"He's up there again." Jonathan sank into a chair at the kitchen table and scowled into the mug of coffee Martha set in front of him.
"He's been up there since we finished dinner." Martha wandered back to the window, staring through the gathering dark toward the barn. She couldn't see Clark now, but the faint glow of a lantern from the loft was plainly visible.
"Have you managed to get anything out of him?"
"No. He says he's all right." Martha watched the light flicker and the shadows move. Clark was pacing again.
"He won't talk to me. Just smiles and says everything's okay. Lord, Martha, I can see everything's not okay. He's miserable. Why won't he talk to me? We've always been able to talk before." Jonathan pulled off his cap and tossed it onto the table in obvious frustration.
Martha sighed and turned to him. "He obviously feels this is something he can't talk to us about."
Jonathan looked at her blankly. "He's always been able to talk to us about everything."
"He's not a baby anymore, Jonathan."
Jonathan snorted. "You think all this is over a girl? Even Lana doesn't get him this steamed up."
Martha cleared her throat, scanning the kitchen for breakables. "Jonathan. I don't suppose you noticed that all this began about the time Lex went back to Metropolis." Martha leaned back to watch Jonathan's classic Pavlovian response with resignation borne of long experience.
"What are you saying?" Jonathan demanded, flushing. "That our son is up there ... pining over Lex Luthor?"
"I'm saying that the day after Lex left -- three days after you mentioned you wished he were dead--"
"Dammit, I apologized to Clark, I apologized to you, I even apologized to that smirking bastard Lex Luthor, and I still can't remember what the hell I said!"
"--Clark started not eating, not sleeping, and not talking, and ever since the day Lex was in town and walked past Clark as if he didn't know him, things have gotten even worse. You asked me a question. Do you want to hear the answer, or do you want to shout?"
Jonathan grunted and slumped back in his chair.
Martha slipped into the chair beside his. "I only mentioned what you said because it isn't likely to encourage Clark to talk to us about Lex."
"My son," Jonathan said between clenched teeth, "is not gay."
"This isn't about being gay. It's about losing a friend."
"My son does not pine for men. My son is not pining for Lex Luthor."
"I really wish you'd stop using the word pining," Martha snapped. "Your son isn't a Jane Austen heroine, either."
"I hate Jane Austen," Jonathan muttered darkly.
Martha counted to ten. "Do you want to help your son? Or are you too busy hating the Luthors to bother?"
Direct hit; Jonathan turned to her with wide eyes. "God damn it, Martha. You know I would do anything--"
"That's the spirit," Martha said cheerfully. "You just run out there and tell him to call Lex in Metropolis and offer your apologies--"
"I've already apologized!"
"--again, and extend our invitation to dinner."
"Do you want this to go on for another three weeks?"
"Do you want to call Lex yourself?"
"Jesus H. Christ," Jonathan growled.
"I'll take that as a no. On your feet, mister."
Jonathan glared at her as he rose. "I just want you to know that I'm not convinced this is the problem."
"So noted." Martha folded her arms across her chest and glared back. "Now get to it."
Grimacing, Jonathan swung toward the door, but stopped in his tracks. "Too late," he said with thinly disguised relief.
Jumping up to join him at the window, Martha caught the tail end of Clark's blur as he disappeared into the dark outside the barnyard. Running again. Clark was always running these days. Toward something? Away from something? Martha sighed. "You can talk to him when he gets back."
Coming here every night was stupid.
Clark kicked a small rock at his feet, heard it bounce a couple times before it came to rest on the grassy slope overlooking the mansion gates. He had an excellent view of the estate from up here, but everything was quiet. Only a few of the hundreds of windows were lit, and those were probably in the servants' quarters. Lex wasn't here. And if he were here, Clark wouldn't be welcome.
The friendship had never made much sense to start with. They had nothing in common. There were probably no two guys in the world more different than Lex Luthor and Clark Kent. They were from different worlds. Clark couldn't help smiling. Really. Different worlds. No common ground. So how come they understood each other so well? Why did they trust each other with their lives -- even if they didn't trust each other with their secrets? There had to be common ground somewhere. Underneath, where nobody could see it. Otherwise, those secrets would have ripped them apart by now.
Clark sighed and turned away from the house, heading across the open field. Or maybe they already had, and he just couldn't admit it. Why else had he followed Mom's advice? Cooled it off with Lex? Secrets. But not the secrets Mom had been thinking of. Not Lex's secrets. His own. If his parents ever found out just how close he'd come to telling Lex everything, they would lose it. And it hadn't been his promise to them that had kept his mouth shut. It was the freak look that he'd get from Lex.
Clark barked a bitter little laugh. He might as well have told Lex everything, the way things had turned out. Clark knew that Lex had been hurt when he'd pulled away. And then Dad had said some ugly things, even if he had been sick when he said them. They weren't the kind of things a guy could brush off easily, any more than Clark could brush off the conviction that Lex had been involved in that whole mess with the flowers. Too many secrets. By the time Clark had realized how serious the breach was, Lex had already left for Metopolis. He hadn't said good-bye.
Lex had only been back to Smallville once in the past three weeks. Clark flinched at the memory of the blank stare he'd received as Lex brushed past him in the street. Like he'd never laid eyes on Clark in his life. Like he was a total stranger. Was the freak look any worse than that? Shit.
This was stupid, too.
Clark drew a deep breath to ease his constricted chest, and started to run again.
"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe." Lex paused his whispering as an object in motion caught his eye. Hunkering down behind the tree, he peered in its direction, identified a bird and continued. "All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe."
Lex experienced fleeting gratitude that his interests lay in science and not mathematics. Mathematics obviously drove people insane. His feet were going numb again; he'd have to move soon. "'Beware the Jabberwock, my son, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch. Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch.'"
Case in point. Charles Dodgson had been as staid and stable as the day was long, a pillar of the Oxford community, until that fateful day in 1862 when his lifelong study of mathematics snapped his mind, and metamorphosized him into an author of children's literature. A fate worse than death; Lex was not immune to the power of this cautionary tale. "He took his vorpal sword in hand: Long time the manxome foe he sought -- So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought." Lex set his teeth and forced himself to his feet, forced himself to move again, keeping his unsteady feet in the small, wet gully that led down the center of the long grove of trees on the border of the field.
It was getting dark. Another night in the open. Darkness was a blessing for a man trying to hide, but a curse for one trying to survive a Kansas winter's night. He'd been damn lucky that the last two nights had been mild as December nights go, that it hadn't snowed, that he'd been able to keep moving, that his father's operatives were brain dead cretins of the first order. Lex giggled to himself. Yes, he was a very lucky man. "And, as in uffish thought he stood, the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came."
He should have felt it coming. Lionel had been far too restrained lately, distracted; his interest in Lex's activities had waned dramatically. If Lex had been thinking clearly, he would have interpreted this behavior as profoundly dangerous. But he hadn't been thinking clearly. He'd been thinking about Clark. "One, two! One, two! And through and through the vorpal blade went snicker-snack. He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back."
Mathematics had its upside.
If he'd been thinking logically, he would never have gotten this close to Clark. Clark was Jonathan Kent's son in ways that had nothing to do with genetics. A true disciple of moral certainty, Clark had an overdeveloped conscience and the annoying habit of applying it in situations that had nothing to do with right and wrong. Business situations. Clark would never have understood why Lex would have dealings with a man like Hamilton. He would never have understood any of the things Lex had to do to survive in his father's world. If he'd been thinking logically, he would have known that a friendship with Clark would entail giving up more of his life than he was prepared to surrender.
Lex tripped over a tree root in the dark and tumbled to his hands and knees, cackling softly. Give up more of his life. That was funny. It was, as the literary critics said when they didn't understand something, darkly ironic. His life was gone. Well, not gone, exactly. Purloined. Appropriated. Hijacked.
"I'm sorry it's come to this, Lex."
"I'm sorry it's come to this, Lex."
He hadn't look sorry. He'd looked smug, jubilant.
"But you are not a suitable heir."
"But you are not a suitable heir."
And poof! Like magic, there he'd been, Mr. Suitable Heir, standing at Lionel's shoulder. Lex would have screamed if his gag hadn't been threatening to choke him. Mr. Ditto, Mr. Reasonable Facsimile, Mr. File-Save-As, staring at him as if he were fresh out of vat somewhere.
"If you cooperate, I give you my word that you will lead a very pleasant, if confined, life."
"If you cooperate, I give you my word that you will lead a very pleasant, if confined, life."
Well, he hadn't cooperated, and things had gotten very unpleasant very quickly.
"'And, has thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy. O frabjous day. Callooh. Callay.' He chortled in his joy." Lex rasped the words to the trickle of dirty water running between his hands, and all the pretty, smooth stones.
"I don't want to hurt you, Lex."
"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves--"
"This is completely unnecessary."
"This is completely unnecessary."
"Did gyre and gimble in the wabe--"
"This stubbornness is pointless. Why suffer like this?"
"This stubbornness is pointless. Why suffer like this?"
"All mimsy were the borogoves--"
"Just tell us what we need to know."
"And the mome raths out--"
A sweeping arc of light brought him back with a jolt, and he threw himself onto his stomach in the mud. Another of Lionel's search parties. Fuck, he must have emptied Metropolis of its last cheap thug to put this many men in the fields around Smallville. Lex hadn't been able to walk more than an hour in any direction without encountering one. He rested his forehead on his arm, breathing hard as the truck approached, its light swinging back and forth along the trees. If they spotted him now, they'd have him. He didn't have the strength to run.
Lex jerked his head up as the polite, clear voice rose above the noise of the engine. He had to be hallucinating. Serendipity had already dropped that particular guardian angel in his path more times than the laws of probability would allow. But damned if he wasn't there again, standing in the truck's path, illuminated by halogen headlights, the very picture of solid reality. Solid, annoyed reality. "You do realize you're on private property, right?"
This was his chance to crawl away, while the occupants of the truck were distracted. It was the perfect opportunity, and Lex ignored it.
A man on the passenger side stuck his head out the window. "Sorry, kid. We must have gotten lost."
Clark raised his eyebrows. "Seems like a whole bunch of people have been getting lost around here lately. You'd better tell your friends that we don't allow hunting on our land."
Lex lay there watching him, soaking him in. God, it was better than ... than eating, just to see him, to know he was all right. This couldn't last long enough.
"Honest, kid, we just took a wrong turn. Which way's the road?"
Clark pointed across the field. "Our lane's over there. Just turn right and it'll take you back to the road."
Shit. Lex winced. He was that close to the Kent house? He'd gotten turned around again.
"Thanks." The man pulled his head back in, and the truck pulled a hard left to head across the field.
Clark turned to watch it go, making no move to either follow or leave, then turned to face the trees. "You, too. Go on."
"Come on, I know you're there. Just clear out, okay?"
Fuck. If Clark found him here ... . Lex broke out in a sweat. If Clark found him here, he'd do something stupid. He'd try to help. He'd put himself between Lionel's battalion of thugs and Lex, and anything could happen. The worst could happen.
"I'm not going anywhere until you leave, so you might as well start walking. If you hurry, you can catch up with your friends."
Lex gulped back a hysterical laugh.
"Fine." Oh, he was pissed, now. "Then I'm coming in after you."
Fuck! Lex shoved himself up onto his hands and knees and started clawing his way out of the gully toward the far side of the trees. If he could just get to open ground, he might be able to lose him in the dark. Someone grabbed him by the back of his shirt collar and yanked him onto his back, and Lex lay there gasping, wondering who the hell it could be. There was no way Clark could have moved that fast.
"Lex?" It was Clark. Obviously his perception of time had gone the way of Charles Dodgson's sanity. "Oh, my God." He sounded horrified, and Lex wondered why. Clark went down on his knees and bent over him, running a hand over Lex's face; Lex winced as the gentle fingers touched his bruises. "What happened? Who did this?" God, he smelled wonderful, clean and warm. "Lex, talk to me."
Yes, Lex, say something. "Hi, Clark." Oh, that was brilliant. "Good to see you."
"Good to see me?" Flabbergasted. It was a good word, very descriptive. Clark. Sounded. Flabbergasted. "God, you're frozen." Clark stripped off his jacket and slipped an arm under Lex's shoulders to help him sit up. Lex leaned against him, drinking in Clark's heat as Clark wrestled him into his jacket. "You need a doctor. Can you walk? I can get the truck and take you to the emergency room--"
"No!" Lex roused himself from his daze. "I can't go to the hospital. They'll find me there."
"Don't ask. I don't suppose you have anything to eat on you?"
"Eat?" Lex felt Clark bend closer. "How long have you been out here?" Shit, his voice was shaking.
"Never mind. Thanks for the jacket."
"Lex. I'm taking you back to the house."
He was charmingly predictable. Lex actually smiled. "No, you're not."
"Were those guys in the pickup looking for you?"
"You're not getting involved in this."
"Who are they? I've never seen them before."
"They don't exactly move in your social circle."
"They're not ... cops, are they?"
Lex's smile deepened. Given Clark's recent exposure to the more colorful side of Lex Luthor, it was a reasonable question. "No. They work for my father." Oh, now, that was a mistake, because Clark wasn't stupid, and once he took the next leap, which he would--
"Your father did this to you."
--you see, then any chance of him not getting involved was pretty much shot to hell.
He was shocked, and furious, furious on Lex's behalf, and God it felt so good to be close to him again. Lex's vision blurred as he slumped against Clark, and Clark's startled gasp was the last thing he heard.
The sound of the front door bursting open made Jonathan jump and lose his grip on the dish he was drying; he caught it just before it hit the counter. "Jesus! That boy will bring the house down on our heads one of these days."
"That fruit doesn't fall far from the tree," Martha observed tartly.
Jonathan grimaced. He was going to be in the doghouse until he talked to Clark, that was for damn sure. The idea of Lex Luthor sitting at his dinner table sent his blood pressure into the ozone, but if that's what it took to keep peace in his house ... . Hell. How bad could one dinner be?
Jonathan stiffened at the sound of panic in Clark's voice. "Clark?"
Martha dropped her sponge and bolted through the kitchen door without stopping to dry her hands. "Clark? What's ... . Oh, my Lord."
Jonathan, following her closely, nearly piled into her as she stopped in her tracks. He stared over her shoulder at the limp figure Clark was depositing on their sofa. "What the hell?" It took him a couple seconds to realize who it was. He was a mess. Bruised, filthy and out cold. Jonathan pulled himself together as Clark knelt beside Lex. "What happened?"
"I'll call an ambulance." Martha turned toward the phone.
