the helicopter took off again, disappearing into the sky in the east.
"Clark here is a reporter for the Smallville Torch, and is writing a piece on summer internships at the plant," Lex lied smoothly, and without batting an eyelash. "I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? It's not like we have anything to hide, right, Dad?"
The elder Luthor's scowl was not diminished. "This is not a high school field trip, Lex."
"Which, given the last Smallville High field trip to the plant, is probably a good idea. You remember Clark, don't you, Dad? He was one of the young people held hostage. In fact, Clark saved my life for the second time that day."
"Business is no place for sentimentality, Lex. You know that. Tell your little friend to wait outside."
"It's okay, Lex," Clark shrugged. "I'll wait in the guardhouse."
Lex gave him a smile, and then turned to follow his father inside. Clark didn't envy his friend the next few hours.
Gabe Sullivan was talking—mostly about yields and improvements and percentages—but Lex had tuned him out completely as the three of them walked through the plant. He knew that his father's presence was merely a formality—"showing the flag," he'd always called it. Men and women looked up from their tasks, saw Lionel Luthor walking among them, and stood a little straighter, were that extra bit more attentive. Respect and fear. It didn't matter to his father which it was; all that mattered were the results.
Lex was different.
Lex wanted to be different.
As they made their way through corridors and office space, hangar-sized research labs and the catwalks three stories above the processing area, Lex went over the events of the last four months in his mind. Technically, his performance had been perfect. Despite what Dominic and the rest of his father's drones threatened, in reality the only person he was truly accountable to was his father. And he had made certain that no matter how Lionel Luthor would criticise his son's methods, the results were there. The plant was thriving. It provided jobs for a third of the town, and it was well below the EPA's requirements for facilities of its kind. Earth-friendly and profitable. It even out-performed the other four LuthorCorp fertiliser plants on occasion.
Great, Lex thought with a chuckle. I'm happy because there's more shit in Smallville. I must be out of my mind.
"Lex?" Gabe touched his shoulder, and Lex realised both the plant manager and his father were staring at him.
"Sorry Gabe—something just struck me as funny for a second there. On to the cafeteria, shall we?"
It was getting dark when the limo pulled up. Clark saw it from the guardhouse where he sat at the counter, finishing his Algebra homework. It rolled quietly up to the gate, and the driver got out and bummed a light off one of the security guards. Clark glanced at his watch—it was coming up on 5:30pm, and the parking lot had thinned out a lot in the last few hours as the workers whose shifts had started early had knocked off. Clark knew he should probably call his parents and let them know where he was, although normally he was at the Beanery hanging out with Chloe and Pete about this time of night and sometimes didn't get home until seconds before his 10 o'clock curfew. Super-speed definitely had its advantages.
The plant doors opened, and Clark saw Mr. Sullivan and Lex exit first. Lex and his father were talking rather animatedly, and Clark strained slightly to hear and suddenly it was as if he was standing right next to them, rather than forty feet away.
"A cocktail party? Lex, don't be absurd. I have far too much to do to waste my time—"
"Just think of it as yet another opportunity to play lord of the manor, Dad. I'm sure you'll warm right up to the idea. I've flown Françoise in from Paris, and she's preparing a sumptuous meal. If it's flying solo you're worried about, well, I'm sure we could fly your latest conquest in from Metropolis." Lex smiled innocuously.
"Your insubordination grows by leaps and bounds, Lex," Lionel said to his son after a tense pause. "Some day, I won't be as inclined to let it continue."
"Insubordination? You're my father, not my commanding officer. It's just a nice, quiet, family dinner. When was the last time we had one of those?" Lex was saying as Clark jogged over. "Clark! Are you up for some dinner?"
"Sorry, Lex. I told my mom I'd be home in time for her home-made—" Clark suddenly put his hands to his ears as a high-pitched sound dragged razor blades across his nerve endings.
"Clark?" Lex asked, brows furrowing.
"Sorry—I think I might be getting an earache," Clark said quickly, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. Outside the gate, on the shoulder of the road, was a car with tinted windows. A figure in shapeless coat and hat sat at the wheel, and was pointing a slim black rectangle directly at the stretch limousine Lionel was making a bee-line for. The driver was still down at the guard house—Clark could see him jotting down directions. Scanning the car with his x-ray vision, Clark's eyes widened as he saw a metal canister strapped to the under carriage, the LED display counting down from fifteen seconds.
Time slowed to a crawl as Clark feverishly tried to figure out what to do. He couldn't risk revealing his secret like this—not in front of Lex and Lionel. But at the same time, he couldn't let Lex's father die.
"Mr. Luthor!" Clark jogged over and blocked Lionel's path to the car—and putting himself between the vehicle and Luthor. "Mr. Luthor I just wanted to say... thank you. Even though I didn't get to go on the tour."
"I'm in a bit of a hurry, son." Lionel tried to side-step, but Clark anticipated, blocking his path. "Driver!" Lionel snapped, and the man in the chauffeur's cap began jogging back from the guard house. Clark risked another glance at the bomb. Only five seconds to go. The driver would probably make it, but Lionel was still too close.
"I know, sir, and it means a lot to know you've taken time out of your busy schedule," Clark said, taking a step forward, which forced Luthor to edge backward. "The plant means a lot to this town."
"Clark, what are you—" Lex began, and then the car blew.
Clark let the force of the blast carry him forward—sweeping Lionel up as he went. Counting on the heat and chaos as cover, Clark risked a burst of speed, and stumbled to the gravel a few feet away from Lex, who had throw up an arm in front of him and gone down on one knee. The three of them lay, panting (and, in Clark's case, smoking slightly) as waves of heat came off the burning automobile. Amid shouts from the security guards, people came pouring out of the plant to see what all the commotion was about and gasped. Clark zoomed in on the driver, who was lying, stunned, on the grass between the guardhouse and the burning wreckage, and scanned him quickly. No broken bones, and his heart rate was elevated, but not dangerously so. Not so much as he could tell, anyway, without a medical degree.
Lex was staring at him—no, correction, staring at the smoke coming off the back of his winter coat. "Clark, are you—"
"I'm okay," Clark assured him. He glanced back at the road, but the parked car was gone.
"What in God's name—" Lionel began, as debris rained down from the smoke-filled sky.
"I think somebody just tried to kill you, Dad," Lex said, his eyes wide and voice uncharacteristically devoid of sarcasm.
"I still don't understand what you were even doing there," Jonathan Kent said for the twelfth time as he paced across the kitchen.
"Dad, it's not like Lex knew the car was going to blow," Clark said in Lex's defence, and earned another scowl from his father.
"Son—you, Lex Luthor, and cars have so far not been a good combination," his father pointed out, arms crossed.
"What did you tell the police?" Martha asked, steering the subject away from Lex for the moment as she caught Jonathan's hand and guided him back to the kitchen table.
"The truth—the car blew up. No one was hurt. We were all very lucky."
"I need to get you a new winter coat—correction, another new winter coat," Martha said as she eyed the slightly charred parka hanging off the back of Clark's chair. The nylon had melted, and it was a wonder that Clark hadn't caught on fire himself.
Clark winced. "Sorry, Mom."
"If I have a choice between chicken fried jacket and chicken fried son—"
"—you'll take the jacket," Clark finished for her with a grin, which was quickly replace by a frown of consternation. "Before the limo blew, I heard something. High pitched whine—maybe a frequency too high for people to hear?"
Jonathan frowned. "The bomb must have been set off by a remote signal."
"Did you see anything suspicious?" Martha asked, and Clark frowned.
"There was a car parked off the main road outside the gate. I couldn't tell who was driving though—it all happened so fast. But the car was close enough for whoever was inside to see when Mr. Luthor was getting into the car."
"Lionel Luthor is a powerful man, with powerful enemies, and I don't want you caught in the crossfire, Clark. Just let the police handle it. And for heaven's sake, stay away from the Luthors until this is all over with."
"Um..." Clark looked down at his hands. "I'm kinda sorta picking Chloe up at the house tomorrow night, on our way to the dance."
"You're going to the dance with Chloe?" his mother said, her expression amused, and Clark sighed.
"As a friend, Mom. Just as a friend. She needed a ride."
"I never implied any different," his mother's voice was guileless, her expression serene. However, his father's expression remained grim.
"Clark, I do not want you getting mixed up in this. This isn't like the thing with Earl at the plant. We don't know what this person is capable of. It could be dangerous."
"I know, Dad. I'll be careful," Clark assured him.
"I'm gonna go to the Beanery," Clark called as he bounded down the stairs two at a time.
"Did you finish your homework?" his mother called from the kitchen.
"Don't stay out too late—you've chores to do before your big date tomorrow," she reminded him.
