"But Lex is nearly eighteen! He doesn't belong in ninth grade!"

"I completely understand." Principal Kwan held up his hands in a placating gesture, trying to project a soothing aura. "But state law requires that we go by placement tests with all transfer students, and your son's scores were, to put it bluntly, abysmal."

When Mr. Luthor scowled, he had the air of an elderly lion about him, no longer king of the pride but not ready to lie down in the tall savannah grasses yet. "Principal Kwan, my son is, quite frankly, a genius. Did he or did he not put effort into your plebeian test?"

Principal Kwan tried not to take it personally. "He spent all his time writing in the margins, correcting the grammar and syntax of the questions." He had the scantron in front of him. None of the bubbles were filled in, and the machine had printed a dark pink 0 at the top. The test booklet, however, was filled with proofreading marks in no. 2 pencil. Notes had been scrawled in the margins, some of them in Latin, some of them in some sort of esoteric code.

Contrary to popular belief, Principal Kwan wasn't an idiot. He'd spent many, many hours in education classrooms and many, many years as a teacher, then as a principal. He had children of his own. He knew all the signs of someone far too brilliant for his age. It was quite possible that Lex Luthor belonged in a university classroom somewhere, possibly Harvard or Princeton. Maybe MIT or Caltech, if the technical design he'd sketched on the back of the test booklet was any indication. Principal Kwan didn't recognize it, but he thought an engineer might.

"Sir," he said, very gently, to the bristling Mr. Luthor, "have you considered accelerated schooling? Even if we were to place him in our most advanced classes, from the looks of it," he gestured to Lex's "abysmal" test scores, "they might not be challenging enough for him."

Mr. Luthor was quiet for a moment. He looked a little bit old and defeated. Finally, he said, "It's very complicated, Principal Kwan. Suffice to say, we--that is, Lex and I--would like to remain in Smallville, and as such that means he must attend Smallville High."

Principal Kwan nodded. "All right. But if you want Lex placed in classes that are even slightly appropriate for his learning level, he'll have to retake this test. And take it seriously this time."

Mr. Luthor nodded and got up with a slight creak in the knees. "I'll talk to him. Thank you, Principal Kwan."

They shook hands. Mr. Luthor had a cool, dry grip, like shaking hands with a lizard.

"Until then," said Principal Kwan, "he'll have to sit through an afternoon of ninth grade classes."

"That's all right," Mr. Luthor said. "He ought to start making friends."

Principal Kwan wasn't sure how an eighteen-year-old was supposed to make friends in a classroom of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds, but he wasn't about to argue the point. Instead, he just opened his door and looked to his right, where Lex was slouched in a chair, intent on some sort of handheld electronic device that looked like it was supposed to be used for video games but instead had an abnormally large antenna.

"We'll take good care of him," Principal Kwan assured Mr. Luthor. "You can pick him up after three. Come on," he said to Lex, who looked bored and a little annoyed that he'd been disturbed, "let's go make some friends."

---

Mr. Hewitt's World History class was one of the most boring things ever conceived. Mr. Hewitt was an okay guy who liked to make bad jokes and tried, really tried, to make history interesting. But history was just boring, a bunch of hard-to-remember dates and dead guys who did really interesting stuff that just didn't have anything to do with the present. Clark tried to pay attention and he usually did okay on the tests, but more often than not he ended up doodling in his notebook while Mr. Hewitt tried to compare Roman emperors to rock stars.

It wasn't every day that Principal Kwan walked in halfway through class, though. Clark sat up straighter and saw, out of his eye, Pete sit up and try to look attentive, too.

"Class," Principal Kwan began. "I'd like to--"

Chloe's hand waved in the air. "Principal Kwan!" she blared. "Are you going to fix the furnace? It's freezing in here!" She wrapped her arms around her thick green sweater as if to emphasize.

"Hopefully tomorrow, Miss Sullivan," Principal Kwan replied, clearly annoyed. "Now, as I was saying, I'd like to introduce you to Smallville High's newest student, Mr. Lex Luthor."

The class was thunderously silent. Clark looked around. Principal Kwan was still standing at the front of the classroom expectantly.

"Er," Clark said, "there isn't much to him, is there?"

Principal Kwan frowned at him. Clark tried to shrink himself. "What kind of greeting is that, Mr. Kent? Lex, why don't--" He then realized what the entire class already knew: the new student, whoever he was, just wasn't there.

Faint clanging sounds erupted from the vents. Principal Kwan turned beet red--Clark had always thought that was some kind of weird metaphor, but no, you actually could turn that color--and stormed out of the room. No sooner had his shoes turned down the hallway when the entire class started talking and laughing at once, with Mr. Hewitt unsuccessfully trying to calm the class. It didn't really work; nobody paid attention to a word Mr. Hewitt said until the bell rang.

"That was weird," Clark remarked as he allowed himself to get pulled along with the crush of students headed for the cafeteria.

"Not really," Chloe said. "Wouldn't you cut world history, given half a chance?" She looked at Clark. "Never mind, forgot who I was talking to."

Clark was only half paying attention. "Hey, Chloe, where do the vents lead to?"

"The boiler room," Chloe said with a puzzled look, but Clark was already x-raying the floor. "Clark, what're you doing? We're gonna be late for lunch."

"Save me a seat, okay?" Clark could see, in the basement--he was still getting used to the lack of depth perception in his x-ray vision--two skeletons, one next to the boiler and the other approaching, waving his arms in the air. "I, uh, want to check on something."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Clark."

Clark clattered into the boiler room just in time to hear Mr. Kwan yell, "--school property! Leave it alone!"

Smallville High was a good-sized school, but not so good-sized that Clark could've missed this student. He was too pale for a town where half the kids lived or worked on a farm and completely bald. Clark had never met someone who shaved his head and was under the impression that the only people who did this were thugs. This kid--well, he wasn't really a kid; he looked older than Clark--didn't look like a gangster, though, or maybe he was just a really well-dressed one, in a white shirt and a long black trench coat. He had that kind of supreme confidence that Clark rarely even saw in adults, and he seemed to be completely ignoring Principal Kwan as he tooled away at the boiler. Finally, the new student made one final adjustment, stepped back, and looked at Clark.

It took a few seconds for Clark to realize that he wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the thermostat on the wall behind Clark. But it took Clark a few moments to tear himself away, because the kid had the kind of eyes that Clark had only ever read about in books, the kind that "pinned you to the wall." Clark turned around and looked at the thermostat.

As Clark watched, the number climbed from 53 to 54 and then even 55. The room was getting warmer. By now, even Principal Kwan was watching.

"What did you do?" Principal Kwan demanded.

"Um," Clark tried to interrupt, "I think he might have converted the coal burner into an electric heat pump. Like Pete built for the ecology fair last year?"

"In twenty minutes?"

"Seventeen," the boy retorted. "I had to take three minutes to find the boiler room first."

Principal Kwan sighed. "Go to lunch, Mr. Luthor."

The boy--Lex Luthor, Clark supposed--sauntered out of the room. Principal Kwan gave Clark a long-suffering look and said quietly, "Keep an eye on him, will you, Mr. Kent? Try to keep him out of trouble."

Clark wasn't sure what he could do to try and keep someone like Lex Luthor out of trouble. It'd taken Pete months to build that science fair project. But, well, he wasn't about to tell the principal no. "I'll try, sir," he promised, and then ran after Lex, because he didn't want to be late for lunch, either.

Besides, Lex seemed really interesting.

Clark caught up to Lex at the top of the stairs, where Lex seemed deep in thought.

"The cafeteria's that way," Clark said helpfully, pointing.

Lex gave Clark a strange, unreadable look and said, "Lead the way, then."

So Clark led the way to the incredibly crowded cafeteria with the incredibly long line. Chloe, predictably, spotted Clark as soon as he entered the room and waved frantically.

"Hey," Clark said, "do you want to come sit with me and my friends?"

"No thanks," Lex said, heading for the lunch line.

"Come on," Clark tried. "They're really nice when you get to know them."

Lex rolled his eyes. "Look, just because I'm the new kid doesn't mean I'm a social retard."

"Hey!" Clark protested. Jeez! He was just trying to be nice! "C'mon, it's not like that! Look," he touched Lex's wrist, just to get his attention, but it made Lex tighten all over, like he'd never been touched or something, "the lunch line's going to take forever, you might as well sit and chat with us until the line's shorter."

"On the contrary," Lex said. "By my current calculations, I'll have my food in about four minutes and twenty-six seconds."

Clark squinted at him. "Are you serious?"

"Quite serious," Lex responded. "You can even time me."

Clark gave up. For now. "Look, after you get your food, come sit with us, okay? I'll save you a seat."

"Charming," Lex muttered.

Clark wasn't quite sure how to take that, and he wasn't about to wait in the lunch line with Lex, so he just shrugged and made his way to Chloe's table, where he plunked his backpack on the seat next to him in case Lex decided he didn't want to be a jerk. Then he decided that he should probably give Lex the benefit of the doubt; after all, he'd just gotten chewed out by the principal for trying to help on his first day of school. Anyone would be a little grumpy, right?

"Oh. My. God," Chloe said. "It really is Lex Luthor, isn't it?"

"Oh yeah," Pete replied under his breath, eyes fixed on the bald head in the lunch line.

Huh? "Principal Kwan did say that was his name," Clark pointed out. "And why is this a big deal?"

"What planet are you from?" Chloe demanded. Clark had a mild panic attack until he realized it was a metaphor. "Lex. Luthor. Lex Luthor, Clark."

"Am I supposed to know what that means?"

"As in LuthorCorp plant number seventeen? Where Chloe's dad works? Where my family's creamed corn factory used to be?" Pete tapped his temple. "You are missing some serious cells up there."

"Hey, that was all before I was born!"

"What's he doing in Smallville, though?" Chloe mused. "I mean, you'd think Smallville's the last place he'd want to be, since--oh my God, he's looking at us. Why is he looking at us? Does my hair look okay? Where's my notepad?" Chloe started fumbling in her tomato-colored backpack, snapping and unsnapping pockets here and there.

"He's not a story, Chloe!" Clark hissed. Chloe had recently joined the Torch and now it seemed like everything was news, from a hair in the cafeteria food to the toilet paper they used in the school restrooms. It was starting to make Clark seriously paranoid, and he was thinking of joining the Torch just so Chloe couldn't investigate him, since Torch members weren't allowed to interview each other.

"Of course he is! He's Lex Luthor and he's attending Smallville High, he's totally a story!"

"Man, at least give a guy a day to settle in or something," Pete broke in. "I mean, he just got here, and like you said he's probably not too happy to be back."

"Back?" Clark frowned. "Was Lex here before?" He didn't remember that, and it seemed like the kind of thing he'd remember.

Chloe and Pete both gaped at him.

"You mean you don't know?" Chloe managed.

"Actually, it was probably before Clark came to Smallville," Pete reminded her.

"So? I wasn't in Smallville when it happened, but I still know about it!"

"What?" He was so totally missing something. Something important. "What?"

"This is where Lex Luthor lost his hair!" Chloe said, voice low and excited. If it hadn't been pitched to a whisper, she would've been shouting.

"Lost his hair?" Clark repeated.

"You think he was born that way?" Pete gave her a look. "Well, okay, we're all born that way, more or less, but--yeah!"

"How?"

Pete gave Clark the kind of look that said he'd smack Clark a good one if he wasn't sitting across the table. They were that kind of friends. "Clark, what else causes freaky-ass things to happen around here?"

The meteor shower.

Oh God, Clark had made Lex bald. Only not directly, but--okay, directly. And Lex had probably been, what, eight? Nine? He'd made a nine-year-old bald. Oh God. Clark couldn't imagine what it was like, being a bald third grader. Lex's life must have been miserable.

"Heads up," Pete said.

Clark yanked his backpack out of the way as Lex slid smoothly into place without any of the awkward bumping or tangling of limbs that usually happened when anyone else tried to get into a cafeteria table seat. Somehow he managed to look cool and sophisticated even while carrying a lunch tray containing a glop of macaroni and cheese, a spoonful of overcooked carrots, a scoop of half-frozen mashed potatoes, a juice carton, and a packaged brownie (probably the only edible thing there, besides the juice).

"Hi!" Chloe said, a little too loud and perky. "I'm Chloe Sullivan, a writer for the Torch, Smallville High's newspaper! How're you?" She stuck her hand straight out across the table like a toll barrier.

"Pete Ross," Pete said, doing the same thing.

Lex was--completely different. He smiled charmingly and shook Chloe's hand, then Pete's. "Pleased to meet you. Lex Luthor, as I'm sure you must know."

Chloe bobbed her head. "So Lex, what's the story?"

"Chloe," Clark said warningly. "Sorry," he said to Lex. "Ever since she--"

"It's all right." Lex waved it away. "I have great respect for the press. Don't you want to know why I'm here in Smallville?"

"Not during lunch," Clark said. "Lunch is for relaxing, not interviews."

Lex gave him a startled look.

"Off the record, then." Chloe plowed on, still smiling. "I'm not a reporter, just a Metropolis gal who wants to know why the Luthor heir's in Smallville, given his history with the place." She flashed Lex a sunny smile.

Pete, of course, decided to butt in. "Yeah, I mean, there's not much for kicks around here. Little bit of drag racing maybe, but otherwise. . . this place's the pits." He made a flat, sweeping motion with his hand, shaking his head.

"Which is precisely why I'm here." Lex made a half-hearted stab at an overboiled baby carrot that was the approximate color of diluted dish soap. "It's peaceful. Far away from everything."

Pete and Chloe exchanged meaningful looks that were completely lost on Clark. Lex tried a bite of the mac and cheese.

"Eugh," said Lex.

"Here," Clark said, fumbling with his lunch bag, "have some of my lunch."

"No, I--Jesus, how much does your mother feed you?"

"She says I'm a growing boy," Clark explained, trying to determine which of his three roast beef sandwiches were the least squished. There were also two apples, a banana, and a bunch of chocolate chip cookies wrapped in foil.

"I'd take one, if I were you," Pete said, eyeing Clark's lunch. "Mrs. Kent's the best cook in Kansas. And no one, I mean no one, should have Smallville High cafeteria food on their first day."

"I note all of you brought lunches from home," Lex observed. "All right then, I concede." He took the proffered sandwich, unwrapped it, and took a bite.

Oh no, Clark thought, what if Lex didn't like mustard or pickles or--

"Mmmph," Lex said, and the expression on his face could certainly be called surprise. "This is really good."

"Mom bakes her own bread and everything," Clark said proudly.

"You can taste the difference." Lex looked about to take another mouthful, but then stopped and eyed the sandwich innards. "Is this one of your cows?"

"No!" Clark said, horrified. "Our cows are dairy cows."

"Ah." Lex was actually grinning, apparently amused. "Do they have names?"

"Of course." Why in the world would Lex care about that?

"And they have chickens, too," Chloe added. "And Clark knows how to drive a tractor." She and Lex grinned at each other, as if sharing a private joke, and then Chloe abruptly burst into giggles.

"You do my heart good," Lex told her. "Did you say you were from Metropolis?"

Chloe's bubbly meter ratcheted up from perky to blissful. Pete and Clark looked at each other.

"You going to eat that?" Pete asked, pointing at Clark's cookies.

---

"I'm home!" Clark called, leaving his snow-crusted boots outside and dropping his backpack just inside the door.

"Welcome home, dear," said Martha from the counter, where she was kneading dough. "Your snack's over there." She nodded to the breakfast island, where Clark's after-school snack--two generous slices of banana bread and a glass of milk--waited, perfectly arranged, like a calendar portrait. "How was school?"

"There's a new kid," Clark supplied, taking a seat and wolfing down a bite of banana bread. "His name's Lex Luthor."

"Oh!" Martha looked up. "Mr. Brabson from down the road was talking last week about how he'd rented that house on his property to a Mr. Luthor. I wondered if maybe they were related, but I never thought--" Her words jerked to a halt, and Martha acquired a contemplative look. Then she went back to squeezing the dough with floury hands. "I want you to go over there and invite them for dinner."

Clark swallowed a bit of banana bread the wrong way and coughed. "Uh. Sure," he wheezed, reaching for the milk.

"It's the neighborly thing to do," Martha told him. "Lex has had a hard life, poor boy."

Hard life? Okay, being bald at eight years old probably made things kind of rough, but Martha acted like Lex had been orphaned or something. Clark put the glass back down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I thought his parents owned LuthorCorp."

Martha opened her mouth as if to say something, and then shut it again. "Lex lost both his parents in an accident five years ago," she said quietly.

"Oh." So Lex really had been orphaned. Clark stared at his banana bread and felt like a jerk. A really, really lucky jerk, because wasn't he fortunate to have parents who'd adopted him and raised him as their own even though he was from another planet?

"He had to go and live with a foster family," Martha went on, smushing and flattening the dough against the counter repeatedly. "They died in a fire recently."

"Oh, wow." Poor Lex. It was like he was cursed or something.

"So I want you to go and invite them to dinner," Martha finished.

Clark looked down at his plate and realized he'd finished all his banana bread. Right. So he should probably go now.

Mr. Brabson lived about five or six miles down the road. He and his wife were the elderly retired sort, with their kids all grown up and gone away to make their livings. They sent money home every month, so the Brabsons rented out the land. The blue house two miles back on their property had been empty for a while. Martha had always said it was a shame, it was such a nice little house; not that different from the Kents' own, really, just dusty and not as well-kept, since there was nobody living in it.

There were lights on this time, though. Clark clomped up the porch steps and rang the bell.

The door opened a crack, and Clark could see half of Lex's face and one blue eye. "Clark?" The door opened a little farther, revealing Lex in jeans and a faded hoodie from some Metropolis high school.

"Hi." Clark said, waving awkwardly with one hand. "I, um, came to invite you for dinner."

Lex stared. "Tonight?"

"Yeah! I mean. Um. If you want to come. I mean, you guys are probably busy moving in or something--" Clark peered over Lex's shoulder into. . . a mostly empty living room. There was furniture--the Brabsons had been renting a furnished house--but not much else. It was eerie. Clark was used to being in other people's houses and seeing knickknacks, photos of family members, maybe flowers or something. Lex's house didn't look like a home.

Lex shrugged. "Not really. We travel light."

"Well, uh, you can come for dinner, then!" Clark tried a grin. "Everyone's invited. You and your--um. Parents."

