When she was done, he asked, "Do you want my advice?"
He said without hesitation, "You should go."
"But Clark, and Chloe--"
"Maybe they mean well, but they don't understand. Their world is the size of Kansas."
She tried to smile. "Well, I've never been further than Des Moines myself."
"But you've always been ready to go, Lana. You're not just another small-town girl. The chance has finally come along for you to show that, and you should take it. Carpe Paris."
"I want to, but...I'm scared." Even as she spoke, though, she could feel that fear melting away. Maybe it had never really existed. Maybe she had always just thought it should.
"Don't be. You were made to spread your wings and fly, Lana. You won't falter."
"I'll miss Clark," she confessed.
He nodded. "Of course you will. But--" He got up and came to her, settling gracefully on the arm of her chair. "What does he really want from you, Lana? To trade your future for the chance he might kiss you again?"
She thought about the emptiness he always left behind him in the room. In her. It was so much worse to be abandoned than to be alone. "Pretty much."
"As much as I care about Clark, he's being selfish." He touched her cheek. "I think you should do what you need to do, Lana. I'll be behind you all the way."
Leaving the castle, she felt curiously light.
Paris was perfect.
She didn't speak much French, of course, but she managed. French men were much nicer than American ones. She liked walking down the street, listening to the incomprehensible babble, knowing that they couldn't understand her, either. It made her feel...safe. No one could judge.
The blank page didn't judge, either. The Paris light illuminated everything for her. She drew soaring cityscapes in crayon, painted remote-looking girls in watercolor. Her teachers smiled and nodded. The evaluations were glowing.
Lex came to visit several times. He took her to see private collections, even the Louvre after-hours, when the two wandered through the chill palace as if they owned it. He said it was important for her to develop her sensibility. He gave her a diamond necklace and earrings over dinner at the Plaza Athenee, so that she "would be able to go out when she wanted to." She sketched him, languid on the couch in her studio, in charcoals, and when she gave it to him, he looked pleased and told her she had insight.
Clark sent her lots of emails. She answered about one in three, sitting in a cafe with her laptop. Any more seemed too risky, even in the Paris light.
She never learned much French. When fall came, she didn't go back.
When she finally returned to the States for college, Nell was waiting for her at the international arrivals lounge.
"Nell! You didn't have to do this!" she said, startled, kissing her on both cheeks.
"Well, I was hoping we could spend some time together," Nell said, smiling. "After all, I haven't seen you in a year and a half. And we do need to move you to college!"
"No, I mean you really didn't have to do this. Lex is helping me move."
"Lex." Nell's smile wavered. "Are you two...together now?"
"Nell! Don't be silly. We're just old friends."
"Not that old." Nell examined her clothing critically, which was, to be honest, not as bland and schoolgirl as it used to be. "Is Lex helping you with your budget, too?"
Lana looked at the crows'-feet at the corner of Nell's eyes, her dutifully middle-class twinset. "He sends me my shares of the proceeds of the Talon, if that's what you mean."
"Lana, do you really think the Talon is making enough money to support you in this style you appear to have become accustomed to?"
She had, but she pushed the slight disquiet away. "If Lex wants to support my art, I think that's his business, Nell."
Nell pressed her lips into a thin line. It was hard to believe Lana had once thought of her as glamorous, even an adventuress. "I know all about dallying with a Luthor, honey. It's fine while it lasts, but it doesn't last. Don't build any expectations on it."
"Don't worry. I'm not." Lex never gave her anything she didn't deserve. Lana turned away and immediately spotted one of Lex's drivers waiting patiently for her. "There's my car. I have to go. I'll see you at Christmas, Nell. Thanks again for coming."
By that time, of course, Lionel Luthor was dead, and Lex had a free hand. He flew her to her school, a tiny private institution in the Northeast. College was very comfortable with Lex willing to be so helpful. The other students might not be the friendliest, but she had long ago gotten used to that. The boys who chased her and missed thought she was a lesbian, but they were so juvenile next to the French men who had courted her. They had no feeling for the glories of the process. She could wait.
Chloe and Clark were at Metropolis University together. They both still wrote her, Chloe more than Clark now. Chloe's breathless tales of urban adventure made her smile and feel ever-so-slightly older. She did enjoy hearing how Chloe ran through the Metropolis men. There was always a vaguely apologetic undertone to Chloe's emails, and Lana liked that, too. Chloe hadn't wanted her to go to Paris. Chloe had wanted to hold her back. For a while, Lana was glad to let her pay with perky expressions of goodwill, painful pretenses that they hadn't grown apart.
However, Chloe had also become an intern at the Planet again. When she published an expose on some of LexCorp's more dubious interventions in Metropolis city planning, she ended up being dismissed again. She and Lana had a screaming fight over the phone while Lana packed for winter break. Lana didn't understand how Chloe could be so selfish.
In Lana's private cabin at Davos, Lex shook his head at the story. "Ah, Chloe."
"I can't believe she would do something like that to you."
"It's not the first time she's done something like this." He smiled. "She publishes, we perish."