"It's not a date!" he called back as he let the screen door slam shut behind him, and stepped out into the back yard. Clark glanced back at the Kent farmhouse, his breath fogging in the crisp night air. Through the window, he could see his folks washing up the dinner dishes, and he waved to his mother. Martha waved back at him as she handed a plate to his dad to dry.
He was going to meet Chloe at the Beanery later. He just had one stop to make on the way.
Taking a deep breath, he took off in the direction of the plant, and arrived there in under a minute. He figured it pretty much had to be a new record for him. He could see the circles of light from the night watchmen's flashlights below, and walked, normal speed, along the side of the road until he reached the spot he thought he remembered the car being parked—a vantage point which afforded a clear view of the long black scorch-marks that marked where the wreckage of the limo had burned earlier that day.
He scanned the ground, looking for tire tracks, cigarette butts, anything that might give him a clue what he was looking for. He wished Chloe was there with him. She was much better at the investigative part of investigative journalism than he was. Or Pete. Although, he wagered they wouldn't be able to see in the dark quite as well as he could. And the part where he'd have to explain he's an alien from another planet and could hear things only dogs could hear would pretty much suck. Still, he could have used their insight if not their eyesight.
He was on the verge of giving up, when he saw something half buried in the ground alongside the road. Bending down to pick it up, and dug out a short length of chain. Turning it over in his hands and brushing away the mud and half-rotted leaves, he saw that it was large links of soft gold, with a flat piece in the middle, which might have had something engraved on it once. Now, it was scratched and gouged and whatever letters might have been there originally were eradicated. At first, he thought it might have been from being run over by a car's tires. But peering closer, he saw that some of the scratches and gouges were smooth with age.
Stones were set along the edge of the bracelet, and Clark was pretty sure that when he got the bracelet into the light, they would sparkle like sapphires.
There were three extras guards at the front gate when Clark arrived at Lex's. They called inside from the gatehouse phone, and one of them escorted him to the front door.
"Sorry about that," Lex said as he opened the heavy wooden door and Clark came inside. "We beefed up security."
"How's your dad?" Clark asked as Lex lead him to the great hall. A fire was burning in the fireplace, but the high-ceilinged room was still chilly. Clark noticed an empty brandy snifter on the side table, and wondered how many of them Lex had already had.
"Furious," Lex said with a chuckle as they sat. "Of course, that's mainly because the police asked him to stay in town during the investigation. Only my father would be 'terribly inconvenienced' by an assassination attempt."
Clark wasn't sure what to say to that. He didn't live in a world where people talked about assassination attempts, let alone survived them. Though, he supposed, he did now. It was an odd feeling, and he wasn't sure if it was because it had happened to someone he knew, or by the fact that it made Lionel Luthor sound like a president or king, rather than just a business man.
"Do they have any idea who set the bomb?" he asked, and Lex shook his head.
"The driver says that no one suspicious was seen near the garage this afternoon. Forensics is going over what's left of the car, but we won't know anything for another few days. I don't think it was Sir Harry, if that's what you're thinking. He may be ruthless in business, but I seriously doubt he'd stoop to murder."
"I found something near the plant tonight." Clark fished the bracelet out of his coat pocket and handed it to Lex.
Lex stared at it, turning it over in his hands a few times before asking "Where did you find this—exactly?"
"It was by the side of the frontage road, outside the gate. I know I should have given it to the police, but I remembered what you said—"
"You were right to come to me. I can handle this."
"What about the police?"
"They'll have their investigation—and I'll have mine."
"That's it? He just said 'I can handle this' and sent you home?" Chloe asked as the waitress brought over their mochas. The Beanery was packed—it being Friday night, et al. She and Clark had found a corner table next to the bathrooms and had loaded their coats and Chloe's bag onto the spare chair so that there was enough room for the wait staff to get around them.
"You know, if somebody tried to kill my dad, I'd be so freaked out I don't know what I'd do."
Clark looked pensive. "I don't think Lex and his father are very close," he said carefully.
"Yeah. Dad said the tour went okay—if you define 'glacial silences' as a sign of paternal affection," Chloe said with an exaggerated shiver. Then she lost her smile, and leaned forward slightly, brows knit together in a frown. "I'm just still all freaked out. Clark, you could have been killed."
"It wasn't really that close."
"Oh really?" Chloe reached over grabbed his jacket off the back of the spare chair and turned it around so that he could get a really good look at the melted fibres. "Hello—unlike this jacket, you are not flame retardant, mister. So knock that stuff off, okay? At least until after the dance."
"Good to know you have your priorities straight."
She grinned. "You're still picking me up at Lex's, right?"
"Assuming I make it past Check Point Charlie, sure thing."
"Considering this afternoon, I have no issues with the Luthors having a standing army." She stirred her mocha thoughtfully and then licked whipped cream off the stir stick. "What do you think Lex will do?"
"I have no idea."
Miranda was sitting at a slim laptop computer at the quaint pseudo-Victorian writing desk in the corner of her room at the B&B when Lex entered. She twisted in her chair when she heard the door.
"Lex?" She seemed surprised to see him. She was even more surprised when he grasped her by the shoulders and slammed her up against the wall. She yelped in surprise and small framed painting of a lighthouse that was a foot or two from her head fell to the floor with a clatter.
"Seducing me didn't work, so you decided to take a new tack?" he asked, tone deceptively conversational. His hands were trust deep in his pockets, his head cocked slightly as he just... watched her, taking in everything with a cool, measured stare.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Where's your bracelet, Miranda?"
"Bracelet?" she echoed, confused. If it was an act, it was a good one.
"The one with your name engraved on it, so daddy dearest could tell you apart. You used to never take it off."
"Lex, I haven't worn that in—"
"Show it to me," he snapped, and she flinched involuntarily when he took a step closer.
"I'm on vacation, for Pete's sake, I didn't bring—"
"Show me the Goddam bracelet, Miranda, or I swear to God—" he didn't finish the threat, as she pushed past him with a strength that surprised him. She dug through her make-up bag, movements stiff with anger. Locating the heavy gold bracelet, she flung it at his head. He ducked, and then bent to pick it up from where it had fallen.
"Are you happy now?" she snarled, her back against the wall as far away from him as she could manage without leaving the room entirely.
'Miranda' was engraved in a cursive script across the gold plate, the sapphires catching the light as he turned it over in his hands.
"Someone tried to kill my father," he said, anger draining away as he sat down on the end of the bed, and she gaped at him.
"What? When? Is he okay?"
"If it weren't for my friend Clark... Let's just say we'd have even more in common."
Realisation dawned. "You thought it was me. Why did you think it was me, Lex?"
He pulled the other bracelet out of his pocket and tossed it to her. She plucked it out of the air, and paled as she ran her thumb over the mutilated nameplate.
"So, seen your sister lately?"
Pale, Miranda shook her head in disbelief. "Ariel wouldn't do this—she couldn't. Lex, you know she couldn't."
"You haven't answered my question," Lex said, and she stared down at the bracelet in her hand before closing her fingers around it and perching on the end of the bed next to him.
"We had dinner in New York about a week before my dad died," she said, her eyes sliding around the room, lingering on the floor, the walls—everywhere but on him, "then she went her way and I went mine."
"And you haven't heard from her since?"
"Flowers at the funeral, a couple of emails, and she called me this morning from San Francisco."
"What's she doing there?"
"Apparently, a male model named Jean-Luc," she said bitterly. "I didn't really ask for specifics. Where did you find this?"
"Clark found it a hundred yards from the limo that blew sky high and almost took my father with it."
"Ariel can't even programme a VCR, let alone build a mercury trigger."
"Doesn't stop her from hiring someone who can."
"Do you really think she's capable of murder?"
"A minute ago, I was ready to believe you were," he said.
She looked him square in the eye. "And now?"
"Now I don't know what to believe. Or whom to trust."
"I don't know. Sounds like status quo to me," she said with a chuckle despite the fact that she sounded exhausted, as if the last few minutes had aged her a hundred years.
For the first time since he'd got there, she sounded like the old Miranda. The Miranda who first discovered him at a LuthorCorp Christmas party, hiding in the coat room with a book and his inhaler. The Miranda who had spent hours on transatlantic phone calls with him after his mother died. The Miranda with whom he spent a fabulous summer in Milan before her sister had come onto him, and he'd let her.
"I want to trust you, Miranda," he said, reaching out to brush the dark hair away from her face.
"To trust somebody, you've gotta let them in. You never let anyone in, Lex. It's why we broke up."
"I thought we broke up because you found me in bed with your sister," he pointed out.
She flushed. "I would have forgiven you if you—well, let's just say that I would have forgiven you."
"See, that's where we differ, Miranda. I wouldn't have." He leaned over and lightly brushed her lips with his before he stood. "I want you to move to the house. Your bill's already paid. I'll wait for you downstairs."