"No!" Clark whirled toward her, wild-eyed, one hand resting on Lex's chest. "We can't. He says people are looking for him."
"I'll just bet they are," Jonathan growled. "The entire Metropolis police department is probably eating Smallville doughnuts tonight."
"I'll get the first aid kit," Martha cut in. She gave Jonathan a stare that meant serious business before she disappeared up the stairs.
Jonathan sighed and snatched up an afghan from his chair. "All right. Tell me exactly what happened."
"I found him on the edge of our cornfield. In the trees. There were a couple of guys in a pickup looking for him with a searchlight." Jonathan tossed the afghan on top of Lex, and restrained a surge of annoyance when Clark spread it carefully over his friend. "He said they worked for his father."
"His father?" Jonathan knelt beside Clark and laid a hand on Lex's carotid artery. Strong and steady, but the skin was like ice. "More likely the police, Clark. God only knows what he's been up to."
"These guys weren't cops, Dad. If they were, why didn't they show me a badge and ask me if I'd seen anybody?"
"What did they say?"
"That they were lost."
Okay, they weren't cops. Jonathan grimaced as he examined the bruises on Lex's face. Somehow he doubted any Metropolis cop had the stones to pound the shit out of Lionel Luthor's son. An odd, angry red discoloration just under Lex's collar caught Jonathan's eye, and he pulled Lex's shirt open gently.
"Oh, God." Clark hastily unbuttoned Lex's shirt to reveal more raw patches. "Dad--"
"Burns," Jonathan muttered. And they were no accident. "Have you ever seen those men before?"
"No." Clark swallowed hard and shook his head. "There have been strangers around for days, but this is the first time I've caught them on our land. I thought they were hunters."
"Evidently they are," Jonathan muttered, rubbing Lex's hand. "How long has he been out there?"
"He asked me if I had anything to eat." Clark's voice cracked ominously.
Martha ran down the stairs, set the first aid kit on the floor and turned toward the kitchen. "I'll heat up some soup," she said breathlessly over her shoulder. "And if he's not awake in two minutes, we're calling an ambulance, I don't care if the whole county is chasing him."
"He'll be all right, won't he?" Clark started tucking the afghan around Lex with more energy than was required.
"I think so. He's tougher than he looks, if he could survive two nights outside dressed like this." Jonathan started working on Lex's other hand, relieved to see some color returning to the white skin. "Clark, close the door and turn off the yard lights. And the lamp. No sense advertising if there's anyone out there."
The door slammed, and before Jonathan could turn his head, the room was dark and Clark was kneeling at his side again. "I ran all the way. No one could have followed me." Lex drew in a shallow, shaking breath.
"I think he's coming to." Jonathan let go of Lex's hand as his eyes fluttered open.
"Lex?" Clark was bending over him now, a hand on Lex's shoulder, and Jonathan hauled himself to his feet, trying to keep a scowl off his face. Did Clark have to touch the guy so much?
Lex stared up at Clark blankly for a moment, then looked around, his eyes widening. "Damn. Clark. What the hell did you do?" His voice was no more than a croak, but he was already struggling to sit up.
"He saved you from dropping dead of exposure," Jonathan retorted, annoyed. "What did you expect him to do?"
Clark caught Lex's shoulders, steadying him as he sat up. "It's all right, Lex, you're safe here." He draped the afghan around him again.
"Safe?" Lex uttered an abrasive laugh that made Jonathan's short hairs rise. "I'm not safe, Clark. If they followed you--"
"How can you possibly--"
"Lex." Clark drew a quick breath, glanced at Jonathan, and continued in a subdued tone. "They couldn't have followed me. I can't tell you why. You'll have to trust me. Can you do that?"
Jesus. Who wouldn't trust Clark? But Lex got an odd, strained look on his face that Jonathan could see plainly, even in the dim light from the stairway. Damn, he was weird. Lex Luthor was weird, and why Clark and Martha couldn't see it was beyond him. Lex lowered his eyes. "Yes." He huddled forward, clutching the afghan to him, shivering, his forehead resting on Clark's shoulder as if his spine wouldn't support his weight any longer. "I can do that."
"It'll be okay," Clark muttered, one hand moving across Lex's back.
"Lex, we need to know what the hell's going on here," Jonathan cut in, a little louder than he'd intended.
"He eats first." Martha blew by him like some ancient mother goddess on a mission, and Jonathan grunted in exasperation and dropped into his chair. Martha knelt beside Clark holding a mug and a spoon. "Lex. Try this."
Lex lifted his head, his eyes still closed. "That smells good."
"My homemade chicken noodle. Can you manage the spoon?"
"Of course he can manage the damn spoon, Martha, he's a grown man," Jonathan snapped.
"If you can't, just sip the broth," Martha continued, as if he hadn't spoken. As if he didn't fucking exist.
Lex opened his eyes and looked at her with a wondering expression for a second, then smiled faintly and reached for the mug. Jonathan understood, suddenly, at the sight of those violently shaking hands. The guy was shaking all over, whether from cold, or shock, or both. Damn. He flushed slightly. Mouth shut. Check. He kept it shut, even when Clark wrapped his hands around Lex's to steady the cup. Lex closed his eyes and took a few sips.
"Okay?" Martha sounded shaken, and Jonathan knew why. Without the suit, the swagger and the smirk, Lex looked like the boy he was. Sometimes Jonathan forgot that this "grown man" was only five years older than Clark. Well, it was easier to forget that, if you had made up your mind to hold a grudge, wasn't it? After all, it was a small man who held a grudge against a boy. Jonathan squirmed in his chair.
"It's wonderful," Lex murmured, pulling the mug to his mouth again.
Clark didn't move his hands, and Jonathan rose and headed for the stairs. "I'll get some blankets. You should get those wet shoes off him."
"No. I can't stay long." Lex was barely audible.
"You can't go back out there!"
Clark sounded horrified, and Jonathan turned to lean on the back of his chair. "What's this all about, Lex? Exactly who is looking for you and why?"
Lex stared into his mug. "My father is looking for me," he said finally.
"Did your father do this to you?"
Lex lipped his chapped lips. "Yes." He took another sip from the mug. The forgotten spoon tumbled to the rug as Martha covered her mouth with her hand.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"We'll believe you." Clark was still holding onto his hands, damn it, and he showed no signs of letting go.
"It's a long story."
"Then you can take your wet shoes off," Martha said unevenly. "Drink." She pushed the mug toward his mouth again.
Lex looked at her blankly for a moment. "Mrs. Kent, I don't want to involve you in--"
"You've already involved us," Jonathan snapped. "You're here. The whole story, Lex. Start when you left for Metropolis."
Lex bent over, picked up the spoon from the rug, and spooned up some noodles. "I never left for Metropolis."
"I've spent the past three weeks in the basement of the mansion." Lex shoved the noodles into his mouth.
"The basement?" Martha sank to sit on the floor with an aghast expression.
Clark's eyes widened. "But I saw you last week."
Lex swallowed too hard and turned to him, coughing. "What?"
"I saw you. On Thursday."
"Tell me you didn't go to the house." The wild look in Lex's eyes made Jonathan stiffen. "What did I do? Did I hurt you?"
"Of course you didn't--" Clark drew a sharp breath. "It wasn't you. It wasn't you, was it?"
"Of course it was him." Jonathan reined in his temper with difficulty.
Lex was clutching his mug so tightly that his knuckles were white. "Clark--"
"I was in town. You passed by me, you looked right at me like you didn't know me. I thought--"
"Thank God." Lex lowered his head. "That's it? That's all that happened?"
"It wasn't you," Clark repeated in a hushed voice. He looked so damn relieved, like nothing else mattered. "Who was it?"
Jonathan saw Lex hesitate. More lies? "Don't tell me we have yet another nutcase wandering around pretending to be Lex Luthor."
Lex uttered a weird little laugh and scooped up another spoonful of noodles. "So much depends on one's perspective."
"My father will tell you that I'm the nutcase. Some poor, crazed soul who bears a chance resemblance to his darling son--"
"What the hell?"
"--and has become obsessed and violent. Attacked poor Lex, you know. Hit him over the head with a two-by-four ... no, wait ... maybe it was a tire iron." Lex shoved the spoon into his mouth. "No, it was definitely a two-by-four. These are really delicious, Mrs. Kent," he said through a mouthful of noodles. "Do you make your own?"
"Lex." Martha's voice was a little too steady. "Tell us what's happened."
"I'm telling you, Mrs. Kent. Poor Lex has suffered memory loss due to the attack. The doctors say it's only temporary ... you haven't heard about this?"
"Son," Jonathan said sharply. He didn't like the odd glitter in Lex's eyes. "Cut the crap and tell us what's going on."
"That's strange. I really would have thought he'd have his cover story out there by now ... no. No, of course not. Publicity is not our friend. Need to know basis only. We wouldn't want any authorities not sufficiently bribed becoming involved."
"Lex." Clark laid a hand on Lex's shoulder, and Lex fell silent, staring at him. "Please. It's okay. Just tell us." The empty mug slipped out of Lex's hands; the spoon rattled inside it as it hit the rug. Lex closed his eyes and crumpled forward like wet cardboard to rest his forehead on Clark's shoulder again, and Clark slid his hand up to rest lightly on the back of Lex's neck. "It's okay." Clark's voice shook. Son of a bitch Luthor was scaring the shit out of him. "You're okay."
Lex did nothing but breathe hard for a few seconds, then he mumbled something.
"What?" Clark leaned his head down.
"It's a clone."
Jonathan circled his chair and sat down. Martha turned to him, looking like someone had just whacked her over the head. That's right, guess who's coming to dinner, Martha? Lex Luthor, fresh from his latest lost weekend, courtesy of Metropolis' booming hallucinogenic trade. He shot her a triumphant glare.
"A clone?" Clark repeated.
"My replacement. I am not a suitable heir."
"Your father is ... replacing you."
"Has replaced me. Has."
Christ, Clark couldn't be believing this crap.
"I am not a suitable heir," Lex repeated dully.
"Why does he think that? Did something happen?"
Lex didn't answer.
"Hamilton worked for me."
"He what?" Jonathan was out of his chair, but Martha jumped up and intercepted him before he could reach Lex.
"Don't," she said breathlessly. "Jonathan. Keep calm."
Clark was already nodding, his mouth twisted into a grim line. "Yeah." He wasn't surprised, Jonathan could see he wasn't surprised.
"I didn't know what he was working on."
"By the time I found out, your dad was already sick."
"You son of a bitch." Jonathan tried to evade Martha as she restrained him. "I should have known you were responsible--"
The silence that fell then was so profound that Jonathan could hear the weather vane squeaking on the roof of the barn. Jonathan snorted dismissively, doing his level best to lower his blood pressure. Hell, there wasn't enough left of Lex to beat up, anyway. Drawing an arm around Martha's shoulders, he relaxed his stance, glaring at the two figures huddled on the sofa. Clark and Lex hadn't moved; Jonathan wondered if they'd noticed him at all.
"Go on," Clark said. He sounded angry. Very angry. Good.
"I destroyed everything in Hamilton's lab."
"To conceal the evidence," Jonathan snarled.
"To keep the Nicodemus from spreading. I transferred him to another lab where he could be closely supervised. Evidently he was not pleased."
"Hamilton told your father," Clark muttered.
"And that's why you're not a suitable heir."
"Because you destroyed something that was killing people."
"It would have made him a fortune."
"He already has a fortune."
"It was the last straw. Don't know how long he's been working on Karloff. Must have had him in the vat for years."
And we were back to Mystery Science Theater again. "Your clone," Jonathan said sourly, trying to catch Clark's eye. And failing, since Clark was completely focused on Lex. You'd think there was no one else in the room.
"He didn't ... come out quite right." Jonathan saw a shudder overwhelm the shivering. Lex really believed this. Lex was either demented or still under the influence of whatever controlled substance he'd been indulging in.
"What do you mean?" Clark sounded less angry, now. Not angry at all, in fact. Gentle. Jesus.
"Physically perfect. Memory is flawed."
"He has your memories?"
"Some of them."
"I don't know. They kept me drugged for long periods of time in the beginning. By the time I saw him, he could remember. Some things." Lex's voice went strained.
Clark flinched. "So there are things he doesn't know."
"Things your father wants him to know."
"And you wouldn't tell him."
Clark sighed. And he and Lex still hadn't moved. Jonathan resisted the urge to pull them apart. "And you got away how, exactly?"
Lex lifted his head but didn't look at him. "An old family friend bribed one of the security guards."
"A friend." Jonathan exchanged glances with Martha.
"Eli." Lex blinked and turned his head to stare at him. "His name is Eli. I don't believe you've met." He smiled, and Jonathan knew, as suddenly as that smile's appearance, just how close Lex was to the edge.
Jonathan cleared his throat. "And how--?"
"Clark, your father and I need to discuss this." Martha stood up, still holding onto Jonathan's hand. "Why don't you take Lex upstairs to your room and let him rest for a while?"
Jonathan shot her a startled look, but Clark was already moving. "C'mon, Lex."
"I can't stay," Lex muttered as Clark helped him to his feet.
"Just for a while." Clark guided him across the room, drawing Lex's arm over his shoulders. "Just come upstairs and crash for a few hours. Then you can go if you want."
"Bad idea." Lex leaned on Clark heavily, his eyes drifting shut.
"Good idea." Clark cast a glance over his shoulder at Martha as he half-carried Lex up the steps.
"What?" Jonathan whispered as they disappeared. "You can't possibly believe--"
"I don't know what I believe. But grilling him won't get the truth out of him. Jonathan, he's suffering from shock and exhaustion. He probably doesn't know what he's saying."
"You know what's happened here. He went off to Metropolis, hooked up with his old buddies and went on a bender. He probably cracked his car up not far from here and has been wandering around all day."
"And the burns?"
"God only knows what kind of fun he's into. Looks like he's had one hell of a weekend to me."
Martha grimaced. "You know, sometimes I don't like the way your mind works."
Jonathan sighed and leaned against her. "I'm right about this, Martha. He causes nothing but misery wherever he goes. The best thing that could happen for all concerned is for him to get the hell out of our lives."
Martha looked troubled. "Maybe." She glanced up the stairs. "Maybe not for all concerned."
"You're going to need new socks." Clark pulled off the muddy, ripped socks and tossed them aside.
"Your grasp of priorities rocks my world, Clark."
Clark snatched up one of his dirty t-shirts and scrubbed the worst of the mud off Lex's feet, saying nothing.