Lex kept giving Clark that odd look, like he was trying to figure out a complex puzzle. Finally he said, "Okay, look. Cards on the table. What do you want?"

"What do I want?" Clark repeated, confused.

"You defend me from your principal, you feed me your lunch, and now you're asking me to dinner. Is there something you want? I don't have much money right now, and if you're looking for a favor in the future--"

"No! No," Clark yelped, once he realized where this was going and it was nowhere good, "I don't want anything! My mom just wanted to invite you to dinner. She said it was the neighborly thing to do."

Now Lex was looking at Clark like he was some kind of bewildering new life form. Which he was, technically, but Lex wasn't supposed to know that. "The neighborly thing to do?"

"Yeah. I mean, you're our neighbor--we live right up the road--and you're new in town, so it's the neighborly thing to invite your new neighbors over for dinner so you can get to know them. Right?"

"Oh God, you people really do exist," Lex muttered.

There was a slight pause where they just kind of looked at each other, and finally Clark said, "Look, you don't have to come, my mom just--"

"I'll come."

Clark mentally ground to a halt and reversed. "Really?"

"Lucius is in Metropolis tonight, finalizing some things," Lex said. "I was going to end up eating grass in the backyard anyway. And your mom's the best cook in Kansas, right?"

Clark grinned, recognizing Pete's words from earlier. "Yeah."

"So what time is dinner?" Lex stuffed his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie.

"Six," Clark replied. "Um. We live about five or six miles up the road." He pointed. "It's a yellow farmhouse, there'll be a sign. You can't miss it."

Lex nodded, gaze following Clark's hand. "Where's your car? You didn't walk here, did you?"

"No! I. Uh. Left it at the Brabsons'. Went and said hello to them first."

"Neighborly thing to do, I guess," Lex conceded.

"Right." Clark hoped Lex didn't ask the Brabsons about his visit later. "So I guess we'll see you at six?"

"Absolutely." Lex gave Clark a brief smile that was somehow completely different from that charming grin he'd given Chloe and Pete at lunch that day. "Thank you."

Clark felt lighter than usual when he ran home.

---

The doorbell rang at six o' clock on the dot. "I'll get it!" Clark yelled, clattering down the stairs. He and Jonathan got to the door at the same time, but Clark was the one to actually throw the door open.

Lex had flowers. Eleven red tulips and one yellow one in the middle. He presented the bouquet to a speechless Martha, who arrived late on the scene, saying, "The advantage to living in a small town is that everyone knows your favorite flower."

"Why, thank you, Lex," Martha said, her smile by turns pleased and shocked. "These are lovely." She excused herself, mumbling something about putting them in water, leaving Jonathan and Clark to greet their guest.

"Come on in," Jonathan said. "We were just about to put dinner on the table."

Lex left his shoes at the door. "It smells delicious," he said, following his hosts to the dining room.

"Baked herbed chicken," Jonathan said. "Martha really went all out for you."

"You didn't have to go through the trouble," Lex began.

"Nonsense," Martha said, reappearing. "I love having an excuse to make a fancy meal."

Martha had placed the tulips in her favorite blue glass vase in the middle of the dinner table, where it was surrounded by salad, green beans, pasta, and chicken. They were using the matching dinnerware; usually the Kents ate on whatever they pulled out of the cupboard, but Martha liked to look nice for guests. Clark got everyone's drinks, and then everyone sat down and said grace.

Lex had very correct table manners. Clark noticed he was left-handed.

"So, you're staying on the Brabson property?" Jonathan asked.

Lex nodded. "It's very charming. I quite like it."

"You're not living alone, are you?" Martha asked.

"No. Lucius--that's my guardian--had to go back to Metropolis tonight to finalize some things regarding the move. He decided to stay there instead of driving back in the middle of the night."

"Wise man," Jonathan said. "Long drives in the country at night--it's a good recipe for disaster."

"I noticed your sign outside said Kent Farm," said Lex. "Are you also a business?"

"Kent Organic Farms," Jonathan said, puffing a little with pride. "We grew these beans and canned them ourselves."

"You know," Lex said casually, "I was thinking of expanding LuthorCorp to organic farming methods."

Jonathan's eyes lit up. Martha and Clark exchanged amused looks. Lex knew how to work it, all right.

After dinner, Martha shooed Clark away from his usual task of washing the dishes, urging that he spend some time with his new friend. Clark wasn't about to turn down an opportunity to get out of doing chores, so he took Lex out to the barn to show him the loft.

As soon as they set foot inside the barn, though, he was embarrassed. Why in the world would Lex want to see the loft? He was eighteen, cool, and from Metropolis. He was heir to the Luthor fortune, or something like that.

But Lex didn't seem bored at all as they mounted the steps, Clark explaining how his father had built this for him.

"He called it my Fortress of Solitude," Clark said. "It's a dumb name, but he says sometimes you need a place where you can get away."

Lex ran his hand along the weathered rail. "He's a good father."

Way to bring up bad memories, Kent! Lex didn't look upset or anything, though, just a little distant. Then he saw the telescope, and it was like something lit up behind his eyes. Clark reached out in what he hoped was an unobtrusive manner and tipped it so that Lex couldn't tell he'd been looking at Lana's house last night.

"It's pretty good, for an older model," Lex said after a few minutes of minute adjustments.

"It used to be my grandpa's."

"Are you interested in astronomy?" Lex turned to look at him.

"Sort of," Clark said, thinking about how he had a whole new reason to be interested in space now. Sometimes he looked at the stars and wondered which one was his, wondered if he'd ever find out. "I've got a book."

Lex looked through the lens again. "You can't really see the stars in Metropolis. Not with the naked eye."

"No?"

"Too much light pollution."

"Wow." Clark couldn't imagine it. Some of his earliest memories had him up on the roof with his father, picking out the constellations and trying to remember their names. His mother remembered a few of the stories. The sky made Clark remember to be still and breathe, reminded him that under all things he was still small and had a long way to go, no matter what powers he might have. He tried to imagine a city so loud and bright that it blocked out the light from above and thought that maybe the inability to see the sky made people forget their own flaws.

"But if you look at the city from above," Lex said, sounding almost dreamy, "it looks just like the sky." He leaned out the window with his arms braced against the sill, his breath misting in little dragon's-breath puffs. "It's quite beautiful here."

"I guess." Clark looked out the window and tried to see what Lex saw, but just the usual night view. Fields. A windmill. Some trees. Lana's house. "It's probably not as great as Metropolis."

Lex gave a low chuckle. "Have you ever been to Metropolis, Clark?"

Clark shook his head, feeling a little sheepish. "But I really want to," he confessed. "Chloe--well, you know Chloe. And my mom's from there."

"Your mother?"

"Yeah. She met my dad at Met U and fell in love with him, and--yeah."

"And she moved to Smallville, just like that." Lex had a funny little smile on his face that made Clark's stomach flip-flop. "Amazing."

"What's it like in Metropolis?" Clark asked. He had a picture in his head that was cobbled together from the things Chloe and his mother had told him, and Metropolis was big and busy and filled with life and people. It was a city that never slept, where you could always find something to do no matter what time it was. Not like Smallville, where everything closed at eight o' clock except the Wild Coyote, which stayed open until the liquor license ran out, and the movie theatre, which stayed open until midnight.

Lex took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "It's different," he said. "But Smallville has its merits."

"Like what?" Clark wanted to know.

"The stars." Lex tilted his head back. "And some of its residents are certainly interesting."

"Like who?" Had Lex met Kyle Tippett? He was the only one who'd really qualify as "interesting."

Lex grinned, and Clark realized that none of the smiles from earlier that day had been real, at least, none of the ones he'd seen at school. This grin made Lex look years younger, and Clark thought he'd gotten a glimpse of the boy that Lex might once have been. "You're weird, Clark."

"What?" Clark was completely lost in this conversation.

Lex shook his head. "Never mind." He brushed one hand against the telescope and said, "I should probably get going."

"No, wait--" Clark didn't know why he didn't want Lex to cut this conversation short. Lex was just fascinating, like the suncatcher his mom used to hold up to the light, fracturing it into a shattered medley of rainbow colors. The Lex he'd met with Principal Kwan was different from the Lex he'd eaten lunch with was different from the Lex that had been at dinner was different from the Lex he was talking to now. He was a mass of contradictions. "I'm adopted," he blurted out.

"What?" Lex was completely baffled. Clark didn't blame him. God, this was so embarrassing.

"I'm adopted." Clark stared at his feet. "I--my mom told me about. Your parents. And--"

To Clark's utter astonishment, Lex started laughing. He actually doubled over, clutching his stomach, absolutely howling. Clark wouldn't be surprised if his parents could hear it from the house. Unsure of how to react, and mostly mortified (why couldn't one of his powers be sinking through floors?), Clark just tried not to freak out and run away until Lex stopped laughing, wheezing and wiping tears from the corner of his eyes.

"You found out," Lex said between weak giggles, "about my tragic history and decided, spontaneously, to share a bit of your own, so that we might have some common ground. Am I right?"

Clark didn't know how to respond to that. "Um. Maybe?"

"Oh Clark, you are a character." Lex straightened himself, lips still twitching. "You're very fortunate. Your parents seem to love you very much."

"Yeah." Clark looked at his shoes again.

"What do you want?"

Clark looked up. Lex was absolutely still now, no trace of the mirth left in him, and Clark almost couldn't believe that this was the same person who'd laughed to the point of tears at Clark's attack of dorkitude just now.

"I told you," Clark said. "I don't want anything."

"Everyone wants something." Lex's voice was flat, like he was reciting a math problem, and it made something in Clark curl up in horror. What kind of world had Lex grown up in?

"I just," Clark said, "I just want to be your friend."

"My friend," Lex repeated, incredulous.

"Yeah."

Lex's laugh was startled and quick, like a bird frightened out of a bush. "All right. We can be friends. I'll see you tomorrow, Clark."

Clark was about to protest, but as if on cue, Martha's voice rang out from the house, calling for Clark to come in. Lex gave Clark a half-smile that seemed to say, I told you so.

So Lex left, and Clark went inside and finished his homework. He kind of wished that Lex had stayed. He was probably good at history.

---

Lana Lang still made Clark gooey inside. She was just so pretty and nice and. . . Lana. Pete had made fun of Clark for doing community service at the Smallville Retirement Home just to get close to Lana, but, well, he couldn't help himself. Lana was Lana. Clark couldn't help thinking that one day she'd wake up and realize she wanted to be with Clark Kent for the rest of her life, even though Clark was dorky and lived on a farm.

"Hi, Clark!" she said, pushing a cart of books ahead of her. "Reading to Cassandra again?"

"Yep." Clark held up his thick, hardbound library book. "We're on to Huckleberry Finn now."

"It's so sweet of you to spend so much time with her," Lana said, tucking a strand of long, dark hair behind her ear. "I mean, you've been doing this since last semester. Haven't you finished your thirty hours of community service by now?"

"Yeah, well." Clark felt an incredibly goofy grin spread over his face. No! Control, Kent! "She's kind of cool, when you get to know her."

Lana smiled at him, and Clark felt his feet melt. "Well, I need to go see Mr. Patterson. Have fun with Cassandra."

Clark watched her disappear into another room before he went to see Cassandra. He knocked on the doorframe before entering, even though he knew perfectly well she'd heard him coming. "Hey, Cassandra. It's me."

"Hello, Clark!" The old woman peered in Clark's general direction, eyes hidden behind her oversized sunglasses. "Are you going to read more Huckleberry today?"

"Yep." Clark held up the book, even though Cassandra couldn't see it.

"Good, good. Sit down! I love Huckleberry."

Clark sat down in the chair next to her and opened the book to chapter nine, where Huckleberry woke up on an island.

Cassandra Carver had been one of the town's biggest gossips, according to Clark's mom. Then she'd lost her sight in the meteor shower. Her children were grown up and busy with lives of their own and unwilling or unable to take care of their blind mother, who suddenly needed a lot of assistance than she did before, and they'd put her into the Smallville Retirement Home. Cassandra had shouldered the move bravely, apparently, and discovered something much better than gossip: seeing the future.

The first time Clark met Cassandra, he'd been with Pete. Cassandra had declared herself no fortuneteller, but contrived to touch Pete's hand anyway. "It's a long walk home," she told him. "Check your pockets." That was when Pete discovered he'd locked his keys in the car.

Then Cassandra asked Clark for a glass of water and did it again. As soon as their hands met, Clark had a jumbled vision of fire and flight and the suffocating, noiseless black of space. He came out of it gasping, both of Cassandra's withered hands covering his, still clutching the glass. It was amazing it hadn't splintered in his grasp. Cassandra's face was pale. "Did you see it?" she asked.

"Yeah," Clark said, senses still reeling. It was like he'd really been there. "What was that?"

"I don't know. No one else has ever seen what I see. You must be very special, Clark."

Cassandra had no idea just how special Clark really was.

So now Clark came back and read to Cassandra every Saturday. He'd started it as a way to fulfill his thirty hours of community service and get close to Lana at the same time, but now it was also because, every so often, Cassandra would take his hands and Clark would see it again.

"What does it mean?" Clark asked the third time.

"I don't know," Cassandra replied, shaking her head. "The future isn't always clear, young man."

It was frustrating. Clark wanted to talk about it to somebody, but his parents didn't believe him, Chloe just wanted to find a way to put it in the Torch somehow, and Pete told Clark not to stress about it so much. At least Clark hadn't gotten chewed out by his parents for locking his keys in the car.

So Clark came every Saturday and read to Cassandra for an hour or two. Sometimes, afterwards, they would talk about mundane things, Cassandra relating old gossip (Clark had some fun stories about his parents now) and Clark with the occasional boring school story.

"Would you like to try it again today?" Cassandra asked after Clark finished chapter eleven.

"Sure," Clark said, closing the book and putting it to the side. "I don't know why," he said, a little jokingly. "I mean, it's not like it's gotten any clearer like the last seventy times." But he took Cassandra's outstretched hand anyway.

Darkness and rain and a great, overwhelming desperation and sorrow. Graves, graves everywhere, with the name of Clark's parents and Clark's friends and people Clark didn't even know, all facing him, accusing. They stretched on and on as far as Clark could see. Everyone was dead; Clark was the only one left? Why? their names demanded. How did this happen? Why didn't Clark save them?

He slammed back into reality, blinking furiously, the room too bright. Cassandra was white as paper, mouth slack, her hands trembling in Clark's own. Clark let go immediately, heart pounding.

"Cassandra," he said. "Cassandra! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Clark, I'm fine." Cassandra's voice shook even as she patted Clark's arm reassuringly. "Oh, but what was that?"

"I don't know." Clark felt a little shaky himself. "That--why did it change so suddenly?"

"Something in your life must have changed," Cassandra said.

Clark stood. He took two steps to the side, then another, looking around wildly, not really focusing. Behind his eyes, he still saw that endless spiral of tombstones, a hurricane of death with Clark in the eye. "I. Think. I'd better. Go."

He heard Cassandra call "Clark!" behind him, but he kept going, down the hall and out the door into the bright winter world.

"Clark! Clark, is something the matter?"

Lana stood in the front door of the rest home, purse slung over her shoulder. Clark looked at her and saw her grave, the neatly carved letters, the death he somehow hadn't been able to prevent. He almost choked.

"Nothing," he said. "Just--nothing."

"Are you sure?" Lana took a few steps closer, and Clark was revisited by the queasy nausea he used to get whenever he was around her, before that terrible night on the cross, when Lana's necklace was lost in the field.

"I'm fine," Clark lied. "I just--I need to go."

"Do you want me to drive you?"

Yesterday--heck, two hours ago--Clark would have jumped at a chance to be in the same vehicle with Lana, smelling her perfume and making a gigantic fool of himself. Right now, though, he just wanted to be somewhere else.

Clark forced a smile. "It's okay. I need to clear my head a little."

"Well, okay." Lana gave Clark a strange look and walked away.

Clark ran.

The world melted into a white and silver blur, occasionally broken by streaks of black, the skeletons of trees. Clark kept to the road, not wanting to leave a clear trail across the snowy fields, and he just ran and ran. But still the image stayed in his head, all those graves, everyone he knew: his parents, Chloe, Pete, Lana. . . even some people he didn't know, people with names like Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen.

Everyone except Lex.

Clark screeched to a halt. What did that mean, that he hadn't see Lex's grave in that vision?

Something in your life must have changed, Cassandra said. The most recent change had been Lex: Lex's arrival, their tentative friendship (if you could even call it that). But what did that mean? Was Lex going to be the cause of all that death? Or would he escape it somehow? Would he be the one person that Clark was able to save? Clark bowed his head, burying one hand in his hair. He really, really wished he had someone to talk to.

---

"Maybe you were having some kind of hallucination," Martha said.

"It wasn't a hallucination!" Clark insisted. Why did his parents seem determined to think he was crazy or seeing things? "It was a glimpse of the future--my future." He paced back and forth in the kitchen while his parents watched warily from the breakfast island, like he might start foaming at the mouth.

"And you saw an endless graveyard," Jonathan said.

"Like I was the last person on Earth." Clark didn't mention how he hadn't seen Lex's grave there. It wasn't like he'd looked for it.

"Clark, you can't let Cassandra consume your whole life," Martha told him. "It's wonderful that you've become so close to her, but. . ."

"She's not! I just--I just want some answers." Clark stopped pacing and stood in front of his parents, trying not to feel fifteen and scared. "And Cassandra has the answers."

"Son," Jonathan said firmly, "the only one who controls your destiny is you."

Clark threw his hands in the air. "Well, right now I don't feel like I have control of anything!"

He stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind him. It was immature, but it felt good.

---

"Hey, Chloe?" Clark stuck his head into the Torch office.

Chloe never failed to cut through the layers of Clark's complex emotional distress with her serrated wit and usually made him feel better by virtue of putting his problems in perspective. And boy, could he use some perspective right now. And fortunately, there was somewhere she could usually be found on Saturday afternoons: the Torch office.

She wasn't there, though. Lex was.

"Clark," Lex greeted him. "Chloe's not here yet."

"What are you doing here?" Clark asked in surprise, and then immediately regretted it. He didn't want to sound unfriendly or territorial or anything.

"Interview," Lex said with a smile. "Chloe Sullivan got an exclusive with Smallville High's newest student." He turned back, tilting his head up to get a better look. "I got here early, so I decided to look around. This is. . . quite amazing."