She stared at him, fingers unconsciously making a fist around the bracelet in her hand. "Ariel was always my father's favourite. She could do anything—break any rule, break any heart. And everyone just seemed to love her more for it. Even I can't really hate her—not for long, anyway. You were the only one who she hadn't gotten to. Who was mine. That was why it hurt."
"For what it's worth, I am sorry," he said from the doorway, and then he left her to pack.
"That doesn't look like the headline of next week's Torch," Clark said as he peered over Chloe's shoulder. Smallville High was a virtual ghost town on the week-ends, and aside from some team practices over in the gym, the halls were empty. Clark kind of liked Saturdays best—his chores were done, and he, Chloe and Pete usually met at the Beanery for coffee and then ran through whatever was left to do on the paper before catching a movie or going over to one another's houses to hang out. It was comfortable and familiar—they'd been doing much the same thing all through junior high, though back then Chloe had been the tall one. Boy, had that changed...
"Did you know that will make scheduled deliveries of the caffeinated beverage of your choice to your home or workplace?"
"I do now. But do you really think Pete on Surge is such a good idea?"
"I heard that."
"We love you, Pete," Chloe said sweetly, and then ducked as a rubber spider whizzed past her head. Clark caught it, and pulled back his hand to wing it back at him.
"Don't you three have a dance to get ready for?" Lex asked from where he leaned in the doorway of the Torch offices. Clark dropped the spider onto Chloe's desk and nonchalantly stuck his hands in his jeans pockets as if he hadn't been right about to smack Pete in the forehead with a Happy Meal toy.
"Have to put the paper to bed first," Chloe said, minimising her browser window and re-opening her word processing screen. "And besides, we have, like, five whole hours before the dance. How long can it take to shower and throw on a dress?"
"Chloe, are you sure you're a girl?" Pete asked, and the spider was flung back at him with great force and alacrity. "I actually gotta pick up Kelley's corsage from Ms. Potter's. I'll see you guys at the dance?"
"Sure thing!" Clark said as Pete gathered up his jacket and backpack.
"Who's your friend?" Chloe asked with a sunny and completely plastic smile as Miranda followed Lex the rest of the way into the offices.
"Chloe Sullivan, meet Miranda Caldwell," Lex said with a smile, and Miranda offered her hand. Chloe, however continued typing.
"Good to know your version of 'handling' things doesn't involve dumping a body in the river."
"Miranda didn't set the bomb," Lex said simply.
"Miranda is standing right behind you, and really hates referring to herself in the third person, thanks."
Clark suddenly had a very clear vision of Chloe in ten years.
Lex ignored Miranda's annoyance with the ease of long practice. "The reigning theory is: evil twin."
"Are you sure?" Chloe asked, looking up from her copy. "Because we breed radioactive mutant shape-shifters around here, you know."
"Radioactive mutant shape-shifters?" Miranda echoed, and Chloe pushed away from the desk, and gestured, Vanna-like, to the Wall.
"Welcome to the Wall of Weird, Smallville's claim to fame," she said as Miranda's eyes widened as she stepped closer to read the headlines off the Wall. Chloe's original "scrapbook that mutated" used to take up the entire back wall of what had been the darkroom before Chloe had introduced Kwan to the concept of digital cameras and how they avoided students playing with potentially dangerous toxic chemicals. But after the Coach had torched the Torch, she'd painstakingly recreated the Wall in the Torch's newly-refurbished offices.
The Wall had grown lately, with press clippings from the Ledger as well as the Torch featuring "Superboy" and cuttings about the mysterious rash of fires at Smallville High. But brown-edged faded clippings about Kyle Tippett and Bob Brinkman surviving the meteor shower were right next to the most recent Ledger coverage of Brinkman's suicide and Tippett's disappearance.
Miranda turned back to Chloe. "This is the Weekly World news stuff. If you want to make it out in the real world, I'd suggest maybe going for a little hard hitting news, and fewer alien autopsies. Journalism is about truth."
Clark watched Chloe's face, knowing that Miranda had just hit upon a very recently exposed nerve. But if the shot hit home, Chloe hid it well.
"Hey, what can I say? Sometimes the truth is out there. If you want to put me on the path to journalistic righteousness," Chloe turned to Lex, who had been quietly watching Miranda, "how about we start with an exclusive one-on-one with the town's favourite billionaire's son?"
"All you had to do was ask. Contact my secretary—she'll set it up for you."
"Wow. That was easy."
"You'd be amazed, the sort of things you get when you ask nicely."
"How nicely would I have to ask to get a one-on-one?" Miranda asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"Very, very nicely," Lex informed her smoothly. "So, what's the Torch headline for this week?" he asked Chloe, who smiled sweetly.
"Well, it would have been 'LuthorCorp CEO Narrowly Escapes Fiery Death' but somehow I don't think Principal Kwan would believe that it directly relates to school events. Unless you count a member of the Torch staff was almost mangled in the process."
"Chloe!" Clark was vaguely mortified, but Chloe continued to look right at Lex, undaunted.
"Too bad," she continued. "Would have been cool to have scooped the Planet. Speaking of which, any reason why this isn't splashed all over the front page of every newspaper in the universe?"
Miranda answered for Lex, her eyes still on the Wall of Weird. "To protect the stock price—to keep the competition from seeing it as an opportunity to swoop in like vultures. To keep whoever was responsible for yesterday to reap any kind of benefit, publicity-wise. Or sheer perversity," Miranda added as an after-thought.
"Or all of the above," Lex added. "I came by to ask if you two wanted to stay for dinner tonight before the dance. I guarantee that what Françoise is preparing will be light-years ahead of whatever rubber chicken the hotel is serving, and you'll still make the dance in plenty of time."
"I don't know—" Clark began, thinking of his dad's request to stay away from the Luthors.
"Call it a thank you. For yesterday. Plus, the mayor and his wife cancelled, so I've got two extra places. Despite the lack of publicity, word travels quickly in a small town. Clark, you do own a tux, right?" Lex asked, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a farm kid from Kansas who wasn't even old enough to have a real driver's licence yet to own a tuxedo. For all those black tie events we go to in-between fixing the thresher and mucking out the barn, Clark mused.
"Um... I was actually going to rent one, once the paper's done."
Clark's eyebrows shot up towards his hairline. "You just happen to have a tux in my size?"
"I just happen to have a tux in every size. One of the perks of being a billionaire's son. See you later."
"Looking for something?" Lex asked as Miranda scanned the parking lot.
"Just the van and the talking dog," Miranda said as she slid into the passenger seat of Lex's Ferrari.
"She's the daughter of my plant manager, and Clark's best friend," he said by way of explanation as he turned over the engine and the car slid out of the parking space . "You know, Miranda, last time I checked, journalism was about the news—not the truth."
"That may be what it is. I'm talking about what it should be."
"I'll take reality over fantasy every time. So, why the sudden infatuation with the truth?"
"Ever found out you'd been lied to?" she asked, and a muscle in his jaw twitched. "Makes the truth pretty darned attractive, doesn't it?"
"What's up with you?" Clark asked as he watched Lex's car pull out of the school parking lot through the window behind Chloe's desk.
"What do you mean?" Chloe asked, all innocence. She moved the mouse in circles to disable the bungee-jumping cows screen saver, and Word popped back up, mocking her with its half-finished copy.
"You were snarky to Lex," Clark said, and Chloe felt a flush creep up her neck.
She'd heard the snark coming out of her mouth, but had been strangely unable to stop it. And she wasn't sure she actually wanted to.
"I'm just not wild about how, every time you get into something with Lex, it tends to involve you getting thrown through windows, or almost blown up."
If Clark was touched by her concern, she couldn't tell. Not by his exasperation. "Chloe, I can take care of myself."
"Well, so can he," she pointed out. "If anyone can survive a little extra snark, it's Mr. Lex Luthor. Now, c'mon, we've got work to do."
She turned back to the ever-so interesting write-up of the Swim Team's regional championship, but watched Clark surreptitiously over the top of her iMac as he slumped in his chair, long legs out stretched underneath his desk. There was, of course, another reason for her excessive snarking at Lex.
Clark hadn't asked her the colour of her dress.
Chloe knew that there was no reason in the known universe for this to bother her, yet bother her it did. In fact, since he had shown up that morning for the ritual final gang-bang of the latest Torch issue, it had been business as usual. No hint that tonight was a big dance involving a fancy dinner and pretty clothes. Not to mention a major part of the whole High School mating ritual. Not that she expected Clark to be, like, her best girlfriend and help her pick out her toenail polish or some other pathetic CosmoGirl crap. But even Pete had asked for the low-down on the frock front. Pete, who seemed to fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat, and was always off at the movies or the mall with a new girl every fortnight, was obviously more experienced and knowledgeable in the ways of the opposite sex.