"Sorry," Lex whispered.
"Where should I start?"
Clark didn't answer.
"I didn't know--"
Clark threw away the shirt and looked up at him. "Tell me you didn't know what kind of man you were hiring."
Lex met his eyes. Tired. God, he looked bone-tired, so tired he couldn't even lie. "I knew." His eyes closed.
"Lie down before you fall over." Clark stood up and pushed him gently onto his back, then lifted Lex's legs onto the bed.
"Why are you doing this?" Lex sounded desperate. "What the hell is wrong with you, Clark?"
Clark yanked the covers over him, not sure whether he wanted to punch him or climb in with him. "You're your own worst enemy, you know that, Lex? If you hadn't hired Hamilton, you wouldn't be in this mess."
Lex's laughter was slightly hysterical. "Which mess? Being a dead man or needing new socks?"
"You're not dead, Lex," Clark snapped, unnerved. "You're too noisy to be dead."
Lex kept on laughing until it didn't sound like laughing anymore and drew his arm over over his eyes. "It was so damn cold out there, Clark."
"How did you wind up in our cornfield?"
"Jimenez got me out of the house and into a car. He was supposed to take me to Eli, but as soon as we passed the gates, every light and alarm on the estate went on, and he panicked. He shoved me out of the car and kept on driving. I've been dodging my father's people ever since."
Clark turned out the light and perched on the bed beside him, relieved to feel Lex's shivering beginning to subside. "You should have come right here. What were you thinking?"
"I don't know. I guess I was thinking ... that I'd put the Kents through enough for one lifetime." Lex quieted, and pulled his arm away from his eyes. "I'm sorry, Clark."
"I know," Clark sighed. He couldn't stay mad. He didn't know why. Lex just did this stuff. He never meant it to turn out the way it did, but somehow it always went bad. It's not that Lex was stupid; he was the smartest guy Clark had ever known. But he had this massive blind spot. It had something to do with being a Luthor, whatever that meant. Clark knew he'd figure it out eventually. "Try to sleep, Lex."
"Your father could have--"
"You didn't know," Clark cut in before Lex could say the word. "When you found out, you did everything you could to help."
Lex was silent.
"I'll put you through another wall, if it'll make you feel better."
Lex turned his head toward Clark, smiling faintly. "I'll pass."
"Are you warm enough?"
"Clark. Seriously. What happened on Thursday?"
"Just what I said."
"He didn't hurt you?"
Clark smiled. That was why he couldn't stay mad. "He didn't even recognize me."
"Thank God for that, anyway," Lex muttered.
"Maybe I'm one of the things he doesn't know about."
"He remembers something. He kept asking about you."
Lex didn't answer for a moment. "Promise me you'll stay away from him, Clark."
"Lex," Clark said sharply. "Did he hurt you, too?"
"There's something wrong with him. Not just missing memories. Something ... ." Lex's breathing went shallow, erratic. "Wrong. Promise me."
"I promise." Clark laid his hand on Lex's chest. "I'll stay away from him. So will you. Relax, now. Try to rest."
"I don't think my father has any idea what he's made." Lex's eyes drifted shut. "He thinks ... he has the perfect son and heir, made to order."
Sick. Clark's stomach flipped over as he let himself really think about it. Some ... thing, floating in a vat somewhere, being made into Lex. It was sick. Lionel Luthor had to be out of his mind.
"He thinks he's malleable. Obedient. Loyal. Everything I'm not. But he isn't. God, he isn't. I've seen his eyes when my father isn't looking. When he's not there to see. It's ... . You have to believe me, Clark."
"I believe you."
"About everything?" Lex's voice had dropped to a drowsy whisper.
"About everything," Clark whispered back.
Lex didn't answer, and Clark slipped down to sit on the floor with his back to the bed. Something told him not to leave Lex alone in the dark.
"It's awfully quiet up there."
Jonathan sounded disappointed. Martha sighed as she poured the coffee. "Were you hoping Clark would beat him up?"
Jonathan pulled a face. "A man can dream, can't he?"
Martha ignored him. "Lex is probably sound asleep by now, and Clark isn't likely to leave him."
"I don't want him getting used to Lex Luthor being under our roof, Martha."
"Jonathan, what if Lex is telling the truth?" Martha set a cup of coffee in front of him and slipped into her chair at the kitchen table. Jonathan glanced heavenward. "And before you answer, let me remind you of what's sitting in our storm cellar."
Jonathan sighed. "Okay. For the sake of argument, let's say the bastard is too strung out at the moment to come up with a convincing lie."
"Well, thank you, Mr. Generous." Martha scowled and took a sip of her coffee.
"If what he says is true ... ." Jonathan frowned. "His life would be pretty much over."
Martha froze, appalled. "My God, Jonathan."
"Think about it. He'd have no name, no family, no home, no means of support and no way to get any of those things back. Unless he was prepared to kill the so-called clone. And his father, of course, which I wouldn't put past him."
"Jonathan!" Martha slapped her mug to the table.
Jonathan winced. "Okay, okay."
"Whatever else you can say about Lex, he is not a murderer."
"I withdraw the remark! This is purely hypothetical, remember? There's no clone, just the original scumbag playboy back from yet another kinky weekend in Metropolis." Jonathan glared at her over the rim of his mug, slurping noisily.
"The point is that if it is true, he would have nothing, no one, and no place to go."
"It isn't true, and I don't want you getting used to having him here, either."
"He's alone, Jonathan," Martha said quietly. "I think he's been alone his whole life. He's just a boy, and he hurts. You really can't see it?"
Jonathan took her hand and lifted it to his lips as his eyes locked with hers, and Martha felt the heat rise to her face. Lord, after all these years, that look could still make her weak in the knees. "I see it," he said. "But I see other things, too. Things that scare me."
"Everyone has scary things inside them. Some people just need them more than others."
"Need them?" Jonathan stared at her.
"You try living with Lionel Luthor," Martha said evenly, "and see how many scary things you have to come up with."
"That's not what I want for my son," Jonathan grated. "I don't want him to abandon his values and start setting his demons at other people's throats. I don't want him turning into a Luthor, Martha."
"I think you're underestimating your son." Martha tightened her grip on his hand. "Clark knows what's right. If he ever--" She broke off at the sound of someone running down the stairs, and turned to see Clark standing in the kitchen doorway, breathing hard. "Clark? What's wrong?"
"Lex's Porsche is coming up the lane," Clark said breathlessly. "I can hear it."
It took Martha a moment to understand. "Lex's Porsche?"
"It'll be Lionel Luthor, then," Jonathan growled, yanking his jacket off the back of his chair as he stood up. "No doubt looking for his stoned son. He's not setting foot in this house."
"It's not Mr. Luthor." Clark's voice was uneven. "He wouldn't go looking for Lex himself. Dad, it's got to be him."
Jonathan laid a hand on Clark's shoulder as he passed. "Relax, Clark. There's no him. It was just whatever the drug of choice is in Metropolis these days talking, and I'm sure Lex won't remember anything about it in the morning."
"No, Dad." Clark followed him into the living room, and Martha scrambled out of her chair after them. "Please. I believe Lex. He's not on anything, and this ... this guy is dangerous."
"Jonathan, be careful." Martha grabbed his arm as he opened the front door. "We don't know--"
Jonathan leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Of course we do," he said confidently. "You two stay here, this won't take long."
Martha caught the screen door as it swung shut behind him, and watched Jonathan stride down the steps toward the drive. The Porsche came to a graceful halt in front of the house, and Martha fought the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. No. This was wrong. Lionel Luthor would not come looking for Lex, here or anywhere else, under any circumstances. Smacking the door open she strode out onto the front porch and stood at the top of the steps with her arms crossed across her chest. Clark followed her, putting an arm around her shoulders as if he could see how badly her knees were knocking.
And in spite of everything she'd told herself, she still nearly screamed when Lex Luthor climbed out of that car. Well-groomed and impeccably dressed as usual, he was wearing a smile that looked so wrong that Martha felt herself recoiling against it. Clark's grip around her shoulders tightened as Jonathan came to a halt, staring blankly.
"Good evening, Mr. Kent."
"Lex." Jonathan took only a fraction of a second to recover, but Martha could see the stunned look in his eyes. "What can we do for you?"
Lex's gaze slid from Jonathan to Martha. "Mrs. Kent. Hi, Clark." That steel blue gaze swept over Clark from head to toe, and Martha felt herself stiffening. He hadn't come out quite right, Lex had said. Not quite right. Martha slipped an arm around her son's waist, resisting the foolish urge to order him inside.
"Hi," Clark returned evenly. He was shaking, too.
"It's a little late for visiting, Lex." Jonathan's tone was brisk, and Lex turned back to him. He was still smiling.
"I apologize for the hour, Mr. Kent. But there's an unfortunate situation that I thought you should be made aware of as soon as possible. Can we go inside and talk?"
"We can talk here." Jonathan's tone was pleasant, but firm, and in a stab of panic, Martha wondered how this ... person would react to being denied.
Lex kept right on smiling. "That's fine." Everything was wrong. The way he stood, the way he spoke, the way he moved. Surely people would notice. Lionel couldn't get away with this, could he? "It's a bit ... well, strange. A few weeks ago, a man walked into mansion and got all the way to my office before anyone realized he wasn't me."
"Excuse me?" Jonathan managed to feign polite surprise.
"He looks enough like me to be my twin. He interrupted a business meeting, shouting that he was Lex Luthor, and that I was an imposter."
Martha vaguely wondered whether Lionel had decided on the two-by-four or the tire iron.
"He's obviously disturbed. I don't remember much about the fight, but he managed to club me over the head with something before my father and our associates could subdue him. I've had a little trouble with my memory ever since."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Lex nodded, his gaze traveling to Clark again. "I'm sure you can understand the sensitivity of the situation. Publicity about this is the last thing we want. My father decided not to press charges, and made arrangements for the man's care at a psychiatric facility."
"That's very generous of you." The edge was creeping back into Jonathan's voice, and Martha desperately tried to telegraph patience.
"We received word three days ago that he escaped. He's been seen in the area, and my father has hired private detectives to find him before anyone else can be hurt."
"Wouldn't it be best to notify the police?"
Lex shook his head. Martha wondered if he ever stopped smiling. "That would ensure this matter becoming public knowledge. I wouldn't have bothered you with this, Mr. Kent, but if this man knows anything about me, then he knows about my friendship with Clark. I wanted to be sure that if any of you are approached by this man, you know who it is you're dealing with."
"Don't worry," Clark said softly. "I know Lex Luthor when I see him." Martha winced inwardly at the hint of challenge in his tone.
"Good." Lex's smile became painfully bright. "If you do see him, please let us know as soon as possible. I wouldn't want any of you to get hurt."
Martha felt a chill touch her shoulder blades. Not quite right. "We'll call you right away," she heard herself saying. "But I hope the detectives find him soon."
"I'm sure they will. Thank you, Mrs. Kent. Sorry for the late visit."
"That's all right." Martha cleared her throat. "I hope you're feeling better soon, Lex."
"Thanks for the warning," Jonathan added with a note of finality.
Lex nodded and glanced up at Clark again. "See you soon, Clark?"
Clark set his jaw. "Sure."
Lex flashed a god-awful grin at him and slipped into his car. Jonathan backed away as the engine purred to life and the car moved slowly around the drive. The three of them stared after it as its taillights disappeared into the distance.
Clark let out a breath. "He doesn't even drive like Lex."
Martha burst into a hysterical giggle and clapped a hand over her mouth as Jonathan hastily turned, sprinted up the steps and took them both into his arms. She buried her face against Jonathan's chest, feeling Clark's strong arms going around both of them.
"All right," Jonathan muttered in her ear. "Which one of you is going to say I told you so?"
"That would be me," Clark murmured. "It's okay, Dad. It's not the kind of thing you really believe until you see it."
"I know Lex."
"What are we going to do?" Martha whispered. "We can't hand Lex over to that ... whatever he is."
"Lionel Luthor's a fool if he doesn't suspect Lex is here," Jonathan muttered. "Or at least that he's trying to get here."
"He's not a fool," Clark said quietly. "That must be why so many of those 'detectives' of his have been so close to our land."
"Detectives, my ass. A pack of Metropolis thugs, more than likely." Jonathan took a deep breath. "All right. If we can keep Lex out of sight long enough, Luthor will probably think he's left the area and start looking somewhere else."
"Lex can stay?" Martha raised her head at the hopeful sound in Clark's voice.
"Lex can stay," Jonathan said resignedly. "And may God have mercy on our souls."
Clark hugged Jonathan and disappeared into the house. Martha heard him running up the steps. "This could get dangerous, Jonathan," she whispered.
Jonathan tightened his arms around her. "I know."
"Lionel's demented. He must be, to have done this horrible thing."
"We'll be all right." Jonathan bent to kiss her. "We'll make it work. You were right, Martha. I can't throw that boy to the wolves, whatever I may think of him."
"Boy?" Martha grinned up at him.
"Boy," Jonathan admitted grudgingly, grinning back at her. "Stop looking so smug."
"Make me." Jonathan leaned down again, looking like he meant business, but the door blew open like a cyclone had hit it, and Clark was standing there, panting and eyes wide. Wordless, he shoved a piece of paper into Martha's hand as he struggled into his jacket.
"IOU new socks," Martha read incredulously. "Loved the soup. What on earth?"
"He's gone," Clark grated, eyes too bright.
"Evidently demented runs in the family," Jonathan snapped.
"He must have seen the car," Martha breathed. "Or him."
Jonathan sighed. "He won't last an hour out there. What the hell is he thinking?"
"I don't know what he's thinking." Clark had never sounded so grim. "But I'm going to find out."
"Be careful," Jonathan said, grabbing Clark's arm. "Remember, Luthor's goons are still out there."
"They'll never see me. I'll check the field where I found him first."
"I'll be right behind you."
Clark nodded and disappeared around the corner of the house. Jonathan kissed Martha on the cheek. "Stay here. Just in case he comes back."
"You be careful, too," Martha whispered. "Bullets won't bounce off you, Jonathan."
"No bullets," Jonathan murmured in her ear. "We'll be back before you know it. Just heat up some more of that soup."
"Okay." Jonathan trotted after Clark, and Martha went back inside and shut the door. She leaned against it for a second, then straightened. Pulling out a saucepan, she poured some soup into it, and set the burner on warm. Then she loaded the shotgun, sat down with a clear view of the front door, and curled her finger around the trigger.