It was Chloe's Wall of Weird. Clark still couldn't quite shake the strange feeling of guilt he got when he looked at it, all these people and environments that had suffered because of him, maybe still suffered today. Lana's four-year-old teary, crumpled face wept accusingly at him from the Time magazine cover. But he couldn't very well tell Chloe to take it down because it made him uncomfortable; she'd want to know why. Furthermore, it was occasionally. . . useful. Because the meteors had done more than kill people, and sometimes Clark had to stop them.

"That's Chloe's hobby," Clark said. "She thinks she can trace all the freak things in Smallville to the meteor shower."

"Interesting theory," Lex mused.

"Most people think it's crazy."

"Maybe." Lex looked at Clark over his shoulder. "Do you remember where you were when it fell?"

Most everyone did. The meteor shower was how Smallville residents measured time. There was Before the Meteor Shower, and After. But it was unusual for people not from the immediate vicinity to ask that question.

"Not really. My parents hadn't adopted me yet."

"Ah." Lex leaned against a desk. "I do. I was here, in Smallville." He had that small, bitter smile on his face. "My mother wanted me to spend some more quality time with my dad, so he brought me here on a business trip--just a quick hop to Smallville to finalize a deal. But it changed my life."

"You lost your hair," Clark said, quietly.

Lex didn't seemed surprised that Clark knew. "I should've died that day," he said quietly, looking at the wall, papered with layers of photos and clips, some of it curled and yellowed with age. "Instead, I walked away with this." He ran a hand over his head.

"I'm sorry." Clark felt like he had to apologize, even if Lex didn't know.

"Why? It's not your fault." Lex smiled with one side of his mouth. "Besides, it became the thing that defined me. Gave me strength."

They were silent. Lex went back to examining the wall, skimming some of the articles.

"I know someone who was affected by the meteor shower," Clark blurted out. "I mean, it gave her powers."

Lex turned around, eyebrows lifted in surprise and intrigue. "Really? Who?"

"Cassandra. She's this old woman at the retirement home. She can tell people's futures."

Lex looked a little skeptical. "Clark, you know that sometimes the elderly--"

"She's not making it up just to get attention," Clark contested. Jeez, why did everyone always think that? "She told my future. She's told a lot of people's futures. She's the real deal." He took a deep breath and let it out again in a sigh. "Haven't you ever wished you knew how it was all gonna turn out?"

"I know my future." Lex sounded so decisive that Clark had to look at him and found that Lex was looking back, gaze so hard and intent that Clark couldn't even swallow. Then Lex looked away. Clark felt something unsqueeze, and he could breathe again.

"Hi, Lex!" Chloe said breathlessly, sweeping into the room like a miniature blonde wind. Her purse landed on one of the desks. "Sorry I'm late! Wait, I'm not late. You're just abnormally early." She checked her watch again. "And what're you doing here, Clark?"

"Nothing," Clark said, feeling strangely guilty. But there was no reason for him to feel like he'd done something wrong. "I thought I'd come hang out, but I guess you're busy."

Chloe gave him a strange look. "Clark, you never hang out in the Torch office. You're allergic to copy editing."

"Hey! That's not true. I've, um, come in here for stuff."

Chloe grinned at him, all white teeth and pink gums, and patted Clark on the arm. "It's okay, I'm just messing with you. But I'm going to have to ask you to leave; this interview's one on one."

"Rats," Lex said. "And here I was hoping Clark could stand in for me."

"Hey, you agreed," Chloe said, planting her fists firmly on her hips. "You can't back out on me now! Okay, actually, you can, but it would be mean. And you don't want to be mean to a journalist." She gave Lex a warning look, which was about as threatening as a growling dachshund. She wasn't trying very hard; Clark had been on the receiving end of her full-blown doberman mode.

Lex held up both hands in a placating gesture, and Clark recognized that harmless, friend-of-the-media persona. Lex had different faces that snapped on in the blink of an eye, and it made Clark uneasy that he was so good at it. When was he ever dealing with the real Lex?

"I'll, uh, just make myself scarce," Clark said, and slipped out the door.

---

"Clark, you came back!" Cassandra exclaimed.

"Um, yeah." Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry for running out on you like that."

"Oh, I don't blame you. That was. . . it was frightening." She gestured at the chair next to her. "Sit."

Clark sat. He looked at his hands. Cassandra stared patiently past Clark's left ear. Her sunglasses were off, and her eyes were blank and swirled with milky fog.

"Sometimes," Cassandra said, "I touch people, and I see such pain and despair. . . but then you're there, and the pain is gone."

Clark looked down at his hands again and shook his head.

"I think it's your destiny to help people, Clark."

"Then why all the graves?" Clark asked. "If I help people, why is everyone dead?"

"Perhaps," Cassandra said, her voice grave, "you failed to help the right person."

Clark just stared at her. What did that even mean?

Cassandra held out her hand. Clark had always had a stubborn optimistic streak, and so he curled their fingers together.

Clouds, dark and gray and fat-bellied overhead. Storm coming. Clark, standing out in the fields, wind whipping his clothes. He needs to make sure the cows are inside. But Lex is out there, his back to Clark, dressed all in black, arms open to the storm, apparently unaware of what it's bringing. It takes Clark a moment to realize that Lex is beckoning it, reeling it in with his fingertips, guiding it with the curve of his hands, with the line of his uptilted throat. Then the rain begins, not with the first few warning drops, but in a sudden torrent, like he's standing beneath a waterfall. Lightning flashes, right where Lex was standing. Clark tries to cry out, but rain gets in his mouth. A roll of thunder hurls him to the ground, and Clark realizes that the sky is showering down blood, that it's salty and warm in his mouth.

Clark jerked and broke contact. His hands shook, and he swallowed. He could still taste it. His stomach roiled at the sense-memory.

"Oh," said Cassandra, her hand still trembling in midair. "Oh."

Having someone else to take care of always made Clark feel better, so he leapt into action. He got up and poured her a glass of water, staying next to her chair while she drank it, slowly.

"Thank you," she said as Clark took the empty glass and placed it on the end table. Then, after a too-long pause, "That was terrible."

"Yeah," Clark replied.

They remained like that, the young man standing over the oracle, the dim winter sunlight making the window glow behind the thin curtains. Clark could still see Lex, imprinted behind his eyelids, summoning the bloody storm.

"You're a very special young man, Clark," Cassandra said. "I have faith in you."

"I," Clark began.

"No," Cassandra interrupted him. "I know you, Clark. It's why you can see the things I can. It's how you've been able to save all those people. Isn't it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Clark said, but the denial sounded weak even to his ears.

"It's all right," Cassandra told him, leaning forward and dropping her voice to a whisper. "Your secret's safe with me." She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. "Now, leave an old woman to get some rest."

Clark couldn't help but smile. "All right," he said. "Thanks, Cassandra."

---

"The retirement home called," Martha said when Clark came in from his Sunday morning chores. She didn't say anything more while Clark took off his coat and shucked his boots. Then, "Cassandra passed away."

At first, Clark just stared blankly. The words didn't process. Martha watched him, pensive and concerned. "How?" he managed to force out.

"They said it was suddenly, this morning. . . they didn't give me any details. But they wanted to call and let you know, since you were so close." Martha took a few steps forward and wrapped Clark in her arms. "I'm so sorry, Clark."

Clark didn't say anything. It took him a few moments to realize that he should probably be hugging his mother back. When she finally let go, Clark said, "I'll be in the Fortress if you need me." Martha, understanding, said nothing when he left.

He wasn't sure how much time passed while he was in the Fortress. He wasn't sure what he did while he was there. He might have stared blankly into space, reviewing all the time he spent with Cassandra. He might have cried, a little bit, but he doubted it. Mostly he felt numb and sad and scared. How had this happened? Cassandra had been fine yesterday. She'd been her usual self. She'd scolded Clark and told him to leave an old woman to get her rest. Suddenly, his mother had said. Yes, it'd been very sudden. What would he do now, without her guidance?

A step creaked. Someone was coming. It was probably one of his parents, coming to see how he was doing. Clark didn't move.

"Clark."

Clark looked up. It was Lex, paler than usual, standing poised on the second-to-top step with one hand on the rail.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Lex said quietly. "I--I'll leave you alone."

"No," Clark said. "It's okay. What is it?" It was weird; he didn't think Lex would ever visit him here like this. How had Lex known he was in the Fortress, anyway?

Lex shook his head. "I went to see Cassandra today." The words sounded awkward and forced, like he had to retch them up.

Oh God.

Lex must have seen the expression on Clark's face, because he looked away and said, "Whatever she saw, it killed her."

Clark didn't know what to say. It wasn't your fault? He saw, again, the image of that blood-soaked storm, Lex dressed all in black with his arms open to the wind. What had Cassandra seen, when she'd held Lex's hand?

"Never mind," Lex said. "I shouldn't have come here."

"No, wait," Clark said, not sure why he wanted Lex to stay, but sure that he couldn't let Lex leave.

Lex didn't wait. Clark leapt up from the couch and seized Lex by the arm.

"Let go of me," Lex said in a low voice that made the hair on the back of Clark's neck stand on end. Lex sounded so menacing, so adult, like he was twenty years older and commanded an empire.

"Why did you come here?" Clark asked. Lex didn't look at him, didn't say anything. Clark shook his arm a little, not relinquishing his grip, and he didn't miss it when Lex's hands curled into fists. "Why did you come here?" he asked again.

"I don't know!" Lex snapped, turning to look at Clark. His eyes were bright and intense. "I thought I could talk to you!" He jerked his arm, but Clark still didn't let go.

"You can," Clark urged. "We're supposed to be friends."

Lex stared at Clark like he'd never seen him before. "You really meant that," he said, sounding almost awed.

"What?"

"About being friends." Lex made the words sound like a new food he'd never tried before, or a movie he hadn't expected to enjoy.

"Well, yeah." Clark let go, now that Lex didn't seem to be in imminent danger of running away.

Lex shoved both hands in his characteristic long coat and looked young and uncertain. Finally, he said, "I don't think so."

As usual, Clark was lost. "What?"

"I don't think we can be friends."

Clark frowned. "Why not?"

"I don't have friends."

The statement was so preposterous, so ridiculous, that Clark didn't believe it at first. He even laughed a little. "What? But everyone has friends."

"Not me," Lex said in all seriousness, and Clark realized he wasn't kidding. "And I--just now--I killed an old woman."

"What--you make it sound like you murdered her!"

"I did!" Lex exclaimed, sounding almost angry. "I as good as murdered her."

"No, you didn't!" Clark cried, exasperated. "You didn't mean to--you don't even know that--"

Lex shook his head. "No, everything I--" He clammed up again and turned on his heel, marching toward the barn doors. "Being friends with me is dangerous, Clark."

Clark followed him. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"It means I kill people," Lex retorted. "Or get them killed." He stopped just inside the barn doors and turned around again, leaning a little bit forward. Clark had a good three inches on him, but somehow Lex's stance made him feel smaller. "What is it you don't get? I'm Lex Luthor, and people around me die."

Clark remembered that conversation with his mother in the kitchen--God, had it only been two days ago? When she'd told Clark how his parents had died, and his foster family, too. Clark had wondered, briefly, if Lex was cursed. Now he could kick himself for having that shallow, insensitive thought, because Lex himself would of course think that. How could he have missed this?

"Lex," Clark began, when he saw something wink in the trees. Frowning, he trained his eyesight on the general direction he thought he'd seen it come from.

It was someone just on the either side of the windbreak. Someone with what looked like a high-powered rifle, like the kind that hunters had, but--

"Lex, get down!" Clark didn't give Lex any time to follow the order, because he grabbed Lex by the upper arms and threw them both to the ground, just in time for the bullet to whiff by overhead and embed itself with a crack in one of the beams. He hadn't heard a gunshot at all.

"What--" Lex gasped.

Clark looked up and saw the gunman fleeing to a car parked a few feet behind him. There weren't any license plates, and the car itself was pretty nondescript. It peeled away; Clark could probably follow it, but he wasn't about to leave Lex.

Lex groaned, and Clark looked down, concerned. He was unhurt, but strangely defeated, limp as a sack of flour on the dusty floor.

"This," Lex said in a weary voice, "is why you shouldn't be friends with me."

Clark thought of the blood in his mouth, the lightning and the consequent thunderclap that had hurled him to the ground. "No," he said, "I think I should."

---

They sat side by side on the couch, Lex with his elbows on his knees, staring down at his hands, shoulders hunched like he expected the very sunlight to harm him. The hem of his coat fanned out around his body like a flower.

"My parents died when I was thirteen," Lex said. "This is public knowledge."

Clark nodded.

"They left behind a sizeable insurance policy, of course." Lex's gloved fingers flexed and interlaced. "My father had it written into the contract that I wouldn't be able to claim the money until I turned eighteen. So I received my mother's insurance money, but not his."

Clark wondered why Lex was talking about insurance policies. Surely the fact that his parents died was much more important than money.

"I can't touch the company, either, not until I'm eighteen," Lex continued. "Dad left Dominic, his right hand man, in charge." He snorted. "Incompetent. He's running the company into the ground. But I'll change that, when I'm in charge. I plan on changing a lot of things." He looked at Clark, as if daring him to contradict. "I'm going to make the company big. Huge. What my father always wanted."

"So Dominic. . ."

"He's been trying to kill me," Lex confirmed.

It was like something out of a mystery novel, except it was real. Clark couldn't quite believe something like this actually happened in real life, much less to someone he knew. Someone he went to school with. "Wait," he said, "been trying? So--"

"He's been trying for a while," Lex said. "Fortunately, I'm smart. Smarter than him."

Clark thought he could believe that, that Lex wasn't just being conceited. "Did he--was he the one--"

"Did he kill my foster family?" Lex shook his head, a thin, bitter smile on his face. "Mr. and Mrs. Griggs knew I'd come into a great deal of money when I turned eighteen, and they wanted a piece of the pie. They wanted me to promise--put down in writing, even better--that I'd hand over a few million in gratitude for their loving care." The smile turned into something that more closely resembled a smirk, and it dug into Clark's insides like pain. "They even used their daughter, Lena. Said they'd use the money for her college education. But they were lying." He closed his eyes.

"How did you know?"

"Lena told me." Lex opened his eyes again. "She was a good girl." His voice grew rough. "When they found out she wouldn't cooperate, they killed her."

There was absolutely nothing Clark could say to that.

"I was waiting for Lena somewhere else in the city," Lex went on dispassionately, like he was reciting his times tables. "I wanted to take her away from her parents. She never came, so I went looking for her, and I found her dead in the front hall."

"Jesus, Lex," Clark whispered. He could tell from the way Lex looked, the way he said Lena's name, that he must have loved her, maybe been in love with her, the way Clark felt about Lana. He couldn't imagine what that must have been like.

"That made me a witness," Lex said. "So they thought they'd better kill me too, even though that meant they'd never get the money. It was better than going to jail. Fortunately, I have Navy SEAL training. I defended myself. And then I left."

"Then--then what about the fire?"

Lex lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Maybe something got knocked over. Or maybe they started it themselves as a way of erasing their shame."

These events must have been horrible for Lex, but he seemed so. . . calm about it. Not numb, like Clark had been earlier that day, but almost like he was relating something that had happened to someone else. Was that normal?

"I was still a minor, still technically a ward of the state. I'd have to go through another foster nightmare unless I found a birth relative to be my guardian. So I found Lucius."

"Who is he?" Clark queried. "An uncle or something?"

"Or something," Lex chuckled. "I'm not going to divulge all my secrets in one day, Clark." He seemed to relax a little now that the story was over, the tension leaking out of his shoulders. He slumped back, limbs spilling out in every direction, and stared at the ceiling. "How did you see that sniper, anyway? I didn't see or hear anything, and I'd like to think that I'm pretty good at spotting hit men by now."

Clark shifted uncomfortably. "You notice things that are out of place around here," he said lamely.

"Hm. I suppose." Lex suddenly levered himself off the couch and stretched, arms up over his head, the hem of his shirt riding up a little to expose a thin stripe of pale stomach. Lex was thin; his mother would say that he needed to eat more. "I consider my obligations here discharged. I'm leaving now."

"Wait, are you sure?" Clark got up. "I mean, what if he tries again later?"

"He won't." Lex sounded absolutely certain. "Not so soon after a failure. He knows I'll be on my guard now." But Lex looked at Clark and grinned, raising one eyebrow. "You can walk me to the car, if you like."

"Sure." For some reason, Lex started snickering. Clark had no idea what Lex thought was so funny; Clark just wanted to make sure Lex was okay. But that private, smug I-know-something-you-don't-know smirk stayed on Lex's face all the way down the steps, across the floor of the barn, and to the car.

The beautiful, gunmetal gray car, with its gently sloping back and a bullet-shaped nose, its perfect body gleaming in the winter sun. Clark gaped at the little shield stamped on the hood, separated into four sections with a tiny black horse rampant in the center. He didn't know much about cars, but he'd read enough of Pete's car magazines to know a fast, expensive car when he saw one.

Lex grinned. "Porsche 911 Carrera. She's beautiful, isn't she?"

"She?" Clark said, snapping out of his trance.

"All things that have an engine are she's, Clark," Lex said disapprovingly.

Clark didn't get it--how could an inanimate object be male or female?--but okay.

"You can drive her sometime," Lex offered, doing something with his keys that made the car chirp in welcome and unpop its locks.

"Really?" Again, Clark didn't know much about cars, but a Porsche. . . driving one was supposed to be like, well, sex. He felt his face flame at the thought and hoped Lex didn't notice.

"Really. You saved my life; I think the least I can do in return is let you drive my car."

"Wow," Clark breathed.

Lex grinned and opened the door. "See you tomorrow," he said, then slipped in and drove away.

---

But Lex wasn't in school the next day. He wasn't in World History, and Clark didn't see him in the cafeteria. It send him into a paroxysm (they'd learned that word in English that day) of worry. What if Lex had been wrong and Dominic had tried something again? What if he'd gotten into a car accident and was now lying at the bottom of the river?

"Clark!" Chloe snapped her fingers in front of Clark's face. "Earth to Clark! Come in, Clark!"

"What huh?" Clark blinked and refocused on Chloe's frowning face.

"You've been spaced out all day, man," Pete said, mushing around his cold spaghetti with his fork. "What's the deal? Lana's not even in the cafeteria right now."

Clark felt himself flush. "It's not always about Lana!"

"Really?" Chloe said. "I would never have been able to tell."

