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It's half past three in the morning, but Lex is standing at the door, awash in starshine and orange with the porch light.  He's smiling and he looks thinner than you ever remember.  You clutch your robe tighter around yourself so you don't reach out to clutch him.  Some things never change, and he still doesn't like to be touched.  But now there are better reasons why, you think.

He says, "Mrs. Kent, sorry to bother you."  And you say, "Of course, Lex," and let him in. 

You have trouble remembering when you didn't want him here, but you know it used to be that way.

He smiles at you and strokes your countertops, so terribly pale, and you're glad it didn't *stay* that way.  "Is Clark up?"

It's a stupid question to ask, you think, because nowadays, Clark is never asleep.  He just drifts a few hours here and there, and you are used to getting early morning phone calls about how he's sorry he left again.  You always know where he is, though, so you're not worried--not the way you thought you would be.

But you don't want him to worry about that--and Lex is always worrying--so you say, "I think the knocking might have gotten him up." 

You look at the steps and right as rain, there he is, weary but smiling, and there is a strain there, just underneath his happy expression.

He breathes, "Lex!"

And you watch and Lex seems to get a little better right there.  "Hello, Clark."

Your son bounds down the rest of the stairs and you don't say a word, just watch them grin at each other and talk about stupid things.  Lex mentions how he's thinking of leaving LexCorp to Clark, and Clark is talking about how Lex isn't funny, at all. 

Lex is sprawled with some elegant lethargy on one of their breakfast stools, and you start to walk away, because this isn't your time.  Your time is in between running errands for Lionel.  Your time is when you see Lex lingering in the library, looking thoughtfully at a book, and when he catches the smell of your perfume to say, "Mrs. Kent."  You've given up trying to get him to say "Martha," so you just walk in, and that is your time.

This is Clark's.

"You'd like it, Clark," Lex says, only half seriously.  He is slipping one hand into his pocket.

Clark steps away, but only long enough to get his jacket; it's always because he's afraid Lex will be cold.  You know this because when you do the laundry now, you smell Lex's cologne and you tell yourself that your eyes water because you're allergic, even though you've never been allergic to anything.

You're leaving, you really are, but you can't help but linger long enough to hear your son and his best friend be happy--for just a moment.

"It's a company," your son says, mocking but warm.  You know he saves this only for Lex.  He saves a lot of things for Lex now.

"And it comes with a building," Lex says back.  "It's very shiny."

Clark laughs and you hear the screen door open and shut.  No one bothers to say goodbye.  Goodbye is halfway between a promise and a curse.

You go to the kitchen again, and watch them drive away.  They'll be back by daybreak, you know, because no matter what Clark says, he still needs to go to school.  You know at least that Lex agrees with you, and these days, he is your best ally.

Jonathan is looking out the bedroom window when you get back to your room.

"How's he doing?" he asks, and you shrug, because that's the best you can do.  He nods, and takes your hand.

You let yourself sleep, because you're going to have to be strong again tomorrow.

 

*

 

You're not surprised to find him at work before Lionel is.  That's sort of Lex's thing, and you get that, for whatever reason.  After all, you married a man who wakes up the rooster, and not the other way around.

But he looks up when you knock on the office door, and smiles at you like he means it.  He might, but the look is different when it's for Clark, and you've seen it so many times when he doesn't know you're watching.  This can't compare.

"Mrs. Kent," he says, and waves you in.  "You're out here early."

You hold up a file folder.  It's got yesterday's news clippings in them, and you're about to throw them away. 

"Important business, Lex," you tell him, because he doesn't like to be coddled.

Lex smiles at you, and it's got a bitter tone to it.  "Ah, yes," he says softly.  "Business--undoubtedly--better served in Metropolis, if he could be bothered to leave me to my own."

You don't know why he hasn't figured it out yet, when he can figure out crosswords in fifteen minutes and state secrets in four.  Lionel doesn't like Lex, you know; but for all his faults, he loves his son.

You ask, "What brings you out of bed so early today?"  The Luthor family rift isn't one that you can fix.

Lex smirks and gestures at the mountain of paperwork on his desk.  "A few procedural things."  His eyes get soft.  "I'll be heading back to Metropolis in a few months.  I owe it to LexCorp to have everything in order."  He looks back at you, and smiles merrily.  "How's Clark?"