Lex peered ahead into the dark, trying, without success, to get his bearings. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the trouble with fields was that one field looked pretty much like every other field, especially at night. He had only the vaguest idea where Smallville lay in relation to all this shameless conformity, but he might as well walk back to the manor house and turn himself over to Karloff's tender mercies as use the road. Besides, that was the first place Clark would look. Lex grit his teeth and forged ahead. He didn't doubt for a second that Clark was out here looking for him, in defiance of every principle of self-preservation and common sense, and if he didn't keep moving--
"What do you think you're doing?"
Lex nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice in his ear. He whirled toward the sound to find Clark at his side, glaring at him as if he were the lunatic. "Where did you come from?"
"My house. You remember my house? Where there's heat and food and nobody trying to kill you?"
Lex looked him up and down, bewildered. Clark wasn't even out of breath. How had he found him so quickly? Lex snorted and collected himself. Hell, how had Clark ever found him? "Do you want your socks back?"
Clark didn't take the bait. "This is crazy. Where are you going? You've got no car, no money--"
"Go home, Clark." Lex drew his arms over his chest, shivering, and continued toward the trees at the edge of the field. "It's not safe out here."
"Which sounds like a good reason to stay where we were." Clark stripped off his jacket and shoved it at Lex. "Put it on."
"I said go home," Lex snapped, for some reason unable to look Clark in the face. He cleared his throat. "And put that back on before you freeze."
"I won't freeze. Will you just stop a second and talk to me?"
"I believe I've already remarked on your problem with priorities once this evening, Clark."
Clark stayed doggedly at his side. "Do you even know what direction you're heading in?"
Lex swore as he stumbled over the knee-high stubs of dead corn stalks in his path. "I'm heading away from wherever my father thinks he can find me."
Clark grabbed him by the arm and turned him around. "My parents would never have told anyone where you were," he said angrily. "Whatever you think of--"
"Clark." Lex contained his impatience with difficulty. "They don't need to tell him anything. He already knows. You don't really think Karloff showed up by accident, do you?"
Clark stared at him.
"It was a warning. My father embraced the concept of collateral damage a long time ago."
Clark's pallor was clearly visible, even in moonlight. "He'd go after my folks?"
Now he was getting it. Finally. "Go home, Clark. He won't bother you if you stay away from me. Just go home and forget you saw me." Lex tried to pull away.
Clark held onto him, breathing hard, and shoved his jacket into Lex's face. "I'm not forgetting anything. Put it on."
Lex yanked him arm out of Clark's grasp with difficulty. "What about this situation do you not understand?"
"I understand, Lex. You're not getting yourself killed for us. My parents wouldn't let you do it and neither will I."
Lex barked a laugh and turned quickly away. "Trust me, Clark, that's not the plan."
"What is the plan, then? Stumbling around the corn fields in the dark until you freeze to death or your father's thugs find you?"
"I'm going to town."
"And then what?"
Damn him. "Then I steal a car, rob a bank and embark on my career as a criminal mastermind."
"Uh-huh. You're headed the wrong way, mastermind."
"I'm heading for the road," Lex lied.
"You're heading for Mr. Dietz's pig wallow. But if waist-high mud is what you're into, go ahead." Clark had the gall to sound amused.
Lex stopped where he was and glanced over his shoulder, sighing. "All right. Which way is it?"
"Put on the jacket and I'll tell you." Clark extended it again, every line of his posture radiating obstinacy.
Lex leveled his most intimidating stare, but Clark displayed no evidence whatsoever of abject terror, and proceeded to shake his jacket at Lex like a matador taunting a bull. Biting his lower lip to keep from laughing, Lex snatched the jacket out of Clark's hand and shoved his arms into it, burying his half-frozen hands in the pockets. "You're a major pain in the ass, Clark."
Clark grinned and opened his mouth to answer, but something seemed to distract him. Lex saw his eyes widen as they focused on something over Lex's left shoulder, but even with that half-second of warning Lex couldn't move fast enough to avoid the arm that yanked tightly around his neck, dragging him backward. He tried to swing an elbow into his assailant's ribs, but felt a gun barrel digging into the flesh under his chin before he could make contact. Freezing, he winced at the icy touch of the metal against his skin. His eyes locked on Clark, who was moving toward them with a panicked expression. "Don't."
Clark stopped in his tracks.
"Don't come any closer." The words were punctuated with a little jab with the gun barrel.
Lex managed with difficulty to keep any discomfort from reaching his expression; Clark looked too much like he might do something stupid as it was. He recognized the voice. "Making a career change, Roger?"
Roger barked a little laugh in his ear. "Just trading up." He withdrew the arm around Lex's neck and stepped back slightly, keeping the gun where it was.
Lex noticed in alarm the tension in Clark's body, as if he were preparing to spring forward. "It's all right, Clark. Just go on home."
"I really wouldn't do that," Roger said. "Unless you want your friend's brains scattered all over this field." Clark blanched and froze, as if he were afraid to breathe.
Lex turned to him, taken aback. "Excuse me?"
"You don't really think I would go to all this trouble to collect you, do you?"
Lex turned back to Clark, groping for speech; he was dismayed to see Clark looking as relieved as he was surprised. "You want me? Why?"
"Clark, leave," Lex said sharply. This could only mean one thing.
"You're going to help me clear up a little credibility issue with my current employer."
Lex's stomach turned over. "He's going home."
"Your father thinks I'm insane," Roger snarled.
Lex pulled himself together enough for a contemptuous laugh. "Imagine my surprise."
"Every scrap of evidence you'd collected was gone. The car. The tape. The simulation. Your personal files--"
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Lex found himself fearing Clark's gaze more than the gun at his throat.
"I told your father you'd never destroy that stuff, that you'd hidden it all somewhere. But we turned that damn house upside down and we still couldn't find it--"
"I'm beginning to sense a pattern here."
"So I called in my experts. They said they didn't know what I was talking about. They said they'd never heard of me!"
"Ouch," Lex said pleasantly. "That must have been awkward."
"You paid them off, didn't you? Your father nearly threw me out on my ass!"
"Oh, to be a fly on the wall."
"How long do you think I would have lived if he had canned me, knowing what I know?"
"Is there some reason you're wasting my time with these paranoid fantasies? Because I believe Clark and I are expected at our respective homes."
"He's coming with us," Roger snapped, his free hand digging in his pocket. "After I've made sure of a few things."
"I don't think my father will appreciate the delay." Lex turned slightly, stepping to his left enough to partially obscure Roger's view of Clark. If Clark had been anyone else, he'd have taken off by now. He couldn't possibly have failed to understand. "He's been beating the bushes for me for three days, Roger. Delivering me in a timely fashion just might restore you to his good graces."
"Lex," Clark said in a strained tone. "Don't."
Lex glanced over his shoulder in irritation; Clark still hadn't moved. All the survival skills of week-old roadkill. It was amazing he'd lasted sixteen years.
"Oh, I'll have more than his good graces. I've been doing a little research on my own." Roger tossed something about the size of a softball to the ground at Clark's feet.
Lex stared at it for a moment before realizing what it was, but Clark's reaction was immediate and alarming. He backed away a couple steps, breathing hard, fear in his face. "Clark?"
"Stay where you are!" Roger yanked Lex closer and gave the gun barrel another uncomfortably hard shove into his throat. Lex couldn't quite control his wince. "Pick it up."
"Why?" Clark's voice was unsteady. "Look, if it's me you want, just let Lex go and I'll come with you."
"Pick it up. You don't want to make me angry, Clark. Believe me, I have personal reasons for blowing his head off that have nothing to do with setting me up for life with Lionel Luthor."
Lex could see Clark swallow from twenty feet away, and peered at the rock lying among the corn husks in growing confusion. It was a meteor fragment, larger than most, but to all outward appearances no different from any of the thousands, perhaps millions of fragments that littered the countryside around Smallville. They were only nominally radioactive and shouldn't pose a danger to anyone, but Clark was staring at it like it was a rattlesnake.
"Fine." Roger surprised Lex with a rough shove that drove him to his knees. "We'll do it this way." Lex felt the gun graze the back of his head and drew a sharp breath.
"Don't." Clark snatched up the rock, holding it in both hands well away from his body. His face immediately twisted in pain. Stunned, Lex watched the dull rock start to glow green, saw the glow start to travel up Clark's hands to his wrists, then disappear under the sleeves of his sweatshirt.
"Christ," Roger muttered. "He was right."
Clark started to shake all over; his breath began coming in uneven little gasps. "Please. Let me put it down."
"Put it down and I'll kill him." Roger's voice was flat. "Get closer to it. Hug it to you." Clark uttered a stifled groan and staggered, then sank to sit on the ground, still clutching the meteorite at arms' length.
"What the hell are you trying to prove?" Lex was shocked at his ragged tone; he tried to call his vocal chords to order and failed miserably. "Let him drop it."
"Just testing a theory. You're into science, Luthor, you ought to appreciate this." Roger turned to Clark. "Do it!"
Drawing a deep, trembling breath, Clark pulled the rock against his chest. He gasped and toppled over onto his side, his body jerking in spasms of pain that forced soft, muffled cries from him as he curled himself around the rock into a fetal position. Lex could see a spider's web of green emerge from Clark's collar, traveling slowly toward his throat. It occurred to him, in a dazed, dreaming sort of way, that the damn rock was killing Clark, killing him right before his eyes, that Clark knew it was killing him, that Clark was letting it kill him to keep Lex alive, that there was nothing he could do to stop it. Lex became dimly aware that someone was shouting at Clark to drop it, drop it, drop the damn thing, throw it away, what the hell are you doing, he's going to kill me anyway, Clark, what the fuck are you doing, drop the goddamn rock -- he wondered who it was. He lunged toward Clark, only to be dragged back by the hood on Clark's jacket and deposited on his back with Roger's gun in his face.
Lex couldn't see Clark, now, only Roger's angry, frightened face and his shaking gun, but he could hear Clark, hear him lose what little control he had left and start to sob. He surged up again, grabbing wildly for the gun; Roger dealt him a backhanded blow that flattened him to the ground just as the sobbing stopped.
Lex rolled over and struggled onto his hands and knees, staring at the silent, still form only a few feet away. Clark's eyes were closed, his skin starkly white and crossed with a sickly green latticework that pulsed and gleamed. Roger backed slowly away from Lex and toward Clark; he looked almost as pale as Clark did. Squatting, he wrested the meteorite from Clark's hands and shoved it back into his jacket pocket, then laid his hand on Clark's carotid artery. "Relax. He's just passed out."
"You could have killed him," Lex grated, watching in dull relief as the glow began to fade.
"People take calculated risks in business," Roger returned in a cool tone, but Lex could see his hands shaking. "You taught me that."
"I never taught you this," Lex snarled. "He's just a kid."
Roger shrugged as he stood. "Not anymore. Now he's a commodity. You taught me that, too."
"He's not a goddamn commodity!"
"Are you kidding? He's my retirement fund. Watch this." Roger took a step backward and aimed his gun at Clark.
Lex launched himself off the ground, stumbling into a flying tackle that caught Roger awkwardly but effectively mid-thigh to send him sprawling onto his back with Lex on top of him. Lex managed to grasp the hand holding the gun, but Roger caught him with a vicious left hook to the jaw that left him just stunned enough for Roger to yank free and scramble out from under him. He staggered to his feet, laughing. "Not at your best, are you? Not eating for three days will do that to a guy."
Lex stared up at him, panting.
Roger was smirking again. "Of course, if you were at your best, you might not have handed him over on a silver platter."
Clark shifted and muttered Lex's name, and Lex scrabbled backward toward him, putting himself between Roger and Clark, his eyes never leaving Roger's face.
"Congratulate me, boss. I've out-Luthored a Luthor. I spent the past three weeks watching everything and everybody in that house. You think I didn't know exactly when, where and how your little jailbreak was going down? Uh-uh. Who do you think set off the alarm, genius? Jimenez talks to whoever has cash, and it was no skin off his nose to shove you out in the road."
"I'm surprised you didn't have him dump me on Clark's doorstep," Lex snapped, disgusted with his own stupidity.
"I wish I had. It would have saved me three days of making sure daddy's boys kept you moving in the right direction," Roger growled. "You took your time about it, didn't you?"
Lex cursed inwardly. Herded like a moronic sheep. "I hope I haven't inconvenienced you."
"I was sure you'd make a bee line for your little friend once you were out. What's the matter, Luthor? Get lost?"
Lex ignored the question. "I don't see why you went to all this trouble. If you're into abducting children, Roger, you could have grabbed him on his way to school, like any other self-respecting pervert."
Roger's eyes narrowed, and for a moment, Lex thought he would fire. Hoped he would fire. "He likes you, Luthor. Probably the only one on the planet who does. I knew the kid wouldn't perform unless he had some motivation, and using his parents or his friends would present disposal problems that you don't. No one will notice if I dump your body in a ditch somewhere."
Lex had nothing to say to that. The logic was sound, of course; it sounded like something his father might say. He'd never really noticed before that everyone who spent any time with Lionel Luthor started sounding like him. He wondered if he sounded that way. He wondered if he sounded that way to Clark.
"Not that putting you through hell for three days hasn't been fun. The only thing I didn't count on was you being taken in. That was a surprise, seeing as the Kents hate your guts almost as much as I do."
Lex laughed hollowly, vaguely amused. "So you ... sent in the clone?"
Roger shrugged. "Wasn't expecting that, either. But I should have. I think he has what you might call a personal interest in the kid." Roger's leer left very little doubt of his meaning, and Lex's insides went cold.
"In that case, he might not be very happy to hear about your extracurricular activities."
Roger shrugged. "He seems to appreciate the bottom line. You've got to test the merchandise before you present it to a client. You're a businessman, Luthor. You should understand this stuff."
"This isn't business," Lex rasped, groping behind him until he found Clark.
"If you think I'm blowing my last chance to get back on the Luthor gravy train, you're crazy."
"Leave him alone." Lex could barely hear himself.
Roger's face twisted into a sneer. "I didn't involve him in this, Luthor. You did."
Roger raised the gun, but Lex knew from the angle that he wasn't the target. He heard Clark draw a ragged little breath behind him, and whipped himself around to yank Clark into his arms, shielding his upper body and head with his own. Clark pushed at him feebly. "No ... Lex. It won't--"
Clark was cut off by a shout from the dark. "Clark!"