Clark, however, was apparently pan handling for spare change so that he could buy a clue. Which should not surprise her. There was no reason for her dismay. She was only setting herself up for misery. Yet, even as Clark Kent used that telescope to spy on his heart's desire, there was Chloe staring at Clark from across the room while pretending to come up with even more horrible puns for what was already bordering on a parody of a news story.
As near as Chloe could tell, in Clark's brain, the 'Chloe is my best friend' part cancelled out the 'Chloe is a girl' part. In fact, Chloe was fairly sure Clark hadn't even noticed she'd developed breasts until she'd subjected both him and Pete to her extra-special rant about how all the A and B cup bras are lacy and frilly and far out number the C cups, which is the point at which undergarments go from 'sexy' to 'feats of German engineering' that are relegated to the bottom rung of the spinning racks, thus forcing buxom women to crawl on their hands and knees to find their size. Which Chloe finds degrading. Particularly when one is at Sears with one's single father, at the tender age of fourteen.
All he had to do was look up and say, 'Hey, Chloe, what colour is your dress for tonight?' and she'd laugh at him and say 'Why? You gonna get me a corsage?' and he'd say 'Maybe' and she'd pretend she wasn't giddy.
But she'd be giddy.
"Hey, Chloe?" Clark said, and Chloe damn near dropped her soda.
"Aren't you meeting Lana before the dance?"
Chloe blinked. Lana Lang. Of course. "Yeah—she's coming over to help me out with the whole make-up and hair thing."
"We should probably get going, then—I've got to deliver some stuff to Lex's for the dinner, and you don't want to keep Lana waiting."
"Nope. Sure don't," Chloe said, keeping her tone light. Clark grinned at her, and she was, as always, swept away by the Kent charm.
There was, Chloe reminded herself as she went back to purposefully misspelling the names of the members of the swim team in new and lewd ways, pretty much no prospect of ill-advised, unprotected sex in the back seat of a car in the middle of a field. Not one speck of hope there. Which was probably just as well. After all, she'd been the one to tell Clark that once you cross that line, you can't hide behind the cloak of friendship any more.
"You sure I look don't like a high-class call girl?" Chloe asked as she stood in front of the mirror hanging from the back of her closet door and adjusted the strapless dress yet again. Her breasts were doing things they had never done before. Actually, her breasts were doing things she didn't even realise her breasts could do.
Lana was perched on the end of Chloe's bed in jeans and a sweater, surveying the results of their handiwork. Magazines lay scattered across the carpet, and the bathroom sink looked like the cosmetics aisle of the local drug store. Hair and make-up were done, and the little satin purse was sitting on the bed behind Lana. Inside was a tube of lipstick, her house keys, and a mini-cassette recorder. Chloe still wore her socks; nylons and shoes would be the very last thing, both to save her from getting eight million runs in the sheer hose before ever leaving the house, and to keep her arches and calves from aching before she ever even got to the dance. Though she would look killer in them. She would also kick them off underneath the table every chance she got. She needed no tangible reminders that three inch heels were a medieval torture device to be avoided at all costs. She was a girl—not an idiot.
"You look fine. You look more than fine—you look great," Lana said with sincerity. "Clark won't know what hit him."
Chloe's face fell. "I'm not entirely sure Clark would notice if I showed up bare-assed naked, but thanks. It means a lot, coming from you."
Lana gave her a quizzical look, but they were interrupted by the sound of a car horn outside.
"Lana?" Gabe Sullivan called from the bottom of the stairs, "Nell's outside."
"Gotta go," Lana said as she grabbed her jacket and purse off the back of the chair at Chloe's incredibly messy old fashioned rolltop desk.
"Thanks for all your help."
"You didn't really need it. But I was glad to lend a hand," Lana said, taking Chloe's hand and giving it a quick squeeze, and then dashed out the door just as Nell Potter blasted her horn the second time.
Chloe sat down on the end of the bed carefully, and sighed.
"Sullivan, you're gonna turn into a Judy Blume book if you don't watch yourself," she murmured, tapping fingers on her thigh. "Or worse—Francine Pascal."
Her dad tapped on her door. "You decent?"
"As I'll ever be," she replied with mock cheer.
Gabe Sullivan stepped inside the 'inner sanctum' as he usually called it, and whistled at the sight that met his eyes. "Sweetheart, you look gorgeous."
Chloe smiled up at him. "Is that the Dad answer, or the Guy answer?"
"Both—though I would like to remind you that if any boy gets fresh with you, he will have to answer to both the Dad and the Guy."
"I'm sure Clark will protect me. He's good at that sort of thing."
"I'm including Clark in that statement."
"Dad!" Chloe laughed. "Come on, it's Clark Kent."
"Well, Clark Kent is still a boy," Gabe said, and then gave her a quick hug. "Now, throw your shoes on—I want to take pictures before we go."
"I look like a waiter." Clark frowned at his reflection in the full length mirror of the one of Lex's dozen guestrooms. He'd arrived early, coming in through the kitchen entrance behind the line of florists and caterers who were busy getting the great hall transformed into a cosy intimate dinner for twenty, despite the fact that, according to Lex, every single one of the guests except for Gabe Sullivan, Chloe, and Clark had cancelled. Miranda was in a guestroom down the hall, and had no real choice in the matter. Lex had told him that he hadn't let her out of his sight since Clark had found the bracelet.
Clark thought it wise not to ask where she'd slept the night before. Mainly because, after Victoria and the "chess match" he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.
"You do not look like a waiter," Lex assured him as Clark fussed with the tie. "Waiters do not wear six thousand dollar custom-made tuxedos by Ralph Lauren."
"Six thousand dollars?" Clark's hands froze on the silk tie, his jaw dropping. "Lex, that's, like, my entire my college fund!"
"Remind me to introduce your parents to a better investment broker," Lex said wryly. He wore a dark suit with a slate grey silk shirt and as usual, looked as if he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ. Clark, however, was more used to looking like he'd just stepped out of Field & Stream.
"I can't wear this," Clark said, slightly panicked. "What if I spill something on it?"
"They bring them by the truckload every season. Don't worry about it," Lex assured him. "Besides, how many 44 longs do you think I go through in a year?"
Clark looked dubious, but decided to accept defeat gracefully. "Having any luck tracking down Ariel?"
"Miranda said she was in San Francisco yesterday, but they're still trying to trace her credit card activity to prove she's in California—which is highly unlikely, given what you found yesterday. If she's smart, she's not using her credit cards. If she's not using them, she'll be nearly impossible to find."
"But you think she's here in Smallville still?"
"You can bet on it. Say what you will about the Caldwell sisters—they're both persistent. And they don't quit until they get what they came for. In Miranda's case, that's capital for a business venture. In Ariel's—"
"—it's killing your dad."
"Don't worry, Clark. I've hired the best security firm in Metropolis. For tonight, your only worry is making sure you don't get anything on the suit."
"Chloe and her father are waiting downstairs," Lex said as he strode into Miranda's guestroom, startling her. Her hair was piled on top her head, a few tendrils escaping to curl against the back of her neck and the spaghetti straps of her black cocktail dress. Her gold and sapphire bracelet was her only jewellery. It caught the light as she sat on the end of the bed, slipping on a pair of black pumps. "Are you ready?"
"Ever hear of knocking?" she asked, one eyebrow raised. Her cheeks were flushed, despite the chill in the room. There was a fire burning in the fireplace, but there was not a great deal one could do to heat a Scottish castle efficiently or—in February in Kansas—effectively. Even with the Luthor billions.
"It's not like you have anything I haven't seen before," Lex said smoothly, lips curving in a smile as he offered her his arm.
"True," she said, breezing past him.
He chuckled, and then followed in her wake. She paused at the head of the stairs, and Lex looked down to see his father standing in the foyer below, talking to Gabe Sullivan. He placed a hand on the small of her back, giving her a nudge, and they started down the stairs side by side. His father looked up, and froze in apparent shock.
"Dad, you remember Miranda?" Lex said, his expression guileless. His father had remained holed up in the study for the last two days, running his financial empire from the computer and telephone, and hadn't spared his son—let alone his son's guest—a moment since the accident. He had barely even spoken with the police except to make the initial report, letting his lackeys and underlings handle the rest.
Lionel recovered quickly. "Ms. Caldwell, you are a vision of your mother at this age."
"So they tell me," she said coolly, with a small tight smile as she offered her hand.
"It is most assuredly a compliment. My goodness, it's been, what? Six years?"
"Seven," she replied.
"My, how we've grown," he said as he brushed her knuckles with a kiss.