"I was just wondering where Lex is," Clark mumbled, staring down at his tupperware of leftover pot roast. There was another tupperware of mashed potatoes and another one of beans inside his lunch bag, as well as three apples and a brownie.

"Huh," said Chloe. "I guess he wasn't in class today. He's supposed to be in our World History class," she explained to Pete. "Maybe they finally placed him in senior classes?"

"Or maybe he cut," Pete suggested.

"Pete!" Clark exclaimed.

"What? The guy's a brainiac, and he's from the big city," Pete reminded him. "He can upgrade a coal burner into a heat pump in twenty minutes. Smallville High's total dullsville for him."

Clark had to admit that Pete had a point. But the kids who cut class--well, they were usually kids like Terry Yuill, who smoked cigarettes even though he was only sixteen, or Bill Grimm's gang, who went drag racing over by Mr. Green's property and fished in Mr. Wiley's pond. Besides, Lex had said "see you tomorrow." He wouldn't have said that if he wasn't planning to come, right?

So, after school, Clark ran over to Lex's place.

Mr. Luthor--Lucius?--answered the door. He didn't look much like Lex, though they were maybe roughly the same height; he had brown eyes instead of blue, dark hair just creeping past the collar, and a full dark beard. He opened the door only slightly, peering distrustfully out at Clark from the crack.

"Um--hi? Mr. Luthor?" Clark tried not to shuffle his feet. "Lex wasn't at school today, and I was wondering--"

"Lex is indisposed," Mr. Luthor said curtly, and made as if to shut the door.

Clark, appalled at his own manners (or lack thereof), nonetheless shoved his foot in the door. "Is he sick? Is there anything I can do?" He noticed a funny smell coming from inside the house. Kind of like. . . burning? But it wasn't the charred smell of something on fire, it was more like a smoky, weedy odor, kind of like cigarette smoke, but. . .

"Claaaaaaark!" Lex appeared from seemingly out of nowhere with a hundred-watt grin. "It's okay, Lucius, he's a friend."

And just like that, Mr. Luthor disappeared.

"Come in, come in!" Lex grabbed Clark by the wrist and reeled him in like a fish. "What's up?" he asked as he locked the door.

Lex reeked of that smoky, grassy stuff, which was when Clark realized what it was: Lex was high. He'd skipped school today to smoke pot. Clark was simultaneously furious and horrified.

"Lex!" Clark hissed, "are you high?"

"Terrifically so," Lex declared. "Want some?"

"No. Where did you even get weed?" For some reason, Clark felt compelled to whisper, as if the sheriff was in the other room. Why in the world hadn't Mr. Luthor done something? There was no way he could not know that Lex was high as the moon.

"Tut tut, I cannot reveal my sources." Lex smiled beamingly at Clark and led the way into the living room, hands shoved into the front pockets of his high school hoodie, whose mascot was apparently the Tigers. His faded blue jeans had a hole in the back pocket. "Are you sure you don't want some?"

"That stuff messes you up," Clark told him.

"That's why it's so great!" Lex threw himself on the couch. "Don't be such a tightass, Clark!" For some reason that statement sent Lex into a giggle fit.

Clark rolled his eyes. "Forget it. I'll come back when you're sober." But when he turned to go, he almost tripped on an empty bottle of Jack Daniel's. "What--are you drunk, too?"

Lex made a thoughtful humming noise. "I don't think so. I was drunk last night. Then I decided to smoke instead. Maybe, maybe I'll cook up some meth later." He sniggered.

Now Clark was just plain horrified. "Lex, you'll kill yourself!"

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm quite experienced at this sort of thing." He sniffed. "Besides, it's impossible to overdose on pot, since it doesn't affect any parts of the brain that control autonomous functions."

Clark wasn't sure what that meant, so he decided not to push it. "Why are you doing this, anyway?" He went back to the couch and kneeled so that he was roughly at eye-level with the older boy.

Lex smiled, his eyes closed. "You've never just wanted to be drunk and stoned out of your mind?"

"Um. No?"

"Shame."

It was because of yesterday. That was what this was all about, wasn't it? "Lex," Clark said urgently, "you can't just--"

Lex leaned out, serpent-fast, and kissed him.

It was brief, just Lex's dry, warm lips brushing against Clark's, but it sent an electric tingle down Clark's spine. He darted backward maybe a little too fast, but Lex didn't seem to notice. Lex just smiled, halfway between giddy and sensual, eyes half-lidded, still all boneless and flushed on the couch. Clark realized his breathing was very loud.

"What's the matter?" Lex drawled. "That wasn't your first kiss, was it?"

Lex looked like he was about to ooze off the couch in Clark's general direction any moment, and--and do what? Clark took another step back and stammered, "I'm. Going to. Go now. Sober up and--and come to school tomorrow, okay?" Then he tripped out the door without waiting for an answer.

---

Clark did his after school chores in something of a daze and retired to the Fortress ostensibly to do his homework, but really just to brood. He had his textbook open in front of him, but he'd long ago lost any control over his pencil, and it lay on the desk a few inches from his fingers.

Lex had kissed him. Clark didn't know how he felt about that, which was weird. He hadn't been immediately repulsed, which was the really weird part.

Clark was aware of the presence of gays in the same way that he knew there were giraffes in Africa. He'd never seen a giraffe, but he knew they existed and took other people's word for how they acted and what they ate. If there were gay people in Smallville, Clark didn't know about them, and he'd never really cared, either. Live and let live, as his dad liked to say. He didn't inherently approve or disapprove of the lifestyle, it just wasn't something he thought about.

Was Lex gay? But the way Lex had talked about Lena, the look in his eyes-- he'd totally been in love with her. That meant he liked girls, right? But--he'd kissed Clark. Had he done that just to freak him out? Was that something pot did to your head? Did it make you gay? Health class totally hadn't covered this one.

But what about Clark? He definitely liked girls. He'd been in love with Lana since forever. He liked to talk about girls with Pete. He thought about girls. Sometimes dreamed about them. He stopped that train of thought, since it was getting a little embarrassing. But the point was, he definitely liked girls. He'd never, ever thought about guys.

Did that mean he didn't like them, though?

Did he like Lex?

Did Lex like him?

You kissed someone you liked, right? But maybe kissing didn't mean the same thing in Metropolis. Especially when you were high. It was supposed to affect your brain in all sorts of ways. Lex might not even remember any of it the next day, especially if he'd been drinking, too. But Clark would.

Clark clutched his head. He was so confused.

---

There was a tap at the door the next morning while Clark was gulping down his toast and eggs. He heard his mother answer it and say, "Why hello, Lex! This is a surprise." Clark swallowed half an egg yolk without chewing and nearly choked on his toast.

"Good morning, Mrs. Kent," Lex said very, very courteously. "I thought I'd give Clark a ride to school."

Clark was instantly paranoid. A ride to school? Was that code for something?

"Oh, well, that's very generous of--"

"Nonsense, it's on my way."

"Well, let me see if Clark's done with his breakfast. Why don't you come inside and wait?" Clark heard the door close and frantically chugged his milk. "Clark!" Martha exclaimed when she came into the kitchen, "slow down, or you'll choke!"

Clark finished his milk and let out a manly belch. "Excuse me," he said meekly while Martha gave him a look, and hoped that Lex hadn't heard that. "I'm ready."

"Wipe your mouth." Martha picked up a napkin and dabbed at the corners of his mouth while Clark sputtered and squirmed, stretching "Mo-o-o-m" into multiple syllables. Martha completely disregarded his discomfort and inspected him critically close up, and then from a distance. Apparently he was respectable enough because she nodded and said, "Have a good day at school, dear."

"I will." He grabbed his backpack from where it sat on the floor next to his chair and met Lex in the front hall. Lex was wearing his characteristic trench coat and a pair of sunglasses that made him look older and more sophisticated.

"Car's right outside," Lex said.

Clark waited until they were outside, safely away from Martha's range of hearing, to say, "Hung over?" He arched his thumb and forefinger in a semicircle around his eyes to indicate the sunglasses.

Lex gave a startled, tentative half-smile and tilted his glasses so that Clark could see his bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes. "Sort of," he admitted, before sliding the glasses back down. "Drugs mess up your REM cycle and you don't sleep very well." He stopped by the car. "I'd like to apologize for yesterday."

What about yesterday? The part where Lex skipped school? The part where Lex was stoned out of his mind? The part where Lex kissed him? "Don't worry about it," Clark ventured.

Lex nodded. "It was inexcusable," he said. He paused. "So--are we okay?"

"Okay?"

"Yeah. I mean, after yesterday."

"Yeah," Clark said. "Yeah, we're okay."

"Okay." Lex dug his keys out of his pocket. "You're driving."

"I--what?"

"You're driving," Lex repeated. "You know how to drive stick, right?"

"Yeah, but--"

"And you have to know the way to school."

"Yeah, but--"

"Then there's no problem here." The car beeped and unlocked itself. "Get in."

"I only have a restricted license," Clark tried. What was he doing? Didn't he want to drive this beautiful, sexy car? Pete would kill to be in his place! Pete would already be in the driver's seat finding out exactly how fast he could go from zero to sixty! "I can drive to and from school and on the farm and with anyone who's over eighteen."

"We're driving to school."

"I, uh, don't think it works that way," Clark said feebly.

"You say that like I should care. In."

Clark got in the car. He wiped his hands nervously on his jeans and looked for the seat adjust. Porsches weren't really made for Clark-sized people.

"Seat adjust's on your left," Lex said, getting into the passenger's seat.

Once he was comfortable, Clark checked the mirrors, just like his dad had always told him to do if he ever had to drive someone else's car. Then he looked at the gearshift. It was nothing but a sleek black shaft with a silver knob and a large round button on the top.

"What's the button for?" Clark asked.

"You have to press it to switch gears," Lex explained.

Clark so did not belong in this car.

"There are six gears," Lex said. "So you know."

Clark really, really didn't belong in this car.

"Go ahead," said Lex, handing Clark the keys. "Start the car."

The keys were warm and heavy in his hand. Clark tried not to panic. He was just starting the car. That was easy. He started a car almost every single day. This wasn't any different. He put the key in the ignition, placed his right foot on the brake and his left foot on the clutch. He reached for the gearshift and realized he had no idea what he was doing. "Um. Where's neutral?"

Lex reached over and covered Clark's hand with his own. "Push the button," he said. Clark did. "Good. Now, neutral," he said, demonstrating. "First, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and reverse." He put the gearshift back in neutral. Clark could still feel the warmth of Lex's hand on his after he took it away.

"Are you sure I should drive?" Clark asked.

"Of course," Lex assured him.

They were going to die. Clark started the car. The engine turned, and Clark felt his heart melt. He belonged to this car, totally and utterly. He would never leave it. Her. He looked at Lex, who only grinned knowingly. Clark was sure his own expression was that of a fatuous idiot.

Feeling more confident, Clark put in the clutch and let it out again, marveling at the sound the engine made the entire time. Then he put the clutch in again, put the car in first gear, released the parking brake, and gave her a little bit of gas while he let the clutch out again. A little more gas, and--the car stalled.

"It's okay," Lex assured him. "You didn't give her enough gas."

Clark patiently went through the entire thing again. This time, he managed to get the car moving forward--and oh, wow, the entire car was just so much more responsive than his dad's old truck. He was so startled that he let the car stop again. Making a frustrated noise, he got her started, very aware of Lex's amused gaze, and made his way very, very slowly out onto the road, where he gradually shifted from first to second gear, and finally second to third gear. But he refused to go faster than 25 miles per hour.

"C'mon," Lex drawled five minutes later, "you drive like an old lady."

"I'm trying," Clark gritted out, "not to crash."

Lex rolled his eyes. "At least move up into fourth or something."

Clark bit his lip and obediently shifted the car into fourth. Fourth gear couldn't do that much damage, right?

The Porsche was--amazing. Clark couldn't say if driving one was actually like sex, since he didn't have anything to compare to, but it was. . . yeah. Amazing. She (Clark was quickly getting used to referring to the Porsche as a female) hugged the road and responded so quickly and easily, unlike his dad's old pickup truck, which wheezed and snorted and stalled if he so much as twitched the wrong way. And it was weird, too, being so low to the ground; he was used to being high up in a truck, able to see the whole road. In the Porsche, he felt like he was suspended mere inches above the street. It was. . . fast, though. Even at forty-five miles per hour, he could feel the speed thrumming through his body, banked and ready.

"Did you buy this yourself?" Clark asked.

Lex made a noise of assent. "My sweet sixteenth."

Clark had a feeling there was more to the story than that, but he didn't press the issue. To make up for it, he took the car up into fifth and then, nervously, into that unknown sixth gear. His dad's truck only had five.

"Floor it," Lex instructed, expression inscrutable behind the dark glasses.

Clark didn't floor it, but he did give her a bit more gas. He couldn't help but give a whoop of joy as the car tore along the road. Lex grinned and pushed "play" on the CD player.

Somehow, they made it to school without incident, although they met barely anyone else on the road on the way. Clark had no doubt it would make it back to his parents how young Clark Kent had been tearing along in a sports car like a hooligan, but it was totally worth it. Especially for the look on Pete's face as they pulled into the parking lot. Pete's mouth was still hanging open even after they parked (which was scary and exciting, but somehow they got through it) and climbed the steps to the front doors. Clark had to laugh.

"Day-amn!" Pete said after he'd found his voice. "Okay, what I gotta do to drive it? What'd you do, Clark?"

"Uh--" Clark began.

"Be creative," Lex advised Pete. "Impress me."

---

Lex wasn't in World History, which made Clark worry again, but he was at lunch, with a sandwich he must have made himself: two slices of meat and a leaf of lettuce. If Martha was here she'd be making shocked remarks about how Lex needed to eat more.

He still had his sunglasses on. Clark wondered if Lex had been rebuked by any of the teachers.

"If I was you," Pete said, eyeing Lex's sandwich, "I'd keep getting the cafeteria lunch so that Clark would pity me and give me his food."

"Hey!" said Clark.

"Worked the first three or four times, man," said Pete as he poked his macaroni and cheese, which was congealed to the point where you couldn't differentiate all the noodles and made the entire mess seem like a lump of yellow brains. Martha said Mrs. Ross was a good cook and a great mom when she put her mind to it, but since her elevation to county judge she'd been too busy to pay as much attention to her family.

Chloe turned to Lex, eyes sharp and narrowed, her reporter's nose on as usual. "Where were you yesterday? Clark was a spaz all day wondering where you were. I mean, not that he isn't usually a spaz, because he is."

"I'm not a spaz," said Clark, to no avail.

"It was almost Lana-level spaz," Pete added.

"Lana?" said Lex.

"Biggest crush ever," Chloe mouthed, as if Clark couldn't tell what she was saying.

"Ah," Lex said knowingly.

Clark felt his face flame all the way to his ears, which burned like a meteor hurtling through the atmosphere. Maybe he could fall into a mysterious hole in the floor right now. It was Smallville, that could happen. "Can we not talk about this while I'm right here?" What if Lana walked by and heard?

"I'm sorry," said Pete. "Did you say something?"

Chloe flapped a hand at Clark. "It's not like the entire school doesn't know, Clark."

What if Lana knew? What a horrifying thought. Oh God, what if she was being nice to him because. . . . Clark stared at his leftover meat loaf and felt his stomach drop away. Suddenly, he wasn't very hungry. Maybe he should give his lunch to Lex after all. But not to Pete or Chloe, because they were being very, very mean right now.

"Lana, Lana. . ." Lex mused. "Wait, I think I've met her. Is she a cheerleader?"

Yeah, and Clark wasn't on the football team because his dad was a jerk. But it seemed like a lot of the guys on the football team were jerks too, and what if Pete hadn't gotten wind of it and gotten Clark down from that cross in the field? Clark didn't know what would have happened.

"Yep," said Pete.

"She's very pretty," said Lex. "I can see why Clark likes her."

"Clark's been in love with her since he was twelve," Chloe said with a grin.

Lex smiled. "Then it must be true love."

Clark cleared his throat. "Why weren't you in World History?"

Somehow his incredibly blatant attempt at changing the subject actually worked, or maybe Lex just took pity on him, because he said, "I retook the placement test this morning," just before taking a bite out of the sandwich.

"Bet you got a perfect score," Pete said.

"And found a mistake on the test," Chloe added.

"So what classes are you in now?" Clark asked.

Lex chewed, swallowed, and wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Advanced Calculus," he said. "European History, Advanced Chemistry, Government, Senior English." He paused in thought. "Oh, and art history."

Silence descended on the table like a proclamation.

"Wow," Pete said at last. "That's pretty intense."

"Art history?" said Chloe. "Sorry for saying this, but you really don't strike me as an art buff."

"It fit in my schedule," said Lex.

---

Lex was waiting for Clark after school, leaning against a tree and smoking. Somehow he managed to make it look cool, instead of furtive and immature like all the other kids who did it because they thought it made them look older and more sophisticated. Lex really did make it look like the ads, with his long black coat and his sunglasses and one foot up against the tree.

"Those'll kill you," Clark said reproachfully, more out of habit than anything else. It was a step up from pot, right?

Lex let the cigarette fall to the ground and ground it out with his heel. A jingle and a flash, and the keys to the Porsche dangled in front of Clark.

"Again?" said Clark.

"Why not?" said Lex. "You did such a good job the first time."

Clark snatched the keys, which lay warm with Lex's body heat in his palm. "Pete's gonna kill me."

"Pete hasn't impressed me yet," Lex said with a sharp white grin. "C'mon. Maybe I can convince you to actually go fast this time."

Clark choked down a laugh as they made their way to the car, weaving through and around knots of Smallville High students. "So that wasn't fast, this morning?"

Lex snorted. "Hardly."

Getting started was much easier this time now that Clark was somewhat familiar with the car. He had a bad moment when he peeled out of the parking space and nearly hit Abby Paulsen; he slammed on the brake and the car stalled. Abby was shaken but unhurt and kept insisting that it was all right even as Clark mowed over her protestations with his profuse apologies. He didn't want to drive again after that, but Lex insisted, and so finally Clark crept back onto the highway with both hands white-knuckled on the wheel.

Once they were on the straightaway though, it was easy and smooth. Clark felt Lex relax next to him, and he thought that Lex never seemed so at ease as when he was in his car, head tilted back and a small smile on his lips; if Clark could see his eyes, he was sure they'd be half-lidded, like those TV lions lazy in the grass, surveying their territory. Clark had never seen Lex drive; he wondered what Lex was like behind the wheel.