You've long since given up trying to figure them out.  The town hasn't.  It's not like you don't understand why.

You watched your son spend twenty minutes doing the crossword with him the other week, and you saw the brushes just like when you met Jonathan.  You remember Clark saying, "Lex, not everything has to be so complicated."  And Lex saying back, "Stop whining, colloquial fits."  You remember thinking that other things fit, too.

You admit it, you used to wonder, too.  But that's all changed now.

Now, all you say is, "Good, and he'll be over later this afternoon."

"To pester me for cars and women and illegal substances, no doubt," he says gently, a grin on his face you wish could be there longer.

"No doubt," you say in reply.

This is your time.

 

*

 

You read a book, a long time ago, about how when something bad happened, it happened to the whole family.

You remember that you didn't quite believe it.  The girl in the book was raped; it was different for her than for her mother, for her father, for her brothers.

You don't know jack shit, you reflect now, because it's all true, every word of it.  It goes further than family, beyond just blood.  And this is the litany of thought that you cannot banish from your mind, no matter how hard you try.  Pain spreads like laughter, and lingers far longer.

"How was school?" you try, even though you know it's futile.

You think that it shouldn't be this bad because "best friends" isn't family, exactly.  But you know better just from experience.  You can't choose your family any more than you can choose who fascinates, comforts, and is there for you.  You can't walk away from a best friend; you don't want to, either.  That is the difference.  So maybe this is worse, even, than losing a family member.

He picks at his plate and gives you the plastic smile he once showed you he used when he wanted to get out of something.  "It was okay.  My chemistry exam was heinous," he admits, and you're almost glad for that. 

In another life, one that existed a year ago, you would say to your son, go ask Lex for help.  Put his degree from Princeton to some use.

In this one, you will say instead, "It's just one test, sweetheart.  I'm sure you'll make it up."

He just smiles at you and eats his peas.  This is how you know something is horribly wrong.

Today is a particularly bad day, and you hope like you have never hoped that Lex will be by later, weary but genuine smile on his face, car keys in hand, to take your son out for a midnight drive where they will say and do things you will never, ever ask about.  You don't think that they're lovers, it's more and more reverent than that by this point.  But you don't doubt that they stop by the bridge where they met, and they tell stories to one another that will mean nothing but in voices that tell the whole truth. 

You don't want to know if Clark has told Lex his secret.

You also wonder what exactly happened today since you don't remember Lex going to the doctor or being particularly tired. 

You do remember him giving careful cooking instructions to the housekeeper, a list of things that he can't eat anymore.  Lex is too old to have aversion therapy, and he will always couple the taste of eggs with rolling nausea from chemotherapy, you think.  You're not supposed to know, but sometimes Lex will stay for breakfast, and Clark told you in secret.  "He can't eat eggs, Mom," he told you intensely.  "They make him throw up.  How - how about waffles?  With blueberries?"  So you nodded and made blueberry waffles and watched Lex pretend that he would have eaten the eggs if you'd put them on his plate.

"You hate peas," you hear yourself saying.

"I hate lots of things," he says back.

So you just look at your husband and clutch his hand under the table.  You know what Jonathan is thinking; it's in his eyes, clear as day.  Because you remember him wishing death on all Luthors, too.

 

*

 

You also remember Jonathan thought it was unnatural for Clark to react this way to the news, and you thought that Jonathan was just the thickest person alive.  If no one else, you are glad that Clark feels this way, on some detached level, that he has cared about someone deeply enough to grieve the thought of their absence.

And then you realize that it's not that simple.

Clark, you see, blames himself.  Totally, endlessly, ceaselessly.  He wakes up in the morning thinking that this is his fault and he stares at the ceiling at night knowing that it is.  You want to hit Lex for ever letting him explain how this happened.

"Meteor shower, Clark," you remember Lex saying dimly.  "I was exposed to a lot of radiation that day.  Frankly, I'm not surprised."

You also remember the way your son locked himself in his own bedroom for three days.  And he still won't tell you what he did.  All you know is that he blames himself, even though Lex called the next day, looking haunted and tired and oh-so-guilty when he told Clark, "This isn't your fault, Clark."  And you remember you wanted to ask him why he thought he needed to reassure your son; but secrets and lies and imminent danger doesn't seem so imminent when death is knocking down the door to your quiet lives.  "It came out all wrong," Lex persisted, even though he knew and you knew Clark wasn't listening.  "Stop being such a child, Clark.  Get out of your room.  You have classes and if your chemistry average doesn't improve and word gets out I was your tutor, I lose face for eons.  Get out, Clark."