"This one's mine, Dad—find your own date," Lex said with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes as he draped an arm possessively around Miranda's waist. His father's expression darkened for a moment. But only for a moment.
Lex looked up to see Clark, still looking vaguely uncomfortable in his tuxedo, barrelling down the stairs behind them only to stop dead when Chloe stepped into foyer behind her father.
"Whoa," Clark said, eyes widening. Chloe was wearing a strapless satin sheath dress the exact shade of black cherries, and a grey shawl made out of what Clark was pretty sure was silk was draped over her bare shoulders. In that dress, and with her blonde hair held back from her face with little rhinestone hair clips, she was a million miles away from everyday Chloe. This was Winter Formal Chloe. And while Clark had years experience with everyday Chloe, Winter Formal Chloe was blowing his mind. Not completely—but enough that he was non-verbal.
"Told you I clean up nice," Chloe said as Clark came the rest of the way down the staircase. "I stopped Lana before she could attack me with the body glitter."
"You look..." he trailed off, feeling a flush creep into his cheeks.
"Pretty cheap, next to you, mister," Chloe said as she stepped back, apparently to get the full effect of the tux. "Wow. Maybe I should have asked Lex for a dress, too."
"Ms. Sullivan, you look enchanting," Lex assured her as one of the servants appeared to take her wrap and bag.
"Why, thank you." She favoured him with a brilliant smile.
"Chloe, honey," Gabe said as he pulled his camera from his pocket, "let me get some pictures with you and Clark."
"Dad!" Chloe hissed, embarrassed.
"Humour your old dad his eccentricities," Gabe said as he peered through the viewfinder and gestured for Clark to get closer to Chloe. Obligingly, Clark put his arm around her bare shoulders.
"He took about a thousand pictures before we left the house," Chloe whispered through gritted teeth as the shutter snapped, and they were blinded by the flash. "It's worse than Homecoming. Jeez, I can only imagine what prom will be like."
"Just one more—just in case," Gabe said and Clark hid his smile as Chloe groaned, remembering how she'd hid behind him all through the tour at the plant. He glanced over to see Lex watching them, one eyebrow raised, and he gave a slight shrug that drew a genuine smile from his friend.
"Hors d'ouvres and drinks are waiting for us in the conservatory," Lex informed them as the spots faded from Clark's vision. "Shall we?"
They started down the hall lined with oak panels toward the conservatory. Clark, still a little dazed, hung back with Chloe, whose eyes were huge as she craned her neck to take it all in. She stopped to admire a tapestry depicting a hunting scene hanging on the walls.
"Wow, this place is amazing! I didn't pay close enough attention the last time I was here," she said, and Clark remembered how ticked off she had been that he'd kept Kyle Tippett's whereabouts from her. "I wonder if it has any secret passages," Chloe murmured as she lifted up the edge of the tapestry to peer behind it.
Clark laughed, relieved. Underneath the fancy dress and hairdo, Winter Formal Chloe was still Chloe after all.
"What?" She shrugged. "I thought all castles had secret passages."
Clark scanned the wall quickly with his x-ray vision, and saw only stone, support beams, and electrical wiring. "Only in Scooby-Doo cartoons," he said with a shrug.
Her eyes narrowed. "You know, I think that there was something going on in the Mystery Machine. I mean, Shaggy always had the munchies, and they all really believed the dog talked to them. It's amazing, the things they used to get away with in children's programming—"
"Chloe?" Clark interrupted her recitation of her theory regarding Hanna-Barbera's relationship to cannabis.
"You look really great," he said, and he meant it. He hadn't had a chance to see her at Homecoming. In fact, the last time he'd seen her this dressed up had been at a junior high social, before she'd had her braces off.
She flushed, and her lips twitched into a slow, shy smile that lit up her face like the sun on a summer's day. The orthodontist, he mused, had been worth it.
"Thanks, Clark. And may I add," her eyes bright and smile turning mischievous, "you look damn good in a tux."
"You don't think I look like a waiter?" he asked, sceptical.
"Not any waiter I ever had," she assured him, reaching out to brush a hair from the lapel of the jacket absently. She tilted her head, and scrunched her nose. "You don't think I look like a call girl?"
"Not any call girl I ever had," Clark couldn't resist saying.
"Clark!" Chloe punched him in the shoulder.
"Who said you looked like a call girl?" Clark's eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "I'll beat 'em up. Just point the way."
She chuckled, cheeks pink. "No one. I just worried."
"Nothing to worry about," Clark assured her with a smile. "Not a thing."
"Wow," Chloe breathed as she and Clark entered the conservatory, passing the two security guards that flanked the entry, wires running from their breast pockets to their ears.
Clark had to agree with her. The a moon and stars shone through the glass ceiling two stories above their heads. Braziers had been set up, making the room pleasantly warm. Paper lanterns hung from the supports, alternating between blue and white, casting a glow like moonlight over the entire room. But it was the roses that took Clark's breath away. One entire half of the room was a riot of rose bushes in full bloom despite the season, and the pristine white blossoms' perfume was sweet and heady.
"You like it?" Lex asked, and Chloe nodded, eyes wide. "This was my mother's favourite room. She didn't care that white roses are for funerals. To her, they were the most beautiful thing in the world."
A waiter came over, a silver serving tray balanced on his hand. Clark looked down at the hors d'ouvres and tried to identify them. They certainly looked pretty. And they smelled good. He just wasn't sure they were food.
"You'll have to forgive Clark," Chloe patted Clark on the shoulder. "His idea of an appetiser is chicken strips from the Denny's."
"She's right," Clark said with a shrug.
"In that case," Lex looked down at the tray, and pointed to one confection that looked like a cream puff. "Stick with these."
"What are they?"
"Are you allergic to anything?"
"Um... not food-wise, no."
"Then I'll tell you later," Lex said with a smile as he looked over and his expression flickered. Clark followed his gaze and saw Lionel closing in on Miranda and Gabe. "Be right back."
"What do you think is the story there?" Chloe asked as she nibbled on what looked like a bundle of bark and twigs. Really expensive French bark and twigs.
"What makes you think there's a story?"
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Clark, there's always a story."
"You can take the girl out of the Torch..." Clark said airily, and popped one of the puffed pastries into his mouth. It was filled with something savoury that tasted slightly like tuna, and slightly like mustard. Lex was right; it was good. He just still wasn't sure what it was.
"You don't have to be a journalist to see that there is something going on," Chloe said, dropping her voice down to a whisper. "Why try and kill somebody you haven't seen in seven years? Even with the evil twin thing—which is pretty out there, even for Smallville—there has got to be more to this that meets the eye."
"It's really quite extraordinary," Lionel was saying to Miranda as Lex arrived.
"What is, Dad?" Lex asked as he stepped between them smoothly, handing Miranda a glass of wine from a passing tray.
"Your father was just remarking again on my resemblance to my mother," she said sweetly. "Did you know her well, Mr. Luthor?"
"Not well—no," Lionel said quickly, reaching out to snap a dead leaf from a rose stem. He crumbled the leaf between his fingers and it fell like ashes to the flagstones.
"Ms. Caldwell, my daughter tells me your father and Mr. Luthor worked together?" Gabe Sullivan asked as Chloe and Clark joined them.
"A very long time ago," she said, sipping her wine.
"Martin was a geneticist—top in his field," Lionel said, by way of explanation. "His death was a tremendous loss to the scientific community."
"Genetic engineering?" Chloe echoed. "I didn't realise there was a lot of call for that in your line of work, Mr. Luthor."
"LuthorCorp uses genetics to engineer stronger corn and wheat, resistant to blight," Lionel explained.
"Dr. Martin Caldwell used genetics to built better people," Miranda said, tapping the side of her wineglass with a fingertip absently, "resistant to disease, age, all human frailty."
Gabe Sullivan looked troubled, Lex noted. "But aren't there laws—"
"Yes, there are," Miranda said with a tight smile. "That's why he and his wife Judith moved overseas. So he could pursue his research in more... tolerant climes."
"What kind of research, exactly?" Chloe asked, and Lex saw Clark reach over and squeeze her elbow, but she ignored him. Lex hid his smile. Under other circumstances, it would have been Miranda who was blood-hounding after the truth, blithely ignoring propriety.
"He believed the human brain could be mapped like a continent—all of the electrical impulses and chemical chains of memory mapped and stored in a computer," Miranda said, her eyes straying to the rows of flowers. "Then the person's personality and experiences could be grafted onto a new brain—a clone of the original."
"Sounds a little sci-fi to me," Chloe said, her tone sceptical. "Was he right?"
"We'll never know. His research was destroyed in the fire that killed him."
Chloe paled. "That's awful! I'm so sorry."
"Sometimes I think he loved that research more than he loved anything—or anyone. Even his wife," Miranda said wryly, staring down into the dregs of her wineglass.