"Sometimes," Lex said, "back in Metropolis, when I couldn't take it anymore, I'd just get into the car and drive. I didn't care where I went, as long as I wasn't there."

Clark was paying attention to the road, and he wasn't sure if Lex expected an answer.

Apparently Lex didn't, because he went on. "When I first got here, I looked at all the open space and thought, boring as hell, but it's a place to drive. Last weekend I took her out and just drove around and around for maybe hours, and I thought, fuck, everything still looks the same." He gave a breathy little chuckle and seemed to sink deeper into his seat.

"You must've paid a fortune in gas," Clark said stupidly.

Lex chuckled again. "Yeah. But it's worth it."

When they got to the Kent farm, Clark put the car in first and put the parking brake on, but didn't hand over the keys quite yet. Instead, he blurted out, "Want to come over for dinner?" He should ask his mom for permission, he knew, but he felt like he couldn't leave Lex alone, not after yesterday and the day before, and leaving him with Lucius was practically leaving him by himself, as far as he could tell. He still wasn't sure what Lucius' relationship to Lex was, but he was pretty sure it wasn't "guardian."

". . . sure," Lex said, the word slow to leave his mouth, expression inscrutable behind those dark glasses.

"I mean. You don't have to. You might have plans or someth--"

"I'd love to," Lex said firmly. "You think I wouldn't cancel my plans just to have more of your mother's cooking?"

Clark felt his face break out in a grin. "Great. And maybe afterwards you can--help me with my homework? I mean," he went on in a rush, "you seem pretty smart," Lex made an amused sound at that, "and I'm really bad at history, so maybe you could--"

"Sure," said Lex. "Consider me on board." He nudged Clark with an elbow. "Now, get out of my seat."

---

Jonathan, predictably, said things like "have some consideration for your mother" and "you should remember your manners." Martha said, "I'm glad you're becoming such good friends" and vanished into the kitchen, muttering things about guests and good china. Glad that things had worked out so well, Clark did his afternoon chores and then got in a bit of homework reading. He didn't want to appear like too much of an idiot, even if history really was boring and made no sense.

Dinner was chicken and noodles dished out on mashed potatoes like thick golden gravy, with more green beans and fresh oatmeal cookies for dessert: the perfect mid-January meal, with another cold snap possibly on the way. Lex brought flowers again, and he and Jonathan talked about football at the dinner table. Martha rolled her eyes and shared fond looks with Clark, which prompted Lex to talk to Martha about her past in Metropolis. The city was a big place, but it turned out she and Lex knew some of the same neighborhoods, and she was delighted to find that some of the little shops and one particular diner she liked to frequent were still there and thriving.

After dinner, Martha once again shooed Clark away from the dishes, so he and Lex went up to the loft. Lex immediately wanted to get down to business; he'd brought a yellow legal pad and some pens, and he wanted to know what Clark was studying in World History. They sat on the couch, Clark's textbooks crouched reproachfully on the desk a few feet away.

"Um, the Great Enlightenment," said Clark. "Or something like that."

"Do you have a test coming up?" Lex asked. "I can prepare some notes for you, if you like. You can wear them under your watch band."

"What?" Clark said.

"You do wear a watch, right?" Lex checked; sure enough, Clark did wear a watch, a plain one with a black leather band. "You can also fit them inside your pen."

It took a moment for Clark's brain to catch up. "Are you offering to help me cheat?"

Lex gave him a puzzled look. "Isn't that what you wanted?"

"What--no!" Clark tried not to flail, since that would mostly result in him smacking Lex in the face with his arm. "First of all, Mr. Hewitt would totally notice--"

"I doubt it," Lex interjected.

"--and second, that's wrong."

"Wrong?" Lex repeated.

"Yeah! You're supposed to, you know--do your own work. Otherwise you don't learn anything."

Lex tapped his pen against the legal pad, tack-tack-tack-tack-tack. He looked strangely thoughtful and intent, brows drawn down so that there was a tiny line. "I'd never thought of it that way before."

Clark had to stop himself from gaping at Lex like he was some sort of new zoo exhibit. Or maybe a science experiment. Or maybe from another planet, because sometimes Lex was more of an alien than he was.

"All right," Lex said. "So we'll try this whole 'do your own work' thing. So what am I supposed to do?"

"I--I dunno," Clark said. "Just, like, teach me about the Enlightenment and why it's important and maybe what I should remember for the test."

"I've never taught before," Lex said as he drew a large circle on his pad and wrote "enlightenment" above it in block letters, "so you'll have to bear with me. The kids who asked for my help back in Metropolis were not as. . . morally upstanding as certain people around here."

"Then why did you help them?" Clark asked. "I mean, if you didn't get anything out of it?"

"Oh, I got something out of it," Lex replied. Clark didn't like that tone of voice. It hearkened back to a different, darker Lex, the one who'd skip school to drink and get stoned and maybe cook up methamphetamines in the kitchen. "Now, do you know what 'enlightenment' means, Clark?"

"Um. Not really," Clark confessed.

"You can think of it as, basically, 'seeing the light.' When you're enlightened, you have more knowledge and more understanding than you did previously." Lex drew a little light bulb next to the word "enlightenment." "That's basically what happened to people in general during this 18th century period. They dismissed the superstition and tradition of the Dark Ages, advocating instead knowledge, reason, and rationality." He wrote "knowledge," "reason," and "rationality" inside the large circle. Lex's handwriting was very precise and legible and seemed, somehow, much more adult than Clark's own large, childish scrawl.

"There were a lot of great philosophers and thinkers," Lex continued. "John Locke. Thomas Hobbes. The Baron de Montesquieu. Voltaire. Do any of these people sound familiar?"

"I think Mr. Hewitt talked about them," Clark said. He had a vague recollection of Mr. Hewitt moving his large, ponderous weight at the head of the class, writing names such as LOCKE and HOBBES on the board and smaller phrases such as "natural rights" and "state of nature" and "social contract." He thought he had his notes somewhere, mostly covered with margin doodles of chickens and cows and at least one instance of Chloe with little devil horns coming out of her head, and maybe Lana's name a few (dozen) times.

"Do you remember what he said?" Lex prompted.

"Not really."

"Locke," Lex said, "is very important because of his ties to American history."

"Wait, American history? But wasn't this guy French or something?"

"English," Lex corrected him. "He believed in a government with the consent of the governed, and man's natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Does that sound familiar?"

"Yeah," Clark said, "sounds like the Declaration of Independence. Except that one said 'pursuit of happiness.'"

"Exactly. Jefferson cribbed it from Locke."

Lex was, as Clark had predicted, really amazingly good at history. He was probably better at it than Mr. Hewitt. More than that, Lex had a real passion for history; you could tell from the way he gestured during his explanations, the way he'd memorized some quotes and passages from important historical documents (Clark thought that was kind of scary), and the way he was able to link history to the present. That was the one thing Clark had always found missing during his classes: how the past affected the now, with cell phones and Internet and skyscrapers instead of quill pens and horse-drawn carriages. Lex was able to compare Thomas Hobbes to the tiger from the comic strip, reminding Clark how Hobbes the tiger had a dim view of humanity, just like Hobbes the philosopher.

"You really, really like history," Clark remarked, hours later, long after Clark had finished reviewing the unit and was even a few chapters ahead in the material. Lex sprawled on the couch in his socked feet, and Clark lay on his stomach on the floor, flipping lazily through his suddenly unthreatening history book, with its glossy pages and color portraits of long-dead philosophers whose words somehow echoed through the ages until they affected the way kids hundreds of years later thought and wrote and lived. It was pretty amazing. Clark wanted to leave a mark on history like that.

"My father was big on historical figures he thought I should emulate," Lex said, stretching lazily and wiggling his fingers and toes. "He named me after Alexander the Great. I'm surprised he didn't name my younger brother Napoleon."

"You have a younger brother?" That was funny; Lex had never talked about any siblings.

"He died," Lex said. "The morning of his baptism, my mother went to the nursery, found him in his crib. He'd stopped breathing in the middle of the night. Apparently it's quite common."

"Oh," said Clark. "I. I'm sorry."

"Sometimes I wonder what it would've been like," Lex mused. "I was jealous at first, no longer the only child, and Dad was so proud. . . but after he died, I realized that I'd secretly been looking forward to being a big brother."

Clark stared at his textbook some more, somewhere in the middle of the French revolution. "I think you would have been a great big brother."

Lex smiled as he stared at the ceiling. "Maybe."

---

The next few days were blissfully normal. Lex still joined them for lunch in the cafeteria, although after the second day of weak, pale sandwiches Martha started packing him authentic Martha Kent lunches of his own--as payment, she said, for his generous rides in the mornings and afternoons. Pete almost choked on his envy until Clark persuaded Lex to let Pete take a spin. Pete arrived back in the school parking lot twenty minutes later with the top down and a manic grin frozen on his face, and Clark practically had to pry his fingers off the steering wheel one by one. Lex promised Pete "another time" and confided in Clark that he almost preferred having Pete at the wheel because Pete wasn't afraid to go fast.

"I go fast," Clark protested. He'd been getting better!

Lex snorted and held his hand out for the keys.

When they arrived at the Kent farm ten minutes faster than Clark usually took, Clark had to peel himself out of his seat.

"Jesus," Clark wheezed, "you drive like a maniac."

Lex only grinned.

Sometime between Clark going to bed Thursday night and getting up on Friday morning, it snowed. Eight inches of wet, feathery stuff fell during the night, and Clark woke to a wonderland of black branches heavy with powder and frost ferns at the windowpane, the fields blanketed with white. Clark dressed quietly and padded down the stairs, compelled by the hush the fresh snow had spread over the world. By the time he finished shoveling a path to the barn and milked the cows, the superintendent had called to tell them school was canceled (no surprise there). Clark shoveled the driveway, then went inside to eat his breakfast. Just as he forked the last bit of pancake into his mouth, the phone rang.

"I can't get my car out of the garage." Lex sounded edgy.

"It's okay," Clark said. "School's been canceled."

"Yes, I got the call--Clark, the entire street is covered with snow! When are the plows going to be out?"

"I dunno," said Clark, a little perplexed as to why Lex seemed so frustrated, "probably not until after lunch."

"After lunch?"

Clark could imagine Lex pacing back and forth in his living room, pausing every once in a while to glance out the window at the frozen winter world. "Yeah."

"And what am I supposed to do until then, twiddle my thumbs?"

"You could play in the snow," Clark suggested.

"Play in the snow?" How did Lex do that with his voice? He made "play in the snow" sound like "eat live cockroaches" with that thiny-veiled horror Clark had only ever gotten from his mother when he suggested things like playing football or dirt-biking with Pete. Granted, Clark hadn't really played in the snow for a few years; it kind of lost its appeal after you had to spend half an hour chipping ice off the truck and shoveled more walks than you packed snowballs. Still, he-- "Lex, have you never made a snowman?"

"I went skiing once," Lex said in a very dignified sort of voice that made Clark smile. "In Italy."

"But you've never made a snowman."

"Clark, I--"

"Hang on," Clark said. "I'm coming over."

"What? You can't possibly--"

Clark hung up and got his coat.

---

"I am not wearing that hat," Lex said tightly.

"You'll get cold otherwise!"

"It's bright yellow and has a pom pom."

"Mom made it," Clark said by way of explanation. It really was a pretty good explanation, if you looked at it the right way. "And yellow's a happy color!"

Lex delivered a glare that could've frozen a tornado in its tracks and possibly sent it funneling back up into the clouds where it belonged. But Clark had learned, by now, not to be intimidated. Instead, he just sighed and gave Lex the big mopey eyes that sometimes worked on his father (but not his mother anymore).

Fortunately, Lex seemed to have no such immunity. "All right," he grumbled. He snatched the hat out of Clark's hand and jammed it on his head.

"Be sure to cover your ears," Clark said, tugging down the edges of the sun-yellow hat.

Lex scowled at him but adjusted the hat.

"Great." Clark beamed a smile. "Let's go play."

Lex's backyard resembled a smooth white cloud, and it was almost a shame to ruin it. Almost. Clark ran out into the snow with a wild whoop and then threw himself down, making a Clark-shaped hole. Lex followed more sedately, collar turned up, hands in his pockets, sunglasses low on his face.

"What're those for?" Clark asked, sitting up.

"What're what for?"

"The glasses."

"It's blinding out here, Clark."

"No it's not," Clark said cheerfully, getting to his feet and dusting himself off. He was going to have to change when he got home. "C'mon, doesn't it snow in the city?" The question was rhetorical, of course; Clark wasn't dumb enough to think that a city 120 miles away didn't get snow.

"They plow it in the city." Lex kicked at a little chunk of snow as if it offended him. "And everyone doesn't have three-acre backyards to play in. My parents didn't let me play in the snow, anyway."

"Really?" Clark gathered up the little chunk of snow that Lex had kicked and added more snow to it, packing it in his gloved hands. This snow was almost perfect, damp and heavy, but still a little too powdery. Good enough. He made a slightly crumbly snowball and started rolling it around. "Why not?"

Lex watched Clark with mounting interest for a few moments, then clumsily imitated him and began doing the same. His answer took so long that Clark had almost forgotten the question. "It wasn't befitting a Luthor. I resented it back then, but my father was just trying to impose upon me what it meant to be heir to the Luthor empire. It meant," he said, in a voice that was a strange mixture of pride and bitterness, "being different and apart from the others."

It meant not playing with other children, Clark thought. He didn't like Lex's father very much. Even if your kid was going to grow up to be head of a multimillion dollar corporation, you could at least let him go sledding in the park. What harm was there in letting a five-year-old build a snowman with the other kids? It wasn't like he was going to take over the company before entering first grade.

"He only wanted the best for me," Lex said. "I was raised to run an empire. I couldn't be like the other kids."

"What about your foster family?" Clark asked. "I mean, I know they were evil," he went on in a rush, "but didn't you ever--"

"No," Lex said. "I didn't. Is this big enough?"

Lex's snowboulder was slightly smaller than Clark's, since they'd started at different times. "Yeah. Here, put it on top."

Lex hefted his medium-sized snowboulder on top of Clark's while Clark stooped and gathered more snow, which he started rolling around gently with his foot.

"What do you use for the face?" Lex asked. "From the pictures I assume pebbles, but everything of the sort is under snow right now."

"One time we used buttons from Mom's sewing kit," Clark offered. "We just had to put it back afterwards." He plopped the snowman's newly-made head on its shoulders.

"Hmmm." Lex scrutinized the snowman with one hand over his mouth.

Clark snatched Lex's sunglasses off his face and stuck them on the snowman. "There! Now he's Joe Cool Snowman."

"Hey! I need those!" Lex clapped one hand over his eyes. "Augh, I'm blind."

"You wouldn't be blind if you'd open your eyes!" Clark gave Lex a playful shove. "C'mon, you'll get used to it!"

"Sure, after it burned out my retinas. Can I have my sunglasses back?"

"But then how will our snowman see?"

"He doesn't have eyes, Clark. I do. Now--hey, stop that!"

Clark pried Lex's fingers apart until he could see one blue eye, and then worked on actually getting Lex's hand away from his face. The wool of his glove was cold and speckled with snow, but Clark could feel the warmth of his hand underneath. Lex gave him a strange look, and Clark realized that they were standing pretty close, and that he was still holding Lex's hand--he dropped it and blurted out, "You--"

"Clark, I--" Lex said at the same time.

They stopped.

"It's really not that bright out here," Lex said tentatively, looking beyond the snowman.

Clark turned to the snow-covered fields, still pristine and unmarred except for, here and there, faint lines of animal tracks. "See? I told you--"

Lex hit him with a snowball.

It wasn't a real snowball, just a handful of loose snow, but it still surprised Clark. He took a moment to shake fragments of ice from his face and saw Lex crouched a few feet away, trying to pack an actual snowball together and grinning like a maniac. Clark felt a similar grin creep across his face, memories of many a snowball war with Pete and the strategies they'd developed flitting through his mind, and he stooped to gather up some snow of his own, never taking his eyes off Lex. Lex backed away, still smirking, and threw his snowball just as Clark pulled his arm back.

Clark, however, had ten-odd years of snowball fighting experience. He ducked and pitched his snowball at the same time, but Lex had crazy-good reflexes and darted around the corner of the house just in time. Clark gathered up another pawful of snow and started packing it. He was familiar with this strategy; if he tried to rush the corner, Lex would probably let fly with a barrage of snowballs. If he waited it out, Lex would eventually get curious and poke his head around, and meanwhile, Clark would have his arsenal ready. . .

Fourteen snowballs later, Clark had to admit he was getting curious. He hadn't detected any signs of activity around the corner, and he didn't think Lex was the terribly patient type, if his driving style was any indication. Surely Lex should have let a misaimed snowball fly by now. Maybe he--

Lex tackled Clark from behind.

"What the--hey! That's not fair!" But before Clark could get his arms under him, his wrists were pinned to his sides and Lex was sitting square on his back. "You're supposed to attack with snowballs in a snowball fight!"

"Who said this was a snowball fight?"

Clark squirmed a little, but he really couldn't do anything without his hands free. He could probably throw Lex off with his strength alone, but he couldn't do that without Lex catching on that he was quite possibly a superstrong alien. "Leeeeex. It's cold down here."

"Really? I thought you'd be used to it by now." Clark could hear the way too smug grin, like a cat with his whiskers still dripping with cream. "Say uncle."

Clark thrashed. He really couldn't believe this. Bested by a Metropolis punk who'd never played in the snow before--not that this really had anything to do with snow play, since he'd decided to cheat and forego snowballs. He heard Lex snicker; Clark dug in with a knee and rolled himself to the side, eliciting a startled yelp. In short order, their positions were very nearly reversed, only Clark never quite managed to get Lex on his stomach. Lex was quick and slippery as a fish, and finally Clark only managed to sit on Lex's stomach and pin his arms to the ground.

"Say uncle," Clark said with one of those grins that a wrinkle-nosed Chloe said exposed Clark's "fangs," and leaned in. Something flashed across Lex's eyes, and for a moment Clark thought he saw the conqueror that Lex's father had raised.

Afterward, Clark would never be able to say who started it, only that they kissed, Lex's mouth slick and warm, and Clark didn't have much experience, but he felt Lex's kiss like a warm rush through his body. When they pulled apart, Clark opened his mouth to ask something, but then Lex planted both hands firmly in the middle of Clark's chest and shoved.