Something unbearably loud and hot ripped through Lex's right shoulder, and Clark gasped and jerked in his arms in the unmistakable throes of an impact. "No," Lex choked in panic, one hand fumbling across Clark's chest in search of the wound. Another explosion tore the air, but Lex was only marginally aware of the sound; everything he cared about at that moment was in his arms and under his searching hands. He explored the new hole in Clark's sweatshirt, and the skin beneath it, but there was no blood. No blood. His shaking fingers plucked something from the folds of the shirt, something metallic, round and flattened almost beyond recognition -- but not quite.
"Clark, are you all right?" The voice was closer now; Lex tried to identify it and couldn't.
"Oh, my God," Clark breathed. He pulled opened the jacket Lex was wearing, his face drawn in horror. "Lex. You're bleeding."
"You're not," Lex whispered, his hand curling around the mangled bullet as he pitched forward into Clark's arms.
Jonathan covered the last few feet at an exhausted trot, watching the pain in Clark's face as he sat up, cradled Lex in his arms, stared at the bloody shirt as if he couldn't see anything else. Ignoring the bleeding man between them, Jonathan fell to his knees and hugged his son fiercely to his chest. "Are you hurt?" His voice was raspy, broken; he cleared his throat. "Talk to me."
"Dad." Clark sounded weak as he rested his forehead on Jonathan's shoulder. "I'm fine. I'm okay. But Lex--"
"I saw." He'd seen, all right. He'd seen Lex Luthor, of all men, take a bullet for his son. After he'd been so sure that Lex shouldn't be trusted within a country mile of Clark, so sure that his "friendship" had ulterior motives worthy of Lionel Luthor, so sure that the man was a completely self-serving reptile. Well, that would be guilt enough to keep him busy for a while.
"Roger," croaked Clark, pulling away and staring around in panic.
Jonathan hastily laid a hand on Clark's cheek and turned his face away from the mess on the ground only a few feet away. "He's dead, son. No, don't." He turned Clark away as he tried to look again.
"How ... ? Who ... ?"
"I don't know." Jonathan smoothed Clark's hair away from his forehead. He could still see the telltale signs of exposure to a meteorite; nothing else would have kept Clark on the ground while a friend was in trouble. "The shot came from beyond the treeline. Whoever he is, he can blow someone's head off at several hundred yards, and he's not the kind of guy I want to meet in the dark. Now tell me what happened." He started unbuttoning Lex's very expensive and very bloody shirt.
"His name was Roger. He used to work for Lex, but--" Clark broke off, blanching at the sight of the exit wound. "Oh, my God, Dad. Is he going to be okay?"
Jonathan stripped off his jacket and folded it as tightly as he could. "I think so. It looks like it passed right through his shoulder."
"It did," Clark said thickly. "It hit me after ... . We have to get him to the hospital now."
"The hospital is going to ask a lot of questions." Jonathan zipped up Clark's jacket, pinioning the makeshift bandage against Lex's chest. "We have a dead man lying in our cornfield, Clark. If we walk in with a wounded man who looks exactly like Lex Luthor, given the cover story his father's circulated--"
"They'll arrest him." Clark's voice was faint.
"I doubt he'd make it to the police station." Jonathan grimaced, his gut tightening at the thought. "Considering how long Lionel Luthor's arm is, he might not make it out of the emergency room."
Clark took a deep breath and gathered Lex tightly to him. "Then we have to take him home and take care of him ourselves. We have to."
Jonathan nodded. "Are you up to running with him?"
Clark swallowed. "If you can get that rock further away." He jerked his head in the direction of the late and savagely unlamented Roger. He staggered to his feet with Lex in his arms, swaying weakly.
"Son of a bitch," muttered Jonathan under his breath, scrambling to Roger's side. "How the hell did he know?"
"I don't know. He knew bullets wouldn't hurt me, too. He wanted to take both of us to Mr. Luthor."
"God Almighty." Jonathan's worst nightmare lunged at his mind's eye. If Lionel Luthor ever found out about Clark, there would be no place on this planet where his son could hide. Jonathan shoved the thought away and rifled through the man's pockets frantically. Videocassette. Notebook. Keys. Wallet. Cell phone. And a meteorite. A large meteorite. Who in God's name could have told this man about that? About the bullets?
Jonathan cut that thought off at the knees as well, and flung the damn rock into the dark with all his strength, refusing to look at the mess on the ground. Dead. The man at his feet was dead, and Jonathan could feel nothing but relief. He didn't want to think about what kind of man that made him, or about what kind of monster was creeping around the fields at night blowing people's heads off with high-powered rifles. All he had time to think about was his son, alive and safe, and the friend who had been willing to die to keep him that way.
Jonathan turned to ask Clark if he were all right, but all he saw was a blur in the moonlight as Clark disappeared in the direction of the house. Good. God only knew if they could keep Lex alive, but trying was the least they could do. He only wished he could prepare Martha for the shock. For the thousandth time in the past twenty years, he thanked God that he'd married a strong woman.
He squatted at the dead man's side at a complete loss. He couldn't just leave a human being to rot in his cornfield, or drag him off to a shallow grave somewhere. He should call the police. He should tell them everything he knew. And he couldn't do either. Damn Lionel Luthor to hell.
Jonathan shoved the wallet and keys back into the pockets he'd taken them from, then picked up the videocassette. Weird thing to be carrying around. Weird thing for a man who knew about Clark to be carrying around. Jonathan lowered his head. God, now he was considering robbing the dead. He might as well turn himself in as an accessory after the fact. But if this damn tape had anything to do with Clark ... . A strident trilling cut through the dark of both the night and his thoughts, and he gasped, jumping to his feet. It took him a panicked moment to realize that it was Roger's cellphone.
What the hell? More to the point, who the hell? Someone who worked with Roger? Maybe the someone who had told Roger ... . Jonathan snatched up the phone. "Yes?"
"Mr. Kent." The words were spoken in a cultured baritone with a vaguely foreign accent. "Take the tape and the notes with you. Leave the rest to me."
Not someone who worked with Roger. But the son of a bitch could see him. Jonathan whirled to scan the trees, but the darkness defeated him. You would need special equipment to see clearly at that distance. "What ... who is this?"
"A doctor is on his way to your house to see to Alexander. He may appear somewhat disreputable--" the voice turned wry "--but he is competent."
"You killed this man," Jonathan managed unevenly, convinced.
"Go home to your family, Mr. Kent. And see that Alexander is well taken care of. You will be rewarded."
"I don't want any damn reward! And I'm not leaving a man to rot--"
"I said leave that to me." Jonathan stiffened; he knew a tone of command when he heard it. "Rest assured, Mr. Kent, there will be nothing unusual in your field by sunrise. Tell no one what you've seen tonight; the consequences for yourself and your family could be devastating. Lionel Luthor is not a man who tolerates defiance."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Tell Alexander that Eli is still among the living. I'll contact him later." The connection broke, and Jonathan was left staring at the phone like an idiot.
"Great. Just great," Jonathan muttered finally. He dropped the phone next to the body and grabbed the notebook, then turned toward home, moving as fast as he could through the dead corn. "Serves me right, having a Luthor in my house. Codes. Clones. Assassins. I'm trapped in a damn comic book."
Clark stood there the whole time Toby was sewing Lex up, ignoring his parents' urgent whispers to come away. He wondered numbly how he could have screwed things up any worse. Lex would hate his guts for this. It wouldn't just be the freak look. It would be a you-nearly-got-me-killed-because-you-wouldn't-trust-me look. Clark could imagine only too easily what that would look like on Lex; it would be that strange expressionlessness tinged by pleasant contempt and coldness that only Lex Luthor could manage.
Clark had seen Lex look at people that way before. Other people. Never him. Clark wondered if he could take that. He didn't think so.
He watched Lex flinch and pinch his eyes shut, his lips pressed tightly together as the needle went in again. Whatever Toby had given him didn't seem to be helping much. Or maybe it was, and getting shot just hurt normal people more than Clark could understand. He broke away from his father's restraining hold on his arm and crossed the room to kneel beside his bed, then pried Lex's hot fingers from their grip on the sheets and cradled them in his hand. Lex's hand instantly curled around his, squeezing it with surprising strength, and Clark forced himself to look up.
Lex was looking at him, but there was nothing cold about it. "Relax. It looks worse than it is," he rasped, one corner of his mouth turning up in a ghastly attempt at a smile.
"The hell it does." Toby sounded distinctly sour as he took another stitch. "It's pro bono."
"Check's in the mail," Lex answered through clenched teeth, his eyes shutting again.
"I won't mention that I almost had my head blown off by Annie Oakley over there."
"Serves you right for not knocking." Lex drew in a sharp breath, his face twisting.
"I'm sorry," Clark whispered, looking away again. Lame. Sorry was so lame, and he'd said it so many times. As if sorry could fix this, no matter how many times he said it.
Lex's hand tightened around his for a second. "Advice, Clark."
"Plead temporary insanity."
Clark felt a scratchy, wobbly laugh leave his tight chest. "That works?"
"I've had good luck with it."
Clark rested his forehead on the bed and held Lex's hand tightly, long after Lex had passed out, until Toby was through.
Thirsty. Lex ran his tongue over his parched lips, and was startled when an arm slipped under his shoulders. He felt a glass touch his lips, and sucked down the water greedily, sighing as it was taken away. "Thanks."
Lex's eyes snapped open in time to see Jonathan Kent lower him back onto the pillows and place the glass on the stand beside Clark's bed. Clark was nowhere to be seen.
"He's downstairs on the couch," Jonathan said, reseating himself in the chair beside the bed.
"Is he all right?"
"Just the usual bruise."
"The usual?" Lex blinked, trying to see Jonathan's face clearly in the dark room.
Jonathan shifted uneasily. "How do you feel?"
Lex grimaced. "How do I look?"
"Like hell," Jonathan returned with a complacency that stomped on Lex's last nerve. "Can I get you anything?"
"No. Thank you." Lex met his eyes squarely, waiting.
Jonathan regarded him in silence for a moment. "I saw what you did for Clark," he said finally. "I want to thank you for that."
"You obviously didn't arrive in time to see what Clark did for me," Lex retorted, unnerved. "If you had, you wouldn't be thanking me now."
"I misjudged you, Lex."
"On the contrary, I think you judged me very accurately."
Jonathan frowned. "You put yourself between my son and that lunatic's bullet."
"Allow me to provide some context. That lunatic worked for me, investigating Clark. I don't know where he got his information, but somehow he learned--"
"You sicced someone on Clark?" Jonathan was on his feet, looming over Lex, but Lex didn't flinch.
"--that bullets won't kill Clark, and that meteor fragments will. If he tells my father--"
"He's not telling anyone," Jonathan said flatly. "He's dead."
Lex stared up at Jonathan, shocked, searching the man's face for any sign that he was capable of killing. Those signs were usually plain to see, but these Kents had an unnerving habit of surprising him.
Jonathan stared back. "I'm supposed to tell you that Eli is among the living and will be in touch."
Lex closed his eyes, nodding. Not Jonathan, then. Eli.
"Who is he?"
"An old family retainer. He was my mother's bodyguard for decades."
"And who does he work for now?"
Lex opened his eyes and met Jonathan's glare steadily. "I've spent most of my life trying to figure that out. But if you're asking me if I told Eli to kill Roger, the answer is no."
"What right did you have to investigate my son?" Jonathan's voice was low, dangerous. "What right did you have to expose him to kidnappers and murderers?"
"None whatsoever. I'm a Luthor, Mr. Kent. We do whatever we like to whomever we like. You know that. Clark wouldn't tell me what I wanted to know, so I found people who would."
"Clark promised his mother and me never to tell anyone about his ... abilities. Do you have any idea what could happen to him if that information fell into the wrong hands?"
"Before tonight, I didn't give it much thought." Lex maintained his cool tone with difficulty. "I was in control of the situation, and I didn't foresee losing that control."
"That's all you have to say?"
"What do you want to hear? An apology? All right. I'm very sorry, Mr. Kent, for endangering your son's life for the sake of my idle curiosity. But I don't understand why you're so shocked. Surely you never expected anything else from someone named Luthor."
Jonathan regarded him with narrowing eyes and clenched fists. "Are you trying to get punched in the face?"
Lex turned to see Clark standing in the doorway, a pillow in his hands and a sleeping bag over one arm. He was dressed in an old t-shirt and some sweat pants, and looked decidedly worse for wear.
"Not interrupting anything, am I?"
Jonathan sighed and backed away from the bed. "Clark. I thought you were asleep."
"Couldn't fall asleep downstairs." Clark circled the bed and tossed his pillow on the floor next to it, squarely between Jonathan and Lex. "I'm going to try up here, if Lex doesn't mind."
Lex nearly laughed aloud at the frustration in Jonathan's face. "No, I don't mind."
"Thanks." Clark sat on the floor and wriggled into his sleeping bag, then collapsed back onto his pillow.
Lex glanced back to Jonathan. "I'll be on my way in the morning, Mr. Kent."
"You're not going anywhere," Jonathan said flatly.
Lex blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I wouldn't kick a dog in your condition out of my house. You'll stay here until you're on your feet again."
Lex found himself suddenly unable to meet Jonathan's eyes. "Thank you," he muttered.
"We'll talk again when you're stronger." Jonathan stopped in the doorway. "Good night, Clark."
The door closed quietly.
Lex counted to ten. "Sensitive hearing, too?"
"Sorry," Clark whispered.
Lex sighed and let his eyes drift shut. "Don't be. He's trying to protect you. I've been told that's what fathers do."
"I don't want ... I don't need to be protected from you. You're my best friend, okay?"
Lex opened his eyes and turned his head. Clark was still lying on his back staring at the ceiling, his profile lit by the moonlight outside his window. It occurred to Lex, and not for the first time, that Clark was beautiful. "The logic underlying your conclusion escapes me," he said harshly. "Exactly what about tonight's little adventure makes you believe that?"
"I spied on you. I examined you. I documented you like any other experiment. Because you were an interesting puzzle, the only even remotely interesting thing for a thousand miles in every direction, and I was bored."
"I'd thought at first that the only danger my hobby represented to you was the remote possibility of your being strapped to some lab table at LuthorCorp--"
"--an acceptable risk when set against my need for entertainment--"
"--but tonight I went one better, and gave the bastards a splendid opportunity to kill you--by accident, if not by design. Your father is right, Clark."
Silence reigned for a moment. "What are you doing?" Clark was barely audible.
"Doing? I'm lying in your bed, where you should be, while your parents drink home-ground coffee and discuss how and where they'll commit justifiable homicide."
"No. I mean, what are you doing?"
Lex fell silent, confused.