"Martin adored Judith," Lionel assured her. "He was never the same after she died."
"What happened?" Chloe asked, "If you don't mind my asking..."
"It was all very tragic," Miranda said, "They were in a villa—Martin was in town, working in his lab. Judith was seven months pregnant at the time."
"It was a terrible accident," Lionel said, waving over one of the servants.
"I thought she died in childbirth?" Clark asked, glancing at Lex, who shrugged. Lex had never heard this part of the story before. In fact, Miranda had told him that her whole life, her father had never been comfortable talking about their mother. The girls hadn't even had contact with their Merriweather relatives. Martin Caldwell had been their entire world.
"She fell down the stairs," Miranda explained. "He found her there when he came home. She'd been there for hours, unable to move. There was so much blood. She slipped into a coma, and never woke up."
"Martin was... inconsolable," Lionel said, remembering.
"I'm so sorry—I'm sure you were just as devastated when Lillian passed away. I didn't mean to revisit old griefs," Miranda said, placing her empty glass on the stone ledge of one of the rose urns.
There was an awkward silence, and Lex waited for his father to say something—the truth or a lie. He idly wondered if he'd even be able to tell the difference, any longer. Lex had been the one by her side until the bitter end; not her husband.
"It is I who should apologise to you, given recent circumstances," Lionel said smoothly as he accepted a glass of wine from a servant with a silver tray. "I was away on business, and regret that I couldn't attend Martin's memorial service personally."
"You weren't the only one," Miranda said with a shrug. "Ariel didn't go either, as a matter of fact. So much for family."
"Makes me glad I'm an only child," Lex quipped, and she turned to him, an odd light in her eyes.
"Ever wonder what it would have been like to have had an older brother or sister? You know—someone to look out for you?"
Lex blinked at the change in subject, and warning bells went off somewhere in the recesses of his mind as this time, it was Lionel who stared at Miranda, his expression inscrutable.
"I'm pretty used to looking out for my own interests," Lex said with a slight shrug. "And anyway, outside of fairy tales, it generally sucks to be a younger son. I've gotten rather used to being heir apparent."
One of the security guards on the door came up and whispered in Lionel's ear.
"I'm terribly sorry, but I seem to have an important business matter to attend to in the library," Lionel said, setting his wineglass down on a waiter's tray. "If you'll excuse me for a few minutes."
"Dad, I thought we agreed—" Lex began.
"Now, Lex. What's the point of being heir apparent, if there's no empire for you to inherit?" Lionel said with a chilly smile. "I won't be long."
"That's my dad—all business, all the time." Lex caught Clark's eye. "Not to change the subject, but Clark, Chloe—don't you two have a dance to attend?"
Chloe glanced at her dress watch, and shrugged. "They're probably still on the rubber chicken course, and we haven't even started."
"Still, I'd hate to see the two of you miss out on an important social ritual," Lex said, his tone deceptively light. "I can have Françoise make you up doggie bags that will make you the envy of Smallville High, I promise."
"Chloe, maybe Lex is right," Clark said. "And anyway, we are supposed to be covering the dance for the paper, right? We can't stick Pete with all the work."
"Oh, come on, Clark!" Chloe dropped her voice to barely above a whisper, "I'm sure you'll get there in time to watch Lana Lang dance the night away on the jockstrap's arm."
"Mr. Sullivan, how about you get one last picture of the happy couple out by the limo?" Lex suggested.
"I really don't think—" Chloe began, but Clark got her by the elbow, and took a step backwards, forcing her to follow.
"I think that's a great idea. Lex, thank you so much for inviting us. We're sorry we have to go so early."
"Let me walk you out," Lex said. He waved over the security guard from the doorway. "Please keep an eye on Ms. Caldwell."
Clark waited until they reached the foyer, well out of earshot, before he put a hand on Lex's shoulder.
"She's not Miranda, is she?" he asked as Chloe accepted her purse and wrap from one of the servants.
"Listen to me—go down to the gatehouse. Have the guards call the police.," Lex said, and Clark could see the lines of tension in his shoulders, the set of his jaw. "And then get out of here, Clark. It's not safe."
"But how will you—"
"Don't worry about me," Lex said sharply. "You just get Chloe and Gabe out of here."
Clark nodded, and ran down the steps to join Chloe and her dad.
"Clark?" Chloe asked, her green eyes wide. "What's going on?"
"Mr. Sullivan, we need to get down to the gate," Clark said firmly.
"I left my coat—"
"Leave it, Dad," Chloe tugged on the sleeve of her father's jacket. "It's Miranda's sister, isn't it?"
"Miranda's sister?" Gabe echoed.
"She's in the house," Clark explained. "We think—I mean, Lex thinks that Miranda's sister Ariel set the bomb. We've got to get help."
"My God." Gabe paled, and he took his daughter's hand, and the three of them began jogging down the long driveway.
Clark glanced back at the house, wishing Chloe and her dad weren't there, and he could use his speed. But he had to trust Lex—he didn't have a choice. They ran in silence, Chloe tripping in her high heeled shoes, but gamely hanging onto her dad's hand as they stumbled down the driveway toward the lights of the gatehouse. She was panting by the time they got to the bottom of the lane.
Gabe knocked on the gatehouse door, and Chloe gasped as the door fell open. They could see the prone bodies of three men piled like kindling in the corner. Chloe hid her face in her dad's shoulder, while Clark leaned down to grasp the outstretched arm of one of the uniformed guards. He made a pretence of checking his wrist for a pulse, but he already knew they were dead. From the temperature of the bodies, he couldn't guess how long—but it couldn't have been long. An hour, maybe less.
"Call the cops—and then go down to the road, see if you can flag down a car," Clark said grimly.
Chloe swallowed, and then nodded. "What about you?"
"I have to go help Lex—"
"Chloe, just go. Mr. Sullivan—"
"Son, you should stay with us—" Gabe began.
"I can take care of myself—just go!" Clark called back, and then jogged ahead. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Chloe and her dad go all the way into the gatehouse. He ran back up to the house at a speed that covered the distance in seconds.
Lex waited until he could see them halfway down the driveway, their outlines limned in silver by the moon high in the night sky above them, and then stepped back inside the house. Calling over the maid, he told her to tell the rest of the staff to leave. Quickly. The woman paled, but obeyed. He walked quickly down the long hall to the conservatory, his heart hammering in his chest.
She was gone. The room was empty.
"Dammit," Lex said as he stepped inside, and saw a hand among the roses. Leaning down, he pushed aside the branches, ignoring the sudden sting as the thorns left long scratches across his hand, and saw the man's wide, unseeing eyes. From the angle of his neck and the look of surprise permanently etched into his features, Lex assumed he'd died instantly.
Lex stumbled back from the corpse, wiping the cold sweet from his upper lip with his left hand. He didn't know where the second guard was—but he couldn't waste time looking. He had to get to his father.
Turning back to the door, he gasped to find Miranda—no, Ariel behind him.
"You should have just let me kill him," she said, and then he gasped as one hand locked around his throat, lifting him a foot off the floor.
He kicked, hands wrapped around her wrist, trying to pry her fingers loose. But they were like a vice; their grip unbreakable. The edges of his vision began to go black, and his struggles became weaker.
"It would have been better. For you. For me. For everyone," she said, and then flung him away from her like a rag doll.
There was a brief sensation of flying through the air. Then he hit the wall with a sickening thud and the world rushed away, replaced by an impenetrable darkness.
Clark arrived at the house just as the lights went out. He waited for the generator to come on, but the house remained dark.
"Lex!" he called as he came through the door, but there was no answer. He zipped down the long hallway, and slowed down to normal human speed as he reached the conservatory.
"Lex!" Clark cried as he saw his friend crumpled at the base of the wall. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the steady rise and fall of his chest, and a quick x-ray showed nothing broken, although a nasty bruise was already forming at the base of his skull. He moaned as Clark knelt down and pulled him into a sitting position.
"Are you okay?" Clark asked as Lex opened his eyes and focussed blearily on him.
"Clark," he rasped, and reached up to rub his throat with one hand. "I told you to get out of here."
"Chloe and her dad are going for help," Clark said he helped him to his feet. "What happened?"
"It's Ariel. Don't know how... Threw me across the room. She's after my father—Oh God, Dad!" his eyes widened, and he swayed on his feet. Clark steadied him.
"You've probably got a concussion," Clark muttered, and helped him over to a stone bench. Clark glanced up as he heard a crash coming from the third floor. "Stay here."
"Clark!" Lex called after him, but Clark was gone.
Lionel Luthor was on the phone in the library when the lights went out and the portable phone in his hand went dead, cutting Dominic off mid-excuse. The room was plunged into gloom, lit only by the fire burning in the fireplace that dominated one wall. he frowned, and set the handset back in its cradle as if nothing was wrong. But something was wrong, he suspected. Very, very wrong.