Clark landed heavily on his back in the snow, and just like that Lex was on top of him, all intense, coiled energy like a snake, with the same hypnotic stare.

"Clark," Lex said when he was close enough that Clark could feel his breath, "what are you doing?"

"I don't know," Clark responded honestly. He loved Lana, he'd always loved Lana, but Lex was so close, so here, so unlike anything Clark had ever seen or heard or, or anything. His stomach was all twisted up in heaving knots, his skin felt too tight all over, and his tongue was thick and clumsy in his mouth, not a part of him that he could control. He wanted to shiver, but not from cold. What was he thinking? The Lex that kissed him that Monday afternoon had been drunk and stoned and out of his mind, but Clark hadn't been able to get it out of his head.

Lex's expression softened somehow, and Clark closed his eyes as Lex tilted his head. This time the kiss was sweet and slow, and so tender that Clark curled his toes inside his boots. It didn't last long enough. When Lex pulled away, Clark felt somehow colder for it, even though he'd never felt the cold in his life.

The weight lifted from Clark's chest, and he heard more than saw Lex stand up. "This can't happen."

Clark's eyes snapped open. "What--but you started it!" Clark felt dumb as soon as he said it. That was a three-year-old's argument.

Lex wouldn't look at Clark. "You--I told you, Clark. I'm different from other people." He brushed the snow from his pants. "You'd. Better go."

Clark stood, curling and uncurling his hands. "Lex, I--"

"Just go."

Clark waited, but Lex wouldn't say anything, and he still wouldn't meet Clark's eyes. And since there was nothing left to do, he walked away.

---

Cassandra's viewing was that night, so Clark had to drag himself out of his funk ("Did you have a fight with Lex?" "Sort of. I don't want to talk about it.") and put on a suit. The funeral home was full of people Clark didn't know very well, mostly older people from the neighborhood and some of Cassandra's relatives from Metropolis and Topeka. He recognized a few people from the retirement home, most of whom approached Clark to thank him for his kindness to her. Clark smiled and nodded and said it hadn't been a problem at all, he'd really liked Cassandra and he'd miss her, and deep inside he thought of that look on Lex's face when they'd kissed, like this was something he wanted that he hadn't been expecting. He wished he could talk to Cassandra. He definitely couldn't talk about this to his parents.

The funeral the next morning was very nice, very formal, with a very moving eulogy. Some people cried. Clark just felt numb. He'd sat with her once a week, every week for the past four months. They'd shared visions of the future. He suddenly felt very alone and alien among all these people grieving for a friend, mother, grandmother, aunt. He was the only one grieving for an oracle.

Everyone at the memorial service was requested to accompany them to the burial site. Clark and his parents stood a respectful distance away while mourners said their final words and the casket was lowered into the ground. Afterward, when everyone filtered out of the cemetery, heads down, some of them still dabbing their faces with damp tissues, Clark turned back for one last look and just barely spotted Lex, like a dark ghost behind a tree.

"Honey," Martha said later, "if you and Lex had a fight, you should talk about it."

"S'nothing," Clark mumbled. "We didn't have a fight."

Martha wasn't fooled. She stopped by the loft later with a tupperware wrapped in foil. Some leftovers for the Luthors, she said; two men living alone in a house, she said, she wouldn't be surprised if Lex was eating easy-mac on the days he wasn't eating dinner at the Kents, and would Clark be a dear and take it over? Clark gave his mother a half-hearted smile and said he would.

Driving slowly didn't really do anything except delay the inevitable, but it gave Clark time to prepare. He still didn't know what he wanted to say, though. Well, no, he knew what he wanted to say. Just. . . why? Why yesterday, why Monday afternoon, why not? He really couldn't think of a way to sound more sophisticated, so he just ended up hoping that Mr. Luthor would answer the door.

Clark smiled and waved as he passed the Brabson house. Once he passed the windbreak, he could see the Luthor rental, getting closer and closer. The ache in his stomach intensified. Maybe he was getting sick. Maybe he should turn around and tell his mother that he was ill and he couldn't deliver the leftovers, maybe he'd be better tomorrow.

That was funny, Mr. Luthor and Lex were both outside. Were they having an argument? Lex was standing a few dozen feet away from his guardian and had his arms out in front of him, palms turned away, and--

Oh God, Mr. Luthor had a gun. He was pointing it at Lex.

There wasn't any time to think, just time to act. Clark was familiar with the sensation by now. He braked the truck hard, not caring that it stalled, and shot out of the cab just as he heard the crack of the gun.

He could see the bullet heading toward Lex, and with that came a strange sense of peace. Clark knew he would make it. He was faster. He tackled Lex around the waist and slammed them both to the ground just as the bullet passed in a whiff of air over their heads. The gun fired again, and Clark didn't let himself think, just reached up and caught the bullet. It was still warm even as he closed his fingers around it and felt it flatten against his impervious skin.

"Clark." Lex sounded stunned.

"Shit," said Mr. Luthor. He sounded on the verge of tears. At least the gun was pointing at the ground now. "Shit shit shit--"

Lex tried to sit up, but it was hard with nearly all of Clark's weight on him. "Lucius," he barked. "Lucius! Lucius--oh fuck, Robert!"

The older man looked at them through red, foggy eyes. "Mr. Luthor, I'm so sorry, I--"

"It's okay," Lex said. "I told you, I've been telling you, it's okay. He blackmailed you, didn't he?"

Mr. Luthor gave a single, ugly sniff and nodded.

"It's okay," Lex said again. "It's fine." He grinned suddenly, sharp and bright and shockingly out of place. "It's what I've been waiting for."

"What?" said Clark. "I mean--but--he just tried to kill you!"

Lex nodded. "Let me up, Clark."

All the tension had drained out of the situation like the air from a popped balloon. Clark rolled off of Lex, who got up and dusted the grass off his jacket before proceeding to Mr. Luthor--Robert? Lex took the gun from his limp fingers and put a steadying hand on Robert's shoulder.

"I'm sorry," Lex said, and he looked so serious, sounded so adult. "I. Guess I should have told you."

"Damn straight," said Robert, angry through his tears. "What the fuck is this, Mr. Luthor? You said--"

"Let's get inside," said Lex, beckoning Clark. "I don't know if we're being watched."

Clark felt his stomach turn. Watched? Had someone seen him--

Lex held the door open. Clark went inside.

---

"Tell me from the beginning," Lex said, his hands flat on the table next to a battered carton of Marlboros. The gun--some kind of old-fashioned revolver--lay in the middle of the table, between them. "What did he look like?"

"An older gentleman," said Robert. "About my age. Light hair. Very well-dressed. I thought maybe he was a salesman. He said I reminded him of an old friend."

Lex made a noise between a grunt and a snicker.

"But he had. . . documents. Photos. Things I didn't want remembered. I had to let him inside." Robert swallowed and looked down at his hands, which had started trembling again.

"What were they?" Lex asked.

Robert shook his head.

"I have to know," Lex said gently. "I need to know everything."

Robert looked at Clark, then back at Lex. "Not in front of the kid."

"Hey!" Clark said, bristling. He wasn't a kid! He'd just saved Lex's life, how could they--

"Clark," Lex said gently. "Do you mind leaving the room for a moment?" It wasn't really a request, though it was phrased as one. Clark opened his mouth to protest, then realized it wasn't worth it. Reluctantly, he got up from the table and went back into the living room. Lex and Robert's voices receded into a low murmur behind him.

The living room was much the same as Clark remembered: elderly, uncomfortable-looking furniture, and rather spartan in terms of decorative knickknacks and memorabilia. No photographs decorated the mantle, and the shelf was bare save for a clock. The couch, unused to people, gasped when Clark sat. Clark idly leafed through some scattered piles of papers and magazines on the coffee table. Most of the papers seemed to be notes, written in a language that Clark didn't recognize.

Lex and Robert were still talking. Clark could see Lex just through the opening that led to the kitchen. His head was thrust slightly forward, his hands no longer flat on the table but gesturing slightly at the wrists. Clark put the papers down and tried to find another way to occupy himself.

Clark's idea of privacy had deteriorated a little over the past several months. First there'd been Chloe, whose reporterly instincts led her--and Clark--to dig into places where they probably didn't belong. Often this digging led to saved lives, so Clark was ready to forgive that. Then there'd been the x-ray vision. Clark hadn't stooped to the level of going through other people's things while their backs were turned, but now sometimes his x-ray vision would flicker on while he wondered what was in this drawer or that cabinet.

The bedrooms were upstairs, that much Clark could see through the ceiling. He couldn't tell which one was Lex's. He wondered if Lex's room held any more of Lex than the rest of the eerily barren house.

"Clark?"

Lex stood in the kitchen entryway, one hand on the frame. Every line of his body sagged. It was so easy, sometimes, to forget that Lex was only two years older.

"I'm sorry," Lex said quietly. "I didn't want you to get involved."

"You didn't want," Clark began, and then something clicked. It was like snapping the final piece of a puzzle into place and then stepping back to look at the complete picture. "You knew," he said, astonished. "You knew. You said--you said, you were waiting for this."

Lex didn't smile, although this moment was probably some sort of weird, twisted triumph for him. God. How messed up was your life, when almost getting killed was a victory? He just nodded, and said, "I'm really, really sorry, Clark."

"Why are you sorry?" Clark demanded. "You almost died."

"I wasn't really." Lex sounded a little more irritated now, which was infinitely preferable to the quiet, deflated tone he'd been using earlier.

"He had a gun, Lex."

"It was my gun. And he doesn't really know how to shoot. I would've been fine."

Clark stared. "You're completely insane."

"Not really." Lex sat down on the couch next to Clark and lay back against the cushions, eyes closed. "Why're you here, anyway?"

Clark started laughing. It all seemed so ridiculous and faraway and funny. There was a gun in the Luthor kitchen and a flattened bullet in his pocket. "I came because my mom, my mom, she wanted me to bring you some leftovers. She thinks, she thinks you guys don't eat enough. I left them in the car," he added.

"Tell her thank you," Lex said very primly, just before he started snickering madly.

Robert was probably still in the kitchen wondering what they were laughing about, Clark thought. The world seemed off-kilter and crazy, like Clark was looking at it through a broken mirror, everything crooked and off-center, nothing lining up. He half-expected to wake up and find out that this was all a dream that he could laugh about at school the next day with Chloe and Pete. Chloe would have some wacky meteor-related theory, and Pete would say that it had to do with sex.

"If you didn't want me to get involved," Clark said, once they'd calmed down, "you shouldn't have let me be your friend."

"I shouldn't," Lex agreed, wiping a nonexistent tear from the corner of his eye. "But--but I'm glad you're my friend." He gave Clark a crooked half-smile. "It's good to have friends who're bulletproof."

A chuckle died in Clark's throat. He swallowed it down. "Lex, I--" He had no idea what he was going to say. Was he really going to spill all his secrets to an enigmatic seventeen-year-old boy he'd known for a week when he hadn't even told his best friend since age four who'd pulled him down from a cross in the corn? When said seventeen-year-old boy was clearly a magnet for trouble? When he'd been raised his entire life with a fear of people who might take him away from his parents and treat him like a science experiment?

Lex shook his head. "It's okay," he said. "You don't have to tell me."

Clark inexplicably felt like the worst person in the world.

"But I need you to do me a favor," Lex said. "You don't have to say yes."

"Anything," Clark replied, and meant it.

An hour later, Clark was on his way home with a small book in his pocket. It was filled with Lex's neat, orderly handwriting and detailed all the attempts on his life within the last eighteen months, as well as everything Lex knew about a man named Morgan Edge, presumed to be working with one Dominic Senatori to assassinate Lex. Clark still didn't know all the details--it was complicated stuff that had to do with LuthorCorp and voting shares and Lionel Luthor's will--but if anything happened to Lex or Robert between now and his eighteenth birthday, Clark was supposed to take this book to the police.

"Blackmail only has power if you don't use it, Clark," Lex had told him. "But I have to let him know that I'm serious about using it, and that if he kills me, everything will come to light. He can't afford that. Neither of them can."

Clark wasn't ashamed to admit that he was scared. Lex wasn't superstrong or bulletproof. He could die. And somehow, Lex seemed okay with this. He'd been completely calm as he handed Clark the book and gave him the instructions.

Meanwhile, Lucius-who-was-really-Robert and Lex were going to continue as if everything were normal. Morgan Edge would know he'd failed, and he'd also know that Lex now had irrefutable proof that it was Edge who'd tried to blackmail his "guardian." That made Lex more dangerous than before, but hopefully he'd restrain himself once Lex informed him that he had backup proof hidden somewhere safe. And if he didn't--well, Lex said he'd deal with it.

Clark realized on the way up the drive that he'd completely forgotten about the leftovers. They were still sitting on the seat next to him.

---

Clark couldn't help but be conscious that he was essentially carrying Lex's life in his back pocket. He was paranoid about it nearly all the time and checked to make sure it was still there what seemed like every five minutes, which he was sure made it look like he was constantly groping his own ass. But he couldn't very well leave it at home. What if his mother found it? What if the house burned down? What if a thief snuck in through his window and went through his room? No, it was much safer on Clark's person.

Lex, meanwhile, continued to act like everything was perfectly normal. He still came by in the mornings and dropped Clark off in the afternoons. He sat with them at lunch. He asked how Clark was doing in history; Clark replied that he'd gotten an A on the last exam. Lex offered to tutor him some more in exchange for dinner. Clark said he'd have to ask his mother. Lex came by for dinner on Wednesday night and taught Clark about the French Revolution. He took home a considerable amount of leftovers.

When Rita Mayfair got a pass to go to the bathroom during second period on Friday, she spotted Lex Luthor and Amy Palmer making out behind the stairs. By afternoon, it was all over the school. Amy spent the rest of the day flushed pink, unable to make eye contact with anyone, and disappeared into the girls' bathroom for nearly forty minutes later that day. Lex, on the other hand, was longer and looser than usual, slouched back in his seat and sprawled out to take up every inch of his desk, somehow bored and smug at the same time.

"You like Amy?" Clark asked after school as he buckled in.

"Amy likes me," Lex replied.

"She told you?"

"No," Lex said. "I could tell." Then he started talking about how the name Amy was derived from Latin's amicus or amica and meant "friend," and how it was Aimée in French, which meant "beloved."

Lex had been strangely talkative these past few days. It turned out that Lex wasn't just a lover of history; he also possessed an amazing knowledge of science, literature, art, and music. Clark simply listened, and in the past few days he'd learned about quantum theory (which he didn't understand at all), streetfighting (Lex had practical as well as theoretical knowledge of the subject), bomb-making (Lex, newly bald and very bored, had made his first bomb from common household materials at the age of seven), and the buying and selling of stock (Lex had educated himself on the matter; Clark had no idea if his ideas were smart, but they sure sounded that way).

Occasionally, Lex talked about himself. He'd done a lot of travelling: France when he was eleven, Japan when he was five, Italy when he was nine. Clark had never even owned a passport, and he didn't think either of his parents had one. Lex procured a fake ID at age fourteen and made a goal of sneaking into every club in Metropolis. He'd tried an amazing number of drugs, most of which Clark had never heard of, and learned how to make some of them. The Griggs, more interested in Lex's money than his well-being, never tried to stop him.

"I think that's why Dominic never came after me at first," Lex said, stretching lazily in his seat. "He probably thought I wasn't a threat. I wouldn't have, either. From all appearances, I was trying to kill myself before I turned sixteen."

"But you made it," said Clark, remembering. "That was when you bought this car."

Lex smiled and stroked the dashboard in a manner that made Clark almost envious. "She's a reminder that there's much, much more."

A ranch in Montana. A penthouse apartment. A company that he'd expand into arms and aerospace development. Summer homes in Greece and Spain. Lex was worlds beyond Smallville. In six months, Smallville would be a footnote in his life: a short, tragic sojourn in a tiny town that didn't have anything to offer him except bulletproof farmboys.

The bullet sat on his desk in the loft, crunched into an irregular disc. Lex didn't ask about it, even though Clark couldn't believe that he wasn't curious, not when Lex seemed so devoted to learning anything and everything the world had to offer. He didn't talk about the kiss in the snow, either. He didn't talk about how he felt, if he was scared or worried or anxious. He wouldn't even say if he liked Amy, just that Amy liked him. Apparently, that was enough. But where did that leave Clark?

Lex asked him about Lana. Clark honestly hadn't thought about her much in the past few days; she still made his chest flutter every time she was close, but then he'd feel the book in his back pocket and remember there were much larger things at stake.

I didn't want you to get involved, Lex had said. Clark had been sure that was why Lex had told him to go, that snowy afternoon when they'd breathed each other's breath in the snow. Then Clark had gotten involved anyway, but Lex remained as inscrutable as ever.

Lex apparently just wanted to act like everything was normal. Clark didn't know how to act otherwise, so he just went along with it.

On Saturday, someone new and interesting checked into the motel. He had an expensive car with tinted windows and Metropolis plates. He wore expensive suits and brought two men with him who looked like they might be rough characters. Everyone talked about it because it was clear he wasn't just passing through on some roadtrip or other. He was in Smallville on some kind of business, but what kind of business did anyone have in Smallville?

Clark knew. He felt for the book in his back pocket.

---

It took several days for the shiny black car to show up at the Kent farm. Clark thought he was prepared; the slick panther car had frightened Amy Palmer so much she'd stayed at home, and even Chloe had clammed up after a visit, just shaking her head and making frantic gestures at Clark that were supposed to signify "no." But one day after school, he walked into the barn to find his mother tied to a wooden beam and his father, apparently unconscious, similarly affixed to a chair across the barn. Two burly men guarded his parents, one with a pistol and the other with a shotgun, while a well-dressed man with sandy hair and a strained expression on his aging face stood in the middle, hands in his pockets, smiling like he was going to show Clark which car he should buy.

"Who are you?" Clark demanded. He suddenly couldn't get his breath. His heart clattered against his ribcage and his stomach went cold; he wasn't used to the sensation, and at first he thought there might be meteor rocks in the room. It hadn't occurred to him that Edge might go after his parents. Oh God. Why hadn't he thought of that? Oh God oh God oh God. "What do you want?"

"I thought I'd get to know your parents first," said the man who must be Morgan Edge. He strolled forward and smiled like a fox. "Pleased to meet you, Clark Kent. I understand you have something I want." He held out a hand.