"You didn't mean for this to happen. You didn't have any way of knowing you'd have to run for your life and leave everything behind, and you're not responsible for what that crazy guy does ... did. You took a bullet for me tonight."
Lex closed his eyes. Understanding. Another unanticipated curve. Clark insisted on surprising him at every turn. "Clark. If it hadn't been for Eli--"
"Is this where you plead temporary insanity again?" Clark sounded mildly exasperated.
Lex felt an odd jolt of laughter come from his gut. "Yes."
"There's a lot of that going around." Now he was rueful, affectionate. God.
"I would never deliberately put you in harm's way." Lex cursed inwardly as his voice wobbled.
"It wasn't just boredom."
Lex scowled, irked. "You know too much."
Lex turned his head to glare, but found Clark smiling back at him; he hastily looked away again. Generosity of spirit was strong drink if you weren't used to it. "You shouldn't let people off the hook so easily, Clark. They'll take advantage of you."
"It was my fault as much as yours."
"Your fault?" Lex almost laughed in surprise.
"If I'd told you--"
"If you told me what? That bullets bounce off you? You think I would have stood by, then, and let him shoot you?"
"If you'd known he couldn't hurt me that way--"
"Clark. That's not the kind of thing you actually believe until you see it with your own eyes. I wouldn't have taken the chance."
Silence. "You'd have done it anyway?" The amazement in Clark's voice actually made Lex smile a little.
"Probably." Definitely. He'd definitely have done it anyway, because Clark Kent inevitably put Lex Luthor in touch with his inner idiot. Lex sighed at the absurdity of it all. "Yes. I'd have done it anyway."
"God, Lex." Now Clark sounded frightened, and exhausted, and very young. "If I'd known you'd get hurt, I'd have shown you. Made you believe."
"And if I'd known you'd get hurt I'd have dropped the whole damn thing before I started," Lex growled, shoving the image of Clark convulsing on the ground far beyond the range of his mind's eye. "You at least had the poor excuse of maintaining the ubiquitous Kent honor."
"You had promised your parents."
"Oh. Yeah. But it wasn't that that stopped me."
Lex turned back to him, surprised again. Clark wasn't going to take the easy out.
"I was afraid to tell you. That's why I got so pissed off when you kept asking."
"It seems you had good reason to be." Lex couldn't have kept the bitterness from his tone if he'd had the strength to try.
"Which? Pissed off or afraid?"
Lex barked a little laugh. "Both."
"This isn't what I was afraid of, Lex." Lex peered into the shadows that obscured Clark's face, startled. Clark's voice thickened. "Have you seen how people look at someone who's different? Like they're angry, or afraid, or disgusted, or all of those. Like they're looking at a freak. You know that look?"
"Yes," Lex rasped, his chest tightening. "I know that look."
"I don't think I could take that."
"You get used to it."
"You're braver than I am," Clark whispered. "I couldn't take the freak look, Lex. Not from people I care about. Not from you."
Lex tried to answer, but couldn't get the sound past his throat for a few seconds. "Do you see that look on me?"
"No. But you don't know everything yet."
"There's nothing you could tell me that would make me look at you that way," Lex croaked.
"Are you sure? I'm ... pretty weird."
Lex snorted, scrambling to recover his composure. "Please. I'm a Luthor. I eat weird for breakfast."
Clark laughed softly. "Lex."
"I'd never look at you that way, either."
Lex gave up on composure. He wanted to touch him -- somewhere, anywhere. He closed his eyes, keeping his hands clenched in Clark's blanket. "Don't be too sure. Not everyone's secrets are like yours, Clark."
"I'll never look at you that way," Clark repeated.
"Okay," Lex whispered, lost.
Clark yawned. "If you need anything, wake me up."
"Okay," repeated Lex faintly, keeping his eyes firmly shut. He clung to the lifeline of Clark's even breathing until he fell asleep.
Clark started awake, certain he'd heard something. Propping himself up on his elbows, he craned his neck enough to see his alarm clock. 3:50 a.m. The house was completely silent; his parents must have gone to bed hours ago. A soft groan from his bed brought him to his feet, kicking away his sleeping bag. "Lex?" he whispered, leaning on the bed, straining to see his friend's face in the dark. "You okay?"
Lex only groaned again and flinched away from him, as if he thought he was going to be hit. Clark swallowed hard and laid a hand on Lex's forehead. It was burning hot to the touch. "Lex. Wake up." Lex's eyes flew open with a little intake of breath, and Clark froze. He'd never seen Lex look afraid before, even with a gun to his head, but he looked afraid now. "It's me," Clark whispered, laying his other hand on Lex's good shoulder; he could feel Lex trembling. "It's okay, Lex, you're safe."
Lex looked at him, still breathing hard, and uttered a weird little laugh. "Safe?"
"You're hurting. Toby left some pills for you, let me get you some water."
Lex seized his wrist so fast and so hard that Clark gasped in surprise. "No," Lex said unevenly. His grip on Clark's wrist quickly gentled. "No. I'm all right. Just stay here."
Clark spotted the half-empty glass on his nightstand and picked it up. "Come on. This is enough to get a pill down."
Lex sighed and relinquished his hold on Clark. "What are you doing awake?"
"I thought I heard you call me." Clark shook one of the pills out of the envelope and handed it to Lex, sitting beside him on the bed.
"Maybe I did." Lex popped it into his mouth, and instead of taking the glass from Clark, curled his long fingers around Clark's hand and guided it to his mouth.
Clark felt his trembling begin to ease. "Nightmares?"
Lex swallowed and leaned his head back against the pillows, his hand still around Clark's. "One three-week long nightmare."
Clark nodded, making no effort to pull away. He didn't know how Lex was keeping it together. He tried to imagine running for his life from his own family while some stranger took over his life. He tried to imagine being cold and hungry and hurt and completely alone. "We'll figure something out. There has to be a way to get you your life back. We'll help."
Lex smiled at him. "You're the quintessential optimist, Clark."
"But there has to be a way to prove that you're you."
"Of course there is. But who's going to listen? I'd be laughed out of every court in the country. Provided, of course, that I lived long enough to see the inside of a courtroom."
"God, Lex," Clark whispered. "What are you going to do?"
"Take back what's mine," Lex said evenly.
"Any way I can." Clark swallowed hard at the look on Lex's face. Lex released Clark's hand, his fingers trailing over Clark's skin gently, his expression softening. "This isn't something you need to worry about."
Clark laughed weakly, rubbing his eyes. "No, of course not. Lex. Just remember you're not alone in this, okay? Don't do anything crazy."
"Are you all right?" Lex's voice was sharp now.
"What?" Clark looked up quickly. "Sure."
"Have you ever been exposed to a meteorite that large before?" Lex tried to sit up, grimacing; Clark quickly laid a hand on his chest to restrain him.
"Stay still! You'll pop your stitches or something. I'm fine."
"Fine? You were fucking convulsing a few hours ago," Lex snapped.
"Well, I'm not convulsing now." Clark slid down to lie on the bed beside Lex. It wasn't really big enough for two, but Lex didn't seem to mind. Clark didn't mind either. "Once I'm away from the rocks I'm okay."
Lex turned his head to watch him with sharp eyes. "You're sure?"
Lex sighed, relaxing. "Don't ever do that again."
"He had a gun to your head!"
"Okay, Bad Guys 101, Clark. People who put guns to other people's heads usually blow them off whether they get what they're asking for or not."
Clark mimicked him softly. "'You think I would have stood by, then, and let him shoot you?'"
Lex stared at him a second before one corner of his mouth twitched upward.
Clark shook his head, grinning. "You're so full of it, Lex."
Lex started to say something, but the moving edge of a shadow by the window caught Clark's eye. Without stopping to think, he propelled himself off the bed and across the room to shove a tall, thin man dressed in black up against his bedroom wall before Lex managed to utter his first word.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Clark demanded, ignoring Lex's ragged gasp.
The man laughed softly, making no effort to defend himself. "He's very good, Alexander."
"Eli," Lex growled in obvious relief. "For God's sake."
"And very fast. Very fast. I could do things with you, my boy."
"Clark does his own thing." Lex's tone held a warning note.
"You're Eli?" Clark peered into the man's face uncertainly. He could barely make out the man's features; he seemed to blend into the wall.
"At your service."
Clark couldn't quite place the accent. His tone was pleasant, even friendly, but Clark was far from reassured. "How did you get in here?"
"It's all right, Clark." Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw Lex struggle into a sitting position. "Eli has picked up the bad habit of walking through walls in the dead of night, but he's gentle as a lamb."
The sarcasm of the last words was not lost on Clark, but he released the man and backed away, planting himself squarely between Lex and Eli.
Eli barked a harsh laugh. "Look at him. Even now he would wring my head off if I were to so much as sneeze at you. I've already saved his life once tonight, young man."
"By blowing someone's head off," Clark said evenly.
"You object to my methods? You would prefer Alexander with two bullet holes in him, perhaps?"
"I'd prefer no one with bullet holes in them."
Eli laughed again, more gently this time. "And now he plays cricket to my puppet. Is this what they grow in the fields of Kansas these days, Alexander?"
"It's been a long night, Eli." Clark glanced over his shoulder; Lex looked like he was about to topple over. Backing away from Eli, he stood beside the bed, close enough to catch Lex if he started to fall. "Could you continue your philosophical discussion with Jiminy at a more reasonable hour?"
Eli grimaced and came forward, swinging a backpack from his shoulder. Clark could see now that he was much older than he sounded -- his hair was completely grey and his face worn. "That any student of mine should be foolish enough to trust, let alone employ, a man named Nixon--"
"Don't start," Lex sighed.
"--is a black shame I shall carry to my dying day. To my grave I will carry it."
"Fine. I'll buy you a wheelbarrow."
"Your mother, God rest her, would agree with me."
"My mother," Lex returned sourly, "would ask why you didn't shoot sooner."
"By the time the dog was in my sights, you were already shielding this one, making a disgraceful target of yourself."
"I was not--"
"Like a windmill on a sand dune. Shoot me, shoot me."
Lex lifted an eyebrow. "Let me guess. More black shame."
"To my grave," growled Eli, yanking a familiar object from his bag. "Here. You will need this."
Clark stared at the man in astonishment. "Isn't that ... ? Lex, that's your--"
"My laptop," Lex finished in obvious satisfaction, taking it from Eli. "You've been busy."
"You are so very kind to say so," Eli snapped. "Three days tracking a man in this godforsaken country while eluding your father's operatives is no simple matter. Nor is breaching your father's security."
"This from the man who radioed military intelligence to Tel Aviv from the center of Damascus Square."
"Do not provoke me." Eli tossed a small black bag to Lex. "I have parked the truck in the barn. It was the only vehicle among your dozen that did not scream to me, 'I am Lex Luthor; to kill me, please insert bomb in tailpipe.' Shameful."
"Your truck," Lex repeated wearily, glancing at Clark. Clark grinned back at him in spite of himself. "The irony alone may kill me."
"I have replaced the plates. I trust you will not be foolish enough to drive it anywhere until the search of the immediate area has been abandoned."
Drive it anywhere. Clark's grin faded. Of course. Lex had to leave as soon as he was able to drive. He wouldn't be safe here, this close to his father and ... whoever that person was who called himself Lex. He would have to go far away. Clark sank to sit on the bed beside Lex, suddenly exhausted, and watched as Lex pulled the truck's keys out of the bag, followed by another familiar object.
"Thank you," Lex said softly, putting his watch on. He ran one finger over the face.
"As if I would allow that creature to wear a gift from your mother's hands."
Lex smiled faintly and pulled a CD from the bag; he shot Eli an inquiring look.
"Family business," Eli replied, his eyes traveling to Clark and back again.
"You can speak freely."
Eli raised his eyebrows in obvious surprise. "Account numbers and passwords for your mother's estate. Several of your father's business arrangements of which you should be aware. And some miscellaneous information which will prove useful."
"I hope you haven't implicated yourself in acquiring all this," Lex said sharply. "I could have managed."
"Of course. How foolish of me. You have done so well thus far."
"Don't be concerned. I have taken the proper precautions. My absence from Metropolis should go unnoticed, but if it does not, I assure you that I have planned my departure well. I shall not be found staggering about the countryside with no coat and no food in the dead of winter." Eli tossed a cellphone to Lex and zipped up his backpack with a stern expression.
Lex looked up at him wryly. "I'm sure you won't."
"I must be in Metropolis before business hours. Stay here until you are strong enough to move. Then we can discuss--"
"He knows I'm here, Eli, and he's willing to go through these people to get to me. I can't stay here."
"Yes, you can," Clark interrupted, wishing he didn't sound so desperate. "He can't get through me, Lex."
Eli chuckled. "The cricket has teeth."
"Then he'll get around you," Lex said. God, he looked tired. "You can't guard us 24/7, Clark."
Clark opened his mouth to say something he knew was stupid, but Eli cut him off.
"That won't be necessary. The appropriate message has been sent, Alexander, and we both know that your father is too shrewd a man to press his luck. He'll bide his time and wait for an opportunity without witnesses to present itself."
Clark glanced at Lex in confusion, but Lex avoided his gaze, his mouth twisted into a grim smile. "You have been busy. Thank you."
Eli slung his backpack over his shoulder, nodding. "The details are on the disk."
"I'm grateful, Eli." Clark had thought he had heard all of Lex's voices, but this was a new one. He wanted to hear it again.
Eli reached out for Lex so quickly that Clark almost tried to grab his arm, but the sudden gentleness in the older man's expression stopped him. Lex smiled as Eli slipped a hand under Lex's chin and lifted it. "You have your grandfather's face. Remember that you have his courage as well."
"I'll see myself out. Rest, now." Eli glanced at Clark as he reached the door. "And you, cricket. Keep your eyes open and your head down. Perhaps, if you remain out of the range of firearms, any repetition of Alexander's shameful performance can be prevented." Clark felt his face go hot.
Lex shook his head, sighing, and swung his legs onto the bed, easing himself onto his back. "Take your black shame back to Metropolis, Eli. Smallville's not big enough for it."
Eli shot Lex a flash of a grin and disappeared into the darkness of the hall. The door closed noiselessly behind him. Clark listened hard, but he could hear only a whisper of sound as Eli made his way downstairs to the kitchen and out the back door. He looked at Lex incredulously. "How does he do that?"
Lex grinned at him. "My mother used to say that he sold his soul to the devil."
"Did he?" Clark asked soberly.
"That is much too profound a question for 4:30 in the morning." Lex closed his eyes. Clark rose and pulled the covers up over him, but before he could get back into his sleeping bag, Lex reached down with his good arm and snatched up Clark's pillow from the floor. He deposited it beside his, on the bed. "Floor's too cold," he muttered, closing his eyes again.