He walked over to the Japanese dai-sho resting in their case behind the desk and removed the kashira. He pulled the razor sharp blade from its lacquered wood sheath and slashed experimentally, listening to the metal whistle as he cut cleanly through the air.
He turned at the sound of clapping behind him. Miranda Caldwell was perched on the end of the couch, hands folded primly in her lap and long legs crossed. He hadn't even heard her come in.
"Ms. Caldwell, this is a surprise," he said smoothly.
"It really shouldn't be," she said with a smile. "Come now, Lionel. You're smarter than this. I know you are."
"Lionel?" he raised a brow. "To what do I owe such familiarity?"
"We used to be quite familiar," she purred as she slipped off the couch and sidled over to him. "How quickly they forget."
She ran a hand up his shoulder, pulling his mouth down to hers for a kiss before she wrenched the sword from his hand and threw it with such force that it embedded itself in the far wall.
"Judith?" he breathed, his voice catching as she grasped him by the lapels of his jacket and lifted him off his feet.
Lionel hit the wall, hard. He tasted blood in the back of his mouth as he slid to the floor, half-conscious. Dazed, he heard her high-heeled shoes clicking on the hardwood floor, and her laughter as she pulled the sword from the wall like Arthur from the proverbial stone.
"How..." he asked, wiping blood from his mouth as she stood over him, sword levelled at his chest.
"You still haven't figured it out?" She raised a sculpted brow. "Stronger, faster, smarter—oh, brave new world that has such people in it."
"It worked—" Lionel's eyes widened. "My God, it actually worked. Martin cloned—"
"Me." She laughed again, but it was full of bitterness—and more than a touch of madness. "Except clones don't age any faster than humans. So he raised them as his daughters."
She dropped something at his feet. His fingers closed around the heavy gold links, and the sapphires caught the firelight as he stared dumbly down at the bracelet.
"He changed their diapers, and kissed their skinned knees, and threw them a goddam debutante ball—just waiting for them to grow up so that he could have his precious Judith back. Because he loved her so," she spat.
"But that's—" he started to say impossible, but how could he, with the evidence before him.
"Poor little Ariel. She thought she was daddy's favourite," Judith said, tracing the line of his cheek with the tip of the blade. Lionel hissed as blood welled from the cut.
"She's still rattling around in here, do you believe that?" she asked, tapping her temple. "Little bits and pieces. Snatches of memory. You'll be glad to know in case you weren't sure—you're a better lover than your son. All those months trailing after Martin from conference to conference, lab to lab, I dreamt about your touch. Craved it. Waited for you to come back to me, for you to take me away with you. I was so sure you'd come for me, especially after I found out I was pregnant with your son. But you didn't need me, did you? No—you'd already sired your prized colt on your brood mare."
He didn't scream as the sword entered his shoulder. Only ground his teeth together, his hands balled into fists at his side.
"Or maybe it was just that Martin had squandered my inheritance, to fund his research," she continued, bending down to brush his hair back from his forehead, the sword turning in her hand to push another inch deeper. She smiled at his gasp. "Perhaps Merriweather blood just wasn't blue enough for you. Though it looked awfully red, from my point of view. At the bottom of the stairs."
"It was an accident," he said with what strength he could muster.
She withdrew the blade, and blood ran down his arm and side in a river. "A convenient little accident, don't you think? Maybe, once I'm done with you, I should start on Lex. That would be poetic justice, wouldn't it? Killing your son, the way you killed ours?"
"I reached for you—I tried to catch you," Lionel stammered, his eyes narrowing. "Don't you remember?"
She growled, dropping the sword and grabbing handfuls of his jacket to pull him back to his feet.
"I remember bleeding to death, Lionel," she said, holding him at eye level. "I remember you leaving me there to bleed to death."
She threw him with all her strength. Lionel hit the desk hard, like a child's toy thrown aside in a temper tantrum, and the glass top shattered beneath his weight.
Reaching down, she picked up a long shard of broken glass and smiled.
"Now, it's your turn."
"Ariel, stop!" Clark burst into the library just as Ariel was raising a shard of glass to Lionel Luthor's throat. His shirt and the arm of his jacket were soaked with blood, his breathing laboured, but he was still alive.
"Why?" she asked, cocking her head like a bird's, and pressed the glass shard into the flesh beneath Lionel's ear, blood welling beneath it. She smiled as she drew back her hand quickly—too quickly. Clark had never seen a human being move that fast.
But he was faster.
She gasped in surprise as he closed his fingers around her wrist and twisted, pulling her away from the unconscious Luthor before the glass she'd held hit the floor. It shattered on the floor in slow motion, the pieces catching the firelight. All the while, blood slowly traced a path down Luthor's neck and stained the collar of his shirt to match the sodden mess of his sleeve.
It was Clark's turn to be surprised when she grabbed two handfuls of his tux and pulled him off balance. Her features twisted in fury, she shoved him as hard as she could, using her hip and shoulder. He stumbled backwards, arms pinwheeling, and the wood panelling cracked when he hit it. She scooped up the sword, and turned back to the unconscious Lionel.
Getting his footing, Clark launched himself at her, getting her around the waist and flinging her away from Lex's father. The sword flew from her fingers and skittered across the floor as she hit the wall.
"Whose science fair project are you, little boy?" she purred as she got to her feet.
Lex climbed the stairs two at a time, fighting nausea as he gripped the banister. His head throbbed with every breath, every heartbeat, but he kept going. He was only on the second step of the flight that lead to the third floor when he heard muffled cries and banging from down the hall. He followed the sound to one of the guestrooms. The room was dim, lit only by the dying coals of the fire in the grate, and the thudding sound came from the bathroom.
Stumbling through the door, he opened the linen closet and found Miranda bound and gagged. The side of her head was caked with blood, which stained the collar of her shirt deep crimson. Her hands were tied behind her with the belt of the terrycloth robe that hung on the back of the bathroom door, and a washcloth had been stuffed into her mouth. Her wrists were raw, and the thudding had apparently been her bare feet as she tried to get enough leverage inside the tiny closet to kick the door open.
"Jesus, Miranda," Lex helped her to a sitting position and she spit out the gag.
"The window," Miranda said as he reached behind her to work on the knots that bound her with clumsy fingers, cursing. "She came through the window."
"Are you going to be okay?" Lex asked, hesitantly brushing the blood-matted hair away from her face.
"Your dad—" she began, pushing his hand away.
"We've got to find her," Miranda said, her voice thick with fear. "We've got to stop her."
"C'mon," Lex helped her to her feet. "He's in the library."
The sword was the first thing Lionel saw when he opened his eyes.
It rested on its guard, the silk-wrapped handle inches from his outstretched hand. He flexed his fingers, and then bit back a scream as pain blossomed from his shoulder to fill his world.
The Kent boy had his back to the wall, and Judith was advancing on him. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the sword and struggled to his feet.
"Whose science fair project are you, little boy?" she asked.
Lionel took aim and threw the three hundred year old Japanese sword with all his strength.
Clark flinched, eyes wide as Miranda's sister froze, her mouth open in shock as eighteen inches of steel protruded from her chest.
She fell to her knees, hands wrapped around the blade, and behind her, he could see Lex's father leaning heavily on the pool table. Blood poured from his shoulder, dripping off his fingers, and his forehead was covered in a sheen of sweat.
"Dad!" Lex called as he slid to a halt in front of the double doors of the library, and took in the tableau.
Lex rushed to his father's side. Lionel leaned on his son's shoulder, eyes locked with Clark's.
Miranda stayed in the doorway, frozen as her twin toppled over onto her side, dark eyes wide and unseeing as the scream of sirens echoed in the distance.
Clark was getting awfully good at making statements to the police.
In the hours since they had arrived, Lionel had been medivac'd out—flown straight to Metropolis and his cadre of private doctors. Lex had stayed in Smallville, after being checked out for a swarm of EMTs who had shined lights into his eyes, and asked him questions like who was president and what year it was after they found out this was the third time in as many weeks he'd been knocked out in his own home.
Miranda had watched, her face a mask, as the men from the coroners office had zipped up the body bag and added it to the others. Ariel had killed five people, all with broken necks. No one could figure out how a girl barely out of college had overpowered trained security personnel twice her size. Not to mention tossed Lex and his father around like rag dolls.
Clark chose not to enlighten them.
He kept his story simple: he was worried about his friend, and tried to help. He'd found Ariel Caldwell in the library, and tried to keep her away from Mr. Luthor, who had killed her in self-defence. Yes, he knew it was foolish to enter the building once he knew a suspected killer was loose. Yes, he'd leave it to the police next time. No, he was unhurt. No, he hadn't seen any evidence of accomplices. Yes, he would be available to make a formal statement in the morning.