Clark didn't take the offered hand, his eyes darting from side to side. Edge's two men were large, tough characters who didn't even look at Clark, just stared at his parents like they might somehow trickle out of their bonds like so much ink. Clark could probably get to one of his parents in time, but both was too risky.

"The book."

Clark licked his suddenly-dry lips and swallowed a few times, trying to moisten his mouth. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"It must be you, Kent," said Edge. "He lets you drive his car. He hangs out at your place. You're his closest friend, his only friend." He leaned in close. Clark was taller than him, but that didn't make him feel any better. "Just give me the book, Kent, and everyone walks away happy."

Think, Clark! What would Lex do? But it was hard to devise any kind of clever plan when his mother was making frightened noises.

"Clark," Jonathan said groggily. "Son, what's going on?"

"Who are these people, Clark?" Martha's voice was a strangled whimper.

"I'm not doing anything until you let my parents go," Clark said in what he hoped was a firm voice. It sounded watery and desperate instead. He wished Lex was here. Lex would be able to bluff his way out of this situation. Clark was useless and young and dumb and scared.

"Well," said Edge, "I'm not doing anything until you give me the book. So I guess we're stuck, huh?" He grinned--or rather, grimaced--sharp and unpleasant like a wolf or a shark.

The man by Martha cocked the shotgun slowly, the click-snap loud in the dusty barn. Martha choked back a scream. Jonathan barely started swearing and struggling with his bonds before his captor struck him with his pistolbutt, making Jonathan's head snap back.

"Wait!" Clark held up both hands, and then reached for his back pocket. It would be okay, even if he gave Edge the notebook. He'd be able to run to Lex's place, warn Lex, they'd be able to get away. Edge had had his parents, for God's sake, what was he supposed to do? He pulled out the book and handed it to Edge.

Edge adjusted his glasses and flipped through the pages, skimming the rows of neat handwriting. "This looks like it," he said, secreting it into some hidden pocket on the inside of his coat. "Thank you, Mr. Kent. Pleasure doing business with you."

And he left, just like that, taking the two men with him.

That had been way too easy. Clark ran to his mother and tore the ropes apart, then did the same for his dad.

"What in hell was that, son?" Jonathan demanded, massaging his wrists.

"Can't explain," Clark said, his teeth nearly chattering with tension. "Gotta go."

And he ran.

---

"All right, all right, all right." Robert pulled open the door. "What is it, Clark?"

Robert looked so normal and friendly, dressed in sweatpants and a stained, faded t-shirt. He looked like he should be a teacher or, or a veterinarian or something. Clark could barely talk. Finally, he forced out past tongue and teeth that seemed three sizes too large for his mouth, "I need to talk to Lex."

And sure enough, there was Lex, just behind Robert. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry," Clark said, suddenly unable to say anything else. "I'm so sorry, I'm sorry, he had my parents, I--"

"Whoa, calm down. Come inside."

Clark shook his head. "He's coming. He's coming, I'm sorry, he--"

"What are you talking about, Clark?" Lex was suddenly alert, like a hunting dog when he's scented his prey, head up and eyes alight, ears pricked.

Clark squeezed his eyes shut. "I gave him the book." His voice cracked halfway through. "Oh God, I'm so sorry, Lex, he had my parents, I couldn't--"

"It's okay."

Clark's head snapped up. Lex looked like one of those old statues at the museum, perfectly calm and untouchable. Robert was a man ready to go to the gallows, pale but collected, far from the gibbering mess he'd been a few days ago.

"It's okay," Lex said again.

"But I--"

"You'd better go," Lex said. "He might be here any minute. Morgan Edge isn't one to wait around." He went back inside. Robert followed.

"Wait." Clark grabbed the door before it swung shut. Lex didn't wait. He just walked across the living room and got a gun out of a drawer. "Lex, what're you doing?"

"Go away, Clark." Lex checked the gun for bullets. It was the same revolver that Robert had once pointed at Lex. That day seemed a very, very long time ago. Lex shoved the gun into the waistband of his jeans and pulled the hem of his hoodie down over it. Clark wondered if Lex had been carrying that gun every single time Clark had seen him in this house.

"What're you doing?" Clark asked, his voice pitched too high.

Lex turned and gave him a long blue glare. "Leave."

The voice made the hairs on Clark's neck stand on end. It wasn't Lex's voice at all. He saw, with vivid movie clarity, Lex dressed all in black, beckoning in the blood storm with outstretched arms, Clark unable or unwilling to stop him. There were other details now, maybe: a fierce grin of joy and pride on Lex's face; the earth, sown and salted with bones. Oh, Cassandra, he thought. Oh, oh, oh.

"You had this planned all along," Clark whispered.

"I couldn't get close enough to Edge in the city," Lex agreed. "So I had to bring him to me."

"You used me," Clark said.

Lex looked sad in a small and distant way. "You should go now, Clark."

Rows and rows of graves, the rain lashing against his skin. Everyone dead except him. And Lex.

"No," Clark heard himself say.

"Clark--"

"No," Clark repeated, this time more firmly. "He'll kill you, Lex. He's got two guys with him."

"I have Robert," Lex replied.

Clark stared.

"Honestly," Lex said, sounding irritated. "It's like you think I'm stupid or something. Now, you'd better go, it's not that far from your place--"

"You can't make me," Clark told him.

"But you don't want to watch me kill someone," Lex replied.

"That's okay," Clark said. "I'm not going to let you kill him."

Lex opened his mouth to reply, eyebrows drawn down in an angry V, when Robert hissed, "They're here."

Robert had his back pressed to the wall by the window, all the lines of his body loose but ready, like he'd just relaxed all his muscles in preparation for snapping any set of them into motion. He had a gun in one hand, a big, brutal thing like the ones you saw on television shows. It was completely at odds with his scruffy appearance.

"Shit," said Lex. "Clark, go out the back. If you hustle, you can--"

"I told you, I'm not leaving." Clark stood his ground even as Lex gave him an exasperated look. "I'm not going to let you just kill him!"

"He's trying to kill me, Clark!" Lex gesticulated with his gun. "It's self-defense, if nothing el--"

"It's murder!"

There was a burst of thunder, and everyone in the room jerked like all their strings had been yanked at once. But no one seemed to be hurt; there was a moment where they all stared at each other like startled deer. Then the gunfire called out again, this time in rapid succession, and they all rushed to the window, peering out from the edges and trying not to show the whites of their eyes.

Morgan Edge lay on the ground, arms flung out, his mouth a gaping red gash in his chalky face. A wet crimson flower bloomed in the white of his shirt. One of his bodyguards was sprawled a few feet away, apparently unconscious. The remaining bodyguard had his gun pointed in the direction of the house, but not at its inhabitants; his target was another gun that hung suspended in midair without any human intervention whatsoever.

"What the fuck--" Lex muttered.

Clark flicked on his x-ray vision and saw--yes, a skeleton, holding the gun.

"Call the police," Clark said, and slammed out of the house so fast he thought he might have splintered the door. He tackled the invisible gunman around where he thought his waist was and felt cloth and skin under his hands. The gun disappeared into the snow with a faint chunk as they both toppled.

"What the fuck--Clark?" said a stunned, familiar voice. "What the, what the fuck, man!" The unseen figure squirmed underneath Clark. "Are you protecting these fuckers? You didn't, you didn't see--"

The other bodyguard had his gun pointed at Clark--or at the invisible assailant--and looked like he was thinking about pulling the trigger, Clark or no Clark. That really, really couldn't happen. In a normal world, the bullet would probably pass through Clark and kill the person he currently had pinned to the ground, but this really wasn't a normal world. Clark swallowed down his panic.

"--what happened to Amy," that naggingly familiar voice continued to rant. "Those, those fuckers, they they they--"

"Jeff," Clark said, the voice suddenly clicking into place. It really was always the quiet ones, wasn't it? "Jeff, you really don't want to do this--"

"The fuck I don't!" Jeff exploded. "These guys, they're gonna pay, they're gonna--"

The crack of a gun sliced through the chill winter air. Clark braced for an impact that never came. Instead, the bodyguard went down gagging in pain, blood bubbling from a messy, meaty wound in his upper thigh, gun slipping from suddenly nerveless fingers. Clark looked over his shoulder and saw Lex retract his arm from the window.

"Good shot," said Robert.

---

Dealing with the police never got easier, even when the Sheriff was a personal friend of your dad. After the usual denials were made (it was a lot easier with Lex around; he had a way of lying that wasn't really lying, just omitting unsavory details and delicately phrasing the rest), Clark gratefully flopped onto the couch and stared at the ceiling while trying to empty his mind of the day's events. He failed.

Lex shut the door with a quiet click.

"I'll be upstairs," said Robert, shedding his coat into the hall closet. Lex nodded, so Robert disappeared.

"Who is he really?" Clark asked. Really, who put wallpaper on the ceiling? Wasn't that a little over the top?

"He's an actor," said Lex from somewhere out of Clark's field of vision. "He also used to work for the CIA."

Clark wondered what had prompted that career change and decided he was probably better off not knowing. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the couch so that he was sitting up properly, though he looked at the floor rather than Lex. "I. Should probably get going." He had no doubt Sherff Ethan had already called his parents and informed them that their son had been present at yet another crime scene, but his version of events was slightly altered, and his parents would no doubt appreciate hearing his side of the story. And then ground him for thirty years.

"Yeah," said Lex.

Neither of them moved.

"I don't know why you're still here," said Lex. Clark knew he wasn't talking about this specific moment in time. Not just this moment, anyway.

"You used me," Clark said quietly. The words were dry and brittle in his mouth like beetles.

"I did," Lex admitted. "I'm sorry."

Clark stared hard at his hands. Now that the storm had passed, more or less, Clark found that he nearly shook with rage. Lex had orchestrated this, all of it, the pain and suffering and tension. Amy Palmer, Jeff, his parents, himself--all so that he could get a shot at Morgan Edge. He felt sick. He needed to get away from here, from this, this person who maybe wasn't even human, who played other people like cards.

"My parents," Clark said. "They could've. They might've. Gotten hurt. Worse."

Clark really wanted to get up from the couch and punch Lex. Or at least shake him a lot, yell at him about how people weren't his pawns, he couldn't treat life like a giant game of checkers. But when he looked up, Lex was gazing off to the side and looked not at all like someone who'd just triumphed over his enemies and achieved what was perhaps the greatest victory of his life. He just looked very young and old and tired. So Clark just stood, feeling clumsy and too large, like when he'd first started his growth spurt a year ago and hadn't known where his hands and feet went, and made for the door.

"I'm sorry, Clark," Lex said just as Clark had his hand on the doorknob. "I really am. And I would never have let anything happen to your parents."

Clark paused. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again. Lex looked almost desperate, blue eyes anticipatory. He found he had nothing to say after all, and so left.

---

Clark was grounded for a month. That meant no hanging out with his friends ("That's rough," said Pete; Chloe lamented the loss of her minion), no trips into town unless they were specifically errands-related, no anything except going to school and coming straight home afterward. Clark didn't argue; the thought of what could have happened to his parents made him ill. He couldn't believe he'd put them in danger. Couldn't believe Lex had put them in danger.

Unsurprisingly, Lex stopped giving him rides to school in the morning.

Actually, Lex stopped coming to school altogether. The Ledger printed an account of the murders that had taken place on the Brabson property that had very little to do with the actual truth, which was just the way Lex--and, truth to tell, Clark--wanted it, but that did nothing to stem small-town gossip: Lex was a drug dealer; the Palmers were affiliated with a Metropolis gang; there was treasure buried on the Brabson property; Lex's guardian was actually an escaped criminal with a bounty on his head.

Jeff was on Chloe's wall now, along with the strange green rose he'd found whose oils refracted light and enabled him to become invisible.

Amy Palmer had also stopped coming to school. Word was that the Palmers were moving. Word was that the Luthors, too, were leaving Smallville.

Good, Clark thought. Get out of here. You've ruined enough lives. The Palmers could barely show their faces in town anymore.

Three nights into his isolation, Clark found himself storing questions to ask Lex about the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, then accidentally broke his pencil. He couldn't tell if it was frustration with himself or anger at Lex.

He hadn't told his parents about Lex's machinations: just the surface story, the one he'd believed up until recently. He wasn't sure why; some of it had to do with how his father would probably drive over to the Luthors so that he could lecture Lex in person (and then possibly get shot by Robert), but the rest of it had to do with how Clark felt it was really his problem. He was the one who'd fallen for Lex's trickery, let Lex get in so far under his skin.

Lex's startled look when Clark insisted that he wanted nothing more than to be Lex's friend. The flowers he always brought when he came over for dinner. Lex, patiently teaching Clark how to drive a car that probably cost more than the entire farm. Those brief, confused kisses. Oh, Lex was good; he'd known exactly what buttons to push. Clark could almost believe that he and Lex had really been friends, that Lex had really cared.

Stupid, Clark thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could he have believed anything Lex said?

At times like this, Clark lay awake at night and thought of Cassandra. Cassandra was someone he could've talked to about this. She would've had a mouthful of wise advice. They could've held hands, and he could've seen if the future had changed, if sunflower fields had replaced the graves, or if that sick, bloodridden storm had killed the fields forever.

A few nights later, Clark heard a familiar engine purr outside of the barn. He stayed where he was, repeating calming mantras to himself while a car door slammed and hesitant footsteps came closer.

"Clark?" said Lex.

Clark didn't say anything. Go away, Lex, he thought.

"I just came by to tell you that I'm leaving tomorrow," said Lex. "I--I brought you something."

"I don't want it."

"No, it's--it's yours. You said your mother made it."

Clark got up and looked over the railing. Lex held up a cheerful yellow hat with a pom pom dangling off its crown.

"You can keep it," Clark told him. "I don't wear it, anyway."

"I--but--all right." Lex shoved the hat in his pocket and looked at the ground. "I'm truly sorry, Clark."

"Sorry doesn't fix things. God, Lex, you--"

"I know," said Lex. "I fucked up. It's not the first time." He looked up. "I'm. I'm not a good person, Clark."

I think I've got that now, Clark thought.

"There's this, this darkness in me that I can't always control. I, I can feel it creeping over the corners." The words sounded awkward and forced. Clark had to admire Lex's acting. He was really good, maybe Oscar-caliber. He looked so sincere and sounded so genuine. "It's why every relationship I have ends badly. But you--you remind me that there are good people in the world.

"I never would have let him hurt your parents, Clark," Lex said. "They're good people. Like you." He turned away. "You're probably better off without me."

Those last words were so quiet that Clark thought he probably hadn't been meant to hear them. But sound carried strangely in a barn, and people who didn't grow up in one weren't used to it. He watched Lex walk away, hands in the pockets of his long coat.

Maybe you failed to help the right person, Cassandra had said.

"Are you going back to Metropolis?" Clark called.

Lex stopped and looked over his shoulder, looking hopeful and incredulous both. "Yes," he replied at length.

Clark had no idea what he was doing, but maybe. . . maybe. Lex wasn't a good guy, but maybe that was because he didn't know what it was like to be good. He'd spent his whole life getting beat on by Fate, it wasn't like he'd ever gotten any positive reinforcement for his actions, good or bad. His dad wanted to raise him to be Julius Caesar; his girlfriend was beaten to death by her parents for being a good girl. It was kind of amazing that Lex wasn't a serial killer.

Clark started to hop down the steps to ground level. "But is it safe? I mean, whatshisname, Dominic, he's still there, isn't he?" This was dumb. This was so dumb. Lex had faked being his friend once; what was going to stop Lex from doing it again? But Lex didn't have any ulterior motives this time, did he? And his dad always said, if you don't give someone an opportunity to be good, he won't.

"He's a toothless dog," Lex responded. "Morgan Edge was the fangs. And, most likely, the brains. I think I'm quite safe."

"But you could stay," Clark said, coming up to Lex with his hands in his pockets. "In Smallville, I mean. It's really boring, but. . . I mean, you might as well finish the school year."

"I was planning on just getting my GED," said Lex.

Clark wasn't sure what that meant, so he said, "You don't have to leave, Lex."

Lex smiled with one side of his mouth, but his eyes were still haunted. "I think I've done enough damage here."

"Maybe," Clark had to agree. "But you can't just run away. You have to stay and fix it."

Lex just stared at him. Really looked, like he was the one with x-ray vision. Clark tried not to fidget, because Lex was intense in everything he did, whether it was driving or thinking or teaching or just looking at you. But Lex didn't say anything, and that made Clark's guts squirm like a bucket of bait.

"Will you stay?" Clark asked.

"This will be the most boring eighteenth birthday ever," said Lex.

---

EPILOGUE:

Lex Luthor returned to Smallville near the end of Clark's senior year.

Lex had spent the last three years restructuring LuthorCorp from the top down. The feared layoffs never materialized; in fact, after Lex remade LuthorCorp in his own image, he had to hire more workers for his new, more robust company. Stock dipped in uncertainty, then soared, overtaking the highest price the company had ever commanded during Lionel Luthor's reign.

Then, after three years of nonstop work, Lex decided to take a vacation. Why he chose Smallville was a mystery. Why not Europe? Why not the Caribbean? Or Florida? Or any number of places more scenic and playful than a small town not even 200 miles away from his kingdom?

"It's far away, but not too far away," Lex told the press with a joking smile. "I can head back to Metropolis and cut off some heads, if necessary. I've left good men in charge, though," he added. "I anticipate no problems."

Lex said his vacation would be three weeks long--one week for each year "taken off of his life"--and proceeded to move an alarming amount of his personal possessions and a really unnecessary caravan of cars to the supposedly Scottish castle that had stood desolate outside of town for over a decade.

Clark wasn't sure what to make of it. He and Lex were still friends, he supposed, but only nominally. They'd been close for the remainder of Clark's freshman year (and Lex had been fully absorbed into the meteor mutant-hunting posse, with mostly positive results), but after Lex left town they'd only exchanged the occasional email. Lex sent Clark a truck for his sixteenth birthday, which made Jonathan furious, but there hadn't been any way of returning it. Clark still sent Lex an awkwardly penned card every summer. But as Lex got busier, and Clark became more mired in the revelations of his origin and so-called destiny, their exchanges became fewer and farther between.

It had to mean something, though, that Lex was back in Smallville. Clark thought he knew Lex well enough to know that Lex operated in symbols and things unsaid. So on the third day after the moving trucks stopped arriving, Clark ran over to find out what.

Security stopped him at the front gate.