That was seven months ago, with Lex looking determined like a General.

The sound of a car pulling to a stop in your driveway catches your attention, and you wipe off your soapy hands and smile, real and bright as you see them ambling up to the porch.  Clark and Lex are really very beautiful people, you know.

Seven months later, and you see Lex looking peaceful, which is rare.  You wonder what this means in between already knowing. 

You don't want to know already, because it's so counterlogical, totally against everything you already know about Lex.  And besides, your son is only seventeen, you don't need to see him shatter into a thousand pieces.  You think that Lex should have the consideration to live through this like he has survived everything else.

Still, even you know that bone cancer and concussions are different.

You've asked him before, and he persists on saying that he hasn't given up, that he won't.  "Really, Mrs. Kent, that's not in my nature," he tells you. 

But everything about him says that he's grown-up enough to do this, too.  To go. 

"Yes, Charity, call my lawyer," you overhear him say often.  You know why Charity is calling and you also know why Lionel is always in a spectacularly dark mood immediately after he finds out about these communications.  Lionel doesn't think that Lex should be grown-up enough to do this, either, and you think that it might be the first time you and Lionel have ever agreed.

You want to say, "Lex, stop being such a goddamned adult."  You want to grab him by the shoulders and yell, "Clark isn't one yet.  You can't do this."

Only Lex can, and Lex will.

(Might.)

(No, he won't.)

(Don't be ridiculous.)

 

*

 

August eighth will probably be the worst day of your life. 

The moving trucks that rolled into Smallville are rolling out again.  Lex's desk and Lex's books and all of Lex's things are being shipped back to Metropolis.  Tucked in along first editions of Moby Dick and Tess of the D'Urbervilles are a cornhusk doll that Clark bought Lex and boxes of news clippings, framed photographs in front of the Talon, and mix CDs that Lex got as birthday presents from your son.  You remember Clark agonizing over what to get the guy who literally has everything.  The next morning, you remember him humming and then a week later you caught Lex humming the same thing.

There are things, you know now, that you can never leave behind, no matter how far or fast you run.

You hope that Clark will understand this, too.  Or if he doesn't yet, you hope that somehow Lex will teach him before time and life and all kinds of crueler heartbreaks do.

Lex pretends to be cheerful about it and say that it's just the helicopter exhaust that's getting on his nerves, but the truth you know and Clark knows and Lex's doctors know is that he needs to let go of Smallville.  Let go of Smallville and admit that he needs more care that he can get via airlift when the occasion calls for it.  Things like "better quality of life" and "duration" are being tossed around and you're not okay with that.

But it's not your call, it never has been.  And August eighth, Clark is helping Lex pack up his things.

You sit on the front porch and watch Clark walking toward you.

You don't say anything when you see his face but you open your arms and you can only hope that it is enough.

"He's gone," your son says and clings to you.

"Not yet," you remind him. 

 

*

 

The entire space time continuum has been conveniently divided for you: Before It and After It. 

You're too cowardly to say the words "bone cancer" out loud much.

This is partly because your son thinks it's his fault that his biological parents launched him in a ship toward a stranger planet and that Lex was there with his father that day.  Because Clark thinks that he's the reason that the best friend he's ever had is dying.  Because your son has convinced himself that he destroys everything that he touches, and some days, you can't find the strength in yourself to convince him otherwise.  Because some days, you saw the way that Lex was hunched over his desk, awake and about through pure force of will alone, and saw his bare head.  Because some days you found yourself thinking the same thing and you almost cried at that realization.

Life is a trillion shades of gray and not one line in the sand but a never-ending matrix of simple decisions that lead to complicated ends, you know now.  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter who is to blame for making an After but what matters is that After exists, and that it is longer than infinity.  Long after you and Jonathan are dead and Clark is married and a father, it will still be After.

No, you know what matters is that Clark learns to deal with that, and stops hoping for the Before.

 

*

 

You're not sure what you expected Clark to do, but at least you aren't surprised.