It was almost eleven when the whole circus began to wind down, and he was allowed to step outside the manor door to get a breath of fresh air. There were more cops outside, the red and blue flashing lights of the patrol cars lighting up the lawn.
"Clark!" Chloe ran over to him, throwing her arms around him in a fierce hug. She wore her father's suit jacket over her dress, her wrap wound around her throat like a scarf. Gabe remained behind, talking with one of the detectives quietly.
"Of all the stupid, macho, idiotic, stupid—" she was shaking as she buried her face in his shoulder, muffling the rest of her accusations.
"Hey, I'm okay." Clark knew her anger was covering concern, and grinned, resting his chin on the top of her head. "It's okay. It's over."
""Why the hell did you go back in there?"
"I was worried about Lex," he started, and she pulled back.
"Clark, I'm serious. I've never been so scared in my whole life!"
His eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "Not even when Sean Kelvin was trying to turn you into a human Popsicle?"
Her expression faltered.
"What about when the coach set the Torch office on fire?"
"Clark—" Her lips twitched as she tried to hold onto her frown, and failed.
"How about when Earl took us hostage?" Clark asked, all innocence.
She punched him on the arm with one girlie little fist, and he pretended it hurt. Just... because that was what he always did. That was normal. Normal, on nights like this as they wheeled out the body bags, was good. She grinned at him as he rubbed his arm, mouthing 'ow', and that was good too. Both their smiles dimmed, however when Lex came out of the house.
"How's your dad?" Clark asked as the young man came over to join them. Lex looked pale, and Clark could see bruises in the shape of fingers beginning to form around his neck.
"He'll be fine. Doctor called from Metropolis—the shoulder is going to bother him for a good long while, but they think there was no nerve damage."
"What about Miranda?" Chloe asked.
"Shocky—both from the head injury, and... what she saw. It's still hard to understand what set Ariel off. The cops want to re-open the investigation of Dr. Caldwell's death, now. They think maybe Ariel had something to do with that, as well."
"Is Miranda going to be okay?"
"Probably," Lex said, glancing back over his shoulder at the door of the manor. He shrugged. "I'm sorry about your dance."
"All dressed up, and nowhere to go," Chloe said with a sigh. "The story of our lives."
Clark shrugged. "It's probably almost over, anyway."
"Probably?" Lex asked, raising a brow.
The hotel ballroom was still packed, despite the fact that the dance was supposed to end in less than an hour. Half the room was a dance floor, and a DJ was taking requests from a group of the pom pom brigade. Chloe frowned as she recognised the song currently playing as being Brittany Spears, and made a mental note to go home and play Tori Amos albums to wash the bubblegum taste out of her brain.
She still couldn't believe they were actually here. It seemed like the most surreal way to cap off an evening of murder and mayhem. Lex had slipped the kids on the door $100 and just followed her and Clark inside, as if this were the most exclusive night spot in Metropolis, and not some dinky high school dance. He hung back near the door, hands in his pockets, just taking it all in. She wondered if all those expensive boarding school has ever had anything comparable. She pictured string quartets and girls in white gloves, and she seemed to remember Clark saying something about nuns. Pretty far cry from the football team's painful attempt at a conga line.
Pete appeared, his bright red cummerbund stained with something unidentifiable, and Kelley Mills no where to be found. "Chloe, Clark—man, where have you guys been?"
Clark and Chloe traded looks.
"That's kinda a long story..." Clark said, and didn't elaborate. Chloe felt a twinge of guilt—yet another adventure at the Luthors that no doubt would have left Pete frothing at the mouth and repeating all his father and brothers' time-worn bitching and moaning about how Lionel Luthor had brought nothing but heartache to the Ross family.
Perhaps it would be best not to mention Clark had saved Luthor's life, like, twice, Chloe mused.
"Oh man, Trevor spiked the punch, and two of the chess club guys got sick in the girls bathroom—"
"Okay, gross." Chloe made a face. "Remind me to hold it until I get home, in that case."
"Principal Kwan's gonna have kittens." Pete grinned.
"Hey, Pete, have you seen Lana?" Clark asked, and Chloe felt her smile go from genuine to plastic in two seconds flat.
"Uh, she and Whitney are..." Pete peered at the dance floor, and pointed towards the middle, "somewhere in there. Just look for the—"
"Tiara?" Chloe supplied sweetly.
"How'd you know?" Pete asked as Kelley appeared, two cups of punch in her hands. She waved to Chloe as she handed a cup to Pete.
"Wild, leaping, flying guess," Chloe said with a shrug as Clark disappeared, swallowed by the crowd.
"You look great, girl," Pete grinned at her as Kelley grabbed him and dragged him back towards the dance floor.
She flashed him a brilliant smile, which faded as she found a table against the wall. Moving the empty punches glasses to one side, she pulled the candle over and started feeling petals from the wilting mums to the eager flame. She looked up, and easily spotted Clark—being freakishly tall, and clad in a tux that easily cost more than every outfit in the room combined, it wasn't hard—standing off to the side of the dance floor. She was too far to see his expression, but she was pretty sure she'd recognise it.
"You really know how to party," came a voice behind her and Chloe turned to see Lex staring at her as she watched Clark watching Whitney and Lana out on the dance floor.
"Maybe I'm backing the wrong horse," he said quietly, and she flushed crimson, but lifted her chin a fraction.
"I just want Clark to be happy," she said with a resolute shrug.
"And Lana makes him happy?"
"And Lana makes him happy," she said softly.
"When she's not making him miserable," Luthor pointed out, earning a genuine—if wry—smile.
"I think Clark even loves the misery. He's a glutton for punishment."
"No offence, but look who's talking."
She blushed again, and smoothed the skirt of her dress absently.
"I'm a teenage girl. According to the literature, I've cornered the market on angst."
"What is this literature?" Lex leaned forward conspiratorially. "Write your own epics, Chloe. It's the only way to live."
She bit her lip, considering this, and then flashed him a smile.
Leaving her purse and wrap at the table, she fought her way through the crowd until she reached Clark. Tapping him on the shoulder, she leaned up and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
"What was that for?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the music.
"You look like you needed it," she answered, a warm flush rising in her cheeks. "Wanna dance?"
"Sure," he smiled at her, and they took to the dance floor.
As Kevin Martin sang about thoughtless innuendoes, Chloe relished the feel of Clark's arms around her waist as they swayed in time to the music.
It was a start, she decided. Definitely a start.
Lex looked up from his father's report—filed from his private room at Metropolis General that morning—when Miranda tapped on the open door. She wore black and grey, her hair pulled back in a French twist, and she looked older than she had when she'd first arrived days earlier.
"The driver's waiting outside," she said he closed the laptop and stepped out from behind the desk. The desk was identical to the old one—they'd delivered it the day before. He'd replaced the swords that had sat beneath the window behind him with a vase of white roses from the conservatory.
"You all packed?" he asked, and she nodded, her eyes straying to the floor in front of the couch.
He knew what she was seeing despite the fact that not a drop of blood remained, and the cracked wood panelling had all been replaced and the room bore no scars from that night. She'd carry the scars, for the rest of her life most likely. He didn't envy her that.
She pulled her eyes back to his, and managed a weak smile. "How's your dad?"
"On the mend. Well enough to send me a thirty page report, detailing all the things I've done wrong." He gave her a wry smile. "He probably wrote it before he ever stepped off the helicopter."
"Should I plan a trip to Alaska?" she asked, a shadow of her old humour in her eyes.
"I'm still here—for now. I'll make some changes—throw him a bone or two."
"Life goes on," she shrugged.
"The Inquisitor is looking for an assistant managing editor."
"The Inquisitor is a rag," she said out of habit, and he smiled.
"No, the Tattler is a rag. The Inquisitor merely needs a strong hand." He leaned against the desk, arms folded. "Put in the time and effort. Win a few awards. Convince me. And maybe next time you ask me, my answer will be different."
She opened her mouth, and then closed it again, colour rushing to her cheeks.
"Thank you," she said, and reached out to give his hand a squeeze before dropping it and turning back towards the door.
"Miranda, she could have killed you," he said, and she pulled her eyes back to his with effort. "She could have killed both of us. She didn't. That has to mean something."
"No. She just killed my father, and tried to kill yours," she said, her voice tinged with bitterness. "I just wish I knew why."
"Can you live with not knowing?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I don't have much of a choice."
"The whole thing made me realise one thing," he said, hands thrust deep in his pockets. "As much as my father and I hate each other—and believe me, we do hate each other—I need him. Because you can't win the love and respect of a dead man."
She smiled at him, and then she was gone.
And he was alone.