It wasn't that cold, but Clark slid under the covers beside Lex anyway, trying not to grin. Settling in, he closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of Lex's shoulder pressed against his.
"You moved so fast I couldn't see you."
Lex sounded fascinated, and more than a little impressed. Clark couldn't help smiling. "Yeah. Whoosh."
"How fast can you run?"
"Don't know. Never timed myself."
"How does it feel?"
Clark had to think about it. "How do you feel in your Porsche?"
Lex was quiet for a second. "Free. For a little while."
"Think ... solid glass Porsche with a silent engine."
"Oh," Lex breathed. "That must be one hell of a rush."
"For a little while."
"Take me with you sometime?"
"Sure." Clark yawned. "Lex."
"What did Eli mean about a message?"
Lex didn't answer right away. "He meant that he has something on my father, something that will put the Kent house off-limits and keep us safe for a while," he said finally.
Clark's eyes snapped open. "Eli's blackmailing your father?"
"You can be damn sure my father doesn't know it's Eli."
"He's blackmailing him?"
Lex turned his head and opened his eyes, smiling. "Clark, you're amazing. How can anything Eli does possibly shock you after what you've seen tonight?"
"I don't know." Clark groped for an answer. "I guess because he's on our side."
"Eli's on his own side."
"You don't trust him?"
"I trust him to a certain point. He's been loyal to my mother's family for three generations. But everyone has their own agenda."
Clark sighed. "Lex. Did you ever stop to think that maybe your mother's family is his agenda?"
Lex chuckled softly. "Go to sleep, Jiminy."
"Stop calling me that."
"Stop burying yourself in the part."
"I'm not burying my-- Do you have cricket issues or something?"
"Not particularly. But I've read that story and it isn't pretty."
"Pinocchio isn't pretty?"
"Pinocchio is a sociopath."
"He kills the cricket in chapter four."
Clark paused briefly to wonder exactly what was in the pills Toby had left. "He kills the cricket?"
"Oh, yes. And then he goes right on making an omelet like nothing happened."
Clark examined Lex's face carefully for any sign of delirium. "That's ridiculous. Pinocchio would not kill the cricket."
Lex regarded him with raised eyebrows. "What makes you say that?"
"Because he doesn't kill the cricket! The cricket's alive and singing his heart out at the end."
"In your version."
"Okay, fine. How exactly does he kill the cricket?"
Lex's mouth twitched suspiciously. "He hits him with a hammer."
Clark stared until Lex grinned back at him. Clark started laughing helplessly. "You asshole."
"It's true. Read the book."
"I don't need to read the book. My Pinocchio does not kill the cricket."
"You're in denial, Clark."
"And he doesn't make omelets, either."
"What's your agenda?" Lex asked softly, still smiling.
Clark sighed in exasperation. "I swear to God, Lex, sometimes I think you're retarded."
"You," Clark said quietly. "That would be you, mastermind." Without thinking too much about it, Clark rolled over on his side to face Lex and draped an arm around his waist. "Now go to sleep." He closed his eyes. Lex lay very still for a moment, then slid his head closer to Clark's and rested his hand on Clark's arm. Clark fell asleep wanting more.
Lex dozed lightly, subliminally aware of every cut and bruise, the raging pain in his shoulder and the ache of his empty stomach. Every so often he would open his eyes and look at Clark, because looking at Clark made everything hurt less. And every so often, he'd reach out and touch Clark's hair or his face, because that made everything hurt less, too. Clark was oblivious, exhausted and deeply asleep, but his arm stayed right where he'd put it, around Lex's waist, and his head lay on the pillow a couple inches from Lex's, and Lex pretended that Clark wouldn't mind.
The light grew stronger every time he opened his eyes, and Lex cursed it. Light meant that morning was coming, that lying here next to Clark, touching and being touched, talking about Eli and crickets and glass Porsches was almost over. That soon he'd have to start building another life, one too desperate to include the boy at his side. He didn't know where to start. He didn't want to start. He wanted to stay right where he was. He could pretend he knew who he was, here, with Clark.
Unable to resist any longer, Lex carefully hooked one finger inside the collar of Clark's t-shirt and pulled it down, revealing a deep purple bruise about the size of a silver dollar. Lex winced. Maybe bullets wouldn't kill him, but they had to hurt like hell. Lex slid his hand up Clark's neck to stroke his hair. He could be hurt. He could be killed. And someone out there knew how to do it. God only knew who. Someone who had noticed Clark's physical reaction to Smallville's unique flavor of meteorite, obviously, but that didn't exactly narrow the field. Lex could only hope that Roger's source was the only threat. That Roger hadn't shared the results of his recent research with Lionel Luthor. That Lex hadn't completely destroyed Clark's life.
Lex closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Clark's, curled into his warmth, and willed himself back to sleep.
Martha tried to close Clark's door before Jonathan reached her, but she was a fraction of a second too slow.
"What the hell--"
Martha shut the door in Jonathan's face and dragged him toward the stairs. "Let them sleep."
Jonathan's mouth was still hanging open. "That man--"
"Boy. And keep your voice down." Martha herded him down the stairs, wondering when her nervous breakdown would set in.
"Is in bed with our son!"
"Our son isn't exactly beating him off." Martha saw the shell-shocked expression on Jonathan's face and sighed, guiding him into the kitchen. "For heaven's sake, Jonathan. They're fully dressed and sound asleep. It's completely innocent."
"The day I believe that Lex Luthor is an innocent--"
"Lex isn't exactly in any shape to compromise Clark's virtue. Or vice versa."
"Jesus Christ, Martha!"
Martha slammed the pot into the coffee maker. "Coffee. That's what I need. Would you like some coffee?"
"That boy hired someone to spy on Clark. And God only knows who he told before his brains got scattered all over our corn field--"
Martha dumped the water into the coffee maker with shaking hands. "Thank you for that lovely image."
"And now he's up there snuggling with our son."
"Jonathan." Martha drew a deep breath and turned toward him, bracing herself against the counter. "Have you seen the way Clark looks at Lex?"
Jonathan gave her his most truculent glare. "No. We are not discussing--"
"He loves him."
"Damn it, he is not--"
"Clark loves Lex," Martha repeated firmly. "You know he does. Whether it's as a friend or--"
"There's no 'or'!"
"Do you want to lose his respect and his trust? Drive him away from us?"
"Of course not!"
"I can't think of any surer way than to try to separate him from Lex."
"I've already told Lex he can stay until he's on his feet again."
"And then what?"
Jonathan set his jaw stubbornly. "Then I don't want Clark to have anything more to do with him."
"He's all Lex has left. Clark will think we're cruel, Jonathan." Martha hesitated, then forged ahead. "I'll think so, too."
"Martha. Lex is dangerous. He could change who Clark is, ruin his whole damn life." Jonathan took her by the shoulders, his face drawn with anxiety and exhaustion. "Have you listened to a word I've said tonight?"
"Yes. I've listened to both of you, and I've watched both of them. Have you?"
"Because if you have, then you've seen how Lex looks at Clark, too."
"For God's sake!"
"He protected Clark, Jonathan. He could have died protecting him."
"Don't make the same mistake I did," Jonathan snapped. "Every time I've started thinking I might be wrong about him, he says something to prove I was right."
"I've noticed," Martha said wryly.
Jonathan stared at her. "What?"
"He's doing his level best to make you think the worst of him, despite everything we've seen, and you are cooperating spectacularly."
"What are you talking about? Everything he said was true."
"So was what he didn't say."
"Among other things? That he was willing to die for our son."
Jonathan shot her a frustrated glare. "They can't both be true."
"I think they can," Martha said softly.
"You're wrong this time, Martha. You should have heard him."
"Oh, good Lord." Martha sighed and leaned against the counter. "Don't start that again."
"'Luthors do whatever they like to whomever they like.' He actually said that!"
"I've always judged a person by their actions." Martha met Jonathan's eyes squarely. "And so have you."
"Fine." Jonathan grabbed her hand and dragged her back into the living room. "You want to see actions?" Letting go of her hand, he snatched up the remote and jabbed the play button. "This is the tape I took from Lex's friend Roger."
Martha stared at the screen, recognizing Clark and Lex despite the poor quality of the grainy grey images. "What on earth is this?"
"Video from the security camera in that damn garage."
"Oh, my God," Martha whispered as Lex lifted his weapon. "Jonathan, turn it off."
Please. You think I don't see how your parents look at me? How half this town looks at me?
Please. You think I don't see how your parents look at me? How half this town looks at me?
"You wanted to see him in action," Jonathan said grimly.
"This isn't Lex and you know it!"
Friendship is a fairy tale ...
Friendship is a fairy tale ...
"Are you sure? What do we know about him that isn't against everything we believe in?"
You're just like everyone else ...
You're just like everyone else ...
"Turn it off!" Martha hid her face in her hands as the sound of gunfire rang from the tinny speakers, unable to stand the sight of Clark writhing under the impacts of a dozen bullets. She felt rather than saw Jonathan move toward her, but before he could reach her, a strange wind whipped her hair around her face. Looking up quickly, she saw Clark, flushed and furious, standing in front of the dark, silent television with the power cord dangling from his hand.
"What do you think you're doing?" he hissed to Jonathan.
Jonathan sighed. "Clark. I thought your mother should see--"
"Lex, don't go," Clark rasped, his eyes focused on something over Jonathan's shoulder.
Martha turned in time to see Lex, eyes wide and deathly pale, back away toward the kitchen, his eyes still fixed on the television screen. Then he turned and bolted out of sight. The sounds of something jarring the kitchen table and the door slamming cut through the ensuing silence. "Oh, good Lord," Martha muttered. Great. Last night's nightmare had followed them into broad daylight.
"I can't believe you did this." Clark was shouting now, shouting at his father. Clark never shouted at his father. "What are you trying to prove?"
"Calm down, son." Jonathan tried to lay his hands on Clark's shoulders, but Clark pushed him away with a violence that made Martha gasp. Jonathan staggered back with an amazed expression.
"Like he isn't beating himself up enough over everything that's happened! You had to shove this in his face?"
"I didn't know you two were awake," Jonathan grated, and Martha saw the regret in his eyes. "I wouldn't have--"
"Yes, you would. You threatened to punch him last night. Now you've done it. Feel better?"
Jonathan flushed as his expression hardened. "Lower your voice, young man."
Clark didn't back down. If anything, he got louder. "Hiring Hamilton was a mistake. So was telling Roger. He's human, dad, he makes mistakes. Haven't you ever made one?"
"I've never made the mistake of killing a man, poisoning a neighbor's land or betraying a friend, no," Jonathan snapped.
Martha grabbed Jonathan's arm and shook it urgently. "Jonathan, stop."
Clark stepped closer, fists clenched and eyes fierce. "Neither has Lex! You know he hasn't. Why are you trying so hard to hate him?"
Jonathan took a deep breath, laying a hand on top of Martha's. "I don't hate him, Clark. I hate what he could do to you. To our family."
"And what is that, exactly? What has Lex ever done but try to be a good friend to us? What does he have to do to prove himself to you? Die? Is that what you want?"
Jonathan looked honestly horrified. "Of course not!"
"Clark." Martha stepped in front of Jonathan to lay a hand on Clark's chest. "We know what Lex means to you. Your father is only concerned--"
"You don't." Clark's face worked; for one instant he didn't look like an angry man, but a frightened boy. "You can't. He's my best friend. He's like me. He's the only one who understands. I tried to pull back, Mom. It only hurt both of us. I'm not doing it anymore. From now on Lex and I are in this together."
"In what together?" Jonathan demanded sharply.
"Whatever," Clark said in a soft voice, all man again. "I'm sorry if you don't approve. But that's the way it's going to be." Clark turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
Martha sank onto the sofa and rested her head in her hands, listening numbly as the door banged again.
Jonathan stood where he was in silence for several seconds. He cleared his throat. "I blew it, right?"
"Mister," Martha replied wearily, "You blew it bigtime."
Lex was behind the wheel of the truck before he realized he didn't have the keys. Or a shirt. Or shoes. Or any idea of where to go. Trying to resist his stomach's unpleasant inclination to deposit what remained of its contents on the dashboard, he lowered his forehead to the steering wheel, breathing hard.
He should have known. Clark wouldn't have told him he'd been hurt, even if he'd suffered bullet holes instead of bruises. That was just ... Clark. Insane, beautiful Clark. And to think he'd actually been wondering why Clark had been avoiding him. Friendship is a fairy tale, followed by automatic weapons fire, generally tended to put a damper on a relationship. Lex would have laughed if doing so wouldn't bring up the remnants of Ma Kent's homemade soup.
The blurred, indistinct images from that security tape were searingly sharp and bright before his mind's eye. Him, and not him. A recurring theme lately. He hadn't tried to kill Clark -- and he had. Karloff hadn't tried yet, either, but Lex had no difficulty imagining the bastard gleefully pumping rounds of bullets into Clark, or anyone else who stood in his way. And the border between the copy and the original was such a fine grey line that no one would be able to tell the difference. Lex couldn't tell the difference. Maybe there was no difference.
The truck door opening was the first inkling Lex had of Clark's approach, but, startled as he was, he couldn't lift his head from the steering wheel.
A gentle hand rested on his good shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Lex laughed bleakly, risking the wrath of the rebellious soup.
"Right," Clark muttered. "Stupid question." He stood there in silence, one hand gently rubbing Lex's shoulder.
Lex finally raised his head and leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes, grateful when Clark's hand stayed right where it was. "Interesting footage."
"I didn't see the camera." Clark's voice was thick now. "I would have smashed it if I'd seen it."
"I'm sure you were otherwise occupied. Just out of curiosity, how many times did I shoot you?"
"It wasn't you." Clark was leaning down to him, leaning so close that Lex could feel his warmth. "That wasn't you, Lex."
"It was me." Lex knew he was breathing too fast. "It was him, too. Irrelevant distinction. One and the same."
"What?" Clark sounded more startled than confused.
"I'll try again. I don't doubt I'll be more effective next time. I'll find a way to kill you. I'll find a way to kill anyone who stands in my way. Dozens. Hundreds. Maybe thousands, directly or indirectly. It's amazing what you can accomplish with unlimited ambition, unlimited resources and no cricket."
"This is not you you're talking about." Clark breath touched Lex's ear, and Lex knew he had understood. "He isn't you, Lex. You're two different people."