"You're awfully forgiving."
"Chloe has never really grown up. She's still the same shrill, narrow-minded Midwestern girl she was four years ago. There's only so much you can expect from her."
She sat on the couch next to him, put her hand on his arm. "I promise not to forgive her for you."
He leaned back and looked up at her. "You're going to hold my grudges for me now, Lana?"
"Name them, and it's done," she said lightly.
Darkness flitted over his expression for a second. "That's more to ask of you than you know."
"Well, you've never asked me for anything."
"I just want you to be yourself, Lana," he said, putting his hand on hers. "That's satisfying enough for me."
No one, she thought, had ever understood so perfectly.
After graduation, she quickly found herself well-launched in the art world. No one was a more powerful patron in Metropolis than Lex Luthor. With his resources at her disposal, it was easy for her to live on the old farm, but spend as much time as she chose in the city. He had offered her her choice of splendid apartments downtown, but he had also suggested the country, as a retreat. She liked the idea; it was original and unexpected, like all of Lex's. None of the other painters her age had thought of it. It made her distinctive, not to mention pleasantly hard to reach. She didn't feel trapped there anymore, not with the LexCorp helicopter at her constant disposal, and everyone looked at her differently than they had at the scared little girl who had gone away so long ago.
One rainy evening, she came back from shopping in the city to find Clark Kent huddled, drenched, on her porch. "Hey, Lana..."
It was a little hard to smile at him. "Clark. I didn't expect to see you here."
They hadn't talked much recently, especially since the trouble with Chloe. She opened her door for him, though, and he followed her into the house, eventually settling awkwardly on a couch in the living room. She wished he would stop dripping on it, but instead she sat across from him and waited for him to answer her. "I'm just ...visiting home for a few days. I got...homesick."
"Homesick? For us? I'm surprised. I thought you loved Metropolis."
He was bigger and handsomer even than she had remembered. Such a different type from Lex, or the French men, but solid and bursting with health, with the strength of the land. Yes, beautiful. "Well, then. Tell me all about it."
"Believe me, Lana, I wish I could."
"Oh, Clark," she sighed, "you haven't changed, have you?"
He gave her a soulful look. "Not in some things."
It was like he was scrabbling at the outside of her shell. She had to be firm. "Luckily, I have. I'm just glad to see you, Clark. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to."
He looked so relieved, she wanted to laugh. "Thank you, Lana. I appreciate it. I really do."
They ended up playing Scrabble for most of the evening. Lana brought out a good red, and Clark downed four glasses without even seeming to notice the taste. That was a little unfortunate, but he was good-humored and eager to hear all about her new life. At the end of the evening, he stood in her door and looked as uncertain as when he'd been a teenager. "This was...nice, Lana. Can I come by again?"
"Sure, Clark. Anytime. Though next time, you might call first. I'll have something better to eat."
He bent down to kiss her. His mouth was rough against hers, his hands trembling with feeling. She shut her eyes and leaned into his warmth. Then he let her go, and was gone before she could open her eyes.
"Clark Kent came by? That's ... interesting."
They were in Lex's inner sanctum, his schedule cleared in an instant for her, just as it always had been. Her sketch of Lex, framed, hung on the wall behind his head. He looked a little older now, a little thinner, but there was still that knowing look in his eyes. "Interesting...and a little scary." She made herself laugh. "He really...he reminded me of the old days. Not entirely in bad ways."
"Still keeping secrets?"
"Still trying to get your promises while not making any of his own?"
"That...not so much," she said thoughtfully. "It was as though he was just glad I was there. He...he kissed me, Lex."
Lex only nodded, as if he had been expecting it. "He didn't waste any time."
"No, he didn't."
She wanted him to say something about Clark never changing, something that would reset the balance, restore her slightly shaken sense of equilibrium, but instead he smiled. "Maybe Clark has grown up a little."
"Do you actually think that's possible?"
"Well, it's been six years. I've seen him around town a few times since he started working for the Planet. He did seem...more mature. If not more open."
"What do you think I should do?"
He grew serious again. "Maybe you should give him a chance, Lana. Maybe he's finally ready for you."
She blinked, surprised. It really wasn't the answer she'd been expecting, but it touched something deep in her. "I did feel like he wanted to confide in me this time. I just..."
Lex's eyes were as patient as ever.
"I just don't want him to hurt me again."
He rose and crossed to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Don't worry about that, Lana. You won't let him. Besides..." He bent and brushed a kiss to her forehead. "You'll always have me."
She did trust Lex--he had always taken care of her--but she still needed insurance. She raised her own hands to catch his head before he could straighten and kissed him thoroughly. He reciprocated without hesitation, modulating his responses exquisitely to match her approach. She felt giddy and warm, even a little greedy, thinking of having them both. "You won't let anything bad happen."
"Not if you promise to tell me everything," he murmured.
She kissed him again, just to make sure. "Of course."
When she came home to find Clark sitting on the steps, it was easy to smile. "Come inside, Clark."
"Yes." She lifted his chin, studied the angles of his cheekbones. "I'd like to sketch you."