Teachers are calling, saying, "I know it's strange, but it's just that Clark's never missed more than a day of school and--"  Jonathan is making faces and fighting the urge to turn purple and lecture your son about how he understands that things are bad, but that it's not an excuse to make them worse.  You're biting your tongue a lot and keeping an iron grip on Jonathan's arm at all times; you're nearly forty years old and you don't have a clue what to do.

You don't know how Clark's explaining it, or if he is at all, but you can't imagine that being able to make daily visits to Metropolis without a car is inconspicuous.

But you've always noticed that Lex cuts Clark a remarkable amount of slack, for all that your son fails in hiding his gifts Lex gives him another inch of rope.  You just hope that it's not enough so that Clark hangs himself.

Exams are tense at semester and your son doesn't do very well.  You're not sure if this is because his best friend is dying or if he was never really good at European History, anyway.  But he doesn't seem to mind so much and neither do colleges, because Metropolis University accepts him and Clark is going to school in the fall with grants and work study. 

That's one less thing to worry about until you realize what this means.

You ask him one night if he'll be at home at all during the summer, and he doesn't bother to lie to you.  He doesn't say anything at all.

He and Jonathan fight for an hour the second night of summer vacation.  Jonathan yells things about how it's unnatural for anyone to be this attached to "just a friend" and Clark's face gets white like snow.  He yells at his dad that this isn't about Luthors or whatever sick beliefs he might hold, and that Lex is the best friend he's ever had.  Jonathan forbids Clark from going to see Lex anymore and Clark tells Jonathan to fuck off.  They don't talk afterward.

 

*

 

During the summer, it becomes habit to wake up in the morning, walk over to Clark's room and find it empty.  You make the daily phone call out to Metropolis and you say hello to Rosa who answers the phone and tells you that Mister Luthor and Mister Clark are just in the next room, and could I wait a moment.  Your son picks up moments later and you don't bother to ask him where his head is.  You tell him your plans for the weekend and you ask him his.

He tells you he loves you and that he's sorry.  Clark is always so sorry.

You wonder if that's something that Lex can break him out of, too, like perfect attendance and his crush on Lana.

But sometimes, good times, Lex picks up the phone instead of Clark and scolds you playfully about trying to dump your offspring on him, and joking about how he's not even being paid child support to satiate Clark's egregious appetite.  You laugh and you can't help it--it's nice to see someone take the situation lightly, even if it's from the most inappropriate source.

You can't but to notice, though, as the days and weeks draw by, that more and more frequently, Rosa tells you that Mister Luthor is in the hospital, and that Mister Clark is with him.  You can't help but to feel your heart sink when you dial Metropolis General and find that Lex's voice is that much softer than before.

 

*

 

Halfway through summer, during the deep, muggy end of July, you hear a knock on the door and Clark goes to get it.

It's one of the few times he's actually been at home these last weeks, and you're so tired and frail-feeling that you can't be bothered to overthink the situation.

You reflect later that's it the first time you've ever seen Clark so angry, as the lawyer pulled out file after file and asked for signatures.  "Why is he doing this?" Clark asked, and you just watched him quietly.  "Why?"  The lawyer told your son that Lex wanted his personal affects in order, and that if Clark wants to help Lex, he'll stop stalling and just sign the documents and deeds.

You and Clark spend the next three weekends at Clark's new manor in Smallville. 

But Lex will always live there, you guess, Clark will make sure of it.

 

*

 

You drive up to Metropolis one day in early August to visit and you find Lex in his apartment, thinner than you've ever seen him.  He's smiling, though, and tired, sprawled out on his gray sofa like he owns all of Metropolis instead of only about thirty percent.  He motions for you to take a seat, and ignore your son's frenetic mother instinct.  Clark buzzes around and offers to get Lex this and that and Lex tells him to sit down and shut up; it takes three tries before Clark actually does this.

But your son looks happy to be waiting on Lex hand and foot--or at least trying.  Some distant part of your mind is amused by this, and reminds you that if your husband saw Clark Kent sitting so close to Lex, and brushing his hand across his friend's so frequently, he'd suffer a heart attack. 

As it is, you smile, and you almost blush.  Clark is so obviously taken.  Lex is so obviously tired.