"Thousands. Thousands of people like you and your parents. Hell, why stop at thousands? Someone who's running the planet can do better than that. And I'll do it, you know. Run the planet. Because my destiny is to do great things."
"You will do great things." Lex could barely hear Clark over the choked sobbing, even when Clark took him in his arms and cradled him against his chest. "And they won't have anything to do with whatever he does. Lex. Listen to me. He isn't you. You're nothing like him."
"He'll do it all with my face and my name, and no one will think for a moment it isn't me." Lex coughed up a broken laugh. "It isn't as if the contrast is that striking. No one will know the difference."
"I'll know," Clark whispered in his ear. "I'll always know the difference."
Lex wrapped his arms around Clark's waist, dimly aware that somehow he'd wound up hugged tightly around Clark, his face buried against Clark's chest. Undignified. Weak. Stupid. He'd lost control and was crying like the child he'd never been and the fool he was. He saw his father's lip curl in disdain and felt Clark's strong hands moving soothingly over his back. The hands won. "I don't know who I am," Lex whispered.
"I don't know who I am, either," Clark said unsteadily. "I don't even know what I am."
Lex blinked the water out of his eyes, wiping his face against Clark's t-shirt. "I've got nowhere to go, Clark."
"Yeah. Well. Considering what I just said to my dad, I might not either. Can I sleep in your truck?"
Lex felt another laugh well up inside him, nothing like the first. "Anytime."
"This isn't going to work."
Lex swallowed and forced himself to lean away enough to look at Clark. He faltered, his train of thought derailing and plunging off its trestle into a bottomless ravine at the look on Clark's face. That undiluted kindness, affection and understanding would have driven him to his knees, if he'd been able to stand. "This," he stammered incoherently. "Us. Together."
"What, the friendship that's the stuff of legend?" Clark looked amused, if wryly.
"This isn't legend," Lex rasped. "This is reality, Clark. It's war, a war I've been fighting all my life. And right now I'm losing."
Every trace of amusement vanished. "You're not losing. We haven't even started fighting yet."
"Forget it," Lex growled, resisting the urge to hug him again. "Don't even think about it. This is my fight, Clark."
"It's our fight. For God's sake, Lex, I'm your friend. Let me help you."
"How?" Lex demanded in exasperation.
Clark shrugged and smiled. "What do you need?"
Oh, dangerous ground. "This isn't going to work," Lex repeated weakly. He cleared his throat. "You don't have a clue what it takes to fight this kind of war."
Clark's expression hardened. "Teach me."
"Teach you," Lex repeated blankly. It took a second for his stomach to turn. "No. I'm not going to teach you that."
"Because if I did, you wouldn't be you anymore." A wave of dizziness rolled over him, and he leaned forward to rest his head against Clark's chest.
Clark gently massaged the back of Lex's neck. "Everybody has to grow up sometime."
"This isn't about growing up," Lex said wearily. "It's about beating my father at his own game." He sagged against Clark like a rag doll as the knots began to give way.
"What's his game?"
"Lies. Manipulation. Valuing strategic advantage above all else. Acquiring your objectives, and maintaining complete control of them once they're acquired."
"Being your own agenda."
Lex flinched. "Yes."
"You can't win that game, Lex."
Lex blinked, startled. "Why not?"
"Because the real objective is to make you play his game instead of your own."
Lex lifted his head to stare at the boy in front of him.
Clark shrugged. "To make you just like him. You've lost the minute you start playing." He looked ten years older than he was, and sounded twenty.
"I've been playing it all my life," Lex whispered.
"And you've never won once."
"No. Not really."
"The game's rigged, Lex."
"It's all I've got," Lex croaked.
"Not," Clark retorted with a touch of impatience. "You've got you. And me. And Eli."
"You're right," Lex growled, trying to pull himself together and failing miserably. "What was I thinking? Once my father learns that Clark Kent is on the case, he'll run screaming into the night, never to be seen again."
Clark grinned. "If you say so."
"I don't say so. You're a waste of perfectly good sarcasm, Clark."
"Lex, you can't win this war playing his game, and you can't win it alone. No one could."
"I don't care. I'm not dragging you into this. We're from different worlds, and you're better off in your own."
"Different worlds?" Clark looked at him blankly for a moment. Then he began to shake with oddly giddy laughter.
"This isn't funny," Lex snapped.
"Sure it is." Still laughing, Clark took Lex by his good arm. "Can you walk?"
"Walk where? Stop laughing!" Lex slid out of the truck and staggered slightly, leaning heavily on Clark.
"Not far. Come on, you'll like this." Sobering, Clark slipped an arm around Lex's waist and steered him toward the back of the barn.
"Like what?" Lex demanded in irritation, keeping a keen eye out for cow patties. "Hay? Fence rails? Baling wire? Case in point, Clark. This is not turning me on."
"You need to broaden your outlook." Clark kicked aside some loose hay, then reached down to grab the handle of what appeared to be a trap door. He flipped one of the heavy metal doors open with aggravating ease. "See?"
"I see a hole." Clark leaned down and flipped a switch on the wall alongside the cement stairs, illuminating the room below. Lex sighed. "I stand corrected. A hole with a light bulb hanging in it."
Clark cast him an exasperated look. "It's a storm cellar, mastermind. Are you telling me you don't have one?"
"No tornado in its right mind would come within ten miles of a Luthor."
"Tell me we're not going down the hole, Clark."
"We're going down the hole." Clark helped him down the steps. "There's something I need to show you."
"If this is where your father has stashed the bodies of all your other unsuitable friends, I'll pass."
"No, we run those through the wood-chipper."
Lex snorted, fighting a grin. "How ... organic."
"Thanks, we think so." Clark caught Lex as he stumbled over the last step. "Easy."
"This had better be good," Lex said through gritted teeth, suppressing an obscenity as his shoulder protested.
"I don't know about good." Clark's arm tightened around Lex's waist as he helped him toward the far end of the cellar. His voice was strained now. "But it's important."
Lex peered into the shadows beyond the hanging light bulb, and spotted an object about the size of a small car covered by a tarp. "What's this? Science project?"
"Something like that."
Lex could feel the tension building in Clark's muscles as they approached the damn thing, and shot him a sharp look. Clark wouldn't meet his eyes. That was bad. "You can tell me, Clark."
"I think this falls into your 'with my own eyes' category," Clark said quietly.
Clark pulled the tarp away, stepping away from Lex to uncover it completely, then tossed the tarp aside and backed away, his dark eyes riveted to Lex's face.
Lex stared at it blankly for a moment, certain now that Toby had slipped him some of the good shit. He reached out uncertainly to run his hand over the dark surface, struggling to comprehend what his eyes were patiently explaining to him. Metallic, but no metal Lex had ever seen. Magnificent design -- form followed aerodynamic function to perfection. Faint traces of scorching marred portions of the surface; even this technology hadn't made it through the atmosphere completely unscathed. By the time he realized he'd keeled over onto his butt, he was already contemplating principles of propulsion.
Clark was instantly down on his knees with his arms around him, skull white. "Lex?"
Lex started to laugh.
"Are you all right?"
"Different worlds." Lex noted that his laughter sounded slightly hysterical. "Oh. Thank you, Clark. You've saved me from a cliché worse than death."
"Nothing like a dose of literalism to exorcize those hackneyed metaphors."
"Lex, talk to me." Clark's voice broke.
Lex stopped laughing and buried his face against that ratty old t-shirt, breathing Clark in deeply. "The meteor shower," he murmured, letting Clark hold him upright.
"Yes," Clark whispered. "I'm sorry, Lex."
"Sorry," Lex repeated in confusion.
"It was me. I caused all of it. Lana's parents. Everybody else who's been hurt. Everything on Chloe's wall of weird." Clark hesitated. "What happened to you."
Lex was silent for a moment. Moments of terror followed by years of pain cascaded past his mind's eye. And then disappeared into Clark's warmth. "That sounds like a tall order of guilt for someone who wasn't much more than a baby."
Clark sighed. "That's what Dad says."
"Heaven forbid I should contradict your father."
"It feels like my fault anyway."
"It isn't. Consider yourself absolved, Clark, as far as I'm concerned." Lex jerked his head up in sudden realization. "You didn't have to show me this," he said sharply.
Clark smiled faintly. "No."
"You could have let me think your abilities were the result of yet another Smallville mutation. I would never have known."
"I wanted you to know. I want you to know everything about me."
"What if I had blamed you for what happened?"
Clark shrugged with a helpless expression. "I hated lying to you, Lex. I'm not doing it anymore."
Lex grimaced. "You set the bar pretty damn high, Clark."
Lex forced the air from his lungs. "I've hated lying to you, too." Not nearly as difficult to admit as he'd imagined; he chalked the ease up to blood loss.
Clark regarded him with raised eyebrows. "And you're not doing it anymore?"
"Don't push your luck."
Clark's slow smile warmed him. "So ... which world are we in now?"
"Clark?" A strident voice boomed from the stairs as someone descended into the cellar with alarming haste.
"The world where I end up hanging from your hayloft rafters." Lex tried to scramble to his feet, but found he had no scramble left in him. He stared up at Jonathan from where he was, huddled on the floor two feet from the Kent family's darkest secret, with Clark's arms locked around him. The shocked look on Jonathan's face was deeply satisfying on a petty level, which was about all Lex could manage at the moment.
"Clark," repeated Jonathan in a stunned tone.
"Dad," returned Clark mildly. "Breakfast ready?"
"Good." Clark lifted Lex onto his feet. "Lex needs to get some food into him. You like oatmeal, Lex?"
"Clark, we need to have a serious talk." Lex noted with amusement Jonathan's attempt at a commanding presence.
Clark smiled politely. "Sure, Dad. After breakfast. Lex?"
"I love oatmeal," Lex lied contentedly.
"Can you walk?"
Jonathan took a step forward, all thin lips and furrowed brow. "Clark, we need to talk now."
"I'm not sure." Lex leaned against Clark heavily, snaking an arm around his friend's waist. He howled inwardly at the sight of Jonathan's narrowed eyes.
"No problem," Clark said cheerfully, and lifted Lex into his arms as if he were no heavier than a baby. He carried Lex toward the stairs and stopped in front of Jonathan, who was blocking their path. "Excuse me, Dad," Clark said, in a voice like velvet-sheathed steel.
Jonathan stared, unmoving, as if he'd discovered a total stranger in his storm cellar. Staring at Clark, Lex wasn't entirely certain that he hadn't.
"Lex needs to eat and take his meds, and his bandages have to be changed," Clark continued. "Then we can talk about this."
Jonathan continued to stare for a moment, then nodded brusquely and stepped aside. He turned away from them as Clark carried Lex up the steps and into the daylight.
"He cares about you," Lex said as they left the barn headed toward the house. "He wants to protect you, Clark."
Clark's grim expression softened. "I know."
"So do I." That hadn't been difficult, either. He must have lost more blood than he'd realized.
Clark started to smile. "I know."
"Clark." Lex drew a quick breath. "Your father is right. I'm dangerous."
"Yeah, I can tell. If I'm not careful you'll bleed on me."
"I just don't know whether I'm more dangerous close to you or far away."
Clark sighed. "Lex. I don't want you to go."
"If I'm close to you, I draw my father's attention to you."
"Do you ever stop thinking?"
"And if I'm far away I can't--"
"Protect me? Geez, Lex. Who's carrying who here?"
"I know him, Clark. I know how he thinks and what he's capable of. You don't."
"No," Clark said quietly. "I don't."
Lex pressed on. "We don't know how much Roger told him. We don't know if he knows about your ... allergy to meteorites. If he does, then I've put your life in danger and I have to do something about that--"
"Like what?" Clark came to a halt halfway between the barn and the house, staring into Lex's face.
Lex swallowed, suddenly queasy. "Whatever it takes to make sure he doesn't--"
"Like giving Eli some more night work?"
"Of course not," Lex lied quickly.
Clark went white. "We're not ... killing people, Lex."
Lex flinched at the sound of the words; he would have preferred a euphemism. "You don't know how far he's willing to go. What he'd do to have control over someone like you. What he'd do to break you. Eli's information won't hold him forever, and I don't have a Plan B."
"I don't care." Clark's voice dropped to a whisper. "That's his game, Lex. We lose if we play. I'm not going to have blood on my hands, or on yours."
"Then what the hell are we--" Lex caught himself succumbing to the seductive idea and shoved it away determinedly. "--am I supposed to do? Ask him nicely not to destroy your life?"
"We'll think of something. Together." Clark started walking again, color returning to his face. "And for what it's worth, I think leaving is exactly what he'd expect you to do."
"Of course it is," Lex muttered. "With my tail between my legs. What's your point?"
"My point is maybe you shouldn't. There are lots of places around here you could--"
"Live. Work. Do what you need to do to get your life back. And to stop him and ... his son from hurting anybody else."
Lex couldn't help laughing. "You want me to build a hideout?"
Clark shrugged. "Lots of abandoned houses around here with storm cellars."
"Great," Lex sighed. The problem with this idea was that it made sense. "I've always wanted to live in a hole with a light bulb hanging in it."
"Safest place to be in a storm," Clark said gently.
Lex managed not to kiss him. Barely. Managed not to tell him that the safest place to be in a storm was right where he was, in Clark Kent's arms. Fuck, and he'd thought he'd been in trouble before. He wondered how good Jonathan was with that shotgun of his. "You just want to keep me within easy rescuing distance," he said unsteadily. "You're developing a complex, Clark."
Clark rewarded him with a wry smile. "No kidding."
Lex could smell breakfast, could hear the classic rock station Martha was listening to in the kitchen; he felt his aching body relax against Clark. He puzzled over the concept of someone wanting to protect him without expecting anything in return, over the implausibility of being someone else's agenda. "There's something I haven't told you."
Clark snorted. "I'm shocked."
"After Pinocchio kills him? The cricket comes back to life."
Clark's eyes widened, then he exploded into laughter that echoed across the barnyard. "You jerk."
"No, seriously. He comes back to life."
Clark shook his head, still laughing. "That is ... that is one tough bug."
"I'd say that's an accurate assessment."
"And if I were Pinocchio I wouldn't piss him off."
"My thoughts exactly."
"So does Pinocchio ever apologize for being such an asshole?"
Lex grinned at him. "Absolutely. And it's a very sincere apology, too." He settled his good arm around Clark's neck. "You know, I could get used to this."
Clark came to a halt outside the kitchen door, grinning back at him, warming Lex from the inside out. "Get the door, mastermind," Clark said affectionately. "I only have six hands."