"State and name your purpose, please," said the uniformed guard.

"Um," said Clark, who hadn't planned for his contingency. "Clark Kent? I'm a--"

"Ah," said the guard, flashing Clark a smile unnerving in his abruptness. "Mr. Kent. We've been told to expect you. Go right on in."

A butler greeted him at the door. "Mr. Luthor will receive you in his study," he said, and led the way.

This Lex was very different from the Lex he'd known freshman year, who'd let Clark drive his $64,000 car and tied his bowtie for him when he took Chloe to the Spring Formal. This Lex was the CEO and president of his own company, incredibly wealthy, and lived in a castle. This Lex didn't have the time or inclination to see high school boys, but he'd told his security team to expect Clark Kent. It was weird.

The butler rapped on a pair of double doors. "Mr. Clark Kent to see you, sir," he intoned.

"Send him in."

Clark wasn't sure what to expect. Something richly-furnished and opulent, probably. An ostentatious display of wealth? Or something more subtle and sleek and ultramodern? What did superbillionaire studies look like, anyway?

What Clark got was a large--but not overwhelmingly so--room with thick patterned carpet, a desk in front of a window that was part stained glass, two walls lined with bookshelves, a 36 inch plasma screen, and a pool table. Lex stood next to said pool table--which had purple felt instead of green, for some reason--chalking his cue.

"Clark," Lex greeted him warmly, putting down his cue. "It's good to see you."

Clark felt an answering grin spread over his face. It was good to see Lex--a Lex that was thinner and sharper, a Lex that wore fine clothes and drank expensive wines, but still Lex nonetheless. "It's good to see you, too."

Lex's smile broadened, and he crossed the few steps that seperated them to give Clark a hug.

"I'm sorry I didn't make it for your birthday," Lex said, taking a few steps back.

Clark was startled into a laugh; his birthday had been a few weeks ago. "I wasn't expecting you to."

Lex looked slightly abashed. "Eighteen is an important year."

Something slid and fell into place. "Did you send the fireworks?"

Lex looked like he didn't know what Clark was talking about, which Clark took as a yes.

"Everyone liked them," Clark affirmed.

"Good," said Lex.


They played an easy, casual game of pool and caught each other up on the last few years. Clark told Lex about the Kawatchee caves, some of the more interesting meteor mutants (including Alicia), and his short-lived relationship with Lana Lang. He'd heard about most of the major events in Lex's life through email and the news, but Lex gave him some details that weren't available to the public: Robert was training a new girl named Mercy who seemed promising, there was a new five-star restaurant in the aquarium downtown, and a Rothko exhibit would be coming into town for a few months and would Clark like to attend?

Then they moved to the black leather couch, Clark with an old-fashioned bottle of Coca-Cola and Lex with a blue glass bottle of what the label declared was spring water from Wales.

That was when Lex dropped the big one, apparently out of nowhere: "I'm a meteor mutant."

He said this the way he talked about buying or selling stock, or how he lectured Clark on the physics and geometry of pool. Clark nearly choked on his soda and gaped at Lex, who had a giant, shit-eating grin on his face. He scowled. "You--"

"No, it's true," Lex said, still snickering. "It's just--the look on your face!" He tried to tamp down his mirth, clearing his throat ostentatiously. "Elevated white blood cell count. They thought it was leukemia at first, but it turns out I have accelerated healing. It explains why I haven't gotten sick since, oh, I was about seven or eight."

Clark thought about all the injuries Lex had sustained while traipsing around Smallville with them, looking for meteor mutants and ways to stop them--and really, all the injuries Lex should have sustained, from the concussions to the fractures to the miraculously nonexistent bruises. "That. . . makes sense, actually."

Lex nodded. "It certainly clears up a few things."

That little niggling guilt was back. It'd scratched at Clark all through freshman year, every time Lex hadn't asked a question. Lex was observant, and he was curious; Clark saw the questions burning behind his eyes every time Clark just happened to be there a little too conveniently, every time Clark had an inhuman burst of adrenaline. But he never asked, even though Clark knew the curiosity had to be strangling Lex. And Clark never told, even though he wanted to. He was too afraid of all the consequences his parents had always told him about, even though he knew Lex was his friend and that Lex would never betray him. If Lex had asked, Clark probably would have burst like a strained dam. But Lex didn't.

And here Lex was confessing to something that was probably best left alone, like he was talking about baseball scores.

"Weird," Clark said. "Meteor rocks. They do weird things," he clarified.

Lex and Chloe had come up with various theories about the meteor rocks, many of them having to do with wish fulfillment. Lex said things about a "monkey's paw" several times that Clark didn't get at all, though Chloe apparently did.

"But not always bad," Lex said, smiling. "Looks like Smallville did me more than one favor."

"I," said Clark. "I have something to tell you."

"About the meteor rocks?"

"Yeah." Clark swallowed. "Something like that."

"I'm listening." Lex even leaned forward a little, eyes bright and intense.

Clark made several false starts, but each time his throat closed up. There was no way he could do this. Not just say it out loud, anyway; maybe there was a way he could show Lex, or maybe he could write it on a piece of paper or something. . .

"Look," said Lex, putting a hand on Clark's knee, "I told you, you don't have to tell me. I didn't mean--"

"But I do!" said Clark. "I just, I feel like--"

"It's not a big deal, I'm a meteor mutant, you're a--"

"But I'm not!"

Lex completely shut up at that, the saucer-eyes laughable under any other circumstances. "You're not?"

"I'm not," Clark repeated, hands curled in fists between his knees.

"You're not what?" Lex said carefully.

"Not a meteor mutant," Clark almost mumbled. He found he couldn't look at Lex. He stared at his hands again, forcing them to unclench. His fingers felt stiff.

"Oh," said Lex. "That wasn't what I was going to say. You're an alien, right?"

"No, I--wait, what?"

"An alien," Lex repeated. "Honestly, it's like you think I'm stupid or something."

The statement brought back faint, tense memories, and Clark was surprised to find himself laughing. A twitching grin spread across Lex's face too, and Lex began chuckling, until finally they were both roaring with laughter, probably scaring the servants, certainly frightening the spiders. They filled every corner of the study with giggles, and when they finally died down, Clark found himself limp and giddy with more than just relief.

"You're not mad?" Clark said. "I'm so sorry, I really wanted to--"

Lex waved a hand still weak with laughter. "No. I understand. I mean. . . this town." That seemed to be all he needed to say. He let the hand fall to the couch and looked at Clark with pale blue eyes. "How did you end up here, though?"

Clark shrugged. This was a part of himself he didn't really like to talk about. He had a fortress in the arctic he still didn't know what to do with. "My planet blew up. My parents sent me here."

"Wow," said Lex. "I'm sorry."

"It's not like I remember them or anything."

Lex was quiet for a moment, apparently deep in thought. "So that weird metal I found in the field. . ."

"Part of my spaceship," Clark confirmed.

Lex sucked in an excited breath. "You have a spaceship? Can I--can I see?"

Clark tried not to squirm. "I, um, kind of blew it up."

"You blew it up?" Lex sounded absolutely scandalized, like Clark had just confessed to beating up old ladies with their walkers or kicking puppies through plate glass windows or keying Ferraris.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Clark mumbled. The memories still brought up uncomfortable sensations in his stomach. "You remember that one summer--"

"You showed up and asked me to conquer the world with you," Lex recalled. "I called your parents."

Clark nodded. "I really--I was really messed up that summer."

Lex stared at him. Just stared, filled with awe, like a new universe was unfurling before his eyes, and Clark realized that right up until this moment--when Clark had admitted to it, had admitted to having a spaceship--Lex hadn't really believed that Clark was from another world. He'd believed it maybe in that intellectual way in which people believed in giant squids deep in the ocean or that it took light from the sun eight minutes to reach Earth, but not in the bone-deep way that you believed that Santa Claus was real, when you were little.

"This explains so much," Lex said fervently, with an almost feverish intensity in his eyes, "this explains--how you're so perfect, how--" He couldn't say anything more then, because he tangled his fingers in Clark's hair and pulled him forward until their lips met in a dizzying crush.

"What," Clark gasped when Lex finally let him go, lightheaded and careening and world tilting crazily, "what, what--"

"You," said Lex, "you're insane, you know that?"

"I'm not the one who just," Clark managed to get out before Lex covered his mouth with his own. This time, Clark came out of the kiss hardly able to remember his own name, body buzzing with a lust he'd never felt with Lana or Chloe and faintly with Alicia. But what he'd felt with Alicia was nothing compared to this; he wanted to crawl inside Lex's skin and stay there forever.

"Why?" Lex asked, still cupping Clark's jaw with one hand, so close that Clark could see the flecks of different-shaded blue in his eyes.

"Why?" Clark repeated stupidly.

"Why tell me? Why now?"

"Because," Clark said, and found he didn't know why. "Because you're here," he said at last.

It wasn't the wrong answer, at least, because Lex stroked just under Clark's eye with a thumb and nodded slowly. Then he leaned in; Clark held his breath, but Lex stopped an inch away. "Do you want this?" Lex murmured.

Clark answered by closing the distance between them.

---

"God," Clark moaned, rucking up the sheets with his feet while Lex licked a trail down the center of his chest. "Why didn't we do this earlier?"

"You were too young." Lex stroked the hair just below Clark's navel the wrong way. "Kansas had a lovely set of same-sex sodomy laws back then, too."

"That can't be it." Clark curled his toes. "You didn't, you didn't care when I drove your car, and I wasn't supposed to."

Lex petted the underside of Clark's cock, which Clark hazily decided must have been a prize for getting the right answer. "All right," he conceded. "I wasn't sure if you were interested."

"I kissed you!"

"Only after I started it," Lex corrected him. He licked a long, hot stripe up Clark's cock. Clark decided it wasn't worth arguing, especially when it felt like his brain was floating apart, but Lex apparently disagreed and continued, "Besides, you were very into Lana."

Clark groaned. "Can we please not talk about her?"

"But you were." Lex traced a finger around the head of Clark's cock, around and around and around until Clark was wound tight as a jack-in-the-box, but not yet ready to spring. "Always worrying about her. . . looking at her. . ."

"I was confused," Clark hissed. How was he supposed to have a coherent conversation like this? There was a reason people didn't talk during sex!

"But you're not anymore," Lex concluded. "I'm glad we had this talk."

Clark was glad too, because now Lex swallowed him down, working his throat purposefully around the head of Clark's cock. He groaned and tried not to thrash; he'd never gotten a blowjob like this--except maybe that one girl in Metropolis, that one summer, but that hadn't been totally different, because it hadn't been Lex: Lex with his crooked, narrow-eyed smiles, Lex with his purple-felted pool table, Lex with his warm, wet mouth surrounding Clark's cock and his hands on Clark's hips, thumbs digging into that crease between leg and torso that drove Clark shivering and wild.

Then it was gone. Clark made some sort of hungry, unhappy sound, staring but not seeing. Then he realized it was because his eyes were closed; when he opened them, he saw Lex's face hovering close over his, smiling mostly with his eyes.

"Wha," Clark said fuzzily. "You evil."

Lex chuckled, "No," he said. "I just really want you to fuck me."

Clark's hips lifted at that, no way to stop them. His mouth had suddenly gone dry, and he swallowed a few times so that he could speak. "Really?"

"Really. I think--correct me if I'm wrong--that I'm more experienced at this sort of thing than you are, and I'm not going to traumatize you your first time out." Lex scooted to the edge of his king-sized bed--which seemed to go on 'til the horizon, but the long trip gave Clark a really good view of Lex's ass--and came back with a small, ergonomically correct bottle and a flat foil square.

Clark sat back, propping himself on his elbows, while Lex calmly pried open the package, checked the condom for tears, and dribbled a little bit of lube in the tip. Then Lex, for some reason, put the condom in his mouth. Clark opened his mouth to ask why, then snapped his teeth together and tossed his head back because there was on way he could watch Lex Luthor roll down a condom with his mouth without coming.

"Enjoying yourself?" came Lex's low, amused voice. Clark made some sort of verbal response that had no vowels in it whatsoever, or maybe consisted entirely of vowels, and almost fell over when Lex slicked Clark's sheathed cock with a handful of thick, slippery stuff. Then Lex turned one of Clark's hands palm up and coated two of the fingers with aforementioned same. "There's no such thing as too much lube," he told Clark.

"Muh," said Clark.

Lex snapped the bottle shut and pitched it over the side of the bed. "How do you want me?" he asked, giving Clark a lascivious grin full of lewd red tongue.

Clark couldn't answer, because all sorts of mental images were racing through his head. Lex on his back, face slack with lust as Clark pounded into him; Lex on his stomach, biting one of those soft down pillows to stifle his moans; Lex straddling Clark's hips, teeth in his lower lip as Clark thrust up into him. "On your back," he said at last, pressing Lex down on the mattress and accidentally leaving a swipe of lube on his shoulder.

"All right," Lex said agreeably. Clark kissed him hard and left a trail of wet, sloppy kisses down his chin and neck. Lex slapped the mattress until he found a pillow and wedged it under his butt, then another. "Finger me," he urged. "Open me up." Clark pressed a kiss to the middle of Lex's stomach and slipped those two fingers back and back and down. God, Lex wasn't kidding when he said he had more experience with this; he just opened up and swallowed Clark's finger. It wasn't long before Clark felt like he could add the second finger, and then a third.

By that point, Lex was moaning and keening fit to bring down the roof. Watching his face was amazing; Lex was honest in bed like he was nowhere else, whispering hot things and dirty things, his pleas occasionally shattered by a long, drawn-out moan as Clark crooked his fingers deep inside as per Lex's instructions.

"Oh God," Lex said fervently, "Oh God oh God oh God, do it now, Clark, do it now." His fingers flexed in midair, and Clark was mesmerized by the display of tendons. He took one of Lex's hands and bent his head to kiss one slick palm, then slid his fingers slowly free and used them to guide himself into place.

It was nothing like Clark had ever experienced before. It was hotter, tighter, more intimate somehow. Lex clutched his hand, apparently decided it wasn't enough, and released it to grip Clark's wrist instead. His eyes were shut tight, his breathing rapid; he brought his legs up and back, knees toward his chest, and suddenly Clark just slid all the way in. It was so easy, so good, like this was meant for sex. Lex rolled his hips up, making Clark gasp, and grinned.

"Fuck me," Lex ordered hoarsely. "Come on and just fuck me."

But Clark was overwhelmed, frozen in the enormity of this moment. He buried his face in the juncture between Lex's neck and shoulder, where he couldn't see and it was safe. He took a deep, shuddering breath; he might have shook. Lex's arms came up around his shoulders; his fingers gently petted the back of Clark's neck, scratching into his hair. Clark felt like he was burning up from the inside, like there was fire in his blood.

"Hey," Lex said quietly. "Your part is easy."

Clark choked out a laugh, but he still couldn't move.

Lex said, "My legs are starting to cramp."

That got Clark to look up, at least. Lex had his knees snugged up against Clark's ribs; Clark worked his arms underneath, taking some of their weight, and smoothed his hands over Lex's perfect thighs. Lex made a sound that didn't seem particularly negative, so Clark did it again, watching the play and shiver of muscles beneath all that pale skin.

"God," Lex muttered, jerking his hips up, "I didn't think you'd be such a tease."

"I'm not teasing!" Clark protested.

"The fuck you aren't," Lex muttered. "Come on, move."

Clark moved. Sinking in the second time was just as earthshattering as the first, so he did it again and again, over and over until seconds and minutes and hours and days blurred at the edges and ran together, and still he kept going, Lex moaning in his ear. Coming was like leaping into that tornado freshman year, like the rush he got from red kryptonite, like nothing he'd ever experienced before.

Lex presumably took care of the condom, because when Clark finally rediscovered all his brain functions he was lying on his back with Lex on his side next to him. Lex was still hard and touching himself slowly. That hardly seemed fair--and Clark wanted to make Lex come--so he reached out with his still-slick hand and gave Lex a couple of hard, firm pulls. Lex's smile turned tight, his eyes glassy, so Clark pushed him onto his back and experimentally licked the tip of Lex's cock.

"Ohgod," Lex said, all one word.

Bitter and salty, but nothing Clark couldn't get used to if Lex kept giving him desperate, needy incentive like that. So Clark did it again, then took the head of Lex's cock in his mouth and sucked. He didn't have any experience with this, but it seemed like you didn't have to in order to get it right.

"Oh," said Lex, and who knew a blowjob would send him over like this? "Oh fuck, I've always wanted--oh God, please, just like that."

Clark was getting hard again; he wanted to touch himself or rub himself on something, but he wanted to do this for Lex. He could feel Lex getting close; he was tugging fitfully at Clark's hair with suddenly weak fingers and making shallow little thrusts with his hips, strangled sounds clawing their way out of his throat. Clark licked and sucked and swallowed with increasing fervor and traced one finger down and back, where it was still slippery, and then pushing in and up.

Lex's kicked out with his heels. "Oh God Clark I'm--"

That was as far as Lex got. He arched so hard that Clark gagged, making Lex moan. Thick, warm bursts landed on Clark's tongue, farther down his throat, and all Clark could think to do was swallow, keep swallowing until Lex lay newborn-weak and boneless in the bed. Then, while Lex's breath slowed and became regular again, Clark took himself in hand and began to stroke slowly, eyes closed.

"You don't have to do that by yourself, you know."

Clark looked up, face burning, but Lex was only watching with avid interest.

"You look good like that," Lex said. Then, "Would you like some help?"

Clark didn't say anything, just stumbled into Lex's welcoming grasp. Their hands slid together, Clark's big palm seeking and finding Lex's firming cock. Then fingers and shafts tangled together until Lex's pleasure was Clark's own and vice versa, and they came like that, breathless and ensnared.

They just lay for a while in a sweaty heap, unable to muster up the willpower to move. Then Lex shivered, gooseflesh rising on his skin, and Clark roused himself enough to find the blanket and pull it over them.

The lights went out. Clark wondered who'd turned them off, since neither of them had moved.

"Motion sensors," Lex said.

"Oh."

Now that they were alone in the dark, all sorts of questions crowded into Clark's brain like buzzing flies. Lex's questing hand found Clark's lips.

"Go to sleep," said Lex. "Everything else can wait."

"But," said Clark.

"Sleep," said Lex. "Tomorrow."

Clark closed his eyes and slept. Yes, there was tomorrow. Tomorrow and a lot of days after that.


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