The scary part is how taking care of Lex is part of the routine now, and Clark and Rosa make dinner while you and Lex lounge in front of the windows open to the Metropolis skyline.  You talk about everything but the inevitable, at least until twilight starts to seep into the edges of the sky and Clark calls out to tell you that dinner will be ready in ten minutes.  You look at Lex and he smirks, leaning back in his chair, wearing a dark gray shirt the color of his eyes, and whispers, "That means we have at least twenty more minutes to wait."  You smile and Lex turns to stare out to nowhere.

Five minutes pass before he says, "The chemotherapy didn't work."

You nod.  "Okay."

He turns to you again, a vague, far away look on his face.  "He won't listen."

"I'm sure he won't," you say.  "He--" you don't know if you want to tell him this "--he blames himself."

Lex laughs, breathy.  "Cause and blame are vastly different things," he says gently.  "I could tell him that just because he caused this, doesn't mean I blame him for it."  He falls silent for a few moments and I try to wrap my brain around that: being able to see who has ruined everything, and to separate that from the person that they have been to you.  You're sure you're not strong enough.  You imagine that if you ever let yourself really get what Clark has done, just by existing, your home life would become even stranger.  "But I'm fairly sure that would be disastrous," Lex says lightly.  "It's not something I can fix.  I've tried."  He pauses long enough to look at you intently, like he's trying to organize his next words in his head.  You've never seen him struggle so much to say so little.  But it tells you things, many things, when he tells you, "I guess that's up to you."

It's totally inappropriate, so of course you say, "Passing the buck?"

"In a manner of speaking," Lex replies, smiling.

"Isn't that called quitting?" you ask.  It's stupid to provoke his pride to keep him here when the best medicine in the world can't.

Lex sighs.  "It's called being unavoidably detained."

You lace your fingers together and watch him watch the world.  You're not sure you understand how this happened or why it's happening to you and your son and Lex.  It's okay though, you guess, since it's nothing you can change and Lex is facing this with a calm, detached responsibility, and you're not worried about any of the things you ought you'd be worried about. 

Clark wanders into the room fifteen minutes after this.  He is sheepish as he tells you, "Dinner's ready."

Lex goes to sleep four months later, and doesn't wake up--he is surrounded by old Warrior Angel comics and Clark is tucked around him like a blanket. 

You are the one who finds them like this, and you'll be the one never to forget.

 

*

 

And the thing is, ten years older and wiser, you've almost forgotten the way that Clark used to look at Lex, how his eyes softened.  The intervening years have been kind and Clark is now every bit the adult that Lex was, that circumstance forced him into--Lois is good to him, but Clark will keep his secrets.

It's not until one day you hear about Alexander Joseph Luthor's latest contract with the government that you're shocked out of your small-time reverie.  You call your son and demand to know what's happening, only to find out that somewhere down the line, one of the many Luthor's got a name change.  Clark is very quiet about it, which is how you know he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he seems centered, still, cautious like he never was before.  "We'll just see where this goes," he tells you gently.  "Mom, don't worry so much, I'm fine."

You don't believe a word of it, and you're right.

Three months later, Superman starts telling you about what Luthor is doing now, with this hollow, dark expression on his face.  "Lex would be so pissed," Clark tells you.  "It's so classless what Lucas is doing."

But the important thing is that your son isn't hurting--not anymore.

 

*

 

But in your dreams, sometimes, it's half past three again on a day of no particular importance, and Lex is standing at your door.  He's smiling at you the way he did the last time you saw him in Metropolis, and he's got his hands tucked into his pockets. 

"Mrs. Kent," he always says, "sorry to disturb you."

You tell him that he's not disturbing anyone, and you both wait for Clark to come downstairs.  And in your dreams, Clark is not seventeen.  Clark is twenty-eight and still tousle-headed, and there's no Lois or a wedding ring in sight.  Just Clark's bright eyes as he wanders into the kitchen.  They poke fun at one another and Clark grabs his coat, because he's always afraid that Lex will get cold. 

And eventually, long after the kitchen door has slammed and you have stared out the windows, you go upstairs to your husband and hold him tight.

You wake up that way, smelling Jonathan's aftershave and the scent of clean cotton sheets and nighttime, a thousand stars framing the shape of your son and his best friend as they walk out to Lex's car, laughing all the while.